In a certain village, very long ago, lived a school teacher called Samsar Chand. He lived happily with this wife, parents and only daughter named Khema. Theirs was a close-knit family. Samsar Chand’s wife was a humble and noble. Though Khema went to the same school where her father taught but she never tried to use that as an excuse to bully others. Everything was hunky dory when suddenly Kashmir was attacked by some raiders from outside. They looted and mowed down everything that came their way. Their greed for money and gold resulted in killings of many people. In this maniac act of the raiders, one girl got orphaned. These rogues were about to kill this young girl too, but Samsar Chand came to her rescue. She was saved just in time and the goons were handed over to the local authorities.
Samsar Chand asked the orphaned child, “Little girl, what is your name”. In a halting and low voice she replied, “My name is Roopa”. Hearing her sweet voice, Samsar Chand told her, “Roopa, take me as you father and I will introduce you to my family and my little daughter Khema”. Roopa was scared and nervous and could not decide if she should go to a stranger’s house. At first she refused the offer and kept crying for a long time. Her life had come to a sudden halt and she did not know if it was right to accept the invitation. Samsar Chand kept imploring her, and, after a long time, she agreed to go along with him. On the long way back home, Roopa kept matching her small steps with those of Samsar Chand while shedding tears. On reaching home, everyone accepted Roopa as a new member of the family. Roopa was glad that they all liked her and accepted her, but Khema had her own share of insecurities. She did not like her family offering so much love to Roopa. She never shared any of her things with Roopa. She never played with her. This friction between Roopa and Khema created a lot of unrest in the family. However, this dislike of Khema for Roopa did not last long.
It was an acute winter time and snow had engulfed the house. The house inside was warm with namdas and gabbas spread in the common room. And everyone got a share of warmth from the local firepot, the kangri. The sun had not come out for days together but on that day it had shone for some hours. Watching this, Khema ran out in the courtyard to play in the snow. No sooner did she step out that a huge chunk of melted snow threatened to take her life. “Run Khema, you will hurt yourself,” saying this Roopa rushed to the rescue of Khema and saved her. In this episode, Roopa injured her right hand and could not go to school for some weeks. This changed Khema’s attitude towards Roopa and over the course of time, they became the best of friends.
Khema felt incomplete without Roopa. They wore the same dress, ate the same food, played games and studied together. They were like twin sisters. Every day in the evening, grandmother would walk up to the sacred Hari Parbat (ancient temple of Ma Shakti perched atop an old Mughal Fort) for offering prayers. Both the young girls accompanied their grandmother to the temple. After offering prayers to the Goddess, Khema and Roopa would tie a thread around a tree as a mark of their friendship. While tying the thread, they would chant lines with mutual reassurance – “be it chill, rain, snow, floods, famine or summer, may our friendship always be rock solid as it is today. May nothing on earth affect our friendship”. This was a ritual that they followed for years together. The threads on the tree had become dull, faded and tattered.
On Shivaratri, both Khema and Roopa decorated the house with their own tender hands. The walnuts for puja were handpicked by both the sisters from the farm. There was something special about this Shivaratri. The complete family danced, sang hymns, played on the tumbaknari (musical instrument shaped like a goblet and made of earthen clay and goat skin which is played on every occasion) and played with haar (mollusc shells used for playing a particular game during the Shivratri days). They invited the complete village for a feast to their place. On the day of “Salaam” (the day after the night of Shivratri), same amount of kharach (monetary gifts) was given to both the girls. Each of them saved it for buying a gift for each other. But destiny had something else in store. A day after Salaam, a major thunderstorm hit the valley. The thunderstorm was followed by heavy rains and floods. Torrential rains took away everything that came in its way. The water level went up considerably. Homes, livestock, human life, farms, market places all seemed to be have been swallowed by water. Samsar Chand and his family had also become the victims of the nature’s fury. The whole family was shattered and split apart. No one had any clue about anyone else. Samsar Chand was in the market place, Khema and Roopa were in the farmlands and the rest of the family was at home. Khema and Roopa held on to each other, hands very tight, but one heavy blow of wind pushed them to opposite sides of the road. And there they were further carried away in different directions by the wind and destiny. Life moved on and years passed by but Khema and Roopa had no clue of each other. After the catastrophe, Roopa had moved to Srinagar. She had taken asylum in a missionary school. She began working as a cleaner (sweeper) in the school and earned some pennies for her food. Taking her good conduct into account, she was permitted to study in the same school. Though relatively stable in life, Roopa always missed her old family and the most of all, Khema. Time does not stop for anyone. Roopa, with the blessing of the headmaster of the missionary, got married to a well-read and educated Brahmin boy. Her new house was close to the village where she used to live with Khema. The very thought that she was closer to the village ignited the hope of meeting her sister again. Her in-laws were good to her and she had also developed affection for them. But there was one thing she never disclosed to anyone, not even to her husband. Roopa went to Hari Parbat temple everyday in the wee hours of the morning praying for the welfare of Khema and her family. Since her new house was closer to Hari Parbat, she managed to frisk for 20 minutes and share her sorrow with the Almighty. Roopa went through a flood of emotions when she saw the tattered, faded threads still held on to the tree.
Losing a family, parents, home and a friend can really be traumatic for a young girl. Khema could not come to terms with life. After the floods settled, Khema kept sitting outside her old house, waiting for everyone to come back home, and take her inside. Khema did not move for days together from that place, and became an object of ridicule for the passers-by. Khema, indifferent to everything, hallucinated in her own web of thoughts. She just kept crying all the time and for days together she had not eaten anything. One day, finally she was forced by her hunger to leave that place and look for food. She kept walking and walking for weeks like a nomad. One bright day, she reached the house of an established Pandit family. She stood at their doorstep waiting for someone to come out. An old lady walked out of the door and spoke to Khema, “Yes, young lady, what can I do for you? Who are you?”. Tattered and devastated, Khema narrated the complete story of the floods and said “Madam, please give me some work so that I can earn some pennies and eat food. I have been hungry for many days now”. The old lady replied, “I will give you food, don’t worry, I will give you rice with fish and lotus stem, but dear daughter for employing you I will have to wait for my daughter-in-law to return and help me decide. She has gone to a nearby village for a wedding. But until she returns, why don’t you do some cleaning of my garden?” Khema promptly replied, “Yes, of, course, I will”.
After many days of working in the Pandit household’s garden, Khema realized that destiny had put her closer to the temple of Hari Parbat. The Pandit’s house was at a walking distance from the temple. Elated with joy and sorrow, with memories of old times, Khema could not believe the truth. As was expected, Khema started paying visits to Hari Parbat everyday at dawn and dusk. She would go there with the hope of meeting her parents and Roopa. This ritual continued for some weeks. Khema also felt a new hope in her life and was happier than before. But God had more beautiful plans for Khema. The daughter-in-law of the old lady had returned. The Pandit household was bustling with activity. As was expected, the old lady’s daughter-in-law stepped out in the garden to check on what was happening. However she could not see the new employee as Khema had left early for the day. The old lady’s daughter-in-law wanted to see the girl but for some reason could never have a faceoff with her new employee. This in some way made her suspicious of the new girl. She decided to shadow Khema wherever she would go. So on that day the daughter-in-law followed Khema at the dawn. She tip-toed behind Khema and unmindful of where her new employee was leading her. After a long walk Khema stopped at a particular point and so did the daughter-in-law. With an investigative eye, the daughter-in-law tried to scan her new employee, checking whether she had stolen any valuables from the house. Her concentration on Khema was so high that she did not realize that she had reached the auspicious place of Hari Prabat. Khema unaware of being stalked, bent her head in front of the divine place and, as always, prayed for the welfare of her family and Roopa. She sat there for some time looking for some peace of mind. As Khema turned to go back home, she was aghast to see Roopa standing in front of her. Was it a dream or a reality? For once it was real. All this while the lady who followed Khema to Hari Prabat was Roopa herself. She was the old lady’s daughter-in-law. Both of them embraced each other and wept profusely. They shared their experiences of the past few years. Roopa took Khema to her house and introduced Khema as her long-lost sister.