“You remember that one time when you pulled an old man’s Mundu at a wedding?” Amma would say laughingly, at some family gathering and most often than not everyone there would start nodding and cackling in agreement.
“No Ma, I don’t remember trying to disrobe an old man in public but I sure know now how he must have felt”
The stories were endless and I don’t know how much of it was fact and how much was fiction.
We never really own our childhood memories, they are hand me downs from people around us, and trying to recollect these memories can be like looking through a kaleidoscope, but there are some of them that stand out through the shiny broken images of our past.
What I do remember distinctly is going to my Father’s ancestral home in Kerala, a small sickle shaped state in the South of India, almost every year.
It was the same every summer, a long train journey that took almost three days. Traversing through the length of our great nation, the window of the train became a portal to the world. From the cold climes of the North to the sunny tropical wetness of the south, the window pane bore the brunt of nature so that we could enjoy it. Untouched, but not unaffected.
We had taken the trip numerous times for me to know the names of all the railway stations we crossed and in what order. It was a game my Father and I used to play.
“So what station comes after Jhansi, Suresh?” he asked, on one such journey, looking down through his gold-rimmed spectacles.
I scratched my head wondering whether it was Itarsi or Bhopal and my Father kept staring at me till he had a satisfactory answer. At these times I always used to feel as if I was being questioned for an exam, and if I didn’t answer correctly, I would somehow fail the country’s entire railway system.
“Itarsi” I mumbled because I just loved the way the word sounded and felt on my tongue. Like some alien language.
“Aaaah” my father said slapping his hand on his thigh, looking very pleased.
“See Pushpa! Our boy has a sharp memory” he said, turning to look at my Mother who was busy reading her magazine.
“Mmmm yes” she said looking up and smiling at me and ruffling my hair.
“He is one smart boy, isn’t he?” she said to no one in particular but I could see other people in our berth nodding and smiling in agreement.
The day the train huffed and puffed into Kerala was always special, the landscape would change dramatically. A carpet of green engulfed everything, the greenery was never ending, it stretched till the horizon; dotted with houses looking like brown and white splotches on a canvas of green.
The fragrance of tea and a Malayalam song blaring on the Railway station speaker would welcome us. The sights, smells and sounds of the station would engulf me as we would step out of the train. Tea , sandalwood, jasmine and the distinct fragrance of Cuticura talcum powder would hit me like a hurricane.
This cornucopia of smells would make my father very happy.
“We are home son!” he would say, almost every time we reached Kerala.
My father’s ancestral home was a massive brown and green monolith in the middle of nowhere. The nearest house was almost a kilometer or so away.
Every year, it was the same routine, my father’s four siblings with their spouses and children would be standing outside the house in the front yard waiting for our arrival and as soon as we reached the bend on the road before the house all of them would descend on us like a swarm of bees welcoming us with hugs and helping us with our innumerable suitcases and handbags.
There was a flurry of exchanges in Malayalam; which sounds like people hurling abuses at each other; laughter, pulling of my cheeks and customary hugs. All my aunts, my father’s sisters, smelled like talcum powder and jasmine, they had so much Cuticura on themselves that there would be a cloud of white powder around them when they walked. The men in the house were more aloof, no hugs and kisses from them but they all had this lingering smell of cheap beedis and sweat they carried around like an open secret.
Balan Uncle , my father’s only brother , and Malini Aunty, his wife, were different though. Balan Uncle always used to buy me something when he used to go to the market on his cycle. He would even take me on rides. Malini Aunty too was different, she didn’t smell like my other aunts, she always smelt like kitchen smoke and chutney. I loved that smell.
And finally we would go meet my Ammachi, she wouldn’t get up from her perch on a big stately chair in the verandah. She would sit up and observe as my Father, Amma and I snaked our way through the crowd of siblings and well wishers to see her. She wouldn’t say much or rather couldn’t say much because of the betel nut leaf she was chewing and the blood like red juice that ran down from the corner of her lips made her look like an old witch. I was terrified of her. My father would run towards her for her blessings, she would hold his face and murmur something to him. It was strange seeing my father like that, as if in that moment he became a child again.
That year the summer was particularly hot and the house was filled with people. Malini Aunty was bearing the brunt of it because she used to be in the kitchen all the time and cooking something or the other for all my cousins or the inexplicable number of guests that Ammachi received. My other aunts would never go and help her in the kitchen, I didn’t know why it was like that but I was glad they didn’t go and help because they were terrible cooks and I dreaded eating anything cooked by them.
My Mother was busy unpacking and handing out gifts to my cousins and aunts in what one could call the central courtyard of the house.
“Malini” she screamed, “See what I bought for you?” as she pulled out a bright green colour Sari “
I could see my Grandmother staring at the Sari, her face contorted in a grimace.
“Pushpa, I don’t think that Sari will look good on Malini, It won’t suit her complexion, she is too dark” she said with a tone of finality
“But Ammachi, I know she loves this colour….” said Amma, contesting her Mother-in law’s claim.
“I suggest you give it to Hema” said Ammachi pointing to one of her daughters “It will suit her better, believe me Pushpa, I know what is best for everyone”
Amma reluctantly passed the sari to a beaming Hema Aunty who immediately ran to the kitchen were Malini aunty was sitting, bent over a stove.
“See what EttathiAmma bought for me” she said with a big smile on her face.
“Looks beautiful” she said, continuing to stir something on the stove.
We stayed in Kerala for a month every year and I was used to the heat but that particular summer was excruciatingly hot. It didn’t stop us children from playing outside though.
We played with marbles and climbed trees aimlessly. My cousin was an ace with the slingshot and showed off his skills by dropping raw mangoes from the tree. All these activities would tire us out and we would run home for some Sambharam – spiced buttermilk. We would race to the kitchen to see who came first. Being the city bred boy I was, more often than not I ended up last and Malini Aunty would have to make a fresh glass for me because my cousins would have finished everything. That day wasn’t any different and I was last. Amma was in the kitchen with Malini Aunty and it looked like Aunty was crying.
“ I can’t do this anymore EttathiAmma, they treat me like an outsider” she said wiping her eyes with the edge of her sari.
“Balettan and I have been married for 3 years but the taunts don’t stop and to make matters worse he doesn’t even support me”
“There, there” my mother said as she patted Malini Aunty’s head “I know how it is, why don’t both you and Balan move out ?” she asked
“I don’t … I don’t…” she said sobbing but suddenly stopped, when she saw me hiding behind the entrance to the kitchen.
She quickly turned her face away and as if on cue my Mother stood in front of me.
“What do you want Suresh?” she asked irritably
“Sambharam Ma” I said sheepishly.
“Not now, I will make it for you later” Amma said shooing me away.
“Run along now”
I ran away, feeling angry because I hadn’t got my Sambharam.
That night I heard my parents talking in the next room. According to my parents I was old enough to sleep alone, a point I strongly contested because according to me 8 was still a small number.
“How could your mother treat her like that? After all your mother is such an educated woman Deepak” Amma whispered
“This is not the city Pushpa, people live by different rules here” said my father
“You cannot be serious Deepak!? , How could your family treat her like that? Always excluding her, mocking the colour of her skin, constantly degrading….” Amma’s voice seemed to trail off
“Please Pushpa!” said my father exasperated “Please don’t meddle in things you don’t understand”
“Oh really Deepak, and kindly explain why I wouldn’t understand? Is it because I am a wom…”
Her voice was cut off by a loud thud. It sounded like something had fallen down.
I woke up startled. I saw my parents rushing out of their room to see what the ruckus was all about. The sound seems to have emanated from the ground floor.
“You stay here Suresh” said father as he ran down the stairs
Amma came out and sat next to me and held me.
I could here my Dad’s voice “What happened?” he asked
There was some ruffling noise and again a loud thud.
“Stop it!” screamed my Dad
“Its not my baby!” said Balan Uncle “I fucking know it!”
“This bitch has gone and slept with someone, it is not mine” he screamed
“Keep your voice low Balan!” said my Dad
My mother held me closer .
“She is a Thevadshi etta…” continued Uncle Balan
I could hear Ammachi’s voice “ I told you Balan these dark witches can not be trusted”
“I had told you in the very beginning….” she continued
My father started yelling something but I couldn’t hear anything anymore because my mother had covered my ears.
“What is a Thev—adusii Amma” I asked
“Hush Suresh, don’t ever say that word again, it is a bad word” she said holding me tighter.
That night no one slept.
The warm summer days rolled by but nights were always slightly cooler and those were the times the entire family would sit together and chat. Balan Uncle seemed to be in a good mood that night. The scar on Malini Aunty’s face had also almost healed, she had tripped and fallen down in her room that night, that night of the loud thud.
Power cuts or load shedding like Ammachi used to call it was a regular feature in Kerala. We used to sit outside, my cousins, my aunts, their husbands, sitting outside in the front yard enjoying the breeze.
Sitting on a small stool on that cool summer night I saw a flickering light in the air. The light wouldn’t stay in one place, it kept moving. I stood up, as if in a trance and followed the flickering light around until I reached close to it, I wanted to touch it. hold it in my hand. I stretched my arm to catch it
“No Suresh, don’t do that son” said Malini aunty from behind me
“I want to hold it Malini aunty” I said wistfully staring at the flying light
“Wait” she said and returned back with a huge glass jar which my Grandmother used to store pickles in.
“We can catch one in this” she said pointing to the glass jar
She slowly moved towards to the small shrub in our yard and shook it, and out came a thousand flickering lights.
She walked towards the lights cautiously and with a deft movement, like a magician’s trick, captured the lights in the pickle jar.
The lights kept flickering as she bought the jar near my face.
“What are these Malini Aunty?” I asked incredulously
“Fireflies” she said with a twinkle in her eyes
“They are so beautiful. Can I hold the jar” I asked moving my hands towards it
“Ok, but be careful” she said as she handed me the jar. I looked at the glowing lights with wonder.
“Can I take them home?” I asked
“ I am afraid not mone, the fireflies are not supposed to be caged, they are like tiny dots of hope in a dark world we live in and hope cannot be caged Suresh”
“But why can’t we cage the Fireflies?”
“Because we don’t want hope to die, do we now?”
I looked at her puzzled. She didn’t say a word and slowly took the jar away from my hand.
Carefully she opened the lid and we looked up as the fireflies flew away, flickering. She had this wistful look in her eyes as she saw them floating away into the darkness.
We didn’t go to Kerala the next year. Father had to go away on a tour to some foreign country. I was very disappointed. I wanted to see everyone again. See the fireflies.
I was 13 years old and that was the year we went again. Lots of things had changed.
Malini aunty didn’t live there anymore.
I had heard Amma say “Good for Malini, who in their right mind will stay with that crazy Balan”
I don’t know why Amma would say that, but I had a feeling it had something to do with the night of the thud.
I heard the word ‘divorce’ a lot of times on that trip.
Balan Uncle had become extremely moody; he would be happy one moment and the next moment angry with everyone. The kids were scared to go next to him.
“ I think Balan should see a psychiatrist” I heard my father say to my Ammachi, and she didn’t look pleased “ Your brother is not mad you know” she said angrily and walked away.
“Don’t walk away, we need to talk about this” he said following her.
That trip to Kerala was different; everyone at home seemed to be tensed. There was this heaviness in the air that wouldn’t dissipate.
But something’s were the same, the summer nights were still breezy, the load shedding was still a regular feature.
On one such breezy night I sat outside in the yard looking for fireflies. There weren’t any that night or the next or the one after that.
Maybe they had all gone away somewhere, with Malini Aunty perhaps; to a place where hope was still alive.
Mundu - is a garment worn around the waist in Kerala. It is closely related to the dhoti, sarong
EttathiAmma – Sister in Law
Etta – Elder Brother
Thevadshi – Prostitute
Sambharam – Spiced ButterMilk
Sandeep Narayanan is a dreamer and compulsive info-junkie. He has donned many hats in his lifetime, from being a qualified dentist, to an advertising professional and marketer to a freelance writer. A full-time dad to three cats and a dog, he lives in London