As Mangai boiled milk, she looked out of the window. Jasmine creeper that the gardener had trained to climb over the ledge of the kitchen window was filled with flowers. The mild smell of the flowers mingled with the smell of coffee.
She rinsed the coffee cup in the tap at the backyard and walked to the thicket at the far end of the garden. She gathered white and the magenta bougainvillea and arranged the flowers in a dark corner of the living room. She removed all other shades of color from the room. She draped the windows white, picked beige colored covers for the cushions. The whites in the room reflected light that streamed in from the windows. The heavy teak furniture, clutter of papers and books on the table weighed the room down. She tore away the papers, moved the books and shifted some heavy chairs to the spare room beyond the bedroom. She sat in the half empty room that was gathering a natural luminosity, she watched as the room started breathing. She thought she would go room to room and make them come alive. This gave her a purpose, a small path through an empty day.
Jambulinga Mudalaiar’s old and sprawling house had been converted into the Guest House of Neyveli Lignite Corporation. When Swami walked into the bar he saw a tall man downing a large glass of beer. He had met him in the plant the previous day. He was the mining engineer Paul Eyrich’s friend from the United States. Swami did not register his name.
I am Webster, Paul’s friend.
Are you also with the Bureau of Mines.
No. I am a lawyer. I am visiting my brother at the Theosophical Society in Madras. Paul dragged me along here. It is unbearably hot in Neyveli.
Madras is more pleasant because of the sea.
The heat here is because of what you have done to the land. It is torn open, scarred and gaping.
Swami did not know what to say, that was not how he saw the mines. He was relieved when the others joined them at the bar.
Swami was a chief scientist with Neyveli Lignite Corporation. He and his team of scientists researched and developed workable models of thermal and fertilizer plants. He saw himself as a part of a young nation’s dream, and believed ardently that science offered possibilities to make dreams work.
The mines shored into hills guts of the earth’s crust, the dark innards lay exposed as an ugly secret . She told him that one evening. He considered it, knitting his eyebrows.
“The lignite there is 25 million years old. It is fossilized vegetable matter that grew on earth even before man walked on the earth. Do you know, we have been studying samples of lignite and have found the plant matter of coniferous nature. Coniferous trees in this part of the earth? What was this place 25 million years ago? A mountain? I am looking at the secrets of the earth that the fossils carry while you are thinking of the sordid clay that we pile.”
Mangai focused on the flowers that she was stringing into a strand. Swami waited for Mangai’s response, her unhurried pace puzzled him. Her ways of wrapping herself in routines of trivia irritated him. He could not understand her obsessive passion about stringing flowers, pickling limes, collecting cotton from the trees and stuffing a pillow, walking for miles in the mornings and evenings. He could never make her talk about what these meant to her. When he asked her, she sounded disinterested in all that she did. This pretension disturbed him intensely.
Hurt, he said, “You want to be secretive of everything you do.”
Alarmed, Magai answered, “There is nothing secretive. I tell you all that I do through the day.”
“Why do you go for such long walks?”
“What else do you want me to do the whole day?”
She wrapped the string of jasmine around the bun of her hair. The buds that were strung very close nudged each other as they blossomed. A strong smell of the flowers assaulted Swami, he recollected it as the smell of his wife in bed. Surprised, he looked at the flowers as though it was the first time they revealed a meaning.
“Is this from our garden?”
“Yes. Do plants interest you only after they fossilize?”
Swami smiled, “But I really do not know much about plants. I know nothing about the ones in our garden. Tell me about them.”
She looked at him for a moment to see if he was making fun of her. Then she said, “There are mango trees, guavas, lime, jackfruits, badam, cotton trees, eucalyptus, drumstick trees – a dozen of them. Then there are the flowering plants …”
“Why don’t you begin a cottage industry, make pickles, jams, sauces and squashes? You can make your own soft pillows, sell flowers. ”
She took a sharp breath, “Why do you suggest this to me?”
“Just look at all the opportunities. You have the time and the resources. We should keep ourselves busy, keep the momentum so that we move forward.”
Swami’s voice reached a new pitch, his ears turned crimson. His enthusiasm tired her, she found it feverish and simplistic. He never for a moment doubted that he figured in the scheme of things like nation building. Sometimes she wanted to protect her husband, he is too naïve, she thought.
She sighed and got up, retired into the kitchen to cook supper. She sat on the hard floor and greased her hands with oil. She held firmly the stalk of a large banana flower and removed the sepals layer by layer. She tugged the pearly blossoms out, and chopped them finely. She soaked the chopped blossoms in buttermilk. She was so absorbed in the procedure that she did not hear Swami move restlessly in the living room.