“Namaste,” said Urmilla with her hands folded. She didn’t know what language to talk in, so she decided to go with Hindi. “Is Master Mei Ling still with you?”

The girl’s expression changed from polite indifference to shock. “I am sorry; who?”

“Master Mei Ling. My sister told me about him and how he was connected with this ashram. I wish to speak with him on an urgent matter.”

“Who is your sister?” the girl asked, narrowing her eyes.

Before Urmilla could respond or run away, the girl screeched, “Are you Renuka Gupta’s sister?! I saw on the news you were in Haridwar to put her to rest. I didn’t think it would be true! Oh my god! Where is she? Where is Renuka ji?”

“She is dead,” said Urmilla mechanically, too shocked to say anything else.

“Oh I know that, but where is she?” she asked, looking around like she expected Renuka Gupta to materialize out of thin air. When she did not get a response, she started to scream, “Rekha, Janani, Radha, Firoz, come here quickly. Look who has come into the office,” running inside through a side door.

Before the platoon could show up though, Urmilla had beaten a hasty retreat. She wasn’t sure what had shocked her more. The fact that Master Mei Ling did not exist and perhaps had never existed? The fact that she had nursed a dream which was based on one of Renu’s many lies? Or had the sheer crassness of the girl at the reception shocked her so? She wanted to run back to the hotel and tell Avinash to leave the godforsaken town once and for all. But she couldn’t…she couldn’t run away without facing her grief or disappointment.

Renuka and Urmilla had been nobodies to each other for as long as she could remember…even before she had married a control freak Avinash or got sucked into being second fiddle to her sister or being reminded of her inadequacy every day by Avinash.

It was strange how that had come about. The only reason Renu had taken the acting opportunity and not she had been because of Avi. The director’s first preference had always been Urmilla but Avinash’s contention that his to-be-wife would not ‘parade in front of letches and audiences for their entertainment’ had prevented her from doing something she had dreamed of all her life. Yet since the day she had declined the opportunity, he had put the blame squarely on her.

Despite all the painful history, she grieved for her older sister; despite everything, she missed Renu with a tenacity that made her head spin and stomach rumble.

Feeling exhausted and burdened with her grief, her mad rush to get out of the ashram came to an abrupt halt when she saw Har ki Paudi and its peaceful environs. Though there were a number of people thronging the place, they could not take away the inherent peace of the place. Urmilla sat down on the steps, gazing wistfully at the water.

Out of nowhere, she heard a faint voice reminding her a story. Ganga was not only meant to wash away your sins. It also had the power to wash away all your sorrows and tiredness.

Seeing the flowers and what not floating in the river, she decided against taking a dip. She did move down the steps so that her feet were now dipped in the cool waters. The sense of serenity even in the madness engulfed Urmilla like a soothing blanket. It was as if the mere presence of the flowing river had the power to quieten minds and tongues.

“What do you see?”

She heard a voice from behind her. She turned to see a man in a suit sitting a little away from her. The suit looked incongruous in the heat, but he didn’t have a bead of perspiration on his forehead. The man had a smile on his face and a kindness in his eyes that spoke of millennia of hurt and pain and suffering. The enormity of it attracted and repulsed Urmilla. Was he another reporter, seeking his five minutes in the sun by procuring a sound bite from her?

She looked at his face again. The calmness and patience there instead of soothing her irritated her. He definitely didn’t look like he belonged, and yet it was she who was feeling out of place.

“Who are you?” she finally asked, her voice sounding harsh.

He didn’t seem to care. He seemed comfortable where he was sitting and considering the mood she was in, she could use someone other than Avinash or Narang to talk to.

“Why I am Master Mei Ling. I was told you were looking for me. Well, here I am,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

“Oh so you do exist,” said Urmilla, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “I thought my sister had made you up.”

“Did she make stuff up a lot?” he asked conversationally.

The past tense didn’t register. Urmilla made a disdainful face. “How do I know you are the real Master Mei Ling and not some hack wanting me to say untrue things about by famous but now dead sister?”

“A sister you mostly hate and yet still defend,” he said sagely. “I have nothing to show that will prove my identity except my word. It is up to you to take that leap of faith.”

He got up, and Urmilla thought he meant to walk away. Instead, he came and stood in front of her. He spread his arms and said, “What is real Urmilla? How does one define it?” His gentle smile turned into a mischievous laugh. “Do you define real by what you can see?” he asked pointing to himself.

“But…what if…you can’t see what is real anymore?” He snapped his fingers and just as suddenly as he had appeared, he disappeared into thin air, right in front of Urmilla’s eyes.

She gasped and stood up to run after him. But…where could she run? Was he real or a figment of her imagination? Did it matter?

Deciding the water of Ganga had magical properties that could induce hallucinations, Urmilla quickly turned around to head back to the safety of Avinash’s arms.


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