He walks leaving footprints on sand. He has walked like this for hours now. As soon as he got off his train at Jaisalmer station, he had not looked back. Red strings of restlessness stir his cornea. He feels a mild ache in his limbs and yet, he walks without food, water or rest.
The desert is unending. The desert breeze caresses his feet with sand relentlessly. He wades past the undulating curves, the slopes and the mounds. Occasionally, he passes a bush or a camel but his eyes do not rest on sights. They look beyond the flora and the fauna, perhaps beyond the desert. It is music that he is following. The tune is familiar. It is the taanpura that plays in his ears. He walks to follow the twang that comes from desert camp with a bonfire and folk-singers reminiscing tales of love. It is the vast Thar desert ahead of him and yet, his eyes see the destination just a few steps away.
It is evening now. The red sun in the orange sky is about to sink in the yellow sand. The moon is on the other side dousing the colours of fire, one shade at a time. His walking has stopped and perhaps, so has his breathing. He stands at a spot in the desert as if he has reached his destination. He smiles and spreads out his arms. The wind blows in his arms and leaves his kurta aflutter. He looks around to find sand all around. Darkness is slowly enveloping the desert. He makes a frantic wish and a red odhni materializes in his open hand. He holds it tightly and smiles. The odhni tries to wiggle out of his fist but the grip is steady.
“You can’t still be shy after all these years,” he says.
“I am shy of you and you alone,” a voice materializes. The music in the voice is that of a brass vessel being struck. The voice comes from afar. It has no face yet. It sounds like the voice of desert. It is more like an echo coming from all directions. He is not fooled though. He keeps looking in the direction of the odhni. The sand rises and falls. As the sand falls, it leaves behind a woman. The odhni falls on her frame. Her face is hidden. Her chin is visible. The chin does a poor job of hiding a smile. The lips remain parted–half in pain and half in anticipation.
“I have come back for you,” he says. He has kept his promise. He has remembered after all these years. She walks as a tear rolls down her cheek. She leans against the wind and a pillar materializes to support her. A ceiling and a platform begin forming too. His white kurta turns into a bandhgala and the wind leaves a safa on his head. It is hard to tell the time. It might be the twenty-first century from where he has walked but, inside that small abandoned temple, it is sixteenth century Mewar.
Rupal was sitting at her father’s shop as Bhan Singh had come to look for kumkum.
“But you are a man!” Rupal’s friend Minal had made an astute observation.
“It is for my mother,” Bhan had smiled.
Rupal had tied the kumkum powder for the man in a packet and while taking the money, made the biggest mistake of looking at his face. Bhan Singh was the colour of evening sand and his sharp moustache sat proudly over his smiling lips. He had fish eyes. Minal had already fallen for him. Rupal turned her face away. She knew in her heart that this face was going to come back to her.
He came again to the shop the next day and then they met near the bank of Gambhiree. The river watched them as they stood awkwardly.
And then others watched them–those who had no business watching them. People began talking about caste, economic status and everything else but love. They had to elope because it was in the script. Bhan Singh and Rupal on a stolen horse, in the wind. They rode until there was sand all around.
Bhan Singh spotted a temple. They climbed the stairs to find no priest, no idol inside. They married without God that day in that abandoned temple. It was evening and as passion ebbed, they felt other things like thirst and hunger.
“You stay here, I will get something to eat,” Bhan said and left. Rupal watched him put his shoes on, tie his safa and leave in a hurry. The sun was about to set. As the dust clouds followed his horse, Rupal grew anxious. She regretted not hugging him tightly enough before letting him leave.
“He will be back soon,” she told herself and slept. She soon woke up to his voice but it turned out to be a dream. She walked out and saw the sunrise. He wasn’t back. She thought of setting out in his search but her weakness got the best of her. She sat leaning against the temple wall.
Far off in the desert, Bhan Singh lay dead. He had lost his way and the unforgiving terrain had led him to a camp of decoits. They looted his money and stabbed him in the stomach before leaving him to die in a pit. He lay there asking forgiveness to Rupal.
“What if comes back and doesn’t find me?” Rupal quelled the thoughts of setting out in his search. His instructions were carved in stone for her. She sat, waiting, dying.
He sees her now. He tells her why he couldn’t come back. She holds him. He asks for forgiveness and her eyes shed tears that fall on sand and wet it. It begins raining in the desert and they stand inside the temple. The temple is lit with the blue of their spirits. They are not hungry or thirsty anymore. The taanpura tunes rise from the petrichor.
Far away, in a 2 BHK apartment in Delhi, a woman named Minal is pacing anxiously across the hall.
“You had called, what happened?” her neighbour Radha Sharma enters the living room with concerned look.
“It is about Bhanu, my husband. He had set out to get vegetables in the evening yesterday and he hasn’t come back yet,” Minal said.