I’m in a high place. Scores of people around. Looks like a pilgrimage.
The sky is an ombre of pink, purple, and cloudy white. The sun is on the horizon. This hill I’m standing upon is made of white chalk. Fine white dust swirls around and gets caught in our hair, eyes, skin. There’s a huge monolithic structure behind me. A temple made of the same white chalky stones, shifting, corroding, changing in the chill breeze.
It’s a stark open place, yet I’m starting to suffocate because of the crowd that keeps swelling around me. I want to leave this place and go down in the misty nothingness below.
The way down is narrow, unstable. The chalky dust keeps shifting under my weight and I can feel fear rising within me. Now comes a bend where the white trail runs too steep, almost vertical. I can see there are small footholds; black rocky veins jutting out of the fine white dust. But I’m afraid, I can’t bring myself to take the next step down as vertigo whispers foul encouragements into my hair.
Then I see them.
Just where the steep incline ends, a group of men are standing, watching me intently. They are smartly and identically dressed, in straight-cut dark trousers and shirts in pastel shades tucked into them. The sleeves are carefully rolled up, just over the elbow, revealing gleaming gold watches and arms bursting with muscle, blue veins, hair. They have cropped hair, clean-shaven cheeks, and majestic moustaches neatly framing a smirk that never reaches their eyes.
(As I write this I am recognizing the source of this image – Shammi from Kumbalanghi Nights. Go watch the film if you haven’t yet, it’s beautiful.)
“Are you a believer?” They ask me. “Are you a devotee?” Their eyes gleam in the fading red of dusk. The guardians of Faith are out to hunt the witch again, as they have been countless times before since the beginning of time. “Are you of the Faith?” They ask.
I’m not, I know. I know they won’t let me pass if I’m not. Can I hide my unfaith? I look at them again and know just as I knew their intent – I cannot hide. They already know, they’ve come prepared.
I’m caught in this chalky mountain of shifting dust and loosened dirt. I feel my feet slipping as I dart around, looking for an escape. There is none…
And then I’m running. Running like a deer on a pitch dark road. A single halogen stands sentinel, revealing dark foliage and gigantic trees framing the path. I flash past it into further darkness. The hunt is on, I know. I can’t see them, but I feel them very close.
Now there’s an opening to my left, another avenue framed in ancient trees. I take my chance…
I’m inside a house. Beige walls illuminated by the dying light of dusty white tubes. A black granite platform runs along the corridor I’m walking gingerly on. I can hear indistinct sounds of activity; of people moving and clamouring. None of it makes sense.
A door opens close by. I duck under the granite, just in time.
Polished English shoes walk past where I’m hiding. I see them go up the stairs at the end of the corridor. I dart out and run in the opposite direction.
Again, the dark road. Another opening, to the left. I take it. On my left, the previous house gleams from behind the foliage, sitting still like a huge white spider.
I don’t remember how many houses I went into and came out from. I had a feeling that I’ve been doing this for ages. For ages, I’ve been running on dark roads and seeking refuge in strange homes, only to be ratted out again.
The last house I remember was a large, airy one. Old white walls, huge windows with stained glass panels, sunlight playing hopscotch on the red cement floor. I’m hiding under an ancient bedspread with columns twisted in fantastical, ornamental shapes.
An old woman sits on the bed, in a laal-paar saree and gold bangles. A soft and translucent glow plays around her. She feels like home, like old quilts and secret tins full of sweets – warm and cosy in the winter sun.
They are coming. I have nowhere to go from this room filled with light and echoes of children’s laughter. I have no other place to run to, this is home. I lie under the dark shadow of the ancient bedspread and try to remember the lullabies she used to sing to me.
They are in my home.