In the town, he was revered as a learned and humble man. The people in the town would visit his house often to seek advice, learn and gain virtue of daily living. It was just not him though, his aged mother and his beautiful wife too were highly regarded in the town. Most men of the town would sit learning from the man, while the women would gather around the wife and listen to stories.
Couple of years after marriage the wife gave birth to a daughter – who had virtue, beauty and humility of both husband and wife. As the daughter grew up, she also learnt the ways of the family, and would join her parents and grandmother to sit with the people of town.
While the daughter turned around 5, she realised a peculiar habit. During few days of the month, sometimes around full moon or no moon day, her mother was not to be seen in the house. The women who usually came to meet the mother, also did not show up. Some of these women were seen in the town but were not looking for her mother. While the men who came to meet her father, kept coming as usual. The daughter would look around the house all day, never to find her mother. And then, suddenly after a few days her mother would be back doing the chores of the house.
“Most men of the town would sit learning from the man, while the women would gather around the wife and listen to stories.”
One day curiosity struck, and when she could not find her mother in the house she went upto her grandmother and asked, “Where is mother?”
“She has gone to the forest to get rid of the bad omen. One day you will also have to go too.” replied her grandmother.
The daughter did not understand and went to ask the learned man the same question. To which he replied with a smile, “Did grandmother not tell you, why mother has gone? That is all that you need to know.”
The daughter listened to her father’s words but only asked “Why does only mother has bad omen? When, she like you also, serves the people of the town...”
The father said, “Do not ask your mother, she will tell you when the time is right.”
The daughter obeyed her father’s words and never asked her mother anything. She got used to her mother leaving the house and being back after a few days. She never saw her mother leave or return. Years passed by, she only waited for her mother to be at the house and even anxiously waited for the right time when her mother would tell her something.
One day, when the daughter turned 13, and the mother had gone to the forest, she suddenly woke up in the middle of the night to soft noise at the rear door of the house. It was a full moon night and underneath a beaming glow she saw her mother standing at a distance from the house. Her mother draped in a dark colored clothing, head lowered, her beautiful face had turned pale and she stood with one hand holding her stomach and the other behind her back.
“It was a full moon night and underneath a beaming glow she saw her mother standing at a distance from the house.”
The daughter kept peeping from behind the window grill into the darkness where her mother stood alone. A little later she saw the rear door opening - her grandmother stepped out and kept a bucket of water and a mug midway and returned inside. The mother trudged with difficult steps and approached the bucket, washed herself and then entered the house through the back door. From her room, she could hear her mother do all the chores that she normally did but this time with little grunts of pain and heavy breaths. The daughter did not step outside but remained awake all night as she saw her mother leave the house at dawn, with little fruits in her hand, glancing behind to her back, footsteps dragging the ground slowly, eventually diffusing within the branches of the forests.
For the next few days the little girl woke up every night at the noise of the rear door and stayed up to see her mother disappear by morning. With each night she could hear the grunting noises of pain echo for a longer time with a certain other peculiar habits. Such as amma eating in a different set of utensils, not entering the puja room like usual and even avoiding the Tulsi plant that she watered on daily basis. The daughter just witnessed, never questioned.
The day her mother returned in the morning the girl could not hold back any longer and asked, “Don’t you feel lonely in the forest, amma?”
The woman knew that she had seen her in the last few days, and decided not to avoid the question. She said, “I am not alone, there are many like me in the forest. Each of us find one tree and sit by it all day covering our face. We can see the other person nearby, but none of us approach the other. We don’t approach because at times we are unable to move and most times we just feel shy and at the same time humiliated. We just sit silently, so that no one else from the town can identify us and even who are in the forest cannot identify each other. We do not speak, sometimes we cannot, but we all know why we are there.”
“Each of us find one tree and sit by it all day covering our faces. We can see the other person nearby, but none of us approach the other.”
The daughter listening to her mother’s plight, could only manage to ask – “Then why don’t you stay inside the house? Why don’t everyone too stay inside their house, if you have to hide from the town?”
“In these 4-5 days, there is only you and the rest. Be it a caring grandmother like yours, or a virtuous man like your father, nobody acknowledges, nobody respects, everyone turns their back. They all want to keep themselves away – like it is a bad omen. Once we are in the forest, there is no discrimination of age, caste, religion or anything that your father advises the town about. The only discrimination is that we are collectively kept out of the town. The bad omen is what distinguishes us from all others around.”
The daughter reiterated her question that she asked years back to her father, “Why do you only have bad omens, when you too serve the people of the town? This time the daughter got an answer. “It is not me, it is like us!”, replied the mother with a depleted face.
Days passed by and one day the young girl returning from her school suddenly noticed that a few people of her age laughing at her as she walked down the street. As she trod further, a few women looked at her and covered their face; some elderly men started whispering as they saw her from close by. The little girl totally confused suddenly found herself receiving all the attention of the town. All eyes were set on her, all voices towards her, some eyes staring at her while the rest turning away, and finally a few fingers pointed at her. She looked back onto herself and to her horror, what she saw left her embarrassed in the middle of the town. She did not know what to do. Her father, her mother and her grandmother were all revered in this town, and today she stood like a laughing and an embarrassing stock in the middle of them all!
“As she trod further, a few women looked at her and covered their face, some elderly men started whispering as they saw her from close by.”
The young girl ran. Ran, with her school bag held behind her, towards the house. As she approached the house, seeing her family sitting outside, tears rolled down her cheeks. She stood still not knowing what to say. She slowly walked in. As she was about to enter the house, her grandmother said “Wait, bring her in from the back door”. Her father hearing that, slowly got up, never looked into his daughter’s eyes and went inside the house. The mother anxiously got up stood near her daughter and asked her to follow her towards the rear door. She pointed towards a spot in the ground asked her to wait, went inside and left a bucket close to her. The little girl realised what she had to do. She washed herself and came inside.
As she put her foot inside the house, the mother held her and said “Tonight, I will walk with you to the forest and leave you there. When I was your age, I was asked to go alone, but I am more concerned than my mother was, and so I will accompany you.” As the daughter heard these words, the pain finally set within her. She gathered a few fruits and waited for her mother along the rear door.
“When I was your age, I was asked to go alone, but I am more concerned than my mother was, and so I will accompany you”
The next day, men from the town came to seek advice from the learned man, women gathered around the wife to hear stories. It was the first day in 13 years that the daughter was not present when the visitors had arrived. No one asked about her. The grandmother, the learned man, and his wife were back to their own ways, and life continued in the usual cycle.
Illustrations: Inspired and adapted from Manjusha art