Jai Ma
The city of Chandighat lay amidst the beautiful forests of the Sunderbans region, overshadowed to the West by sprawling Calcutta and dwarfed by the Bay of Bengal to the East. It sat nestled along the banks of the Ganges, absorbed in its own affairs. It was of little importance, neither particularly large nor prosperous. But it was here one could see the true India. For Chandighat, like all India, was alive. It was a place pulsing with joy and energy, an all-pervading vitality to be found in its serene temples, solemn mosques, lush gardens, teeming streets, and most of all its markets. Because it was in the bustling markets of Chandighat one found the greatest representation of the vibrant chaos that is India. And of Chandighat's many markets, none could rival the glory of the Jaipur Bazaar. It was a breathtaking place, an endless forest of canvas tents and cobbled together wood booths concealing infinite delights. Anything the heart desired could be found here for a price. Spices and silks, assorted trinkets and the rarest of delicacies, all could be had for a fistful of rupees or an appropriate trade. But out of all the stores and booths, no matter how exotic their wares, none was more wondrous than Dadar's simple flower shop.
It was an unassuming sort of place, easy to overlook. It was certainly not fancy like its neighbors: impressive looking stores selling precious gems, jewelry wrought of gold and silver, and statues of the gods carved in jade and ivory. But despite its lack of opulence, the treasures to be found within were more beautiful than any work of man. Garjas blossoms in a myriad of colors adorned the walls. Marigolds lay heaped on tarpaulins covering the floor, and baskets overflowed with daisies and forget-me-nots. Garlands of violet orchids and bright red roses hung from the ceiling with sturdy shelves housing jars of dried flowers and seeds. Sheaves of thick, green palm and banana leaves were stacked in the corners, while vast piles of lavender irises, orange hibiscus, and pale lilies covered the tables. No artist alive could have replicated such a sight, that living rainbow blending every color known and many that defy description. The store's cluttered beauty could touch any heart, and the store itself was a refuge from the dirt and din of the market outside, for the air inside was cool and filled with the delicate aroma of jasmine and wildflowers.
And there stood in that refuge, amidst that riot of color, a most precocious child of eight years. Her name was Usha, and she was as bright and joyful as the dawn for which she was named. Her skin was the color of mocha tinged with milk, her thick hair raven black. Her round face was pretty and open, her smiles innocent and affectionate. She wore a plain cotton dress, white though not untouched by the dust outside. A thin silver chain circled her neck and simple gold bracelets were clasped at her wrists. Her dark eyes were wide and questioning, and at that moment were gazing with rapt attention at the jhampae and gardenia blossoms lying in bins at her feet.
"Usha, come away from there, we really must be going." interjected her father, a tall man of stern countenance. Ignoring the admonishments of her father, who stood impatiently by the door, her tiny hands reached down with obvious desire. She snatched a handful of flowers from their container, and stared at them intently. The jhampae were bell-shaped, their color the palest yellow. The blooms of the gardenia on the other hand were the purest white, their thin petals forming a layered, star-like shape. Usha, who was very fond of flowers, thought they were exquisite.
"Will you buy me some of these flowers Baba?" she asked, turning to face her father.
"But Panchali, you already have flowers at home. Remember the violets mother brought you yesterday?"
"But Baba these are so pretty! Please can't I have just a few?" she said, her lower lip beginning to quiver. It was sign her father knew all too well, a sign that Usha was readying her most potent method of persuasion: The Pout. If she did not soon get her way, her little face would scrunch up in hurt and longing, and her eyes would fill with tears. It was a weapon her father was powerless against. Viraj Chatterjee was a serious and grim man to much of the world, a secular and no-nonsense sort of man to whom one was inclined to respect if not like. But he loved his little princess very much and would do anything for her. As a result, he usually acceded to her various whims and impulses, often without much resistance. Today would be no exception, because in addition to his tendency to dote on his only daughter, he had also been tasked to run an errand by his beloved wife. He was therefore possessed of a strong motivation to avoid any delays, late as he was already in completing the assignment. For though she was a kind and loving woman, Rajeshri Chatterjee ruled her household with an iron fist, and was not a woman to be trifled with. God help the man who was late in buying the coriander seeds, cumin spice and turmeric powder she needed to prepare the evening meal, for in her wrath she could be more fearsome than Kali Herself. And so, eager to fulfill his obligation, he quickly acquiesced. Squealing with delight, Usha grabbed a bundle of the small blossoms and gave them to old Dadar. Smiling, the wizened proprietor weighed them (they were priced by the pound) and wrapped the fragile flowers in a thick, broad banana leaf. Bending down, he gave the bundle and a kiss on the forehead to his favorite customer, for the girl reminded him of his own young daughter who had died in the famine of 1965. With a smile and nod, Viraj handed Dadar his payment, and took his now contented daughter's hand. They bid the kind shop keep good day, and turned to leave. Upon exiting the shop, father and daughter were greeted by utter bedlam.
Chandighat on a market day was truly a sight to behold. It was still midmorning, yet the market was already sweltering, the sun's heat compounded by the crush of bodies. The market was bathed in haze and dust and pollen, and just as overpowering were the smells of sun-warmed fish and overripe vegetables. Thousands of voices rose and fell, blending together to form a cacophony of noise one could liken to a giant hornets' nest. The raucous calls of street vendors filled the air, their shouts matched only by the racket raised by a local train rumbling down nearby tracks. Elderly women wrapped in linen shawls bargained shrewdly with the vendors, waging an epic battle for the lowest price. Here and there, hand carts and three- wheeled rickshaws laden with fruits and vegetables attempted to force their way through the horde of people. Their green rubber horns blared at anyone caught in the way. The surrounding buildings rose tall above the marketplace, their walls concrete and burnt brick. Those walls were battered and wind-swept, the handiwork of the yearly monsoons. The paint covering them was faded and peeling. Most of the buildings were apartment complexes, and clothes hung left to dry from their many balconies. From rooftop to rooftop ran an endless array of cables. TV cables, power cables, telephone wires, they crisscrossed the sky in a dizzying design. Perched upon them were massive crows. Their glossy black wings shone with a bright luster in the morning sun and harsh calls issued from their sharp beaks. Every so often one would swoop down to snatch a juicy piece of fruit that had fallen to the ground or harass a hapless customer. But for the most they seemed content to sit motionless and stare with dead eyes at the people scurrying like ants below.
Usha loved the marketplace. She loved the sights, the smells, the sounds. It was a place of magic to her, and she jumped at any chance to come. Mindful to keep hold of her father's hand, she let her senses roam, eager to absorb all Jaipur had to offer. To her right a snake charmer played his flute, his song holding a fearsome serpent in thrall. And to the left, a band of eunuchs danced through the street. Their raised hands were clapping rhythmically, keeping a beat only they could hear. Stray dogs roamed at will and the occasional monkey clambered up walls and over awnings. Men wearing billowing white dhotis, ideal for such hot and humid weather, sat in caf├ęs, arguing over some matter or another. Sikhs in their turbans, Hindus adorned by braided chords, and Muslims in their embroidered caps wandered around, as did the occasional Christian in their Western blouses and suits. Small children raced about. Some were engrossed in play; others were trying to steal fruit from booths and passing carts. Women in colorful saris glided about, carrying packages of spices, baskets of vegetables or balancing water jugs on their heads with deft grace. Shrines to the gods were scattered about, honoring such deities as the beloved Lords Ganesha and Krishna, as well as gentle Lakshmi, Goddess of Prosperity. Up ahead, a large crowd had gathered. They watched, entranced, as a troupe of street performers reenacted the siege of Lanka. The audience cheered as heroic R?ma battled the fearsome demon-king R?vana to rescue fair S?t?. Usha would have gladly joined them, but sadly she was still tethered to her father, who had arrived at his destination. Viraj busied himself with the spice vendor, haggling with the merchant over his outrageous prices on cumin. Meanwhile, Usha contented herself by window shopping at an adjacent shop, which sold a great variety of sweets. She pressed her face against the window pane and stared eagerly within, looking over each confection in the glass displays with an appraising eye. Sugary roshogola dripping with syrup! Divine rasmalei with a hint of vanilla and rose! Crispy, pretzel-like gelapi and coconut ladoos! A banquet of delights lay before her and she greatly desired them. But sadly, she'd already received her treat for the day and knew it. "If I could just have a bit of shondesh!" she thought disconsolately. Her father, having finished his business with the vendor, walked over and told her that it was time to go.

Usha gave the sweets one last, wistful glance and turned to go. But before she had even taken a step, she was a halted by a hand placed firmly on her shoulder. Curious, she turned around. Looking up, she saw a cloaked figure standing over her. The stranger was a woman, but of indeterminable age, for her face and form were heavily shrouded in linens to guard against the harsh sun. Only her eyes were visible, gleaming as they were with mischief. She bent down to bring herself level with Usha, and handed her a small object. The girl, her mind in a daze, accepted it politely, if a bit hesitantly. She had this strange feeling of recognition, that she knew this woman but could not place from where. But before she could offer even a word of thanks or the simplest of inquiries, the woman turned and melted into the crowd. But Usha took no more notice of her mysterious benefactor, for she faded from Usha's mind as quickly as she'd come, and instead Usha turned her focus was she to her newly acquired prize. It was a piece of shondesh. Eagerly and against common sense, she shoved the sugary white pastry into her mouth, delighting in the sweet blend of sugars, vanilla, milk, and molasses that brought her taste buds to utter ecstasy. As she was enjoying her treat, she felt a gentle tug at the hem of her dress. Looking down, she saw small a puppy at her feet pulling determinately at her hem. It was obviously one of the many strays that prowled the market. Its fur was dull and its already small frame looked emaciated. The dog looked up at her imploringly; its large, brandy-brown eyes trusting. She bent down to pet him (she assumed it was a boy) and allowed him to lick the last traces of sugar and syrup from her sticky fingers. Such an adorable little creature!
"Maybe father will let me keep him!" she said excitedly to herself. She turned; an impish grin on her face, for surely father would be chafing at these added delays and anxious to be gone. Much to her shock, she turned only to find herself alone. She panicked. Frantically her eyes searched through the endless sea of bodies, hoping for some glimpse of him. She could find no trace. Fear consumed her, and her thoughts raced. But she didn't know what to do, should she stay and wait? Perhaps she should go after him; he could not have gotten far! Unsure of what to do, she decided to ask for help. She stopped two passing woman, who were obviously of high station. Their bearing was upright and regal, their expensive saris of pale blue silk richly adorned with silver stitching. In a frantic jumble of words, Usha told them of her lost father. But they just looked at her helplessly. One recommended she stay where she was, the other said she should perhaps find a police officer, the rarest find of all in such markets. Having given their advice, they went about their business.
Poor little Usha stood there alone, adrift in an ocean of unknown faces. She stifled the urge to cry, and resolved to wait for her father's return. Surely it would not be long before he noticed she was missing and came to find her! But unfortunately, it would seem that fate had other plans for Usha Chatterjee. For not two minutes had elapsed when Usha noticed out of the corner of her eye a sight that made her blood run cold. Thieves. Two of them. There were not much older than Usha herself, their clothes ragged and their hair dirty and unkempt. One of them menacingly held a knife in his right hand. Such urchins were not uncommon in the larger markets; entire families of them were known to stalk through the bazaars. The gleam of gold and silver on a lone girl's form had captured the boys' attention, and considering her an easy target they had abandoned their usual stealth. With a startled cry, Usha fled. Her little bundle of flowers was crushed against her chest as she sought to lose herself in the crowd.
In his defense, Viraj was not long in realizing his error. He had left the spice vendor in haste, assuming that Usha was close on his heels as she always was. His arms burdened by his purchases, he had neglected for the first, and last, time to take hold of her small hand. He walked for scarcely five minutes when he noticed a quaint stand selling various fruits. His daughter's longing stares earlier at the candy store had not gone unnoticed, and Viraj now turned to ask his little princess if she would like some strawberries. Strawberries were among his daughter's favorite treats, and he expected an enthusiastic response. But instead of finding a daughter jumping up and down in anticipation, he saw only a toothless old crone selling carpets nearby. His shock upon finding her missing was rivaled only by Usha's, and fear as he'd never known it gripped him. Now Viraj was not a religious sort of person. Born of India's rising middle class, Viraj was a most secular man, as previously noted. The traditions of the past were just superstitions, and the only gods he honored were Order and Progress. But upon finding his little Usha missing, he let fly a prayer to every god he could think of, begging for her safety. He ran back towards the spice merchant with desperate speed, eager to see his daughter safe.
Upon arriving, Viraj would find her newly gone. She had been chased away just moments before his arrival, and was currently racing through the market in an effort to shake pursuit. She ran for what seemed like hours (it was in fact fifteen minutes) and thought she must have circled the market a hundred times (it was more like two). Her legs protested every step and her breath came in ragged gasps. Finally, she could go no further. Her body needing rest, she dragged herself down an alley, hoping to find sanctuary on the other side.
The alley opened onto the river front, and awaiting Usha was a world she had, by her sheltered existence, never seen. Next to her, sitting at the mouth of the alley was an old woman. She was a dalit, one of the former Untouchables whom Ghandi named the Children of God. She was hunched over, washing broken crockery with dirty water. Nearby, a pair of sadhus sat cross-legged, unmoving. Their naked bodies were smeared with ash and dirt and their hair was matted and lank. Their eyes held a fevered light, for they were blind to the world and saw only God. The buildings along the waterfront seemed to belong to another time, another age. They were made of stone, and their facades were embellished with columns and corbelled arches. Their roofs were crowned with graceful domes and impossible spires, a testament to the skills of artisans long since passed. But the stones were faded and chipped. Cracks snaked their way through the walls, and once intricate carvings were crumbling to dust. Beggars sat forlornly in doorways, their sad eyes downcast. On occasion, some charitable individual would toss a few alms into their outstretched hands. These were sights new and frightening to young Usha, and she could bear no more. With a cry of despair, she collapsed against a wall. She slid into the dust, and began to cry. Still clutched in her arms was the little bundle of flowers, their petals wilting and many falling away. Tired and lost, Usha was plagued by fear and doubt. What if she never saw her father and mother again? What if she never found her way home? Would she be lost forever? Her questions were interrupted, however, by a now-familiar tug at her hem. She opened her eyes and through her tears saw a welcome sight. It was the little puppy; he had followed her in her mad flight through the market. With a glad cry she leaned forward to pick him up, the flowers lying at her side. She embraced him and held him close, eager for the company. For his part, the puppy was equally happy to see her. He licked the salty tears from her cheeks and nuzzled her with his wet nose. But the puppy was not content to sit still. Squirming, he extricated himself from Usha's grip and jumped excitedly about, barking in a shrill voice. And without warning, he ran off down another alley. Startled, Usha snatched up her flowers and gave chase, for she could not stand to be left alone.
The mischievous little puppy led little Usha on quite a merry chase, at least from his point of view. He led her down alley ways, through markets, past towering flats and numerous neighborhoods. It was not long before Usha was hopelessly lost. But still she maintained her pursuit, for truly she had no other option. At long last he brought her to a run-down borough at the heart of the city. The streets were dirty and lined with garbage, and many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair. But in the shadows of the dilapidated buildings was a sight of singular beauty: a small grove of ashoka trees. Their emerald green leaves shone in the sun, and their feathery blossoms rained petals like an amber snowfall. And in the midst of those sacred trees their stood a temple, lost and forgotten. It's exact size and features were impossible discern. The branches of the ashokas wrapped lovingly around its walls, shielding it from view. Only the open doorway was plainly visible. The puppy sat panting by the doorway, looking at Usha with interest. It seemed as if he were inviting her in. After only the briefest of pauses, Usha accepted, mainly out of a desire to escape the heat, for it was now past midday.
Halfway across Chandighat Viraj was not having an easy time finding his daughter. The police had been of no help; in fact one was audacious enough to have demanded a bribe for his assistance! As a result, Viraj had undertaken the task alone. He had frantically turned the market upside down in his search, and interrogated anyone within reach. The people in the market were likewise of little help. One merchant swore he saw a girl in a white dress hiding under some linens by Nehru Street. Others claimed she had been seen knocking over a vegetable stand on the other side of the market with a wild hound at her feet. And still others would attest that a young girl had dashed across an outdoor stage, knocking over two dancers and sending a third sprawling into the arms of an onlooker. Viraj chased every report down, but they all came to naught. Finally, a young woman in a blue sari reported seeing a young girl wandering alone down by the waterfront. Viraj hurried there with all possible haste, and walked up and down the river calling Usha's name. He kept up long after he'd realized the awful truth, that she was gone again and he no closer to finding her. Finally, when his heart admitted what his mind had long known, he sank to his knees in despair. He crouched in the very spot his daughter had occupied not one hour prior, his head cradled in his hands. His mind raced, his thoughts chaotic and unordered, he stared about blankly, absorbing all he saw with little recognition.
He gazed dazedly out at the Ganges, most sacred of all waters. Its surface was dull and gray, placid with the appearance of dirty glass. The river was edged by stone stairs, offering easy entry for the pilgrims who came to bathe in the river and be cleansed by its holy properties. Jutting out from the stairs in several places were large, square concrete platforms, on which were built funeral pyres. One of the plinths near Viraj was in use, and a large crowd of friends and family were gathered to bid farewell to the deceased. A woman, probably the widow, stood sheltered in the arms of a male relation, sobbing uncontrollably. The thin veil of mourning could not hide her tears, nor could it hide the look of anguish and grief on her face. Her eyes seemed filled with the desire to be with her husband even now. Viraj, somewhere in his addled mind, wondered if perhaps the woman would do just that. Would she cast herself into the flames out of love, as divine S?ti and S?t? had supposedly done? And down in the river itself, waste deep in the waters, stood a lone man. His head was bowed in prayer as he reverently and regretfully scattered the ashes of a departed loved one, commending their soul to Brahman. The whole of the river front seemed forlorn, and the almost-palpable sorrow pressed hard on the disheartened Viraj. And somewhere, in a corner of his darkened mind, Viraj fancied he understood this man, this woman, and their pain. For the loss of his daughter was as the loss of self, and gladly would he have walked through fire and flood, bandied with death itself, if it would see her safely returned.
It was then he heard a sound, hopeful and bright, that broke him of despair. It was the sound of hymns issuing from a nearby church. The parishioners sang with all their souls, their voices rising to heaven above. Near the church was a mosque, those inside praying in simple austerity. Just as amazing was the chanting coming from the Hindu temple just down the street, the Brahmin priests leading the people in darhsan, that joyous communion with the Divine. The prayers and songs and chants flowed together, merged, building to a blissful crescendo that flooded Viraj with a new sense of vitality and resolve, a renewed determination to find his daughter though it take him a thousand years. And deep inside him, unnoticed in the very core of his being, there stirred the echoes of something long lost.
He climbed to his feet and departed, thinking Usha would probably have returned to the market. He had only gone a few steps when he was jostled by a passing stranger. The packages of spices that he had held onto all this time spilled from his arms to the ground. The woman, at least Viraj thought it was a woman (the figure was so heavily cloaked it was nearly impossible to tell), offered no words of apology and disappeared into an alley. Muttering to himself in annoyance, he bent down to retrieve the scattered items. It was then a flash of color caught his eye. Lying in the dust at his feet was the petal of a jhampae blossom. Gaping in wonder, Viraj inspected with new scrutiny the dirt covered stones of the street. The petals of jhampae flowers and gardenia blooms lay scattered about, most crushed into the ground by passersby. They seemed to form a trail of floral breadcrumbs, and Viraj fervently hoped he'd find his daughter at its end. Daring to trust to hope, Viraj resumed his search.
The temple Usha found herself in was small, consisting only of the small portico outside and the inner sanctum. The main source of light was the doorway. Some light also streamed in through a small, round window in back. The light from the doorway and window provided only slight illumination, filtered as it was through the ashoka leaves. Straining her eyes against the dim light, Usha tried to take stock of her surroundings. The Sanctum was cool, a welcome change from heat of the city outside. The floor was of rough hewn stone and the walls were covered with faded frescoes. A continuous frieze circled the room, beginning at the floor and of about waste height. The temple was a shrine to the Mahadevi, the Great Goddess, with both friezes and frescoes depicting Her most beloved aspects. There was Durga in all Her majesty, and Kali in all Her fearsome might. Also present were bountiful Lakshmi and wise Saraswathi, seated on lotus thrones. Nurturing Parvati stood with noble Gayatri while gentle Prithivi, her arms raised in blessing, was depicted in another painting. In one, chaste S?t? and dutiful S?ti conversed with loyal Radha and playful Lalitha. And there were others, countless others: Devi, Yamuna, Chandi, Ahalya, Yakshi, Tara, Shodasi, Aditya, Dakshan, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi, Kamala and a thousand other Finite names that men give to the Infinite.
But Usha, raised as she was in her father's faithless household, had only a passing familiarity with them and therefore little concern. Moreover, the frescoes were faded and the frieze chipped and worn, rendering the Divine Incarnations unrecognizable. But what did capture Usha's attention was the statue in the center of the room. It was exquisite. It stood before an empty alter on a stone pedestal, a marble statue of an exceedingly beautiful woman clothed in an aged, threadbare yellow sari. Though carved of cold marble, the statue's face glowed with an expression of warmth and joy. She had four shapely arms: one was raised in benediction, another grasped a rosary; and one was outstretched, as if she sought to take hold of Usha's trembling hand. In her lower-right arm she held a lotus blossom carved of wood. But like everything else in the temple, the statue was covered in thick layers of dust and cobwebs. Usha's heart ached; she could not bear to see the statue's beauty profaned. So without further thought, compelled by emotions she did no understand, she grasped the frayed hem of her dress and tore off a few small strips of cloth. She clambered up the alter and stood precariously on the pedestal. She then proceeded to clean the statue as much as her limited stature and reach would allow. After she had finished with the statue, Usha retrieved the bundle of flowers from its location on the floor and set them on the alter. It was a paltry offering. Most of the flowers had lost their petals, and what few remained were wilted and crushed. Her tasks completed, Usha sank to the cool floor and lay down, her cheek resting against the cool stone. The puppy padded over and cuddled up next to her, promptly falling asleep. Usha stroked his fur absent-mindedly, feeling once again all alone in the dark. She began to sob quietly, and eventually cried herself to sleep.
"Why do you cry little one?" asked a rich voice, rousing Usha from her slumber. The voice was harmonious as a lute, and as soothing as the sea breaking upon the shores. Usha looked up and beheld the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her skin shone with the luster of burnished gold and her hair, black as the moonless night, gleamed with its own fiery sheen. Her smile, though tinged with gentle sorrow, seemed brighter than the sun, and the silver bindi on her forehead glowed as if she were crowned by the moon itself. Her clothes shimmered with gentle radiance; why it seemed as if her raiments were light itself! But it was her eyes that captured Usha's attention most. They were of deepest violet, and glowed a strange inner fire. So bright were they that it seemed as if all the stars in heaven were contained therein. Those eyes were timeless, and suggested a wisdom born of years uncounted. And in those eyes, Usha saw love and joy as she had never known, a love that defies all comprehension. She saw in those eyes Infinite Love. So moved was she by the sight of this woman that she could utter no sound, her tongue caught in her throat.
"Why do you not speak child?" the woman lightly asked. Usha struggled to find words, any words to say.
" 're beautiful." she said simply, her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
"And so are you, daughter, more so than you will ever know," replied the woman with a voice that carried a hint of amusement. "But now tell me, why is it you cry?"
"B...because I lost father...and I don't know where I am, and I'm afraid I'll never find my way home and see father and mother again!" stuttered Usha through a flood of fresh tears "And I'm tired and alone and I'm so scared." Her voice became weaker as she spoke, trailing off into nothingness. The woman, her expression concerned and reassuring, bent down and caressed the young girl's cheek. Her touch was cool, comforting, and at her touch Usha's fears were quieted. A gentle peace stole over her as she heard the woman's words.
"You are not alone child. You are never alone. For no matter where you walk, whatever road dark and dangerous, I will always walk with you."
"R...really?"
"Yes my child. And you needn't fear. You are quite safe, for I will permit no harm to come to my beloved here in my home." And with that promise, she pressed into the young girls hand a lotus blossom.
"What's this?" asked Usha sleepily, fighting to keep her eyelids open. A strange lethargy was washing over her, and she could not fight it.
"It is my gift to you child, a reward for your earlier generosity. The flowers you left were very beautiful." Sleep took Usha then. The woman's voice faded away in the shadows, and Usha slept, quiet and untroubled.
"USHA!" The sound of her name woke Usha from her slumber. Her father stood in the doorway, his face a mixture of joy and relief. He ran forward and took her in his arms. He held her close, maybe even a little too tight, for he was deathly afraid that if he let go she would vanish into thin air.
"Oh my princess, my darling princess!" he cried, "Are you alright? Where did you go? Thank Heavens your alright!" Tears of joy streaked down his face, his words pouring out of his mouth without end. Usha returned her father's embrace and assured him that she was okay. She told him of the thieves and the river front, and timidly asked if she would be punished. His heart filled only with joy to see his daughter, Viraj assured her she was in no trouble.
"Of course you won't be punished child! But we must make sure this never happens again! Oh my poor little Usha, you must have been so scared!" A serene smile crossed the girl's sleepy face.
"I wasn't alone father. She was with me. The Bright Lady," said Usha in simple, even tones. Confused, Viraj asked his daughter who this woman was. She told him of the beautiful woman who came to her in the darkness, seemingly dressed in light. Usha told him of the Lady's words to her and of the lotus blossom she had given her. She then promptly fell asleep, understandable considering the trials she had faced that day. Viraj stared in bewilderment at his daughter. Surely it must have been her imagination. Or perhaps a caretaker to the shrine, whose robes had caught the midday sun, making her appear ethereal to the hysterical child.
"Of course it was," he muttered to himself, shaking his head in disbelief. "What else could it have been?" As if in answer to his question, a shaft of sunlight pierced through leaves jostled by the wind. The shaft of light came to rest on the pedestal, illuminating a patch of stone previously shrouded in shadow. The light revealed a fading inscription, one Viraj's eyes could barely make out through the caked on dusk.
"Hail to thee Gauri-Ambika,
Golden-skinned Goddess,
Mother to us All.
Life-Giver.
Light-Bringer.
Keeper of the Dawn."
Awed, Viraj stared at the inscription. He then looked down at Usha, who lay sleeping in his arms. Clutched lovingly in her hands was a small white lotus blossom. Viraj also looked down at the boisterous little puppy. His tail was wagging furiously, and his little jaws were pulling at Viraj's cuffs. He looked again at the statue, and then again at the three little miracles surrounding him. With a smile, he turned to leave, the happy puppy close at his heels. Something long forgotten stirred in him again, and this time it did not go unnoticed.
"Jai Ma," he whispered reverently as he left the temple, "Jai Ma.."