I was born into royalty. And all of my life I wondered what fascinated people so much about it. Was it the elephants, or the jewelry, or the palaces, the lifestyles, the concubines, the mustaches, what? As a child I remember hating being called a princess, because it made me different. When I was older, I loved it, because it got me friends. When I was in college and more politically aware, I despised the very notion of it. Older still, I was just nostalgic for its people and rituals that inhabited my life.
Now I believe that royalty fascinates because it exemplifies the extraordinary life. In that sense then, I am a royalist. In that sense then, Nani is a true blue, the genuine article.
She was born in the foot of the Himalayas, 30 kilometers shy of Lumbini where Buddha was born, like him in a small little kingdom, later called princely states. She married at an appropriate age into the ancient kingdom of Madhupur in Orissa, situated at the spot King Ashok founded Buddhist monasteries some thousands of years ago. Here she became Rani and gave birth to two children, my uncle and my mother. Nani’s life was fairly coffee table bookish. Bismillah Khan played at her wedding, rose petals were thrown at her during public appearances and all that jazz. That part of her history came out in my period novel, the Secret of Sirikot.
For me this was not extraordinary. What was extraordinary was this-
Like Meerabai, her tryst with Lord Krishna and an unmitigated desire for Moksha started when she was still a child. It was a desire so powerful that it attracted and manifested in the purdah riddled confines of the zenana the physical presence of a saint from the Himalayas. The path that he had to offer required her to withstand unbearable pain. Do you have the courage to bear the karmic debts of thousands of lives in one? He asked.
Yes, she said.
And so it was.
Her journey began with the immediate passing of her guru. India’s independence and the abolition of princely states and the privy purse followed. In a hidebound patriarchal society, next she became a young widow. One by one she was divested from all that she clung to, till she was completely destitute.
Her son, her last symbol of earthly salvation succumbed to disease and death before her eyes. She lived her last days with her daughter. From her perspective, it sealed her fate as a social pariah. Seven years ago, already of frail bones, while sitting during meditation, she snapped her thighbone into two. A broken thighbone, war doctors claim is one of the most painful experiences the human body can bear.
But she did not die. She lived seven more terrible years. A broken thing lying on that bed. But her faith in her master never wavered. Not once. What I admired about her was that unlike me, she was never assailed by doubt. Not once. In spite of the sickness in her room, there was a fragrance in the air. And though her skin tore like Egyptian papyrus, it shone like golden light.
Many believed that a person as flawed as Nani was not making spiritual progress. She was imperious, arrogant and still attached to social dogma. That her faith in her master and desire for liberation was another aspect of her flawed obstinate nature. But I believed that her spirit had nothing to do with her physical personality, her mind or her intellect. I believed that her spirit was liberated the moment she made an undying commitment for liberation. The rest was mere detail, history waiting to play itself out.
Maybe that was why in spite of our many differences I always felt her love reach out to me across the void. I matched her malice for malice, spite for spite, but she was a warmth in my heart I carry all the time.
Last summer, when I entered her room to say bye, she surprised me by turning around to hold my hand.She had stopped recognizing people and speaking some years ago but she said my name, just the way she used to. I told her I would come again in October to see her. It was in the silence that followed that I knew October would not come any more.
In the fourteen day death ritual that took place, my brother did the last rites her departed son should have done. In the lake behind the Jaggarnath Mandir in Puri, in the shrine of the ancestors, her disembodied soul was kept alive in a flame in an earthen pot. For thirteen days my brother held her, while she crossed the river of death in the nether worlds. Finally he was to take the pot in the middle of the lake and break it under water, to release her soul, so she could cross over to the other side.
They said that if he kept his eyes open under water when he broke the pot, he would get a last glimpse of the departed soul. He didn’t. But sitting on the steps of the lake, stunned by the silence of the afternoon sun and the magnitude of Nani’s moment, I did.
She rose from the water and stepped on the shore like a goddess in calendar art. Her wet clothes clinging to her body, her black lustrous hair streaming down her back, her skin shining like a million iridescent diamonds, so heart breaking beautiful.
Again, she turned, this time to bless me and tell me all is good. And then she left, never to look back again.
And in that confluence where her faith merges with mine, where lunar mansions reflect an inner sun, gems shine brighter and beauty is grander, I believe Nani walks the red carpet.
I just hope that when they fit out her tiara, a tiara fit for royalty, they know that emeralds are her favorite.