I sprinkled a few drops of water on the flat round stone and worked the severed tree limb—smooth face downwards—in a sequence of relentless spirals. Despite protests from my aging joints, I sat cross-legged in the puja room. It was my last evening in the apartment. I collected the soft scented paste on a silver leaf and anointed the framed pictures of the smiling deities. When I touched the cool paste to my forehead and throat and joined my palms in prayer, the breath of an ancient sandalwood tree filled my lungs.
I leaned against the wall and heard a voice from my childhood—my grandmother’s: “Kamli, close your eyes and imagine a dense jungle. You know, just like the one behind this house, where birds of brilliant plumage paint the air in color and song. Beasts roam free and fearless. The mighty river braids and unbraids her watery tresses on the forest floor before plunging down a misty waterfall. Every now and then the rain will orchestrate a melody from the tree tops to the roots. Only in a home like this, your sandalwood tree will grow, tall and beautiful, filling her every pore with the scent of the jungle. Not in a little earthen pot in your city.”
She had placed the cool sandalwood block in my small hands. “Don’t worry. You’re only five years old. You can have this when you marry. But someday, far, far away in the distant future, all that will remain is the memory of a fragrance.”
As a child, every time I visited her I had worried that her using the sandalwood block twice every day in the puja room would reduce it to a thin sliver. I asked her if I could grow my own sandalwood tree in our balcony back home in Pune. And that was her reply. She wielded swords in words of spontaneous verse, though I was too young then to catch her veiled remonstrance against my father and uncles who had uprooted themselves from her home in Sampigegram to build lives in cities. I often imagined chopped limbs of giant sandalwood trees marching into homes across the country, being worked upon, and disappearing forever. It had made me anxious.
But what was a sixty-year old woman like me doing in the bylanes of her childhood? This traipsing back into the past wouldn’t do. I invoked the names of a few deities, held the wall for support, and shuffled to the bedroom. I looked around my room, relieved that my son, Jagdish would arrive the next morning to help me pack before the final move. What had he said? “We’ll pack only essentials. There really isn’t the space for everything here. Ma, you understand, don’t you?”
Did I? I wasn’t sure I knew what I needed anymore.
Jagdish worked as an investment banker in Perth and surprisingly had also gained fame as a poet in recent years. He dedicated his first book of poetry to me. I didn’t understand much of it, though. I suggested he dedicate his next book to my grandmother, the unsung poet and philosopher, whose genes I believe he definitely inherited. He now dedicates the books to his wife and children.
Two years ago my husband Hari was struck by a scooter while crossing the road to the milk booth. Internal head injuries beneath a calm countenance finally claimed him. And he was gone, just like that, smiling. We had just settled in our new flat in Bangalore that year after his retirement, confident we’d live together for at least the next twenty years.
I had lived in many cities across the country with Hari. But it didn’t take us long to realize that populous cities only crowded us into loneliness. Sampigegram beckoned like a green beacon. We decided to relocate there one day with a few like-minded relatives. The move never happened. The idea of rural bliss appealed to all of us, but nestled forever in the future like an unborn dream. A few village cousins who had always lived in the ancestral home at Sampigegram held fast to the weathered house and land like silver oaks in a coffee plantation.
Finally, it was the clerk in the government office who licked the stamps before he affixed them on the documents and pounded the final seal of ownership, who made it easy for them to leave. After a fair division of the compensation, they joined their children in various corners of the world. They now lived in unimaginably clean and convenient houses, perpetually lost in the well-ordered streets of foreign lands. Oh, the maps the hearts draw!
I walked slowly through the rooms of my apartment, trailed my fingers on the familiar objects, walls, and windows. I was unsure if I was leaving myself behind or gathering myself together. I aimlessly tidied the kitchen and went back into the bedroom, unable to decide what to pack.
For nights after Hari’s demise, I’d stayed up gathering bed fellows for my insomnia: the news channel in somebody’s apartment, strains of instrumental music from elsewhere, groans of shutters downed in the clubhouse, a key turned in a neighbor’s door, the watchman knocking the gate with his stick and the ubiquitous kitchen sounds.
I drew them towards me— the sounds of the night—safe in their familiar strangeness. I stretched on the bed in my darkened bedroom. A weak light that shone through the patterned window grill threw a quivering golden orb on the dark wall. The sounds of the night simmered to an almost velvety silence.
Like a mallet on a sheet of glass, a child’s uncontrolled cackle of laughter shattered the quiet. Whole-hearted mirth spouted in bursts. I heard a grown-up’s low voice admonish, “You’re laughing too much, you’ll surely cry yourself to sleep.” The night grew quiet again. Didn’t the child ever ask if the converse was also true?
When the child’s laughter resumed, I struggled to sit up. Was that Rahul? Had the family moved back? Gripped by a nameless dread, I detached my hearing-aid. I squeezed my eyes shut, the world slid further away. I had to learn to deal with this ridiculous insecurity that sneaked upon me at the slightest pretext. I paced the bedroom unable to relax.
But six months ago I really had been a different person. My body wearing out on the outside notwithstanding, my mind was calm. I had made peace with my loss and loneliness. I deftly fended off Jagdish’s repeated entreaties to move to Australia with him. How could I live in Australia with his Australian wife? Moreover, life had taken on festive proportions after I befriended my new, young neighbors. Two-year old Rahul came by often with his mother Alka. It wasn’t hard to see Jagdish in that child again. And it was flattering to have a young woman seek out my advice and company. I had no other close friends among the residents of our apartment complex.
One afternoon when the doorbell rang, a tired-looking Alka stood at the door with Rahul. “Aunty, can I leave Rahul with you for a couple of hours? My mother has a lump in her breast and is scheduled for tests today.” It was the first time that she had asked me for a favor.
“Of course, it’s no problem. Can you wait? I have a chapati on the tava.” I had hurried back to the kitchen, turned the stove off, and upset a tray of peanuts in the process. I bent to pick them up: a two-year old could easily choke on peanuts.
“Don’t worry, Alka. I’m sure the tests…” I called out as I returned to the living room. There was no one there.
Rahul wasn’t in any of the rooms and when I tried Alka’s doorbell, it went unanswered. I couldn’t have imagined it all. I called out for Rahul and then overcame hesitation to knock the doors of a few apartments along the corridor. Someone located the contact numbers of Alka and her husband from the housing society’s records. Both the phones were switched off. A few men checked the elevator and stairs. I grew uneasy. The security guard was summoned. He pleaded that he had gone out for a quick lunch and had just returned. He assured us he couldn’t have left his post for more than fifteen minutes and no, he hadn’t seen Alka and Rahul leave by the main gate. The housing secretary ordered a search that combed the vast campus through the five towers with eighty apartments each. He assured me that in all likelihood Alka had changed her mind and taken Rahul with her.
It was around 8 pm when my doorbell had rung again. I rushed to open the door. I was never so relieved to see anyone in my life.
“Alka, your phone was switched off. Where’s Rahul? He wasn’t in the hall when I returned…”
She had looked distracted. A couple of curious neighbors gathered at the door.
“Aunty, thanks. Hope Rahul didn’t trouble you. Is he asleep?” Alka moved towards the bedroom.
I had placed a hand on her shoulder. “There’s some mistake. Your son was never here. I tried calling—”
She whipped around and struck my left cheek. “Liar!”
The neighbors tried to calm a hysterical Alka. She pulled from their grasp and raced through all the rooms. She had pulled open cupboards, peeked under the furniture, searched the balcony, and even checked under the bathroom sink.
“What have you done to him? Where’s my baby?”
I was overcome by nausea. I held my face and sat down, bowed down by the weight of her implied accusations. Later that night two policemen had arrived with Alka’s husband. I was ordered to visit the police station the next day to record my statement. They warned me not to “escape.” One of the police constables had even lifted a dining chair from my kitchen and planted it outside the main door. They clearly weren’t taking any chances and had
greater faith in my agility than I did.
Jagdish was at first incredulous and then furious when I had called him. “Ma, I’ve told you a million times to move in with me. I can’t fly down right away, but I’ll ask my friend Nilesh to accompany you to the police station tomorrow. There’s been a goof-up somewhere. Don’t worry. Things will clear up soon.”
The next day I tried not to register the humiliating interrogation at the police station and instead focused on the pain in my left ear. On our way back from the police station Nilesh and I visited a doctor who recommended a small operation to repair the tear in my left ear drum. The one week I spent healing was hell. It was as if the doctor had sewn my ear drum with Alka’s shrieks trapped inside; they rang through my deaf ear all the time. I was advised to use a hearing aid. I was conscious that the neighbors looked at me with suspicion. Alka’s single swipe had knocked out more than my hearing.
Within a week, the hunt for Rahul had revealed the amorous affair of Alka’s husband and their maid. The maid had slipped in with drug-laced chocolate or chloroform just after Alka left Rahul at the door when I was in the kitchen. The maid carried the boy down the service lift to her home in the slum behind our building. As more worms and decay surfaced, I had deliberately avoided the updates.
My hearing aid remained a loud reminder of my eroded confidence. I had handed Jagdish the reins to my life; the parent and child reversed roles. His wife Shirley called to say she’d love to have me stay with them; eight-year old Anya and three-year old Om would benefit growing up with their grandmother. I had six months to complete the formalities for the sale of the apartment and join them.
A month after that dreadful incident, Jagdish had flown down with his family. We joined my numerous cousins with their families and assembled at Sampigegram. It was a kind of “last supper” before the Government officially occupied the land, not a celebration of my acquittal. A railway line would soon knife across the land where the house and paddy fields stood. Portions of the beautiful jungle would be cleared for a railway station.
We were all seated on the floor for the traditional meal served on plantain leaves. Om had not wanted to eat off the leaf. Jagdish put a mound of rice in the center of Om’s plate and poured the vegetable stew around it.
“Just pull little morsels of rice into the stew and gulp it down.” He had demonstrated once. “Think of it as the ‘stew sea’ eating the ‘rice island’.”
Anya made a well in the mound of rice and poured the stew in the center like she saw some older people do. “Look Papa, isn’t this is a great way to eat?”
“Yes, Anya. And either way, the island…rice island is gone…gone.” Jagdish had toyed with the food on his leaf. He spoke more to himself. “Rice is meant to be eaten, and a life is meant to be lived. Erosion is inevitable—from within or without. Nothing disappears. But exists somewhere in our Universe.”
I had heard the breeze in the trees outside—the language of a million protesting leaves.
“Soon this house, fields, and the jungle will disappear,” an emotional old uncle addressed Jagdish. “Where in your Universe can you find all of this together again?” He waved his trembling hand in a circle over his head.
“Memories belong to us and we belong to the Universe.” I had followed Jagdish’s gaze to the huge windows. I sensed the verdant jungle pressed in on us, eager to listen and learn of their fate. “We are the chopped limbs of Sampigegram. And it’s important for each limb to remember it once belonged to a tree,” Jagdish continued, his eyes moist. “Every time life works on us or against us, we have a choice of the fragrance we emit.”
“It’s okay for you to talk in convoluted verses, son. I grant you poetic license,” another elderly relative intervened. “And moreover, why should this affect you? You live in Australia.”
“There’s the choice, Uncle. We have the happy and sad past within us that cannot be erased…or changed. Every time we believe we’ve lost something we cherished, we ought to use that choice.” Jagdish had spoken gently, as if to a child. “Because sometimes all that will keep us breathing is the memory of a fragrance. And to do that, it doesn’t matter where anybody lives—India or Australia.”
Even as I heard him, something unraveled within me. I’ve heard it happen with non-functional huge machinery. Sometimes, all that it needs to resume work is a tiny jolt for some seemingly inconsequential part to fall into place. There I was between two generations, making sense of my grandmother’s words through my son’s explanation. Why had that wisdom just arced over fifty-five years of my life?
Jagdish had gone on to explain like to a class of kindergarteners how the thirty odd villages around the jungle would soon connect to the rest of the country; the trains would give thousands access to health and education. Of course, we knew all this and more. Jagdish ate in silence, while a few relatives continued to argue and fret over their loss. But, for the first time in two years, I felt hugely unshackled and light.
I stopped pacing. The night was young as I looked out of the window. I marveled how even the recollection of Jagdish’s words had soothed me. Who was afraid of a child’s laughter? I fixed my hearing aid again. Instead of wasting my last night in the apartment in the company of stale fears and tears, it was time for some celebration.
A strong urge to do a shadow play overcame me. Hari and I had resorted to forgotten childhood games on nights when the power cut plunged us in darkness.
I arranged the fingers of my wizened hands: the thumb, middle and ring fingers became doe-eyed deer; the fore finger and little finger became the upright antlers. I held my aged hands shakily against the window and two young deer pranced and sprang joyfully towards the quivering orb on the wall.
The orb now looked like a magnificent golden tree—my sandalwood tree.
Jyothi Vinod writes fiction and creative non-fiction. She taught undergraduate engineering courses for ten years before committing to her childhood dream of becoming a writer in 2013. Since then, her work has appeared in the Deccan Herald, Good Housekeeping India, Femina, Spark and Reading Hour to name a few. She won second place in the Katha competition administered by India Currents in 2015. n
Comments from the judges:
Prajwal: A beautifully written story about roots and family ties, also about old-age loneliness and helplessness.
Amulya: Cleverly using a hearing aid as a metaphor for living a full life, this short story is subtle and nuanced, Memory of a Fragrance is about the love we lose and the lives we almost squander.
About the judges:
Prajwal Parajuly is the son of an Indian father and a Nepalese mother. The Gurkha’s Daughter, his widely acclaimed debut collection of short stories, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Land Where I Flee, his first novel, was an Independent (London) book of the year and a Kansas City Star best book of 2015. He is the Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He has been homeless for three years now.
Amulya Malladi is the author of six novels, including The Sound of Language and The Mango Season. Her books have been translated into several languages, including Dutch, German, Spanish, Danish, Romanian, Serbian, and Tamil. She has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in journalism. When she’s not writing, she works as a marketing executive for a global medical device company. She lives in Copenhagen with her husband and two children. Connect with Amulya at www.amulyamalladi.com. Her latest book, A House for Happy Mothers, will be released in June 2016.
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