It was a quiet afternoon, typical of North-Indian and Pakistani summer at peak, when people lived behind closed doors lest their children run out to play and fall prey to the evil howling winds that come travelling all the way from the deserts of southern Balochistan, Cholistan, and Rajasthan.
And it wasn’t more than mere eight years since economic liberalisation was initiated in 1991. So the Indian middle class at large had not grown accustomed to the air-conditioners, and not everyone had evaporative coolers either. Since those are also called swamp coolers, but the malarial-swamp that the North-Bihar already was, I guess people didn’t want more swamps to breed mosquitoes in! So they settled for fans instead. Needles to mention, these afternoons were laid-back. There were Usha-Lexus fans hovering over most heads, beside the halo of mosquitoes that would grace them in evenings spent outdoors. And these fans relentlessly moved the air in the room, sometimes even creaking as if humming a lullaby, putting people to sleep. And having spent most of the morning, rather first half of the day doing household chores, the women really treasured their siestas; so much so that they would even coax their young children into sleeping, keeping an arm around them, making sure they are in her clutches, else she might need to look after them. Restless with energy, the clever kids would close their eyes in no time, and would quietly sneak away whilst the mother they lay fast asleep.
(Excuse the repeated mention of mosquitoes. One hates them but one just cannot ignore them. Especially when it was around the same time that an uncredited piece of poetry called ‘Machhar Chalisa’ – a forty line ode to the mosquitoes, found a place in the vernacular newspapers, no kidding!)
But this little girl, obediently lay on her back staring at the fan as it moved with a stirring sound, wondering if she had those blades affixed her back would she be able soar in the sky, much like the choppers she would see often. And then the poster of some exotic place, on the wall across caught her fancy. Gazing at the waterfall in some forest, she fantasised going down that path every day to fetch water from her little cottage near the woods; typical of the fairy tales she had heard, since she hadn’t yet begun reading more than probably three letter words.
Next to her lay, the grandaunt who had given shelter to the girl and her working mother, until they found a place to rent in the new town. The grandaunt was really kind, and pampered the girl much with her delicacies, some even unheard of. Yet, while the old woman snored to sleep, the girl couldn’t help but think of Kumbhakarna, a character from the epic Ramayana, infamous for his sleep that would apparently last months at end. The snoring was disturbed by a housefly that came and sat on the old woman’s upper-lip, and her own hand that swatted her nose instead of the fly that flew away just in time. She gasped and her eyes closed in no time, funnily though, her lips parted, her mouth remaining open! The girl giggled to herself, and tried to reach for old woman’s mouth, wanting to close it, but desisted. The fan hovering above slowed down, eventually stopping. Overwhelmed with heat, the girl got up, wondering when her mother would come from work, and if she would get something for her. She was eagerly waiting for the new issue of Champak, of which she would first open the center-spread that always featured the comic strip of Cheeku the rabbit and Meeku the mouse. Though she could not read at length, but the brevity of the speech bubbles eased the experience, nevertheless she could make sense of the story from the pictures alone.
She went to fetch a steel tumbler from the shelf in the kitchen so she could pour herself some water. And with the tumbler came toppling down more vessels, make a series of clanking sounds. The grandaunt now wide awake with the abrupt commotion, rushed into the kitchen and with a gasp of breath pointed the girl towards the water filter, and herself began to put the articles back in place. The old woman then lifted the surahi, (a variant of Indian earthen pots with a slim neck, and a narrow mouth for a directed flow of water) off its stand poured some cold water into a big wide-mouth vessel. Then using what she could ghatna, a wooden hand-held blender she mixed the previously boiled raw mango pulp, with water, sugar, salt and other condiments to make what is called Aam Panna. It is like an elixir against heatstroke. She held out a glass of the refreshing drink to the little girl whose lips smacked before they even touched the rim of the glass! As she gulped down the drink, a knock was heard from the side doorway. The girl galloped her way to the door like deer, because she knew it would be her mother, and so, she was. And with mother was an Amla sapling. The little girl wasted no time in claiming it her own. And that evening, the mother and daughter planted it in a terracotta pot; reminiscing the times when the little girl was even younger, and the mother taught her to love nature, and care for her plant-lings which she would grow in old tea cups – and the tray filled with them would make her garden, and a small teaspoon would double up as a little khurpi, an Indian tool, much like a garden-trowel.
A few months from then, they moved into a separate house. And when they did, the girl was taken off her feet because there was so much space, she could run and gallop without having to stop. Within a few days an oft visiting boy, dug up the soil, and they transplanted the frail Amla plant into the Earth, in the vicinity of multiple Croton shrubs (Rushfoil). And since it was leaning, they supported it with a twig affix next to it. Soon, there were more plants growing around Amla – Damask Roses, Marigold, Gladioli (Sword Lily), and Sadabahar literally meaning always in bloom which you might know as Periwinkle. Also joined the party what looked like a fountain of Lemon Grass, which totally stole the show.
It had hardly even been a year that the girl was going to school again, resuming learning to read and write, after what had been a gap of some months. Nonetheless, she had learnt to make tea. And she took a special delight in picking some blades from her garden to prepare lemon grass tea. And having found ample space for the roots to spread, the Amla was shooting up well. And with the Amla tree was growing the little girl, amidst the vast natural expanse the premise of this house offered, and to the girl it seemed even bigger – relativity of conception. And this initial phase of growing up gave her much taste of living in a semi-urban town, in harmony with nature.
And as that year went by, complying with what fate had in store for them, or what government job subjected a new recruit to, they had to move to a different town. And so they did, the mother and the daughter embarked on a journey to making a place feel like home, time and again.
Until, a decade later when they moved back to that beloved house that had the Amla tree – now sturdy, standing tall over a story or two. Once it needed support from a twig, and now it has a dense Money Plant vining over it, it is home to birds, and a playground to squirrels. It is now looking over them – the mother and her little girl, laden with strings of Amla fruits – the Indian Gooseberries, showering them with love and joy. And laughter sometimes too, when it drops the Gooseberry right onto their head!
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