This was my entry to the Mozhi translation prize. It was longlisted and received excellent feedback from the jury including "it was a great attempt" and "a very strong contender in the contest".You can read the original in Tamil by the incomparable Ambai here
At the mere mention of ‘Amma’ just a few events come flashing and strike at my heart. My older sister Kalyani used to swoon quite regularly. I was not at an age when I could understand. Four years old.
I wake up early in the morning. I hear something like a thumping. I go near the door to have a look. Kalyani has been made to sit on a wooden plank. A strange man stands in front of her with a bunch of leaves in his hand. My baby brother of a few months who I made laugh with my ‘AAA’s and ‘OOO’s is now in a cradle in the room with me.
“Neerajatchi, go get it”, says someone.
I look at Amma.
I remember the dark black saree. She’s knotted her hair loose. She enters the small room adjacent to mine. She removes her saree top. She slowly squeezes milk from her breast into a small bowl in her hand. Her eyes water.
Every day Amma wakes up in the darkness of early morning to stack firewood under the buried metal pot to heat water.
One day I watch her. Amma’s hair falls free from the knot. Amma sits squatting. Half her hair spreads out over her cheek and the rest of it over her ears. Once the stove is lit, the fire’s red heat flashes on one side of Amma’s face as she bends down to check on it. That day, Amma is wearing a red saree as well. As I am absorbed in her she stands up suddenly. Her hair hangs down to her knees.
From within the saree top that’s fallen away, beneath the blouse whose hooks have come undone, her breasts, creased with green nerves appear. Standing there she seems like a daughter of fire who’s flown in from afar. Is she Amma? Is she really Amma?
Why do I remember the mantra “Kali, Kali, Maga Kali, Badrakali namosthuthey”?
Amma turns her head to look.
“What are you doing here, dee?”
I am unable to speak. I break into a sweat.
There’s a homam at home. Perhaps it’s the crimson of her lips, perhaps it’s the ferocity of the vermillion, I see her reflected in the roaring flames.
‘Agniyee swaa-aa-aa-aahaa…” , they elongate the ‘swaha’ as they pour ghee into the fire. With each ‘swahaaa’, my sight goes to the fire and then to Amma.
Amma rubs oil in my hair to give me a bath. She hitches her saree high and tucks it into her waist. Her fair, smooth thigh shows. When she bends and rises, I can see nerves threading through it.
“Amma, why are you alone so fair? And why am I so dark?”
“Go dee, who has your beauty though?”
These occasions were totally unconnected. Amma was their sole queen. She was the fire that burnt and cleansed filth. With just a smile, she could make a festoon of a million smiles dance across the heart.
Creator absolute. When I rest my head on her lap, she’d run her long, slim cool fingers over and say something so pedestrian as, “I will teach you to dance. You have an ideal body”, or “what thick hair”. Yet my heart will burst into bloom.
I cannot recall if Amma fed me these feelings about her or if I imagined them myself. Just as many beautiful things took root within me, I do not know what she established within herself.
I was thirteen at that time. Long skirts had started to grow short. Amma would lengthen every one of them.
One evening when I was resting my head on her lap, I suddenly recalled a line I’d read somewhere.
“Amma, what does adolescence mean, Amma?”
A prolonged silence.
And suddenly she says,
“I suggest you stay just the way you are, letting your skirt sweep about, running around …”
It seems cousin Radhu had a girl seeing ceremony. Amma went there. On that important day, Amma was not there. On Deepavali day, it was only Kalyani who rubbed oil and washed my hair. Skies which hadn’t yet shed their darkness could be seen from the bathroom window.
“Kalloos…you’ve woken me up too early-dee, there’s no sound of firecrackers yet”
“Don’t I have to give you an oil bath and then have mine? You are thirteen. Still unable to have an oil bath yourself. Bend-dee”
Kalyani has no patience. She rubs my head like she would peel husk from a coconut.
Amma had sewn a satin long skirt in aubergine-flower purple for Deepavali. My heart was smitten as it slid down from the sewing machine as it was being sewn. On that occasion, Amma had taken my measurements before sewing the long skirt.
“I need to measure you, come here-dee…you’ve grown tall”, she says looking up from measuring.
“This girl has grown two inches”
The aubergine-flower purple long skirt is not short like other skirts. It glides down to reach the floor.
Kalyani shakes me awake and dries my hair. I run into the altar room wearing my inner vest. Appa reaches into the pile of new clothes on the wooden plank to give me mine.
“Here you go, darkie…”, says Appa typically.
Sometimes when Appa calls me that, I stand in front of the wide, hanging mirror in the lounge. It was as if I could hear Amma whisper “How beautiful are you”.
Like the fish in the glass box in Sarala’s house, my skirt keeps slipping. Velvet blouse. I wear a pottu on my forehead and go stand in front of Appa.
“Not bad!”, remarks Appa.
I take the firecrackers to the front room and run to climb the magnolia tree. Every morning, I am tasked with plucking flowers from the magnolia tree. Fill the flower basket with flowers and take it to Amma and she’d remark wide eyed “what a loot of flowers” as she caressed them. Her fingers would disappear.
The satin skirt slips. I am unable to climb the tip of the branch. It’s dark still. As I climb down, bang goes a firework in someone’s house. Shivering I jump down from the tree. Run straight into the house. Breathless.
I calm down and run to the front room and burst my share of fireworks. That’s when I remember the flower basket. Dawn has broken. I lift my skirt and bend down to retrieve the flower basket lying at the bottom of the tree. Flowers have scattered. When I bend down properly to pick them, my skirt spreads on the ground. The new skirt is stained here and there. Is it from climbing the tree?
“Kalloos…”, I call out as I come in and stand in front of her to ask, “my skirt is all dirty. Will Amma scold me?”. Kalyani stares at me for a minute and leaves yelling “Appa”.
Everything from Kalyani’s look and her running inside without even taking the flower basket from me make feel like there’s a caterpillar squiggling inside my heart. I look at the satin skirt. I run my hand on the velvet blouse. Nothing has happened, has it?
Dear God, has anything happened to me? I ask myself. But even as I do that, I know that something has happened. I hear fireworks going off everywhere. Holding the flower basket in hand, I stand there breathing fast, my body shaking, my lips trembling. I want to cry out loud.
I want to see Amma. I want to press my head deep against her chinnalam silk clad shoulder. “I am so scared”, I want to cry unabashedly. Amma will stroke my head. Something horrible has befallen me…
From somewhere, Kalyani has managed to get the tonsured old woman who makes fried snacks. The old woman comes close.
“Girl, why are you crying-dee? What has happened now? What has happened that’s not happened elsewhere?”
I understand nothing of what the old woman says. However, my instinct had a chilling understanding of something, but my head grasped nothing of it. From deep within my heart, like an unquenchable thirst erupts a single entreaty…” Amma…”
Once again, I recall the time when I got lost once when I was five years old. In a big park without realising the deep darkness seeping around me, I walk. Suddenly the darkness, the trees, the sounds and the silence create fear within my heart. It was Appa who searched and found me. But it was when I saw Amma that I broke down howling.
Amma lays me down next to her. She strokes me. “Nothing has happened. Everything is okay,” she whispers gently. With her ruby lips blazing like a flicker of fire, she rests her face on mine.
Yet again, my heart hammers as if I am lost somewhere. I sit down, rest my head on my knees and cry. It feels like something has come to an end. Like walking out of the cinema after ‘The End’ card appears on screen, I feel I have left something behind. Right now, I sense that I’m the only one in the entire history of the world to have been beset with such a tragedy. I cry as if I am carrying all the misfortune on my slender, velvet blouse-clad shoulders.
I wonder why Amma never told me about it on evenings when it was just the two of us. My heart is occupied by just fear. It is not the common fear that hits when in new circumstances, or with new people. It’s the frightful scream at the sight of a snake that renders one speechless in terror. Even in the far corners of my mind tendrils of fear hang like a spider’s web.
As pale lips lie split open, I recall a figure. A skull smashes on a rock. A pale pink bald head walking ahead of me suddenly becomes a cave mouth from which splutters black-red blood. In an instant, blood pours over the head. I stare at the blood. Its red appears to have spread everywhere and it flows leaping into my eyes. My mind is agog again and again. “Aiyo so much blood, so much blood” but no sound originates from my mouth. A bed of blood. The old man opened his mouth, the eyes stared vacant, the heart burst forth.
How fearsome is blood…lips go pale…limbs inert…
I need Amma. My heart yearns for Amma to rescue me from this fear the way she embraces and consoles me when I’m scared of the dark. Couldn’t Amma be here to touch me on my shoulder with her cold fingers to say, “this is beautiful, too.”?
“Get up-dee, please…how long will you cry-dee?”, pleads Kalyani as she joins me in tears.
“Amma herself is coming next week. I have just sent her a letter about it. She’ll be here once Radhu’s girl-seeing ceremony is over. You now get up-dee. You’re a right pain the head.” Kalyani is starting to get angry.
“What has happened to me-dee?”
“Your skull head has happened to you, how many times do I have to repeat?”
“Can I not climb trees again?”
Kalyani raps me sharply on the head with her knuckles.
“You thicko! I’ve been pleading with you for the past half an hour to get up and get changed out of your skirt. You’re asking me questions on top? She’s being such a bother, Appa!”, says Kalyani calling out to Appa.
Appa says, “You musn’t be silly. You must listen to Kalyani.”
The fried-snack-making tonsured old woman adds helpfully when Appa is out of earshot, “Why is she being difficult? This is a fate that befalls everyone”.
Seven days. Seven more days until Amma returns. After Radhu’s girl seeing ceremony is over. Seven days of stumbling around in the dark. The maami5 from next door and the maami from across the street all land up one day.
“Aren’t you making her wear a half-saree dee, Kalyani?”
“Everything will be after Amma returns, mami**. This one is an uncontrollable devil. It only listens to Amma.”
“From now on she will calm down. From now on she will be disciplined and obedient.”
“Why? What will happen from now on?”
Why should I wear a half-saree? Didn’t Amma say ‘stay just the way you are, letting your skirt sweep about…’? Why should I change? No one explains why.
They sit me down like a doll and talk around me. When Appa appears, they whisper beneath their saree tops.
On the fifth day, Kalyani hands me a bowl of hot oil saying “You rub the oil yourself.”
I weep as I struggle with my waist-length hair, then stand in front of the mirror in the lounge wearing my inner vest.
“From now you should get dressed in the bathroom, understood?”, says Appa.
I shut the door once Appa leaves. I remove my inner vest. The mirror reflects my dark body. I run my hands along shoulders, hands, chest, waist, smooth thighs which are only slightly less dark than my face. Am I not the same girl? What will Amma say?
I wear my school uniform. Kalyani enters once the door opens.
“What will you say when they ask you why you’ve been absent-dee?”
I stare at Kalyani. Like a bird that had been freed I was getting ready for school joyfully, but now my pace falter.
“You needn’t say anything. Just be quiet.”
I was unable to play at games lesson that day. I hide behind a wide tree. Once before I have abstained from playing. The next morning Miss Leela Menon asked in class, “who were the fools who didn’t play yesterday?”. I didn’t stand up.
“Why did you not stand up?”, she asked.
“I’m not a fool, Miss”, I replied. She noted that I was ‘impertinent’ in the progress report.
That day my mind was not even afraid of being scolded by Miss Leela Menon. I sense that nothing could ever bother me more than what’s happened to me now. I no longer sit under the tree and read Enid Blyton like I used to. I ask the ripe leaves that have been falling in the dug-up ditch. “What the hell has happened to me?”
Like an accused in the dock watching the judge’s mouth, my heart awaits Amma’s word alone. Would she look at me with her eyes lowered and say, “this thing that has happened to you is also beautiful”? With just a scorching ember of her smile, she would cast aside that intimidating fried-snack old lady, Kalyani and all others. Amma is different. Where she stands, everything superfluous is destroyed and only beauty reigns. For her everything is beautiful.
Amma feels very necessary. Something must be explained. Look, I break into a sweaty shiver at the mere thought of the aubergine-flower purple satin skirt. Why, my tongue thickens to a wooden block and falls flat in my mouth. It’s as if darkness envelops suddenly and before I know it, I hear a ringing sound, blood flows over and a stiffened body seems to appear in the darkness. Someone should explain this with gentle words to me.
I feel as if there’s no one there. After the gardener wakes me up, I leave for home slowly.
“Why are you so late-dee? Where have you been?”
“I didn’t go anywhere…was sitting under the tree”
“Still think you’re a little girl-dee? What if something had happened?”
I fling the school bag. My face becomes hot. I shut my ears with my hands and scream out loud.
“I will sit as I please. Nothing has happened to me”
I elongate and emphasise every single word as I scream with mad shriek. Appa and Kalyani stand dumbfounded. I get angry and go up to sit on the terrace. I can remain there in the scent of the magnolia tree. Kalyani and Appa are not allowed here. Just me and the scent of magnolia tree. This unspeaking, untouching scent seems closer to me than the people in the house. Wouldn’t it be nicer if they didn’t speak? A wide-eyed smile like Amma’s.
When Amma looks (at me) like that something happens within me. I would want to laugh out loud. I would want to sing. Amma is a creator. With a mere turn of her head and a smile, she conjures joy, energy, and beauty into existence.
Kalyani comes upstairs.
“Come for food-dee, your little Queenship, Amma has spoilt you by indulging in you.”
I purse my lips casually and rise.
The next morning Amma arrives. Opening the taxi door, in a dark green creased saree, she enters the house.
“What happened?”, asks Appa.
“Apparently, she’s too dark to be a bride. He turned her down, the wretched fellow!”
“What does your sister say?”
“She feels bad, poor thing.”
“We’ve also got a daughter who’s dark”
I stand in front of Amma without any preamble. I think I should explain it to her myself in more detail than Kalyani’s letter. Gently, in the crease of her neck, with trembling lips, in a soft voice I want to wail about it all. I am raring to share the fears that are slithering in my heart.
Like some sort of a mystery - like a feeling that blocks the throat when you lie down at night, the struggle of not recognising my own body – I keep looking at Amma expecting her to explain it to me gently. She’s going to embrace me with the long banana stem of her hands. And I am going to cry loudly. I am going to bore my fingers into Amma’s hair and with big gasping wails, I am going to cry.
Amma looks at me. I don’t know if I’ve become Radhu in her eyes.
“Why did you have to rush into this misery-dee? We now have to bear this burden as well”
Who is she accusing?
Soundless wails blockade my heart.
Amma’s lips, her nose, the vermillion on her forehead, her nose ring and her eyes appear to spit blood red flames. In the fire, the divine form that had cloaked her unravels and she appears naked as a human mother. Her heartless words rise like a sharpened knife and blindly hack away all the beauties that had sprouted earlier. Interminable fears cling to the heart like a black painting.
Agniye swaa-aa-aahaa…it wasn’t just the filth that was burnt. Buds and flowers were scorched too.