This story is by Anindita Basu and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
“Ashmani! Is that you?” My jaw dropped, seeing the ochre-rust monarch turning into a girl, Ashmani. Just a minute ago I was worried that the beautiful butterfly might be crushed when it landed on my windshield. Then it turned into Ashmani. I blinked twice and opened my eyes wide.
“ Ashmani, how come you are here? You were dead,” I screamed.
“Roll the window open, please, let me be beside you. I can help.” She begged. When I did as she asked, she plopped down, fastening the seat belt. Her yellow-ochre ghagra flared. The tiny mirrors embroidered on that skirt with rust brown thread glistened, splashing hundreds of reflections on my dash board.
“ Slow down my friend, you are going at seventy miles. This is Pleasant Hill road, speed limit thirty five only,” Ashmani cautioned with a smile.
I braked for the traffic light near Acalanes and found her swishing out of the window. Then she started shimmying right in front of me, on the windshield.
she started singing, gesturing her hands, touching her heart, swirling, twirling her waist and whole body. She tapped, showing off her incredible foot work, typical of the Kathak dance style, as if she was a court dancer on a royal Mughal dance floor. At the precise beat of the tabla she stopped, extending her mehendi adorned palm expecting me to applaud, ‘Encore, encore,
At that precise moment a shrill horn brought me back to the present. A red convertible Porsche whirled around me; the driver giving me a look.
With much care I circled the roundabout, yielding mindfully to approach Saint Mary’s road. Ashmani appeared and settled beside me again.
“Take it easy, my friend.” She caressed my shoulder.
“Ashmani, you were dead. You committed a suicide. People said you would not have a place in heaven. I felt so bad for you. I wanted to stop them, saying that you did it for love.” My eyes blurred with tears.
“True my friend. ” She hummed again with a smile that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holidays.
“What does that mean, Ashmani? I don’t understand your Hindi very well,” I confessed.
“ Oh, it means that I am not afraid to love. I loved, I did not steal anything. It was Anarkali’s words when the royal court summoned her death order. Her fault was that she was a common girl in love with the prince, Prince Salim. It is an old story of India’s Mughal monarchy,” she explained.
“Your story was similar, wasn’t it? You, a Muslim girl fell in love with Tarun, a Hindu boy, and you found no solution, right?” I looked at her.
‘Yes, I had no choice. In our time, seventy years ago, just during the partition of India and Pakistan, in our little village it was forbidden.” Ashmani looked away.
“It hasn’t changed much after all these years, Asmani. Same hatred, same discrimination still exists. What a shame!” I added.
Screech! The car jerked. It bounced as I pushed the brake as far it could go. I’d almost run over a jogger.
“Hey, heye, pedestrians have right of the way. Always.” Ashmani held my hand on the steering wheel.
“ Where do you belong, Ashmani? You are not in our world. You were not in my time. You have no room in heaven. Then where are you? What is it like, your world, I mean? How come you know so much about our rules?” I blurted.
“I don’t know what is heaven or hell, my friend, and I am not supposed to tell you about the other world. But I can tell you that I belong everywhere. I dance in the wide expanse of nothingness. It is hard to explain. I can be with anyone who cares for me; to all who make room in their hearts for me. I’ll be there if you invite me into your thoughts or memory. I am a spirit. See how I come to you!” She smiled that extra ordinary innocent grin again.
‘“One day I’ll write about you, Ashmani.” As I tried to elaborate my plot to her, I saw rotating blue and red lights flickering in my rear view mirror.
I had to pull over. The officer came up to me. Craning his neck he asked, “Are you okay, Ma’am?”
“Yes, of course.” I turned to see that Ashmani had vanished.
“Do you know what speed you were driving?”
I shook my head.
“Seventeen miles per hour. You were blocking traffic. I’d like you to come out. Walk please.” He checked that I had no trace of alcohol.
I was intoxicated, though, in a different way. But he wouldn’t understand. And I didn’t try to explain.