She was peripatetic slung a bag across the shoulder A pouch of puffed rice salted tempered with pepper moistened the old saree frayed at the shoulder with sweat She walked until she couldn’t identify a single species of tree
to learn anew which one yielded edible berries if Pandanus bore flowers in the rosette of spiked leaves
My mother’s friend bemoans that she lives in a poor village – there are fifty families in the village and the agraharam like a line segment hemmed in by temples is straggly.
Her house is ramshackle, she bought it for a song because that was all she could afford in her post-retirement wish to move out of the city for a quiet life. When I visited her, she warned of the scorpions under the tiles, mice that sneak in through the mitham, and centipedes that permanently reside in the washroom. There was a contraption that looked like the one used to hold down a snake. Seeing me eye the long rod, she said it was used to pull down drumsticks and lime from trees. I remained alert during my stay and watched my steps.
Her husband took me around the village. The banyan tree dwarfed the temple and arched across the narrow road to canopy the large and mossy temple pond. A dirt road led out of the village to acres of shimmering paddy fields – heads of the tall grass heavy with grains, the stalks a coppery gold. When the sun moved high in the sky, the earth became a column of light, and I could barely keep the eyes unblinking. He led me to a tree and we sat for long in silence as dark patches gathered at the corner of my vision. In the city I had not experienced naked light; tall buildings and dust-laden trees bounce off the glare.
He wiped his forehead with the carefully folded thundu. His veshti was crisp and his shirt neatly ironed – echoes from the days he displayed fine taste. Many of my friends desired him to be their father, or rather desired their father to be like him – stylish and suave; he wore shades for Madras summer, and went for a jog near the Marina in shorts – something that only film heroes did.
He worked as a technical director in a film studio – what job that entailed I do not know, but l knew it commanded an envious lifestyle of parties and travels to places that I had to look up in the atlas. He sailed in a cloud of perfume, you could smell musk for hours after he left a room.
I wasn’t perceptive then; in retrospect, I see the cracks: his aspirations tensed his relationship with his wife. Now in the absence of all that he possessed, I sense a turmoil, his dis-ease with himself, and alienation from the resplendent kingfisher just a metre away hovering above the wild fern fronds.
In another version of his life he has not traveled beyond a mile. The river plies fresh loads of algae empties the hill at his feet where the ferns dry their hoary limbs.
He fits the odds of his life in a bag walks along the spent river that cradles the kingfisher in a shard of light. The villagers troop along the cracked bund see his back diminish to a pinpoint.
The fish floats belly up the venom stains the reeds a shade of purple flows down the throat of the crown flower to the small of his back when he kneels as if the body is built to fold up.
They bring him wrapped, calf muscles buckled from what the human body is not meant to do – walk three hundred miles, drop like a yellowed leaf to be rested under the cassia tree in full bloom just a mile from home.
The context: After the 21 day lockdown in India to contain the spread of Coronavirus, the states have closed their borders, bus and train services have been suspended. The lockdown has left tens of millions of migrant workers unemployed. They are from rural India, small towns and villages, but live most of the year in India’s megacities. Believed to number at least 120 million, possibly more, they are walking to their homes, hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they had migrated for work.
A 23 year old man walking from Nagpur in Maharashtra to Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, after completing 500 kilometers in the summer heat of the southern Indian plains, died of cardiac arrest in Secunderabad, many miles away from home.