Taken from the original text of my first published novel, Twice Upon A Time, which had originally been named The Knowing Waters. Editorial decisions sometimes mandate that certain portions of a book be curtailed or presented differently. I flowed along with them, but eventually got feedback from readers that they would have preferred a more detailed conclusion. So here it is:
(You can purchase the novel here).
Mannat arrived with the next day’s dawn. She had not informed anyone about her arrival. Binita and her NB team, who were poised to expect her, were fast asleep at that hour. Nishi was awake, but seemed to have dived into some underground stream of her own. Arpit did not spend time looking for her. He knew she would be fine. Ever since he had told her about his final Redream, she had transformed into a Nishimaya different from the one he had known these past few months. Oddly, though, this change had not rendered her a stranger in his eyes; rather she seemed vaguely familiar, as if some long-lost loved one of his was walking evanescently through her.
Arpit could not ponder about this, though. His entire being was consumed with his Waiting. He oscillated between dread and delight. Nishi and her father were made of other-worldly stuff. They could disbelieve in the reality of loss, but he needed tangible Mannat for that. If only she would arrive…and if only she would arrive with selective memory, remembering only what could not make her rebuff him.
Sleep having eluded him completely, he got up before even the sun had opened one eye, and slipped away to the lake. By its shore he tried to assume the contemplative posture he had seen Nishi’s father in by the side of the brook. If he stayed long enough like this, perhaps he would get endowed with wisdom and philosophy enough to face what was to come.
But he was no Pandit Devishankar Gaur—he could not concentrate. A gentle breeze blew from the lake, bringing with it an unmistakable scent. The scent percolated his bones, entranced his brain, and made his skin shiver with anticipation.
She was here. He could not doubt it a moment longer. Jumping to his feet, he sped off towards Veerji’s house.
When he arrived there, all the lights were on. He stood in the shadows and waited.
The ramshackle wooden door seemed ready to fall off its hinges with persistent banging. “Who is it, now?” groaned a sleepy Binita. The NB volunteers she was sharing the room with stirred and mumbled in half-wakefulness.
“FoDi, open the door ASAP!” Vishwas called urgently.
A moment later he burst into the room, his usually immaculately-untidy hair naturally dishevelled for once. “Do you want the firecracker first or the bomb?” he demanded.
“People who save the environment don’t use such terminology”, chided Binita. “All right, the firecracker first; I need something to wake me up before I can digest another shock.”
“The granddaughter is here—she landed at Veerji’s place early this morning”, announced Vishwas.
“Wonderful. Not that we need her that badly now; but does me good to know that she was authentic. What is the other news, now?”
“Mehar Baba has reappeared—that too on the very spot where he used to camp sixty-five years ago!”
“What! If that Arpit Singh has dared to plagiarize my idea, I will sue him! But how did he manage to rope in Veerji for this hare-brained scheme, when we don’t need any gimmick like this anymore, and will probably….”
“For heaven’s sake, FoDi”, cut in Vishwas impatiently, “let me speak. This man is not Veerji. In fact, the family was the first to discover his presence. The doctor phoned me with all the details—and he wouldn’t exaggerate. When Manjot arrived, they took her to the gurdwara first thing to pay her respects—Veerji insisted on coming along, though it seems they had to nearly carry him there—and what do they see when they reach, but the fakir sitting on the gurdwara steps, deep in prayer!”
“Impossible! Some practical joker is posing as the fakir for cheap publicity.”
“Well, I have news for you. Veerji, who was a kid of about four or five when the saint came to the village, claims that he is the real article. He distinctly remembers his face—which, apparently, has aged remarkably little.”
“Poor Veerji. That’s age and failing memory talking.”
“Try telling the villagers that. They are all flocking to the spot. In fact, the entire district seems to be making a beeline for him. We need to rush if we want a closer look.”
Vishwas had surmised correctly. It became near-impossible for him and Binita to cut through the dense sea of humanity lapping hungrily towards the fakir. Strangely, though, there was very little noise. A fog of stunned expectation seemed to have descended on all of them. It took them nearly twenty minutes to cross the few metres that lay between them and the proclaimed Bhagat Mehar Baba.
When the sight met their eyes, even the skeptical Binita Baruah was overwhelmed by a searing moment of faith.
On the front steps of the village gurdwara—which had been erected on the very spot where the Sufi mystic used to camp—sat a man clad in faded saffron, with very black eyes peeking out from crinkly half-open eyelids. There was an indecipherable expression in those eyes—was it the glaze of divine ecstasy, or a twinkle of amusement?—which made it impossible to guess his real age despite the long grey hair cascading down his shoulders. His upright figure, sitting in a cross-legged posture, certainly gave nothing away.
Veerji sat to his right (a couple of steps lower), leaning for support on a young woman who must be Manjot. The rest of the family was clustered at the base of the steps, all eyes turned towards the silent holy man.
And to his left sat Nishimaya, not a step lower but on level with him, her head leaning against his shoulder, oblivious to the world. The fakir did not seem to mind this familiarity in the least. Arpit sat a step below her, his hand resting comfortingly on hers; his gaze sweeping from Mehar Baba to Manjot. Tears were flowing down Nishi’s face like a river which had finally managed to escape its dam.
“How is it possible, Arpit?” demanded Mannat, while he gazed at her in wonder that she could have changed so little. He had imagined—and feared—the icy phantom he had once encountered on a demented beach. But this was not Manjot Shergill sitting with him. This was the Mannat who had rushed to her beloved Veerji and Meharsar on hearing about their trouble. This was the Mannat whom he could hope to….to…?
The Illusion of Night. Nishi had been right, as always.
Mannat continued to mull, “I am not sure whether it is the original Mehar Baba or not; but Veerji believes so. Some say he is growing dull with age, but I can’t see any trace of it. I am not biased because he is my grandfather. He could not have waged such a huge battle—and won—without his wits about him.”
“When did I ever disagree, Mannat?” He smiled into her eyes to seek reassurance more than to give it. She did not turn away, but did not smile back either. Instead, she continued earnestly, “I was at Delhi airport when I saw the news about Veerji breaking his fast. I am glad I did not come to know it sooner—it might have forestalled my decision to come. And I can’t regret my coming for a moment. Arpit”, she paused, and then seemed to have forgotten she was to go on.
He breathed in the scent of his name being uttered by her lips. It had been an eternity.
Groping for the thread of her thoughts, Mannat went on, “When I saw you feeding Veerji that first glass of juice, I felt so awkward. Arpit…I don’t know how to say this…did I misunderstand you…or did you change? Have you really gone against your father this time?”
“Did you want me to?” he asked quickly, throwing her into confusion.
Lowering her eyes, she admitted, “Yes, I did. As disrespectful as it sounds, I cannot regard him the way I used to in childhood. I’m sorry if this hurts you; but you know he is responsible for all this mess in our village….”
“…and in our lives. Right, Mannat? Had it not been for him, we might have been married.”
“How do you know?” she gasped. “Baoji had explicitly forbidden any of us to talk about it after your father turned down our proposal.”
He counter-questioned, “Mannat, do you know that woman who is weeping on the fakir’s shoulder? She is Nishimaya, my friend. Actually, she is the greatest friend of my life. And this saint whom you all call Mehar Baba is not the original mystic, but Nishi’s father Pandit Devishankar Gaur.”
She stared at him in stupefaction. And then he told her everything.
“I owe Nishi everything that is in front of me right now”, he ended, touching her cheek to make his meaning clear. She did not shrug off his hand. But her sigh told him what she was thinking. He had been afraid of that.
“Was….was Sunny okay with your coming here?”
“No. He was absolutely against it—especially when he came to know about you…and about us. It was a slip of my tongue. But then I realized it was my duty to be honest with him. I told him everything.”
“You did?” It was impossible for him to ask further. His head was floating away on the clean chill air of the Meharsar night. Now Mannat stepped back slightly, so that he had to let his hand drop down.
Limply and listlessly, she replied, “I can totally understand his indignation. That is putting it mildly. He was extremely upset. I don’t know how much he comprehends of these ties which bind me to Meharsar—though he has been trying all this while, to do him justice. But I could not wait for him to understand. My village was at stake—Veerji’s life was at stake.”
“So was your marriage.”
“I hope it is not gone so far, Arpit. Sunny is indeed a good husband; it was I who failed as a wife.”
“And if Sunny has also started thinking so….what will happen when you go back?”
She saw the question behind his question, and the guilty hope behind the layers of questioning. The eyes she raised to his were of the youthful Mannat, the Mannat unsmudged by trial and mishap. “I have left that to the One Above.”
“You will come back to me, Mannat. I have faith in Nishimaya; I have faith in the history we have Redreamed.”
“You have rescued yourself, Arpit….redeemed your actions…but you are not responsible for the stream of my life. It will take the course it was intended to.”
“It was intended to flow towards me.” He pulled her close and kissed her. She let her arms linger on his neck even when their lips moved apart. “You will see, Mannat. You can’t possibly flow back upstream to where I had lost you. If all the world is illusory, how is the reality of separation greater than the reality of union?”
“Nishimaya’s wisdom again?”
“How are you so sure Mehar Baba is really her father?”
“It is the very same face I saw during Redreaming. It’s not a face I can ever mistake.”
“What if Panditji is the reincarnation of the original Mehar Baba?”
This time he was the one taken unawares. Mannat brushed her fingers lightly over his forehead before mulling, “Mehar Baba disappeared in 1947. Nishi’s father must have been born around 1950. It is possible.”
“If that is so, I have been constantly blessed by an underground river”, he sighed contentedly before dropping his head on her shoulder.
Neither Mehar Baba nor Nishi were to be found in the morning. The villagers were unperturbed. They were convinced this was not the last they had seen of miracles.
When the doubtful NB volunteers asked them how they could be so sure, they pointed towards the lake. Some could see several rainbows dancing off its surface—one, two, three….seven? Were there seven rainbows?
Some saw no rainbows at all.
Arpit looked and saw a star with seven rays, rays the shape of lotus petals.
A chill gust of wind swooped down from the mountains.