By Avrina Joslin
I remember very well how I grew up. There are some things one can't forget. Truth can be forgotten, not uncertainty. I remember the pond in Kanjikuli, around twenty kilometres from Nagercoil, where grandpa had lived. There was no tar road back then. It was just a small snake path leading to the pond from the bridge. The bridge was built years ago, Mother kept telling me. There was a deep gutter a few hundred yards in front of the house and the bridge connected the front yard to the pond. If you stood on the bridge and looked to the south or north, you'd see several other bridges. Most were firm wooden breaches tied together and a few dangled in the wind. Mother’s uncle always instructed me to take the bridge in front of our house.
The pond was extraterrestrial. I saw fishes I thought couldn’t exist elsewhere. I knew if I swam to the centre, there'd be more. In the mornings, we went to bathe in the pond. Mother came with me, knowing I didn't get along with the other children, but took a bath in the bathroom outside the house. There were boys who climbed coconut trees to jump into the pond. When I went there, for a week or so, this would be a daily ritual. Every time, Mother insisted I try to swim. The first day, I'd step in and walk to a safe spot where the boys wouldn't disturb me and drown myself for a while. I'd dunk in and out till Mother threw the soap at me. By the end of the holiday, I would have progressed forward to a not very shallow spot.
Soaping was a difficulty. I didn't see the boys soap themselves—even if they did, they didn't have to worry about it. For me, the difficulty was not the soaping or the removing of the petticoat. The boys always swam naked. But the girls couldn't. Even if they were five-year-olds like me. It wasn't right for us to expose our pre-pubescent forms to the pre-pubescent boys. In the distance, my brother Sylar'd look on, naked. The girls crowded in a corner and soaped themselves in unison facing inwards when they had to soap their fronts and facing outwards when they had to soap their behinds. When the soap was thrown, Mother would look at me slyly. I'd nod as if to disapprove her suggestion to join the other girls. "Go to them—it's a good excuse to talk!" she’d say, but I'd stand waiting for her to hold the towel so I could hide in front of it. Eventually she'd give in. This happened until the day I learned to swim. Maybe I was six then.
Mother didn't say a word about me going in deep. Sometimes, she'd have a book in her hand. Sometimes a cassette Walkman. Now she had to throw the soap farther to me. Mostly I'd lose it. Sometimes a boy would bring it to me. I wouldn't say more than "thank you." I did see many more fishes. Fishes till now I haven't seen elsewhere.
The day I realised I could swim wasn't the day I realised that I was the only girl who swam. Not that they didn't know how to swim. Perhaps it was juvenile empowerment or what Freud might call perversion and what I derive from him juvenile neurosis, but one day as I caught the soap and went to shallower waters, I removed the petticoat and threw it towards Mother. I'd like to think there were gasps behind me. Mother with her Walkman and newly acquired sunglasses peered at me above them and nodded. So for the next three years, whenever I went there, the boys would smirk and refer to me as the "butt-naked girl." Some would peer at me like they weren't peering. Some would yell and try to mark territory. But I didn't mind anything. Perhaps it was the swimming—the cold, green, assuring waters covered by a mess of water lillies and plates of lotus leaves. I began to find delight in those waters, swimming. I went in the evenings, too, sometimes. And the sun would beat down a crimson hue on the waters and I'd float there, two tiny nipples stuck to my chest and a slim waist bouncing up and down with the wind-woven waters. Or maybe it was Mother. Her reassuring glances from the bank. That space of the pond was where we first truly met perhaps.
When I refused to come out of the pond even after dark, she’d come in. She’d carry her saree and tuck it inside her skirt and look like a man with a folded mundu. Sylar hated the dark and stayed indoors. When someone bought a TV, he resorted to staying at their house till they forcibly sent him back home for dinner. Mother promised to buy us a TV back home. But we had to wait for it. So Mother would rush into the water like that and walk in as far as she could. She’d look unsteady and by then I knew the slippery rocks that she stood on. I’d ask her to stop and I’d swim in a fit to her. Not wanting to go back into the house wet, I’d go for a walk with Mother. I’d shake my wet hair and tell her that I’d counted so many fishes. She’d tell me about how when she was young, the people in the house didn’t have any money for food. So they’d all get into the ditch, pull out their mundhis and catch little fish with it. If her aunt didn’t cook it by the time her uncle came, the aunt was good as dead. All of them would work hard—they’d steal eggs from neighbours’ houses and pluck out spinach from the landlord’s farm. But no one asked why they didn’t have food, why they didn’t have money. Because you know, Mother would say, we’d all be as good as dead if we asked uncle. I’d ask if grandpa was like that too. Grandpa was a military man, she’d laugh under her breath. But he wasn’t—he was a teacher. He lived in the hill station far away and taught the children of estate workers. Even if he had no money, there was always food. Grandpa was always giving away food. But before food, there should be an hour of prayer. Grandpa always said the longest of prayers, like he prayed for the entire world.
Before we could eat, Mother made us thank God for it, ask Him to bless the hands of those who made the food and then wish that everyone else ate well. I did it meticulously. Mother would tell me stories about English missionaries who came to India and walked around with a Bible and a hat. Grandpa would give them food whenever they came to where he was living. Since there were no buses, they’d walk everywhere. Once for an aunt’s wedding, they had to walk from one village to the next because there was no church there. She’d tell me about how all her sisters and brothers were married, how they all had babies and went on to bring them up in different houses. She’d keep reminding me about how excited I was to see Sylar as a baby. I’d run up and down beside him, kiss him and call him ‘rose boy’ because he was pink. When there was a scare of a scorpion and a snake, I had run in to make sure he was alright. I’d carry him with difficulty and lodge him on my hip and he’d stop crying. Mother said she loved seeing us together like that. We never spoke about father.
Sometimes we’d meet Sylar on the way. He’d ask us to walk back home because he was hungry. But Mother’s saree would still be wet and we all knew she’d be as good as dead if we went back like that. So the trio, now complete, would walk farther. Mother would sing songs or let us listen to the cassette player. Whenever All India Radio came on, we’d remember that an aunt of ours worked there. People we knew who owned cows would bring them out of the pond after the evening wash. Little boys would run around them sometimes calling out to Sylar. They made it sound like Sailor when they called to him. Because the sky was vast and we always saw all of it, we felt hopeful, we knew that the TV would come, we knew that the winds would blow us dry and that we wouldn’t be as good as dead.
There were a few hens, goats, a cat and a dog in the house. Both Sylar and I preferred not to touch them. And they were too occupied with each other to even look at us. After the walk, sometimes, there’d be no food for us. Latecomers never had food—unless Mother’s uncle decided to eat less. Because mother called him uncle, Syler and I called him uncle, too. Some children called him grandpa whereas the others called to him in Tamil, thatha. This confused him and even when mother tried to explain it to him he waved her away. So Mother would go into the kitchen and make us eggs. It was too late for rice, the uncle would shout from within, and that we would make noise, he had to sleep. So we’d each eat three eggs because they were plenty and go to sleep in the hall. Mother would tell us she liked sleeping on the floor and we’d sleep on auntie’s cot. The other children would sleep on the floor, too. The uncle slept outside the house on a cot with a bulb burning above his head and a stick beneath his cot.
Mother always called it the getaway. At first I didn’t understand, but later realised that when we went there, Mother was like a child. We were three children, running around hand in hand, walking with our hair flying in the wind and talking about everything. We’d laugh and hit each other and pull each other’s cheeks, blow air into each other’s ears. Because we saw the entirety of the sky, we spoke louder and clearer. Mother sometimes carried us both on her hips and walked with each on a side. We’d kiss her together then, on her cheek, and she’d say she felt like an ice cream man. When we came back home from Kanjikuli, we’d all become quieter.
Sylar spoke English with a thick Tamil accent, with a little bit of a Malayalam flowing in it. "Vaaat? Are you seeeriousss?" he’d exclaim whenever he heard something out of the way. A coconut fell on Menon uncle’s head. "Vaaat? Are you seeeerioussss?" Mother tried to correct him but when it became too difficult, she just let him be. She never taught me but brought home many books from the library. I’d draw small cross marks in those that I had read and asked her to bring new ones. Even if I didn’t understand the words, I’d patiently read all the pages. Sylar didn’t read books and laughed at me when I did. Every evening after school, we’d walk to Mother’s college and wait there for a while. Her shift would get over at six and she’d take us back home. Because we were lazy and tired, she’d carry our lunch baskets and sometimes Sylar would carry my bag. We’d go home and Mother would make us all tea and set out saucers of some things to eat. We’d dip everything into the tea and make it a pulpy mess. She’d make tea again.
When Sylar became five or so, the TV came. But we grew to not watch it much. Mother kept telling us that we ought to tell her everything and we could ask her anything. When aunty and uncle at Kanjikuli died, we went there to look at them. I was still scared of uncle. Then Mother told me he was my small grandpa and uncle only to her. I mentally thought that grandpa was as good as dead. Sylar laughed when I told him that. We stopped going there later, and I missed the swimming. By then, Sylar had taught me to climb trees and jump into the pond from them. Whenever we did it, Mother was scared to death, but laughed it off and kept telling us not to do it again. We never did it again after grandpa’s death.
When I went back to Kanjikuli almost twenty years later, I saw that the pond was still full with water to its brim. I breathed a sigh of relief as I went down to sit there. Except for a few cows, no one was in it. But the sky was there, in its entirety, like always, and I couldn’t stop staring. Even when it became too dark to see, I sat there like life had frozen. I cried quietly as the cows walked out. Nobody in the old house knew me. But I told them. Then a man remembered. He opened his mouth and shut it in hesitation. I caught his eye and smiled. Sylar shouldn’t have died so young they said and gave me food.
There are these objects, these places and signs we keep seeing, we keep going back to, but without the people in them, they aren’t the same. They begin to fade away like the people, and the next time you go there, you won’t know them. But they will have left behind a pinch in your life that keeps telling you—no—that day, there was a different sky. It was open and wide and we sat looking at it. Three pairs of dangling legs that never will see the sky in its entirety again. I thought of Sylar and Mother like I thought about that sky—they ought not to die, never die, till I died. But they’ve all died, what remains is time and speculations. Blood and memories.
Avrina Joslin is pursuing her MA in Writing at the University of Warwick. Her teen fiction, The Apple Elusionist was published by Mumbai-based Leadstart Publishers. She is currently on an Erasmus Exchange to IULM Milan where she is being mentored by author Tim Parks. She travel blogs at taleoftrot.blogspot.com.