When it rains heavily I always think of an evening that glows like a bright lamp in my memory. An evening of paddy whispers and a ripe-mango sunset, an evening where, I like to think, the birds called my name and that was all the sound that you could hear, apart from the restlessness of the breeze and the incessant prayer of a river, a little away.
Before dusk stole onto the mud patio of my little shack, I heard the far-away sound of the edakka steadily beating out a divine rhythm, accompanying an off-key voice in praise of some god who gave children to the devout and brought famine upon the evil. Soft and rhythmic, the noisy prayer was not something Else; carried on the somber wind as it was, it became part of the warm, moist air I was breathing.
Soon, the sun would dip its fiery toes somewhere beyond the swaying tops of the coconut trees and I would get melancholic. The swaying, the golden light that I wanted to cut a patch of to make a blouse, the settling down of all things but mosquitoes would all make me yearn. For what, I did not know. All I knew was that there was a room in me, and it was almost empty. Waiting: clean, fragrant and riotous with sample-swatches I wouldn’t show anybody. And when the light stole away from that room at sunset, melancholy would be mine. There were no reasons; except that timelessness and purity are excruciating in their essence. Purity undid me like nothing else. And this song of the devout in the temple, the edakka offering its lonely, stoic dance drew tears from me every evening. Each day less than the day before. Each day more intense than yesterday.
But that day as the song died out and the tolling of the bell signaled the close of the temple so that the black gods could rest, a pink ribbon came into view from across the fields. A fluttering, garish ribbon that always caught my eye in the “ladies’ store” that sold the soap, cheepu, kannadi. And obviously hers too, because she was old enough to leave her hair free of ribbons, I realize now. But then I didn’t know. Her swaying form told me nothing about her age except that she was ripe for all the things young girls are ripe for.
Her face, always wearing a hint of oil, shifted ages. The first time I saw her, she looked a lovely 22, but then the sun was dying on us and the walk to my shack had given her cheeks a healthy glow of exertion. A few mornings later, when she came to me again, I thought she was still younger, hair in braids, no kohl in her eyes and clothes that young girls in the village wore. And when she finally ran away with Rajan, her mother told me she would have turned 27 that Onam. Old for a girl in those parts.
The ribbon came closer. I felt a sense of pleasure in watching a young girl walk like I’d seen them walk in so many films that show village belles. A full skirt swaying, hips that were completely unaware of their own rhythm, a waist that wasn’t really small but not big either. Her neck with the sheen of sweat and oil, dissolving into small shoulders disproportionate to her hips, was made more beautiful with the black thread she wore her cylindrical amulet on. Her breasts were unfettered by the cheap, pointy cotton bras that the village girls wore. Instead she had her blouse tailored so fittingly around her chest so that her breasts remained high, unmoving and rather distracting.
She walked with a steady pace, looking around appraisingly as she neared where I was standing. When she came within talking distance of me, she stopped, looked at me and asked, “Why haven’t you lit the lamp?” A little abrupt, I thought mildly surprised, but couldn’t help but smile and tell her that I didn’t believe in silliness like that. If I needed light I’d light a candle or use my torch. For now, this darkness was my treasure. “Silliness? Since when does a symbol of knowledge be called silliness,” she asked me coolly, no hint of judgment or displeasure in her voice, just a shadow of a challenge.
I told her I thought we were talking about lighting the evening lamp to honour the gods, where did knowledge figure in that. “You really think the devanmaaru care about a vilaku,” she mocked me mildly, a perfectly symmetrical smile appearing for the first time. A smile devoid of anything but beauty. “Don’t they?” I shot back. She cocked her head to one side, looked at me intently as if to see if I was just humouring her or if I was really as daft as I sounded. “We light the lamp so that we dispel the darkness that comes with this sandhya. It is not because god will be happy and grant your wishes,” she said. I felt a little foolish for having forgotten the conclusions I had drawn when I was growing up and questioning the Hindu rituals of evening worship.
I decided to let that go without praise or argument, though both sprang to my mind. I asked her who she was and what she wanted. “I am Sharada from across the river. My mother told me a lady from the city had come because she had just lost her husband and wanted to spend time alone. I got curious and came to see you,” she said, as matter of fact as the setting sun. “But isn’t it late for you to be out,” I asked and she replied it was but she didn’t care. There would be a little noise at home when she went back but that would be it.
I then asked Sharada in but she refused saying she didn’t like the darkness inside my shack. She sat down on the mud-floored cool patio and looked around to see if I had made any changes to the place in the two weeks I had been here. “You haven’t brought anything with you? No clocks, no photos?” Sharada was either insensitive that I was grieving or her curiosity was irrepressible. I gave her the benefit of doubt. “I brought some things, but I honestly didn’t think of bringing a clock. I should have though. I use my mobile phone to check time,” I told her.
“I have a mobile phone also. Rajan got it for me. I think he stole it but he could have bought it too. I know he loves me enough to buy one,” she said. Who Rajan? “The man my family will do anything to chase away. The man I am going to marry,” she told me, her eyes looking straight into mine as if to convince me that this was going to indeed happen. No “The man I love”, no hint of a shy smile that a lot of the village girls have when they talk of their boyfriends, or their fiancés. Surprisingly, not even the usual “aetta” that the girls call their other halves. She had used his name.
“Why don’t they want you to marry him,” I asked in the same vein of directness she had used. “This isn’t the time to talk about all that. I just came to see what you are like. I think you are okay and I’ll come back later. Now I have to get back before Amma finishes laying the dinner out,” she said and quickly got to her feet. I
now realized why she had asked for clocks.
To be continued.
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