The sun hangs at the horizon leaving a trail of blood in the sky. The hot summer evening is thick with anticipation as the Sadhu casts a circle of protection in front of the Peepal tree. Unintelligible murmurs of incantations fill the silence as the old couple quietly watches the proceeding with apprehension. The goat they had raised as their own child is tied to the tree, bleating, pleading for its life. It is inconsolable, as though it already knows the impending doom.
The old woman sniffs and the man suppresses a groan. They have no choice. Their youngest daughter is now 20 and past the age of marriage. They have tried finding a groom but she’s a Manglalik. According to her star chart, anyone who marries her would die an early death. Of course, they don’t believe in any of it but other people do. They are desperate and ready to marry her off to anyone, even a widower with children, so that she would have someone to take care of her once they died. But no luck so far. Their sons, her brothers, had assured them that they would take care of her but it is hard to trust.
A couple of days back, this Sadhu appeared at their doorstep, asking for alms. At first, they were afraid to look at him–dressed in a black loin cloth, with ashes from shamshan (cemetry) on his forehead and a necklace of human bones. As soon as he saw their daughter, he had proposed a solution–a ceremonial marriage of their daughter with the Peepal tree and the sacrifice of a black goat to ward off the bad luck. Their daughter had cried for hours, declining to let her favourite goat die but it is the only black goat they have.
The Sadhu has chosen the old Peepal tree in the forest for the ceremony. As he started drawing the red circle, they had requested him to consider another Peepal tree with a better reputation but failed to convince him. In the day light, it looks harmless enough but the receding light leaves shivers down their spine. The stories of the evil spirits ring in their ears as they look at their daughter sitting in front of the yajna fire inside the circle. Prepared as a bride in a set of red blouse and Banarasi sari, and all her gold jwellery, she looks a picture of loveliness. Yet, there is no joy on her face, only resignation to the inevitable. Her palms still held wet henna that her mother had hastily applied last minute and never got the time to dry.
As the sun threatens to drown over the horizon, they step towards the circle of protection. But the Sadhu waves them out. “The circle protects only one person apart from me. Your daughter is part of ceremony, so she must stay. The rest of you must return to the village right away before night falls and spirits awake.”
The girls eyes widen with fear, “Amma, don’t leave me alone!”
“Of course, we won’t, dear. Baba ji, you never said that we have to leave…”
“And what will you do here? Protect her from the evil spirits?” Suddenly, comprehension dawns over his face, “Oh! You don’t trust me around her…the man who spent the past 25 years rejecting all his body needs–sleep, food, clothing…everything…in pursuit of God’s way…You dare blame me of wanting to befoul your daughter.” There was an edge of menace in his voice that brings them down on their knees.
“Please, Baba ji, don’t be angry. You must understand the predicament of parents of an unmarried daughter. If we leave her behind, tongues willl wag.”
“In that case, you can take her back. But the ceremony has already started. If she leaves midway, I cannot guarantee her safety. The spirits of the Peepal will haunt her forever…” The Sadhu lowers his voice lightly to hide the rising temper, “If you stay outside circle, the spirits will possess you. If you step inside, I will not have enough power to protect any of you and it will endanger your daughter as well.”
The last beams of sunlight fall on the bride’s face streaked with tears. She seems petrified with fear. Thay can’t stay and she can’t leave the circle. The Sadhu commands with all the force he can summon, “I am not here to waste my time. If you want me to help her, you leave now. Else, you can take her and damn her to a life with demons. I don’t care either way…”
The silence that ensues enrages him further. He gets up to leave but they hang to his feet, begging, “Please forgive us, Baba ji. We are leaving. We will return in a couple of hours…”
“Do not return before dawn until the spirits are asleep again or I do not guarantee your safety.”
They hang their heads and leave immediately, promising to return for the crying girl with the first light.
The night is spent pacing around the house waiting for the day to break. When the anticipation overshadows fear, they return with their sons long before the birds wake. The forest is still dark and the yajna’s fire is visible from a distance, cackling with power. The Peepal tree is a monster with open jaws daring them to come closer. A limp, thin, ravaged girl with torn red clothes hangs from a low branch, her Banarasi sari tied around her neck. The Sadhu lies outside the circle of protection with the ceremonial knife stuck in his throat.
The goat bleats in mourning.
Soon after, the village talks in hushed voices about the spirits of Peepal tree who have now acquired a taste for young female flesh. As for the torn red cloth in the fist of the dead Sadhu and henna on the hilt of knife–such things better be left unspoken…