tongues on the terrace

 

Today,
I woke up
Reeling in your scent
That stuck to my skin like
Humid sleepless nights

Last night,
Was cool and breezy
Your hands were warm
And your fingers moved
And grabbed and scratched
As if to summon
Those happy roving ghosts
From many moons ago

All the private rooms,
Were taken last night

While the naked moon
Mocked our clothed bodies
Our tongues on the terrace
Didn’t give a damn

They spoke with utter
Shamelessness
The language of lovers
Who crossed rivers
And saw visions
Drowned and died
Lost all sanity,
And cried in joy

Our ambitions however, weren’t so lofty
Our intentions were carnal beyond repair
We liked playing sexy, and we played endlessly

“Somewhere, they say
She is churning the universe
Or weaving it’s fabric
Or lighting the fire
In the middle of sky
To cook up a world of pleasure”

“Enough of these
Cosmic platitudes
And useless ghosts
Stop the chase
And taste it now”

You craned back
And looked at the sky
I crawled under
And took a deep dive

Today,
I woke up feeling
Salty and sticky
The taste you left
On my tongue last night
Had spread to the rest
Of my body

 

clothesline on trrace

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raw mango dreams, again

When it rained finally it was a thunderstorm. Upstairs the dance class had stopped abruptly at the first sound of thunder. It mysteriously coincided with a sound I remembered well, a stick flying across the room and landing like a lash across bare ankles. The wooden stick rapped in a rhythm of one-two-three one-two-three for nearly a half hour before the first step was out of place. I thought of the girl, sweating profusely, a drop hovering over an eyelid, miserably trying to catch up with the rest. Dance, as if the rains needed anything else to set it off. What happened first? Did her step falter because of the thunder or the thunder came as if in casual annoyance at the mistake?

None of the lights were turned on in the house, no one had expected the darkness to come on so suddenly. I stared at the fan expectantly for over seven minutes before the electricity went off. Seven minutes of thunder, lightning and the shrill sharpness of the wind. Even the trees refused to dance in the wind. Not a drop of rain yet. They should continue dancing, maybe then it will rain. But the darkness had stopped everyone in its step, motionless. The fan stopped with a low dull creak and then the distant sound of a generator in the factory nearby. No one would go home until it rained and stopped, so they would continue working into an evening swiftly turning into night.

Creeping across the wall hesitantly, a lizard made the first sound which was immediately engulfed with a new round of thunder and lightning. The mandate was clear. Silence. I looked outside and could see only blackness, no light filtered through except when lightning struck. It hadn’t started raining, so I saw no need to shut the windows. The air was so heavy, if I completely stopped breathing I could almost hear the puddle of sweat the girl above had left. The wait for the rain came with an unbearable thirst, I finished half a bottle before good sense kicked in. I could not brave the rickety narrow staircase that led to the kitchen to get more water. Once the rain started it would not end for hours, perhaps the whole night. A rain that held everyone captive even in its absence.

Abruptly, the ceiling fan moved for twenty seconds before it stopped. Again the dull creak of the fan giving up, again the roll of thunder. I looked outside and saw that the lizard had managed to crawl outside through one of the three holes in the mosquito mesh. The air must have been too heavy inside the room for the creature to stay alive till the rains.

I tried keeping my eyes closed, in a desperate attempt to doze off and forget about the heat. When it would start raining, the heat would break and I could sleep through the night without staring at the unmoving fan achingly. It must have been a few hours before I woke up, or perhaps a few minutes, I couldn’t tell. No sign of the rain, and the thunder and lightning had stopped. I didn’t know whether the darkness remained because of the heavy clouds, there was no telling of the time. The factory workers might have been long gone or perhaps the generator had stopped working, because the silence had impossibly increased. I made a rash decision to drink the rest of the water, I reasoned it had to be late into the night and I would fall asleep again and wake up only in the morning. A morning with electricity, the cool weather after the rains and water.

The last dropped of water and it rained. Not a drizzle first, after a few hours of warning it had come in a downpour. It brought with it the thunder and lightning which had disappeared. I wondered whether everyone had stayed in the same place all night long, dancers frozen in motion. Would they dance now that the silence had broken?
I looked out of the window again, the night suddenly lit with energy. I would have missed it if I had looked out a split second later, because that’s all it took. A flash of lightning and the branch broke. I caught a brilliant green, a single mango attached inseparably to the branch. They say if you dream of raw mangoes, you are impatient.

गिनती से कल्पना तक

घर के छोटे से ड्राइंग रूम में, एक बड़ा सा दीवान था। हमारा घर जिसे क्वार्टर कहा जाता था – किसी विशाल से मकान का एक चौथाई हिस्सा। इस हिस्से के चार हिस्से और: सोने के लिए दो कमरे, एक कमरे की रसोई, और एक कमरे का ड्राइंग रूम। ड्राइंग रूम में सिमटी हुई कई कई चीज़ें – जैसे छह खाँचो का एक शोकेस और उसमे सिमटी हुई कई बनावटी चीज़ें; मम्मी-पापा की शादी और बिन मांगे दहेज में आया हुआ चार पीस का सोफा सेट, और एक पीस टीवी; एक ज़रुरत से ज़्यादा बड़ा डाइनिंग टेबल जिसकी छह कुर्सियां उसके चारों ओर किन्हीं नराज़ रिश्तेदारों सी बैठी रहतीं; एक गुर्राता हुआ बौना रेफ्रीद्गिटर जिसके कद से मम्मी को कोई ख़ास शिकायत नहीं थी (छोटे से कमरे में शहर बसाना मम्मी को बखूबी आता था); और आखिरकार एक बड़ा सा दीवान।
दीवान जो था, वो कमरे की सबसे बड़ी खिड़की से सटा हुआ था। खिड़की के चार पल्ले थे और उनसे लगे हुए रौशनदान। कभी कभी यूं होता कि अचानक शाम को बारिश होने लगती और मैदान में लड़कों का खेल रुक जाता। तब, मैं बिना किसी अफ़सोस के घर लौट आता और खिड़की के चारों पल्ले और रौशनदान खोलकर एकटक बारिश को देखता रहता। खिड़की के किनारों से मम्मी का चढ़ाया खांकर पर्दा धीमे धीमे हवा में उड़कर क्षण भर के लिए नज़र के आड़े आता और फिर सरक जाता।
मैदान के उस पार, ठीक बारह क्वार्टरों की एक कतार थी – जो हु-ब-हु हमारे क्वार्टरों जैसी थी। बारिश में उन क्वार्टरों को देखकर ऐसा लगता कि उनपर चढ़ा नीला सरकारी रंग, धीरे धीरे पिघल रहा है। मुझे लगता कि मैं अपने ही घर की नीरसता को धुलकर बहते हुए देख रहा हूँ। तब मुझे स्टील प्लांट की चिमनियों का खयाल आता।  पापा रोज़ वहां काम पर जाते थे, लेकिन उस प्लांट को मैंने सिर्फ दूर से देखा था। बहुत दूर से- ट्रैन में किसी दुसरे शहर जाते हुए, या अपने शहर वापस लौटते हुए। इतनी दूर से, प्लांट की सिर्फ चिमनियां ही साफ़ साफ़ दिखाई पड़ती थीं। मैनें उन चिमनियों की कभी गिनती नहीं की, जैसे मैंने कभी नहीं गिने रात के तारे और  नुक्कड़ के पेड़ पर लगे पलाश के फूल. चिमनी से निकलते भूरे धुएँ को गिनना तो खैर नामुमकिन था।
शाम की बारिश में, घर के छोटे से ड्राइंग में, बड़े से दीवान पर बैठकर खिड़की से बाहर झाँकते हुए मै वही करता था जो किया जा सकता है. जैसे मै कल्पना करता था की बारिश में पलाश के फूलों का नारंगी-लाल रंग पिघलकर गलियों में बहने लगेगा। और जब रात होगी, तो बची-कुचि बारिश तारों की चाँदनी में घुलकर टपकेगी। बारिशों में, चिमनी के धुंए का क्या होता होगा, इसकी कल्पना मैं नहीं कर पाता था.
….
bhilai map google earth

छोटे से भी छोटा होना

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Pomegranate_poem_drawing 1
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दादी,
तुम इतना धीरे धीरे चलकर भी
थक कैसे जाती हो?
बेटा,
तुम मेरी गति नहीं
पैर देखो- छोटे हैं
स्कूल का यूनिफार्म था
निक्कर के साथ एक बेल्ट थी
शर्ट के साथ एक बैज
निक्कर और शर्ट का
रंग नीला और नीला था
शर्ट का नीला दिन का आसमान था
निक्कर का नीला रात का समंदर
स्याही के धब्बे समंदर की जेब में
छिप जाते थे
लेकिन आसमान के कपड़े पर
साफ़ नज़र आते थे
सुनते सुनते चुप रहना
और बोलते बोलते सुनना
सुनते सुनते ज़रा रुककर बोलना
और बोलते बोलते ज़रा रुककर
सुनना
सुबह सुबह जब पटरी पर
गाडी खिसकी
तब कोयल की कूक
इंजन की सीटी
में जा घुली
अकेले घर से निकलना
और पहली बार शहर आना
शहर से लौटकर घर न जाना
शहर में पहली बार
टूथपेस्ट का ख़त्म हो जाना
लोहे के सख्त ब्रिज पर दौड़ती
चलती ट्रेन की खुली खिड़की से
नानी का थमाया सिक्का
गोदावरी में छालना
और उसके गिरने की आवाज़
का इंतज़ार करना
इस शहर में
पतझड़ के आने का
कोई तय समय नहीं
और जाते हुए
उसे मैंने कभी देखा नहीं

छोटे से भी छोटा होकर
भीतर के भीतर जो
भीतर वाला कमरा है
उसकी बड़ी सी खिड़की से
कूदकर आकाश में जा गिरना
और घास पर लुढ़कना

 

Weird Vintage Christmas Ads (35)
He sang me a song

One sweet, one rank
He gave me a rose
One red, one blue
He saved me some bread
One green, one white
He lent me some money
Some bruised, some scored
He bought me a dress
It’s your birthday, he said
He bought me a cake
You turned twenty-two, he said
He blew out the candles
He tore my dress
It was mine in the first place, he said
I made him some coffee
I bought it, he said
I wrote him a poem,
The music is mine, he said
He built me a kitchen
I strangled a chicken for you, he said
A bottle of rum for a Christmas cake, he said
A bauble for your pretty little head, he said
A bell for your thin little neck, he said
A buck for your pain, he said
I carved him some chicken, I sliced him some bread
I poured him some rum, I baked him some cake
Then I put my darling to bed, and cut off his head
The knife was his, he would have said
One head for him, two for me

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.

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.