The skin submits with reluctant grace to the unbearable weight of cloth; summer has begun. It is an afternoon in April. I stand by a window in my room, the window that gives onto the garden and to the street beyond, and see Thayee framed by the dusty leaves of the mango tree.
She seems small due to the strange magic wrought by perspective on height and distance, smaller than she really is, seems the same size as this star-shaped bunch of leaves brushing the window. As the dark green bough sways, she is wholly visible, then covered over, then seen in part through the foliage, now the brown weatherbeaten limbs, now the grey matted hair, stiff about her shrivelled face.
So much is she a part of what presents itself to the eye—green thatched against the sky, rough bark and shadows fallen to dry ground—it does not seem odd that she should be there, living out the end of her life on that bit of sun-warmed earth, the tiny neem flowers falling like white raindrops on her. Often, when I pass her on the street, I notice two or three of those dainty flowers resting in her hair. They lend her an oddly youthful appearance, that of a wizened nymph perhaps. She gathers her hair into a rough knot, and fashions a turban out of rags, sprinkling water on the once white cloth before placing it on her head. Lately, she has settled herself near the gates of the house opposite. The widow who owns it goes abroad for long stretches of time and Thayee has free access to the grounds of that property. But then Thayee makes her way in and out of all our gardens, and, to this day, no one has been able to deter her.
Beside her, on the ground is a pile of dried coconut leaves. In two swift, practised movements, she tears the sword-like body of a long leaf and the spine emerges—clean, distinct, golden-brown. Calmly, she strips one, then another, a third, and in a while, the heap is reduced to a tangled mass of dead leaf. To the right, near her knees, the thin, flexible spines nestle together, waiting to be tied with a string and given a new collective identity.
The sea breeze has set in, running its fingers through the long hair of the coconut trees. A squirrel races down the tree on the left and up another, squeaking in its high-pitched, excited way and then suddenly stops, poised in delicate indecision on the sloping trunk. Thayee lies on her side in the healing shade of the neem and falls asleep. Above her, a multi-layered canopy of leaves sifts imperfectly the blaze of sunlight; her toes slip in and out of a waver of gold. I run my hand across the back of my neck and wipe it on my kurta.
A fierce longing surges within me; the recurring torment of desire. When will I dance again? When will I embark on that familiar journey on stage, exploring a universe of space to the measure of time? The energy that once impelled my dancing feet has been abruptly stilled… Panic seizes my heart: I must dance, I must, I must…
I enter the memory of a performance, feel the heat of the lights on my body draped in silk, the golden space that is my own, private, personal, yet shared with a large audience.
I tear my mind away from that whirling image of a bejewelled dancer, me, and return to Thayee.
I have begun to watch her these days, just as I have begun to stare out of my window at odd times of the day and the night, waiting for life to happen. Sometimes, she is not there and yet the signs, unmistakable as they are, speak of her occupation of that sandy strip of ground edging the tarred road: a faded blue bucket, an empty paint can in which she stores water, a bundle of unstitched greyish cloth, and a piece of cardboard, part of the larger packaging in which an air conditioner had arrived. I look through the gaps within the leaves, and for a moment, I think I see her—the rounded fold of a dusty garment, the slim, brown branch of the tree, her bare arm perhaps—but I am mistaken.
This awareness of her has come to me gradually, gaining depth in the recent past, although it has been quite some time, six years at least, since she moved her things out of our garden onto the street. Perhaps the time she hoarded garbage in our garden was when I first took notice of her, recognising in her an astonishing, obdurate strength that had managed, temporarily, to vanquish Amma, my mother.
On one side, the space between our house and the compound wall is just about the mandatory five feet. We rarely use that corridor of land, something that Thayee discovered fairly quickly. A wasted, secure space where she could store some of her things—to her mind, it was as simple as that. She opened the gate, dragged an enormous polythene bag across the lawn and installed it between the tap and the drumstick tree. There it was discovered by Amma on a Sunday when she was watering the garden. I don’t know what Amma said to her or even how she knew it was Thayee’s but to my surprise, Thayee was allowed to keep her possessions there on the condition that they were arranged neatly in a way that they were not visible from either the gate or the house.
Around this time a thief visited our house twice—on two successive nights. We then began the elaborate locking-up routine that we follow each night. We slept with the windows latched and the curtains resolutely drawn all through summer and we could never rid ourselves of the thought that in the darkness outside crouched a man, his eyes intent on us as we moved around, or ate or slept.
After a while, it became too much of an effort to open in the day time those windows that looked onto the bare, narrow corridor and to shut them at night; the view did not afford an equal pleasure. So, the windows remained closed, the curtains drawn, and spiders spun their fine webs in the curved spaces between the grills.
All this was to Thayee’s advantage. The passage was hers, the window ledge hers, Amma being the only intruder who ventured there every now and then to water the ashoka and the drumstick trees. Once, I lifted the curtain absentmindedly and found a host of ghostly shapes scrabbling against the glass panes, clamouring to be let in. Things continued this way and so they would have had Thayee had not become over-ambitious.
In June that year, Amma went to Bangalore for a month. I was given instructions, extremely complicated ones, about locks and keys and packets of milk and the storing of water, my father’s medicines and supervising the maid—most of which I neglected to follow until the day of her return.
‘All part of your training,’ she had said, a humorous gleam in her eyes, ‘next year, this time you will be running your own home. Imagine!’
Thayee had stored a good harvest in the unused passage, and when the heat became worse, she stopped her rounds.
One day, she decided to sort and grade her pickings. For this, she needed space. One after another, she lugged the plastic bags from safety into the open and spread their contents like a richly patterned carpet on the lawn.
There, seated on the dew-moistened grass, her short legs stretched out in front of her, she smoothened out crumpled newspapers, arranged empty beer bottles in intricate designs of brown and white, built a smelly translucent tower with empty milk sachets and culled bits and pieces of metal from a heap of indistinguishable objects.
I rather liked the sight of the glorious anarchy on the grass that Thayee had created with impunity, something that even I, Amma’s only child, would have hesitated to attempt.
Standing, unnoticed by her, to one side of the lawn, I watched her for a while. Then, when I informed her of Amma’s impending return, she lifted her head slowly, looked at me in her blank, unseeing way and said, ‘Aatom, aatom,’ dismissing the news and my unspoken order without a pause in her labour.
The next morning, I locked every cupboard I could think of, filled the tank until it began to overflow, rescued some plants that were dying on the balcony upstairs and hid them behind the well, threw away the mouldy vegetables in the fridge and managed to give back to the house some of its crisp, straight-edged order, but Thayee had not cleared up her formidable collection of paper and plastic.
Amma arrived just before noon.
She took a bath and wandered into the garden. Snapping a wayward branch here, a cheeky leaf there, she reached the lawn and then, she screamed. I ran towards her, giggling. She was kneeling near a cutting of jasmine, its drooping head cradled in her palm.
‘I don’t believe this. You see what I told you?
These people—give them an inch and they…my lawn, my lovely lawn. She’s trampled all over my plants, killed half of them. Enough is enough! She will have to remove this junk now. She can’t use our lawn as a shop, a junkyard. She may start living here, or move in permanently. Soon I’ll have to wait on her hand and foot. Who knows what next?’
Reality is just too drab for Amma; she must dress it in vivid colours. By evening, Thayee had repacked her wealth and dragged it, bag by bag, three houses away.
The windows were opened that day, the cobwebs smashed with a duster, the curtains changed and we realised that we had forgotten how airy and bright the room really was in the days before the arrival of the thief.
So much has come to pass since then. I made a name for myself as a dancer, got married, went away, had a baby, then returned home, and suddenly, without warning, time acquired a different dimension.
One day blurs into the next. A year has the semblance of eternity, an endless tunnel with no visible light.
The ‘I’ that speaks of Thayee now, is a different one. It sees a human being who simply tells the time of day by looking at the sun; it sees a life that leans against nothing for support and yet survives.
Sanju races into the room. Flinging his arms around me, he clambers up and settles himself on my hip. He pulls my head low and gives me a kiss. There is jam on my cheek and hair.
The ‘I’ that speaks of Thayee is a newborn, an unfamiliar creature—one-and-a-half people—a mother and a child, conjoined at the hip.
About the author
From the age of eight, Tulsi learnt the classical dance-form Bharatanatyam from her gurus, the Dhananjayans, and performed widely, at events such as the Festival of India, USSR, 1987, as part of their troupe. She has given many solo performances in India, and abroad.