By Vikram Balagopal
There were nights Divya would switch off from the world and plant herself in the desolate courtyard behind her building to vape. There she would venerate the stars framed by the tickling fronds of the coconut trees, imagining the tails of vapour rising and up to them from her mouth and nostrils to be her essence escaping into the great void beyond.
Life is too dreary, she chimed in her head. There is no mystery to it. We are all suckers and conmen in the end. That is our pact with society, for it to function. So it was, that at her young age, she had lost her faith in humankind. With her self-imposed exile she found some peace in solitude. And in her solitude, on one of those warm, smoky nights, arms and body coated in odomos, she dreamt a figure had roamed into her view of the stars. Female in its nakedness, gleaming in the moonlight, the figure stood on her wall. Their eyes locked, and she realized this was no dream.
Divya was a sculptor. Her life had begun as a prodigy at the age of nine. She recalled very little that came before. All that she knew and understood were the oohs and aahs the adults would make at her sketches. She recognized that her drawings were very different from those by the other children though she did not yet understand why. As a result of her ability her life became a series of performances making drawings for spectators. Her father held the reins at this point, having seen a good thing in his daughter’s ability. ‘Prodigy,’ they called her, on the TV programs where she drew for the cameras. Speaking with strangers under harsh lights. And at home her mother and siblings would sit around and play the same program on the TV for her to watch herself. But all she had wanted to do was to draw.
People insisted it was her passion. I am passionate about art, she came to tell herself proudly, and parrot it to the others. There was a well-rehearsed speech on her passion she made in the interviews for various art schools around the world. The prodigy was welcome. The prodigy would get a scholarship. It felt natural that success would follow and her shows. That her paintings would sell. But she soon grew bored of two dimensions. There was no more challenge there in getting the oohs and aahs. She started painting pottery. She then created the pots herself. Prodigy they hailed. Ooh. Aah. She began to sculpt with her fingers. Ooh. Aah. All she had to do was follow her instincts and they would find the way along an arm down to a hand, the fingers, the wrinkled skin at the knuckles, the throbbing veins, the sinews of muscle flexing. Ooh, Aah. Clay became too easy. Too soft. She procured a block of marble and chiselled away the space to get to the form beneath. There was no undoing a mistake in marble. A misplaced chisel strike was forever. A blemish to a statue’s nose was a blemished nose. A finger breaking off meant a four-fingered hand. Figure after figure was cast aside as she pushed a little too hard or struck the chisel at a mistaken angle impacting a natural fault in the stone resulting in weeks and sometimes months of work becoming a heap of failure. Finally, She had found the limit of her abilities. And finding herself at that limit, to recognize that she had one at all drove her close to madness.
She had never known failure. So in that defeat she reverted to painting. Her shows sold but no longer with the oohs and aahs. No longer was she hailed extraordinary, visionary. Even when she tried to sketch, a talent that had come so naturally to her all her life, now it felt as difficult as algebra. These were the same fingers and she had the same head and mind. She understood what was needed, where the next line had to go, but where was the thrust? Her sketches were good, very good, but she knew that she had lost her greatness somewhere along the way. Was it the curse of success? Was it some secret formula that she had known and forgotten or was it the dark truth that perhaps she had simply changed?
She dared not return to marble. In a quest for that other medium that might rekindle her lost passion she chanced upon metal. It was harder than stone and yet her 5 foot 2 inch body could tame it. Make it bend to her will. There was an excitement in that. And in her travels for research she chanced upon a secret metal, thought lost to the ages. It became her secret to keep and that was the real reason she hid herself away in this lakeside go down she had converted into a forge and a workshop. To work at her metal. Once again earn those oohs and aahs that in her past life as a prodigy had come with so little effort. Now it took all the effort in the world. Because she found she was lacking something fundamental. Her passion (her need) to create. Without it, who was she? She asked herself that question most nights reclined in the canvas chair, gazing up at the stars.
And enter the naked woman on her wall. Their eyes were locked a long time. To Divya it felt like she was being taken stock of by a panther she had disturbed in its prowl. Was she in any danger, she wondered? Was this woman a burglar, or sneaking out to meet her lover? Or was this some deranged loon? And yet she found her hand rising. Her wrist flicked in a gesture to the stranger to join her on the ground. The woman bent down, the artist in Divya catching the flex of muscles on her thighs and shoulders as she crept off the wall, lowering herself until she clung on by a single hand. She raised her feet and was almost squatting on the surface of the wall like frog. Then launched herself backward.
The naked woman lunged through the air, and all Divya did was blink. The next instant the woman vanished, mid-air. Divya held a vacant stare. Her heart was racing two hundred beats a minute. This was no ordinary woman she had encountered tonight. So the folk tales were true, she confided in herself. She had been visited by the goddess of the lake.
Every night the next week, Divya waited in the courtyard, until finally on the ninth day she glanced up from refilling her vaping liquid and found the same female figure perched atop the wall. Spluttering on the first inhalation of vapour Divya sat up startled in her canvas chair. After the fit of coughing passed, she hurriedly looked up again. Did she miss her? No, the woman was still there. Divya sat back and let out a sigh. Then they studied one another a while.
‘My name is Divya,’ she finally said, sucking at her vaporizer.
With a bemused tilt to her head, the woman on the wall replied, ‘I know. You’re a sculptor.’
It caught Divya off guard. She fought to steady her nerves.
‘What is that metal you work with?’
Divya’s mind was suddenly a blank. She searched desperately for the name, while the spirit carried on, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. The dark surface filled with marvellous light swirling stripes. It’s almost like it’s alive, or a slice of flowing water.’
‘Wootz,’ Divya barked at last.
‘That’s a strange name. I’ve never heard it before.’
Divya exhaled a long stuttering puff. ‘It has a long history.’
‘And with a long history comes many names. The Europeans banned its production in the mid-1800s, and with that the traditional method was lost forever. Even the name Wootz is supposedly the mistranscription of an Anglicized version of the original Kannada word for steel—Ukku. However true wootz is dead.’
She tried to stop there but found herself rambling on, ‘A handful, including myself, have been trying to rekindle its art. I source my ingots from a hobbyist in Salem, much like those that had been shipped from the Indian peninsula to Syria for at least a thousand years. Ukku, Hinduwani, Seric iron, or as it was known by the famous blades it was shaped into in Syria–Damascus steel.’
‘They used to make blades out of it? That must have been something to behold.’
The nights that followed were whiled away, seated in their respective spots, Divya in her canvas chair and the woman on the wall, discussing anything from theories about the universe, to music, books and movies. But some nights, the spirit would arrive and she would hardly say a word, simply lying there, gazing starward, one leg dangling off the side. Divya would pretend to be as involved in the sky but through the drifting curls of vapour she could not help but observe this strange being visiting her night after night. Was there a reason for her coming?
Then one night, exhausted from pounding the hammer at work, Divya forced herself to stay alert by sipping a cup of strong black Arabica. So by the time the spirit finally arrived, Divya’s head was swimming. Her eyelids fluttered to catch a glimpse of the spectral vision sauntering along the wall. At her usual spot she sat down, swinging her feet, humming. She noticed Divya getting up from her canvas chair and going into the flowerbed beside the courtyard. Ten seconds later, Divya returned with a short stepladder, half-dragging it to the wall. The spirit stopped humming, watching Divya unfold it. It proved too short for her to climb up onto the wall. And yet, with each wrung Divya climbed, entranced by the feet dangling there within her reach, she smiled at the whimsical notion that, of course, a spirit would not shave her legs. Haltingly, her arms rose skyward. Her chest pressed up against the coarse brick wall covered in patches of green algae and an occasional slug.
The spirit did not move, merely peeping down past her knees at the approaching fingers trembling in anticipation. They hesitated an inch from her ankle. Paused. Then stroked her skin. Divya’s head cocked, marvelling at making contact with a goddess, caressing the two hanging feet, a thumb grazing the grit from the bottom of those divine soles raining it down on to her own sweaty cheeks. She stroked up the ankles, reaching up to the calves. The tips of her fingers could only go so far. Balancing on her tiptoes atop the ladder, she nuzzled the feet, rubbing her cheeks over a top arch, rubbing her face, her nose, her lips against it, kissing at the skin that felt so real. You are real, she was thinking. I can feel you. You exist only on my wall, for me. You’re real, only to me! Tears sprang from her clenched eyelids, smearing against the spirit’s foot. Save me, she prayed.
Then her right hand slowly lowered to her side. She reached behind her and brought out an object she had tucked into the waist of her pants. And finally, there, with glassy eyes admiring her goddess’ face in the moonlight, she made an offering of a knife she had fashioned from wootz.
It was a ceremony she would repeat on the nineteenth of every month, presenting the goddess with a new blade. The smile she received was the only benediction she sought. And it carried on. Until the tenth time, when after the spirit had leaned down from the wall and accepted the latest offering, she observed Divya was still holding an arm out to her. To be pulled up onto the wall. There was no hesitation on the part of the spirit. She reached down and pulled Divya up. And for a while Divya sat quietly beside her, surveying the view from there. Then she turned, straddling the wall between her legs. The spirit echoed her movements, and facing one another there,Divya wondered at the chance of fate that had connected them. She yearned to touch and be touched. To explore and be explored. She held out her hand. Her fingers skated between the goddess’ breasts, down her stomach. They flicked around the divine navel. Swimming deep in one another’s eyes they leant forward meeting in a kiss, tasting, sucking at lips and tongues, licking inside the other’s mouth. Divya’s chest heaved. Her mouth rolled down the spirit’s jawline to her neck. Her hands began to shake with a hunger, grabbing, stroking. Furiously the first time, calmer the second, painfully the third, they made love that night on the narrow brick wall that had bridged their existence.
The next night, Divya waited in tremulous anticipation, but the woman did not come. Nights wore on to weeks, and she stared alone at the sacred wall, reluctantly coming to terms with the possibility that the spirit might never visit her again. And yet she knew in her heart that, wherever she might be, she would never stop waiting, hoping to meet the spirit again. Because as she dove head first into creating new work, she had been blessed with passion once more. And now, recalling those prior nights of imploring the stars, she saw that the goddess had been their reply.
Vikram Balagopal is the author of the award-winning graphic novel Simian (HarperCollins India, 2014) and the fantasy novel Savage Blue (HarperCollins India, 2016).