Did such a world really exist? Would anybody ever believe that they had travelled into the nether regions of the Patala-Lok, and returned back alive?
They felt they had been in an ethereal vehicle of the gods, which had shown them the Maya of life. It was a gift from Lord Krishna who had gone down into the earth with them and brought them back to earth. He had made sure that they would not die.
When they re-emerged on earth, they were sure – Krishna had granted them the boon of rebirth. In memory of that moment of redemption, they decorated the wall of their Bhunga. They started by building their home again, made a conical roof with dry grass, plastered the inside walls with a mixture of clay, cow dung, and ash. Then, with small rolls of clay, they made images – inlaid with mirrors, beads, shells and a decorative floral edge, painted with white lime and touched with dots of vermilion and yellow turmeric.
They composed the clay work on the wall, in three layers. The uppermost layer was the moment before the earthquake, the second showed their descent into earth and the third was mount Meru, rising upward and bringing them back to earth.
Only when you looked closer, did you realise that it was different from the work they had done in the past.
It told a story.
Their story of the earthquake...
It was a series of coincidences.
The children were playing outside, under a tree.
The men were away in the fields.
And, the seven women of the same family, were in their Bhunga.
All seven were wearing similar red chunris, black ghaghras, embroidered kanjaris, thick silver anklets, circular gold earrings, huge nose rings tied to a strand of hair, black bead necklaces and enormous ivory bangles on their fine wrists.
They also had similar tattoo marks on their chins, cheeks, hands and feet – dots, flowers, scorpions, and a little Krishna on the right arm. The only difference between them was that each woman had the name of her husband tattooed on her left arm.
The women were sitting on the floor of their kitchen and rolling chapattis, puris and other snacks, in preparation of a pilgrimage to Dwarka. It was a trip of thanks for the fulfillment of a wish for each woman. None of them wanted to reveal the wish. But, they all looked happy; they had received what they wanted, and were singing a bhajan in praise of Krishna.
Their voices matched, shrill and high, as they sang in unison.
When they first felt something like a wave rising in the womb of the earth, they were worried. Yet, they did not stop singing. Even if their eyes betrayed their worry, they did not express anything. They kept on singing, hoping that the tremor was because of Kaliya, the cobra, who had swallowed Krishna’s ball with which he was playing. They were sure that the infant god would jump into the turbulent waters and harness the serpent. And so, they kept on singing in praise of Krishna.
When the utensils fell from the shelves, and the kitchen started moving as though it had a life of its own, they sat still and did not move, assuming it was just the magic of Krishna’s Lila. They were afraid, but did not look at each other lest they each read the fear in the other’s eyes, and did not stop the rhythmic movement of their rolling pins.
As the tremors increased, they started sinking into the earth. Their hands were still moving in unison, even with the trembling beneath. But, they did not move, as they did not want to disturb Mother Earth.
The earth and their hands seemed to be moving together, to a strange rhythm. They had transformed into Krishna’s Gopis and he was drawing them deeper into the nether regions. They were sure that Krishna would not allow any harm to come to them. He would save them. Krishna would carry their home on his little finger, in the same way that he had carried Mount Govardhan on the night of the deluge.
They were sure, he would save them.
They had stopped breathing. Perhaps they were already in Dwarka. Soon, they would hear Krishna’s flute. He would appear, lift their floating kitchen on his little finger and place it back on earth. It was only when the kitchen stopped its descent into the earth did they recognise that something had happened. Because the light had changed.
They were not in Dwarka, but in the womb of the earth.
Slowly, as they descended into the earth, the light was changing colour. They could still see each other’s shadows in the reflected light of the mirror-work on the walls and their blouses. They had made their home, plastering it with clay, decorating the inner walls with relief work, embedding mirrors in the clay. They had made creepers, flowers, borders and episodes from Krishna’s childhood. They could see each other in the subdued light. It was comforting to be with each other, sitting like birds on a branch, distant, yet united in song. They continued their song. Hour after hour, their words and tunes were getting weaker but they knew that if they wanted to live, they had to keep on singing. Song was their life force. They were sure that if they stopped singing, they would die.
The army was searching for seven women who had disappeared into the earth. The ground was uneven and the rescue team did not know where to look for them. A wrong move and the women could be hurt. They treaded softly on the rubble, used machines and sniffer dogs.
Suddenly, one of the machines caught a distant sound. The dogs stopped where the Bhunga had stood. A sound surfaced, like the tune of a flute, a murmur, a stanza, a verse, a song.
The rescue team brought out the women. They appeared like sculptures, frozen in time, covered with dust, sitting cross legged, rolling pins in hand and singing, dazed, devoted, sublime.
Esther David has received the Sahitya Akademi Award and is the author of The Walled City, East West Books 1997 and Westland Books, 2009; By The Sabarmati, Penguin Inda, 2000; Book Of Esther, Penguin Viking, 2002; Book Of Rachel, Penguin Viking, 2006; My Father’s Zoo, Rupa, 2007; Shalom India Housing Society, Women Unlimited, 2007; The Man With Enormous Wings, Penguin India, 2010; Ahmedabad: City With A Past, HarperCollins India, 2016.
Known as an Indian-Jewish author, she writes about the Jewish ethos in India. Her novels have been translated into French, Gujarati, Marathi and researched by scholars from India and abroad. She edited an anthology of Earthquake Stories in Gujarati and co-authored a chapter on Jewish costumes for India’s Jewish, Heritage, Ritual, Art And Life-Cycle. She has received the Hadassah Brandeis Research Award to document the Jews of Gujarat.
Trained as an artist in Vadodara, she illustrates her novels, and has taught sculpture, art history and art appreciation at design institutions of Ahmedabad. She was chairperson, Gujarat State Lalit Kala Akademi and has worked in the area of Outsider Art for many years. She was art critic and columnist for Times of India and Ahmedabad Mirror, where she wrote about art, food and city-centric issues.