Camels. Ships of the deserts. Objects of my unwavering affection. They, strangely, do not top most people’s list of favourite animals, but then I’m not most people. Given half a chance (a rare occurrence!), I can wax eloquent about the grace and agility of the humped creatures. Poor Cheetal, my prized stuffed toy, endures my almost-poetic schpiels and still refrains from the death stares and the eye rolls that ‘friends and family’ bestow upon me. Their horrific responses, laced with naked disgust, almost shut me up when I drone on about swords and the heady scent of the hot sand! Cheetal’s eyes are blessedly buttoned, a cheerful smile on his visage.
Sometimes, I feel my timeline doesn’t match the one I live in. My dreams are suffused with montages of grand palaces! When I walk down Marine Drive, I feel dissociated from my surroundings. As if I’m present, but not really there. An insistent voice in my mind whispers that these are not my streets, and I’m not me!
These rogue feelings tend to overcome me when least expected. I would be jiggy-ing in a discotheque, and suddenly mid-song, a shiver would crawl down my spine. Flashes of dunes would blind me. It’s annoying. The most worrisome by-product of this affliction raises its ugly head when I’m with my family. It cruelly murmurs. What ordinary parents you have! Look at them! No gold ornaments adorn them, no servants to boss around. And your house, so pedestrian. Sheesh!
Yeah, I do not have a lot of friends. Nerds rarely do. And I’m a rung above that.
My entire childhood has been a protest against my gender. I emulated my brother. I would talk like him, walk like him! I would even use the boy’s bathrooms till a sharp rap on the knuckles from my teacher fixed it! My mom, whenever she reminisces (hint – often), regales everyone with stories of how Sara believed she was a boy. It would have been humiliating if the feelings had disappeared. But I still feel uncomfortable with my femininity.
Love is another aspect yet to taint me. I meet men I like, but when I gaze into their eyes, I feel no spark. The voice whispers, I’m yet to meet the one I’m searching for. Eye rolls. Until now, only Rudra has held my interest. For a lack of a better word, you may even say, he is my boyfriend.
Today, I’m going to clamp down the mind-whirrings as we are going to meet Rudra’s best friend and her boyfriend. We are seated in a trendy Worli restaurant, waiting for Titli (yeah!) and Kaz (!!) to join us. Rudra greets them when they make an appearance, and I nervously push my errant flick behind my ear, coming face to face with Kaz.
Our eyes meet, and I think mine go cross-eyed. My mind goes into overdrive. The voice whooping and clapping. His eyes bore into mine and we miss the first half of Rudra’s introductions.
The cool sand sprays my tunic as I urge my camel to rev. The full moon casts a shimmering veil over the desert. Sand dunes strain against the powerful wind, mournfully reassembling at different intervals. I feel the whiplash on my face but it’s a small price to pay to meet my love. My hands holding the reins are hirsute. And muscular. And, so hirsute.
Why are my eyes gritty and knees quivering? I think as I tear my eyes away from Kaz to smile at Titli, who frowns in return, noticing our ‘moment’. Drat. A peek at my arms confirms they are hairless and smooth.
From the moment I see Samsara, a tidal wave rises within me. Her elfish face with its asymmetric bob and almond-shaped eyes arrests my attention. My mind plays a trailer, my breathing quickens.
Glimpses of a lush garden, with me lying against a tree. Someone is caressing my arms with the petals of a flower, tickling yet exciting me. I watch the flower as it lazily descends, meandering, leaving a series of goosebumps in its wake. Peals of laughter escape me.
Confusion reigns in my mind. Huh? Did I laugh out loud? A quick look-around allays my fears. I shove the thoughts aside as Titli’s sharp nails dig into my palm. An early warning system. I was not paying attention, again. Sigh.
Rudra and Titli are gossiping about a friend, while Samsara and I exchange awkward smiles.
“So, do you stay around here?” I ask, cursing myself at the question’s stupidity.
“Colaba,” Samsara nods, smiling. “How about you?”
“I’m originally from Rajasthan. How did you and Rudra meet?”
“We bumped into each other at a sword exhibition, our shared interest.” She shrugged. “How about you and, er… Titli?”
“We are family friends. Our fathers are into the dry fruits’ export business, so our relationship was a done deal.”
While talking, Titli clutches my hand possessively. Her claws retract for now. My grimace converts into embarrassment as I notice Samsara watching us. I look away, wishing I was somewhere else.
“Kismis Lal! Are you paying attention to me?” screeches Titli.
God Dayum! Why did she take my full name? I curse, silently.
My heart sinks as Samsara tries, but cannot control her laughter. Though, on another note, her laughter is musical!
Even awake, I hallucinate that dusk is falling over a desert while unknown assailants chase me. I can hear camels snorting and a man’s voice echoing, ‘Go, Cheetal!’. Why is my toy haunting my dreams?
I feel adrift with restlessness. A fish out of the water, as if I’m an imposter living someone else’s life. Yesterday, I forced myself to wear a skirt; my legs felt… exposed. Shouldn’t I be wearing trousers? Or dhoti? How do girls carry off stuff like that? Ugh. You are a girl too, Sara. Am I, though?
Another figure haunts my every waking thought.
Kaz. Or, Kismis Lal.
Oh, how his name splits me up! I met the dude for all of five minutes and despite his name, he is living rent-free in my brain.
Every time my mind conjures his image, I’m transported to a palace. A palace with labyrinths, pools, and an aura of illusions. I sense Kaz (!?) delicately holding my hands in his, while we sit in a cul-de-sac garden under the canopy of twinkling stars. Thousands of lamps are lit around us and they shower us with tiny pricks of light. Hiding more than illuminating. Someone is singing ballads in an unknown language. Rajasthani?
The scene feels lived in as if I have experienced it. Not in this life, but once. Dreaming of camels was tolerable, even enjoyable, but with Kaz thrown into the equation, the only detail holding me back is Titli’s talons. Yesch.
I’m losing my mind.
I’m on a family picnic where Titli and maasa are bonding over wedding venues. And the top-most question on my mind is: when did I ask Titli to marry me? It must have happened without my consent. Maybe, our families decided and then forgot to inform me. Oh, the mess.
My mind tires of these thoughts, and I slip into slumber.
I’m seated on the edge of a pool with my feet splashing gaily in the cool water. The moon plays peek-a-boo from behind the clouds. Gentle tinkling sounds surround me. I caress the satiny fabric of my ghagra, its softness pleasing me. I like the way it falls over my body, imprisoning me in its folds yet freely flowing. I look down at myself, and the choli drapes over the gentle folds of my breasts, freeing my midriff, and joining the slithering ghagra along the sides. The dupatta on–
Wait! When did I develop breasts? WHAT? Why am I wearing an orange ghagra-choli? whirrs my sleepy brain.
I raise my hands, and a feather can knock me off! Slim, delicate hands greet my vision, encircled in innumerable golden bangles. Shocked, I glance at my feet to find them encased in anklets. With freaking tiny bells. The tinkling sounds were coming from me. I was the source!
With my heart thundering, I gaze into the pool. Its shimmering waters reflect my facsimile. A petite, beautiful girl stares at me. Her expression is as horrified as mine. I touch my cheek, and my watery doppelganger mimics my actions.
Am I a girl?
I wake up with a start, and my hands automatically roam over my flat chest. Phew, no boobs.
I look around. Everyone appears normal. Everything is normal. Except me. Why do my cotton shorts feel uncomfortable compared to the silky ghagra-choli?
I’m losing my mind.
Okay, now I can add stalker to the litany of my sins. I have been stalking Kaz (ahem, Kismis Lal, never gets old!) on social media. Perusing every Instagram post. Every freaking tweet.
My investigation (read – his check-ins) reveals he regularly haunts the library. It’s a mystery how I have not bumped into him, given the unhealthy time I spend there. I wonder which genre of books Kaz favours. If he likes mysteries. Okay, I’m obsessed with the dude. And he is betrothed to another. So am I. Sorta.
Each time we have double-dated, my yearning for him has grown stronger. As if Kaz and I are connected at a cosmic level, a tenuous thread tethers us to each other. How quaint!
My overactive brain farts have propelled me to the library. The ever-helpful librarian places a humongous book into my non-hairy arms and points me to a quiet corner. The book details the lives of kings and queens. Soon, it has ensnared me, and I’m lapping up the stories of valour and courage. Of jauhar-jumping queens, and sword-wielding kings (queens, too). Not to mention, hordes of intricately dressed camels.
I come upon a section devoted to Rajasthani folklores, ordered by popularity. The voice in my head perks up. My breathing turns erratic as if my mind’s holding back a secret while I flounder, unaware.
On the page, an artist’s impression of an embracing prince and princess highlights the famous love story of Dhola-Maru, Rajasthan’s answer to Romeo-Juliet. Love stories bore me, so I skim through them. Turning the pages without offending the book. I have almost reached the book’s end.
Suddenly, I freeze. My errant heart leaps out of my mouth, and crash lands on the book. Splatters all over the pages. All over the story’s title, Mahendra-Moomal. The voice in my head releases a pent-up sigh of relief. My fingers, of their own accord, trace the name, Mahendra. Caressing it.
That is me, the voice whispers, I’m Mahendra.
The narrative leaps out at me. A Sindhi prince, Mahendra, wins the love of a Jaisalmer princess, Moomal, using his wit and intelligence to overcome the obstacles she had laid out as a challenge. He races across the desert on his camel each night to meet her, but a simple misunderstanding tears the lovers apart. They sacrifice their lives to prove their innocence.
My plunge into madness is complete. I believe I’m the reincarnation of Mahendra. The dead prince of Umerkot.
Drat. Trust me to pick an unknown hero to be reborn as!
Wait, I’m a man?
To avoid Titli, I escape to the library, the only place she doesn’t follow as books bore her senseless. I find solace in their company, and they are my companions of choice for life.
Entering the library, I chance upon Samsara. My in-depth analysis of her online presence gleaned this nugget of information: she loves books as much as I do. Or, at least loves this library. She is ashen-faced, staring at a book. Glancing at her profile with her flick covering her face, I’m drawn to her. The intensity of my feelings surprise me, each time we have met! When we exchange glances, an unsettling feeling that I know her, that she is someone I have shared a life with, is so potent, I’m rendered speechless.
I approach her. Samsara is transfixed by the book. Silence reigns in the library; the books are often silent spectators to the dramas unfolding in our lives. Being a Saturday afternoon, a sparse crowd is guaranteed. I plonk on the adjacent chair, unnoticed.
Sara raises her glazed eyes to mine. With a moue of discontent, she splutters. “I’m Mahendra. Can you believe it?”
“Who is Mahendra?”
She flings the book at me in her haste. “Look!”
To appease her, I peek at the proffered book. Something in my heart twinges when my eyes peruse the name, Moomal, but I shush it. Vindication courses through my veins, but I ignore it. Ignorance is bliss.
“Dadisa would narrate this lore when we were kids. Why do you think you are Mahendra?”
“I have been haunted by visions of a guy riding towards his beloved. His entire life plays out for me. When he is out meeting Moomal or when he jumps into the fire and dies. Today, I realized that man is Mahendra. And that is why my feelings for you… err… Moomal, are so strong, producing a visceral reaction.” She covers her face. “You must think I’m mad.”
I take her hand, disregarding my beating heart. “No. Don’t get upset. Come on, let us get out of here and have some tea.” I dare not admit that I have also experienced visions of a girl waiting for her beloved. They are just illusions, right?
Just my luck to bump into Titli’s sister at Rustom Tea House while Samsara and I sip our teas. I will surely pay for this transgression.
Sara and I meet frequently. Each meeting is a homecoming. Before I can fathom, my feelings for her are deeper than the deepest ocean. They are purer than fire, brighter than gold. Sweeter than chocolate. Spicier than panipuri.
Mahendra’s head is on Moomal’s lap, as she gently massages it. They watch dawn break out, content in their silence. Soon he would leave, and Moomal would wait, agonizingly, for the night to meet him again. She longs to be with him, to be his. These precious moments are all she had.
Dare I believe in Sara’s reincarnation story? She believes we are star-crossed lovers of a time gone by. That our love is as old as the hills; way mature than us. The centuries have been nurturing it, nourishing it, and now they have released it upon us. Like the breaking of a dam, our love gushes out. Enveloping us.
And I cannot deny the evidence of my daydreams. The question is, is it enough?
Titli wears a ring with my name on it. That is definitely not a delusion, it’s reality. My word should mean something. Shouldn’t it?
I’m pacing the floor, restless. The sun has given up for the day; it’s low on the horizon. It, like me, mourns the night’s arrival.
Tonight. The day Kaz marries the no-winged Titli.
Kaz is my twin flame, despite the name. The yin to my yang. But my pleas fell on deaf ears as he bowed to familial pressure, marrying Titli. I feel bereft. Unable to change my life’s course. For the one, I love, have loved for decades, will choose another for life.
I’ve accepted the duality existing within me. I understood, in the epiphanic moment in the library, that Kaz and I are meant to be. That fate dealt a cruel hand by flipping our genders, but our emotions are not tainted by the switch. They flow between us, irrespective of our current conditions. Strong. Fervent.
But… he is marrying her. It’s out of my hands.
I dress hurriedly, filled with the purpose of stopping this sham of a marriage. I can reason with Kaz. I have to.
I race to the mandap, inviting stares and disapproving looks. I ignore everyone, even Rudra, whose eyes are shooting daggers at me. My feet purposefully march to the dais, where I’m ready to convince Kaz. My speech is ready. When I reach, the area is deserted. Kaz’s parents are cloistered in a corner while Titli glowers at them.
The bride’s and groom’s chairs lie empty. Forlorn.
Mahendra is desolate as he watches Moomal jump into the fire, dying because of his stupidity.
Kaz is gone!
I could not hand over the reins of my life to Titli when the connection between Samsara and me hums with life. With misgiving, I abandon Titli at the altar. My earlier attempts to ease out bombed, as she refused to release me from the forced marriage. She wanted me, irrespective of my choices.
I fly to Rajasthan to dig deeper into Samsara’s claims, visiting Ludhruva, where Moomal lived. A broken wall, a high platform, and a window are all that’s left of the grandiose Kak Mahal.
And yet, I recognize the medhi, where I would wait for Mahendra. Touching the wall, decades of memories seep into my consciousness, reunite with the ones living inside. The mind understands what the heart harped about. My eyes close. I accept what I had denied for ages. Samsara is right.
Yes, I was Moomal. I am Moomal.
And, in this life, I have been searching for Mahendra. When she sought me, I rejected her. In our previous reincarnation, Mahendra rejected me, and in this lifetime, I did it. To us.
I gaze around the sandy desert, the harsh sun burning everything. The spiny cacti offer a mirage of a shade. The wind blows the fine sand into my eyes as I try to focus. Yonder, I spot a taxi speeding my way.
Amidst the ensuing sandstorm, Samsara descends from it. My oasis.
Mahendra smiles as he holds his hand out for Moomal. Squealing, she runs into his arms, his muscular, hirsute arms, her ghagra billowing in the wind. Her anklets tinkling. When they embrace, time stands still.
Love triumphs, reunited after patiently waiting for eons.
Biding its time.
It is time, now.
The folklore of Moomal-Mahendra is famous in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan. Moomal and Soomal, sisters and princesses of Jaisalmer, were famous for not only being beautiful but for their intelligence. They design their Kak Mahal as a palace full of optical illusions, with fake pools and labyrinths. Rano Mahendra, a prince from Umerkot, is the only one who overcomes the challenges and proves himself worthy of her love. He travels from Sindh (now, Pakistan) every night on his camel, Cheetal to meet Moomal. Facing opposition, he is attacked one night and loses his way, reaching Barmar instead of Jaisalmer. Tired of waiting for him at their predetermined spot, Moomal and her sister Soomal (who is dressed as a man as women in those times couldn’t be un-chaperoned, duh!) fall asleep. When Mahendra finally reaches, he assumes Moomal is cheating on him with a man, and in a huff, leaves from there. The next morning on finding his cane, Moomal understands what has happened, and she travels to Umerkot to convince him. Failing to do so, desolate, she proves her purity by jumping into a fire. Wracked by guilt, Mahendra does the same. The two lovers die, separated by life yet united in death.
Dadisa: Paternal grandmother.
Ghagra-Choli: A loose skirt and a top, up to the midriff.
Jauhar or Jauhar Kund: A sacrificial fire where queens (or women) jumped in to save their modesty after their husbands died.
Samsara: The universe, rebirth.
Mandap: A place where a Hindu marriage takes place, around the holy fire.
Panipuri: Water balls, a type of street food.
Twin Flame: Different from soulmates, the concept of twin flames is intriguing. Sometimes, a soul gets split into two bodies, and these two bodies, or lovers, share a deep intense soul connection, at a cosmic level. Soulmates can be someone who is like you, can be a platonic partner.
First published on Penmancy.com