Sunday, June 19, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (20)

Chapter Twenty

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.

To see her aunt  standing by the big teak door filled Nela with  pleasure. How  long had it been? The older  woman was smaller and  more  fragile now, the creases  around her eyes deeper, but otherwise unchanged. And  when Chitti wrapped her arms  around Nela, the faint odor  of patchouli rose up from inside  the old womans sari, and  nearly knocked Nela over with  a flood of memories: summers in the Kerala backwaters, the long boats, pink and blue milk after a trip to the mountains.

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 Ranus little figure, clutching at the back of Nelas 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 Ranus 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 Chittis 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, Nelas 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 classmates 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 Nelas hand. “I look after Ranu.” The two of them watched Ranu unpack Nelas 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 didnt want to intrude. Will you tell her a story?” Nela asked. Chittis 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 Ganeshs 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.

Chittis 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.

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