The poetry of a certain South Indian childhood entails a thrice shaven head plastered with sandalwood paste and an early introduction to the moon as your maternal uncle. Also a black dot daubed on forehead or cheek, sizeable enough to divert all eyes that chanced upon you (Evil ones included). You were sun-ripened, hardy, dauntless. Capable of sleeping soundly on a dyed and woven straw mat on the floor, sitting sidesaddle on a metal bicycle carrier, and stripping the purple bark off a woody stalk of sugarcane with your teeth. You were unfazed when a corpse-bearing stretcher lurched down your street accompanied by loud drums, dancing and trampled rose petals. But a cloud of live chickens tied upside down by their feet on the back of someone’s scooter knotted your throat. As did pairs of white oxen with black-rimmed eyes pulling too-heavy carts with such patient faces.
Mornings were domestic cacophony. The brisk splattering of water on ground outside your gate, sharp whisk of coconut stick broom, vessels clanging in the sink. A radio chanting, then milkman’s cry, the koel’s piercing call, a clamorous pressure cooker competing with the grinder’s dull roar. Drifting through it all the transcendent aroma of filter coffee. Afternoons were indistinct. A succession of hazy losing battles with sleep under the circling trance of ceiling fans. Evenings were jasmine-scented, lamp-lit, inexplicably wistful. Temple bells at dusk blending with the lusty honking of horns. Cricket song, the muffled laughter of children, then the muezzin’s call crackling mournfully over an ancient sound system. Nights were deep, moss-covered wells of forgetting punctuated by the low rumble of lorries. From the gecko on the wall, a cryptic clucking.
Your days were owner occupied, industrious. Each morning you placed a tidy vermillion dot between your brows that streaked like a small comet by nightfall. You played tennikoit, one-legged tag and under duress the veena. You tested the waterproofing of lily pads, observed the unpredictable flight patterns of winged cockroaches, stockpiled cowrie shells and petitioned scorching skies for rain. You picked tiny guava seeds out of your teeth, acquired a taste for gooseberries, dissected a shoeflower and fell asleep on your grandmother’s swing. You wrote exams with a wayward fountain pen on ruled foolscap and memorized antiquated couplets by a poet-sage (His verses still return like migratory birds to surprise and comfort you). At the wedding of your youngest aunt you were enlisted to sprinkle rose water from a swan-necked bottle on arriving guests. The delicate nethichuttii that cascaded down the bride’s parting was graceful as a falling star. Its perfect beauty taught your heart to ache.
Fate you were told, was easily tempted and writ on foreheads. Goodbyes were implicit promises, never simply, “I’m going” always “I will go-and-come”. Your gods had endearing flaws, favorite foods and approved of full-moon fasts. Your minor sins were repented for by a series of squats performed with crossed arms and pinched earlobes. Step on a book and to this day you will lean down blink-swift to brush it with your fingertips, dab each side of your jawline. You remember temple walls painted in broad red and white stripes. Carved pillars, poised gopurams, lotus ponds, smoky lamps, sleek idols, the reek of bats, feel of cool stone under bare feet. Bearded sadhus smeared with ash, broken coconuts, the clink of coins on metal plate, a brief brass crown, holy water spooned into cupped palms. The eloquence of silver anklets. And in jostling bazaars a glittering array of glass bangles that regularly robbed you of breath.
So much more than you realize was learned ‘by heart’. The raised contours of the custard apple, the connotation of toe-rings, the whorled conch shell’s stirring call. Not to mention the clacking of tailor’s treadle, the rattle of pleated shutters, the exact location of the dhobi’s cart at noon, the feel of saris stiff with starch, the smell of hot black tar. Also the curious shape of buffalo horns and goat droppings, the tall-spined elegance of peacock feathers and please don’t forget the unequalled fragrance of wet earth after rain.
Encased in your mortal being, all these and other golden pods of memory, multitudinous like jackfruit. And like jackfruit, sweet and strange.
The poetry of a certain South Indian childhood (Part I)