Shishir 2018, Short Stories -Jayashree Srinath



Antar Agni – The Fire Within Me

By Jayashree Srinath


I am ten years old and my immediate concern is my unfinished homework. Our little cottage by the farm is damp and cold and light from the bulb hanging from the ceiling above, is feeble at best. Even as I am pouring over my Maths textbook, trying to make sense of the arithmetic problem, Naani (maternal grandmother) calls out to me, “Jwala, what are you doing cooped up inside the cottage? Come out and enjoy the Lohri festivities.”


With a sigh and a feeling of resigned acceptance, I step out of our little cottage, and walk towards the open fields. I can hear the laughter, the clapping, the singing and the merrymaking. The men, the women, the boys and the girls of our village are all huddled around the bonfire and are celebrating the Lohri festival with much gusto. Fuelled by the wild and boisterous celebrations, the orange flames of the bonfire rise higher and higher, as if aiming to lick the skies. The giggling and giddy-headed girls of our village, attired in their bright and shiny clothes, dance around the bonfire, matching their steps perfectly to the beat of the dhol. As the drumbeat, the clapping, the singing and the dancing reach a feverish crescendo, my heart begins to thump with excitement and I begin to gently sway and swirl as if in a trance.


Later, all our energies spent, we sit around the dying embers of the bonfire and join our village elders as they pray to Agni, the Goddess of Lohri. We thank Agnifor the warmth that she has provided us during the bitter and cold winter months and we welcome Surya, the Sun God, as he begins his journey into the northern hemisphere.


Our village headman has invited the District Collector to our Lohri festival. After the festivities come to an end, our headman asks the District Collector to give his speech. I have never heard such a distinguished person speak before, and I am all ears as he talks about the origin of Lohri and the symbolism of the bonfire. He then draws a parallel between the flames of the bonfire, and the inner fire that drives all human beings. He calls it the Antar Agni. He says that our Antar Agni should fuel us to work hard with focus and determination. Our Antar Agni should give us the impetus to achieve our goals.

Antar Agni. I love this word. Can this fire within me propel me towards a better life? Antar Agni, the fire of hope is lit in my heart! I wake up every morning with renewed strength and determination. Antar Agni, my mantra, my secret word, gives me power. I say it softly, as I savour the sound of every syllable. Antar Agni - my very own rocket propellant which guides me forward.


Life in our village is tough. Every morning, my mother, my Bibiji, slaves over her chulha, her earthen stove, to prepare rotis (Indian flat bread) for me and my three siblings to carry to school. She wipes the sweat streaming down her forehead with her dupatta, (stole or scarf) as she hands over our lunch boxes consisting of Bajra rotis (millet bread) and leftover Saag (spinach curry) from the previous night. Her face is smeared with soot, but I dare not wipe it. Because you see, Bibiji does not like any sympathy or show of concern coming her way. She is as tough as nails and doesn’t allow herself a moment of weakness. She smiles as she hands over the lunch boxes to the four of us, but the smile hardly reaches her battle-hardened eyes. Bibiji briskly bids us goodbye and starts walking towards the field. She ploughs the land, she tills the soil. Oh, she is a tough one, my Bibiji. Make no mistake about that. She drives a tractor like a man and even swears like a man. I mean it. I hope you never have to hear the choice expletives spewing out of her mouth.


A few years ago, I learnt what her Antar Agni is. It is her hatred towards her husband, a man who left her and their four children for a much younger and prettier woman. Bibiji has nurtured this hatred in her heart. Her hatred gives her the strength to raise her four children single-handedly. It’s not easy having someone like Bibiji as my mother. She is more of a jail warden to the four of us than a mother. She is very sparing with her praise and all my attempts to impress her have failed so far. But I promise you, I will win her approval one day.


I am now sixteen. Did I tell you that I have topped the tenth standard board exams? No one from our government school has ever topped the board exams before. I am so proud of myself. My teachers and friends want to know what the secret of my success is. But you know what it is, right? Antar Agni.
Before I forget, let me tell you, at last my Bibiji is proud of me. Not that she has said anything to me so far; but I know it, I can see the pride in her eyes.


I am a topper and toppers go to college in the city, right? Am I asking for too much? Not at all, right? Yet, here I am having a pitched battle with Naani and Bibiji. Naani has managed to convince Bibiji that sending me to a college in the city would be a bad idea. You know what they want me to do? Get married! You heard it right - get married! Again, my Antar Agni comes to my rescue. I muster the courage to rant and scream atBibiji. Every expletive of hers is met with a volley of imaginative expletives from my end. The battle rages on for a few hours, but I emerge victorious. Bibiji has relented and I am off to college in the city.


Ah, the freedom of college life. I feel as free as a bird in the sky. I wake up when I want to, I sleep if and when I want to, and most importantly, I dress as I please. Shh…don’t let my Bibiji know. I’ve abandoned my salwar kameez sets for good. I have discovered the freedom that a pair of jeans offer me. My jeans have also allowed me freedom from being referred to as “behenji” (sister).


Oh.You’re puzzled. Looks like I forgot to tell you that incident from first day of college. There I was, dressed in my bright pink salwar suit, paired with a beige woollen cardigan, walking up the driveway to the college. Two boys who were sitting by the driveway, came up to me and said “Namaste Behenji (greetings sister)”. I instinctively folded my hands and greeted them respectfully. In a matter of seconds, I became the laughing stock of the entire college. The girls and boys hooted with laughter and some of them fell to the floor laughing. I looked down self-consciously at my dated clothes and realized how out of place I looked in a city college. I was mortified and tears ran down my cheeks. I ran back to the girls’ hostel and cried the whole day. How was I going to get back to college the next day? Again, my Antar Agni came to my rescue. With steely resolve and fiery determination, I put that incident behind me and set about changing my persona.


Today, I am the college diva who is known for her sense of style and fashion. Heads turn when I walk up the driveway. I now enjoy the appreciative glances that come my way. Secretly, I am thrilled that a country bumpkin like me has managed to dazzle the city slickers with her sense of style. I work in coffee shops after college hours, to fund my shopping extravaganzas. There are plenty of male admirers, but I am not impressed by any of them. I ignore them and their advances and focus on my studies. After all, that’s what I came to the city for.


It’s been two years in the city, and I couldn’t be happier. My studies are going well and I have found myself a steady boyfriend. Ahmed, that’s his name. He is funny, kind and large-hearted. He is my senior in college and always looks out for me and manages to scare the pesky boys away. I really like Ahmed’s company and we spend the weekends together.


It’s Sunday, and as usual, Ahmed and I are eating ice cream at the shiny new mall. Ahmed is taking a bite off my strawberry cone, and I look over his shoulder and freeze in horror. Harpreetji, our village headman’s wife, is giving me a look of absolute disdain and contempt. I try to call out to her, but no words come out of my mouth. She turns around and stomps off in a huff. I have a strong sense of disquiet. I think I know what is going to happen.


And, yes, it does happen. Within a few hours, Bibiji is at my hostel room. As I’ve told you before, my Bibiji is not one for social civility or nicety. She walks straight towards me and slaps me hard across the face. Phat! The strength of the blow sends me reeling back and I collapse on the chair behind me. My roommate stares in horror. Not wasting a single moment, Bibiji drags me by the hair and marches me down the corridor, all the while showering me with expletives.

I am now a prisoner in my own home. Bibiji has kept me under lock and key. I try to reason out with her, tell her that Ahmed is a decent, good boy, but it’s of no use. She is adamant and her argument is that Ahmed is not of the same religion as us and our headman will have us ostracized.


A week later, I’m being marched down another hall. This time Bibiji even has a semblance of a smile on her face. She is happy, but I am not. I am being led to the marriage altar like the proverbial lamb to slaughter. The shehnai playing in the background grates on my nerves. I take a look at Bobby, my groom. His fat face and chubby cheeks infuriate me and I want to wipe the smirk off his smug face. The ceremony begins and the marriage fire is lit. I stare at it in disgust. Each step around the fire fills me with rage and anguish. My Antar Agni, what happened to it? Why am I being led around this fire? Each step around this fire is taking me closer to captivity. I want to break loose. Suddenly, the tide of revolt erupts like a raging fire within me, and with lightning speed, I free my hands from the shackles of marriage that bind me to Bobby and run as fast as my feet can take me. . .


It's been three years since that fateful day. I am all alone in the world now. I work at a call centre to earn my living. Antar Agni? What’s that? I have no dreams, no hopes, no desires…I just exist. “What killed your spirit?”, you might ask. Well, let me tell you, the aftermath of that incident was devastating. Not able to withstand the ignominy I brought to the family and the village, Bibiji put an end to her life. As the flames enveloped her lifeless form, everything died within me. My family hated me and my villagers shunned me. I came back to the city in search of Ahmed, but was told that he had left for Dubai to make a new life for himself. I continue to live in the city, going from one day to another like a lifeless, emotionless zombie.


It’s 2 a.m. I quickly leave the office building and begin my long trudge to the taxi stand. The roads are deserted and there is not a single soul around. Groups of stray dogs go from one rubbish bin to the other foraging for food. Suddenly a jeep comes to a halt by my side. I see the faint outline of three men inside the jeep. My heart hammering wildly, I try to run. But I stand rooted to the spot, frozen in horror. An arm snakes out, grabs me by the arm and pins me to the side of the jeep. The front door opens and a man gets out and walks towards me. Bobby! He drags me into the car. What follows next is too terrible to be described. You won’t be able to stomach it. Suffice to say that Bobby and his friends attack me like a pack of starving wolves. After an hour of unimaginable torture, they push me out on to the sidewalk. I lie there battered and bruised like a crushed butterfly.


It’s been a few weeks since I was found that day on the sidewalk. The doctor discharges me from the hospital. She tells me that I am healed. I laugh mirthlessly at her. What does she know of my torment? As I exit the hospital building, I am filled with a new emotion. A new fire burns within me. Vengeance. I want revenge. I walk with a sense of purpose.

Now I am Jwalamukhi. The volcano which is about to erupt.


Jayashree Srinath is a Penang, Malaysia based author. She recently published her debut novel “Keep My Love Frozen in Time” . Our editor Savita Narayan has carried her interview.




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