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If I could return to that time, I would choose the mornings.
Especially the mornings after my mother's death, when my days began very early. In fact, to the short, piercing whistle of the Rockfort Express at four. Sometimes I would already be up, drawing water from the well at the back of the house, and I would hear it call. My body would go still for a few seconds. The bucket would shake and splatter as I hesitated in midreach for the handle. It would slip halfway into the well again, completely drenching my dhavani and blouse.
At that time of morning, when the crows and mynahs and parrots were still nursing their voices and not a single light shone in any of the neighbourhood houses, in that deep starlit darkness, the solitary cry of the train was a despairing call. A strange music.
I would feel the cool morning air against my wet skin, and then a quick, feathery warmth would spread through me, as though someone had rubbed eucalyptus oil all over my skin.
I wonder now if Amma thought of it in those terms. Did she even hear the train as it rumbled by only five miles away?
With the bucket of water in one hand I would grab the broom and the kolapodi tin with the other and walk around to the front of the house. I would sweep up the dried leaves and dust from the path leading to the front door, scoop it neatly into the pan and empty it into the big, rusty metal bin beside the gate. Then I would moisten the ground with fresh, cold water sprinkled from my cupped palm and level it smooth.
The kolam I designed would depend on how I felt that particular day. On some mornings it was an elaborate welcome to dawn, ambitious and full of snaking grandeur, and my hands would weave a tapestry of blooming flowers and intertwined stars. I would grab fists full of kolapodi – one, two, three, even four sometimes – and pour my heart into my masterpiece, my sublime welcome mat to the sun. And on other days it was a hurried note of dots and curves – a snappy, perfunctory kiss of cordiality – achieved with just half the amount of powder.
I have not dipped my hands in kolapodi for many years. I can't say I miss the grainy feel of powdered rice and white rock on my fingers.
I am no longer a prisoner of pattern.
Page 1 of 2The walk to the milk depot, with my ears tuned to the glassy murmurings of the previous day's bottles in the jute bag, was the dreamiest part of those mornings.
I would put on a dry dhavani, fling Amma's maroon shawl over my body and, quietly, with my teeth on my tongue, tip-toe my way through the hall to reach the front door. I would pull the bolt down without a sound and let myself out, like a fleeing ghost. Once outside, I would lock the door behind me, carefully skirt my kolam art for the day and step out the gate.
It was a good fifteen-minute walk to the milk depot, and I would take my own time getting there, stretching those quiet minutes for as long as I could. The tamarind and asoka leaves shimmied and danced in the breeze, and the heady fragrance from the parijatha blossoms filled the air.
Breathe it all in, Janaki. Breathe it all in while you can, I would tell myself, as I filled my lungs with air, as though the perfume were some kinds of anaesthetic, a divine drug that would numb me through the predestined drudgery of my day. Occasionally, a cyclist would ride by with a stack of Dina Thandi newspapers tied to a wobbly carrier behind the seat. The tinny bell on the handlebar would protest in sharp, shrill notes as the cycle bumped and balanced on the red-earth road. I couldn't have known then that I would make the headline of that newspaper for three days in a row. I had never craved such a populist rebellion.
Cutting across C Block, I would take the route along the temple tank. As I walked along the eastern bank, I would hear the priest recite shivery Sanskrit slokas while he dipped in the tank and performed his cleansing ritual before the morning puja. I would tighten my grip around the bag with the milk bottles, abruptly cutting off their delicate endearments, and quickly walk away from his sight in the direction of the main road.
When I turned the corner, the neon sign of Mahalaxmi Talkies, half fused and flickering, would come into view. Even from where I was, I would see the figure of the night watchman stretched out like a corpse under the hazy fluorescence of the stills showcase.
In the month of Marghazhi a group of vagrants and urchins sought warmth around the noxious vapours of a burning car tire or some plastic garlands snatched off the nearby cinema banner. I would avoid them and walk on the opposite footpath. I would quicken my pace to the milk depot, clutching the four cards for four bottles tightly in my left hand under the shawl. I would dart across the junction of the main roads, pass the Gandhi statue stippled with bird droppings and finally reach my destination.
Kamala from C Block, Revathi from B Block and a few other mamis from houses outside the agraharam colony would arrive around the same time as I. We would arrange ourselves in a single line along the milk co-op kiosk and exaggerate the effect of the morning chill as we waited for the delivery van to pull up. Sometimes, Revathi, who had a voice like a river of honey, would sing an alaapana of abstract notes:
Kamala and I would take this to be our cue and quickly join in:
Our voices would float in the mist-cloaked landscape, and little beads of water would creep around the corners of our eyes. We knew the milk van would be there in less than ten minutes. At the latest, by five thirty. And then it would all be over. That hour of girlhood innocence, those moments of rationed independence.
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Excerpted from The Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant. Copyright 2007 by Ameen Merchant. Excerpted with permission by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.