Maggie Paul is a bundle of oxymorons – a sympathetic critic, a reticent romantic, a goal-driven gypsy. She acknowledges the non-binaries of life and values the “grey”. She loves to observe, relish and live the “in-betweens” - something that she feels life actually is rather than the stereotypical categories that we fit it into. At times when she is not engaging in debates with herself in her head, she loves to bask in the pleasure of nicely woven words, move to the rhythm of thoughtful beats, sing to the content of her heart and make entries in her ever expanding travel itinerary. Professionally, she revels in social science research and is engaged with the development sector in India.
Another Day Well Spent
The supremely promiscuous rooster was back from his unsavoury frolicking around the neighbourhood. Ever since a sneaky mysterious monster had caught the terror-stricken mother hen from one side on a loud, wet, and dark menacing night, she had limped with one foot, retired hurt forever. The rooster, meanwhile, had completely lost interest in her and would not even let her have her little morsel of grain in peace — pecking her and setting her into flight with a flick of his vibrantly revengeful bill. Like humans, like poultry, thought Lily to herself while she tried to talk some courage into the beaten down she-hen and steal her some grains without the notice of his highness Lucifer-cock. It had rained throughout the night yesterday. Rained?!!! Was rather seeming like the promised return of Christ, riding on a chariot of thunderbolts. Her heart had beaten wildly. Although she was prepared for the Day of Judgement, she had really wished that it wouldn’t come so soon. They had just retired from endless years of government service and moved to the countryside. Drawing him closer in bed she had noiselessly chuckled, sensing Thomas’ heartbeats booming like a hyperactive child’s performance on the drums. They had held each other tight and slept off the apocalypse. It was still wet and cloudy this morning but the gravel felt pleasant under her naked feet. The mother hen finally ate a few mouthfuls.
Gosh this is such a change. Good? Bad? She could not make up her mind yet. It had been a few months since they had shifted from the self-centered cacophony of the capital city to their country house nestled in the hills of Kerala. Having spent a good many years of their lives as strangers in a strange land, now they felt like strangers in their own. Working by the constant ticking of clocks — day in and day out — they had not realised how habituated they had gotten to artificially lit nights along with the constant buzzing of vehicles in the background that kept them subliminal company. The deafening darkness of nights here proved to be discomforting. Throughout the decades of tedious government service, the thought of retiring to their ‘homeland’ had kept a fragrant incense ignited in their hearts. They had thought this through. Or so they had thought. Now the grocery shop, taken-for-granted when it was just off the next street in the city, felt like a place on a different continent to which they had to ride on their newly purchased Wagon (R for Retirement money, of course). While they were slowly getting used to the nights, the days were a bit too idyllic for comfort. Television had quickly lost charm and, hence, they could not recognise their lives anymore.
“What does he keep doing, sitting out there? All by himself? The whole day? What is he thinking so much about? That chap used to need four people to shut him up. What is wrong with him?” Thomas nodded with a peculiar sort of irritated concern towards his octogenarian appachan (father) who was sitting blank-faced on the granite porch outside the house. His appachan seemed to be unusually fixated on that particular spot outdoor — no matter whether it was raining mercilessly or sweltering distressingly.
Thomas was still sulking as he sat down for breakfast to a steaming plate of puttu (rice cake) with bananas. He was sweating a little from the strenuous dry leaf picking exercise in the courtyard. The road leading up to the house along with the whole front yard had been swept clean. Lily admonished him playfully, still fairly impressed by his rare self-appointed task this morning, “Let him be. He is old. That is his spot. He enjoys it out there.” She had begun to be worried herself though. Appachan’s old-age obsession had disquieted all the relatives but now it had progressed to become the talk of the small town.
“Did ammachi (mother) have her food?” he asked expectantly.
“Down to the last morsel. And by the way… according to her latest story, she has just got married and shifted to her husband’s house. That means you are not born yet – and I… I… I am not even remotely there in the frame.” She managed to spurt it out in between controlled chortles.
“That’s good. We are getting there, one day at a time.” He smiled, starting to peer into the newspaper which he was still getting adjusted to, considering the change in language. Ah well! It’s all the same. He dismissed the discomfort.
It’s funny to know you are not born yet – that too if your mother breaks the news to you. He never really got a chance to see his parents grow older. Between now and the time he had left to join the job in the city with a few pair of clothes, no footwear, and a waist-size he could not even imagine having had once, his folks had transformed into a holiday phenomenon to be visited once every year or two voices at the end of a phone line. Recounting and retelling their stories to his children endless number of times while they ate late dinners in the metropolis, he didn’t realise that they had reified into living memories for him. These memories had limbs and bodies that he did not recognise in the figures he saw in front of him now.
Sometime over the years – while nobody specifically watched – his ammachi had retreated into a world of a mingle-mangle mélange of forgetfulness which most of the time did not even acknowledge her eight children. But she remembers me! She has called me by my name ever since we came. This he kept held in his heart as a selfish medallion to comfort himself. Doctors had certified Alzheimer’s disease and there was nothing more to be done but watch and accept. She aged backwards going from having eight fully grown children, several grandchildren, and even a few great-grandchildren to being a newly-wed bride this morning – just ready to move into her husband’s poverty-stricken house. But often there was no order. It was a chaos of recollections – loud noises, mangoes, her childhood house, urine, bugs and butterflies, her nanny goats, their kids, the marble-shaped stool of those kids, clouds, the falling jackfruit, her sisters, some rhymes, exercise drills, and her youngest grandchild, who was the only person she consistently seemed to remember, and courtesy of whom she recalled the rhymes and the drills. There were moments of recognition, some glimmers of remembrance that her children and grandchildren actively looked out for. As if they were a sign that she will remember all of it. Some day. One day.
Meanwhile his appachan. The effervescent fighter, the superhero of the town, the local artist, the jolly village champion who had conquered all odds against natural and man-made poverty, who had pounded his own flesh to feed and educate his eight children — even the girls — in this treacherous small place where most gave up, who had become the village memory-keeper with songs and endless stories for everyone — with place in his memory for precise dates, months, and years — had withdrawn into what seemed like an imaginary shell. His tales — real or fictional — of being the first communist in town, of fighting legal battles with wealthy landowners for what was his father’s land, of travelling to distant towns in order to spread the revolutionary message through theatre and music were now chaotic echoes from a distant mountain. The invisible wall he was building around himself every moment grew taller with the change of seasons. Sitting on the porch all day at that one specific corner, he would watch the trees, the granite floor, the hardly travelled road, and the people who occasionally passed by. His silence, like an old blunted knife slowly being sharpened on a rough stone-wheel, threw little embers of hot stuff on his children and many others in the village. What is up with this man? Why is he so hushed? Thomas wondered, as he popped in his last banana.
The sun is deceitful. It beckons you to wake and work, yet at the same time lulls you to sleep… its classic mischievous trick. When the naked flesh on one’s back touches the cool granite on a warm afternoon like this, it’s like a giant safe hand cooping you up within its fist — cutting you off from the rest of the world. How comforting the breezy blackness of this sparkling granite. Love how the world looks from here. Sideways. Up straight. Every angle revealing yet another new shade of the million hues of green I have seen around. Can tell one shade from the other with my bare hands. Colours have their texture, you know. Colours also have personalities, like all these trees do too.
Come to think of it, these coconut trees are really the shy ones. They will gently surrender their space for anything that decides to show up in between. Hell… they are even afraid of the wind! There the wind would come, swirling from the sea, dancing on tip-toes without making a sound and this one would make way to avoid breaking the wind’s silent ecstasy. There never was a tree so magnificently colossal yet so wonderfully timid. Timidity bends one’s back, my friend, like it has done yours!
Look how the sun is playing its impish tricks on me now, peeping in through that beautiful timid tree’s foliage. But I have seen the bastard in all its wrath, in all its hot rage. It won’t remember now, will it? But I do. Those days when I would have to break the unrelenting boulders into tiny rocks, the scoundrel would turn red as if its wife had lit its bum on fire. O’ how I would plead for it to sulk in some other corner and not over me. But maybe it was that red, which got me all boiled up when that bloody contractor didn’t pay the promised wage for the entire day’s merciless toil. O’ merciless it sure was. Like a punishment for each of my sinews. I wonder what happened to the contractor guy. I heard he crossed over… going across the sea to Saudi… hmm… twelve years back. How thalla (mother of my children) would also boil at the mention of his name! Remember thalla, how you would use your tiny lips to yell the fiercest expletives known to you? Even while our numerous children would be tugging at you for some food. You had hair till your ankles at the time. Now look at you dozing off on that couch, just a shadow of yourself. O’ but what a beautiful shadow!
Huh! Memories are like gold, I figure now. There isn’t any time to enjoy them while you are frantically trying to accumulate them. By the time you think you have enough, you realise only you enjoy them by yourself. O thalla! How I built this lighthouse of memories without once noticing when you quietly left my side! You did not even gently nudge or give a signal. I hope you are not cursing me now for my arrogance… and I hope you will slyly show me the secret door to enter your restricted memory tower. Remember the first time I saw you at your father’s house?
O’ dear lord! It is four already! Lily? Lilyyyyyy…!!!
“Oh, is it four already?” Lily straightened up startled. She had been working on unsheathing the fresh prawns ever since after lunch but the pile still seemed to be the same size as when she had started. Pulling the head off. Then the tail. Then the middle. Deveining. O’ why wouldn’t you just finish you damned fresh prawns! The she-hen was nervously loitering around to get a few pecks but still made sure to keep distance.
“So, the captain’s tea time! Why can’t he chill about the 4 o’clock fixation? Not a minute here or there! Gosh!” Thomas said, in between short heavy breaths. He had the bittersweet expression of pure physical labour while beads of sweat shone like tiny star-lights on his forehead. He had been struggling to get the monstrous jackfruit up the slippery path to the outhouse by the kitchen.
“Oh come on! He does not take lunch usually, so he must be feeling a bit low by this time!” Both of them did a lot of these unusual physical undertakings — unusual at least for Thomas — in each other’s presence. The outdoor banter, the gentle teasing under the watch of various shrubs and creatures could be strangely vitalising. Lily ran off into the kitchen through the back door, setting the she-hen to run cross country for her life in the opposite direction
By the time she was back, the hen had gone to receive more abuse from her part-sadistic ‘lover’ and Thomas seemed to be having some deep conversation at the neighbouring house. Evenings were the cruelest part of the day. No matter how much she battled with her thoughts so as to prevent them from invading her mind, some minions always circumvented her weak shield and claimed the spoils of her psyche. Evenings used to be the best part of the day. In the darkened room of her city quarters, this used to be the time to catch some eventful evening television serials after the whole day’s dreary work. She was not quite sure if she really liked those mummified ladies rolling their kohled eyes at one another for hours without reason, but she had grown used to their yelling and screaming. She looked down at the fresh prawns. Is it better to be stuck with the serials or to be stuck with the prawns? Guess it would take many more such evening battles to figure that out. In the meantime, she looked around at the tiny chilly shrub that had grown to be her favourite over the past few weeks. The perils of being named after a flower, she thought, are that you do not get enough of these plants. So many shades of green, and yet the dry brown of the city beckons! She did miss the powder-clad bickering ladies of the serials.
“Did ammachi have food?” Thomas entered the dining room bookmarking his latest Jack Reacher novel that his girls had got him. He had dozed off reading it, dreaming of distant expeditions, and fighting off an endless stream of bad hideous villains. He saw Lily sitting at the dining table, deep in thought, and realised how beautiful the sight looked. He was proud of the house he had built with their money and she deserved all of it. But he did think occasionally of the damp mildewed house of his childhood that had to be razed down for this one to come up – especially on violently rainy nights like tonight. Forgive me old house… I still love you!
“She ate everything on the plate. And today you know she did the strangest thing while I was changing her diaper, she blew me a flying kiss. Can you believe it? She had the most embarrassed look in her eyes. Poor woman!” Lily had been thinking of the kiss ever since. She could not get rid of the image of those tiny wrinkled fingers reaching for the lips and sending the precious cargo fluttering across to her. The flying freight had managed to pierce her heart open with its momentum. She had since felt guilty for missing the shrieking and scheming women on television earlier today.
“She might not remember your name but she sure can sense her indebtedness to you.” He suddenly wished he would not follow the road his ammachi had accidentally taken in her old age. He wished he would remember his girls, their children, their happiness and sorrows. He wished he would remember Lily. All of her!
“And you know, it is so sad at times! Appachan went into ammachi’s room and talked to her for hours. It is heart-wrenching to know that she does not remember most of him!”
This was too much for his pensive heart to handle at the moment, worse than the blows he had received in his dreams. So he decided it best to change the topic. “Is that monkey business over? The one on television that he watches over dinner? ‘News debate’ they call it. It is worse than that buffoon… that Arnab Goswami guy! It is more like an annoying circus where the animals are not even adorable. It is funny that he still vouches for that horrible political party and their noisy affairs. Anyway, is he still out on the porch? But it is raining like it’s all going to end today! What is it with him? What should we do? Should we take him to his brothers’ house? That should be a good change! How do we keep him engaged? He has given up reading novels or writing! The girls should have been here! They would know what to do with him, the way they know what to do with us!”
Lily sensed his heavy heart and got him some fried beef. Don’t worry you’ll be fine in your old age! “That is a good idea! Let us take him to his brother’s place across the river. That way he will be off the porch for a while. I will ask Betty if she can be with ammachi for a day. We can go over the weekend.”
What are these jokers on the television doing? Look what they have done to the Party! But what party! Bastards! They are all the same. What congress, what communists! Years of loyalty, through the unrelenting flag bearing, the sloganeering, the bewildering controversies, yet at the end of it all I am not sure what the party has done for me. They said communists cannot believe in god… they cannot go to church! But do I believe? Don’t I? I don’t know. I keep these questions for rainy days like this, so the mad winds block out my answer. O’ I believe! O’ God I do! I do believe that thalla will not forget me! She will remember how we have spent our lives and she will be happy! She will remember how I fought with her and forgive me. She will smile at me every time I go into her room and tell her stories like I did today. Of course she will remember….
Hmm is it ten? Time to sleep! It is so peaceful today. Thank you Lord… would really say that it was another day well spent! These kids should come out on the porch more often. Instead they are always cooped up inside the house. The stars twinkle in a unique way when you look from here. The rain whistles its extraordinary tunes when you listen from here. The earth has so much to offer at this spot. These two from the city worry me. They have lifeless limbs and inert eyes.