The day after Diwali was always the quietest in Amrur. Street dogs, which spent most mornings howling after cyclists, crouched fearfully in garbage shelters. Three-legged autorickshaws that hooted and tooted while ferrying passengers from Amrur to other parts of Bangalore were silent, having been abandoned on street corners. Vendors with cracked voices selling onions and tomatoes in wooden carts did not appear for their daily rounds.
Akriti liked hushness, but this one came with the aftertaste of burnt crackers; with the dark ash-smoke that slid through Amrur and made her cough. Besides, this would not be a hush day for her. Akriti was leaving today.
She opened her yellow schoolbag, with the peeling Mickey Mouse sticker, to check that everything she had packed was essential. Akriti didn’t want to carry too much. She needed the palm-sized plastic comb and circular hand mirror. She was not so sure about the apple. She wanted to try out the street food – chats, samosas, gol gappas floating in jeera water; the apple was only a just-in-case. Akriti didn’t want to think about the just-in-cases now – being stranded on a lonely road, getting kidnapped (yes, she had considered every danger), losing her bag and her purse with it. Her elaborate plan depended on none of the just-in-cases happening. She picked up the apple from the bag and then dropped it back. She would decide later.
Akriti let the pencil and ruled notebook remain in the bag – she wanted to list the places she visited and the things she saw. She wanted a permanent keepsake of this trip. She would have liked a camera; something she could hang around her neck like the tourists she saw when her school took their class on annual sightseeing trips to Lal Bagh, Vidhana Soudha and other places of educational interest. As Akriti queued behind her classmates in a line, whose straightness was rigidly managed by tired teachers, she would look at the tourists with wonder and envy imagining how pleasant their lives must be without timetables and classes. She imagined that traveling to new places and taking pictures was all tourists did. Perhaps, she could buy a toy camera from one of the roadside vendors in the bazaar, a plastic one with a zoom and aperture speeds painted on it. In a woolen pouch buried in the front zip of her bag, Akriti kept the fifty rupees that would make this trip possible. She had been collecting the money for more than six months through sustained deception and intrigue.
The fourth standard, she told her parents, involved more homework and additional investments in stationary – compasses, scales, H2B pencils and different types of notebooks. Akriti had studied her Nancy Drews; she was careful not to leave a trail. She spaced out her requirements, keeping her voice even as she asked for them and maintained steady eye-contact, the two things that ultimately all fictional villains forgot about. Hiding the money was a bigger problem – the underside of her bed and study table drawers were regularly cleaned by her mother, as was her clothes cupboard. She did not want to keep the purse in her school bag in case it accidentally fell out. Akriti started carrying the money with her at all times – in the skirt pockets or inside her buckled shoes. She would exchange the coins for torn notes at her school canteen. Akriti did worry about getting caught, but this secret she kept from everyone else elevated her in the littlest ways that no one noticed.
She smiled during geography (the dullest of her classes) and found the hot bus rides home easier to bear. At night before she went to bed, she would check her amassed wealth, counting and recounting every note, dreaming of the day she could spend it. She had picked the day after Diwali because it was a second Saturday this year – a schoolless day. Her mother, aunts and grandmother exhausted with the previous day’s extended cooking – barfis, mysore paks, murukus, would be less alert. Her father, uncles and grandfather would spend the morning in the living room watching some old Amitabh dushum-dushum movie on their new VCR. The previous night’s strenuous activities (involving lighting bombs, rockets and phuljadis) meant that her cousins would sleep-in till noon.
Akriti zipped her bag, snapped the plastic press-on lock and slung it on her shoulder. Akriti walked slowly, trying to control her breathing the way their yoga teacher had taught in school. Through her passage along the corridor, the walls and doors did not turn into snarling, narasimahish aunts and uncles, as she had imagined in her dreams. She opened the front door and ran out. Akriti had never stepped out of the house alone. Amma always said streets were not safe enough. She and her cousins played their games – stapoo and rasa kashi on the terrace. She had always yearned to explore colorful streets that she glimpsed through her school bus window and special trips. Akriti looked at the street, thrilled that she had escaped as planned.
The road was littered with cracker debris and mitai covers. Broken claylamps lay in tiny puddles of oil. The intricate rangoli designs on the street had been stamped upon and the smudged red, pink, green, white and yellow powders only faintly resembled the bright petals and mango leaves they had been yesterday. The stillness of the street frightened Akriti, and now that she was outside the expedition seemed absurd and foolish.
As Akriti stood on the street, unsure of what to do, the door opened. Trishna, her aunt, emerged. Trishna was carrying an iron bucket half filled with water and a dried coconut shell with coarse rice powder. She had come to wash yesterday’s rangoli pattern and draw a fresh geometrical design on the street. She usually did this at six every morning, but on the day after Diwali household schedules were all relaxed. Trishna was wearing a loose mint green house gown with red and myrtle embroidery around the neck and sleeves. Even in this shapeless dress, it was apparent when she moved that she had the gracefulness of a Bharatnatyam dancer. As Trishna bent to swing the bucket and wash the street, she noticed that her niece was standing a little further down the road dressed in her lilac frilled frock, carrying her schoolbag and staring into the street with faraway eyes.
“Akriti,” Trishna called, her voice fluid and melodious like a tune from a bamboo flute.
“Akriti what are you doing?” Trishna asked when the girl turned with a confused, slightly helpless look on her face. She knew instinctively that her niece was trying to run away.
“It’s ok,” she said, calling the girl over. “It’s ok, I understand.”
Trishna placed the bucket and the fibrous coconut shell on the street. The kolam flour fell out, forming little hills and puddles of whiteness. Trishna decided to clean up later and walked up to Akriti, who had not moved. She wrapped the girl in her arms and felt her small body stiffen. “Don’t worry,” she said, touching her niece’s left cheek with the back of her hand.
Akriti opened her tiny ruby-tinted lips but didn’t say anything. Trishna touched the child’s mouth with her index finger and led her back into the house. Trishna took Akriti to her bedroom on the ground floor, avoiding the kitchen and the drawing room. Akriti was grateful to her aunt for her discretion.
Trishna’s room had a mahogany bed with a deep chocolate colored bedspread and caramel covered pillows. A stained oval mirror with a fading brass frame hung on the wall. Under it was a side-table cluttered with Trishna’s jewelry and make-up. The clovish smell of tiger balm enveloped the room.
Trishna picked up Akriti and gently placed her on the bed. Akriti fidgeted knowing that she would be asked for an explanation soon, but her aunt just patted her head and said, “You have such thick and long hair.” Akriti had knee length hair, the longest in her class; lush and raven black. She loved her hair and was used to people oohaahing over it.
Trishna smoothened a stray strand on Akriti’s forehead and said, “Let me oil it for you.” She opened the steel almira and took out a red Kerala cotton towel. Then, picking up a wide toothed plastic comb, a square frameless hand mirror and the blue coconut oil bottle, she sat cross-legged on the bed. She placed the towel on her niece’s shoulder and uncoiled the plaited hair. Moistening her palms with the fragrant coconut oil, Trishna massaged Akriti’s head with the tips of her fingers. Slowly.
“Would you like a French braid?”she asked. Akriti, who had closed her eyes to relish the treat, nodded. Trishna neatly parted and cross-stitched her niece’s hair into a stylish plait. “Look, look at yourself,” Trishna said, holding the mirror so that Akriti could see herself. Seeing her niece’s eyes widen in astonishment at her own beauty, Trishna asked, “Does your mother plait your hair like this?” Akriti was torn between loyalty to her mother and the truth. She lowered her long eyelashes. “If you were my daughter, I would plait your hair like this every day, my little rajkumari.” Trishna said with a smile, ”Some jasmine for your hair and you will be perfect. I’ll get it for you.”
Alone in the room, Akriti held up the mirror and admired her hair and imagined how it would feel to be Trishna’s daughter; being pampered like a princess at all times. Trishna returned with a jasmine garland and a glass of lime water. She attached the jasmine to Akriti’s hair with long black hairpins. Akriti took a deep breath inhaling the freshness of the jasmine and gave her aunt a grateful look.
“So, tell me what were you doing outside, bag and all?” Trishna asked. Akriti sipped the sweet lime juice and told her aunt what she had been planning. She wasn’t unhappy at home and it had not been her intention to run away from home permanently. What she wanted was a secret day trip to see the world and explore its many wonders on her own, like an adult.
Having put Akriti to sleep, Trishna picked the girl’s bag. She now had tangible proof of Jaya’s negligence. Jaya was Trishna’s sister-in-law and Akriti’s mother. Trishna had always suspected that Jaya was an indifferent mother. Jaya was indifferent to almost everything except her work and it was this quality that bothered Trishna the most. When Jaya first married into the household more than a decade ago, Trishna played the perfect elder sister-in-law — introduced Jaya to all the neighborhood Mamis, showed her which vendor sold the best tomatoes and advised her on what price to pay for onions depending on the season, explained the topography of the area with easy-to-remember landmarks (the post office, the chemist, the house with the pink gate, etc) so that Jaya would not get lost in case she was alone. In return, while Jaya was always polite, too polite in Trishna’s opinion, she never engaged back. Her eyes would sometimes glaze over as if the conversation bored her; she was completely disinterested in the past misdeeds of other members of the family.
Worse, she hated Jaya’s lack of interest in her own looks. Trishna spent hours on various herbal homemade cosmetics. She mixed heena, shikakai and reeta powder with water and applied the wet mixture on her hair, tolerating the dampness for several uncomfortable hours. While cutting vegetables she stored away the orange, lemon and carrot peels. She then crushed these in the granite mortar and applied the pulp on her face. She waited eagerly for the monthly issue of Femina to discover the beauty-enhancing applications of milk, curd, egg and turmeric. Yet, none of this achieved the one effect that Trishna craved for; Jaya, who never bothered with face treatments and hair care, had a look of perennial serenity and sweetness as if she spent all her time lighting incense sticks and watering rosebuds. Trishna hated the way all the men in the house softened around Jaya, as if she were something delicate and fragile. Jaya never seemed to notice or appreciate this special treatment. The only thing that interested and animated Jaya was her work.
Jaya made embroidered furnishings and sold them to boutiques all over the city. She had learned appliqué and patchwork from an old Gujarati neighbor who lived near her parents’ house. After Jaya got married, she started making cushion covers out of old bedspreads for the house. She would cut up the more colorful bedsheets into basic shapes of birds, animals and trees and stitch these into square-shaped cloth cut out of the cream bedsheets. Trishna privately thought these covers were too earthy and rough, but the rest of the family — especially their mother in law Narayani — encouraged Jaya to keep stitching. Jaya started making other things – wall hangings, letter holders, photo frames and lamp shades. She never made the same thing twice. She had this instinctive urge to diversify, to create something new every time – a different pattern, style, technique. Jaya added a touch of her created color to every part of the house.
Jaya would go to Commercial Street and spend time with the darzis in dimly lit rooms to learn different embroidery styles. She bought thin books printed on cheap paper with textile patterns from the crafts section of Gangarams and tried to recreate them on different types of cloth – cotton, chiffon, georgette, jute, silk, velvet, lace, crêpe and satin. To pay for the constant expenditure on cloth, threads, pattern books, mirrors, beads and other material, Jaya started selling her work to neighbors and extended family.
As the demand kept increasing Jaya would work well beyond midnight in the kitchen, with a single lampshade so that the light would not disturb anyone else in the family. But it became apparent that she needed more space – to keep the textiles, to work uninterrupted. To Trishna’s dismay, without Jaya ever articulating the demand for a room of her own, the family cleared the storage room, in the terrace, of its motheaten sofas, broken chairs, water storage drums filled with old newspapers and dusty carton boxes. An old carpenter with cracking, Durerish hands built the furniture for the room – a rosewood chair and table, wooden shelves for storing cloth. Jaya decorated it herself – flax handloom curtains embellished with hunter green creepers and coral phulkari flowers, a maya blue wall hanging with Kutch mirror and turquoise bead work and an amaranth pink cotton rug. Under the wall hanging, she placed a mattress wrapped in a multi-colored patchwork quilt to serve as a divan. Jaya added her touches to the terrace too. She bought jasmines, roses, marigolds and gulmohars in terracotta pots from street vendors, who traveled through Amrur on Sundays selling plants on wooden carts.
The four walls of the terrace were lined with the plants. The cement floor of the terrace was covered with mud stains and dried flowers and petals. Enveloped by the fresh scent of the flowers and warm sunlight that streamed into her room at most hours, Jaya created intricate floral and geometrical patterns. She worked with complete concentration; her only indulgence being the music she listened to on an old Sony two-in-one, the calming and rhythmic ancient chants – Vishnu Sahasranama, Baja Govindam, Mahishasur Mardini and Hanuman chalisa.
If Jaya lingered for hours on her embroidery, she completed her housework very quickly and efficiently. She never chatted with Trishna over tea or an evening snack. She was always impatient to get back to her work. This impatience irked Trishna. Why was her work so important to Jaya that she never took time to enjoy
the smaller pleasures of life – watching the boys on the street play cricket, discussing the latest Mithun movie, loitering in Amrur’s sari shops, exchanging recipes with other women who lived in the street. Trishna also resented the universal admiration that Jaya’s work provoked – from the family, neighbors, guests. No one ever complimented her for the beautiful kolam she drew every morning or for fresh fruit juices she made in the evening – grape, watermelon, lime, apple, papaya, orange; the work she did despite her terrible migraines.
But right now, Trishna’s head throbbed with a different type of excitement. She finally had something to use against Jaya. Akriti had said that she only wanted to explore the city on her own and that she was not actually trying to run away, but the very fact that she had taken this potentially dangerous plan to its penultimate stage without detection proved that Jaya was an irresponsible mother. With a little exaggeration, Trishna could turn the household against Jaya. She tried to imagine Jaya’s horror as she revealed what had almost happened; she was going to enjoy watching Jaya lose that look of complete composure.
Trishna stood in front of the mirror and started putting on her make-up. She wanted to look good today. She brushed her waist-length hair and wrapped it into a tidy knot, held up by a hairclip with colored zircons. She bit her lips to give them some natural color and added a carnation gloss. She patted compact powder into her face till her skin looked like it had been shaped out of crushed coriander seeds. Trishna changed into a scarlet silk sari with a golden mango border smelling of starch and moth bolls. She sprayed her wrists and neck with an imported perfume. As a final touch she put on her amber stone chandelier earrings. Trishna looked at herself and smiled, she looked like a bride. She placed her index finger on her lips and kissed it and then touched the reflection of her lips in the mirror. Trishna then narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips, practicing the expression of outrage she would wear as she revealed to the family news of Akriti’s attempted flight.
Jaya usually did her yoga at five every morning, but on the day after Diwali deviances from daily rituals were allowed, indeed expected. She was not doing the yoga in the terrace today because of the cracker smoke. Instead she spread her Indigo bamboo mat in the puja room and settled down to do the padmasana, crossing her legs and straightening her back. She closed her eyes and inhaled. The room smelt of incense, stale jasmine and sandalwood. Even after a decade of practice, Jaya found it difficult to clear her mind of all thoughts and focus only on her breathing. But she always aspired to that state of perfect harmony wherein the only sensation she felt was the intake of her own breath.
The voice jolted Jaya out of her meditation. Confused and flustered, she turned around. The family had assembled and were looking at her grimly. Disoriented Jaya tried to make sense of what Trishna was repeating like a melodious mantra: “Akriti tried to run away. I stopped her. Akriti tried to run away. I stopped her. Akriti tried to run away. I stopped her.”
Jaya got up, looked for her daughter and asked in a whisper “Where is she?”
“I stopped her, I calmed her, she is in my bed. Sleeping. Safe,” Trishna said, unable to keep the thrill out of her voice.
“See, see,” Trishna said and thrust Akriti’s bag into Jaya’s hands, “all packed, ready to go. If I hadn’t seen her…”
Jaya, numbed by the assault, opened the bag for temporary respite from Trishna’s glittering eyes and in the faint hope that the bag contained nothing but Akriti’s school books.
Jaya’s helplessness energized Trishna. Confident that she wouldn’t be refuted, Trishna said that Akriti had tried to run away because no one cared for her at home, and that she decided to find another mother, one who had time for her. Finally Trishna arrived at her punchline, “This would never have happened with my children. Nahi. Never. But then, I don’t have so much stitching work, you know. Maybe if you stopped all that thread work and spent more time with your daughter, she wouldn’t have to step out of the house to find a mother who cared enough to make time for her occasionally.”
Swetha Prakash was chosen from hundreds of emerging authors for one of the UK’s most sought after literary retreats with exclusive use of the distillery lodge on the Isle of Jura.The Jura Malt Whisky Writer Retreat was created by the Scottish Book Trust in association with Jura Single Malt whisky.
She moved to the UK from India in 2007, when she won the Charles Wallace India Trust Award to attend the creative writing programme at the Scottish Universities International Summer School at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently doing her MA in Writing at the University of Warwick.