Trial by Fire – Jayakanthan

TRIAL BY FIRE

Tamil Title : அக்னிப்பிரவேசம் (Agnipravesam) 

Author :  Jayakanthan

Translator : Ananda Rangan (Andy) Sundaresan

(From the translated volume Trial by Fire and other stories (2000), by Andy Sundaresan, published by Chindanai Vattam)

 Jeyakanthan

It has been raining on and off since the afternoon.
It is now evening and the students from the nearby women’s college were gathered – like a rainbow displaying its colors – in a nearby bus station desperately waiting for buses to take them home.
A privileged few stopped their cars and even helped their close friends to ride with them. A gray college van that regularly carried the students to distant parts of the city was soon on its way. For nearly half an hour the scene echoed to the sounds of car horns, laugher and murmurs from students with occasional interruptions by thunder; then, after half an hour past five, a few students, numbering less than twenty with less than a dozen umbrellas to protect them, were still left in the downpour. They huddled together and sought refuge under a tree next to the bus station.
It was part of the city where traffic was sparse and the neighborhood was dotted with bungalows amidst vast gardens full of trees, leaving no haven in the rain; the girls have been waiting for a long time looking forward to board designated buses to carry them to their destinations. They stood with their books tightly held to their bosoms even as they tried to protect their upper garments and saris from the incessant rain.
A bus was heard coming from around the street corner.
“Hi, the bus is coming!” The students shouted in one voice.
The bus, that diesel monster, screeched to a halt after splashing the stagnant water on either side of the street.
“Bye . . .Bye . . . ”
“See you . . . ”
“Cheeriyo! ” The conductor gave the signal.
Like a ravenous giant, the bus swallowed half of the waiting crowd, bellowed, and departed.
Only a dozen students were now left in the bus station.
It was the rainy season; daylight and darkness were intruding into one another.
A cycle rickshaw came along the street with its driver in a rain coat. He was suddenly stopped in his tracks by a stray bull that came from nowhere which he tried to ward off with his warning bell that produced only mild chimes. The bull refused to budge and the driver started venting his anger against the bull in some profane outburst with no regard to the girls in the vicinity. After a while, when he was long gone from their view, the girls recalled his vulgar epithets and reacted with glee and suppressed laughter.
Nothing interesting happened for a long time after that; the girls, their legs aching from the long wait on the wet ground, were feeling irritated and bored by the total silence around them.
The stray bull was still standing in the middle of the street; it was an old bull with one of its horns curved and almost touching the forehead. The rain splashed his back and scattered all around it droplets while washing the animal’s yellowish underbelly on both sides and trickling it down along two thick dents. And every time, now and then, a part of the bull’s body – mostly the area above the right thigh – was shivering in the cold weather.
How long can you watch an old bull with interest? A young girl who was, in every way, an exception to the rest of the crowd, sighed and raised her head. She heard the sound of a bus approaching the street corner. The bull now moved aside to let the bus pass by and walked across the street to approach the platform where the students waited; the bull too stood close to them as if begging some favor.
“Hi, this is my bus,” the eldest among the crowd, now acting childlike, jumped with joy.
“Bye . . .Bye . . . ”
“See you . . . ”
After that bus left, only two students are now left on the platform. One of them is the young girl already mentioned. The other looks like a typical college student older to her; it was she who offered to protection to the younger girl with her umbrella. The younger girl doesn’t look like a college student at all; she looks more like a high school student. Her very appearance reveals she’s not from a well-to-do family; she wore a green paavadai with a matchless blouse – it was made out of her mother’s discarded old sari – and an upper garment that had almost faded and left an indeterminate red shade; a patch-work of necklace made from a few cheap black beads sewn together with a cotton thread adorned her neck and was held in place with a press-button. She had a pair of club-shaped earrings – and one of them was missing its stud. Her eyes sparkled with a glow and innocence and seemed to proclaim that the face could do with no cosmetics or jewelry.
She reminded one of an unadorned, virginal, flower possessing a beauty and elegance uncommon among many of those priceless gifts; now, as she stood there in open space, drenched in rain, her legs, long exposed to cold weather and growing pale and white, forced her to crouch, with her upper garment and the blouse sticking to her small, wet frame, while her face was graceful like that of a temple deity. She was a beauty to behold; she could easily turn men on – to grab and possess her.
“There’s no bus yet, what time is it?” she asked the other girl with umbrella.
“It is almost six,” the elder one replied in a low spirited voice, and glanced at a bus now approaching them. “If that’s my bus, I should be gone.” She began folding her umbrella.
“That’s fine, the rain has stopped. I should be getting my bus too. There’s one leaving the terminus at five forty-five. If it is my bus, I too can go home.”
She spoke as if she was trying to ease the elder’s concern, her voice sounding sweet and her mood appearing child-like; the elder girl grew fond of her, touched her cheeks, and said: “Be a nice girl and go home!” She gave her a parting kiss with her fingers.
Two buses came along, one after another. The elder took the first bus.
“Bye, bye . . . !
“My bus is also here!” She bade farewell to her friend but felt only disappointment after checking the number on the second bus. The driver of the bus watched the change in the girl’s facial expression and understood she was not waiting for this one; he didn’t even care to stop because there was no other passenger waiting for this bus.
The girl was now left alone, all by herself, the stray bull now standing next to her as the only companion. Afar, in the college campus, there was some semblance of human activity. Suddenly, darkness came down like a curtain, followed by a strong wind that shook the tree branches lining the street and let the water droplets fall on the ground. The girl took refuge under a tree. The rain, which had abated a few minutes ago, now resumed in full vigor. The girl tried to run across the street and go back to the college campus when a large car ran into her and suddenly came to standstill after barely scraping her; the sudden brake made the car swing gracefully in the front as well as in the rear.
She cast her eyes on the beautiful car – from its rear to the driver’s seat, in awe.
The driver – a young man with an attractive face – smiled at her, bent down and opened the door of the seat.
“Please get in . . . I can drop you at your place,” he said and let his eyes devour her, just like her eyes did to the car.
The girl felt her ear lobes and nose flush with red. “No, thanks,” she answered. “The rain will soon stop, and I can catch a bus home.”
“Oh, it is all right! Get in!” He was pressuring her. She was still standing in the rain and he did everything short of dragging her into the car with his own hand . . .
She let her eyes wander back to the tree where she had sought refuge a few minutes ago. Now that space has been taken over by the bull . . .
The car door was still open. As she felt the rain water creeping its way into the car in a blast, the girl tried to close the door, and felt the driver’s hand firmly press on hers. Horrified, she pulled it back and stared at him. The young man was smiling. What a pleasant smile it was!
And now he too got out of the car and was standing in the rain . . .
“Umm . . . get in!”
Now she couldn’t refuse his invitation.
As soon as she got into the car his hand shut off the door tight as if confining her in a prison.
The car glided on the road as if surfing on a wavy sea.
Her eyes roved across inside the car. A blue fan mesmerized her eyes as if luring her into a dreamy world. The warmth she now felt around her proved a welcome change to her body long exposed to the cold weather. She didn’t feel the car was actually running on the ground; it seemed to be floating above the ground.
‘How wide are these seats!’ she wondered. ‘One can easily sleep on them!’ She felt she ought to show better taste – especially because she was now sitting there on a corner with her books still held against her bosom; slowly, she set the books and her lunch box on the seat and eased herself comfortably to make her posture seem a little more imposing and dignified.
‘This car itself looks like a home; with a car like this one will not need a home. He – this gentleman – probably owns a house, how big will that be? Will it be a like a palace with a lot of friends?
And who will be living in that palace? I don’t know anything about
him . . . Now, what’s this right here in the middle? If I pulled it between two seats it comes up like a table; one can use it for reading, writing or even sleeping – two people can easily lie on it with their heads on either side. And this small lamp! It’s so beautiful! It’s shaped like a lotus bed – no, it rather looks like a jasmine bud. I would like to see it glow, but what if this gentleman gets mad at me?’
“There’s a switch below, can you see it?” The young man asked her even as he was driving the car and casually watched the girl from the rear view mirror.
She switched on and admired the lamp glow brightly, then shut it off fearing it might consume too much power. Then she became conscious of herself; using both hands, she tried to squeeze the water tricking down from the top of her.
‘Hmm, why did I wear this damn upper garment today?’ she cursed to herself and tried to hold the tip of the garment and squeeze it dry. Then, she heard something snap open; the young man, just then, was opening with his left hand a small compartment next to the steering wheel; she was thrilled to see a small red lamp glowing inside it as he took out a small Turkish towel and handed it over to her.
“Thanks!” As she helped herself first to dry her hair, arms and hands and then her face, she was pleasantly overwhelmed with the aroma emanating from the towel; she savored the smell by pressing her face even harder into it.
The car was now making a turn around a corner and she suddenly lost her balance; frightened, she could only exclaim, “Mother!” while her books as well as the round, stainless, lunch box rolled over from the seat.
“Sorry,” the young man now smiled at her. He slowed down and continued to drive at a reduced speed. The young girl was a little embarrassed at her own reaction; she quickly gathered her books now scattered around and eased herself into a comfortable position.
Nothing was visible through the car windows because a layer of smoke-filled moisture covered them; the girl wiped the window clean with the tip of her upper garment and looked out.
The street lights were now aglow; along the way images of well-decorated shops could be seen reflected in the pools of stagnant water overflowing the streets. She had heard people talk about a world underground. Could this be something like that?
Why is this car going on this street?
“My God! My house’s on the other side!” Her lips grumbled in a whisper.
“That’s fine, who says no?” The young man too grumbled in a low voice, and smiled at her.
‘This is certainly no fun,’ the girl told herself and played nervously with her hands. Because she was aware he was watching her, she too kept smiling to keep him in good humor.
The car sped on.
It soon emerged out of the city’s busy commercial district, passed along the wide lanes dotted by huge, tall buildings and avenues lined with beautiful bungalows and magnificent gardens, before running into a trunk road away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
While a car ride in a hostile weather was a new experience and certainly thrilled her, it also stirred a vague fear deep inside her and caused some heartache.
But she couldn’t bring herself to act like a child and keep pestering him that he should take her home right away.
She now remembered the girl who saw her off at the bus station, and her parting words as she fondly touched her cheeks: “Be a nice girl and go home!”
‘Have I become a foolish girl?’ she pondered. ‘Is it not wrong for a single girl to get into a stranger’s car? He doesn’t seem like a bad guy; still I should have never agreed to go with him! No, I mustn’t cry! If I cry, he may get mad and drop me off somewhere and go on his way; then, how can I ever go home? I will never be able to find my home on my own! And, tomorrow, I have to submit my zoology report. I have a lot of work to do.’
Her eyes were riveted on the opposite glass panel and the windshield wipers which seemed to be struggling, just like herself. Unaware of herself she was able to muster courage and ask him, “Where are we going?” The question shot up like an arrow but the young man was calm and replied: “We are not going anywhere. We are just taking a drive.”
“It’s getting late! My mother will be searching for me!”
“Okay, we will return.”
The car reversed the direction. It veered off from the trunk road and entered a huge, open meadow where it traveled a considerable distance before coming to a stop. The surrounding areas, as far as one could see, seemed to be virtually under the command of rain and darkness. The place seemed like a jungle from nowhere with frogs croaking on top of their voice, the rain and wind turning even more violent and ferocious.
It was pitch-dark inside the car; the driver as well as the passenger couldn’t see each other’s face.
The car, suddenly stopping, frightened the girl. “Why has the car stopped? Any breakdown?” She asked, her voice mixed with concern and fear.
He gave no reply and burst into a loud laughter. He wished to see her face and pushed the radio button; instantly, a faint light followed by light music beamed from the radio..
In the dim light around them the girl was grinning and narrowing her eyebrows while nervously regarding him; he, on the other hand, was smiling and seemed to be begging her for some favor.
A trumpet blared from the car radio growing louder with a ferocious intensity and was soon followed by Congo Drums whose sound and rhythm seemed to echo the heartbeat of a frightened animal. The young man listened with his head swinging in tune with the music while snapping his fingers in accord with its beat and rhythm. He turned to the girl and asked if she liked the music. She smiled and nodded in agreement without even parting her lips.
He now opened a box next to the radio and took out two Cadbury chocolate bars and gave one to her. The girl studied, with fascination, the young man unwrapping the bar from one end – he didn’t take off the whole thing – and then, casually, chewing the small pieces, one after another. He was thoroughly enjoying himself, comfortably laid back, with his other hand tapping the seat in resonance with the music coming from the car radio.
He’s certainly handsome and good-looking, she thought. He was tall, his white dress seemed to fit him perfectly and, when seen in that dim light, even his dark complexion was vaguely attractive – she remembered the majesty of a vicious cobra. Viewed from the rear, his left eye was only partly visible within the angle of vision and it shone brightly. So did, in that dim light, his hair, dense and closely cropped, seemingly immune to the disarray even in a storm, and the lush growth of hair near the ears. When glancing at him sideways the girl felt his face would look even more attractive if he sported a thin mustache. And those eyebrows! They looked so determined, twisting up and down, and downright menacing! She noticed the heavy watch with a golden strap on his left arm that lay stretched on the seat close to her and could read the time as seven from the luminous dial. His thin fingers were till tapping to the rhythm of the music, and the hair on his forearms seemed to shudder to the cold from the outside.
“My God! It’s seven!” She stopped chewing the chocolate bar while calmly watching him, and screamed aloud. He too checked the watch following her sudden outburst.
It was only when he opened the front door that the young man could notice the heavy downpour outside. He immediately got out of the car.
“Where?” Her question, mixed with anxiety and fear, resonated in his ears even after he closed the door behind him:”Where are you going?”
He was heavily drenched in the rain.” I am not going anywhere. I am coming over,” he replied, opened the rear door and entered.
He sat next to her, took out from the seat the small Turkish towel he had given her a short while ago, and wiped his face and hair. He crushed the chocolate wrapper in his hand and threw it out. The girl was still chewing the candy. He took out another small candy pack from his pocket and helped himself with a piece while offering another to her.
“What is it?”
“Chewing gum.”
“No, I don’t want it!”
“Try, you will like it!”
She hastily finished eating the chocolate piece and reluctantly extended her hand to accept the gum from him.
“Here it is,” he said, and refusing to hand it over to her, brought the gum closer to her lips and gently caressed them.
She felt a pleasant burning sensation all over her body; she retraced a few steps away from him and accepted the gum from his hands, saying, “Thank you.”
His two eyes were now caught up with hers; she felt too shy to stare at him and struggled hard to shift her glance downwards over and over again, even as she was aware that his two knees were drawing close to her.
She looked through the glass window. Outside, in the dark, rain and wind were playing havoc with one another. She edged close to that window door and sought refuge there; he respectfully moved away from her, put both his arms around the chest and tried, vaguely, to probe her mind.
“How do you like my car? His voice, begun in a dry, ritualistic tone, gradually became an intimate and private whisper that disturbed her. She remained calm and replied: “It’s very nice.”
He seemed lost in some deep thought, sighed, lowered his head, and spoke.
“Do you know this car has been roaming after you – every day – for the last two years? Do you know that?” As he raised his head to look at her, she felt overwhelmed by his compliment; it was as if that gentleman had just placed a crown on her head.
“Really?”
“Yes, really.”
His heavy breathing now warmed her hair. His intimate voice now caressed her mind and shook her heart: “Do you like me?”
“Hmm.” Because she felt trapped and still desperately wanted to get away from him, he, again, politely withdrew from her.
Outside, it was still raining. The trumpet from the car radio was now playing music with a new beat and rhythm.
“You like it here, don’t you?” He was trying to gauge her mood in the atmosphere around them as well as her feelings for him.
“I like it, but I am afraid . . . ”
“Afraid? Why? Why should you be afraid?” As he tried to shake her shoulder to comfort her, she felt her innate modesty shaken, and gently spoke her mind: “I am actually afraid – this is all new to me . . . ”
“Why do I need all these introductions?” He grumbled to himself; he now made up his mind not to retreat from his plans, and approached her.
“May I kiss you?”
She didn’t know what to say. She was tongue-tied, her face sweated even in that cold weather.
She felt her ear lobes, cheeks and lips suddenly exposed to scorching heat and as she felt herself trapped in his hands and writhed in pain amid the cries of “Please, . . .Please,” he grew fanatical and continued to assault her.
Soon, her cries grew fainter and stopped. As if seeking vengeance, her hands were now entwined around his neck.
Outside, the sky seemed torn apart. Lightning struck pell-mell; thunder echoed far and near.
That lightning must have hit somewhere!
“I want to go home! My God, my mother will be searching for me!”
He opened the car rear door and got out. His shoes were caught in the swamp on the ground and as he raised one of them some of the mud fell on the car and soiled it. Through the open door a few water drops fell inside the car and also on the girl.
Because she was deeply hurt in body and mind, the girl was crying – in silence – without his knowledge – fighting the tide of tears overpowering her.
He returned to his driver seat and threw the muddy shoes out of the car window. Then he opened the compartment next to the radio and took out a cigarette, and lit it. He also kept on chewing the gum.
The girl’s heart, mind, body and feelings were now enmeshed in a panic, but a sense of urgency hovered over them. She desperately wished she could be home at once so that she could feel her mother’s warmth, cry out in one long stretch and pour out all her hurt feelings; that would be the only way to find some emotional comfort following this gross violence now meted to her.
But he seemed calm, smoking a cigarette, and this irritated her. Her confinement inside the car made her feel as if she was trapped between two huge rocks in a cave; she felt disgust as well, and added to it was the cigarette smell that churned her stomach; she felt the grimy, marshy soil splashing all over her body and defiling her . . .
She now detested the trumpet music from car radio – it was like a jackal barking in the moor of empty wilderness, hacking her body into pieces.
She screamed aloud in an angry mood seemingly beyond her: “Are you taking me home or not?”
He suddenly shut off the radio, and warned her:”Don’t shout like that!”
She joined both her palms in a respectful gesture and desperately begged him: “My mother will be looking for me. Please take me home and I will be ever thankful to you.” Deep in her heart she was blaming herself: ‘I acted really stupid. I should have never come with him. All these terrible things have now taken place! What a horror!’ She felt profoundly guilty over what she did; she gnashed her teeth wishing she could go out and kill herself by dashing her head against some rock. Her appearance at that moment scared the young man.
“Please . . . Don’t make a scene!” He begged her and reversed the car in frustration.
The car sped along the street with its bright lights illuminating the darkness around.
‘What a pity!’ He lamented himself: ‘If she was against it, why didn’t she say so in the first place? I have wasted a nice evening! Poor girl, I will be damned if I knew what girls like her are going to learn from a college education! And she’s still crying!’ He turned to her and offered an apology: “I am sorry . . Please forgive me if I hurt your feelings.”
He wanted to leave her at her home, forget the whole episode, and get some peace of mind; he pushed the accelerator.
It was still raining.
The car crossed the silent trunk road, passed along the avenues with the beautiful bungalows and magnificent gardens, and then sped on the wide lanes dotted by big, tall buildings before entering the city’s main commercial district; it finally entered a narrow street and was heading towards the girl’s home. He slowed down the car speed thinking the girl would insist that she be dropped and let go at some point before their final destination; but she seemed too naïve for such an afterthought, so he stopped the car somewhere on their way and informed her of his decision: “I am not supposed to take you all the way to your home; you have to get off right here.” He even felt sorry and was moved by her look. He felt guilty and his heart rankled as if he was indebted to her in some way. His conscience pricked; his eyes seemed to gather a few spurious tears that were shining. Like a servant he opened the door for her and stood in the rain. The girl, her emotion frozen, gathered her books, searched and picked her circular, metallic lunch box from under the car seat, emerged from the car and stood on the street, her eyes still averting him as she bowed her head down.
Because of rain there was not much traffic on the narrow lane. As he now noticed her little figure in the dim light afar, the young man reproached himself for his behavior – but only in the inner depths of his mind. It was his unbridled freedom, he thought, that drove him to act like a rotten, mean-spirited slave.
‘Yes, I am a slave, a slave to my own passions,’ he thought. Then he whispered to the girl: “I am sorry.”
She raised her head and stared at him. What a look it was!
He tried to say something, his lips quivered. He could only murmur, “What?” but felt his voice stifled.
“Nothing,” she replied and moved away.
As the red car sped ahead of her, the rear red light moved faster and merged into darkness.

** ** **
The hurricane lamp in the front room had been extinguished by the gusty wind; mother, busy in the kitchen, happened to notice the room darken. As she relit the lamp and hung it over, she noticed from the wall clock that the time was already half past seven. Mortified, she turned around and then noticed the young girl coming climbing up the steps.
The girl’s very appearance – she was totally drenched – and her clothes were in total disarray – appalled her; she felt her stomach churn, and asked: “Why is this mess?”
Like a statue the girl ambled her way to the front room and stood passively under the hurricane lamp. Tears were overflowing from her eyes. She could only scream, “Mother!” and then plunge her head on the mother’s shoulder even as she struggled to contain her emotions; she, fanatically, tightened her hands around her mother and sobbed uncontrollably.
Mother sensed something serious has happened, yet she was ambivalent.
“What happened, why so much delay? Tell me, stop crying.” She didn’t know the actual reason for her daughter’s pain – the girl was still in her embrace with her body squirming like an insect – yet she shared the girl’s pain and felt her eyes turn moist; she wiped the daughter’s eyes with the tip of her sari, warmly patted her back, and inquired:”Why are you crying like this?
The girl couldn’t bring herself to stare into her mother’s eyes; she nestled her head on mother’s shoulders and spoke slowly. As she stopped crying and began to speak up, the mother immediately disentangled herself from the girl, pulled back, and watched her in disgust as if eyeing a wretched insect.
That naïve girl was telling the mother: “There was a heavy downpour . . . the bus didn’t come, that was why I got into the car . . . then there was some place like a forest . . . there was nobody around . . .It was dark . . . Even if I wanted to get out of the car and run away from him . . . I couldn’t find my way out . . .what could I have done ? . . .and then . . . Oh my God, he kind of . . . “
Even before she could finish talking, the girl felt widely slapped across the ears, forehead and some parts of the body.
She felt butterflies float in the air. She was flung aside into a corner while her books and lunch box lay strewn all over the room.
“You wretched creature! What have you done!” The mother wanted to scream aloud; she just opened her mouth, but then controlled herself.
A few neighbors in the vicinity – there were four houses in that block – hurried down as they heard some noises from this house.
“What happened?” asked a woman who lived in the rear portion of the block; she lost no time for gossip and came up to the front room after wiping off her wet hand with the tip of her sari.
“It’s nothing; I can’t understand this big hurry,” the mother explained to her. “Why should my daughter come home like this, all wet and fully drenched, in this horrible downpour? I am spending all the money I can afford for her education; what if she gets sick right before the exams? Fortunately, her brother is not in town, otherwise he would have taken her to task!” She indulged in a mock complaint.
The lady from the neighborhood did seem interested in what was going on. “You are right, but does it mean you have to beat her up for something like this?”
The mother shut down the main door and the front room windows. She then stared at the young girl cast aside on the floor like a kitten; the daughter was not feeling hurt by her mother beating her up; if anything, she wished she was punished even harsher; she lay inert and wished the mother would trample her to death.
‘What can I do with her? She has tarnished the reputation of a respectable family! Oh, my God, what can I do?’ The mother turned back . . .
Flames in the kitchen hearth were encircling the logs – searing them red hot.
‘What if I just unload a pile of that hot stuff over her head,?’ the mother thought. She saw the image of her daughter squirming like an insect and being scorched to death.
‘But, then, what happens next? Will her shame disappear? Oh, my dear! How can I go on living after killing you with my own hands? Should I kill myself too?’
‘Hmm . . .Then, what? Will this shame disappear,?’
The mother was confused.
She gathered her daughter’s tresses together, then touched her face and gently raised it.
She twirled the wick of the hurricane lamp to brighten the surroundings, carried it to where the daughter lay and examined every inch of her body, from head to foot. The girl recoiled with shame and guilt unable to bear such a close scrutiny. “My God, please don’t look at me like that!” she screamed, turned her back to the mother and buried her face into the wall amidst incessant sobs.
“Oh, my God, only you can punish that scoundrel,” the mother cursed the anonymous villain to her heart’s content. While she felt disgust even to touch her daughter she bore the pain because of her love and concern that her daughter had nowhere else to go to turn for comfort or refuge. “It’s my fate,” she sighed and became deeply aware that anger and punishment would serve no purpose. With the lamp in one hand she gripped the girl’s arm with the other and dragged her to the bathroom.
“What should I do now? Can I try to find the fiend responsible for this inhuman act? Can I marry her off to him? Oh, my God, how can I ever let her live with such an animal for the rest of her life? To kill her in cold blood would be more humane thing to do! What can I do?” Her mind was in turmoil.
She asked the daughter to sit near the bath tub and then carefully set the lamp in a niche in a nearby wall. She prayed to all the gods in her memory to forgive and purge the shame and dishonor from the naïve, innocent soul, who now sat there trembling in cold with her arms crossing the bosom.
The mother spoke no words and calmly discarded all of her daughter’s clothes as she stood there like a statue with eyes closed. She loosened the pigtail hanging below the waist and spread it along the marble back. As the girl sat passively cross-legged, the mother poured over the girl’s head bucketfuls of water from the tub, one after another. Then she applied shampoo to the hair, and inquired her in a faint voice:
“Do you happen to know that fellow?”
“No.”
“The scoundrel! What shall we do with him?” She gnashed her teeth even as she was spreading her fingers laced with shampoo and letting her eyes brimming with hatred as if poised for murder.
“Hmm . . whether the banana leaf touches the thorn or the thorn touches the banana leaf, it’s always the banana leaf that gets hurt!” She tried to contain her anger swelling within her and, as if trying to ease the curse weighing heavily upon the young girl, she scrubbed the shampoo even harder. She suddenly remembered her husband who had died leaving her with two-year-old baby, and cried: “If he were only alive – thank heavens – he’s not around to see these terrible things happening.”
“My dear child,” she addressed the young girl. “This incident should remain a secret and must never be revealed to anybody, never! Otherwise, an entire family will be destroyed! No one would pause even to think what might happen to their own family if the victim was one of their offspring; they will simply treat it like a curse plaguing one generation after another. Of course, I am talking about others, but what about my own values? Will I be holding my tongue if this disaster struck another family? No, then, my tone will be totally different . . it has been like that for some time now . . .To be honest, I have gossiped quite a lot in the past.” She snatched a towel hanging from the rope that ran across the bathroom and vigorously dried the girl’s hair. Then she touched her daughter’s chin, raised it to her eye level and fondly kissed the forehead; it was such a pure, unsullied face shining like a fresh, porcelain plate that no adolescent stress or strains could have corrupted.
“My dear child, you are now purified, totally purified!”the mother declared, and continued: “Remember this! What I poured over your head a few minutes ago was not water, it was fire! It has cleansed your body and soul. What have you gone through was a trial by fire, and you are now as pure as a crystal. Your thoughts were pure and innocent to begin with, so how can anything corrupt your body? I know your mind but the outside world doesn’t. That’s why this incident should never be revealed! Why do you keep staring at me like that? Are you thinking we can’t keep this away from public knowledge? Why not? After all what the world knows is only this: you came home in a car with someone! Nobody would dare say anything beyond that. So, remember this, nothing happened to you! Do you think people will start badmouthing because they saw you coming in a car? Stop worrying about them! I know there’s a crowd that’s always indulging in gossip and spreading all kinds of rumors. But you must never be concerned with them. There’s no flaw in your character, and I am saying this because it is true and I want you to believe it and feel that way deep in your heart. Now, imagine this: while walking on the streets don’t we, sometimes, get our feet dirty in some filth? Does it mean we must cut off the feet? No, we can just wash our feet before entering the house and go over to the puja room to say our prayers – and God will not reject us! Will he? So everything depends on one’s state of mind, one has to keep the mind pure. Do you know the story of Ahalya? She was purged of her sins when the dust from Rama’s feet touched her. Ahalya’s mind was never corrupted by any impure thoughts; that’s why she was blessed by Rama. I am saying all this because you should not unnecessarily torture your mind with guilt and remorse. You must forget this unfortunate incident as a bad dream . . nothing has happened to you.”
Then the mother asked the young girl to get dressed with new, dry clothes hanging on the rope above them.
“What are you chewing in your mouth? What’s it?”
“Gum . . . ”
“Spit out the damn thing,” the mother screamed. “Wash your mouth clean and follow me.” She walked to the puja room.
The mother was visibly moved as she stood before the altar for a few minutes in total surrender. She turned to the girl who now joined her, and spoke: “Pray and ask for happiness . . . I feel I am also responsible for what happened to you . . . It never occurred to me that, as a college student, my adolescent daughter is being exposed to the dangers of the outside world. Again, I always see you as a child, but now you are no more a child! So, you must forget this incident . . . No, you mustn’t forget this incident, you must go ahead in life keeping this incident always back in your mind. You mustn’t discuss this incident with anybody! Never, as far as this matter is concerned, there are no exceptions! You must promise me that you will never mention this to anybody!” As she extended her hand as if protecting the secret, the daughter eagerly placed her hand on the mother’s palm, gripped it, and told her:”This is my solemn promise. I will tell nobody.”
“I have been telling myself that you are a smart girl because you always get good grades,” the mother answered. “Only now you have become a smart girl, and you must continue to be smart.” She held the daughter’s chin with her other hand and applied vibhudi on her forehead.
The eyes of the young innocent girl shone bright in the aura emanating from the lamp on the altar. It was not just the shadow play that produced the splendor; the mother could sense a ripe, mature womanhood reflected in that aura.

Now we see that young girl again on her way to college. Several luxury cars are crisscrossing her path, but she scarcely looks at any of them. Occasionally she glances at them but she is always mindful that neither she nor the car run into one another.

*****

Note : Title refers to the trial by fire undergone by Sita in the Hindu Epic Ramayana to prove her chastity.

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