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.

The Killing

Psychoda insect on a leaf

There are quite a few trees around my house. A raintree with its roots in the defense enclosure nearby spreads itself over my roof. Its shade covers one third of the naked roof. In summers, the bedroom remains cool; the hall, the kitchen, the bathroom, hot. Perhaps the insects come because there are trees, and grass, and moisture that hangs in the air longer than usual. I know jack shit about insects. This is pure speculation.

The window in my bedroom has four rectangular panels. Each panel has a small wooden door. The intervals between the iron bars on each panel are wide enough for a curious hand or a stray insect to slide in. So the owner has wisely decided to seal the panels with mesh frames. Now two weeks ago, one of the frames fell off. Without warning and with a rather soft thud. Almost matter of factly. It’s summer, and without the frame, the night time breeze sails in more confidently. I haven’t fixed the frame back since. And I keep the small wooden door open. Sleep if not always peaceful, is at least temperate.

Insects are a nuisance though. Several different kinds, I know not their names, only shapes, and sizes, and colours and the sounds that they make when the lights go off. I am not sure I can tell the difference among some species. I haven’t paid enough attention, so all the sounds in the dark sound the same.

When it’s dark and I can listen to them, inside my room, I imagine them doing evil things. Evil things to me of course. Like an insect wriggling into my ear while I am fast asleep (google images of  “dead insect  inside ear”) and dying there. Another one skating under the blanket, reaching the inside of my thighs and crawling slowly, intently. Or just a regular bite in the neck.

My mother was talking on the phone one afternoon and telling her friend, how the brother-in-law of a common friend who had been at the Chennai airport to receive his niece returning from US died on the way to his sister’s place. A Japanese mosquito bit him on the neck. He had an instant bout of inexorable fever and died.

For a while imagination is great. Exciting, dark, colourful, amusing, unexpected. Then you want her to shut up. You want to sleep. Because you have to get to work in the morning. But she won’t shut up until the voices in the dark are at it. So you decide to put an end to that.

It has become an unintended ritual. I forget they are there when all the lights are on. I don’t even see them. I put out the lights and there they are. I create situations in my head for a while. Then I switch the light back on. And kill every single one I can find.

Bang one against the wall with a hardcover copy of Anna Karenina Volume 2. Suffocate a bunch of them under the pillow. Flick one hard enough so that it hits itself against the almirah and loses its head and its limbs. Or sometimes, crush the slow ones studiously between the thumb and the forefinger.

Then I switch off the lights, and slip into sleep in no time.

 

 

 

I have been intending to fix the frame back for a few days now, but I keep putting it away. The summer is still on.

Raw mango dreams

Day 1

It’s raining by the time I reach the bridge. Under me is the Nila. On both sides. On my right is the broken bridge. I wonder if someone fell through it when it broke. It’s raining heavily, each drop heavy and full. I look at her, she’s barely there. It’s the first rains I think, she will emerge soon enough.

Day 2
It’s raining again. We stop to pay the toll fee. The new bridge was built years ago, but they still collect the toll fee. It’s Rs 3 for both ways. Crossing the bridge we reach a different district altogether. Is it a different her in this district? I look down, she’s barely there. Sand, sand and more sand.
Day 6
Two drops, one on each shoulder. It hasn’t rained in a few days. Evening walks have become more regular now. Today I took the narrow bridge that crosses over fields. I imagined the grass beneath sitting on a bed of water. If I fell over, each foot would feel get enveloped in wet mud and water. It’s going to rain. I wonder if she’s arrived yet. I wait for another drop to fall, this time right on my forehead. There’s a peacock, a kingfisher and a cow on one side of the field. The side where the sun is setting. I turn and walk home.
Day 22
It has rained all night. There is no power at home. I lie down in my box-like room, windows wide open. But the air is still and I begin to sweat. There’s a single green mango, hanging from the tree outside. I lay staring at it. There’s not much else to do, on a balmy afternoon but wait for it to rain again. I imagine getting up and going toward the window. I reach my hand out, squeezing it between the rods of the window and pull the branch toward me. The mango is not easy to pluck, it’s nowhere near ripe enough. I pull and twist and tug and pluck it. The branch swings back sharply, the leftover rain from the leaves spraying into the room. I imagine going back to bed and biting into the raw mango, it’s tartness not causing the slightest twitch on my face. I eat till the seed is white and bare. The trees outside begin to sing in chorus. It rains. I sleep.
Day 25
Endless green stretches out in front of me, to the sides, leaving a trail behind me. It’s a bright green as if every single leaf holds a drop of water. I wonder what a blade of grass would taste like. Green, I suppose. I walk hastily. It’s almost irritating how long this is taking. I wonder why I am waiting, I didn’t come for this. But then again I can’t imagine having been here and not having seen her. I see glimpses through the trees now. I’ve forgotten where the path gives way and leads down to the bank. When I find it,I find sand. I keep walking on the sand. Someone is doing yoga, that someone is White. I walk till my feet hit water. And then there’s just enough water to slip between my toes. There’s more ahead but even that holds little promise. On the other side there are some women walking down to take a bath. They seem to have enough water to take a dip in the river. But she isn’t here, not for me anyway. Not today anyway. Not the her I want to see anyway.
Day 28

I don’t step out today. I didn’t yesterday, or the day before. And maybe the day before that. I don’t know why I’m not going back. Maybe I will tomorrow. It’s what I said yesterday. It rains everyday, every few hours. Sometimes a drizzle, sometimes with thunder and lightening. The mango has fallen. I stare at the empty branch and will another one to grow. It hasn’t yet, so I continue staring.

894089-DXVQIYCT-7
‘Study for Two Dogs Fighting’  eoin llewellyn

 

dear             ,

A dog dashed onto the main road and i almost killed it. It decided to freeze in the middle of its frantic run and look straight into the beam of the bike’s headlight. It stood there glaring at me till I braked, and then darted across the road. I could look into its eyes. You think it could look into my eyes too? This happened right outside the gate of that inscrutable defense colony. I’m not very good with names and breeds of dogs, but it was tall, black, and handsome with a fierce look in its eyes. The kind that sniffs evidence and hounds enemies. I am certain it was running away from that colony.

Didn’t you say you saw a street dog inside that colony the other day? We were peeping out of our window, into the barbed enclosure and sighing over the magnanimous shade of the rain-tree.

“how do you think that street dog manage to get in?”
“where? i don’t see any street dog.”
“it was there.”
“wish we could also take a walk on that lane”
“that guard there will shoot the dog.”

 

do you think these two dogs exchanged lives?

 

 

Let’s begin, shall we?

Raise one eyebrow. 
That’s easy enough, it’s genetic.
Now, the other.
Ah,now there’s a difficulty. How can I raise the other? I contort my face. I try again. Both go up. They furrow. I try again. Both go up, comically raised in atbutham.
Again.
I try again, press my palm down on one and force the other up. I try 100,000 times. I raise one. Now, the other. There you go, now?
Do you look like one?
I look into the mirror, long and hard. Long hair, kohl-lined eyes, earrings dangling from both eyes.I raise one eyebrow, then the other. I do it rhythmically, increasing my speed to the beat of the chenda. 
Stop.
At most, a clown’s instruments to play the Fool. A veshakaran? No.
Then be that.
What?
The Fool. The Harlequin.