The mystifying strains of Kalyani wafted through the early morning air as Priti turned in bed. Motley smells floated in the air- pungent turmeric being sprinkled on the curry that the cook was frying, the floral scent of the moisturiser that Ma was applying, the strong herbal odours of the sticky oil Paati was anointing her winter-benumbed limbs with.
Priti recollected that she had a week of vacation left. One whole week! She had spent just three days in this obscure village in the depths of Tamil Nadu, but had already seen and done everything she possibly could. She had romped through the fields, singing to herself; she had watched the agile-limbed boys swim like fish in the white bubbling waters of the river; she had helped the girls make floral garlands, though clumsily and feeling rather like a foreigner because of her urban upbringing. She had woven Paati’s smooth, rippling silver hair into innumerable plaits and grown sick of the onslaught of Carnatic music- the form that seemed to form the very soul of this remote village. She had spent the afternoons reading with the warm sunlight on her face and indulging in siestas in the courtyard. She had done absolutely everything. When would she be back in Chennai?
The sun-kissed morning breeze brushed softly through the boughs of the sturdy trees as Priti made her way through the maze to the little pool that the ancient house overlooked. Save for a solitary bird’s heart-warming song on a distant tree, all was quiet and tranquil. Through a narrow gap in the crumbling wall, Priti emerged into the clearing and gazed at the clear surface of the pool. This was the first really clean body of water she had seen in her fourteen years of life, and it quite amazed her. In fact, almost everything about this tiny village was amazing. It seemed incongruous, like some wizard had cast a spell on it and cursed (or blessed) it, preventing it from moving with the times while all the surrounding areas fell victim to the vices of urbanisation.
Priti watched two butterflies chase each other around a clump of brightly coloured wild flowers. The sky was a dreamy blue, not a trace of cloud on the sun-splashed canvas. A mellow, ethereal light bathed the clearing. The pool glimmered like a giant star. “If I were not fourteen”, said Priti to her reflection in the still water, “I’d believe there were dryads at work here.”
“And what makes you think you are too old for such ideas now?”
Priti jumped. She turned around to find her grandmother looking at her solemnly, eyes smiling, however, in the wizened face.
“Oh, Paati, I didn’t know you were here.”
“Evidently not, my dear, or you wouldn’t have spoken your thoughts aloud, would you? Anyway, what is wrong with believing in dryads at fourteen? I still do.”
“Really?” Priti turned away to hide a smile. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“I do believe in nymphs and fairies and every other pretty creature fantasy can conjure up. All romantic people do.”
Priti looked into Paati’s eyes. “You can’t be romantic now, at this age.”
“Yes, I can. Come along, I want to show you something.”
Priti was not very happy, as she was sure Paati was making fun of her and, in fact, treating her like a child. But she decided to humour her and followed her around the outside of the pool, into a copse of closely-growing trees. They were tall, healthy old trees, their branches extending heavenwards, intertwining and forming a sort of leafy canopy through which sunlight fell in shafts. One of the trees, Priti noticed, was stunted and not quite as strong or imposing as the others. There was a little hollow in its deformed trunk.
Paati led her to the hollow and asked her to put her hand in. Priti recoiled. “There might be snakes in there!”
“Now, Priti, I thought you were braver than your mother,” remonstrated Paati. “She reacted just as you did when I brought her here, several years ago. I decided then that she had not a spark of imagination in her. Of course, she is just like her father, but I hoped her daughter wouldn’t turn out the same. Unfortunately, you seem to take after her…let us go home.” There was a strange tinge of despair in her voice as she turned away and beckoned Priti to follow.
“Paati, please wait! I…I’ll do it. I really want to. Please!” Priti did not know what drove her to say this, it was all done on an impulse. Maybe there was magic in the air.
Paati turned, a smile playing on her lips. “Are you sure?”
“Go ahead, then.”
Not knowing what to expect, Priti stuck her arm into the hollow. Something soft and lumpy met her hand, and she clutched the thing and drew it out tentatively.
A bundle of unknown treasures wrapped in faded magenta silk was what Priti held in her hands.
“Come here, Priti,” said Paati, clearing away some branches with her wrinkled hands to reveal a small wooden bench. “Sit here and open the bundle”, she said, sinking down herself with a sigh and leaning her back against a tree trunk.
Priti obeyed. Her fingers eagerly undid the bundle. What an assortment of things her eyes beheld! Tiny wooden vessels that once must have been the playthings of a young girl; a wooden couple united in matrimony in some distant era; dolls in different shapes and sizes, colour peeling off their painted clothes or brocade tearing off their old silk skirts; sheets of paper bound with string.
“Paati, what is all this?” Priti asked in wonder, as she fingered the dusty old toys with reverence. She wiped her hands carefully on her skirt and picked up the yellowed papers.
“Yours?” Priti looked up in astonishment. “You mean, you actually played with these things all those years ago, and you still have them?”
Paati smiled at Priti’s incredulity. “Yes; I was married when I was twelve. I realised I wouldn’t want them any longer, and in a fit of anger, wrapped them up and threw them into this hollow when I came here as a new bride.”
“And these sheets?”
“Oh, those are some childish verses I wrote,” said Paati, taking them into her hands and peering closely at the neatly written lines, now faded with age. “I always liked to write, but when I was married, I realised I wouldn’t have time to do what I loved most. I was very upset and I just wrapped up these sheets with all the toys.”
Priti looked up at her grandmother with newfound admiration. “How unfortunate, Paati! All your talent wasted.”
“Oh no, not all my talent…I was a good singer, and your Thatha always encouraged me to sing. He was extremely fond of music; he bought me an MS blue saree when he went to Madras, and always wanted me to sing when I wore it.”
“But did you actually love him? I mean, he cut your childhood short, took away from you what you liked best…”
“No, he didn’t,” said Paati, with some force. “When he came to know of my wish to write, he supported me in every way. I kept putting it off then, and the children came along…I would tell myself, just one more year, and then I’ll begin work on my magnum opus. It never happened, but I don’t regret it. I’ve had many other beautiful things, Priti. Most of them are now memories, and the good thing about them is that they never wear away through constant recollection. People call me a recluse, but I’m not one. My memories are with me, my constant companions. What more can I want?”
“But you still have a story in your mind…” persisted Priti.
“Yes, my story…a delightful story of romance which I live everyday, which carries me through all the days of loneliness. This very bench we are sitting on is a part of it…your Thatha made it so we could sit here on moonlit nights and spend time in solitude, away from the rest of the family. We kept coming here together till he died. And then I came here alone, but I knew he was here too, in spirit. He is, now, watching us talk.” A strange, dreamy look came into her grandmother’s eyes as she looked up at the sky through the foliage. Priti followed her gaze. She slipped her young hand into her grandmother’s work-hardened, tired palm.
“Am I romantic, Paati?”
“Can you feel the Presence, Priti?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Then you are. Remember not to outgrow the romance, Priti. It will carry you through life, when you are sad, happy or lonely, just like the sun, the moon and the stars accompany you wherever you go, even if your earthly companions don’t.”