Where I’m from, it bodes ill to announce that you’re going somewhere. It’s a nuance of the language I was born into, where the word ‘go’ is swept under, reserved for foes and fiends while ‘return’ is extolled as a treasure. In these parts, you can’t just go anywhere without meaning to return. There is a blunt finality to the statement that makes people bristle with unease. To call it mere language or a turn of phrase would be oversight. Because in the end, words are all we’ve got. So, we stay true to them and when stepping out, leaving the threshold of our homes, we trick the wraith of mortality waiting at the gates by adding in a promise to return. Like a clause to a binding contract; fie on any creature who dares deter our way home.
That’s how we make it back. Slowly. Perilously. In circles and ellipses; through crooked intersecting paths, and jagged lines of faith, we make our way home. Hoping to trick the monster at bay and survive one more day.
I’ve returned as well. Not to flee my monster but to confront it. This creature which prefers the inside of a house to its outside.
The house is old and complete with trappings like a jar of gnarled grapefruits pickled in honey. Sweet in parts, sour in others, a prism maze made of oily refractions. Smaran lingers here in this old home, gnawing on names and the stories that go with them. She is as I left her, which is more than I can say about myself. Her long dark hair coiled around her in swathes, she’s sitting in the spare room, suckling on a thumb, one ear pressed to the wall as if hungry for company. She hears my step, just the one step stained with trepidation, and she knows.
“You are here,” she speaks into the silence. “Or perhaps you’re not. Are you scrambling?”
I do not know why I’ve always feared this creature. Is it the hair? The room? Or her infantile manners. Is it my primeval fear of things beyond my perception? Or my perception itself.
She studies me with intent, like a Sphinx holding me to ransom with her riddles.
“How many times have I come through here?” I ask her.
Her smile is enduring.
“You never left,” she confides.
Smaran doesn’t mind my recursions, rather delights in them. She holds out a fist of sallow skin, urging me to guess the thing trapped inside.
Do I dare?
Before there was language, before there were words, before ma, amma, maa, mum, mom, before the convolutions and subtractions, before all of us, there is my grandmother. Amme. Uhm-meh. Colloquial. Ancient. Remember the word. Hold it in your palm, keep it safe. Words are slippery, you should know.
The day starts with a dot for my grandmother. A dab of the finger pad on kumkum, lifting the red waxed powder to the space between the eyebrows where the prophesied third eye throbs. Her rituals begin here in this sacred spot between the brows. The slightest touch to feel nerves quiver beneath skin. The barest rub to connect her to the manifest powers of the spirit and the mind. Or perhaps, she simply likes that little dot of vermillion.
I think of school and how a history teacher wrapped deep in her own personal history will let her eyes rove around my eighth-standard classroom and seek favorites by the aid of that dot, by accompanying lines of ash (if any) and the color of our skins. Her eyes skim our faces, our foreheads, seeing, unseeing, judging and failing. Her lips curl in disappointment. She can’t see beyond surface and substances, can’t even spot the human beyond geometry. Had the teacher taken a chance and probed just a little deeper to flesh and bone, would she have been baffled at her find?
I’m at once there and not there in that stuffy old classroom. I’m at once beside Amme and not there beside her as she holds up a mirror to study her reflection.
What do you see, red moon?
Do you see?
Amme, my grandmother, a pious woman, is named after the Hindu goddess of abundance, of grain and plenty. Annalakshmi. Names are unwieldy creatures, a gift and a burden on the wearer, and hers is no different. Much like bangles and my grandmother’s eternal struggle to wear them over knuckles that are bonier and wider than the rest of her arm. Amme will always have trouble keeping things that are her own.
She doesn’t know of this prophecy.
Nor do we, in fact.
In a way, we’re all made of sharp angles and riffs. Candlesticks walking the streets, lives flickering to gusts and gales that chart our stars. We rarely stop to notice them, the lines in chalk crisscrossing. Look close enough and there are helices in the plaits of school girls, periodic tables in the hopscotch games of children. But the greatest patterns I’ve discovered are the tessellations in my grandmother’s kolams. Amme uses up years to master them. She wakes in the early hours, sweeps the porch clear of dust and debris, and finally splashes the area clean with a pail of water. Her canvas thus set, she stoops, her gaunt hand reaching for the bowl of rice flour, measuring out a handful. She begins to draw. Each shape undulating, each unravelling a passage to memories.
I sit at the edge of every piece, every morning, mesmerized.
The thing about kolams. They always begin with a matrix of dots. Five by five. Eight by eight. Ten by ten. My grandmother, a mathematical spirit, will reach for the bowl of flour again and with a flick of her wrist, send out a flurry of lines to join them. She forms curves, loops, and on festive days, fills the spaces with colors. There is an arcane mystery to the artform. Because at the beginning of each drawing, you’d never know how she was going to finish it.
What can you do with a dot and a line?
Believe me, a lot.
I’m a child of eleven years when Amme comes to live with us in the far north of the country. She is a short petite woman with greying hair, a round face, and a penchant for talking to gardeners who don’t necessarily speak the same tongue as her. The brain’s ability to form connections is manifest in our use of language to represent complex thought and action. But language, complex or otherwise, is by no means a barrier for Amme and doesn’t daunt her. She tries to get her thoughts across, tries to make our gardener, the man in dhoti understand that she’d like the roses watered, grasses cut, and the bonsai pruned. She has so much to say and in the lacuna of words, she points, gestures, and finally turns dismayed when our gardener returns a blank look.
All while I’m laughing on the sidelines.
Amme has been living with us for a month now, and I keep away at first because I’m timid, and she is lodged in a room that I’d long known to be haunted by Smaran, the long-haired monster with a taste for brains. Smaran is my bogeyman, the scarecrow to my crow. I’ve found her in the room often, lurking among shadows, eyes wild, teeth carnivorous, and the few times I’m sent in by dad to fetch a plier or a screwdriver, I rush in, grab dad’s tool box and scram.
I survive my trials, but I worry about Amme and the nefarious creature she’s boarding with. No one deserves to have their brains eaten, I reason.
Guilt niggles at a young heart and so I decide to brave my fears. I venture into Amme’s room one day and take up a spot on her bed. Smaran isn’t here today, and I figure she can’t hurt us in broad daylight. I bring with me some stationery, the day’s daily, and a notebook, hoping to make our time productive and teach my grandmother English. Start with the letters: A, B, C’s … Then go up to words. Apples and Bananas. Maps and Noodles. Amme looks on in amusement when I bring a dictionary next. She humors my lessons, if only to engage a reticent grandchild she’s never been able to connect with. What begins as hobby turns into serious lessons on mastering the alphabet. Under the discerning eye of her young tutor, namely me, Amme makes strides, follows letters with words, and levels up to reading sentences, but progress never lasts. Come Monday, we are back to square one—alphabets again.
It’s as if Smaran has eaten her fill overnight. My suspicions don’t ease when I see the creature sitting on the floor, licking her fingers.
While I blame the monster, Amme calls it a lapse of age.
“Paati is getting old, little one,” she tells me with an abject smile.
It’s true she is like a zillion years old.
But I like teaching her. It gives me a purpose, the way Smaran’s drive in life is to feast on brains and how Amme’s motif in life was to feed her six children and raise them to adulthood. You gotta do what you gotta do. Her eldest son would pass away; others would grow estranged or grow offshoots. Daughters would leave the nest and try not to look back. But Amme would keep cooking, stirring a ladle in her big ol’ pot while keeping an eye on the sitcoms on TV.
Do you know the story of the Thanjavur bommai? Craftsmen of the temple town of Thanjavur make these dolls from pulp. They start with a mix of copper sulphate and tapioca powder, heat the mixture in a cauldron, and then apply the blend into molds. Shaped, propped from their casts and left to dry, these headless figurines soon line roofs and parapets like miniature penitents giving their obeisance to the sun. Deft hands pick them up and paint them in bright shades, breathing stories into torsos with every stroke of the paintbrush.
The bobblehead doll of Thanjavur doesn’t come fully alive until Amme gives it a prime seat on her shelf. It’s the auspice of Navaratri when gollu decks are arranged like stairs and draped in white silk. There is Amme’s Thanjavur bommai standing on the top shelf, sharing the spotlight with a brass lamp. Its head bobs on a wired neck, body bobs on a wired waist. It won’t dance until you disturb its center of gravity. Amme won’t fall until the neighbor’s dog disturbs her center of gravity.
The thing that separates real and the unreal is our notion of Chekov’s gun. A dog in fiction has a purpose, a will, an agency, and is certainly a precursor for events to come. A dog simply cannot exist in a story. It carries meaning, carries a part to play. But in the chaotic world of the real, a dog is just a dog. It can simply exist, hardly the kind of dog to bring down an old woman. But our neighbor’s hound, a German Shepherd bulky with good intentions, does just that.
The dog pounces and Amme falls. An accident that results in broken bones, excruciating pain, and emergency surgery to fuse compound fractures with plate. “She’ll be as good as new,” the surgeon tries to convince us in a somber tone. He’s right. A day will come when Amme ceases to remember that she ever broke her bones. She’ll be as good as new. Just as he promised.
We never notice the guns on the wall, or the monsters in the room. When we encounter them the first time, we flit right by, walking over them as if they were kolams drawn on the ground. It’s easy not to notice the patterns. Almost as if we don’t want to.
Amme is returning from her visit to the temple where she’d made her nine rounds around the nine planetary gods and offered her prayers at each turn. She walks back home chipper, content, and clutches a wire bag in her hand with a roll of jasmine and paper wrapped kumkum tucked inside. She wears a gold chain around her neck and gold, like all things that glitter, catches the eyes of foxes. Foxes in lambskin. The young gentlemen crowd around her, befriend her with their smiles and warn my granny of thieves lurking in the neighborhood.
“You have to be careful around here, paati,” they tell her, gesturing to the chain she wears around her neck.
“Haven’t you heard the saying?” says one. “Keep your gold hidden when you’re old.”
“Away from greedy eyes, let it mold.”
Their rhymes are persuasive. Amme listens where she ought not to, takes off her gold, puts it in a purse and tucks away her treasure into a corner of her wire bag. She thanks them for their advice and her trust in them is so complete, she allows the foxes to accompany her into a subway tunnel.
It’s like a magician’s act. The final sleight of hand.
She arrives home sans one gold chain. But she returns. And in these parts, returning is all that matters.
The foxes sell their spoils to a pawn shop and drink themselves merry the same night. Unaware that they are just dots in the tessellations of a greater hand. They too will unravel one day. Fur and teeth.
This is not a prophecy.
Our garden has a concrete perimeter rail. I’m walking tightrope over this bridge as Amme waters the roses. We are at an impasse, having had an argument days before that resulted in me seizing her notebook. I’d taken it away in spite, deeming her unworthy of my lessons. Her, the woman who’d breathed more years than I, who’d witnessed the country’s independence and whose hands were more mathematics than mine.
I’ve rendered her without words and letters, and yet, she suffers my tempers with grace.
“You’re being nice today, little one,” Amme remarks wistfully.
I pause my tightrope walk and glance at her, watching her guardedly.
She smiles as she tries to negotiate the terms of our truce. Her request is a small one.
“If you aren’t angry anymore, will you return paati’s notebook?”
I could have said a thousand different words in that moment. Yet I choose the one that will haunt me and make Smaran smile behind my shoulder.
I’m at once there and not there.
I’m walking down the aisle at a cousin’s wedding and spot the back of her grey head. I circle around the rows of seats, making a beeline for that one familiar figure in the horizon. The years haven’t made me wise, but they’ve made me kinder. When I touch her sleeve, she turns and looks at me, her stare blank, uncertain as if sorting through the images and memories in her grey cells. I announce my name, knowing she will have difficulty finding it. There’s a spark of neurons. A rogue connection. A flick of a wrist and a looping of a renegade dot. She finds me at last, and her face splits into a toothy smile.
She grabs my hand and presses a kiss to my knuckles.
I wonder why she does such a thing. I was never her favorite, after all. Not with my many tempers.
Her hands are bony around mine, skin sunken into the geometry of her cartilage. She’s barefoot, and I remember the times when she laid out a grass mat on the floor and slicked her legs with oil, pressing the aches out of her limbs before lying down to sleep.
She introduces me to the strangers around her, calling me pethi, the word for granddaughter.
“How are you, little one?” she asks with affection.
“Good,” I reply. “I’m good, Amme.”
Though I’m scrambling.
It’s the nineteen fifties. Smaran lurks here, sated from feeding on the cobwebs of the room. Amme is the bride to a husband who will one day attain his doctorate in economics while she’ll still have eighth standard to her name. For now, granddad is in his graduate year and doesn’t know the feats waiting for him in life. When he comes home from college, he recounts to his young bride how his underclassmen love to pluck the buds of jasmine from the hairs of their female peers.
Amme listens, riveted, and laughs at the stories he brings her.
For all his brilliance, his immense library of books, his titles, my grandfather doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see the monster lurking in the room. Nor does he see the line he’s drawn between himself and his wife, and how much she yearns to erase it. How she wants to look at his books, his letters and those cryptic words, and see the same things he did.
Memories and flowers unravel easy enough.
But grief doesn’t.
I should know.
They say old age is a return to childhood when you stumble over steps, stumble over words, when your teeth give away, and you feel the pines and cones in your eyes. But the two are never the same. Childhood is a passage to perfection, senescence a regression to an end. There is no return.
A person with a failed heart on the long list for a transplant is still a person. A person who has lost their mind is Ophelia dead in the river bed, death by grief. There is no return.
After years of service, Amme is taken back to the village of her forefathers. She’s eighty-six. Her memories are unravelling and slipping through her fingers. Like sand. Like rice flour. Doctors have their spool of names to give. Some say she’s ailing with dementia. Others whisper of Alzheimer. I disagree, and go back to the house for answers, to the room of names where Smaran sits, her long dark hair coiled around her in swathes.
“How many times have I come through here?” I ask her.
Her smile is enduring.
“You never left,” she confides.
Sometimes, there is no wraith of mortality waiting at the gates. Sometimes, monsters exist, just so we have someone to blame.