Two apples rotten, one orange sour, two mangoes ripe
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.
How beautiful it is to look at, never have I seen or heard anything like it- Nalacharitam, Unnayi Warrier
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
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.
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.
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
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.
painting: from The Works of Mark and Beth
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.