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The old woman of the temple

By Gayatri Pagdi

This was somewhere in the early 90s. I was suffering from clinical depression and under siege of my own mind. I was desperate to be free, to live like everyone else with a normal mind. Along with medical help, I also constantly prayed to the divine to help me. At one point of time, along with my husband Praveen, I happened to visit a Shakti temple much away from the city. When I reached the temple, I broke down and prayed over and over again for the Divine Mother to come to my aid. I just could not leave the temple because when in there, I felt safe from my mind’s incessant attacks. Finally, we left only when it was time to close the temple doors for the night. By the time we reached the nearest, a rather obscure, railway station to return to Mumbai, it was late. The tiny platform had very few people and not a single woman. I suddenly felt very conscious of my gender. Almost all the eyes were on me. The train just would not come. My husband was tense. Somehow, I kept thinking of the temple we had just left and clung, in my mind, to the Divine Mother. I started praying, “Let there be at least one more woman here, with me.” It would probably have meant a family with women and children and I would have felt a bit more comfortable in their company. The train came at midnight and we got into a compartment. Once again, on the whole train, I was the sole woman. More and more people, all men, came checking the other compartments in that middle of the night, and decided they wanted to be where we were sitting. I was wearing some minor gold jewellery and that seemed to have attracted them too. My husband held my hand tightly. He was a very tough man physically, athletic, and had also been a physical trainer a few years back. His mind started thinking of the ways to defend his wife in case anything went seriously wrong. I was numb, in a weird daze, and the only thing I could think of was the Divine Mother Goddess we had visited. I kept mumbling to myself, praying to Her without even really thinking of what I was saying, “Let there be just one more woman on this train. Just one more woman.”

The train was about to move when I saw an old, bent-in-the-back aadivasi woman slowly approaching. On her head was a pile of chopped wood and some small branches with a couple of leaves hanging on them. In her hand was a branch, too, which she used as a walking stick. Her dark skin was loose and wrinkled and she walked towards my compartment, slowly. She peeped into my compartment, did not look at me even when I was sitting right next to the window, and then entered.

That journey seemed hellishly long. The train crawled, the temperature was low, and we shivered with cold. Outside, there was nothing but darkness. The train stopped in between stations too and it was all eerie. Finally, some men got up and lowered the shutters of their windows to feel safer. The old woman sat at the door on the other side, on the floor, her pile of chopped wood next to her. A few leaves had loosened and surrendered to the floor. She did not look at anyone in the compartment, did not even stir and gazed fixed, outside into the darkness.

After what seemed like a lifetime, the train approached Mumbai. We were now at a large station from where we had several options to get home. It was the last stop for the train that we were on. The station was waking up, stretching itself to begin the new day. We had arrived safely. My husband was now visibly relaxed. I could smell coffee and felt better. We let everyone in the compartment get off. It was a single discharge platform and all of us had to get on from only one of the sides of the train. We started moving to the exit and I noticed that the old woman was still sitting there, unmoving, ignoring us. I said to her, “We’ve reached. You may want to get off now. Or the train will just go back to the place we came from.” She ignored me and then my husband and I got off. It was barely a moment before we were on the platform. I turned around to see if the old woman was following us and then just stood there, stunned and confused There was no one in the compartment. No old woman, no chopped wood, no leaves on the floorboard. Nothing! I couldn’t understand and stared at my husband in confusion. He looked surprised and confused, too. We just stood there for the next few moments, wordlessly. He then asked me to sit on a bench, got me a glass of coffee, and then said, “I’m going to look for her.” This old woman that was with us had, on the previous night moved slower than a snail, dragging her feet, putting all her weight on the branch of a tree that she had used as a walking stick. There was no way she could have jumped off the train on the side with no platform, with her pile of wood, and within a second when our backs were turned to her as we exited the train. My husband returned after a few minutes shaking his head. “She was nowhere,” he said. “What do you think just happened?”

“I was praying to Her. She heard my prayer,” I told him.

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