Another Time, Another Place
|Courtesy - http://telegraph.co.uk|
There are days when the mind refuses to stay still, like a fly beating against a glass pane. It’s tiresome having it buzz around so much, when all I want is some peace and quiet. I’ve never tried meditation: perhaps it is time to start it. Today is one such tiresome day. A malfunctioning throat is irritating to say the least. I took a medication last night, and only after I swallowed the foul pill did I realise that it has caffeine – so I was awake for a long, long time – mentally preparing for my assignments and experiments, thinking of growing old, thinking of the storm across the Atlantic, thinking of my running, thinking of new shoes, thinking of a friend I need to get in touch with, thinking of The Sister and The Niece...and finally thinking of those days with Amma.
Remembering those days always ropes the mind and yanks it to a rest. We had strange and funny and wonderful days together. On days such as this one – when a frog sat in the throat, I would sit in the sun for hours, chatting with Amma about nothing and everything. Just like our talks, the coffee would be never-ending. If the sister was bunking class, she would join in with her serious philosophies, and her child-like endearing notions about life. And then, Appa would return from work with kodubale and nippattu from Manglooru Stores – and we would yak some more, late into the night.
It was on one such spring afternoon, when the sun was just right to make sabbakki sandiges, that he sauntered in. A gaunt bag of bones that had been a handsome horse sometime in the past. His coat was mangy black – I’m sure in the prime of his health, it had been velvet. His tail was still luxurious though. Amma and I were watering the plants when he visited us. The water supply was on alternate days; and we stored water in an underground sump. So watering plants meant one of us had to draw the water from the sump using a bindige. That day, Amma was drawing the water and I went around rationing it, depending on the plant size.
Mr. Horse took us by surprise. We stood there for a full minute, staring at each other. The horse had sad, weary eyes. He walked towards the sump and looked in. The water was too deep for him to reach. Amma drew a pot of water and poured it in a plastic bucket. He put his head in the bucket and sucked the water in one giant sip. He looked up at Amma expectantly.
‘You think I have no better work, isn’t it?’ Amma scolded him and drew some more water. Each time he finished, he would look up at Amma – ‘fill it up’. He drank all of five buckets of water. We did not know what to feed him – I mean, we never expected horses to come around.
‘Do you think horses eat bananas?’ Amma asked as he sloshed and slurped. I had no clue. I remembered they liked sugar cubes – at least that’s what I’d read in all of Dick Francis novels. But it looked like he was done. He left as suddenly as he came, after giving a brief snort as a thank you.
And then there was Puttulakshmi, our neighbour’s cow. Every Sankranti, for the Kanu festival, we would pamper Puttulakshmi silly. She had a rich brown coat with a white diamond patch on her forehead. She would stand patiently, almost with a bored look as Amma did the puja to her. And then, she would moo excitedly when the real treat came out – all the sugarcanes and bananas and the rice cakes. It wouldn’t be enough for her, and she’d be sure we’ve hidden some more stuff behind the door. She would peep inside the house, standing at the door-step, tail flicking, ears twitching. Amma would hold up her empty hands and say, ‘It’s over. I don’t have anything hidden.’ But Puttulakshmi would look at her suspiciously. Yes it’s amazing how much animals talk with their eyes.
Her master would say, ‘Come away you greedy woman.’ But Puttulaksmi would just shush him down with a moo. ‘We have spoilt her,’ the chastised owner would tell me and The Sister. Only after much cajoling coupled with the lure of that extra bunch of bananas would Puttulakshmi budge. She was a tough one.
One year, the morning after the Kanu festival, we were having our morning coffee when we heard thumping footsteps and the doorway darkened with a shadow. Sure enough Puttlakshmi stood at the door, sniffing the air. ‘Hmm,’ she must have thought about the coffee aroma, ‘this does not smell like sugarcane.’
‘You want a treat today also?’ Amma laughed and walked up to her. Sure enough Puttulakshmi nudged Amma with her forehead. ‘Give me my treat, quick.’
By then my neighbour came running – Puttulakshmi had broken away from the small herd to pay us a visit apparently. From that day, we kept an extra bunch of bananas – just in case she visited us on a whimsy.
And then came Blackie. He was a street pup – who grew into a very dignified, handsome young fellow. He had a black and ocre-brown coat and beautiful eyes. Whenever it got too hot, he’d come and lie under our window. Or if Amma was sitting outside reading a book, he’d think it’s his birthright to lay his head on her lap. He was an attention-seeking little bugger. If Amma sat chatting with me and The Sister when he sauntered in, he would be so displeased. He’d wag his tail and make cute faces at Amma till she tickled his ears and patted him – and he’d look at me and The Sister with such smugness. And he’d always come home when Appa returned from office. He’d make a big deal of it and wouldn’t let Appa have his coffee in peace till he had received his quota of pats and ‘good boy’ and ‘handsome fellow’. For some reason, Blackie hated the ceiling fan and if it was switched on, he would bark himself silly jumping up and down and running around in circles. And when we switched it off, just to prevent premature deafness, he would look shame-faced and sulk.
We never knew where Blackie went during the rest of the day. But come morning, he’d be there, waiting for his bread soaked in milk. And at lunch time, Amma had to stand near the gate and call out to him a couple of times. Only then his majesty would come trotting up. It wouldn’t matter if he’d just eaten at a neighbour’s place. He had to eat what Amma gave him – otherwise he would whine and make such a pitiful fuss – crawling up to Amma and acting as if she had abandoned him. And so it came about that Amma would never eat till Blackie had eaten.
And then came the old man with the bow legs. His clothes were in tatters, his feet were bare and his face was leathery. ‘Give me food,’ he told Amma matter-of-factly. ‘I will weed your garden’.
Amma led him to the backyard. It was soon evident that mentally, the poor man was really no more than five in many ways. But he had enough integrity to earn his food. And that was a very big thing in Amma’s eyes.
We had very rudimentary garden equipment. The old man got to work. He spoke to the plants and the weeds. ‘Ah haha! Do you think you can escape my eyes?’ he scolded the weeds as he pulled them out. ‘You have worms,’ he clucked at the rose plant. ‘I have to tie you up to the compound wall,’ he told the jasmine creeper. The old man examined every leaf, every petal and every stem. Before long, the backyard was lush with the red soil purged off weeds.
Amma had prepared two large raagi balls for him, along with bele saaru. The old man’s face lit up when he saw his plate, especially when Amma poured ghee. He had not eaten for past three days. He sat facing the garden he had toiled upon and ate his food, still talking to the plants and to himself. When Amma tried to pay him, he refused to take the money. He said he had just wanted food. But Amma convinced him to take the money, and told him to come whenever he was hungry, and that there was no need to work for the food.
But he would come once or twice a week to maintain the plants. He always found work in our backyard that had escaped our attention. And so, on many days he was our company for lunch – his constant mumbling and plant-talk was always a comfort.
Every year, he would go for his village fair – where he danced and played the damte for Maramma. Appa would give him a new shirt he would ask every possible human being he encountered, ‘How do I look?’
Well, all good things come to an end. Puttulaksmi went away. Blackie went away. The old man went away. And finally Amma too went away. It was another time and another place. A time of sunshine, warm breeze, roses and jasmines, laughter and love and innocence. A part of me is stuck there like a feather caught in a mesh. Never whole, never again.
© Sumana Khan - 2012Tweet