bhavani is an independent fiction and non-fiction writer. Her short fiction was judged the winner of the 2016 Out of Print-DNA contest. Her fiction has been published at Out of Print, DNA, Women’s Web, Tell Me Your Story and Spark. In a dedicated relationship with her husband, chocolate, her puppy and lower case, though not necessarily in that order, bhavani lives in Mumbai and works from home though misses the daily dose of office gossip.
A Story that Lived
The old peepal tree stood to one side of the busy intersection in that village 160 kilometers from Chennai. A large dilapidated temple to one side of that tree spoke of its graceful past to anyone who cared to examine the cracks in the garish paint that now covered it. Between that tree and temple lay a wide paved courtyard with loose cement slabs. The loose soil appeared to have been swept by a broom; the area was neat and clean with no sign of the litter that usually accompanied temples in India.
A woman stood in the middle of the courtyard with a toddler by her side. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, but stray strands escaped and flew in the gentle breeze that milled around. People walked around them, continuing their daily routine; the woman, unmoving, her eyes soft with wonder, appeared an island surrounded by churning waves. The toddler looked at his mother’s face and asked, “Ma, where are we?”
It was 4 am and I was sitting on the toilet pot. Sleep had evaporated and I had found myself awake on the bed with an urgent need to pee. The leaflet said that the first urine of the morning was the best. So there I was, waiting, after having peed on a stick. I was three days late. I was never late; my uterus could make even a clock envious. I looked at myself in the mirror, my hair wild around my face, my eyes big and puffed… how did I feel?
The little lines turned pink. Was there supposed to be one pink line or two? I looked back at the instructions on the kit. I had more urine in the sampler, so I did another test to be doubly sure.
That evening, we announced the news to my parents over the speaker phone. “We have something to tell you. Do you want to guess first?”
“Then there is only one thing on my mind, nothing else… I keep praying for it. I don’t know what else to say,” my mother stated.
Like all parents, ours too, were keen on a grandchild. It had never been an outright order; rather, subtle requests and questions about whether we were planning to have children or not. It would be the first one on both sides: I was an only child and my husband’s brother was still unmarried.
The rest of the phone call was a riot of screams, shouts, unending thank yous, “I am so excited”, “need to meet you”, et cetera, ending with, “We are coming to Bombay right now!”
Almost every other evening Aru, Suma, Abi, Lila and I sat in a circle on the warm mosaic floor. Paati, our grandmother, sat in front of us, her left hand holding a wide steel plate while her right shaped mounds of rice mixed with ghee, powdered jeera and pepper, which she would plant in the centre of our palms. It felt large, circular, and warm on my hand, and in my mouth the ghee robbed the jeera and pepper of its fire. Sometimes she rolled tight balls of curd rice with pickle pressed inside. The pickle was usually home-made, tender mango kept in a cupboard in traditional jars, stirred only with a wooden spoon. I remember how the piquant sourness made me squeeze my eyes shut but still want more… although there was no way to say “Enough!” or fuss about eating. Paati decided when each of us was done. The older ones got more, the younger ones got less. As she placed the mound of rice on my outstretched palm, I would break away a bit from one side, then another, gnawing at the mound, finishing the last bite only when it was my turn again.
All the while, my eyes would be fixed on her face, my ears trained on her voice, and my attention never wavering even for a minute. Food went in, mosquitoes got swatted, legs crossed and uncrossed when they went numb, and the diamond on her nose shone — an early star at dusk — her eyes wide and bright, and her hands moving in automated motion, like our mouths. Paati continued in Tamil, “A fox, who had black and grey and brown fur, lives in the huge forest just around the corner of this street.”
A whisper came in, “The corner of this street?”
“Yes. He lives with his mother and father, both big and huge! If you should ever meet them outside, just turn and walk away. Do not make eye contact. Ok?
But this guy, he is a baby fox. He has this large white stretch of fur that runs down his back, so he is called Lightning. As all babies are, he is adventurous and is always found in the funniest of situations. Sometimes, the brave can also be foolish, right? But then we’ve all been there!”
We lived in different cities across India and every summer we met in hot Chennai, bound together by our common grandparents, and there we stayed under the shade of Paati’s umbrella. Our parents would drop us off, stay for a few days, and then go back home to work, to a life without children – a vacation. And we remained behind for at least a month, often longer. Paati, an enthusiastic caretaker, cook, entertainer, and warm hugger rolled into one, never complained.
I sat by the window after throwing up all my breakfast. My stomach felt like it would never want food again. Would this nausea ever end?
“I know mine continued for the first trimester, and then it went away.” Amma tried to cheer me up when I spoke to her on the phone. “You’ll be fine.”
“I was thinking about Paati today. All those stories she told us.”
“Yes, she told you so many stories.”
“Did she suffer from nausea while carrying any of you?”
I could hear Amma hesitating on the phone and could see her shrug as she said, “Hmmm… I don’t really know. Can’t remember talking about it. She might have. It was a long time back, you know… forget these things.”
“Do you remember any of the stories she told us?”
“She must have told me those stories too when I was little… but I cannot remember now. I know that her mother and grandmother who lived in the village told her all these stories. I know that she loved to add little things to each story so you always thought you were hearing a new one…”
“This monkey was one of the smartest you would have ever known. His brain was huge and so tightly packed that it felt like the brain of two monkeys in one body. And he said…”
Six of us lay in a row with Paati in the middle. The cool bamboo mats felt hard on our backs, our bodies tired from the heat and an entire day of play, yet craving a bedtime story. The whirring fan, on the fastest speed it could manage, was the background score to Paati’s tale, which took us into a jungle filled with monkeys and scary animals. The only light came from the mosquito-repellant machines plugged in the two corners of the room.
By the time she was halfway through, some of us were already asleep. I lay on my stomach, chin resting on the palms of my hand, huddled close, looking into the white of her eyes as she took me further into that dark jungle. When she finished, I took a deep breath, and asked:
“Paati, who told you these stories?”
“Oh, my mother, and her mother, and her mother. All my aunts and uncles would tell us stories too. There was no electricity in our village and every evening someone would tell a story. It was usually in the open space in front of the temple. The floor was smoothened with cow dung, a peepal tree stood tall, spreading its branches above us, and the rustling leaves seemed to take on the character of every story. We would crowd around, close to the storyteller eager to not miss even a word.”
“In those days,” Paati continued, “stories weren’t just for children. Everyone enjoyed a good tale or two and the night would go on and on.” I could picture that scene: the dark village, the night sky clearly lit by stars and the moon, men sitting in their loosely tied lungis, women with their pallus tight around them to preserve the warmth inside, the children, their eyes wide and bright, sitting closest to the man or the woman who stood tall in their midst, telling them a story. I could hear the leaves of the peepal rustling. On that warm night in Chennai, I felt a shiver run down my spine.
“But Paati, some of these stories happened in Madras! Your mother didn’t live here.”
“Oh, I changed it a bit, the story can’t be the same forever. Everyone should hear something different, and all of you know Madras, you don’t know my village. You’ve never been there! Stories are living things, they breathe, they absorb little things from around them. You see a beautiful flower and the story tells you it wants the flower to be in it, so you add that flower…”
“Really?” I whispered.
“Yes, if you are a good storyteller, then stories talk to you.”
“If you were to let a story stay as is, and create this big, strict rule that no one can ever change anything about it ever, then it gets boring. The story gets dull. It is the same thing again and again and again. No one wants to listen to that story. And what happens if you don’t listen to a story?”
“It dies?” I whispered.
“Yes, the story fades away and slowly dies… it’s as if it never existed in the first place. Stories live in people, and if people don’t hear it, then… you don’t want stories to die, do you?”
I shook my head, my curly hair bobbing up and down. I wanted stories to live forever and ever, especially the ones Paati told me.
“Are you eating right? I hope you aren’t starving or doing any of your fancy diets. It isn’t good during pregnancy. You need to eat for two people now!”
My mother was worried that I would obsess about my body. I tried to tell her that with the nausea I couldn’t eat anyway. No food was tasty. Every morning, I struggled to find something that even a tiny part of me wanted to eat. Most often, I threw it up fifteen minutes later. I moved to a diet of muesli and milk, the only two things I could tolerate.
“I’m fine Amma.” To change the topic, I asked her, “Do you know some of the stories Paati told you?”
“Don’t remember them… my memory is really bad. She told them to you much more recently — you must recall them better?”
Memory is a fickle thing, never by your side when you attempt to revisit something precious. It flits in like a temperamental wind and goes away when it chooses to. I often found myself grasping at fine threads, wondering if I would ever be able to pull it down and access an entire piece of my past.
“Those stories were something else, Amma! They grew in her brain. Like seedlings planted in fertile soil. They were adventurous, fun, and ever-changing. They were unpredictable.”
I bought myself a Kindle after much debate and loaded the digital library. I devoured the content, attempting to conquer my churning stomach by travelling across the seas. I read authors from Iran, far away Canada, and close — yet distant — Myanmar. I read stories constantly, searching for glimpses of Paati’s originality, for the timelessness in her stories and their immediacy.
For Paati added elements from the day. If you told her something you did that day, it would appear in a story that night, sometimes in an uncomplimentary fashion. We cousins grew cautious, singing tales of only our bravest and smartest deeds.
Paati called the stories family stories, heirlooms she wanted to pass on. She didn’t believe in lockers stuffed with gold that were divided amongst the surviving family, but wanted to gift her children stories. Perhaps she hoped they would soak it up like a dry sponge and then give it their own spin.
“No more, Paati,” Aru said. He was 13, and had the trace of a moustache on his upper lip. He no longer found joy in sitting in a circle with younger cousins and listening to stories.
“Why?” she asked, her face small but curious.
“Shiva Mama got us a new video game. We want to play with that this summer. Master it before the summer gets over. Besides, stories are for babies, Paati.”
She looked at him, nodded and then looked into the distance, “And the rest of you? Want a story?”
I wished to say I would sit by her, and that she could tell me stories, all kinds of stories about all kinds of creatures, and that I still wanted to hear them.
But I didn’t.
We were all silent. She pulled her pallu tight over her chest, gave us a small tight smile, and went away.
Aru was the coolest cousin, he was the first one to enter those mysterious teenage years and he was erudite, at least in our books, about the world beyond the games of our childhood. We followed him around like lost puppies that entire summer. Most of the time was spent lounging in front of the television set, screaming and shouting at close calls and arguing about who got to play next. Food was forgotten, meal times were now random, and we took turns, each eating when the controls were not in their hand. Every now and then, a fight would break out. It would get mean — bitter — and tears would come gushing down a few cheeks. Then Paati would appear, hug the crying kid, wipe away those tears with her soft pallu and tell us to take a break. We never took that break. Playtime merged with evening and then slipped into night.
That was also the summer she took to baking cakes. These were made in steel tumblers that she ‘baked’ in her Butterfly pressure cooker. We would get a new experiment every few days, sometimes with jam on top or in the centre, sometimes topped with homemade chocolate sauce; once there was even Horlicks in it! Her creative experiments didn’t always result in the tastiest cake but I remember gobbling them up and always wanting more.
One night, as the sun set on us, we lay on the bamboo mats with heads resting on soft pillows, each pillow demarcating our space on the mat. Elder cousins still played on their gaming devices, but I wasn’t ready to sleep just yet. I asked Paati about those stories at the village centre. She spoke about the ritual of storytelling in her village. There were always a few good storytellers at any given time in her village. They brought alive their stories merely with their words and voice.
There was once a contest to see who could keep the audience regaled for the longest time. Different people walked up to the centre and told their stories, and by a show of hands the villagers decided who went to the next round. There was much cheering and booing on that cold night. Someone lit a few fires. I could picture Paati amongst them, huddled around one of the fires, and like everyone around, warming her hands and toes, while a single voice took them far, far away. That night, Ramu was judged the best.
“Was he a famous storyteller, Paati?”
He was her favourite, famous in the village for his ability to transport them to worlds no one had ever seen or would in their lifetime. That night, he told them a story based far away, in north India. It was set in the cold Himalayas, which remained covered in snow for most of the year – such a distant reality from their safe, warm village in Tamil Nadu!
“He narrated his story in such few words but I could feel the cold punch of snow as he described it. I felt like I was touching snow, crumbling it in my fingers, walking on it, sinking into it. And those shimmering snow peaks, with the moon rising over them… it was real, right in front of my eyes. I have never been to the Himalayas, but even today, deep down, it feels like I have.”
“Had he been there?”
“To the Himalayas? Ramu?” Paati shook her head, her eyes far away. “He hadn’t even been out of our village, but he was a magician of the truest kind. He could conjure up worlds based on what he heard from people, pictures he saw, and movies he watched. Everything was a clue, an input, a small inflection in a story. He could make anything spring to life.”
The silence deepened as I thought of Ramu, standing in front of the entire village and taking them to a snow-capped peak, making them touch snow in a way that even he hadn’t.
“Stories don’t need to be lived to be told, they just need to be told.”
The next summer, Aru and Suma didn’t come back; there were classes and other things back home in Delhi. We were down to three. Summer was filled with mangoes, climbing trees, and chasing one another, but Paati’s stories never came up. We didn’t ask for them, neither did she ask if we wanted to hear them. Without Aru, the enthusiasm for video games died down. After a few days of chasing one another and some fights, we went our own way. I liked sitting down somewhere in a corner with books, and Lila and Abe did their own thing.
After another summer in Chennai, I bribed my way out of the next one. Why couldn’t I read my books in Pune?
“I’ll go for classes. Whatever you want. And I will not bug you at work.”
“You’ve always loved visiting Madras!”
“Madras is boring!”
Amma raised her eyebrows but didn’t push. I’d said “Madras” and boring in the same breath. I never spent a summer in Chennai again.
Paati fell ill when I began my first job. I couldn’t spend much time with her as I no longer had the luxury of long leaves. I went down for a weekend and she had changed so much from the last time I’d seen her. She was much older now, her face was lined with wrinkles and grey hair sprouted from old moles on her face, moles I hadn’t noticed before. Her thick coil of hair was no longer wound at the nape of her neck but lay limp in a thin plait. As she slept that afternoon, I stood in front of a wall of family photographs. There were photographs from her entire life: my grandparents at their wedding, with their first grandchild Aru, with five of us one summer, another smiling and laughing in a typical U.S.A studio photoshoot with that sterile backdrop and one from a few years ago, at a family reunion.
“Kanna, dear one,” she called out.
I went to her, “Is there anything I can get you, Paati?”
Her voice was a gentle wheeze and her breath stumbled over a short sentence. She coughed through the few words. “My skin is very dry. Can you apply some cream?”
I took out a box of the latest new-age youth serum from my bag. I rubbed a bit on my fingers and then gently applied it to her face. Her skin was soft, tender, each wrinkle collapsing into another. She lay there on her back, content, eyes closed, as I smoothed out each wrinkle, feeling my way around the lines that now marked her face. There was a smell about the room, a smell of old age and decay. When had she aged? I couldn’t remember. By the time I finished, she’d fallen asleep. Her eyes were loosely shut, her lips upturned in a small smile and her hands were interlocked over her stomach. I covered her with a light sheet and stepped out.
She died one day without anyone present in the room. It was a few years after my visit. I was working away from home when Amma called me, sobbing. Amma was 60 years old and her mother 80, yet she was frantic, lost. Paati had suffered a heart attack. It was sudden, quick, and decisive. Thatha had gone to the bathroom and came back to find her lying on the floor next to her bed, her eyes shut, her hands spread out and her head tilted to one side. That was it. It felt like an ideal death, quick and with no drama.
Some months later, I found out I was pregnant. After a long 9 months filled with intense nausea, Ari was born. He had a crop of black hair and wide eyes that were constantly moving as if searching for something.
“Amma, can you look for some stories? Maybe some book, somewhere. That Maami, who is your neighbour, maybe you can ask her? Ari would like them. He is now listening to stories you know. He is just a year old, but so responsive! It would be nice to listen to Tamil ones like the ones Paati told us, instead of the ones I’m reading from books written by Western authors. Maybe you can ask…”
I asked my husband’s mother too if she knew any stories that had passed down through the generations in her family. She sent me a Google search that threw up links to YouTube videos of the best children’s stories from around the world. None of those stories gripped me like Paati’s had. None of them felt like they could be mine.
Behind the wooden study table that was Thatha’s property, through the hole-in-the-wall window with thick grills running across, a ray of light from the streetlamp outside the compound wall filtered in and fell on her nose. The mookkutthi, diamond nose stud that was a part of her wedding trousseau from eons ago, shimmered in the light, showing its multiple facets. As the gathering darkness got cosy around us, the mosquitoes buzzed, briefly claiming our attention and receiving quick swats; but our eyes were glued to her face, her bright eyes, illumined in the light that ricocheted off her diamond nose stud. We followed every movement of those expressive eyes, the jet-black orb that seemed to grow or narrow down as she moved through the motion of a story.
Paati told a story like no other.