You ask, can music do that – curl the tongue around the stitch of ache – when the note touches the ceiling of the hospital room as you take your walk and the night sky rotting green burns at edges with city lights.
You wear black, rest like fractured old wood on the migraine flare that flames your body. I gather your feet to trace the rings of age, sluices of calcium whorled in volcanic blooms. I cannot peel away your dreams:
they march one after another down the jungle path to snake across my feet. You and I pack grief in Samsonite, as I haul the suitcase into the car I cannot say what weighs more – all that you carry or that you leave behind.
Intuiting is more than a matter of shedding clothes Naked at the edge of the rock he forked the wild river bore the surge with the energy gushing in the veins Is it possible to leave the body as he did his footwear at the path leading to the ghat When throbbing with neither life nor death the universe trims down to a monotone Leaning into the river he redacted words: the language of life song of existence In the burning touch of farewell the tenderness of water in the nonexistence of it he disbanded the colours climbed the hill and wove his path to Mall road for a smoke.
At the temperature nudity bore wings through the teeth of cold, their bodies ruptured like milkweed pods. The temple bell in the last prayer of the day beguiled the crazy woman in a camphor-like dream. Ra pichai, the tramp howled. The coal skin combusted the creases of her need. He shifted under layers of dust from the freight car, tore the length of sleep in the red carriages, trailed spiral trajectories instead of the linear – a Ferris wheel. Her hub pulsed in belligerent energy, unspooled into stars. From his chest to sternum she speckled a galaxy of lies and he lured a river into the mossy art on her skin. Step into the water, he said, mouth full with thrashing fins of velli meenu. Her garment darkened thirstily the chalice of silence by drowning his mouth of sounds.
The floor breathed and sweated depending on the season and our disposition. In summer coolness wrapped the soles, the pores of the skin opened in receptivity as we walked around the house. During monsoon the moisture spread like a wild dream, climbing the walls and molding papers and clothes. The durries and floor mats were aired and sunned, or else they oozed when you placed your feet on them. Moisture was harder to manage, like a well-kept secret it remained trapped under the cement for months after the skies cleared, and surfaced like memories breaking through the membrane of time.
No cement, just bricks and lime plastered with layers of mud, my mother said of her parent’s house which if still standing will be nearly a hundred years old. That cannot be, I knew she was trying to emphasize the will of her father that held the structure up. He bought the house he had rented into, saving up to buy it took nearly a lifetime and by then his three daughters were adults, ready to be married, and his four sons were gawky adolescents.
My father remembers the house as a young son-in-law. Radiant and bursting with people, he told me; down the courtyards voices rang of visitors from every part of Madras, from Madurai and Mayavaram. The kitchen was open round the clock, round the year – coffee brewed with milk from the cow brought to the doorstep, and meal ready by 8.30 a.m. My grandfather who was a lawyer ate as early as that, after which he wore his coat over his cotton shirt and starched veshti, twisted a turban from angavastram, and wore these for a ride in the Pallavan bus to the High court in Mint.
My aunts and uncles dispersed all over India, visited Madras during the summer holidays. My mother married my father a banker from Madras and was available for her aging parents all through the year. Besides her, there were two unmarried uncles, one of them schizophrenic and violent in his behavior; the other could not get himself to face the world, he raged how he had never got his due. He never sat to speak to anyone, and no one knew what he wanted from them or life. My mother was his angel, but angels cannot always help, at best they can be calming and accepting.
Very different from that of my father’s, my enduring memory is of the house falling silent and getting leaner, and of people severely ill and dying. My grandmother died of cancer after a painful battle. After the rest of the family left, my mother and I witnessed my grandfather’s grief, it was like watching a dark movie week after week. Devastated he spent a large part of the day staring at the wall. I kept away from him, walked in the periphery of the house – spent hours on the gooseberry tree, scrambled up the tiled roof, dawdled along the walls. With sorrow collecting like a stone at the pit of my stomach, I went to him one day, stood beside him, and looked at the wall. When it made sense to me at last – his major occupation of the day – the dark wet blanket that clamped me down lifted, flew away like a feather. On the wall was the framed photo of my grandmother. Vel photo studio in Luz Corner had done a clean job of an old photo where my grandfather sat on a chair and she stood beside him. She was alone in this photo, on the far left an ornate table one sees in old Tamil movies had been added with a vase of flowers. I was learning to paint and my grip over perspective was weak, but in a minute I knew there was something wrong with that vase whose open mouth I could see from where I stood eight feet away and five feet below the picture. My mind was engaged in questioning the purpose for this addition in the photo: my grandmother instead of assuming the gravity of the dead, looked like an actress in a musty studio.
When my uncle in a rage emptied a bucked of cold water on my grandfather’s head, this behavior milder when compared to what followed in the next few days, my mother arranged for an ambulance from Kilpauk hospital and coaxed her brother to open the door of the room where he had locked himself. She stood outside the ward as he was administered electric shock and after a couple of hours brought him home as if after tooth extraction. My mother had this capacity to make everything appear normal even when it wasn’t.
At about the same time, the house began hollowing out, it shed plaster – chunks of them. They were getting old – both her father and her house. Cracks bisected diagonally a wall in the storeroom; timber room, part of the study upstairs, wooden steps leading to the terrace were advised not to be used, and they became nesting places for scorpions. Saferoom remained safe with its iron vault which was for the most part empty but for my grandfather’s silver plate. The vault was weighed in rupees and sold as scrap when the house fell after my grandfather died. The money that came from selling the land and the strong wooden doors were shared between my mother and her siblings. My uncle’s share was put away in a bank and used for his medicines and stay as a life-long resident in a home. My mother used her share to re-lay the floor in our house, the cement floor was replaced with mosaic tiles. Houses are not meant to speak and care must be taken to keep them mute.
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.