coconut tree from pinterest

As far as tales go, this was not a very interesting one. When Sumalatha decided to grow her hair out, it was already halfway down her back and the decision did not mean very much. She made the declaration halfway through eating a particularly oily uniappam. The coconut oil that coated her fingers might have been a reminder of the numerous wonderful properties of that sweet smelling oil- including long and lustrous hair. Now see, this wasn’t a particularly remarkable observation either because she had been using coconut oil twice a week all her life. There was coconut oil in the beans thoran she loved, in the deep-fried pappadams, in batter fried pazham pori, in the ground chilli and onion she had with tapioca. There was coconut oil in the banana chips she secretly hid inside her pillowcase, a handful stolen in the afternoons when amamma slept. Amamma loved her banana chips and she selfishly preserved the one tin she received thrice a year for occasional treats. They never lasted very long and a delicious  crunch on a night of heavy rains revealed their secret hiding place underneath Sumalatha’s lustrous hair. The rains came in November, Sumalatha didn’t have the time or temerity to remember to move the banana chips when amamma terrified of the thunder snuggled in with her. She received a good beating and the tin of chips was moved to amamma’s locker of gold, Dubai sweets and now its newest oily occupant. Coming back to Sumalatha’s decision, the other thing we find perfectly unremarkable is that she continued eating the uniappam, the sweetness of the jaggery dissolving all resolutions. She wrapped one in the ends of her saree, to be safely tucked into the pillow cover later at night, and wiped her oil soaked hands on her long lustrous coconut-smelling hair.

That night Sumalatha remembered why she decided to grow her hair out. It was Silk really, Silk did it all. The previous occupant of the musty room she now slept in had left little clue of who he was until she found the stash. The stash was found in two parts like an exciting jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit together perfectly even when both parts were found. Nari, amamma always said, was a quiet man who passed away just as quietly. He had left behind a transistor radio that didn’t work, and a mirror decorated with yellow, green and red paint marks. Sumalatha was not particularly attached to the room, she was only ever there at night. And the nights were brief, with room only for sleep and the occasional fantasy or two. Sumalatha did not fantasise very much. Until Silk of course. And then she fantasised about hair and strange mustachioed men and their large hands and broad shoulders, she dreamt of the burn of cigarette butts and pudgy fingers  between her legs.

Sumalatha had ordinary eyes, ordinary lips, a small button nose and a child’s body. She was fifteen years old or maybe nineteen, she wasn’t sure anymore. But the man who climbed the coconut tree thought she was a woman, so she must be fifteen. Or nineteen. She had come to this house when she was not a woman and had lived with ammamma and a house with seven empty rooms since then. Not many people came to the house, and she didn’t remember anyone from Bangalore who she thought should have come and visited her. Amamma did not speak much until she spoke a lot, and then she was fascinating until she ran out of her cup of tea and pappadam. There was a monthly ice cream trip to the town- one cup of vanilla ice cream that she licked clean. On her birthday she got the pink vanilla ice cream. The groceries arrived in tins and packets that someone had already opened and filled and taken things out of and put things in. She didn’t know from where. Vegetables came from the man who climbed the coconut tree. Bananas came from the small field behind the house. Amamma had black hair but was old and she still did all the cooking. Sumalatha only swept and mopped the house, once at 4 in the morning and then again at 9 before she took bath and then again at 5 in the evening before she took bath. She oiled her hair only in the mornings when amamma could boil hot water. Before she found Silk, she combed her hair only once a day. Now she combs her hair twice, even thrice sometimes. Once she had dried her hair in the sun in the morning, she flipped her hair down and pulled at each knot till her hair grew bigger and bigger. When she flipped it back, it sat like a large black halo that flowed down her back. She got ten minutes to let her hair down and then she had to comb it and tie it for the rest of the day.

Before sleeping at night, she used to plait her hair. After Silk, she left it open spread across the pillow with coconut stains on them. Amamma said that if you left your hair untied at night, yakshis would get caught in it. Paru had a baby with the man who climbed the coconut tree because she left her hair open at night. But for Sumalatha, Silk had gotten into her hair. She found her behind the Godrej bureau two months ago when her little pot of kajal rolled under it. Cutouts of the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her first instinct was to look away, because Silk did not look like a good girl. But she couldn’t. Every picture was a revelation – of a thigh, of a waist, of the hollow the spine made in the middle of her back, of her large bosom and her strangely slim arms. This was the first discovery. The second piece of the puzzle required a lot more effort. After two weeks of staring at Silk under the kerosene lamp, Sumalatha wanted more. She rummaged every bit of the room until she found the stash of magazines Silk came from. Behind the red, green and yellow paint-stained mirror. The magazines had a lot of other women, but Sumalatha knew why Nari had cut Silk’s pictures out. She was exceptional. The second discovery revealed a very important detail the pictures left out. The stories that came with Silk’s pictures always described her hair. Her beautiful long lustrous black hair that fell over her face, covered her bosom, reached down to her waist and made men forget their moustaches. She did things Sumalatha had never heard or seen women do. The men did things she knew the man who climbed the coconut tree would never have done to Paru. Paru said afterall that it was all just a mistake and they just fell asleep together in Jacob achayan’s field. This was no mistake though, and night after glorious night Sumalatha imagined stories of Silk and the men, carefully trying to picture what ‘the mangoes were ripe for the plucking’ meant or what ‘his manly weapon drilled into her passion-filled flower’ might be in the ‘garden of youthful delights’. Amamma began to complain about her day beginning late because Sumalatha hadn’t woken up to sweep the house at four. Well how could she, when Silk had consumed her nights.

On Sunday, when the man who climbed the tree came to the house, Sumalatha went up to him and offered a mango. He took a bite and his face contorted into several degrees of sour, just like the mango. “Puli!” he said and threw it down. It fell down as he climbed up the tree. Sumalatha decided the mango was not ripe for the plucking after all. That night she read her favourite story of Silk’s yet. In this one, the mustachioed man drove a lorry. The lorry was called, ‘Chakkara’, whose gentle purrs were just as seductive as its roars. On TV, Sumalatha’s favourite actor also drove a lorry in a hit film. She imagined this man to be that man. Both were mustachioed and had arms as strong as an elephant. Lorry man meets Silk, a common servant girl working in a paddy field on a day when Chakkara the lorry gets a punctured tyre. The farmer who owns the paddy field sends Silk out to entertain the lorry man while he gets his men to fix the puncture. Silk feeds him crispy fried fish and freshly tapped toddy. “Chakkare, roar for me” he calls out to her. As she turns, her eyes wide in enquiry he smiles and points at his lorry, “I was talking to her.” Silk smiles and walks toward him, her hair magically coming undone in the wind just as  the hooks of her blouse pop open, and offers him a mango for dessert. At this point Sumalatha realised that her blouse was much too loose and her hair was tied up when she offered the mango to coconut man.

The next day was the day Sumalatha ate the uniappam and thought about the coconut oil oozing out of it and made her decision. You see, right before she thought of her hair she also realised that even if her blouse did pop open the coconut man would find her mango sour. He had looked down at her from up in the tree many times and had disappointedly looked away. She didn’t have Silk’s eyes or her body or that waist or that bosom, but she did have her hair. So she decided to grow it out and wait till the next monsoons. The mangoes would be ripe then.

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munch woman
Edvard Munch, Woman in Three Stages

Two apples rotten, one orange sour, two mangoes ripe

 Pick the sour orange first, peel it
Squeeze the juice out, sugar and a pinch of salt.
Keep the rind, throw the seeds.
Offer an apple to a cousin, the other to a lover.
Leave both uneaten apples as memories of slight.
Ashes and oil lamps keep the fruit flies away.
Two mangoes ripe,
Two mangoes ripe,
Eat a mango over the sink,
Let a lover watch, keep the other mango away.
The juice of the orange has frozen.
Offer a sour orange popsicle to a child
Tart, smile a secret smile.
Powder the orange into dust
Let a lover watch,
thin peeled orange paste on your face.
One mango ripe, cold and sweet
There’s none in the fridge, not in the fruit basket
The apple’s covered in ash and lamp oil
Popsicle stick covered with ants in the bin
The lover is asleep
A kiss of sweet mango, a sourness on his lips
A slim kitchen blade, to peel mangoes and cut apples
Slice the lover live, sweet mango on his lips

ginger tea

It was late, really late in the evening when he called. The conversation was quick, unusually quick. My response was ready, carefully written out and repeated in mind over and over again for three days now. At the end, it took no time at all. It must have been our most efficient meeting in all of seven months of working together. In good time the blog will be split down the middle- ‘text.image.’ , it says now. Text will become mine, Image his. A smooth parting.

After the ‘meeting’, I went downstairs to make some good strong ginger tea. A fraction of an image shot through my mind and out with a shudder – a glimpse of the tiny kitchen and electric stove top. Achan sat on the sofa, the same spot he had occupied all morning and everyday for the past four years. He didn’t look up, he didn’t hear anything as I walked past the living room and into the kitchen. Moving into a small flat, I thought would mean more contact between us- albeit forced. I didn’t think either of us would look forward to it. Amma’s leaving only meant the distance was furthered, to long uncomfortable silences.

The tea powder was over. The tea powder never did get over when she was here. It was as if everything would always be where I hoped to find it. A little dance, right hand up for the tea box, left hand up for the sugar box, a swirl and turn for the Good Life from the fridge. I decided to make tea without the tea powder. There was ginger, that little sturdy bit of it leftover from the stir-fry two days ago. It was fresh and smelled sharp. I soaked it for ten minutes in boiling hot water. When Achan is not at home, I play music, my phone travels with me to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the balcony in the rain. Mostly music and the periodic vibration of perfunctory text messages. Now it’s silence. He’s taken to reading again, achan. It’s a good thing I suppose, but the noise of the tv used to help distract us from our silences. Her voice would be the loudest, amma’s. When I was still in school, I would wait to hear the rumble of the bike and her loud bubbling laughter till I switched off the tv and ran upstairs. Seconds later I would be walking down, as if unaware of the quick flight and practised deceit. Half a conversation and a half dozen bursts of laughter would trail behind her as she walked in. Everything about her was quick, except her smiles. She changed out of the saree and into her favourite puff-sleeved maxi even as she made tea for the two of them. She discovered the empty biscuit tins even as she cut vegetables. Her presence was a jolt of energy and the only thing I’d look away from my endless novels for.

The fights had been ceaseless for the past couple of months. The blog was soundless for a month now, unwilling to bear the brunt of the viciousness that had creeped between us. We knew it would end, just as the blog did. An abrupt, non-conclusive end. I poured the ginger ‘tea’ into a cup and slipped out of the kitchen and past achan staring at a dead TV. When they first bought the TV, it was too big for the glorious wooden showcase that adorned an ugly yellow wall. It lay unused for two years till achan decided to cut the top half off(the showcase, not TV) and leave it in the balcony. The same place the swing, the exercise machine, a cot, a sofa and my yoga mat lay. A museum of the obsolete. Now the TV barely covered the yellow wall. The yellow of a hard-boiled egg. Achan liked them soft-boiled. I placed the tea gingerly on the coaster on my bed, looked into the mirror, squinted my eyes and stuck out my tongue. I didn’t smile. I hear achan calling me. I stare at my tea and then into the mirror. I wait a couple of minutes and then went downstairs.

“Make me some tea,” he said.

“Make me some tea,’ he used to say.

ghosts for the haunting and the Prologue(2)

How beautiful it is to look at, never have I seen or heard anything like it- Nalacharitam, Unnayi Warrier

 

krishna gopikas

***

Nila looks her best at  night. She is resplendent in the rains, full and flowing. The lazy river is antithetical to the typical Keralite who wakes up at the crack of dawn and shuts shop at sunset.  Nila belongs to the night, ripples of moonlight gleaming on her silvery waters. Nila likes being not merely the protagonist, but the solitary character to her own story. It is from her story that we borrow the beginnings to the story of Kathakali. It is on her banks that Kerala Kalamandalam, the premier institution of Kathakali was founded almost a century ago. It is on her banks that my father bought his first house in Kerala.

Painkulam is a small village in Shornur, the house we bought is part of someone’s ancestral house. It is ever so slightly odd to live in someone’s ancestral house, there’s no telling how many generations have grown up here. The newly painted walls, the tiled floors, the Usha ceiling fan, all hide layers of musty old stories. It’s usually in the still of the night or during a power cut in the monsoon that my little box-like room becomes claustrophobic with someone else’s ghosts. My father tells me that it is the ancestral house of a kathakali artist. A chutti artist, a glorified version of the regular makeup-artist. The man currently lives in America. As most stories are, his was also a love story. He fell in love with an American woman who came to learn Kathakali and went back with her to the U.S. Today he’s exported the Kathakali makeup tradition to the U.S and given it new forms and a new name and seems to be doing pretty well with some highly acclaimed art exhibitions. My father claims that it is the ghosts he’s left behind that have pushed me into kathakali. Perhaps it’s just that. The proximity to the Kalamandalam, an old veshakaran’s ghost, or simply a renewed interest in theatre. But a little more digging into why kathakali came back into my life, reveals more.

As a child I must have been terrified of Poothana. In full costume, she was even more of a demoness than I had imagined when I read the stories. That image of Poothana trying to kill the baby, the god I worshipped, stuck in my mind as the all-encompassing figure of evil. Years later when I started researching Hindu mythology and its many manifestations in India, Poothana came back to me. She had haunted me as a demoness when I was a child, but now she haunted me in her vesham as the noble woman. I read the story again, and this time as a Kathakali padam. I went back and looked for the demons and the gods in Kathakali, in an effort to find the heroes and villains of my own story. I was no longer a child who believed in the good of the gods, but I was more importantly not the child who believed in the evil of the demons. Kathakali became a synecdoche for the various understandings and manifestations of caste in Kerala.

excerpt from Vidooshakan- the Harlequin.

Find part(1) here

Nari’s transistor radio

The only celebration for me was the leaf itself, I’m sure Paru would agree. Ummoos had used the long ladder to twist, coax, cajole the large leaves from the tree only that morning. It was the first thing I would see every birthday morning while I brushed my teeth under that very tree, a mixture of Colgate and saliva that made the tree grow too tall for Ummoos to pull down its branches.

I loved her passionately, my saviour and friend. Ummoos was brought from Tirur five years ago to look after Ammamma. Achan had insisted she get some help after her arthritis got so bad that she had a nasty fall from the mango tree. No, really. Ammamma always climbed the mango trees in summer, in full mundu and veshti, completely unabashed. She fought with Achan about it for months until Ummoos made the perfect sour mango curry and then her religion was forgiven. Now ammamma and I couldn’t imagine our ripe mango and plantain leaf plucking summers without Ummoos. When mangoes were at stake, ammamma always found a way to make peace with her gods.

The leaf was bright green in colour, dotted with white, yellow, red, black and a lighter green. I started moving around the rice to form the chutti first, thick and white lining the boundaries of the face. I let the green of the leaf pour in, before drawing the black of the eyebrows with Ummoos special ginger-tamarind chutney. The eyebrows rose in a perfect arc. I stared at the half formed veshakaran. “Stop playing with your food, kutti!” Ummoos never called me by my name, just kutti. I looked up at the roof leaking more songs. “ Should I go upstairs and call him amma?” Ummoos asked tentatively. No one spoke about Nari in the house except us kids and ours was more with the transistor radio than Nari himself. The thing had to die, and it was our yearly mission to provide it the best possible death. “ I’ll go, I’ll go. I’m done anyway, I’ll take the food to Nari and come back for my payasam.”Appukuttan regularly punctured holes into Nari’s long, song-filled afternoons.

I pleaded silently with amamma  to let Appukuttan leave. There was an evil gleam in his eye when he wished me a happy birthday in the morning, I knew the familiar “Nannaku vechitundu di” look. Appukuttan firmly believed that ammamma was partial to me because I was from ‘outside’ and he sought revenge for every extra teaspoon of Horlicks and special hot water baths. My birthdays were always occasion for an elaborate prank. Usually involving a good degree of public humiliation, terrible frights or just some physical pain when in an uncreative mood. But amamma asked him to sit back down and eat his payasam off the leaf, “ And don’t let me hear you call him Nari again, he is your uncle. Show some respect child! Have you taken bath today?” Ammamma always asked him that question when he got into trouble, one that inevitably landed him in more trouble. “ The water was cold.”

I quickly folded my leaf and slipped out before Appukuttan caught my eyes, baths were a sensitive topic with him. Ammamma took a bath once at 3:30 in the morning and once at 5:30 in the evening. She took bath silently and in complete darkness, as if in secret. I discovered ammamma’s secret one achingly embarrassing night two years ago. I could never get used to having a toilet outside the house and the dark dingy little hole into which unspeakable things went into was impossibly worse at night. On that particular night, the urge was tremendous and all dingy holes and darkness was to be suffered, if suffer I must. On my right there was Appukuttan, to my left Unni and above, Nari’s transistor radio bleating steadily into the night. In the darkness, the radio sounded like a wailing banshee stuck behind the walls. I paused for a few seconds in complete fright, willing the urge to go back the way it came. But it was one of those nights. I made a sudden dash from one door end to the other.  Now if there was no moon that night, the darkness would have been so complete that I wouldn’t have seen her. But in the narrow gleam of the moonlight, a frail shrivelled up figure with a bright halo covered in white had a stunning effect on me. Again, the effect was so stunning that I could have remained silent, but in between two creaks of Nari’s wretched radio the figure looked up straight at me. I managed a scream of the likes that overcame all singing and all sleeping in the house. My urge found a way out and by the time the entire house had found its way to the ghost, ammamma had slapped me twice and whisked me away to get cleaned up complaining about having to take another bath. By the end of that summer my ears had turned a permanent burning red.

Ummoos and I went to feed Paru our leaves, “ Look at her, she can both shit and eat at the same time. Who does she think will clean this up for the third time today!” From what seemed like right behind us, a ringing shriek and a thud sent Paru mooing into Ummoos’ midriff.

Sujata

An iron bucket screeches as it is dragged against the cement floor.

This was the sound of summer while Sujatha was alive… Or at least till she was packed away to the hospital, when for the first time a maid set foot inside her home. Until then, Sujatha was adamant to keep the chores of her home to herself.

I’m four, five, six or seven years old. The iron bucket wakes me up every summer morning… mornings soaked in the vacuous lull of the vacation… soaked like an old tattered cloth in Sujatha’s hands. Awake but unwilling to wake up, I listen to the cloth as it infiltrates the surface of the water in the bucket, drowns, and is suddenly pulled out by Sujatha’s noiseless hands – triggering the pitter-patter grumble of the dripping water.

Noiseless hands, noiseless feet and a ruined damp cloth mop the floor so unobtrusively that every morning I feel that Sujatha has slipped away suddenly. Hers was a noiseless presence. Small, firm, noiseless presence.

Bent over the red-oxide floor, she is painting it with successive damp strokes – each vanishing as soon as the other appears. “Sujatha?” I mutter, failing to see her bent figure, though aware of her presence – noiseless, invisible. “Hmm” she says silently. And I sink deeper into the thin blanket, prolonging the comfort of the bed and Sujatha’s presence revolving around it.

It’s not always that I would call her “Sujatha”, by her name.

“I don’t mind, but you can’t call me Sujatha in front of others. Amamma is fine’.

Amamma… Amma’s amma.  For me, just Sujatha. Who lived and passed away in graceful noiselessness.

An iron bucket screeches.

k1

There are two reasons why you’d find a crowd in front of a shop in Kerala. One, it’s pouring: aunties with their big black umbrellas, hold up their sarees as the roads turn into rivulets; men with their well-oiled hair and their lungis tucked above their knees, won’t risk riding their bikes in this rain. The only other reason is that there is a strike/ a hartal, and there’s a queue of men outside an unassuming looking rickety old shop, with a small board in yellow that reads TODDY. Today it’s both. In the peak of the monsoon season, Kerala rid of its tourists and its sweltering heat takes a break and watches the rains. Life comes to a standstill. Nothing here works when there’s a strike and no one moves when it rains. In a country that celebrates religious holidays every other week, communist Kerala depends on the rains and hartals for a celebratory glass of toddy and fish fry.

Kerala, a small coastal state in the south of India is a place of indescribable beauty, and describable cliches. There’s green everywhere, in every possible shade- the green of the paddy fields, the green of the mango too raw, in the peacocks, in the hills, in the moss on the streets, in the ponds and the luridly painted houses. It’s an artist’s muse. But that is the tourist’s Kerala. The Kerala that is my native place and feel forced to visit every year is that of pettiness, party politics, overbearing relatives and houses that reek of fish and wetness. A place that rings of familiarity while still being completely alien to me. My romance with Kerala, comes from a nostalgia that doesn’t exist. Nostalgia for a past I created through stories.

My father is a brilliant storyteller. His stories of growing up in his hometown were coloured with the idea of growing up in a large ancestral home- a joint family household that owned most of the land in the village. He had 5 brothers and two sisters and numerous cousins for company, they played in mangroves, had little interest in school, and had servants to cater to every need. He also spoke of times of strife, of experiencing poverty as the landlord system changed after Independence, the caste system being abolished, the family separating. Having grown up in a big city and never having seen his ancestral home, this was the Kerala I dreamt of. The reality only disappointed me year after year. I wanted an elephant in my courtyard, a temple in my backyard, and to walk down streets my family owned. We merely retained the name, as new houses were built on old land and old servants became the new elite— nouveau riche, if you will. It was class over caste.

excerpt from Vidooshakan- the Harlequin

 

kahlilgibran_spiritoflight

 

Somewhere in the hills, there is a cottage without our name on its door front. My love, you and I will find our romance in daily chores and shades of silence.

When it is cold, we will dust old sweaters and discard them for blankets and the warmth of our bodies. When it is wet, we will go outside to hold each other steady in wet mud. You can write and I can read and we will make our lives of book shelves and papercuts.

There will be ink on your fingers, on my neck and my waist. Green glass bangles will break when we cook.  Rain to wipe our sweat, salt to satiate the spice.

smoke and mirrors. smoke and mirrors.

tootalltootall
off late i’ve had this strange feeling. it’s a strange feeling i’ve been having about my house. every morning i wake up and everything is fine. once i know everything is fine and i go down for breakfast there it is again. there it is again this strange feeling. that strange feeling about my house. my house is getting bigger. it is getting bigger every night. every night when i sleep my house is growing. growing wide and growing long, growing long and getting tall. so tall that i know i won’t be be able to tell the difference between ceiling and sky. so wide that i know my mum is getting thinner by the day. so long that the resident pet is beginning to look like a hot dog on a stick. my house is growing too big for me, too big for me to find its corners and know its ends. too big for anyone at all. best of all no one seems to see it at all.
off late i’ve had this strange feeling. it’s a strange feeling i’ve been having about my house. every morning i wake up and everything seems just a bit odd. once i know the oddness is everywhere i go down for breakfast. there it is again this strange feeling. that strange feeling multiplied by a hundred. my house is getting smaller. it is getting smaller every night and every day. every day when i’m away it finds a way to shrink, every night when i’m asleep it’s just an inch smaller. getting shorter and getting thinner, getting thinner and getting narrower. so narrow i can barely squeeze my way down the stairs. so short my mum’s idlis look like melons. my house is getting too small for me, too small for me to fit my little toe in, too small for me to climb out of the doors and crawl under the gate. too small for anyone at all. best of all no one seems to mind at all.