A first person account of a tragic incident that changed the life of a ten-year old for ever. The boy, now 20, has come come back to his ancestral house and recollects how much the world has changed around him since the incident. As he contrasts the past with present, the story unfolds.
It's after three years that I'm back here in the ancestral house, three years since I left this place to the tiny cupboard rooms of my hostel, three years since my heart last beat with the prayer bells. So many memories crystallized in nook and corners of this house, in the wooden banisters and the marble stairs, in the cluttered cupboard shelves, and in the air that seemed to have frozen around me without even the slightest draught. I was seventeen back then, and I'm twenty now. So many things have changed, but yet the past remain the same. Just as livid and mysterious.
The sheet on the sofa was peach in color, with magenta flowers and dark caramel vines on it. I kept my head to the side rubbing my left cheek against the fine hairs of velvet cushion, and my right ear to the humming tunes of the ceiling fan. “Sleep my baby… sleep,” It grunted in a metallic voice.
Passing through the door ajar, gleaming rays of sun shine fell on the beige ceramic tiles which shattered them throughout the room, and lit the orange peel paint of the walls. The paint had flaked out at places that had later been covered with bits and pieces of the past. Above the door, a wreath –like the Olympics ones-- of plastic flowers which I got for my first birthday was hung. In the middle of wreath, it read happy birthday in a rather dull font. To its side paint had flaked out in a large area, and was covered by the poster of a huge marsupial; I’m not sure what it’s called, but it covered the bare wall well enough. On the opposite wall was a calendar which wasn’t turned for months and still showed January for April. This was, maybe, our own way of questioning the audacity of time.
There are plastic flowers all around--purple roses with neon green petals, violet anthuriums with short fleshy peach spikes, and a conical bouquet with alternate circles of red and white chrysanthemums. Life abstracted into these dry and dead sculptures only added to the mundanity that was choking me. I closed my eyes and cajoled myself into a nap. It didn’t work.
Past the walls and the plastic flowers, I could hear footsteps outside, the giggling sound of leather on pebbles, where the sun shone brighter and where the floor was stones instead of tiles. I hugged the cushion tighter, and pretended to sleep. There was nothing scarier than awkward conversations with strangers, and especially those strangers whom you have seen all your life; I knew few people here although I knew more people here than anywhere else.
“Anyone in the house? Anyone?,” asked a middle-aged male voice with a coarse edge to it.
I closed my eyes and smothered the cushion with my face. I doubt if he could see my back through the door half-open. I sprawled further into the cotton balls beneath the velvet, into the niche I made, pushing the sofa springs with my stomach muscles and knees alike.
“und … Yes…” My mom ran and walked both, from the kitchen to the door wiping her hands on a towel. "What’s the matter?" She asked it by raising her chin, and then lowering it.
I didn’t see that, but I knew she raised her chin. Does all the time. And about wiping the hands, well I lied there too. But does all the time.
“ We are going to Velankani church next week!, it’d be good if you could donate something….”
"Seri, I’ll bring"
I heard another round of footsteps around the sofa, and the clinging of coins and then, another round of footsteps. She gave a ten rupee note, unfolded, with the neat fold marks. Does all the time.
"When you going? If you are going on Monday, there is a new train in the morning, seems it is better than the bus route."
"No. We are going by bus, my son and daughter –in-law are coming from gulf on Sunday. You know! Long travel. They'll be very tired. We will then go after that on Tuesday."
"Ours has come from Bombay last week. Still resting all the time. Children nowadays are not as energetic as we used to be. The goodness of fresh vegetables and yams. Nowadays they only eat bakery food and chips. You know what they call! Uhm… FastFud."
A gust of giggles ensued. And yeah, when she said 'Ours' she meant me-her only son.
"Enna sheri, Okay Bye. Have got another dozen houses to cover"
"Oh… sheri. Bon voyage!"
Bon Voyage? She didn’t say that did she? I can’t hear with all these velvet in my ear. I turned and faced the fan which still grunted. And another round of footsteps past the flowers, around me, under the fan, and straight to the kitchen.
My childhood was full of real flowers, not the plastic ones on the walls. We—my two friends and I—would go from house to house and collect flowers to offer at the village temple. There were germanium, lotuses, jasmine, roses but not hibiscus. It was dosham, a bad omen, to offer hibiscus to the God. It was the untouchable among the caste flowers.
This notion of dosham has a widespread acceptance in my village , and that too cutting across all religions and castes, and all skin colors; even the dark skinned ones like me believed in it. You should not do something which is a dosham; and sometimes, you should not even think about it. It dominated all discourses on morality and what would otherwise be mere banal choices. It imparted blind philosophy into kitchen, schools, and The gardens.
And yeah…, the Flowers. We walked to our homes with clusters of scarlet and red germanium in polythene bags that displayed textile or jewelers advertisements. Then, we would sit in a circle and pluck the buds out of the cluster. Like hibiscus, it was dosham to offer the buds too.
“Only mature flowers; phully bloomed.” The temple priest says that every time we hand him the flowers, and glares at the flowers with a suspicious look. I knew what he thought. What if there was a bud buried in the pile of flowers?
Newly plucked bud tubes bled glistening drops of nectar at the ends and I sucked them in with the tip of my tongue like a chameleon catching fresh flies. I felt a tingle at the tip of my tongue.
She came back with a plate of carrots and beans and started peeling the carrot . This way she can talk to me. I think she saw me turn around.
"So… you are an atheist I see. Is everyone in you college atheists?" She asked without raising her head.
"No only a couple of ‘em."
"So what you do? Burn bible and stuffs? Instead, read Marx and stuffs?"
"Nah… we just don’t pray mummy, that’s all. And… we help people in real ways. You know! Without praying and all."
“I know everything. You know what! Modni’s son was an atheist too. Now see… there isn’t even a single church in the Kattanam area that he doesn’t go to. God has his ways. Well… did I tell you? Yesterday, that Venu’s daughter ran away from house with that Moideen who lives near the boat house . The police caught them from the railways station today morning. I knew the girl was a loose character.”
The police, the heroine that ran way with the hero, a perfect cinema love story, popularized time and again by the many movies made with the same theme, and yet the girl was a loose character? I was so appalled by my interest in the story that I ran fingers across my stubble and reassured me of my masculinity even in the middle of this girl talk.
She later told me that the fallen heroine and her beloved used to meet in the deserted house near the lake; where I, in my thirteenth year of existence, had the fate of seeing a mother cat giving birth to four ill fated kittens, and one of them so ill fated that the mother ate, or rather swallowed it right after its birth. Later people told me that the mother cats get vitamins and proteins it needs that way, and that it ate her child where as our mothers ate tablets, capsules, and chavanaprasham. For the next three weeks, I cycled myself to the lake everyday to see the kittens, and their mother. No. Only the kittens, because they were so cute, and I wished their mother was away, so that I could bring one of them home and give it hot milk.
In the mornings, thick mist floated over the grimy green water of the lake and the long-stemmed red lotuses in it. Behind the haziness of the morning mist, I could hear the pale dew drops nuzzling at the new buds, cajoling them to open up and guide them into the golden pollen and sweet nectar inside. By noon, the dew drops warmed and collected at waxy surface of the floating lotus leaves like drops of mercury from a shattered thermometer. Tiny balls of silver on a green paint-pallet. I would balance myself on the hem of the bank by clutching the neem tree and pluck the lotus flowers that made the silver balls dance and spill over to the grime or the waxy foliage. We then walked with handful of lotuses clutched in our tiny fists with its long stems dripping water down our pants while its flowers dusted pollen on our shirts.