― George Santayana
Returning to the place, which your heart loves to call home, is always ecstatic.
The euphoria that was brewing inside me gushed in rhythm with the waves of the Arabian Sea that caressed Sreepuram along its western border, humming its monsoon-symphony. It may have sounded cacophonic and eerie to an outsider. For me, it was the rhythm divine.
Though God threw Adam and Eve out of Eden, he created many slices of heaven on earth. One of those heavenly slices was Sreepuram. With ponds, hillocks, coconut palms, extensive paddy fields and the Arabian Sea that sung lullabies, Sreepuram was a traveler’s dream. Even after the sun dived into the ocean after experimenting with myriad shades and hues on the horizon, many a traveler hesitated to move away from its serene beach. Every season brought out a different shade of beauty in my Sreepuram.
Opening the car windows, I breathed in the smell of freshly bathed soil with relish. The grey sky showered its greetings with tiny droplets that tickled and thrilled, while trickling down my extended palm. My heart joined in the celebration, meting out an ecstatic drum roll. A whole month in Sreepuram, while it looked radiant in rain drenched green. My prayers had at last come true after three long years. My hectic engineering course had chained me to Bangalore during all my previous semester breaks with exams, assignments, and site visits. Every summer, I missed Sreepuram.
By the time our car entered the courtyard of Grandmother’s house, the rain had strengthened. Grandmother, whom I called Ammamma, was waiting on the porch with an ear-to-ear grin. Even in this pouring monsoon, she appeared bright like a daisy on a sunny day, dressed in her spotless white cotton sari with her silver hair neatly pulled into a bun.
The moment the car stopped in the outer courtyard, I darted towards her, unmindful of the rain pouring down. How could I resist a chance to embrace the rain?
Grandma received me with a hug but immediately chided me.
“Oh Anu, you never change, do you? Running around like a whippet,” she said, inspecting my rain-kissed curls.
“Come on Ammamma, don’t scold. Couldn’t resist the temptation,” I said, and she tweaked my ears playfully for the crime committed by my tongue.
Following the aroma of the freshly made coffee that wafted in, to the dining room I went. Inspecting the casseroles, I found what I expected - Appam, the soft rice pancake with lacy edges and a soft center, along with chicken curry. The chicken curry lured me with its heavenly aroma of spices cooked with the flavor of fried onions, garlic, ginger, tomato, and cilantro in coconut milk. The sight elicited a growl from my stomach.
“Ammamma, my stomach is rioting. Titanic can sink in my mouth now if it tried. The appam and chicken curry is so alluring. Let me start my attack,” I declared, pulling back the chairs, ready to devour as manyAppams as possible.
“You crazy girl, you look like a wet hen. Go dry your hair and change your clothes. You can commence your attack then,” Grandma said, closing the casseroles back.
“Ammamma, please, let me first fill my tummy.” I tried one last time in vain.
After a speedy dress change into dark blue Capri pants and a white top with lace trimmings, I sat down to calm my raging hunger.
“Mmmmm, what an appam Ammamma!! If you had given this to Shakespeare, he would have written a thousand sonnets about it,” I said, with closed eyes, while the appam dipped in spicy chicken curry romanced my taste buds.
She chuckled, but urged me to finish eating and then talk. I obeyed her without much ado.
It was almost twilight. The sun had begun to wane its lights and a cool zephyr brought in the fragrance of blooming jasmines. The peel of the bell broke the silence, which had slowly settled in, after the initial hustle and bustle of vessels.
“Ah, who could that be?” asked Grandma getting up to answer the door.
“I will check, Ammamma, it might be the kids,” I said, referring to the kids’ gang, which gave me company during the holidays. I washed my hands and rushed to open the door.
Instead of the gang, a stranger stood on the portico with a small polythene bag in his hands. A salesperson, I assumed, inspecting the smartly dressed young man.
“Yes?” I asked, summoning up my most apathetic look.
“Isn’t Arundhati aunty here?” he asked. So Ammamma was the one he sought. Was he a publisher or a journalist?
My grandmother, Arundhati Mukundan is an award winning poet and author. After my grandfather’s death seven years ago, she had gone into depression. Later on, one of my aunts had discovered a collection of poems Grandma had penned during her hours of darkness. After much coercing from her children, she had agreed to publish them. Her book had become an instant best seller and won the state award for literature that year. She had now added two more poem collections and a semi-autobiography to the list. Hence, publishers and journalists visited often.
“And you are?” I asked smiling at him. Before he answered, Grandma entered the portico to check up on the caller.
“Oh Arjun, It is you! Come in. So nice to see you again,” said she with a huge smile on her face. The stranger’s face too had lit up with a bright smile.
“I came to give you these tablets. They are from Vishal,” said the stranger passing the small carry bag to her.
The names Arjun and Vishal combined, rang a bell inside my brain. This is Arjun?! If I had it right, he was my cousin Vishal’s best friend, Dr. Arjun. The one who had been Vishal’s strength during the tense hours when Uma aunty, Vishal’s mom had underwent a critical operation to remove her inflamed gall bladder. The one whom Vishal said he trusted with his life. Arjun was the one who took over the routine checkups of Grandma, whenever Vishal was unavailable. Grandma had talked much about how well behaved and loving he was. Combined with Vishal’s bragging about his friend, the result was that I had developed an insane crush on him. Yes, without ever having beheld him. My interest in the visitor piqued a thousand times.
Standing before me was an immensely handsome youth. His hair was perfectly in place, his shirt without any creases even though it was late in the evening and his trousers perfectly fitted his long athletic looking legs. His dark brown eyes, thick eyebrows, chiseled features, athletic body, and whitish complexion gave him the look of a Greek god. Even though I was 5’ 5”, I felt like a dwarf standing in front of him. Someone straight out of those romance books that I had read. Any sane girl would have fallen for him instantly if she were in my place. I was of course, sane.
“Thank You, Arjun. It is for Devi, my housekeeper Gopu’s wife. She had a headache and Gopu had gone to Bangalore. I was expecting Vishal to bring it. Been weeks he has dropped by,” she said, while I continued my stealthy scrutiny from behind her.
“He was on his way here. An emergency case came and he had to return to the hospital. I was coming this way, so I offered to help,” explained Arjun.
“That was so nice of you, Arjun,” said Grandma.
“Who is this, aunty?” enquired Arjun, gesturing towards me.
“This is my granddaughter Ananya. Anu, this is Vishal’s friend, Dr. Arjun. He is also a neighbor now,” said Grandma, conducting a mutual introduction.
“Hello Ananya, nice meeting you,” said Arjun, with a smile.
Impressed, I bestowed on him my best smile and greeted him back with a mild ‘Hi’.
“What do you do?”
“I am in the final year of engineering,” I said, and to my amazement, I was seized by a sudden attack of nervousness. Wasn’t it okay to be nervous when one was in the presence of one’s long time crush? Moreover, what a ‘crush’ it had turned out to be!
“Wow, Great!” he said.
“Come on inside son, have some tea.”
“No, Aunty. Thanks. I will leave now. Mum will be waiting,” said Arjun, walking down the portico steps. Huh, he couldn’t wait to escape!
Grandma and I watched as his white Toyota Corolla- pulled off from our gate, turned a corner, and moved out of sight.
“You said he is our neighbor. When did that happen?” I asked, while we returned to the dining table to finish our tea.
“Do you remember that plot in the east, where that old shop used to be? They constructed a new house in its place two years ago. He lives there with his mother. Poor boy, his father passed away last year in an accident.”
“But Ammamma, I remember you telling me that the plot belonged to a relative of yours, someone named Madhavan.”
“Yes, Yes, Rajashekhar, Arjun’s dad is his son. So we are distant relatives too,” said Grandma, helping herself to another cup of tea.
A group of three kids came in then, putting an end to our conversation by shouting, “Yippee…Anu is here,” and doing a sort of war dance around the table.
It was Anamika, Achyuth and Deepak, all three, members of my vacation gang. Anamika aka Ammu though only nine years old was the chatterbox of the gang. Achyuth aka Achu, her brother, older by three years was the genius of the group. Deepak their cousin was Achyuth’s age and looked almost like a twin to Achyuth.
“Anu, you have become so stylish and pretty! Just look at your hair. Wow, now you look like a cross between Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit,” declared Ammu, a big fan of Bollywood movies, walking around, and inspecting me closely.
I had allowed my short curly hair to grow out of its boyish bob-cut and had styled it last Christmas, in the layered style popularized by Madhuri Dixit. As my eyes were grayish green, similar to that of Aishwarya Rai, Ammu had given her verdict. I chuckled.
“Thanks cutie,” I said, and pinched her cheeks playfully making her squeal with laughter, “All three of you have grown so tall.”
These kids helped me re-live those days, when along with my four cousins, I had wreaked havoc in this place during our vacations. Though I had turned twenty last November, I loved being a child, which I became when I was with them.
With my cousins, Kishore, Navneeth, Naveen, and Vishal, all grown up and working, vacations had become a lonely affair, until I had found these kids for company during my school vacation six years ago. The time spent in Sreepuram had become fun again. At that time, Ammu was barely three. I took full advantage of being the eldest in the gang, cheated, and challenged them on adventures in which I was already an expert.
Being the lone girl among Grandma’s five grandchildren, I had done everything under the sun that elders insisted a girl should not do. I was a sprightly and mean thing according to my cousins. Nevertheless, we were always a team. We fought like cats but managed to love each other despite it. Even now when we were together, we were capable of bringing the roof down. Any place would instantly start to feel like home.
I had many nicknames, thanks to them.
I was ‘Cat’ owing to my gray eyes and sharp nails, name given by Kishore my eldest cousin.
Due to my pale skin and ability to climb compound walls, Navneeth had christened me ‘Lizard’.
The most popular name was ‘Monkey’ because of my prowess in climbing trees. Nobody could beat me in that.
They were the reason that I became a tomboy. I hated girly stuff and dressed in trousers and t-shirts just like them. My wardrobe had more jeans and t-shirts than churidars or skirts. Bless those, who started the trend of girls dressing up like boys!
In my engineering class, I was the odd one in a class overflowing with gorgeous girls. Did I regret that? No. Boys were better off as friends. They had no interest in me. It was not that I was ugly. Just that my lack of feminine graces drove them away. I was merely their tomboy friend with weird colored eyes.
“How long is your vacation this time, Anu?” Deepak’s question ended my reverie.
“I will be here till the 18th of July.” Enthusiastic cheers from the trio greeted my answer.
We spent the rest of the evening merrily exchanging news and I distributed the gifts that I had brought for them from Bangalore. Ammu squealed with delight when I gave her a box full of colorful hair clips and bindies in varied designs. Achyuth rushed out to fill his water gun from the courtyard pipe, which was his gift. I had brought a box of Oil pastels for Deepak. We shared a common passion for Arts. Grandma came out onto the portico then, where we had settled onto to the decorative wooden benches that bordered it, to break up the cozy get together.
“It is getting dark, kids. You can continue with your talks tomorrow. Anu is not going anywhere for the next one month. Run before your parents arrive with a stick.”
At the mention of their parents, they bundled out of our house chattering excitedly promising to come the next day.
The rest of the night passed in unpacking and settling into my room. Devi, Gopu’s wife, who was also the household help, had cleaned and prepared my room. The fragrance of Sambrani, a kind of incense, that she had lit to freshen up the room still lingered. The cupboards smelled of mothballs, the window curtains were new. The monsoons had cooled down the temperature and a thick blanket, folded into a perfect rectangle, lay at the foot of my bed. Grandma must have come to inspect the settings a hundred times, being a perfectionist. Her love was evident in every little thing that was present in the house. It was soothing to be back in the house. Something unwounded from within, the moment I entered it.
Right after dinner I fell onto my bed exhausted, unaware of the twist my life was about to take.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She strongly believes that storytellers are healers in the present world as they can change the outlook of people through the stories they tell.