(Translated by Sreekumar K)
The house stood high up and notieceable with its long walk way and high compound walls.
Where the plaster on the walls had come off, cute moss had settled, its stems and leaves looking like kings and soldiers. Walking down the cobbled path, I pulled off some, rubbed one piece against another, making the king behead the soldiers.
The kings and soldiers flew from my hand. But I didn’t fall down. My initial shock having waned away into milder treamours, I looked down at the treacherous ground that cheated me of my strategic interventions in the muddled politics of a war-ridden nation.
By then I had reached the courtyard of that big house.
I looked around.
The whole courtyard was tiled like the indoors of most homes. The decaying leaves from the big mango tree, the water dripping from a piple near the house for people to cleanse themselves and the rain that graced the earth the previous night had conspired together to make me slip and lose my balance.
Various ways to make the ground less slippery had been tried. Obviously, nothing worked. Those who walked that way had to fend for themselves.
The compound extended to acres. In the middle was this two storeyed house. The verandas on both floors were protected with irn grilling. At the very entrance to the house were two holy spots set aside for prayers.
On one side of the courtyard was a half covered urinal facility. Near the kitchen, close to where the firewood was kept, there stood an outhouse. The servants were served there. Beyond it were the large kitchen, the stand aloof bathroom and a well.
I inched toward the kitchen and asked out loud whether my grandma was there.
The rhythmic sound of coconut fronds getting chopped coming from the coconut groves near the kitchen, was suddenly cut shot. In that silence, I repeated my querry.
Two heads popped up inside the window near the kitchen.
“Umma, that is our amma’s son!”
My first response was an attempted scream “O, my God.” But it didn’t make its way beyond my dry throat.
In response to the noises from me or from the two heads beyond the kitchen window, my grandma appeared in tattered clothes, holding a hefty matchete knife, her body drenched in sweat. Had it been blood, I would have taken her for a war hero.
“I am here. What is it this time?”
The question was absolutely unnecessary. So, it only meant if there was anything unusual.
I shrugged my shoulders, winked my eyes, pouted hard and said, “Nothing.”
On days when there was no school, the soul intent and purpose of such a desperate mission was the lure of food coming from the big kitchen there and it was no secret.
Food appeared before me as a goddess holding a large cup of rice gruel. Like all godesses I had seen, really speaking only heard about, she too wore a glittering top with sleeves reaching all the way to and beyond her pearly wrists, and a dhoti of the same glittery material draped around her waist down. A large bunch of tinkling keys hung from her waist. She had more than enough bangles aroudn her wrists worn over her sleeves, several huge earings all over her ears and a shawl that she was forever dragging over her forehead. Her lips were red from chewing pan.
“O, amma’s son is here?”
My grandma took the cup from her and was about to offer it to me when the goddess stopped her, spitting out her pan which made a red puddle on the earth.
“Hey, that is for you. For him, we have some tea,” she said, offering the box of pan to my grandma.
The lady of the house took me in and even before I entered, I spied through the window that the owners of the heads which had popped up near the window was now sitting on top of the big wooden grannary in a room next to the kitchen.
Seeing them I cursed my hunger which had dragged me here.
They were her daughters. They usually tend to stay somewhere in some cozy core of the big house and came out only when their husbnds were not there. I ws sure those diaagreeable men were not ther that day.
The tea was thick milk with a dab of the colour of tea to do justice to its name. I loved twirling my tongue in it as it warmed my mouth before I gulped it.
I was slowly enjoying my tea when one of the girls took the cup of tea from my hand, and the other girl, as if by a secret agreement between them, lifted me up and planted me on the wooden plank of the grannary
“OK, continue with the temple tale.”
There was nothing to continue about any of the stories, but they just wanted to hear me babble on and on. I was unaware of their intentions back then.
Granted I had some starting trouble, I went non stop once I started and overflowed the banks of gratitude to be shown for the generous supply of goodies that poured in from their kitchen.
“They fire three huge firecrackers for the temple festival every year.”
“O, really? Why would they do that?”
“To let the people even beyond the town that the festival is on.” I explained.
Next was a description of how Choppan wielded his sword and finally wounded himself and how the turmeric powder and blood streamed down his head like scary little snakes.
“It doesn’t hurt?”
A look of heroism would appear on my face as I claimed that Choppan never felt any pain since his body was possessed by the deity of the temple.”
I would fill them with tales of how offering at the temple made people fortunate. I would end with a dance making the sound of the wild drums with my mouth. At times Umma, the lady of the house would also stand near the door smiling at me.
Umma would have come with a real meal of coarse rotti and fish curry and then it was time for a break. But sometimes the story telling session went with the meal, stories about how at an auspicious time in the everning I took home some fish breaking a taboo and how the deity came in my dream and chased me around the house, ending with how listening to my grandmas’ prayers she left me and went back to the temple. Such stories, for some strange reason, made everyone wipe tears from their eyes.
I also told them stories about how benevolent the deity at the temple was with examples like how I could recover a pencil I had lost, how my father had bought a brand new pair of slippers for me after I had prayed to the deity that I too wanted chappals like all the other kids at school,how I dreamed about finding twenty paise on the way and how it became true. I told them that I gave it to grandma to keep lest I should have to give it back to the deity if she demanded it back. I also told them how I bought my first candy with it, took it home and enjoyed it with my younger sister.
By the time, I was more rotti than myself and had to be helped up.
Getting up, that day, I told them of an unfulfilled dream.
“I had a dream of getting a wrist watch just like my father’s and I am sure the deity will make it happen.”
The sound of a glass tumbler falling on the kitchen floor and breaking into a hundred pieces took the girls there and in that instance, I wiped my eyes which were streaming with the hot spice in the curry and ran out.
I washed my hands at the pipe outside, wiped my hands on my trousers and went to say bye to my grandma.
There I pretended to do some hard work and then asked her, “May I go now?”
“You look like you are filled to your nose.”
With no intention to listen to more, I ran away.
“Hey, amma’s son!”
I had reached on the other side of the compound wall.
Were they calling me or their own son? I wondered.
I looked back.
Behind me there was a gap in the compound wall and through that the lady of the house was calling out to me.
I went back, my heart thumping hard.
She too had a look of fear in her eyes as she produced a little watch from the corner of her dhothi. She handed it to me.
My eyes shone with surprise and joy.
She whispered to me,” Don’t show this to anyone and don’t wear this when you come here.”
“Mm, umma.” I had no words for that occasion.
She took it from my hand and deposited it in my shirt pocket. Then she patted me on my back and with a flutter of her eyes told me I could leave.
My legs had become wings.
My hands were pressing the watch close to my hear lest I should drop it as I flew over the high flying clouds.
Looking down, at the earth far below, I saw that every wall down there had disappeared.