The champaka fragrance filters through the warm noon after a week-long rain in August. Belgaum monsoons are known for being unpredictable, a trait that no town citizen is proud of. It’s a Thursday evening, a day when Ustad arrives in all glory wearing his ittar and Pathan suit with equal grace. His cycle makes a subtle rattle that a decade-old cycle does. My ears are set on auto-tune for this unique sound and I can tell when he approaches our building. I am excited just as I am for most of my tabla classes. The sheer fact that animal skin produces such rhythm adds to my wonder, but Aai disagrees. She does not agree to whatever I say, anyway. Ustad walks in with urgency and spreads his smile resting on his red paan-stained lips. He then removes the tiny Saraswati idol from his right pocket, places it next to the mat and folds his hands in prayer. He then opens his eyes and asks me,
“Shall we start? Let us revisit some basic taals today. We haven’t done that in a long time now, and I want you to ace the praveshika exam.”
“Have you been practising, or do you open them only when I come here?”
“No, Sir. I practice every morning for an hour. You can check with Aai or even Aaji, who is resting now.”
“That I will do. Also, I don’t want you to take part in any sports activities right now. Do you still play volleyball?”
“No, Sir. Aai has pulled me out by writing a fake note to my teacher claiming weak lungs.”
What’s good is that I still play volleyball and don’t mention it anymore. In my 17 years of a full life, I have understood one thing. Always tell what the other person needs to know, be it Aai, Baba, Aaji, or Ustad. Grown-ups can create chaos out of nothing.
Once the class ends, I reheat the milk tea and serve it with Marie biscuits to Ustad. He says once he played the tabla for 48 hours without taking even a single break. It marked his Guinness world record entry. As soon as he finished achieving the milestone, the first thing he did was order tea.
His talk is interrupted by Auto Srikanth, who honks his rickshaw standing on the ground floor of the apartment, making an announcement of his entrance to the entire Gondalgalli. I wear my chappals hurriedly and run towards the stairs. Auto Srikanth does not know the meaning of the word ‘waiting.’ The frequency of his honking is proportionate to the speed at which one can scoot. The only equation I have been able to understand, I suppose. As I reach the main entrance of the building, Aai has already started walking towards the lift.
“Ustad is there, or he left?”
“He won’t leave without having his special buffalo milk tea that you make.”
“Snoring through my tabla class. How can she even manage to do that? It’s tabla for god’s sake, not a lullaby.”
Aai laughs, and when she does, her body shivers to scare me as though she will lose her control and fall off on the ground. I get anxious without reason. I just hold her, though she doesn’t need much of my support. The walker does the deed.
When we enter the apartment, the champaka fragrance catches our cologne senses, and in one sniff, lights up my mood. I take a few deep breaths until Aai interrupts.
“Did you again go on to the terrace and lean on that ledge for these flowers?”
“Aai, I am not a 5-year-old to trip off from that.”
“Yes, you are right. You have to be a 17-year-old fool for that.”
“No, don’t start this again, Aai. I am careful, not a usual reckless teenager.”
Aai is furious by now with the fact that I hadn’t obeyed. Seeing this, Ustad thought it was the right moment to slip away. Aai is known for her ‘garam’ mood. Her anger is talk of our small quaint town. But then in our town, everybody is everybody’s talk. Ustad utters a meek bye and makes a plain exit. Nothing dramatic like his entrance.
“Mayi, Mayi, are you back from your stupid work?”
Thank god Aaji woke up to intervene. Aai somehow softens at Aaji’s voice.
“Yes, yes. I have come back at your service, Mhatre madam. I will freshen up and get your darshan.”
“Don’t try your sarcasm with me, you smartass woman. Get on with your chores, and don’t forget today is Thursday.”
Aai grumbles under her breath. Aaji in every possible opportunity establishes that she is still the boss of the house.
“In olden days, I did whole day upavas and managed through the day with only a glass of milk and some fruits. Now, I have become like this at 82 only. I can’t even sit for an hour. God knows how many more sunsets I am yet to see.”
“Don’t worry. You will hit a century. Your family has a record of not leaving the planet before 100.”
“Gone are those days. With such poor food and air, I don’t think I will survive that long. If I could, I would just transfer my years to Rishi.”
“If wishes were puranpolis, we could have them every day. Also, not to forget our diabetes.”
Aaji chuckles and hums a Digambar bhajan. Aai moves on slowly to the washroom. Once she returns, I help her out of her saree and make her wear the infamous nightie worn by every other elderly woman. Aaji too has now given up her sense of fashion and succumbed to the autocratic rule of nighties. I think I have forgotten Aaji in her splendid nine yards of different hues and big Kumkum that she kept on, despite Ajja’s demise. But after her fall last year, her memory of strolling in the house with careful steps has distantly faded. The chill in the weather made their suffering excruciating. While Aai’s acute arthritis makes each movement a challenge, Aaji’s age made her organs slowly give up on the idea of living. I don’t have to do much when it came to Aaji. Baba scrubs her every day, gives a bath weekly, and I only change her diapers.
The clock strikes 7:00 PM already. I rush to the balcony and stand at my usual place. I adjust my glasses, brush off any trail of dust from my blue tee, and gently comb my hair with my fingers. At any moment, Ananya will pass through, and I will get to see a glimpse of her charming face. While my friends admire her for her body statistics, it’s her smile that gives me a sense of calm in a storm. Well, not to disregard the fact that I love her body stats too. I know that her friends give her a live commentary about my balcony and the details. But the perfect day will be when she will look up to me. I know she’s too glamorous, but what’s the harm in dreaming. That’s my only safe place, away from adults and away from adulting.
The evening unfurls scents of heavy sandalwood incense, blending with the stench of urine that refuses to leave Aaji’s room. Aai prepares everything for the aarti and bhajan. Thursday is a massive deal for her. Digambar, the amalgamated god of the three super gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, is someone whom she trusts beyond any one of us. I like Thursdays too. I get to eat Sabudana Khichdi and Ram Prasad. I don’t know who named it Ram Prasad; it sounds like a typical South Indian name. It is wheat flour roasted in a reasonable amount of ghee, mixed with dry fruits and jaggery. I soaked the Sabudana in the morning before leaving for college so that there were never any excuses for not preparing it.
Aai is in a meditative mood today and sings more bhajans than usual. Once she has poured her feelings out to her heart’s content, which is what I prayed for, she gets on with the cooking.
“What’s bothering you, Aai?” I ask as I roast the groundnuts for the khichdi.
“Ssshh.. don’t let your Aaji hear this. She says her ears have become weak but gets to know every single problem in the house.”
“Okay, but what’s wrong? You never miss your lyrics when it comes to Digambar’s bhajans?” I whisper.
“Ah! Just the usual chikchik in the office. My manager saheb thinks that I have become incompetent and wants me to take the VRS.”
“Why will you take voluntary retirement when you are only 50?”
“Of course, I won’t. It is of no benefit for me, and I am not going to budge. Manager saheb keeps finding faults with everything I do. Today he said that I should feel lucky for their support when I can’t even match my signature anymore. I felt irked and yelled back at him. But I don’t know; this feeling of being a cripple and needing to keep on the official work is a hard balance to achieve. I hope to live until I see you succeed in your life. That’s all I aspire for.”
“You don’t have to sound like Mother India and sob so much over petty men. I don’t understand which market they go shopping for their egos. I am sure that the market is open for cheap bargains. Men in your life are pricks. I am the only exception. If Baba were a little responsible and could bring in some sensible amount of money, things would be different. All he does is wipe his mother, and we should be thankful for him for being compassionate. Serious fun this is. A unique situation, the great Mhatres.”
“Now, don’t pull him in the middle of this conversation.”
“You who are known for anger, with whom people are scared to make small talk, you tolerate his nonsense attitude. That’s the problem. In that way, Aaji is more reasonable. She is clear about herself and was so, even when Ajja was alive. She loved him but didn’t put up with his stupidity.”
“Ohhh! So now, I am the villain.”
“No, Aai. You are my hero and the best one at that. So is Aaji. Let’s leave this here. Let’s eat quickly, feed the dal khichdi to our old lady, and comb your hair. I couldn’t do it properly this morning. And if I don’t do it now, your frizzy hair will give me nightmares.”
Aai’s thick hair needs a lot of combing. For me, the beauty of combing is in untangling the knots. Something is soothing about it. As I part her hair and scrub her head gently with the aromatic oil, Aaji asks,
“Mayi, did you forget to add salt in that dal khichdi. My taste buds are not yet dead if you remember.”
“If my manager is one chikchik, then this old lady is another. I remember your taste very well, your highness, but maybe you don’t remember that doctor has asked you not to have any salt at all? Your blood pressure is shooting faster than a falling star.”
“Stuff the doctor’s arse with his pills. I don’t know for how long I will live. At least I want to eat food that tastes like food.”
“You will outlive us all, Aaji. But no salt for you. Sorry, but last time you made me sneak Kanda bhajis, ate them, and the entire next day, I had to clean you up.”, I add.
“Shut up, you brat. That was because the bhajis were not up to the mark. Else, has it ever happened that I shat so much in my life? Also, Mayi, now that Ganesh Chathurthi is fast approaching, I have thought about the menu. This time, you call over that lady Geeta, the cook, to help you out. Last time, Rishi did most of the cooking, and you fainted. I want to enjoy an elaborate feast with modaks, puran polis with ghee, kheer, and all. I don’t want obligatory ceremonies for the lord.”
“That’s a good idea. I will call the woman first thing tomorrow and ask if she’s free to do the cooking this year.”
“Even if she’s not, then ask her to refer someone. Also, that way, we get to eat something taste worthy.”
Aai again laughs out loudly, her body shivering, making me fret for a moment. But she isn’t walking, she’s sitting comfortably in her chair, and there’s no question of her falling. I pause, take a deep breath and let it go. I am happy with the way I have combed her hair and made a loose plait. I sniff a champaka and place it in her hair.
“You and your fascination for champakas. Do you know Kumu Tai was saying that in Bangalore, one single champaka costs 10 rupees? I wonder when you finish your studies and go there for a job, how will you make do without them?”
“I am not going anywhere. Also, Bangalore does have many champaka trees, and I am a good climber.”
“I will whip you. If I find you on a tree, don’t forget this, but I will climb the tree only to whip your ass, you brat.”
By then, there is a knock at the door. We all know who it is. I open the door and go back to my room without waiting. The house is a chemistry lab of fragrances – champaka, urine, incense, and country liquor. Baba goes to the kitchen, feeds himself, and sleeps in the living room. I follow him through the sounds. He doesn’t need much time to fall asleep. I wait for Aai to come into the room. They don’t talk, not even a single word. Soon, there are snores everywhere. I imagine that I am in a battle dealing with the enemy. Even in our house, we have imagined lines drawn as solid as borders. Even in our house, we have despair looming in the disguise of normalcy. Even in our place, we have a thirst for peace, despite differences.
Saturday morning comes with sunshine that is enough to keep us going. The weather reports predict heavy rains in the coming week. I hope we can celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with the usual number of firecrackers and dance during the visarjan, the seeing-off ceremony of the elephant god. Rains are bad choices made by god. Baba is up and on his third cup of ginger tea.
He says, “Mayi, I will give head bath to our old lady today. It seems there will be rains again, and it might affect her health. It will be bad if she catches a cold.”
“That’s an excellent idea. There are lot many chances of the oldies dying of pneumonia. We should not risk it with this horrible gloomy weather. I can feel the chill rise in my legs when I step my feet on them in the morning.”
“Okay, I will do it around 11ish and then give her food.”
“I don’t think I need a bath this week. We can skip it,” says Aaji from inside her room.
“We didn’t ask you,” replies Baba.
Aaji tries to convince him how her body is too fragile and might break her bones while bathing her. This drama is like a scripted daily soap. Before they pull me in between their arguments, I plan my exit.
“Aai, I will have to leave now. I forgot that I have an extra computer class today. Come let me pleat your saree and pin it up quickly.”
Aai understands and follows me. I pick a soft navy-blue saree with tiny flowers in pink, yellow and white bursting throughout the six yards. Aai is never keen on cotton. She finds them high maintenance, but I insist on her as they don’t leave rashes on her body. Once she somewhat drapes the saree half and half, she calls me out. I make the pleats, pin it up, comb her hair quickly, sniff and place a jasmine garland in her thick bun. I pick my bag and run like a soldier on a mission.
As I reach the apartment’s main entrance, I can already hear Auto Srikanth somewhere close by. He will pick Aai in another 30 minutes. As I left the house in a hurry, I didn’t think of what to do with my spare time. The classes wouldn’t even be open. So, I walk to a friend’s house who is learning Hindustani vocals and with whom I can have a conversation on music. I am sure his mother will offer me breakfast.
The day rolled on quickly with back-to-back lectures, and the only interesting one was English. I like how Chaitra ma’am speaks; neither Marathi nor Kannada languages have influenced her tongue. Her English sounds like English. After finishing the classes, I head home, making a point to do the riyaz that I skipped in the morning because of Aaji’s melodrama. I hope matters are settled there. Else, she will rant about it the entire evening and not fall asleep during my tabla rehearsals. I unlock the house and enter to see that Aaji is asleep. That’s a relief.
I quietly go into my room, freshen up, have some bhel, start my practice, and not a single word comes out of Aaji. For a moment, I doubt if she’s breathing. So, I go to check on her and notice that she’s staring into the blank ceiling.
“Aaji, is everything okay?”
“Nothing. Leave me alone.”
I have understood about women that you should leave them alone when they ask for it. I am worried. I hope Aai comes by quickly and takes charge of this situation. I am not comfortable with silences. They are hard to decipher lingering like ghosts. I see the old grandfather clock and the pendulum seems like a nuisance hanging on my neck. It will take another hour for Aai to start from her office. For the first time, I am okay to deal with Auto Srikanth’s loud declaration of his arrival. I can ask Aai to sort this and head to Kala Bhavan where a much-awaited concert awaits me. Ganapati Bhat will render some soulful taals, and I can float by forgetting these trivialities.
Aai comes wearing her exhaustion like how some women flawlessly wear their makeup. As we near the lift, I tell her softly about Aaji and hint that she needs to tackle the quietude of the house.
“Where are you planning to scoot, leaving me with the old lady?”
“Aai, I told you about the concert. You forgot. You need to take some calcium pills for your memory.”
Aai laughs her usual body-shivering laugh, and I become uncomfortable. We walk into the house with conviction. But as Aayi calls out to Aaji, she just says,
“Were you okay with the varan I made today?”
Aai knows in that instant that something is amiss. She asks me to wait, and I tell her I would see her later and rush to the concert.
It is a little later than 10:00 PM when I reach the house. It is dark. The lamps in front of the gods are unlit adding to the unusual night. Aai sits on the plastic chair next to Aaji’s bed while Aaji is lying down with tears rolling down her eyes.
“What has happened here? Has someone passed away?”
“No. Come here, my son. Sit next to me.”
I pull the chair, keep aside the walker and sit right next to Aai. Her hands are cold; I rub them.
“Remember, when I told you about my distant uncle who molested me?”
“Yes, I do. But what’s the relevance? Did anyone try to do something wrong with you? Tell me, tell me who it is, and I will slit the man’s throat, I promise.”
Aaji cries loudly, sobs vigorously, and then let out a wail, unable to control herself.
“Your Aaji has been molested today. While giving her the weekly bath, your Baba has done what he shouldn’t have.”
“But how can anyone molest their mother?”
Aaji curses herself, her fate, and yells with such a pitch that it feels as though her rage has found a way.
“I must die, I must die,” Aaji goes on repeating after every two minutes.
I am tempted to throw up. Numbness hits us and hours pass on. The night drags its feet as we sit without saying anything to each other, without consoling each other, only allowing the wounds to stay open because we don’t know if there is healing.
There’s a knock on the door, and I don’t know what time it is. My hands sweat, soul trembles, but I muster the courage and open the door to see Baba sloshed to his brim.
He sways and makes his way to the living room. Aai calls him to the room.
Aaji starts cursing him, his intentions, her womb, her upbringing, and everything that she can blame herself.
“Whore, you are! Lying in front of your own family?” he says.
Aai gets up and charges herself at him, the moment that I had always feared. Her body cannot hold herself on guard and falls. Baba and I both run and help her out.
“Don’t touch me. I will tear you down to pieces.” Baba steps back.
I am overwhelmed, and I push him away.
“Leave this house at once. Leave this house if you want to live.”
I go to the kitchen and get the knife. Everyone is stunned by the seriousness of what I am saying. For once, I look like I am capable of any unimagined violence.
“Leave!” I shout at the top of my voice, and Baba is scared. He walks away hurriedly as the neighbours turn on the lights.
The champakas lie on the dining table, withering away in glory. The fragrance is nauseating the life out of me. I am unable to breathe freely. I feel as though the air in my chest is evaporating. I feel abandoned. I sweat and sweat. I feel dizzy. I collapse.
Poornima Laxmeshwar resides in Bangalore, India. Her books of poetry include ‘Anything but Poetry’ (Writers Workshop), ‘Thirteen’ – a chapbook, (Yavanika Press) and ‘Strings Attached’, (Red River).