My grandson lay on my lap sucking his plumb, pink thumb. He tries hard to keep open his battling eyelids that beseech sleep. He turns aside and smiles with the quite assurance of his mother’s presence. He gently falls asleep with drops of milk trickling down his mouth. The rabbit ears on his yellow dress pop out with curious crimson eyes.
He smells of fresh cream and coconut oil. The baby smell lingers in the room and seeps into my heart. I am reminded of my little baby girl. I am reminded of the days when I was a young mother.
“Amma, don’t you hear me?” I was startled as Sheila burst in.
I turned around, smiled and nodded.
“Amma, it’s about to rain. Can you pick up the clothes from the clothes line? I will do the dishes and mop the floor. You always live in your dreams, but I don’t”, she said
She helped me put the baby in the cradle.
Monsoon arrived early this year. For several years, it had not rained so much. The dark clouds in serpentine coils seemed to engulf the entire sky. The parched fields gaped wide. The trees and plants could no longer hold their leaves. Promise of responsibility falters sometimes. The birds would have deserted their homes. Ah! Only men have boundaries and title deeds. Monsoon brings with it the hopes of loan waivers. It rained day in and out. It rained. The clouds drained all their woes. The rivers soared and the seas sucked in everything around them. They reaffirmed that they have no boundaries.
The splashing raindrops shattered into memories. I sipped the steaming coffee and admired the shattering droplets that reminded me of glittering, broken glass bangles. The rain drenched leaves and flowers seemed to dance to the music of the shattering droplets of rain. I looked into the puddle of water and looked around at the broken flower pots. The wind had shattered everything. I decided to collect all the broken pieces and glue them together and rebuild everything that was lost. I was lost in my own world of thoughts.
He left me and our daughter. When was it? It has been several years. She was six months in my womb. He did not even wait to see her.
“Sringaara, it is one of the Navarasas in Kathakali…”, master continued.
We did not listen.
“Roopa, heard we’re going to have a new master. Gopi aasan is sick and bedridden they say”, Meenu whispered in my ear.
“Who is disturbing the class? All those who want to talk can very well leave. I cannot stand such indiscipline in the class”, we heard a loud husky voice.
All eyes betrayed us and we were summoned to the stage. We were so absorbed in our conversation that we did not realize the presence of the new master in the class. We stood there on the stage as everyone giggled.
Master continued, “Sringaara is one of the nine rasas. It is love, erotic love, romantic love, attraction or beauty. Rasa means flavour. Similar to the other traditional Indian art forms, Kathakali too revolves around the relationship between man and woman, the lover and the beloved, individual and the divine.”
Master glanced at us and continued,” Sringara is the mother of all rasas. From it emerges every other emotion. It is the expression of physical intimacy”.
We sensed contempt and arrogance expand over his forehead. We were at the verge of crying when he called me.
“You there, come here”.
As I walked a few steps forward, he raised his left hand and gestured me to stop.
He continued,” in this rasa, bliss, love and beauty blend together. Beauty brings delight and the object of delight brings love. Love drives out ego and the experience beautifies our life.”
I watched his love and lust filled eyes dance in tune with the fine curve of his body. Sweat dripped along the cleft on his shaven chin and I felt he embraced me with his eyes. We learned that the new master was Gopi aashan’s son who had mastered Kathakali from Kalamandalam, the dance University. Everyone spoke about his grace and knowledge of the art form.
One day when the class was over, master told me to wait. Everyone else left.
“What is your name?” master asked
“ Roopa, Roopavali”, I replied.
“Roopavali, beautiful name.” I saw a smile escape his lips as he said ,”You may leave now”.
I ran out and joined my friends. I could feel his eyes graze through my way down the pathway. When Meenu asked me the reason why master told me to remain, I blushed. She did not believe when I replied that he just wanted to know my name.
That evening when we went to bathe in the pond, I stared at my face in the clear water. People called me the one with a face as round as a full moon. The dimples on my cheek glistened at the thought of master. A sudden splash and giant ripples erased my image. It disappeared like an illusion. It was Shreya my tomboy cousin who plunged in unexpectedly.
The next day I chose to wear a pink shawl, lined with a golden border which I had kept aside for months. I had always considered it too attractive to wear. I wore a yellow skirt and golden blouse and spread across the shawl in neat pleats like a saree. I lined my eye with dark khol and adorned my forehead with a red bindhi, the speck of round dot I had shunned until then. I wore pink, yellow and golden glass bangles. I plaited my long oily hair in a neat row.
“ Roopa, you are 19 and still hover around with little children. You never grow up…”, amma stopped abruptly. I felt that her jaws dropped and her eyes popped out of the socket. She stared at me and walked briskly to the wooden cupboard. She took a jaded necklace from her jewellery box and wound it around my neck.
“My little princess, look how pretty you are!” she dragged me by my arm towards the mirror. I felt too shy. Or was it the feeling of guilt that had engulfed me?
Everyone at the Kalari asked me if it was my special day. I smiled and nodded in reply. Master made me stay that evening. He said he would teach me the navarasas. Our eyes met and his hands clutched mine. My glittering glass bangles broke under the weight of his heavy fist. A piece of glass ripped through my palm. Blood dripped down and stained my skirt. Silence filled the rest of the time. It was almost twilight and I ran home.
Flowers bloomed everywhere in pink and blue and myriad hues. The blue sky flirted with the smoky clouds. Rainbow stretched across the fading yellow sky in the evenings. The cuckoo sang from some faraway branch. Butterflies fluttered around nectar filled flowers.
Love, it once lay nestled between her arched eyebrows that quivered like Cupid’s bow. Love lingered under orchards and thorny bushes. Love blossomed near temple ponds on moonlit nights. Love sought refuge under the Pala tree which people called the Devil’s tree. Love slithered through the Sarpa Kavu, the forbidden abode of the snake deities. She saw in him the divine aspect of the absolute. She was his Radha, the divine consort of Lord Krishna.
When did he leave the village? Nobody knows. I waited. I guessed he might have gone to visit some sick relative. I wanted to see him and be with him. I waited. I looked for him in the kalari, our dance school. Someone else has taken charge. I gathered the courage to go to Gopi aashan’s house. The house was locked. Someone said he died a few months back. I enquired about his son. They said that they had seen him only a couple of times and that he had been there a few days back with a woman presumably his wife. I was shocked. Uncertainty blanketed my thoughts and I stumbled over the familiar terrain. There was a void, a vacuum, an untold fear. Tears desolated me and I walked home staggering through the thin discerning thread of sanity and insanity.
My Sheila was already growing within me. My parents and relatives insisted that I kill her before she was born. How could I scoop a life out of me? It was my flesh and blood. It was alive. I didn’t want to do that. I had never hated him, my master so I can never hate our child. We sold our house and moved to the city. I went to college while amma took care of Sheila. I secured a job and took care of my family. My parents died after a few years. I took care of Sheila. She has never hated me.
The trees are bare and brownish yellow leaves lay strewn everywhere. I watch my maid, clear the fallen mess as my heart mumbled the lines,
“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black,
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
I wondered at the fallen splendor that Frost had immortalized ages before. I picked up my phone. Three missed calls. That was Abe, my colleague. What should I say? I texted him “ shall meet tomorrow at 5. Sea Side restaurant.” He answered with a smiley.
I had never expected him in my life. He is a matter of fact person, sturdy, tall, plain and simple. We have been working together for nearly three and a half years. He said he lost his wife in an accident. His children Sam and Grace live in Mumbai. I discussed this with Sheila and she has left the decision to me.
“Amma, it’s your life. Do not be bothered about what others say. There is nothing right and wrong in this world. What is right for you might be wrong for someone else and vice versa”.
My girl has grown wiser with years.
She dropped me near the old bus station from where I walked to the sea shore. When did I last visit the sea? Wasn’t it ten years back? I picked a shell and pressed it close against my ear. I could hear the distant roar of the waves.
Abe had reached by then. We walked together along the sea shore leaving footprints behind only to be washed out by the waves. I asked Abe,
“Will the seas for a while sell their sands or do they follow us as deadened tracks?”
Abe smiled and replied,” I think I can bear more of your madness”.
“There is too much grey on my hair these days”, I smiled
He replied,” Ah! Then it will go well with my receding hairline and grey beard”.
The wind-swallowed laughter and chats might have been dispersed in some distant land. He held my hand in his as we watched the sun sink gracefully into the deep waters and the pink moon rise in all her glory.