“Grand ma, grand ma,”
Tina came rushing up the stairs, one stormy evening. Grandma, who stood in the dining hall, setting a table for two, glanced at her and asked gravely.
“What is it dear?”
“Our cow has just given birth to a beautiful calf.”
“A little while ago.”
Tina panted; red with excitement, she turned to grandma for a response. To her disappointment, grandma looked away, as she took a corner of her anchal to wipe off her tearful eyes.
“What’s wrong grandma?”
“Everything; you wouldn’t understand.”
“I’ll tell you later, over dinner. I’m off for my evening prayers now.”
“Was that the Monsoon of 1968?” An older Tina stood across the street, looking at a huge building, this monstrosity, in reminiscence of grandma’s house; yes, she remembered that evening, when ominous clouds had loomed over the eastern sky and gusty winds blew across in every direction; she’d heard a cry coming from the cowshed. Situated in the back yard of her grandma’s house, she’d picked up the kerosene lantern, sitting next to the door in the back verandah; instinctively, she’d headed out. The lantern was usually placed there, on the floor, in case of power outage.
Tina made a small paper boat. A piece of square scrap was lying, on a medium sized, high Mahogany table, placed beside, a long slanted arm chair of moss green, leather upholstery. On the verandah, while she waited for grandma’s return, she saw the piece and picked it up. Then she pressed it on her little palms, against the hardness of the table, folding it in many angles, triangles, turning the paper in and out until it bore, a resemblance to a small paper boat.
Down by the steps there was a storm water drain. Tina descended them and she stooped over to place the boat gently in the drain. The little paper boat swerved unevenly, from the pressure behind; the gushing water pushed it forward.
Grandma returned from her Magrib prayers; she summoned her for dinner, on her way to the dining hall. Tina came up the stairs, washed her hands, from a mug of water, set aside for the purpose, before she entered into the dining room. Dinnertime strangely quiet that night, as grandma was in no mood to talk. She seemed preoccupied with her own thoughts. They had chicken korma with rice polau and plain yoghurt raita with cucumber. The raita being too runny, she took it out tonight, leaving it on the side of her plate. In the past, whenever she tried to conceal these from grandma’s vigilant watch, she never succeeded; tonight however, it was different.
Grandma poured herself a glass of water from the floral antique jug. The water made a gurgling sound, breaking the silence of the room.
“Our pregnant cow gave birth today?”
“Earlier in the evening.”
“But this is so exciting,” she said. “That was the best news I’ve heard all evening.”
“But I just told you. Did you forget?”
“Oh dear,” she said distractedly. “I must have. I’m in a deep dilemma, my love.”
“Your uncles want to sell this place.”
“What? What will happen to us? This is our home. Where would we go?”
“It would still be. Only, we would have to live in a flat.”
Tina could not believe that her uncles could be so cruel.
“Because, there is big money in it, that’s why. Anyway, you wouldn’t understand. Tell me about the calf.”
“Well, earlier on …”
A smile appeared in the corner of her mouth, as memories came flooding back. Grandma’s house wasn’t exactly on a farm, but it had the characteristics of one. Adjacent to the huge kitchen, cows were milked in the cowshed every morning. That deep well, yes, it was just outside the kitchen wall, wasn’t it? She took a moment to re-imagine the house in detailed outline.
Constructed on a spacious cement floor, the well had a rendered finish of bright yellow, with a round opening at the top. On the outermost periphery of that platform, there was a slightly raised rim that ran in a semi-circular fashion, from the wall of the kitchen, right up to the house. This space between the well and that edge was used for washing and cleaning of all sorts. Maids sat on the rim, either gutting fish or plucking chickens. They used the well water, pulled up in a pail, manually, every time, with a long rope attached to its flimsy, curved wire-handle. The sullied water gently flowed away afterwards, into the nearby drain. Tina often stood over the well, listening to the resonating sounds she made, while the water captured her small reflection.
Tina and grandma lived together long enough in the house to fall in love with it. School being too far away from her parents’ house, this arrangement was made by her mother. Every evening they had visitors. Tina’s sister, mum, dad, her aunties, uncles and her cousins. Sometimes, they stayed for dinner, other times not, but most certainly stayed for tea. To have a television was a luxury in those days, so the family gathered around the oval table, in the dining hall; at teatime, the house came alive with laughter.
Teatimes were precious. Shachin’s Sweetmeat supplied all the sweets and the snacks that were required for tea. The spread wouldn’t be considered complete, unless it consisted of Sachin’s snacks’; tea-cups and saucers, of wedgwood fine-bone china, decked the table to a shine. Without these awesome snacks of brown Kalajamons and white round Roshogollas and sometimes, white-floured luchi, on the house, grandma never felt entirely satisfied. Good times rambled on for hours; it felt like Eid festival every time. Tea was served together with the snacks, which Grandma happily served everybody around the table.
Shachin’s Sweetmeat shared a common wall with grandma’s house. In fact, Sachin, the owner of this sweet shop was one of her very loyal tenants. At teatimes, he made sure that he brought grandma, the best sweets of the day. Grandma always picked them up fresh, from the back of the house, through a make-shift flimsy tin door, between the house and the shop.
Made out of dried Jackfruit leaves, threaded through long, dried grass, hot fried sweets were packed in cone shaped parcels. Crude packaging, but effective and inexpensive, they were easily disposable and biodegradable. Improvisation wasn’t too difficult either. They could be designed into any desired shape.
While her children waited in the dining-room, she often dashed around the house to grab the parcels and then hurried back. With the three cones placed in her conjoined hands, she then turned them, up side down, on three snack plates, to display the sweets and the luchis on the fine-bone china.
Not that Tina’s uncles couldn’t’ help themselves, but grandma enjoyed her role in serving them. It gave her a purpose; and fulfilling it selflessly, was her greatest achievement. That’s why she made her rounds by laying down one white, one brown sweet and two fluffy breads on each plate, before, she took a plate for herself, as she sat at the head of the table. The aroma of butter and the caramel of hot, sweet sugar filled up the air.
The forget-me-not teapot, cocooned within the tea cozy, kept the brewed tea warm, while a kettle full of water continued to be boiled, on an electric little coiled stove, by the hour. Nestled around the security of her children and the gentle stove fire, grandma merrily poured out the steamy tea in each cup. Fresh cow milk was added to it in small amount that floated on top of it; the milk churned into thickened cream, to a pale yellow or malai; threadbare pieces of it afloat on the tea and then made sweetened with sugar; the more it rained, the merrier it became.
Before they took leave though, her children always shifted, from the dining hall to two, of the five large rooms; one of them being grandma’s bedroom and the other, the drawing room. Occupying her bed, the aunts sat rounded together, while they chatted about the latest sari on the market, or movies that they had recently seen, but mostly saris. Uncles on the other hand, in the drawing room, had heated arguments over mortgages or the share market. If they already had such a tedious day, why did they argue about them again? Abusing the system, didn’t quite make sense to little Tina.
Everything about this place was sheer magic. Especially, the charming wall clock with the oscillating pendulum, hung in grandma’s room. In this room, she also had her paan table or the table, where she kept the paraphernalia of betel leaves.
Inevitably, she took out a green, small betel leaf, out of stack of the paan dani, the silver container that held the dripping wet leaves of many sizes; separate smaller tubs inside it, held white lime and slivered betel nuts. She put a tiny piece of betel nut in a paan leaf, swiped a bit of white lime over it, with the tip of her index finger and wrapped it, in a small tight triangular shape, before she slipped it into her mouth. Closing the lid of the container thereof, she sat down in her cozy corner of that bed.
Her mouth became watery red in no time, from chewing the leaf full of delightful juices. Sometimes she participated in the conversation, other times just listened, chewing on; but what Tina liked most, was her demeanor. If she were a defeatist, it would have shown but it had not. Even at the age of seventy, she was as vivacious as her daughters. When they talked endlessly about the latest French chiffons and georgette saris, she never hesitated to give an opinion. Her favorite being Dhakai Jamdani, she criticized how her Jamdanis, constantly ripped in the folds, because she never cared to air them; rather left them unworn in her Almirah for too long. And when an aunt asked her, how she’d carry on a conversation, if Tina married an English man, she’d say laughingly, “I’ll say come, sit, eat and go.” Everyone naturally laughed at that but grandma always had entertainment and hospitality in her bigger picture.
A man did come every night, with a huge ladder to fix the time. He carried it on his shoulder to climb up, to open the glass door of the huge clock; he manually changed the hands, which seemed quite an arduous task; but he did it, with such dexterity that Tina couldn’t but admire his skills; it chimed every hour. And on this occasion, the clock struck six in the evening; it was teatime.
While everybody ate in the dining hall, Tina quietly ventured out, to ascertain information about that squeal that she had heard earlier on. She walked through the rich orchards, of many fruit bearing oriental trees such as the Jackfruit, the Indian Plum, Mango, the Custard Apple, Lemon tree and the Berry: a seeded round and elongated Indian Berry of green or russet color. Each of these was planted to epitomize her grandchildren, as they were born, one after another in the house. So, when Tina was born, theBerrytree was planted, which was now huge.
As the tiny wick continuously wavered in the swaying winds, she vaguely saw in the soft wiffle-waffle of the glow that something was afoot in the direction of the kitchen. When she got closer, she realized that the cry had come from a young maid. The maid was boiling milk on one of the two old fashioned, large wood stoves.
These stoves, which were handcrafted from clay, had a big, round, pot-like bottom, to hold the fire. The top had a small crater like cavity, with three little humps built around it. These humps were evenly spaced, to provide sufficient support for pots and pans. The spaces, between these humps, were formed in U-shape, so that firewood could be positioned; the long, inclining logs, thrust all the way in, as a small portion of it protruded out of the stove.
She sat, on the floor by one such stove, blowing into a steel, medium sized, narrow tube. It looked like the aboriginal musical instrument, the Didgeridoo, except, while the Didgeridoo, produced sound of music, this only rekindled fire. In the weak light of the lantern, Tina saw how the maid’s thin body, stood closeby to the grilled square window. She clutched the vertical iron bars and looked intently towards the cowshed.
“What’s happened?” Tina asked abruptly startling the maid.
“Come quickly,” she said in a real hurry.
Tina rushed with the lantern shrieking, “Oh, my God!” The pregnant cow had just given birth. The calf was still struggling to reach mum’s udder, on its four infant legs. But the floor being slippery from cow dung, it was not easy. In the meantime, the storm yielded full on, from the ashen sky. The downpour offered no sign of a let up, as the torrential rain fell in every direction. The trees swayed; the branches creaked; the gusty winds lacerated through them.
Oh, she couldn’t wait, to bring this news back to the house, to share with the family; the rain so intense, so dark, through it she ran, still holding the lantern. She went up all the twelve steps, onto the wide verandah, then into the house. But everybody had departed by then. Her parents were leaving too, only waited to say goodbye to her.
She had just opened her mouth to speak when her mum, dad and little sister Mona showered her with kisses, nearly suffocating her with their hugs. Grandma and Tina saw them to the door; they parted by saying goodbye. The lull in the room, contrasted with the raging winds outside, created the perfect condition for meditation.
By now, they had finished dinner and grandma was clearing up. Tina went outside to wash her hands. She took a mug full of well water, from the pail sitting on one corner of the verandah.. As she looked down, she saw that her paper boat slumped upside down in the drain; it got stuck along the way, when the strong winds tipped it over. She finished brushing her teeth quickly, and then climbed into bed with grandma.
Darkness fell all around. Grandma switched off the light; she was restive. Tina heard her deep sighs. In the moonlight pouring into the room, she saw her toss and turn, through the open window. And atmidnight, when the clock’s peal sent a cold shiver, down Tina’s spine, she asked.
“What’s going to happen to the cowshed?”
“It’ll have to go too,” she answered dolefully. “It’s late dear, go to sleep now, you have school tomorrow.”
Tina lay awake in the uncanny silence, trying to envisage the future, the future of the house and everything that came with it; the togetherness, her life with or without grandma — listlessly, she fell off to sleep.
At school time, the next day, Tina felt sluggish. But as grade seven captain, she had responsibilities, so she had to attend. Before she left however, she decided to take a quick peek, at the calf in the cowshed. Breakfast was ready but Tina paid no attention to grandma’s calls, when she ran down the twelve steps of the verandah, in the morning’s early ray.
Flying sprightly between the trees, nameless birds chirped, frolicked, in the orchard pregnant with ripened fruits. Sometimes they sat, on the branches of the tree, to peck at aBerry, full, plump and free; the unbroken seed, on half-eaten flesh, left it bare, as they flew quickly; these flights set off, a dance of the twigs that commenced with nature, in perfect harmony; nutcracker it was, to its tunes, as though they heard it, by Tchaikovsky.
There were people in the cowshed. The milkman came to milk the cow with his sons as usual. But today, it was different. Tina watched in horror, as the calf was led to the udder. No sooner had the milk began to flow, than the calf was pulled away. The men milked the cow dry, while the udder was left for the desperate calf, to reclaim what little there was. It was most distressing, but that was also nature’s law. In perpetuating the great cycle of life, every living creature lived off each other, no matter how cruel; this was endorsed, within the natural laws, to keep the balance intact, therefore, must also be endured. She quietly walked back to the house for breakfast; that was today’s first lesson.
That evening, Tina could hardly wait to see the calf. She rushed to the cowshed, as soon as she came home. The calf lay at her mum’s feet. Some grass was stacked in the corner of the cowshed; she took it and offered it to the calf. However, considering the calf’s disinclination, she left it near her, thinking that perhaps, it was not as famished as she thought.
Then, she went back to the house, waiting for the family’s arrival. And they did, each of them, one by one. The first ones to arrive were Tina’s uncle, grandma’s only son, and his wife. Grandma opened the door. She greeted them but with forced smile, as she let them in. They sat down, on one of the sofas of the big bedrooms. His wife appeared to be friendly, when she opened her bag, to take out two boxes of chocolates, which she offered to Tina; she accepted graciously. Grandma sat on the high-backed, Victorian chair, making small talk; there was another knock on the door.
The four sisters, their husbands, including Tina’s mum and dad, all the cousins arrived, more or less at the same time. Today, they sat in the same room. The chitchat went on, while they complimented each other on their saris and talked about the heat in the traffic jam. Tina and grandma rose discreetly from their chairs and went unnoticed into the dining room, leaving the clamor of high-pitched laughter, the babble, in the background. Just when Tina began to put the plates out, grandma said abruptly.
“I have a bad feeling. I fear that something terrible might happen today.”
The Monsoon rain began with all its intensity. In the overpowering sound of the rain, the crowd’s foot-steps couldn’t be heard, when they huddled, to gather in the cozy comfort of the dining room. Electricity was cut off. Except for the ceaseless thumping of the rain into the rut, made on the soft mud, of the orchard garden, there was nothing; nothing besides, little concaves in the darkness; craters spread across the grounds on the seabed, pearly raindrops on its surface.
One of the aunts lit a thin long candle, as soundless lightening cracked through the sky. Where she put it, in the middle of the table, grandma’s face looked ghastly. But the crowd was not thwarted from their merriment on account of the darkness. They continued to help themselves to Shachin’s sweets and top up their cups to the brim, until grandma’s son, who looked at her, over the rim of the tea-cup, popped the question.
“Amma, did you want to sign the papers today? Or did you want to wait until tomorrow?” he proposed casually, as if it were a done deal.
Grandma asked, sounding brave, but her wrinkly hands shook a little.
“Oh, paperwork needs to be done, to hand over the property to me, so the developers can move in,” he said.
Tina who was listening to all this, looked at her mum and asked.
“Where would we go?”
“Tina, sadly this place is not safe for grandma anymore. We would all get a flat, once the building is complete; grandma would get one as well.”
Mum answered, as though she could feel Tina’s anxiety; however, it gave her no respite. Tina looked at grandma, who sat solemnly on her chair, while her children chatted away eating, drinking heartily. They didn’t stop to think even for a moment, whether or not, it was of any consequence to grandma that she would lose this beautiful place, for a tiny flat.
“While it’s being built Amma, you can stay with us.”
Tina’s eldest aunt offered. And as for Tina, she would have to move into the school hostel temporarily.
“What if I don’t want to? I might not want to lose my independence.”
Tina joined forces with grandma. She finally asked.
“Yes, what if we don’t want to move?”
“Well now,” said grandma’s son. “You’re not going to put up resistance, are you Amma? It would only make things harder. We all know how difficult it is for you to maintain this place, now that you’re on your own. You would have a lot more security in the new flat, less break-ins, perhaps none.”
“Yes, I admit that this is sprawling big house, but it would also take my home away. The home in which your dad died, where each of you were born, a home with so many memories …”
Grandma broke down into tears. To contradict anyone, was never one of her greatest strengths; today, she tried nonetheless. However, Tina couldn’t but admire the feat. No papers were signed that evening, as the air was too thick. Even, grandma’s children seemed a bit subdued, at the prospect of losing their family home forever, a double-edged sword.
“Tina, do you think, living in a flat is a good idea?” grandma asked that night as they went to bed.
“Well a flat’s a flat, a house is a house. A flat although small, can be comfortable with everything within reach, I guess,” Tina said thoughtfully. “But I think I’m going to miss the house.”
“Me too,” said grandma sighing. “But I don’t think we can hold it off any more. I might have to sign the papers tomorrow.”
There were always moments of quietness in bed. Tonight, it was no exception. Since the day was long, they dosed off. However, Tina found herself in the depths of a dense, rain forest. She walked through thousands of tall, old, oriental trees, the ingrown roots of which, swirled as deeply into the soil, as it stretched across the surface. The roots entangled, in a web of neural network, the home of exquisite birds that whistled tunes simulating a Bengali song, Bou kotha kao, speak; o blushing bride.
Unimaginably long springs flowed, from lofty, lush mountains, meeting the stream below; at the bottom of which, a musician sat, singing the monsoon Raga, with his Tanpura. The melody of the swift notations, traveled along the deep contours, of the sound graph, as they cut through the fog; the music of the Tanpura droned uninterruptedly. Suddenly, there was noise, horrible grinding noise. Oh, it was the noise most fearsome. In a moment, the exotic trees, the birds, all disappeared, the strings of the Tanpura snapped and the music was lost. Apart from total devastation, a wasteland, nothing else remained.
Tina woke up with a jolt. Soaking wet, she lay there breathing heavily. In the silent room, she heard the sedentary sound of the clock’s tick-tock, filtered through the darkness that reminded her, she existed. This familiar room, grandma’s presence lying next to her; her heaving chest, visible in the pale light of the dawn, even her snores, together made the most important signposts for the present moment. If ever, any of these were taken apart, there wouldn’t be life, the way she imagined it. Another life, in another moment, would have to be nurtured into acceptance. Quietly, she climbed down the Mahogany, high wooden bed, while grandma still slept; ding-dong, it wasfive a.m.
Time rolled on incognito. Before anybody realized it, Tina finished university. It had been such a long time, since she revisited this place. She stood, looking at this onslaught, bereft of character. Nothing was left even slightly resembling that idyllic atmosphere. Thinking of the lovely house, overlooking the orchard, now brutally replaced with this tall, strange building, used for commercial purposes only, she asked herself, could this ever become residential? It couldn’t have, because, all along, it was more lucrative to sell as office blocks. Tina wondered, even if grandma was given a flat, how could she have lived here, amongst these people? The last few days of her life, came back in a flash, when she was in one of her aunt’s homes, dispossessed and dependant.
Not that Tina visited her every day however, that day grandma pulled her like magnet, attracting the black iron ore. Her house was nothing, but a broken heap of brick rubbles, piled up on chopped, stark, stumps of trees, in lieu, of the robust green grew deeper, with every drop of rain. Cement piled up on the grassy patch; its hue no other than the whiteness of dry chalk, as though Monsoon never knew the place. Even Shachin’s Sweetmeat was flattened to the ground.
Grandma sat on a high-backed chair, reading a newspaper. She looked at Tina, smiling faintly that afternoon, when Tina walked towards her, stepping over the thick turf of her aunt’s lawn. That look in her old, brown eyes was undecipherable. How her thin, weak hands, clutched her wrist. This person, she didn’t know; a dejected old woman prevailing upon her daughters, languishing in a limbo.
“My children have kicked me out of my home!” she said.
“You will be given a modern three bedroom flat,” Tina tried to console her. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to fit in all your furniture; I’ll come back to live with you.”
“Furniture? It’s probably rotting even as we speak; those nice antiques,” she cried. “Take me home Tina, take me now. I want to go home.”
Really rotten; in a stupor, she spoke about her furniture, although she knew how it was distributed amongst her children, when they moved out of the house. But she said it, as though, it was rotting. And rotting it was, perhaps not the furniture.
It was clear to Tina that she was not receptive anymore. Her words fell on deaf ears. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t talk grandma out of her present emotional state; it wasn’t good for her mental health. Tina was disgusted; her kingdom had fallen apart. Something was rotten all right; rotten to the core.
A few days later grandma’s admittance into a hospital became necessary. Tina went to visit her everyday, until grandma couldn’t recognize her anymore. But this didn’t prevent her from visiting. And one day, after she came back from the hospital, she went straight up to her room. She crouched on the floor and drew a suitcase out, from under her bed. It was a battered, brown leather suitcase. When she opened it, a photo album of black vinyl, lay on top of her belongings. Gently she took it out, still sitting on the floor, near the suitcase.
She poured herself a glass of water, from the jug on the bedside table, just up above the floor from her. A sudden distant ring, of the phone set off a terrible palpitation, within her. She knew that it couldn’t be glad tidings. Through the dimly lit corridor, she walked softly to the other end, where the phone was; she picked up the handset; her hand trembled. Mum was on the phone, sobbing. Grandma had passed away; she was no more. The page had turned indeed; the chapter ended.
Tina breathed heavily. She staggered away from this cold building, as she felt the most unendurable loss; the momentary joy that was once associated with grandma’s pristine house faded, so had the ticking of the wall clock, the tinkle of the laughter. But, all wasn’t lost, not just yet, because this picture, fused with Monsoon Ragas still existed, framed within her soul in eternal symphony. The evocative past of the clock ticking away, in the silence of the dark, never really left her side, although Elvis has left the building.
“And cut!” called out the director.
This was the final take. The director of “Monsoon Melodies,” sat back in his chair; he finished filming. He looked at the older Tina and thought, he might like to ask her out tonight; she was a quiet, deer-eyed girl.
Anchal: that part of the Sari which hangs loosely over a woman’s shoulder.
Magrib: evening prayer.
Korma: white chicken curry.
Polau: rice fried in ghee or purified butter.
Raita: yoghurt sauce.
Kalajamon: caramelized sweets, round in shape but white in the middle.
Roshogollas: White round sweets.
Luchi: small fluffy bread fried in deep oil.
Eid: muslim festival.
Malai: thickened milk.
Paan Dani: the container that holds betel leaf paraphernalia.
Dhakai Jamdani: handloom woven Sari that was originally made inDhakaby Bangladeshi weavers.
A different version of Monsoon Melodies was published on Asia Writes.