Love and Curses
The moon spinning a silvery dream
Made the entire forest gleam.
It cast a beautiful magical glow
On the verdant forest floor.
Where the pair of tigers lay
Exhausted after a bout of play
Purring deep inside their throats
A happy loving contented note
It touched the pool in which they did swim
Lazily stretching out their limbs
Oblivious of the dawning day
And evil forces coming their way
In a cocoon of magical dreams
Everything so perfect seemed
And as the moonbeams on them shone
This night, this time was theirs to own.
Amber stood quietly by her mother’s grave. She felt so terribly weary. The last few months had been exhausting. And now that it was over, all that she wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep. But there were all the people who had attended the funeral to be seen to. As they came up to her to offer her their condolences, she murmured, “Please join us back at the house for some refreshments.”
Her aunt Philomena, watched her as she stood there. She was just 22 but had a quiet air of maturity about her. Naturally slim, in the last year she had lost even more weight. But that only served to highlight her beautiful amber eyes which had earned her name. Her long brown hair hung down her back in a pony tail. Philo nodded approvingly. “Yes, the girl was behaving exactly as she should,” she thought. “It wouldn’t be difficult looking after her.” Amber was the daughter of her youngest sister, Joyce. Joyce had lost her husband when Amber was just a babe of two. She had never remarried, devoting all her time to bringing up her daughter.
A year ago, Joyce had been diagnosed with cancer. By that time it was already too late to do anything about it. For a year, Amber had to look after her mother whose condition was deteriorating daily. Though she was in her final year of college, she never begrudged her mother the time that she had to spend at home, away from her friends. In fact once her exams were over, she hardly stepped out of the house except for those occasions when her mother had to be admitted to the hospital.
The last couple of months Amber had practically lived in the hospital with her mother. It hurt to see her in so much pain. Yet even in her pain, Joyce was more concerned about her daughter. “What is going to happen to you baby? How will you manage once I am gone? Who will look after you?”
“Don’t talk like that mamma. Nothing is going to happen to you. You will get alright, you’ll see.”
But they both knew that it was not true. Day by day, Joyce grew weaker and weaker and was in so much pain, that there were times when Amber actually prayed with tears running down her face, “Jesus please! Don’t let my mamma suffer so much. She has already gone through so much. Please please make her better one way or the other. But take away this pain. I can’t bear it. Or at least give me some of it. But please please take away the pain from my mamma.”
Finally Amber’s prayers were answered and Joyce was now at peace, her pain taken away forever, lying in a quiet cemetery in their ancestral village of Madkhol.
Back at the house the conversation went round and round in circles.
“Poor thing,” said old Mrs. D’souza shaking her head. “So young and to die like that! And here we are still hale and hearty at our age.” (a smugness evident in her voice)
“But what is that child going to do now?” asked Aunty Agnes. “She is too young to live here alone.”
“Don’t worry Aunty Agnes. She will stay with me,” said Philomena. “After all I am her Godmother.”
“Thank God you live next door Philo,” said Aunty Agnes. “And how old is she now? About 21? 22? We should see about getting her married soon. After all how long will you take the burden of looking after her?”
“Aunty, can we not talk about all this today?” replied Philomena, “give the poor child some time to grieve at least.”
Standing hidden behind the bougainvillea shrubs, Amber closed her eyes on the hot tears that threatened to spill once more. She felt an unreasonable surge of anger towards all the people talking about her. “How dare they!” she thought. How dare they decide what was going to happen to her! She was no longer a kid. Hadn’t she proved it by the way she had looked after her mother and shouldered all the responsibilities without asking anyone for help? So now why did they suddenly seem so over bearingly concerned?
However, she immediately felt guilty for thinking like this, especially where Aunt Philo was concerned. Her godmother had been a source of strength. Making sure that there was always food in the house; insisting on spending the afternoons at the hospital so that Amber could get some rest; and yet she never impinged on the precious little time that Joyce and Amber had together. And just because this was her mother’s funeral there was no reason for the old women to behave differently. Hadn’t she seen similar behaviour and heard similar conversations at so many other funerals in the past? In fact she knew of instances where the initial matchmaking talks had actually started at a funeral.
“How are you? I haven’t seen you for so long. How is that granddaughter of yours? She must be quite grown up now no?”
“Yes. She is twenty two now. She finished college last year. We are looking for a nice boy for her.”
“Arrey, I’ve got the perfect boy for her. My daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister’s son. He is working in Mumbai. Earning a good salary. If you want, I can talk to them.”
So now Amber quietly escaped from all the well meaning aunts and went up to her room. She meant to rest for a few minutes and then go back downstairs, but when her aunt came up to search for her, she found her so fast asleep, that she didn’t have the heart to wake her up.
It was a month later that Amber sat in her Aunt’s living room. She had requested a meeting with both her Aunt and Uncle.
“You can come over anytime. You know that no? Then why do you have to ask?” Philomena sounded hurt.
“I didn’t mean to offend you Auntie,” Amber replied. “It’s just that I need to discuss something important with both you and Uncle.”
Amber knew that her aunt and uncle were upset about the fact that she had chosen to stay alone in her home rather than move into their home.
She had managed to convince her aunt by telling her, “Your house is just next door, Aunty, and I promise I’ll ask you for anything that I need. But just now I need to be alone for some time to deal with everything.”
Now both of them looked at her wondering what the matter was.
“She’s always been such a strange child” thought her aunt, “always so quiet. It’s like she suddenly slips into a world of her own. She has never ever been defiant or demanding, yet when she wants something she is quietly determined and manages to get her way. I wonder what she wants now.”
“Uncle Patrick, Aunty Philo, I want to go away from here.”
“What do you mean go away from here?” asked Philo, “Where do you want to go? Why? Did something happen? Did someone say something to you?”
Amber immediately went up to her aunt and hugged her tightly. “No Godma. No one said anything and nothing has happened. In fact I don’t know how to thank you or tell you how much I love you for the way you and Uncle Patrick have looked after me. You have never let me want for anything and have helped ease the pain of losing mamma so much.”
“Then why? I don’t understand….”
“I don’t know how to put this, because I too don’t understand why I am feeling like this. I just feel that I need to get away from here for some time, maybe study further, work for sometime before the old aunties find some nice boring boy for me to get married to. I want to go somewhere where I won’t miss mamma so much. I want to do something with my life before that. I want to live.”
Patrick and Philomena exchanged glances and by a tacit agreement, Patrick spoke. “Do you have any plans? Have you decided what you are going to do or have you not thought further than the fact that you want to get away?”
“I thought of going to Mumbai and doing some courses there. And also take up a job.”
“What kind of course do you want to do? And what kind of job are you talking about? Where will you stay? How will you pay for it all?” her Uncle was concerned.
“I have spoken to Amanda – you know her- my friend who moved to Mumbai. She has done her fashion designing and now makes wedding gowns on demand. She wants to now get into organising the entire wedding, become a wedding planner and she is looking for someone to help her. In the meantime I will do an event management course myself.”
“And where will you stay? Who will look after you?” asked Philomena with a frown.
“Amanda’s uncle has a three bedroom house at Thane. He is willing to give it to Amanda on rent. So we will use part of the house as the office and use two of the bedrooms and the kitchen as living space. Mandy’s uncle is allowing us to do up the place as we want. We will split the rent 3 ways. One part will go from the business and Mandy and I will pay one part each. It won’t be too much for anyone of us. And don’t worry so much, Aunty, I am grown up now. I can take care of myself and Mandy is there no? We will manage.”
“But what about the money?”
“Mamma had insurance and that claim has come in. So I am quite comfortable. Besides Mandy will be paying me to help her.”
“So if you have already decided, then why tell us?” Philo said in a hurt tone. Amber sighed inwardly. This was what she was afraid of. She knew her aunt was not really angry, but that it was just her concern that was talking.
“This is what I want to do Aunty, but I want your opinion on this as well. I can’t go without your permission. You know that. Now that Mamma is not here, who else can I ask for advice and help?”
“I don’t know…..”
“Please Godma. I promise to take care and if it doesn’t work out I’ll come back. If Melroy could go to the States to study, can’t I go to Mumbai?” asked Amber, talking of Philomena’s son who was at present continuing his studies at Boston.
“Well”, said Patrick clearing his throat, “we can’t really stop you if that is what you want. But at least let your aunt come and settle you in. Let her stay with you for two or three days so that we are reassured that you are okay.”
“Thank you Uncle! I absolutely love you both!”
“Good morning! This is Amber from Confetti, how can I help you? Sure Charlotte, let me see if there is a free slot on Monday. I’m sorry, can we fit you in on Tuesday evening at 4? Alright. Could you give me your phone number please? So we will see you on Tuesday at 4pm. Bye”
“Hi Melissa, is the mauve and pink bouquet ready? Can I send some over to collect it? Thanks!”
“Johnny, there is a booking for the 15th of October. The couple would like to meet you to decide the songs. They will be here tomorrow at 5 pm. Can I schedule your meeting with them for 5.30? And don’t be late.”
Amber quickly and efficiently wrote the details in her planner before going in to meet Amanda in her cabin which was just the enclosed balcony of the flat they rented. It was a three bedroom flat in Thane. The living room and one of the bedrooms were the office. The other two bedrooms were where they lived.
They had created a little reception area near the front door with a couple of desks for the clients to sit and talk to the various vendors like the DJ or the decorator. The walls were cream and pink, with pictures of wedding bouquets and cakes placed here and there.
Amber couldn’t believe that it had been six months ago that they had started “Confetti” as their wedding planning company was called. They had started in January and had actually done a couple of full weddings in May. Initially they used to just get the brides coming in for their wedding gowns and the bridesmaids’ dresses. Slowly once people started getting to know them and with aggressive marketing helped by the fact that there was no other wedding planner for Catholic weddings in Thane, the clientele started trickling in. The trickle looked like it was going to become a small stream by the next wedding season in December, if the number of calls were anything to go by.
“Mandy, the guy, Shardul, who is coming in about the Master of Ceremonies role will be here by 2.”
“Thanks Amber. What does he sound like?”
“I don’t know. Every time I tried to call him he was busy and then he would call back when I was busy talking to someone else. We have only exchanged SMSes.”
“Ok. No problem. Anyway I will be meeting him today.”
It was a few minutes before 2. The door opened. “Good,” thought Amber, “At least he is on time.”
She looked up from her desk and her breath caught in her throat. Before her Shardul seemed equally bemused. He was tall, easily 6’2” tall, a complexion that was more gold than fair, with golden brown eyes. Amber had a sense of déjà vu as she looked at him. “Have I met him before?” she wondered.
“Amber?” he asked as if surprised. “I’m Shardul!”
She looked even more beautiful than he remembered. She looked thinner and it gave her an ethereal look, making her eyes even more poignant.
“I could just stand here listening to his voice!” thought Amber as his deep voice washed over her.
Just then the phone shrilled, bringing her out of her trance.
“Please go in and meet Amanda.” She told Shardul, “she is waiting for you.”
And before he could answer, she picked up the phone and started speaking into it.
Shardul looked at her bent head and debated whether he should talk to her, but then thought the better of it. Since he had waited so long, he could afford to wait for some more time. But it was going to try his patience to the limit. He turned and walked into Amanda’s office.
After he finished the meeting, he sauntered over to Amber’s desk and perched himself on a corner. “Hi, like to go out for some coffee after work?” he asked seemingly casually.
Amber’s heart was doing somersaults and it seemed as if her body had forgotten how to breathe. Once again she had the uncomfortable feeling that Shardul was someone she knew. But that was impossible. She had spent her whole life at Madkhol and she would have surely remembered if she had seen him there.
“Hello! Earth to Amber! Earth to Amber!” she heard Shardul tease her.
“What? I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
“I only asked you if you would like to come out for coffee this evening.”
The tumult of her feelings caused her to answer more sharply than she intended, “I’m sorry. I do not go out with people I barely know. Now if you will excuse me, I have work to do.” And she got up from her seat and went into Amanda’s office.
“How did you get to know about Shardul?” Amber asked Amanda as they had dinner that night.
“He was the MC for a friend’s cousin’s wedding and they said he was good. So when they knew we were looking out for a good MC, they passed on his number. Why?”
“Nothing. Just wondering.” But there was something in the way she said it that made Amanda look at her curiously. Amber fidgeted with her food agitatedly. It was the first time that Amanda had seen her not in control of herself.
“He looks good, doesn’t he?” Amanda smiled.
Amber almost gasped at the sharp spear of jealousy that smote her. What was wrong with her? She had never thought of herself as silly headed enough to fall for a handsome face. But here she was, with her feelings all over the place. Ever so often during the day she had found herself remembering his eyes or shivering involuntarily over the memory of his voice. She had hardly managed to get any work done.
“He’s okay.” She said more sharply than she intended. “And we had better watch out. These handsome types think no end of themselves and create more trouble than they are worth it.”
Amanda just smiled. “What?” asked Amber in irritation. But Amanda just shook her head and continued smiling.
That night Amber dreamt that she was walking on a carpet of soft green grass, in a verdant forest. She experienced a comfortable sense of homecoming. Just as she questioned the feeling, she heard the roar of a tiger. She felt no fear. Instead she felt her pulse race in anticipation as she ran towards the sound. Her heart sang with happiness as her feet flew over the grass.
Suddenly she was brought up short by an invisible barrier. Something was stopping her from going further. She put out her hands, and felt something pushing her back. Yet she could see everything ahead clearly.
Once again she heard the tiger roar, only now it sounded sad, utterly, miserably sad. Just like she was feeling now. She strained against the barrier. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to run towards the sound. Suddenly, the tiger came into view and it looked at her mournfully across the barrier. And with a shock Amber woke up to the realization that the sad eyes that had pierced her soul were the same eyes she had seen earlier that day when Shardul had looked at her.
Once again Amber woke up with tears streaming down her cheeks. She knew she had dreamed of the tiger again. Night after night, for the last week, he had haunted her dreams, with his sad eyes. The urge to reach him was unbearable and the inability to do so was torture. Why did she keep dreaming the same dream over and over again? What did it mean? And was it just a coincidence that it had started the night she met Shardul?
“I’ll probably never know the answer,” she sighed in resignation. “It’s better to concentrate on life rather than dreams and I have to be in the office in half an hour, so I’d better hurry.”
It was about an hour later that Shardul came into the office. He had a meeting with a client. She gave him a curt nod and pointed him to the desk where Linda and Michael were waiting to go through the details of their wedding reception with him. Even though she tried her best not to look in his direction, she felt her gaze stray over to where he was charming Linda and Michael into accepting his ideas for their special evening.
Just then Shardul looked up at her and when she met his eyes, she was reminded of her dream. “Those eyes…,”she thought. Then she gave herself a mental shake and looked away. She was sure with his looks and his gift of the gab, he was used to girls falling for him left, right and centre. But she was not going to be one of those, she thought smugly. She had not come here to waste her time falling in love. She had a job to do. She had goals that she had to achieve. No, there was no way she was going to fall in love and that too not with someone like Shardul.
She stole another glance at him and surprised a desolate expression on his face, which he immediately changed to a practised smile as he turned his attention to the clients.
Amber looked up at the darkening sky. It looked like it would pour. And though it was just 8.30, there was not an auto in sight. She would have to walk to the station to catch an auto. And at this time the queue would be serpentine. It would not be less than an hour before she got one. Glumly, she turned her steps towards the station.
“Hey! Amber!” her heart started thudding – that voice- “Are you going home? I am going that way too. I can drop you if you like.”
Oh God! Did he have to turn up here as well? It was bad enough having to deal with her confusing feelings for him at work. Gritting her teeth, she turned to face Shardul, “No thanks. I can catch an auto.”
“Come on. It’s not as if I am going out of my way to drop you. I am going that way in any case. And you think you’ll get an auto at this time?”
“I’m in no hurry. I can wait.”
“But the rain won’t. Come on don’t make a fuss. I’ll have you home in no time.”
She looked up at the sky and decided it was the lesser of the two evils to get on the bike with Shardul.
“Okay?” he asked her once she was seated and when she replied in the affirmative, rode off.
Amber sat stiffly on the bike, extremely aware of his proximity. It was so tempting to reach out and touch him. She took a deep breath instead and put her hands behind her to hold on to the grab handle bar behind.
Shardul smiled to himself in amusement. “Aren’t you uncomfortable like that?” he asked
“No. Thanks. I am perfectly comfortable.” She replied and added to herself, “or I will be once I am off this stupid bike.”
“So what are you doing in this part of Thane?”
“I have my classes,” she found herself replying.
“I’m doing a course on event management.”
“You have classes every day?”
“No, only on Mondays and Wednesdays.” She answered but immediately wondered why on earth she was telling him all this.
The rain that had threatened had held off and all too soon they reached her building. As Amber got off the bike and turned to thank Shardul, she was once again struck by how familiar he looked; as if she had met him before ; knew him somehow. But that was impossible she knew. She would have definitely remembered meeting someone like him.
“So why do I feel I know you? Have I met you before?” she wondered and was aghast to realise that she had spoken her thoughts aloud.
“What do you think?” replied Shardul hope rising in his heart.
“I don’t think so.” She replied puzzled, “but it seems like I know you. But if I had I would have remembered. No, I’m sure I haven’t met you before.”
The bleak look entered Shardul’s eyes again. “Don’t worry too much about it,” he said, “perhaps you dreamed about me when you were thinking about your prince charming.” And with that he roared off into the night.
“Patience…patience…” Shardul muttered to himself. “It’s only a matter of time now. You have waited so long; what’s a few more months?”
But these few months were going to be the worst of his life, he knew. Somehow till now he had managed to keep a tight hold on his emotions and rein in his despair. But now that the end was near, the wait was almost impossible. What if something went wrong? He couldn’t bear to lose her again. “No, nothing can go wrong this time.” He assured himself, “Hasn’t fate brought her to me this time? I have to believe that things will work out. Nothing and no one is going to come between us again.”
Amber entered the office area of the flat and stopped in surprise. The entire room was decorated with flowers and balloons and a huge banner read “Happy Birthday Amber”. She hardly got over her surprise when everyone started singing, “Happy Birthday to You”, and Amanda carried in a delicious concoction of a cake.
“Oh! Thank you!” stammered Amber not knowing how to react. She had certainly not expected anyone to even remember her birthday, let alone arrange a party for her. She hugged Mandy as tears filled her eyes.
“Hey, you are not supposed to cry on birthdays,” Mandy chided her.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that besides Mamma and Aunty Philo no one really bothered about my birthday before.”
“Awww. Dry those tears and smile. Aunty Joyce would want you to be happy today and you have to thank Shardul for this. He is the one who reminded me that it was your birthday on the 1st of July.”
“Shardul? But how did he know? “
Amanda just shrugged and said, “I wonder where he is today.”
“Are you looking for me?” said Shardul from the door. “I wouldn’t miss today for the world. What are you waiting for? Let’s cut the cake!”
Amber felt herself blushing as she looked at him. “Why does he keep doing these kind of things?” she wondered. “It makes it so difficult to keep my distance. And how on earth did he know it was my birthday?”
After cutting the cake Amanda insisted that she opened her presents. This was the first year that Amber had received so many presents. There was a beautiful turquoise kurti with matching slippers and earrings from Amanda. The rest of the staff had put together a hamper of chocolates.
As she turned towards Shardul, Amber’s heart beat in anticipation, wondering what he had got her.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get you anything much,” he said as he presented her with a bouquet of yellow roses.
“Thanks, how did you know…” “That these are your favourite flowers?” Shardul completed her question. “Magic!” he said putting his hand over his heart.
Flustered, Amber looked away just as there was a knock at the door.
“Courier delivery for Amber D’cruz” said the delivery man and handed her a large flat package.
“For me? Who is it from?”
“There is no return address ma’am.”
Curious to know what it was, Amber carefully opened the present. She did not notice that Shardul was watching her intently, with baited breath.
The paper peeled away and so did the blood from Amber’s face. There on her desk was a magnificent painting of the very tiger she had been dreaming of every night. As she stared at it mesmerised, it glowed as if by magic. It was as if she could see straight into the soul of the tiger! Who ever had painted it had captured the very essence of the awesome being.
“Those eyes…..” she thought as she felt the world spin crazily around her. The next thing she knew was that she was being carried up in strong arms. She kept her eyes shut, fearful of opening them; afraid of what she did not know. She just knew she felt absolutely safe being held in those arms, against that comfortable chest. Once again she experienced a sense of déjà vu.
“I have been held in these arms before! I have been hugged against this chest before!” she thought and opened her eyes in sudden panic. She saw Shardul looking down at her with so much concern in his eyes that she could not look away.
“Is she okay? Thank God you reached her before she fell.” Amanda’s voice broke in.
Shardul put her down on one of the sofas. She had a strange urge to cling on to him and tears unexpectedly stung her eyes. Shardul was still looking at her with an unfathomable expression. She felt she was going mad and struggled to hold on to sanity.
“I’m alright” she said to the room in general and sat up determined to get the day back to normal.
“You’re sure you are okay?” Shardul asked.
“So what happened?” Amanda wanted to know.”Do you want the day off? Do you need to go to the doctor?”
“I’m alright! Don’t fuss so! Just give me a moment. I’ll just put these gifts by and be right back.”
After keeping all her other gifts in her room, Amber came back for the painting. Shardul could not help but notice the shiver that went through her as she looked at it again.
“Oh God! What have I done? Should I have kept it away from her? Have I done more harm than good?” he agonised.
He was at his wits end. He didn’t know what else to do. From the time they had met again, Amber had been keeping her distance. He knew she did not remember anything and he could not force her to remember.
He thought that the dreams might jog her memory and bring her closer to him, but she was stubborn and determined to keep him at arm’s length. He had hoped that the painting would evoke some reaction. But he definitely did not expect her to faint like this. And it didn’t seem as if she remembered anything either.
After making sure that Amber was really okay, Shardul took off. He just needed to be alone. It was a good thing he could just zoom off on his bike when these moods got hold of him. A short ride later and he was in the Yeoor hills. Since it was a working day, there was no one around and he could ride his bike right up to the forest. Once he made sure no one was around, he left his bike and went deep into the jungle. The trees felt comfortable though he knew the forest was not as safe as it had been. It had just rained and the earth smelled fresh and clean. For a while he just prowled through the forest, taking comfort in the little space that nature had still held on to.
“It ‘s so tough” he said to himself. “being with her everyday and yet not being able to tell her anything. Not being able to hold her. Not being able to forget, while she cannot remember. This must be the worst curse in the world.”
He could still hear the hysterical voice screaming at him, “You killed my love to save yours. I curse you with all the pain in my heart that you will lose the very love you want to save. But not to death, no that is too easy. I curse you that you will never be able to forget your love while she will never remember you. You will love her through the centuries with the same intensity as you do now. But she will never be yours. She is doomed like me and she will remain in her human form through all her lives.”
The memory of that day was so painful that he let out a terrible roar of pain, which resounded in the forests and caused the people in the village nearby to wonder at the sound.
Amber placed the picture of the tiger near the wall. “Tomorrow I must put up some nails to hang it up,” she thought. “For tonight it can remain down here.
That night she dreamt again. But this time the dream was different. She saw a young tiger and tigress playing in the forest. They were so happy as they gambolled about. The tigress looked back at the tiger as if to challenge him and then ran off to a clump of trees. He sprinted after her and pinned her to the ground, pretending to bite her. Managing to push him off she gave a growl that sounded suspiciously like a laugh and darted away again. They continued with their game for some time till they finally tired of it and walked off into the forest.
Suddenly she was awake. She was now in her room but she was not alone. The tiger from the painting was spread out next to her on her bed. For some strange reason she was not afraid. It seemed so right for him to be there. She turned towards him and cuddled against his warm body. The rumble of a roar deep inside his chest was oddly comforting and as she fell off to sleep she thought he caressed her cheek with one of his great paws.
The next morning, she woke up with a start. Had the tiger really come alive? She looked at the picture and heaved a sigh of relief. The tiger was safely in the frame, though he did look as if he was smiling today.
“Go on girl!” Amber scolded herself. “What is wrong with you? Get a grip on yourself. Tigers do not come alive out of pictures.”
But she had to admit, that it was very strange that someone had given her a painting of the exact same tiger that had been haunting her dreams and that the tiger should have the same eyes as the person she met on the same day that she started having these weird dreams. Was there any connection? How was Shardul related to it all? Or was it just her brain that was trying to connect things that were not connected and it was all a coincidence?
No nearer to an answer, she got ready for work. She had her classes to attend to today as well and had no time for stuff that didn’t make sense.
That evening, she found Shardul waiting for her outside her classes. “Come on,” he said, “I’ve come to take you home.”
“But why? I can quite easily catch a bus or go by auto.”
“After that fright you gave us yesterday? No way. Come on now. Don’t waste time.”
“Like you were so worried about me that you disappeared for the rest of the day.”
“So you missed me.”
“No I didn’t”
“Then how did you know I was not there?”
“Aargh”, she growled to herself in irritation. And then realised that they were on the road and her hands were on Shardul’s shoulders. At the same time as she was wondering how to remove them without being too obvious, she felt as though instead of holding on to Shardul, she was holding the tiger’s shoulder.
“How fanciful can one get! I’ve got tigers on the brain!” she muttered.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. Just talking to myself.”
“Tigers have that effect on you?” Shardul teased.
“What? What did you say? Why tigers?” Amber almost screeched.
“Chill! You just said you have tigers on the brain and yesterday after seeing that painting, you conked out. What is it with you and tigers?”
“I’ll tell you when I figure it out, okay? And thanks for the ride home.”
“What are doing tomorrow morning? I know the office is closed on Thursdays.”
“Want to come for a ride? See a bit of Thane?”
“I don’t know…..I don’t think so…..”
“How long have you been here? At least 6 months? And what have you seen of the place. I’ll pick you up in the morning at 6. We’ll go for a ride, have breakfast at this place I know and have you back in a couple of hours.”
“Okay.” To her horror, Amber found herself agreeing. But before she could take back her words, Shardul had sped off.
That night at dinner, Amber confessed to Amanda, “I’ve done something really stupid.”
“That must be a first.” Mandy teased her, “the sensible practical Amber doing something silly?”
“Yes,” said Amber glumly, “I agreed to go out with Shardul tomorrow.”
“And that is stupid because?”
“ I don’t even know him well enough.”
“Hmmm. And where are you going?”
“For a bike ride. At 6 in the morning”
“Are you serious? OMG girl, you have got it bad!”
“Shut up Mandy, tell me I shouldn’t go.”
“What are you scared of? Him or yourself?”
“Why would I be scared of myself?”
“Because maybe you like him more than you let on?”
“Of course not! I don’t……,” Amber trailed off. “Oh hell! Do you think he knows?” she hid her mortified face in her hands.
“Relax! I doubt he knows.”
“But you knew!”
“Babes, I have been your best friend for ages. I know you. I can see how you look at him when you think he isn’t looking at you. But don’t worry, he also looks at you all the time.”
“Yes, he does!”
“OMG! Amanda, I can’t go tomorrow! Please call him up and tell him that I am not well or something and not to come to pick me up.”
“Hey, do your own dirty work. I refuse to tell lies for you and what is the harm in going for a ride? Just chill and enjoy tomorrow.”
“Chill and enjoy tomorrow? How can I chill and enjoy tomorrow? What if I say or do something stupid! What will he think of me? Oh God! What can I do?” Amber spoke to the painting of the tiger. And here I am talking to a painting! I am surely going mad!” she said as she turned off the light and went to sleep.
She didn’t see the huge smile the tiger had on its face as she switched off the light.
Once again Amber dreamt of the forest, but this time there was only one tiger, sprawled royally on the ground. At a little distance from him sat a young girl, painting. The face of the girl seemed a blur, yet Amber felt that she knew her well. Her hair was the same colour as Amber’s but that was all that Amber could make out. The girl stepped back from the painting and Amber gasped in surprise as she saw that the painting was the same one she had in her room.
“There!” the girl laid down her brushes. “It’s done. Now whenever I have this I will have you with me; even if you are far away”. She bent forward and kissed the painting and it miraculously started to glow. “Now a part of you and me is there in that painting forever.”
Then picking up the painting, the girl and the tiger walked away into the jungle.
The scene changed. This time Amber found herself at the edge of the forest. She could see a village in the distance. The two tigers stood looking at the village.
“I want to see the village, Sherwyn,” said the tigress
“It could be dangerous,” the tiger answered.
“We won’t go into the village. I just want to go near enough to see what it is like.”
“Tora, we can’t go like this. The people will get frightened. And there is no saying what they might do in their fear. ”
“So we change!” Tora shrugged. And Amber saw the two tigers before her change into human beings. Although the faces of the humans were a blur, she realised that the girl was the same person who had painted the tiger.
They went towards the village . There was a clump of trees just outside the village, they stopped there and climbed up one of the trees. From there they had a clear view of the village. They sat there for a while, watching the children playing and the women going about their daily chores. Some of the men were in the field working while the older ones sat around an old peepal tree discussing various things.
“Come on, let’s go back. There is something scary about this place.” said Sherwyn.
“Okay. Race you back!” replied Tora and they both raced off towards the forest. Sherwyn was much faster and he reached the forest far ahead of Tora. Tora was still running towards the forest when a young man on his way back to the village, spotted her. He had never seen anyone so beautiful or graceful in his life and all he could think of was that he had to make her his. Just then someone called out to him from the village and he turned to answer. When he turned back to where the girl had been there was no one there.
Amber woke up in panic, feeling danger all around her. But when she opened her eyes, there was the tiger, lying next to her. She burrowed close to its comforting presence and slept peacefully for the rest of the night.
The alarm rang at 5.30. Amber sleepily reached out to put it on snooze when she remembered she had to go out with Shardul. She jumped out of bed and got ready hurriedly. Exactly at 6, Shardul called her and asked her to come down. The world was still dark, sleepy as they set out. Going past the Upvan lake, she felt she was in a magical world. The air around them was a misty cloud, slightly damp, but wonderfully cool. The feel of the breeze in her hair and the mist in her face was exhilarating. She could make out the boundary of the lake and the lights around seemed to split into a myriad of colours. Somewhere far away in the distance, a bird warbled a morning song. But here in this moment of time, it was just the two of them, surrounded by magic.
They turned to go up into the hills. The forest sweet smelling and fresh. A few people were out for their early morning walk. Going past all of them, Shardul went right up, past a little stream and suddenly turned off the road.
“Where are we going?” asked Amber in surprise. “Aren’t we supposed to keep to the path for safety.”
“There is a place I want to show you. Do you trust me?”
Amber thought it over for a moment and realised that she did trust him absolutely. She just knew he would never do anything to hurt her, ever. She did not know how she knew this. She just knew. So she nodded and said, “Yes, I do.”
Shardul came to the clearing in the forest , which he had sort of claimed for his own. It was totally hidden by the forest around it and was a haven of peace. The thick wall of trees around, the soft green grass underneath and the blue sky above, made it a beautiful world of its own.
They just sat there side by side on the grass, fingers linked taking in the quietness of the morning. The peace entered Amber’s heart and soothed it. The confusion of the past few days disappeared and she felt content.
Shardul sat next to her, letting her soak in the peace, knowing that the next few days would be traumatic for her. He wanted to give her this time of quietness before she remembered what he could not forget. It would be full moon in a few days and then it would be decision time. Would she be willing to remember? Would she believe? As he pushed the thoughts away from his mind, he realised that he need the peace as much as she did.
Kiraat could not get the girl out of his mind. For the next two days, he constantly thought about her. So much so that he did not pay attention to anything around him.
“What are you thinking about so much? Is something bothering you?” asked his fiancé Maya. He just gave her an irritated look and walked away. His family and Maya’s had known each other for ages and their marriage had been decided in their childhood itself. Now that they were old enough, the preparations to get them married were on in full swing. Kiraat could not care one way or the other. He knew he had to get married and Maya was someone who knew him and would not expect him to be attentive to her all the time. He much preferred to spend his time hunting in the forest.
Maya on the other hand had always loved Kiraat. She believed that the sun rose and set on him and nothing he did could be wrong. She was thrilled about the wedding preparations and had been talking to Kiraat about the clothes and jewellery her mother had brought for her. But he seemed to be rather preoccupied the last couple of days.
Maya did not grudge Kiraat his time in the forest. He was after all born in a family of hunters. He needed to hunt. She on the other hand was born in a family of magicians and medicine men. She found it perfectly natural to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and learn magic, which she used to cure people. If the need arose, she could perform curses as well, but her grandmother had cautioned her against doing so.
Now as she watched Kiraat going into the jungle. She had never seen him so focussed or determined. It was as if he was on a mission. She had a gut feeling that something was not quite right and so she decided to follow him.
The light of the full moon streamed into the room. Amber decided to keep the window open. She smiled at the painting and whispered, “Goodnight Sherwyn,” before going to bed.
Tonight no sooner had she drifted off to sleep than the dreams started. She saw Sherwyn and Tora playing in the forest happily as tigers. After some time they decided to go to the lake for a swim. They had fun swimming about here and there ,when suddenly Tora changed into a human. “Why have you changed?” Sherwyn asked her. “Because I want to swim under water. I can do that better as a human than as a tigress. Why don’t you change too?”
After sometime of frolicking in the water, Sherwyn decided he had had enough of swimming and decided to have a nap.
“Are you coming out now?” he asked Tora.
“Yes. In just a second,” she replied.
He walked out of the water and turned back into a tiger. He had just disappeared from view when Kiraat reached the lake. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the girl getting out of the lake. She seemed to be all alone. He quickly scanned the place to see if there was anyone else around and when he was satisfied that they were indeed all alone, he silently went up to her and grabbed her from behind.
Sherwyn had just entered the shade of the trees when he heard Tora’s scream of terror. Without a thought he bounded back to the lake. He saw the man wrestling Tora to the ground and realised that Tora was too surprised to think of changing back into a tigress. His anger knew no bounds and with a roar that reverberated through the jungle, he attacked the man.
Maya who had heard Tora’s scream had reached the spot just in time to see Sherwyn leap across the clearing on to Kiraat. In a second she realised that the tiger and the woman were magical and that they were mates. Her scream mingled with Sherwyn’s roar as Kiraat fell to the ground. He had had no chance. One slash of sherwyn’s mighty paws had torn him asunder.
When Maya saw Kiraat’s blood soaked body, she screamed out her pain and anger in a dreadful sound. Blinded with pain, she channeled all her grief into her words. She turned to Sherwyn and yelled, “You killed my love to save yours. I curse you with all the pain in my heart that you will lose the very love you want to save. But not to death, no that is too easy. I curse you that you will never be able to forget your love while she will never remember you. You will love her through the centuries with the same intensity as you do now. But she will never be yours. She is doomed like me and she will remain in her human form through all her lives.”
Five hundred years and four days later, Amber awoke from her dream drenched in sweat. She could taste the fear that was Tora’s. She could feel the rage that emanated from Sherwyn. She could hear the shrill voice of Maya as she had hurled the curse. It was as if it had all happened yesterday. She realised that she was not alone in the room. Sherwyn was there with her. She ran to him saying, “Oh you poor thing! How you must be hurting.” She flung her arms around him and stepped back in amazement. When she had hugged Sherwyn, it felt as if she was hugging a human being. Someone who was familiar to her. Her eyes widened as she realised what had happened. “Shardul!” she whispered. “You are Shardul! You are both Sherwyn and Shardul!”
She sat down heavily on the bed and let out a long slow breath. “So why am I in this story? In what way am I connected?”
The tiger just looked at her sadly and helplessly.
“You cannot tell me? Is that it? I have to figure this out myself.”
Suddenly she realised that in all her dreams she had been able to experience every single emotion that Tora had experienced. She could read Tora’s thoughts, feel her fear, feel her despair.
“So,” she said slowly, almost to herself, “If you are Sherwyn and Shardul, Tora is Tora and…….me? Me?” She turned to look at him incredulously.
“That is why I felt I knew Shardul, I mean you. That is why your touch seemed so familiar! Oh my God! Tora and I ? The same person! Now it all makes sense!”
Suddenly she was transported back to the past. She was at the lake when Maya had just cursed them. She now saw that besides Maya, there was an old woman there too and she spoke to Maya.
As Maya sank spent to her knees after spewing out all she had into the spell, she heard her grandmother say, “No child, don’t do that. Whatever you give out comes back to you threefold. It will harm those who love you and those whom you love. It will come back to hurt your family. If you are causing unhappiness to people it will come back to hurt you more. And it wasn’t the tiger’s fault. It was Kiraat’s fault for hurting his mate. Take back your words my child. Take back your words.”
The truth of what her grandmother said sank in and she realised that her emotions had got the better of her.
“I can’t grandmother. I have already sent them out.”
“Then reduce their effect. Put a condition to get out of it.”
The pain in her still wanted them to suffer and so all she could think of was, “ This curse can be broken after 500 years, if the full moon is not more than a week before or after this date, if she recognises both your human and animal form and if she believes in who you are and who she was.”
And now back in Amber’s room, Amber found herself crushed against Shardul in a hug that held all the desperation and frustration of five hundred years. Not that she was complaining she thought with a smile. She felt as if this was what she had been waiting for all her life. She suddenly laughed out loud.
Shardul stepped back and looked at her questioningly. “I’m so happy! I just want to dance!” she said as she whirled away from him across the room. With an answering laugh, Shardul leaped over the bed and reaching Amber, he twirled her around before pulling her up close against him.
Still laughing up at him,Amber nipped him playfully on his chin. With a deep throated growl, he rolled her onto the bed as he silenced her laugh with a kiss.
Amber woke up to a feeling of perfect contentment. She stretched languorously, only to be pulled back into Shardul’s arms. Though he was still asleep, he held her as if he would never let her go.
Purring contentedly, Amber snuggled closer. As she ran her hands over his muscled body, she thought with pride, “Mine! All mine!” She exulted in the freedom she felt to express her love finally and it was only the realisation that Amanda would wonder why she wasn’t at breakfast, that got them out of bed.
Amanda raised her eyebrows in surprise when she saw Shardul at the breakfast table. “Another early morning ride?” she asked and when he just grinned and Amber blushed, she added,”Oh! So that’s the way it is, is it? So that means we are going to see a lot more of you. Well I for one don’t mind. It will be nice to have some eye candy around the place.” And she burst out laughing at the murderous look that Amber gave her. “The two of you sure took your time over this. I was afraid I would lose my bet. “
“What bet?” asked Amber suspiciously.
“About how long it would take the two of you to realise you were in love with each other. Everytime the two of you are in the room together, the air literally sizzles.” Then suddenly serious she turned to Shardul and said, “Amber is my very best friend and she has already had her share of trials. If you hurt her, you’ll have me to deal with. So think twice before you say or do anything to make her cry.”
“Oh God! That means I will have to tie her to my side forever?” Shardul replied, but seeing the way he was looking at Amber, Amanda felt her eyes tear up.
“If you have even the slightest bit of sense you would make sure she can never break free.” she teased them. “ By the way, I hope you choose “Confetti” to organise your wedding. But I wonder who the MC will be.”
She went over to hug her friend and said, “I just hope you will always be as happy as this.”
And they were. They never took happiness for granted. And never seemed to get enough of each other’s company. Though they enjoyed being around their friends, there were times when they took off by themselves for long treks through the hills; and villagers and picnickers in the Yeoor hills often swore that they heard the roar of tigers in the jungle, claims which the forest officials said were rubbish as there were no longer tigers in this part of the country.