Magic Afloat in the Air

A Short story by Gauri Mishra

Paharganj. Photo credit: Wiki

She had never thought it would end like this. A chance meeting in a food trail which culminated in the lanes of Paharganj was quite an ordinary occurrence for Sagari. She considered herself a foodie and anything to do with eating captured her attention. Not that she minded any adventures…in fact just the thought of staying at home for a prolonged period of time depressed her. However, this particular day had a lot more in store than just a food trail…

She had been careful not to crush her crisp cotton dupatta when she boarded the metro in the morning. The shared auto ride till the station had messed up her hair a little but she liked that unkempt look. The bright pink kurta was a sign of her enthusiasm and complimented her dusky look. The kohl rimmed eyes were mysterious and honey-coloured giving her an air of aloofness. Just the prospect of meeting a whole bunch of strangers filled her with excitement.

The food trail had already begun when she joined the motley group of people, old and young including a gray-haired man who looked a little out of place with his crisp white shirt and dark trousers, a couple of middle-aged women whose idea of coming on a food trail had little else beyond food and a bunch of over-enthusiastic teenagers who couldn’t stop talking even while the others strained to hear what the guide was telling them about the sweet shop in Chandni Chowk.

The only other person who had come alone besides herself was a young man who had a quiet demeanor and reminded her of the lanky hero in those early Amitabh Bachchan starrers. He had noticed her immediately but seemed in no hurry to strike a conversation. She kept asking questions and the others looked disenchanted with her curiosity about the origins of dhabas (street side eateries) and their owners’ pride in hoarding family recipes. She loved everything about the walk and the little discoveries of secret recipes, the smells and the aroma of spices and the delectable food that filled her senses with a pleasure that was hard to resist.

The young man who had shown no interest in her so far intrigued her. His lack of enthusiasm acted as a trigger for her to take it up as a mission. The pattern was the same always, the more a man ignored her, the more interested she became in knowing how to get his attention. It is not too hard to decipher that she succeeded nine out of ten times. For her, this too was an adventure…unraveling the enigma behind the ordinary exterior and then getting to know the person.

The trail ended before time as the sun had already set and the cool breeze had lulled everyone into silence. The chaiwala (tea stall owner) at the corner of the street was definitely a temptation and she decided to walk up to him for a strong cup of tea. As if on cue, the young man followed her to the bench which didn’t seem too inviting and served more as an indication of the chaiwala’s existence. That is when she noticed the steady gaze which seemed to linger on her.

Immediately conscious of her hair, she made a cursory attempt to look a little more presentable. By then he had taken both their teas from the chaiwala and was holding on to them, waiting for her to reclaim hers from his hand.

“Thanks …you didn’t have to do this.”

“It’s all right, thought I’ll wait for you to finish.”

That is when she realized that her bag’s zipper had come undone and she was still struggling to close it.

Why do these clumsy things happen when you are in decent company? She thought to herself.

The tea had become inconsequential by now. It was almost as if they had both been aware of the ploy which had finally brought them this proximity.

By now, she had gained her composure. It was strange how naturally they both hit it off and the leisurely walk in one of the Paharganj lanes seemed like the most obvious choice of activity. Neither of them was in a hurry. On the contrary, the prospect of spending the next few hours in each other’s company was exciting enough. He kept listening to her incessant chatter about her little room in a shared flat and how it seemed insufficient for her adventurous mind with its creative thoughts and ideas.

She loved to go out, alone mostly and explore the city which had given her an identity. She seemed to know a lot about Delhi, considering the short span of her stay here. She looked eager, starting a new sentence before the first one had finished…laughing at the little jokes which he made with a straight face. Her eyes were full of the joy that comes from living your own life your way and there was no way he could not be fascinated with her charming figure which wasn’t slim but had an interestingly voluptuous look which his male imagination had assessed much earlier in the day.

They decided to eat, and a curiously winding staircase fascinated them into climbing up to a roof-top restaurant which had a quaint look and a wide terrace with stray benches strewn around giving it a strangely nonchalant air, as if the atmospherics were least interested to know who the occupants were. A plate of momos followed by a few beers were enough to make them comfortable with each other.

He cajoled her into a space where she just wanted to live in the moment. He was not the kind of man who looked threatening, instead he had an easy air about him, almost as if there was very little in the world that could jolt him out of his composure. She was equally relaxed, almost on the verge of putting her head on his shoulder, the beer making her feel lighter and happier. The wrought iron bench in the corner of the terrace, with an adventurous branch of the Neem tree winding up to it seemed to offer an invitation and they eased into it, both anticipating an interesting end to this day.

The very essence of this night was the silence around them…most of the people in the restaurant had left and there was nobody to check on them or even ask them to leave…it wasn’t that kind of a place where people intruded into your conversations to ask you to leave. It was the kind of place which let you be and trusted you enough to find your way out.

They talked about life, relationships, travails of living in a big city, and about their dreams which always seemed to be round the corner but remained elusive. She had never imagined she was capable of this. Talking through the night with somebody she had met a few hours ago.

It surprised her a little…her comfort zone and how easily she could treat herself to an adventure. In fact, when the dawn broke, and she took a cab home, deciding to drop him to the next metro station, he didn’t seem too averse to the idea. It was pretty clear to both of them that the romance of the night was over…the magical rapport they had felt with each other seemed to fade away in the sunlight. Their realities had shaken hands and said their goodbyes.

She was quite sure she wouldn’t see him again. What she couldn’t figure out was her own impulse and that carpe diem spirit which ruled her mind on most days.

This happened to her a lot and her consciousness berated her each time she thought about her seven-year-old relationship with her boyfriend who worked in the US. It seemed to her a minor factual detail in her bemused existence. It was almost as if she wanted to have a fill of her stray encounters with men, she found interesting. Was it her way of finding the truth about her committed relationship or just a series of casual adventures?

She had no clue and although these questions kept popping up like little droplets of water on a windowpane, there was never an immediate need to clear the surface and peep into her mind.

Life can be quite uncertain, she told this to herself often enough. The thought of marriage and moving to another country was going to happen at some faraway juncture.

For now, she was pleased with the way her career at this startup was shaping up, she was content to go on her solitary walks in this beautiful city, listen to her favorite melodies in the rain, enjoy her food trails and take innumerable pictures, read to her hearts’ content on lazy weekend mornings. If life had anything more to offer, she was in no immediate haste to get there. She told herself often…tomorrow is another day.


Dr Gauri Mishra is teaching as Associate Professor in the department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She likes to dabble in poetry and short fiction from time to time. She is very passionate about teaching and also heads the placement cell of her college.




The Initiation

By Gauri Mishra


Amaya was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the river Godavari.

‘What am I going to do when I grow up? ’ Amaya thought to herself and yet, she could not think of anything that would be more important than picking cotton for a girl of her age.

She was convinced about her higher purpose in life; nobody, not even her parents and her younger siblings knew that her mind was the only thing that kept her company and her imagination was what made her disarmingly attractive.

Amaya had just turned twenty and considering her remarkably bright demeanour, was quite a popular person in Nandigram. There was not a single man, woman or child in the entire village that was not aware of her outspoken nature.

Her grandmother was the only one to support her, irrespective of earning the wrath of the village elders. She had some inkling about Amaya’s secret dreams to have a life that was not ordinary and drastically different from her own.

It worried her, the way her granddaughter was coming along, but strangely she also trusted her, and her faith in this fresh perspective of living a life differently, on her own terms.

Rising reluctantly from her comfortable position, Amaya started to walk towards the fields. It seemed to her that the time had come for her to prove to everybody including her parents that there was more to life than picking cotton. She liked to sing, and craved to possess a sarangi. But she could not, for the life of her, ask her parents for the same. The house was always abundant with all kinds of groceries, rice and spices. Her mother managed to create delicious meals out of ordinary vegetables and the entire household of seven members had their share.

Their clothes were made only once a year, out of the rejected bales of cotton and woven hurriedly into long pieces of cloth serving as sarees for her mother and sisters, and for the men of the household, lungis or the head cloth which saw occasional use. Everything else apart from this, the finery and rare gifts found its way to the large trunk that contained every item of even a slightly higher value than the routine ones.

It was her covert desire to open the trunk and gorge on the beauty of each one of its treasures, but that was not to be as her old grandmother guarded it furiously, coughing away on her little cot, just close by.

She reached the field, with its flowering cotton all around her. Her fingers had started to bruise because of the care with which the flower had to be picked so as not to damage it.

All the village girls between the ages of seven and twenty-three or thereabout worked their way through these fields, which seemed to Amaya, endless. It was considered a woman’s job, just like the other mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning the kitchen and the outer courtyard, fetching water from the river Godavari and looking after the cattle.

It seemed to Amaya that she was a misfit among these girls, because she did not feel proud of the fact that her basket was full the earliest. There was no elation in her spirit and body while she mechanically plucked the white cotton blooms.

She started to hum a melody she had recently picked up while the temple priest was practising with the devotees. The song was a Sanskrit prayer to Shiva from the Ramayana. Amaya could not understand it. She had no knowledge of Sanskrit, but she had spent many an evening listening to the stories of Ramayana from her grandmother, about the way the beautiful Sita prayed to Parvati to grant her the wish of marrying Lord Ram and the abduction of Sita at Panchvati. While listening to these stories, she would always imagine herself in Sita’s role and the sheer magnitude of her imagination made her reach an entire new realm of heavenly pleasure. This is what she wanted her life to be, extraordinary and out of the pages of an epic.

The simple melody made her task easier and she continued picking cotton, totally oblivious to the world around her, while she craved to have something to sing along. Even though the words were incomprehensible to her innocent mind, just the melody and the haunting notes of the lyric were sufficient to make her sway to and fro and create a harmony of the mind with her body. It was strange what music did to her. Her grandmother’s daily visits to the village temple on the top of a hill made it mandatory for Amaya to accompany her and that is how her mornings became enchantingly musical. The temple priest was a happy, pot-bellied man with a sense of humour. His knowledge of Sanskrit and Marathi was comprehensive enough for their little village with a handful of literate men.

He always recited impeccable Sanskrit, translating it later for the benefit of his ignorantly rapt audience, but all Amaya could think of was how she could put those beautiful verses to music. She imagined herself with a sitar or a sarangi singing the verses in her sweet, evocative voice and holding a captive audience right there in the temple courtyard.

Sometimes the priest sang in Marathi; the verses of Bahinabai devoted to Vithoba were her favourite. She especially liked one particular verse in which the simple woman saint cries out that if she has a woman’s body, how would she attain truth? Amaya felt that the songs of Bahina which the priest recited so simply held the same ordinary principles that her grandmother spoke about in her stories from the epic. The husband and God, both had to be worshipped, and there was very little difference between the two.

“Let’s go home Amaya, it’s time we ate something,” her friend Manjari’s voice interrupted her song. Amaya was amazed at her collection of the cotton flowers and she noticed the reddish hues and rashes on her palms and fingers. She felt that she could come back again but immediately changed her mind. Maybe she would persuade her grandmother to accompany her to the temple again in the evening.

This did happen occasionally. In order to escape the dry heat and sweaty evenings in her room, her grandmother would ask Amaya to take her to the temple where the breeze would calm her mind. She did not know how much her granddaughter enjoyed these sojourns.

The cotton bales waited to be transformed into gorgeous Paithani sarees with bright colours and gold borders but that was after they were bartered for grain, gold and utensils with the traders who came trudging their goods to Nandigram. Weaving their magic into the cotton fabric, the small community of weavers created these sarees. The traders then sold these sarees to the rich landlords whose wives constantly competed with each other for the perfect Paithani.

Village girls had only heard about these fascinating sarees, and few were lucky enough to find such an ancestral heirloom in their families. Amaya knew there were a couple of them in her grandmother’s trunk. However, she was not really fond of sarees, their multiple folds reminded her of bales of cotton piled together, and all she wanted was to rush out to an open field and sing a melody at her own pace, along the precious notes of a sarangi*!

Amaya had been practising a particular song in Marathi. It was about the unspoken dream of a princess who did not want to live like one. She wanted to run in the fields and swim in the river; she did not like her finery and jewels but craved the sound of the waves and the rustle of the forest trees. Amaya felt that she and the princess had a lot in common, that just like the princess, she too wanted to sing among the green fields and play the sarangi to her heart’s content.

Amaya’s father was the only one who scared her. She was too afraid of him to even speak in his presence. His deep gaze and his resounding tone, even when he spoke to Amaya’s mother made everyone around him acutely conscious of his presence. Her grandmother also felt her authority giving way when he was around.

Like all the village girls of her age, Amaya was expected to learn all the skills of becoming an ideal wife, somebody who could turn a home into a heaven. But her father did not know that Amaya was the last person to mould herself into this perfect woman. She could not put her heart into cooking and instead of all the routine chores her friends enjoyed doing, she wanted to do something which made her parents proud of her, of pursuing a dream that she alone had seen, of sailing in a boat to the unknown shores and to sing the way her heart wished to!

Traditionally, the harvest festival was always celebrated in the temple, with women dancing lavanis and the men all dressed up to watch the festivities and praying to God to give them another year of a full harvest. It was natural then, that the priest had worn his dhoti with extreme care and his meticulous rituals made the temple look pious and festive at the same time almost as if even God wanted to bless this charming village with its simple folk and its calm environment.

Amaya had prepared a song with perfection and she had shyly asked her grandmother to take the priest’s permission to sing it at the end of the evening festivities. She had hoped that the majority of the audience would have left by then and those present would be too bored to listen to her beginner’s skills. The function began with the prayers to Lord Ganesha, asking for his benevolence for another year of a good harvest.

This was followed by a lavani, a traditional dance by women wearing colourful nine-yard sarees, tied like a dhoti to their slim waists going round and round in circles, swirling and twisting their bodies in a melodious unison, all the time holding each other with a precise rhythm. Amaya was mesmerized with the song, a beautiful one of a woman’s separation from the beloved and asking for God’s help to unite her with him.

The rest of the evening passed like a breeze and Amaya was surprised that the play on Saint Tukaram and a bhajan to Lord Vithoba would be over so soon. Finally, it was her moment. She began to feel apprehensive as soon as the priest announced her name. What if this turned into a big joke and no words came out of her mouth; would she be able to sing in front of so many people including her father, her family and all her friends?

She prayed to Vithoba silently and touched the priest’s feet before starting her song. With a brief introduction to the song, she began and instantly there was a silence around her. Everyone was enraptured by her melody and her voice rose. She felt, she could take it even higher, and control the musical notes and the lyrical melody perfectly. For the first time in her life, Amaya felt a sense of elation and total freedom. It was exactly the way she had dreamt herself singing and she knew that it was all she wanted to do in her life…

The family and all the villagers blessed her although she could sense her father’s silent gaze on her. The happiest was her grandmother, giving her a warm hug and blessing her effusively.

They had returned home. Amaya was surprised to see that her grandmother had in her hands the keys to the trunk that nobody had ever seen the inside of. She leaned towards the cot and sat down, urging Amaya to open the formidable-looking lock. Amaya was curious and mystified. What was inside the trunk that her grandmother wanted to give her?

The trunk smelled of camphor and a strange musty fragrance filled up Amaya’s nostrils. She opened the first lot of the wrapping of white cotton and inside it was a beautiful Paithani in a rich red and green colour, with the most exquisite gold border she had ever seen. Suddenly, she noticed the polished handle of a long wooden stick just beneath it and she gently pulled it out. It was an old carved sarangi. She could not believe her eyes. The object of her dreams was right in front of her. When she turned her head to see her grandmother’s expression, she noticed that the Paithani was in her grandmother’s hands and she was caressing it lovingly, lost in her beautiful memories of yesteryears.

Amaya knew that the saree was her gift. With a look of extreme gratitude, she wrapped the Paithani back into its cotton wrapping and instead picked up the sarangi. After an initial look of surprise, her grandmother understood Amaya’s desire to take the gift she really wanted. As for Amaya, no other gift would have mattered as much as this. She knew she had found her way.

*sarangi – a string instrument

Sarangi. Photo courtesy Wiki

Dr Gauri Mishra is teaching as Associate Professor in the department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She likes to dabble in some poetry and short fiction from time to time. She is very passionate about teaching and also heads the placement cell of her college.




A Warm Handshake

By Gauri Mishra 


A Warm Handshake
                        White clouds of steam rising as I exhale,
The cold chill of a December morning,
                      A nip in the air, clothing in layers
Cold, half-clothed children on the sidewalks and
                     Half-burnt fires dying out amongst people in flocks
How different it was – from the warmth of my Mother’s place
                     Where everyone was free to have his own space…
Home-baked cookies, warm coffee mugs,
                     Playing carrom on warm earthy rugs.
Ah… to be home again was my earnest wish,
                     Swimming in strange waters, was I a goldfish?
Turning a corner, I spied an old man…
                     Huddled in a blanket and braving the dust of every passing van
He looked ancient, face full of wrinkles
                    But in his eyes I saw a twinkle…
He gestured me to come near,
                    In my mind I was nervous, but there was no fear.
His cold rough hands held a few marbles
                   Shiny, sparkling pieces of marvel…
A crimson red, a sea-green blue,

	A blazing yellow with a purplish hue
My eyes gleamed, as he emptied his treasure
Joy knew no bounds; I was full of pleasure.
Suddenly home was right there,
                   In all its brightness, lovely and fair…
Living alone in foreign lands,
                   Away from home, lost in timeless sands
What make life enriching are such chance meetings…
                   A little joy, a shiver of thrill and 
A gay abandon for my heart to fill…
                  Misery too had its glory and happiness was in every life story.
How did he guess that’s all I needed?
                  An endearing smile…a warm handshake
No rich offerings, not cookies nor cakes
                  I understood then…what life has to offer,
Sometimes comes as a surprise…
                 A beautiful sunset, and a warm sunrise.

Dr Gauri Mishra is teaching as Associate Professor in the department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She likes to dabble in some poetry and short fiction from time to time. She is very passionate about teaching and also heads the placement cell of her college.