ANASTASIA

PROLOGUE

Many, many years ago, in a little known village in India, named Jhilpaar, there lived an old doll-maker, with his pretty, devoted daughter, Dulari. They lived some distance away from the village, at the very edge of a dense forest that surrounded it, in the ruins of an ancient, underground passage. While the old doll-maker was busy night and day, making pretty little dolls that stood around ten inches tall, it was his daughter who did all the work, besides taking care of every single need of her father. For the doll-maker’s fame as a master craftsman had spread so far across all the neighbouring villages and still farther, that even the king and his family, who lived in the old castle on the hill, miles and miles away from the village of Jhilpaar, had become his regular customers. So he had no time for anything or anybody other than his precious dolls.

Dulari, however, did all the household chores and the work outside without any complaint. She never even complained about her father’s indifference towards her. For years, her life had followed the same unwavering pattern and she couldn’t recollect a time when she had not acted as her father’s guardian angel. She had no memories of her mother either. She had heard from her father that she had lost her mother as an infant; and in answer to her other questions, he had given her a doll – a doll that he had crafted in the perfect image of her mother. So her only amusement, in the course of her busy days, was to look at the doll and wonder what their life might have been like, had her mother been alive. And whenever she touched the doll while cleaning it and washing its dress, she would look into its eyes – very sad, but alive – and miss her mother.

The old doll-maker and his daughter might have continued with their lives in the same fashion for many more years, had a complication not surfaced in the form of a young sipahi, one of the trusted royal guards. One afternoon, when Dulari was at the village well, fetching water, a soldier sporting the garb of a royal guard, rode into the village and up to the women fetching water at the village well and asked for directions to the doll-maker’s place. Now, royal guards coming in search of the doll-maker, was no spectacle in this village. The women immediately pointed to Dulari, who offered to show him the way to her house.

On the way home, Dulari and the young sipahi, who called himself Ramlal, fell talking and he told her a few stories of battles and ambushes that he had been in and the girl felt a growing curiosity about the world outside the village, a world she had never known and would, possibly, never ever get to know. On the other hand, Ramlal was as much intrigued by the girl’s beauty and manners as by her curiosity – he had never before come across such a sympathetic listener. Soon they were at the doll-maker’s, and after asking him to sit on a log of wood that served as a stool, and calling out to her father, she went inside to resume her day’s work. That evening, unlike on other occasions when the royal guards came back later to take back packages for the king, Ramlal didn’t leave; he had to stay till the next morning when the doll-maker would hand him a special package to take back to the king. So, late in the evening, Dulari, after having finished her chores, sat at the mouth of the passage, listening, while Ramlal, pacing to and fro, continued with his stories. It was already quite late in the night, when they both nearly jumped out of their skins, hearing the shout of the old man, who had stormed outside to see what the matter was, having finally missed his supper for once. As a guilt-ridden Dulari scampered away to fetch her father his long-awaited meal, chastising herself for this criminal negligence, the doll-maker glared at the soldier for a few moments – a glare so terrifying, that Ramlal’s blood flowed ice-cold in his veins for those few moments – before going back to his work.

The next morning, Ramlal left early, just as soon as the package had been delivered to him, without saying goodbye to his young friend. That day and in the days that followed, Dulari missed him in a strange way, and wondered whether he would ever come back, because she, somehow, could not shake off the feeling that his hasty departure had been the result of something that her father had said or done. For she had also lately become aware of a change in her father’s attitude towards her; whether it was a jealous possessiveness or simply suspicion, she didn’t quite know, but she had a feeling that something sinister lurked behind it, whatever it was, and so she had grown to fear him – a feeling she had never before associated with her father.

Almost a fortnight later, one afternoon, when Dulari was washing clothes at the well, Ramlal again came to see her. When she asked whether he was running an errand for the king again, he answered that it was his day off and that he had come there only to see her again. So, all the while that Dulari washed and cleaned, he sat beside her and they talked. And before he started back for home, late in the afternoon, he made her a promise to come see her again on a certain day. And so, it came to pass that these two young people started to meet more frequently, in secret, and eventually realized their love for each-other. Some months later, they married secretly and took the vows of undying love and their happiness knew no bounds.

All this while, the old doll-maker had been watching his daughter closely, without her knowledge, and detecting the tiniest changes in his daughter’s behaviour. She suddenly seemed more alive, spent more time outdoors, burnt the chappattis while being lost in thought – in short, she had changed visibly over the last few months. And the old man’s face began to ominously darken each passing day, as he started to divine the reason for this change in his daughter.

One night, Dulari had a strange nightmare. She dreamed that as she slept, something small crept towards her through the darkness, up her bed of straws and finally started pacing across her chest. As it paced, it grew in size until it turned into a hazy image of her mother. As it grew in size, Dulari started having difficulty in breathing. It seemed to her as if her mother’s image was trying to warn her about something. It kept pointing towards the door, as if it wanted Dulari to wake up and go out into the full-moon night. Just as it seemed that Dulari was about to lose her senses, the weight on her chest suddenly lifted and she woke up from her nightmare, glad to be able to breathe freely again. She started to get up for a drink, and while pulling off the tattered old blanket off herself, she heard a tiny clunk, as if something tiny had fallen. She lost no time in lighting the little earthen lamp and as she looked around in its light, she was very unpleasantly surprised to find her doll lying on the floor, next to her bed. She couldn’t understand how the doll could have moved itself down the shelf, where she always placed it, and across the dark room and up her bed. Yet one look at the blanket showed her the tiny dirty footprints of the doll on it. For one moment, she thought of throwing away the doll or burning it and then she decided that that could wait; she first needed to go outside into the night and find out what was going on. So she extinguished the little lamp and went to see whether her father was still asleep. That was when she got the second shock that night. Her father was nowhere to be seen; his bed hadn’t been slept in. She couldn’t imagine where her father could have gone at that hour. So, with a terribly unpleasant feeling, that she was about to witness something horrible, washing over her, she made her way outside, where the first thing that caught her eye was a light in the forest. Having decided that the forest was her destination, she slowly and carefully picked her way through the forest, creeping past hedges and going around the thorn bushes, until she finally came upon the source of the light. It was a clearing in the forest; on one side, a small fire had been lit using twigs and dry branches, and beside the fire, nearly facing her, was her father, dressed in black, seated squarely under the light of the full moon, on what looked like a blackened human corpse. In front of him and a little to the side, a small group of people were kneeling, one of whom, a man, was bound tightly with ropes, with the others holding him. At a sign from the doll-maker, a woman cut the ropes and freed the man, who jumped up and made as if to fly at her father’s throat. Just then, without a blink, her father threw some powder at the man, while uttering something incoherent. Imagine the girl’s horror when she saw the man, who was in mid-air, fall upon the ground and start to shrink, amidst his own screams of horror and pain and the raucous, cruel laughter of the others, until at last, all that was left of him was a ten-inch doll. It took all her courage to keep from screaming out at this horrifying spectacle, a feat which she accomplished by neatly ramming her fist into her mouth and biting down on it. She lay like this in the dark undergrowth for a few moments, before she decided that she now knew enough about her father, the doll-maker -or should she call him the tantrik? – to understand that her immediate safety lay in running back home, as fast as her legs could carry her, before someone here discovered her presence. For she could well imagine what might happen to her, if she was discovered. So Dulari flew back home and got under her blanket once again, feigning sleep, while in her mind, she went through the horrors of the night, over and over again. When her father came back home at the crack of dawn, after completing his nightly rituals, and stealthily came up to the door of her room to check whether she was asleep, she stiffened under her covers.

The next morning, Dulari, shaken but determined, went about her daily chores as usual, making every effort to conceal her terrible knowledge from her monster of a father, the dabbler in the black arts. For in the course of the night, she had decided upon a course of action. In a fortnight’s time, her Ramlal would again come to meet her and she had decided that this time she would leave this place with him for good. So she went about doing the household work with her usual air of calm, while she kept her brain busy with planning her escape.

The next few days were the longest of Dulari’s life; on one hand, she battled to control her terror every time she came in close proximity of her father, while on the other, she couldn’t wait for the days to pass so she could escape with her husband and leave all this horror behind. She had decided that she didn’t want to take away anything but a container of water and her mother’s doll. For she now had reason to believe that the doll was only trying to save her. Also she couldn’t imagine leaving the last vestige of her mother behind.

After a long wait, the day finally came when Ramlal came to meet Dulari. It was the day of the amavasyaa, the day of the new moon. As soon as Ramlal arrived, Dulari gave him a short account of what had happened in his absence while Ramlal himself told her of the frightening stories that he had but recently heard about the doll-maker. So they together planned the final details of their escape, before Dulari, for the time being, went back to the doll-maker’s.

That evening, when the doll-maker was at his busiest, trying to complete all his work before the night commenced – for he had to perform a sacrificial ritual on this auspicious night, before a certain hour – Dulari stealthily peeked into his work-place before hurrying away to get ready for her journey. Then, hiding the bundle behind the voluminous folds of her dress, she told her father from the door that she was going out to gather firewood. The old doll-maker only grunted in reply. Soon after, the girl was tearing down the village road towards the other end of the village, where Ramlal was waiting with his horse. As soon as she arrived, Ramlal scooped her up onto his horse and the two tore away into the deepening darkness of the new-moon night, at a breakneck pace, as if the very devil was behind them.

Here, at the doll-maker’s, the night was already advanced when the old man realized, for the second time in his life, that his daughter hadn’t brought him his meal. So he hollered out her name a few times, before, getting up to see what the matter was, when his daughter didn’t answer his call. He first went to her room; no sign of her there. Then he went through the rest of the inhabited part of the old passage; still no sign of her. So he went outside and called out her name. No answering cry came back to him. Finally he started looking frantically for her, up every tree, behind every bush, combing through every inch of the dense forest, until, upon reaching the clearing in the forest, an evil spirit, one of his many minions, whispered into his ears the details of his daughter’s escape. The roar of rage that the doll-maker emitted, resounded across the forest and the entire village, waking up all the evil spirits who gathered around him to do his bidding.

The unhappy couple had long left the village behind and were tearing across a vast stretch of open ground, on the other side of which lay the fortified royal city, the darker outline of which could be dimly made out against the dark sky, when all of a sudden, the tantrik doll-maker appeared before them out of nowhere. The horse, letting out a neigh of abject terror, reared up on its hind legs, throwing the terrified riders off its back, before bounding away into the darkness. The old magician thundered, ” I am Birjapadd tantrik, disciple of the witch-prime Biraja and master of the black arts, who has control over the elements and spirits alike, and you two imbeciles thought that you could outrun me? Your naivety makes me want to laugh.” Their insides cringing with fear, Ramlal and Dulari helped each-other up with an outward show of courage, knowing their fate only too well. As the evil spirits, acting on their master’s orders, came towards them to bind them apart, Ramlal, in a vain effort to try and save themselves, unsheathed his sword from his kamarband and attacked the doll-maker. Without flinching an inch, without so much as batting an eyelid, the doll-maker, curving his bloodless lips in a cold, cruel smile, raised his hands and sprayed something on the advancing figure of Ramlal, while reciting something incohorent. Suddenly there was a blast and a green smoke obscured everything for a few moments, through which, however, Dulari could well hear Ramlal’s screams of agony. She dived blindly into the smoke, tears pouring down her face, looking for her husband, until she tripped on something small. In another moment, the smoke had cleared and she found herself looking in horror at the earthen doll that had been her husband. Her terror and sorrow were so deep that she forgot to scream; instead, she slowly turned to face her father. The doll-maker threatened her to come back to him, and it was then that she screamed at him, losing her reserve. “So is this what you had done to my mother, you monster? And all this time, you had been lying to me about how she had disappeared when she went to bathe in the river. What had she done to deserve such a fate? How long have you been doing this to helpless, harmless people like that man in the forest, the other night?” The doll-maker and his minions cackled like maniacs for some moments, before he proceeded to answer her question. “Oh! So you knew about me already and yet was foolish enough to think that you could run away from me and live to see the end of it? How very unfortunate! How very like your mother, who thought that she could save you by running away from me! She, like you, never imagined that I had the knowledge and speed of the elements and spirits under my command. You see, you are absolutely powerless against my knowledge of the dark arts. Submit and I might yet pardon you.” Furious on hearing this, Dulari rushed madly at her father, with the intent of finishing him off, only to be shoved away by something huge that came between them. What, then, was her surprise when she saw that it was nothing but a bloated, distorted image of her doll, which was trying hard to protect her from her father’s wrath. For a few fleeting moments, even the cruel face of the old doll-maker wore an expression of utter incredulity. Then, with one wave of his hand, he seemed to wipe away the expression of incredulity off his face, and with it the bloated image of the doll. “You were weak when alive, and you are weaker still in your present state. You know that you can’t save our daughter and yet you dare confront me! She is mine to do with as I wish,”  he thundered, looking at the doll that once again lay at Dulari’s feet. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he performed the same black magic on his daughter, turning her into yet another ten-inch-long earthen doll. Thereafter, he turned to his minions and ordered them away, before coming back for the three dolls that lay there helplessly, covered in soil. He gathered them up in his arms and went away into the night, never to be seen or heard of again.

*End of Prologue*