Set in turbulent twelfth century India, against the backdrop of the savage wars waged by Muhammad of Ghor and his band of Turkis, Starcursed is a sweeping tale of science, romance and adventure that will transport its readers to another world.
I didn’t stop running until I reached the lotus tank. The temple shone in the distance, its lights shimmering on the mirror of the water, music and laughter wafting from its crowded halls with every gust of wind. The lamp tower soared above me, quiet, inviting, deserted. I pushed open its heavy door and started to climb.
High up in the tower the sounds from the temple faded, leaving only the echo of my footsteps, and the tinkling of my silver anklets as I climbed. The steep, curved staircase could be treacherous in the dark, but tonight every niche in the tower was lit up in honour of the festival. I pushed the door open at the top and walked to the railing. There was someone there.
The clear night sky ablaze with stars framed his lithe form. His face looked serious in the glow of a single flickering lamp. I could see that the tender light of the other day still shone in his eyes—Rahul.
He’d been waiting.
My mind went blank. I was breathless from the exertion of the steep climb and shocked at finding him there. How had he known where to find me? Perhaps he knew I would try to avoid him, and guessed I might be here.
‘Leela,’ he said, coming towards me. ‘I beg leave to speak with you.’
I looked away, trying to think of a way to stall his words.
‘I’ve wanted to thank you,’ I said, buying time, ‘for saving Loky.’
He would not be distracted. ‘I came to see you,’ he said. ‘But you weren’t home. I sent a message through Loky, but you didn’t reply.’
I couldn’t deny it.
‘I don’t know if you are avoiding me of your own will or if you were compelled to do so…’ He took both my hands in his. ‘We started something on board that ship,’ he said, ‘and I’m determined to finish it. I can’t go away like this, not knowing.’
My lungs were burning before I realized I had forgotten to breathe.
A hand under my chin lifted my face to his ardent gaze. ‘You know how I feel, Leela,’ he said, ‘but do you return my affection?’
His question hung in the air unanswered.
Behind Rahul, the red glare of Mars winked at me like an evil eye, holding my tongue fast. But even its malevolent shadow could not stop my heart from pounding, yes, yes, yes.
Far below I could hear the maid panting loudly as she climbed up the stairs. Still he waited.
‘I know it’s a fine mess, with my betrothal, and you being a Brahmin and me a Vaishya, and a Jain, and a mleccha,’ he said. ‘But if it doesn’t matter to you, Leela, I promise I’ll find a way. Just say the word...’
None of that mattered. What mattered was Rahul. How could I put him in danger?
‘Shall I ask my father to speak with your Baba?’ he looked into my eyes and said, so softly I could barely hear him.
The word burst from my lips before I could stop it, stunning us both. I pulled my hand away and covered my lips, but it was too late.
He looked stricken.
‘Leela…’ he said, ‘you can’t mean it.’
I shook my head silently.
The maid had finally reached the door. She saw Rahul there and glared at him, but he was still staring at me disbelievingly.
‘In that case,’ he said at last, in a voice that broke my heart, ‘I apologize for… any misunderstanding.’ He bowed stiffly, ‘I wish you every happiness. Always,’ he added. And then he left, taking all hopes of my happiness with him.
‘Rahul,’ I whispered, but he was gone.
But I couldn’t shake off the look on his face when I had said ‘no’. I had to stop him, I had to explain. I paced back and forth on the narrow space on the observation deck. But how could I? Should I even try?
I stopped and smoothed a piece of birch bark I had carried for my notes under the light of the lamp. With my iron stylus I drew a rectangle and divided it with diagonal lines into twelve diamonds. Within them I wrote the names of the planets in the positions they had been in when I was born. I dipped my finger into the black ink, rubbed it over the bark, and then wiped away the ink so the lines stood out stark, etched against the bark. I handed my star chart to the maid.
‘Find him and give him this,’ I said. ‘Go quickly.’
‘Give who?’ she asked.
‘Rahul Nagarseth,’ I said. ‘Please, I beg you.’
She studied the desperation on my face for a moment, and left quickly.
I settled down on the cotton mat on the tower and started to write the observations, my hands shaking. Would Rahul be able to analyse the chart and realize my dilemma? I wanted him to understand, but what purpose would be served by telling him, when there was nothing he could do? My stars were what they were. I should not have sent it.
The maid came back soon enough, with the news that she had not been able to find Rahul. Did I want it delivered the next day? I did not.
I had refused him; that was all he knew. He would probably go ahead with his engagement now. I tore the bark up silently and threw the tiny scraps from the edge of tower, watching them float slowly down to the crowds below while the conches blew and the temple bells rang, signalling that Krishna had been born.
About The Author:
Nandini Bajpai grew up in New Delhi, India, one of four sisters and many cousins, in a family that liked to read. Although she dabbled in corporate finance, business analysis, and fostering shelter animals, her first love is writing. Her novel Red Turban White Horse: My Sister's Hurricane Wedding was published in 2013 by Scholastic India. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, kids, their dog Yogi and cat Rakhan.
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