Sunday, June 19, 2016
“Constancy is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Nela told her confused but delighted daughter as they set about moving house the following morning. The best decisions in her life had all been spontaneous, and within days, her bridges all in flames, Nela found herself once again at an airport, little girl in tow. It no longer mattered to Nela who was leading the flock, who was following or being chased. They were going home.
“Come have milky tea,” Chitti said to her niece. Casting a worried glance at the aarti she had prepared but forgotten to perform, the old woman led the way into the kitchen, a route Nela could have followed in her sleep.
The candles in the cool vestibule illuminated Ranu’s little figure, clutching at the back of Nela’s sari. Chitti clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, but continued with her task as if the child was not there. She made the tea, boiling the milk, scenting it with cardamom, and pouring the liquids from two separate vessels to mingle in a single stream. With each step of the ritual, the girl came closer.
Chitti began to chat with her in Ranu’s first language. She asked easy questions and showed her the interesting things in the kitchen, the heirloom mortar and pestle, the mandoline. Through the window, she pointed out the trees behind the house. “Those banyans are one hundred years. The branches pull down into the ground to make a cage. A tiger took naps there every day. Do you remember?” she asked Nela, who nodded over her teacup. “Shall I show you?” she asked Ranu, pointed to the vast landscape. Ranu nodded, and slipped her soft hand into Chitti’s wrinkled one. They walked outside, Nela a pace or two behind. With the sun waning now, the grounds looked as if they had caught in amber, pulling her back to an earlier time. It was lucky that she could afford to let her attention wander a bit - Ranu was in good hands.
Ranu gasped at the sight of the huge banyan tree. “Where is tiger? What happened?”
“Ah, child—nothing goes on forever!” She tried to distract the girl before she could burst into tears. “Can you see the teak room for keeping grain? My sister shot all birds daring to eat our grain.”
Ranu turned to Nela. “Your Amma?” she asked. “Correct, correct,” the women said together, laughing.
As they walked around the thick-walled quadrangle, Chitti never stopped talking. Her voice was raspy with years of silence, but gained strength as family stories gushed forth. “Our Shiva, Nela’s Amma, once shot dacoits coming around the house. She was still a tiny girl. Her Amma worried such bravery would make her unmarriageable.” Ranu listened politely to the story she had memorized long before, and did not interrupt when Chitti got some little detail or other wrong.
“We make chapatti now.” The three of them walked across the stone floors to the veranda, where some of the grinding kitchen implements were kept. Nela stood looking at the sand in the quadrangle, remembering how her grandfather worried that it would not provide enough drainage during monsoon season. What an odd and wonderful thing, to have beach sand in the middle of the house! Ranu had never seen such a thing, and took in the sight solemnly.
They rolled out bread dough, and Chitti continued to loosen stories from her memory, details about the homemade shrine for Saraswati puja, piled high with books; the first look at good-luck objects on Vishu morning; the time one of the boys offered up his older brother to fight a classmate’s father. As Chitti unspooled her stories, details began to fuse with myth and events from the neighbors’ lives. No matter. It was only a consequence of have lived too long alone.
After she had eaten enough, Ranu wanted to explore the house on her own. She darted in and out of the rooms, the sound of her excitement echoing in the corridors. Nela and Chitti continued to talk about their separate lives in snippets of news buoyed by companionable silences.
“I cannot hear the child,” Chitti said suddenly. The little shrieks and claps had indeed subsided, and Nela leapt to her feet. She rushed down the corridor, calling, and found the child in an alcove outfitted with a big roll-top desk, a chair and a lamp. Along one wall, there stood a brand new bookcase. Ranu sat on the floor, thumbing through the pages of one of the books.
“This was the shrine room,” Nela said to Chitti, puzzled at the change in a house that seemed frozen in time.
“You do study work here,” the old woman explained, taking Nela’s hand. “I look after Ranu.” The two of them watched Ranu unpack Nela’s Gita. She carefully placed in on the highest shelf she could reach.
At last, exhausted with exploring, Ranu snuggled under a sheet on the same cotton-stuffed mattress Nela had used as a child. “I did not have this room all to myself, of course,” she told Ranu.
“You had many cousins sharing,” the child murmured. Ranu never forgot a thing.
Chitti lingered at the door as if she didn’t want to intrude. “Will you tell her a story?” Nela asked. Chitti’s bedtime stories had been one of her favorite childhood things. She never guessed that she had only pretended to read, the book always upside-down.
“Here is the story of Lord Ganesh’s circle,” Chitti began. “Brother-gods Ganesh and Subramuniam were fighting over a mango one day. Their parents, Shiva and Parvati, said, ‘Whichever son circles the world thrice, first, shall have mango.’ Mounting his
peacock, Subramuniam immediately left for his journey. Ganesh only had his mouse to ride on, so he drew a circle around his parents and began to walk around them, telling they were all his worlds. He outsmarted his brother, and won the prize. He knew true wealth in life.”
Chitti’s voice echoed in the hall as Nela entered her grandparents' old bedroom. We think we have forgotten a time or place, but remember it as soon as we see it again, smell it, touch it. Everything is a circle. She stretched out in the middle of the wide wood bed she had played on as a child, and counted the rings inside one unfinished post. Listening to the language of the house, the creaking and whistling, the sinking and settling, her mind ranged over the past, searching out what she had traveled so far to give to her daughter. What could she pass on to Ranu?
She dozed off against the buzz of her thoughts. In her submerged consciousness, she became aware of another sound, the rush of wings beating the air. Every day at dusk, a flock of starlings appeared over this house, looping through the banyans. Nela remembered listening as a child for the wing-beats, the skreaking, rusty-hinged song. Through closed lids, she imagined light from an aarti, welcoming something. What? Opening her eyes, she walked to the window. A whirling cascade of wings flew toward the west. A suspended moment like a held breath, then the abrupt back-pedal toward the east.
In her youth, Nela would lie on the shore and think about the mathematics in this same movement. What was the meaning in the smudge emerging now against the shore, straggling up the crest of the hill? A bruised thumbprint in the wash of pinks and violets moved out of the murmuration into transparent air. Nela imagined she could see the shape of a man in it. My house.
She imagined Jackson's back curved with burdens, his arms holding a baby bundled in red. “He will come,” said Chitti, coming up behind her. She nodded at the endless horizon flecked with wings. “Birds change direction. Go this way and that. Is possible the man will change also.”
Chitti could not know about the choices Jackson and Nela had made, or the silent bargain they had struck. Her life nearly spent with waiting, she offered her niece the only comfort she could summon. Hope.
The world outside darkened to indigo, and soon the presence of the birds was only a felt thing, no longer seen. “He will come,” Chitti repeated softly. “Edhuvum mudium. Anything is possible.”