by Anuradha Nalapat
At 80, my spine is stiff and bent like a bow. The flesh that covers my delicate bones rises softly when pinched, like a stocking, and then slowly shrinks when released. Sulekha, my daughter-in-law, massages warm scented oil into it before my bath, and later sprinkles it with talcum powder to keep me dry and free of sores. She has learnt to understand the needs and the language of my body better than I do. I have now left it to her and withdrawn into the strange recesses in my mind. They call it senility. But I stand humbled and awestruck, before the dynamic metamorphism stirring in my ninety year old brain.
It is faint, very faint. It has just started again, in slow but steady movements. There's a cool breeze that always accompanies it and I sneeze. Sulekha switches off the fan.
"Thank you, honey."
The movements will slowly get stronger and the surface soil will be blown away. Then I shall be reborn into my past, several miles away, several years younger, and the present shall make no sense. What I find remarkable is that these internal forces working in my head are just like the ones I used to teach in my Geography classes. Great continents shift in turmoil in my brain, erecting new mountains and deep valleys. The slaking of all present thoughts considered mine, considered 'me'- those which make me sane to the outside world, have begun.
Now, I do not see my own children standing before me, because I'm deep inside, fifty years inside. But I must have loved these children, played with them, and fed them; why else would they now stand around this old lady's cot? I do not understand the words that flow from their mouths, because I don't hear them. I can only hear the rumbling of the mountains and valleys forming inside me.
I understand touch though. Touch is a force that brings me back into the present, into their world. They must be talking about the present, about themselves, their husbands and children. But alas, they no longer belong to me- the present and its various nuances. I see only the past, a fluvial past, and I remember and understand every shell, every little dune laid down fifty years back. I was young then, and healthy.
Vishnu, Manu, Appu, Thumbi, Madhavi, have all now emerged from the debri in my mind and are playing in the sand, running around with little fans made out of coconut leaves. My sister, reading as usual, lies on the black parapet that runs around the front of the house. She's clutching the book in one hand and the other hand has disappeared into a jar of banana chips. How beautiful she looks, her soft hair spread out like a fan and her brown eyes darting along the pages of her book.
My mother is pickling the tender mangoes she has gathered from the huge tree that graces our compound, and is talking loudly to Akkamma the maid; loud enough for all the passers by to hear. In fact everyone here speaks as loud as they can. In a joint family one does need to raise one's voice to a higher pitch in order to converse and be heard; high above the din and across many hurdles to reach the recipient's ear. Quite a feat this is; exhausting.
My mother is a gentle creature, except for her high strung soprano. I’m sitting and watching all those children play when all of a sudden Thumbi ran towards the bathing pond.
"Thumbi!" I jumped up, panicking. "Don't go there. Wait, you'll fall into the water, STOP", I shouted. My father came out hearing my screams.
"I've told you a hundred times to build a bamboo fence around that pond, haven't I?" I shouted at him. "Now do you see how dangerous it is?"
"Thumbi, Thumbiiii...," I called out to her.
"Grandma, wake up, GRANDMA!" Someone was shaking me and calling me from somewhere far. (Grandma? Me? I'm only thirty, I can't be grandma yet!)
"Grandma, look, nothing has happened to Thumbi aunty. Wake up; you're having a bad dream."
I opened my eyes and expected my little Thumbi, my mother, father, my pretty sister on the black parapet, the mango tree, to all vanish. But no, they were all still there; and Thumbi Aunty?! I do not see her. I only see my baby; my little Thumbi, and I see myself at thirty, not ninety.
The concerned voice
continued, "Look Grandma, It's all right, just a dream... here, feel Thumbi Auntie’s hands, see?"
No baby, I don't see! But when I do hear your far away call, I wade across to the shallow part of the river like a lost mermaid to see the real world outside. Like a fungus growth I linger there for a while and then withdraw into my world; my old world, inside. I cannot stay outside in the real world for long; I must not, because there, I'm blinded by cataract; my joints swollen with arthritis, legs weak and trembling; I can hardly stand. I see no one, I hear no one. Yes I do hear voices, but their language is as alien as mine is to them. They are young and know only to communicate with words. But words do not reach this island that I am now.
But now that I'm here in their world for a while, I do hear as I lie here, the rustle of leaves. It's a stiff, lengthy rustle- it has to be that of a coconut tree. A crow is up to something, sharpening its beak, preening its feathers or maybe cutting the leaves for its nest. There’s another bird somewhere with a rattle in its throat and a constant chirr. A carpenter is making a cot someplace far from here. The hooting of children, the watering of plants, a broom sweeping outside the window, all this keeps me company. A slip of light has just slid into my bed with me and shall slowly climb my left arm, spreading the warmth. I turn to hug her and she slips her warm hands across my bent back. We lie there quietly, until she decides to leave.
Two weeks after a bout of diarrhea my body is especially weak. It now belongs totally to them. My mind meanwhile is mine alone. And when the fever rose, I sped into a funnel cloud and from there, percolated deeper to reach a simpler and clearer calmness. My mind, like plaster, has been poured into several moulds over the years and now as I clear the frost from the panes of my eyes with my weathered hands and look; the mountain edges are no more jagged by the wind.
That's all gone, just gone! At times a tongue of glacier licks my body and my children rub the soles of my feet to melt the ice. It doesn't matter anymore; I wish they wouldn't trouble themselves. What is strange is that I have stopped hearing the slow rise of the volcanic mountain. It has risen to its full glory, and I have witnessed its several faults and serrations. But now all is quiet and I see a lush green valley, where he roams, flute in hand and cows and laughter trailing behind. Isn't that remarkable, he's been right here with me all along and it took me ninety years and a body desiccated by the onslaught of fever, to reach him?
There's a gentle music rocking the air and rising up towards me from the valley, bringing tears to my eyes. There he is, walking towards me, radiating beauty and love. It takes my breath away as I stand on my rickety legs and my wicked bones, looking at beauty in its purest form. The kindest healing melody I've ever heard washes over me, leaving me shivering and dumbfounded. He walks up to me, his hands extended, and I know for sure that he loves me, that I am his and it can be no other way.
Is this a dream? I feel his touch gentler than the last ray of light that climbed my arm, and I know it doesn't make sense to linger on here in this world on my wobbly legs. I follow him down that beautiful valley encased in gentle music. Oh! It’s so beautiful!
I blink to squeeze the tears out of my eyes and when I open them, I see in front of me, not him; but myself; playing the flute like it were a part of me. I look ravishing, so full of life and filled with love. I smile at the flowers, the bees, the trees, the animals. I am one with him; I am him.
"Thumbi look," said Sulekha, "She's holding my hands, I've never felt a gentler touch, it’s almost creepy. She's smiling; isn’t she beautiful! Like a baby’s smile. I told you didn't I, she's not senile. She understands after all." End