“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the handsomest of them all?”
Oh who am I kidding? I used to be. I’m no longer that person. These beady eyes that stare back at me right now, are they really mine? They are cold and unfamiliar, much like the shaggy mane that is falling unkempt on my sagging shoulders.
Just the pale light from a full moon that falls through the glass roof lights the darkness of this night. The halls behind me are devoid of footsteps, the silence as eerie as the wind through the bare branched trees in the courtyard. Only a few days ago, her anklets used to chime softly and her laughter echoed through the hall. Was she happy here? I remember asking each day but she never told it in so many words, and I never thought to press my point further. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have. If I had, she might have told me. If she wasn’t, I would have moved heaven and earth for her happiness. But alas, she’s gone now. And with every passing minute, I feel like I’m going too. Going away from this world where I found my true love, going away without knowing if she loved me too, and going away knowing my past has come to haunt me.
To this day, those words reverberate in my ears. Those words borne from a broken heart, uttered with pain and anger, pain and anger that I had gifted with my recklessness. I remember laughing it off… after all, who believes in curses? I didn’t then. I do now.
“What have you done, stranger? What have you done, oh stranger in the mirror?”
I never thought I’d live to see the day when a plain white curtain would cover one of my windows. But alas, that is what has happened. I’m away from home for a few months and my sisters make my home look like a hospital. Curse their lack of interior decoration sense. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they have much sense in anything. Thankfully, father doesn’t depend on them at all.
“How have you been, my child? Have you suffered because of this old man’s folly?” he asks.
I have never thought of that. Have I been suffering there? True, it was my father who gave a promise to the guy but I had willingly accepted that it should be me who returned there and not he, for it was the gift that I had asked that had got him caught. If only I hadn’t… if only he hadn’t gone on that wretched trip… maybe all would be well, and I’d be happily living with my father instead of a stranger.
Stranger… I wonder, after so many months, why he still is a stranger to me… is he? I have been away just a few days, but I miss him. From the day I entered those halls, he has only called me as his princess. Not a day has passed there that he hasn’t asked me of my happiness. He’s taken care of me like a queen, not a servant that had returned to his castle in place of a poor silk merchant who he was expecting. Every night he used to stand at the foot of my bed and utter those five words, those five words that any girl would want to hear from her lover.
“Princess, will you marry me?”
I had denied him every time, for my heart belonged to someone else, someone who I had only seen in my dreams, who was handsome beyond my imagination. But did my heart, unknowingly, fall for the stranger who called me his princess? Was he in love with me? Am I in love with him?
“Heart, oh my foolish heart, what have you done?”
I took to drink from the day my father passed away, leaving me as the sole heir to a rich estate that was far away from the city. I think it was my way of mourning, because I shed no tears as I lit the pyre and watched him burn to dust. Perhaps I even rejoiced that I was alone now, no more voices to tell me what to do. Mother had given up on me years back and left for heaven. I knew I’d never see her again, I knew if there was such a place called Hell, it was destined… it was made… only for me.
I had lived recklessly, and hurt everyone who was part of my life, hurt them so much they couldn’t take it anymore. It was a bet that started my undoing. Drunk and staring at my hostel ceiling, I had no clue what I had said, and by the time I did, it was too late.
“You’re such a wimp, you can’t even make Priya fall for you,” my roommate had challenged.
Priya, the plain-Jane of our class, who stayed away from us and hung out only with herself… who was short, five foot at most and whose eyes were mostly sleepy and devoid of life. To us, her only goal in life seemed to be to get high marks and be the topper of the school. No one saw anything in her, and my roommate laughed maliciously as he was met with my silence.
“You’re a good-for-nothing wuss. I knew it!” he poked at me.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It hit my ego hard, and I took the challenge. Frankly speaking, it wasn’t a challenge at all. My friend was left eating his words when a few days later, she and I were the talk of the school.
“Plain-Jane and Prince-Charming together, pigs would fly soon,” they said.
I took it a step further. She willingly gave herself to me, and in the gym room between the boys and girls hostel, we became one.
“You made me a woman, Adi,” she told me happily afterward.
Her bubble broke the next day, when my friend, angry on losing the bet told her of it. If I had only told her it was all a lie, she’d have believed me. But reckless as I was, I laughed at her and said goodbye.
“Adesh Sharma, you’ve broken my heart which I willingly gave you, trusted you to keep it safe. You think just because I’m plain, I’m silent that I have no feelings at all? I curse you, when you find your true love, she’ll leave you and you shall die from that pain.”
I never saw her again after that. Someone told me she had cursed herself for falling for my charm and took her life. I prayed fervently that let that not be true. But her last words held true. After college, I turned into a loner and began to wilt away, far from life at my family mansion.
It was a year back that my father decided to go on a pilgrimage, leaving me and my sisters alone at home. His business had been hit hard by the recent warehouse fire, and his choice astrologer had instructed him to visit as many temples as he could, to solve the ill luck that the stars had forced upon him. He wasn’t one to publicize his sorrows, so much so that he kept it from my sisters as well. If only they knew, they might not have asked for gold and diamonds as gifts from his journey. Then again, they were so conceited that they might well have. I knew my father’s worry, and I asked him just for a rose. We lived in a small town, and the florists only had jasmine or kanakambaram flowers.
It was a rose that turned my life upside down.
It was late last year that I caught a stranger plucking a rose from my garden. I tended to that garden like it was my own child, so the act was, to me, the highest sin. I tore down the stairs and flinging the door open, rushed to the garden and caught the scoundrel by his throat.
“How dare you pluck a rose from this garden without my permission, stranger? They are my life. You took my life, so it’s only fair I take your own!”
He was an old man. I could see that he was tired, but I pushed him against the wall and choked him. At the moment, I thought only of the rose.
“Kind sir, forgive me… please! I am returning home from my pilgrimage. My daughters are alone, and expecting that I shall bring to them jewels and riches, whereas I’m nearly broke and cannot afford that luxury anymore. I took the rose only as gift for my youngest daughter, Radha, for she, the apple of my eye, asked me only for a rose. What a cruel father I would be if I were to deny even such a small request? It is only because of this reason that I plucked one from your garden, for I couldn’t find one elsewhere.”
What a remarkable young lady she must be, I thought, for while her sisters asked for luxury, she asked for just a rose. My stone heart repented a little, and I eased my grip on his throat.
“Old man, I release you. Go give your daughter this rose. I shall give you some jewels for your other daughters as well, but only on condition that you shall not tell your daughters about this, and that you will return here. You have plucked one rose, but you shall tend my garden till a thousand roses bloom. If you do not keep your end of the deal, your daughters shall never know happiness again. This is my prediction, and it shall happen, for I say it with all my heart.”
He tried to convince me otherwise, telling him no one else was there to take care of his daughters, but I didn’t accept. In the end, he agreed, and taking his gifts, went on his way. I knew there was nothing but my words keeping him to his promise, but I felt he would return. I was mistaken. I never saw him again.
When father returned from his journey, I was surprised to see him giving gold necklaces and bangles to my sisters. He also had my rose, which I gratefully took from him. My sisters stood in front of their mirrors and began to try their gifts on.
“My angels, I’ve to stay away from you all for a little longer than I thought. I do not wish to, but my business calls and I can’t not go. I have asked my mother to come take care of you.”
It was even stranger to hear those words, for I knew my father was not on good terms with his mother. My sisters, gluttons that they were, were asking him if they’d get more gifts when he returned next time. I waited for them to go to the market, and then accosted my father.
“Father, what has happened? I know you are hiding something from me, and you know me. I will not let go of the matter till you tell me. Why are you leaving us alone and going away again?”
He tried to change the topic, divert my attention but I stuck to it and after a while, he broke down and told me all about the stranger and his promise. My rose, it was my rose that had trapped him.
“I shall go. You stay here, take care of my sisters. I know to tend to a garden better than you. It is I who shall serve that stranger till a thousand roses bloom in his garden.”
He protested, but I didn’t listen. I packed my bag and was soon on my way. I was adamant that my father not be imprisoned for my rose.
I saw her open the gate one morning as a light blanket of rain covered the garden. I never believed in love at first sight till then. She was dressed in a simple blouse and long skirt, her hair tied back in a ponytail, and a bag slung over her shoulders. She resembled Priya in a certain way. The raindrops seemed to kiss her lips as they slipped over them. Who was this angel sent from heaven? My lonesome heart began to beat faster as I opened the door to see her wipe the drops away from her face.
“I am Radha. My father had promised to return to you and tend to your garden. But he is required at home, for my sisters and I will be alone if he returned. I beseech you, kind stranger, let me take his place. I shall do whatever work is needed in the garden.”
She spoke in one breath before I could utter a word. Was she to work as a servant in my garden? No. She was my true love. I felt every fiber of my being shout those last two words.
“No, Radha. You are the girl I’d been looking for. From the moment I saw you at the gate, my heart has been telling that to me. You are the princess of this castle. Please, stay and be my all. I was happy when I heard few words about you from your father. Now I know why that was. Please, come inside.”
I prayed my words wouldn’t make her run away. She wouldn’t have expected a declaration of love the moment she stepped in. Even I hadn’t thought I would say those words. Thankfully, she entered the house, though she had a flummoxed look on her face.
“Stranger, I cannot be your love. My heart belongs to another, he too is a stranger. I am here to serve in my father’s place. I would be delighted to be your friend.”
From that moment, I made sure she had every comfort. I talked with her every day as she, adamant as she was, tended to the rose garden. I watched her cook, and helped her clean. A strange energy had consumed me and my vigor had returned. Every night, I asked her if she would marry me, but she just repeated those words she had told me the first time I had asked her.
Months passed by, and our friendship grew. I prayed that it grow into much more. She never asked anything from me. I was happy. Then one morning, I saw her smile slip and asked her the reason.
“I miss my father, my sisters and my town. It has been months since I saw them. Could I go back for some time? I’ll see them and return. I promise.”
I couldn’t deny her. I remembered the curse, but I didn’t say a word. I told her she could go for a week, and that she should return after. She smiled and hugged me, kissed my cheek. It was the closest she had come to me. As she went out the gate, she turned back. For a moment she waited, like she was unsure, and then walked away.
“Come back soon, princess, for I cannot live without you.”
“Come back soon, princess, for I cannot live without you.”
I don’t know why I heard those words, or if the wind had carried them to me, but I did. I had stayed a day more than I had promised, acceding to my sisters’ tearful request, saying they missed me a lot. I missed them too, so I thought an extra day might not hurt. But those words hit me hard, and I knew in my heart, it was time I returned.
I wasted no time, and saying my goodbyes, I took the next bus that went past the estate. I had never felt such pain. I was praying that he was okay, that he wasn’t taken away from me.
I threw open the gate and rushed inside, only to see him lying prostrate on the carpet in the hallway.
“No. No. Adesh, wake up. Don’t leave me. I too love you.”
“No. No. Adesh, wake up. Don’t leave me. I too love you.”
I opened my eyes slowly to see her face. Tears were streaming down and falling onto my eyes. She had returned. I heard her saying she loves me too. But would I live to be with her? What if I didn’t? She should know everything.
“My princess, you have returned,” I whisper, as she holds me closer.
“Don’t worry, I shall not leave again. It is you I love. My heart tells me too. Don’t speak too much. Let me take you to your room so you can rest.”
I stop her, and lying on her lap, I tell her my story. She listens to everything, and then smiles.
“But I have returned, so you shall not die. What has happened has happened. Let us not worry about that, love.”
Love! She called me Love!
“Princess, will you marry me?” I ask her again.
This time, she nods, laughing and pulling me to my feet with her shoulder under my right hand. It feels right. It feels like I’ve been given a second chance, one that I shall not leave. My true love is beside me. And that is all the strength I need to begin life again. I decide the future needs me to change, and not depend on just my father’s wealth. I know I will do it.
She tells me I must wait for a while, ask her father for her hand in marriage. I tell her I shall. I don’t mind waiting. We have an eternity ahead of us. A few more months won’t change that.
I look at the garden through the window.
The roses have begun to bloom again.
(3rd June, 2013)