The Temple Of Durga
The girl, instead of obeying, ran away. She reached the jungle, but at the limits of the forest she stopped - she had never gone in there and a cobra would probably bite her or a tiger would tear her in pieces, but even that seemed better than to go back - and there was only him. No, she would never go back.
Stumbling over the ends of her sari, with jingling beads at her neck and wrists, she pushed herself through the vegetation. Thorns scraped the beautiful fabric, but she didn’t stop until she was very, very deep in the jungle, and failed to return.
She looked around. Yes, she would die there. It was as good a place as any. She hadn’t heard of any woman left to starve or be devoured by wild beasts. Usually, the girls who shared her fate cast themselves into the river, into a well, or the pyre where their deceased husband was burning. But she, Radha, would die there.
She took some steps further. The jungle soon cleared, and to her surprise, there stood a temple. A sanctuary in ruins! That would be the perfect place to die. She went and knelt on the steps leading to the entrance.
Hindu women weren’t allowed to enter the temples, so Radha bowed until touching her forehead to the ground and then looked at the carvings on the door. That temple was devoted to Durga, goddess of revenge, who was depicted riding on a tiger and wielding scimitars in her several arms. Radha clasped her hands and exclaimed: “Mother Durga! If I really deserve it, give me peace and revenge for the offense I received. Be kind and come to me or may death take me.”
Suddenly, she heard a sound inside the temple. Radha jumped up, terrified. When she thought it was a monkey or some other animal, a human figure came out of the darkness and in two strides stood before her. She was a woman. But she had never seen a woman like her.
Her skin was fair and her hair a lighter shade of brown, different from all the women there, and she didn’t have clothes or sari as all peasants, but four little pieces of fabric quite adjusted to her body, and high boots. She had a strange set of straps to her legs and carried a bundle on her back. She was also tall and strong, but what intimidated Radha were her eyes, limpid and challenging, full of fierceness and self-confidence more usual of men or, in any case, of the upper castes.
Radha immediately thought she was before a goddess, and therefore fell at her feet and touched the tips of her boots, as all low-casted people should do with their superiors. But the goddess took two steps back. “Namaste.” She saluted. “I didn’t know there were any peasants around here. What village do you come from?” She spoke hindi perfectly, but with a strange accent Radha couldn’t identify.
“From Kusuma Baradhji, lady.” She answered, without taking her forehead off the ground.
“That’s some way off. Are you lost?”
“No, lady. I came here with a purpose.”
“This temple had been abandoned for years. Why did you come here?”
“To die, lady.” Radha said with dignity.
The goddess raised her eyebrows in surprise and then said: “Why do you stay bowed there?”
“You’re a goddess. You came out of the temple when hearing my prayer. You’re Durga coming to take revenge on my enemies!”
Then the goddess threw her head back and began to laugh. Radha allowed herself to look up and saw her carefully placing the burden on her shoulder and running her hand through her hair, which was pulled into a long braid. “So Durga, huh?” She laughed again. “Durga has ten arms, wields scimitars and rides a tiger. I’m afraid I’m not as showy.”
“You’re Durga.” The girl insisted. “You’ve come from the temple.”
“I was just visiting it.” Answered the other with a twang of sarcasm.
“Women never enter the temple.”
“Oh, so what am I? A monkey?”
“You’re a goddess, and so you live in the temple.”
The goddess who refused to be that laughed again. Her eyes glowed in fun. “Most people call me Tomb Raider, which in my mother language means “grave robber”. Some have called me Amazon, which means warrioress. Almost all are devoted to drag my name through the mud, but I’d never met someone who’s bent on deifying me. What’s your name, child?”
“Like Krishna’s wife. You’re the one who has a goddess’ name.” Assuming that the chat was over, the woman bent to pick up the burden. Then Radha saw she was hurt. A trickle of blood went down her leg, an ugly cut in the upper thigh. Quickly she took a step and took the bundle, which was quite heavy, but she still swiftly carried it on her head. “Allow me, lady. I’ll take it.”
She shrugged and pulled out a long machete, with which she began to break through the foliage. “Call me Lara.” She said.
It turned out that the goddess who claimed not to be so had her camp near. Seeing that place and the weapons she had, Radha began to wonder if perhaps Lara-Durga could be actually a dacoit, a bandit. There the girl placed the bundle and Lara began to unwrap it carefully. After several padded coats a beautiful statue of Durga appeared, very small and made of ivory inlaid with precious stones. “I was told to recover it. I thought maybe it had been stolen a long time ago, but fortunately I was wrong.” She put the statue in a box and sealed it. Then she hid in her tent and sat down to heal the wound.
“How can you be hurt?”
“A blade grazed me. I’d have lost a leg, but I guess today was my lucky day.” She said that with the same insouciance and indifference as someone would speak about the weather. That shocked Radha, who hadn’t heard of any temple with blades that hurt people. “This one had.” Lara said. “When a temple has something valuable inside, it defends itself against thieves.” The woman laughed sarcastically again, but Radha still didn’t understand. “Why did you seek death near Durga’s Temple?” She asked then.
The girl frowned. “I was fleeing from the suttee. My husband’s dead and my mother-in-law wanted to burn me with him. But I didn’t want to, so she was about to shave my head and cast me out into the street. I’d rather starve in the jungle.”
“From which caste are you?” Lara continued, as if that story hadn’t touched her at all.
“I’m an untouchable.”
That meant being an outcast at India. They weren’t allowed to accept even a glass of water, and Radha was quite impressed that a person who seemed to belong to a higher caste was actually speaking to her, or even looking directly at her. “What’s your caste?” The girl asked then.
“Oh, I’m high-born.” Lara replied, wincing. “Complete rubbish.”
That confused the girl even more. She began to believe that woman was crazy.
“How old are you, Radha?”
Lara would’ve said twenty. That girl looked like a woman, but she was just a child, a girl matured early by blows and hardships. “You’re coming with me. To England.” Lara said then.
“You don’t stand a chance. If you stay here you’ll die, and if you go back to your people they will kill you. And I’m not so heartless as to leave you here...at least not yet.” She concluded with a smile.
Radha was again at the verge of Lara’s feet, but the woman retained and sternly said: “Forget what you may have learned here. From now on I don’t want you crawling at the feet of anyone, least of all me, do you understand?”
“Don’t ever call me that! I’m not the lady of anyone. I’m simply Lara Croft.”
The woman nodded, satisfied, and she just bandaged her thigh. Then she leaned back in her hammock and closed her eyes.
Radha came to the conclusion that while not a goddess, this woman had come, in any case, in answer to her prayers.