A Certain South Indian Childhood (Part I)

The poetry of a certain South Indian childhood means that you have bathed in at least three waterfalls and been blest by more than one elephant. You know with a knowing that predates language: the scents of jasmine, of camphor, coconut oil, and filter coffee. Know them the way you know the particular sound of your mother’s bangles. The way you know the sound of the latch on your front gate, and the sound of wet laundry slapping stone. You belonged to an off-key choir of schoolchildren who chanted morning lessons in unrecognizable English and ear-splitting unison. Your to-go meals were eaten aboard trains and came wrapped in banana leaf and newsprint, neatly secured with twine. All your uncles rode motorcycles.

You are an encyclopedia of wonderfully specific wisdom. You know what a hill station is, and are familiar with the many shades of cow dung. Also the urgency of pressure cooker whistles and the buoyant trill of bicycle bells. You know exactly how stubbornly red earth will cling to white canvas footwear. And how deliciously lime pickle will stain a snowy bed of curd rice in the bottom most compartment of a steel tiffin carrier. You spent a monkish amount of time sitting cross-legged on the floor.You memorized a poem about daffodils long before you ever saw one. You were raised by a village. Leaning out the window of a schoolbus you didn’t yet know was a luxury, you watched little girls march bravely to school. Small brown faces dusty with talcum powder. Beguiling bite-sized ghosts in their too-big pinafores and two tight braids doubled-up and tied with bright ribbon bows. In a lamplit shrine you waited for the shred of holy leaves the priest pressed into your palm that later tingled your tongue.You placed a coin in a withered, grateful palm on a busy street, and wished with sudden fierceness that you lived in a fairer world. You encountered an anonymous rickshaw driver or tea stall owner who did you a kind turn when you were most in need of one and then promptly disappeared.

Unsung talents dwell in you. Such as the ability to drink water from a tumbler without your lips ever touching the rim. You were raised in a home crowded with miscellaneous context. Bougainvillea. Black bobby pins. Bore wells. Beaded lunch baskets. Brooms that require you to bend while sweeping. Bandini dupattas. A scythe to split coconuts. Steel buckets. Storerooms. The spit and crackle of mustard seeds in hot oil. Power cuts. Petticoats. Gas cylinders. Guava trees. Geckos. Head baths. Handkerchiefs. Kerosene lamps. Kannmai. Kolam. Cotton wicks. Custard apples. Curry leaves. Ceiling fans. A cyclone of cousins. A fond flock of aunts. Tear-off calendars. Turmeric stains. Whitewashed walls. Red chillies dried on hopping hot terraces. Key bunches tucked into sari waists. Safety pins stored on mangalsutras, and sticker pottus  on mirrored surfaces. Stories of mango-stealing monkeys. Hibiscus bushes. Heirloom silk saris stacked in the mystical recesses of your grandmother’s olive green Godrej scented with a strange, heady mixture of sandalwood, incense and moth balls.

You traveled a fantastical landscape cluttered with color and chaos rendered familiar by dailyness. Loudspeakers. Lopsided buses. Buffalos. Bullock carts. Banyan trees. Boiled peanuts sold off carts in paper cones. Paddy fields. Dried river beds. Dragonflies. Temple bells. Bus conductors sporting pink nail-polish on a single untrimmed thumbnail used to tear off tickets. Bananas, green, yellow and red hanging in thick clusters like the fingers of a giant. Stray dogs. Colossal crows. Cricket matches.The peculiar and literal sales pitch of street hawkers whose hoarse, hypnotic chants floated above the din of narrow streets and into open windows. The crumbling and friendly (if somewhat Draculaesque) smiles of the city’s paan-chewers, Diamonds that flowered and flashed in an old woman’s nose ring. A vegetable vendor’s impossible earlobes freighted with dull chunks of gold and stretched like chappati dough down to her shoulders. Women jostling with curved rim water pots at taps that ran dry (their wells of rough-mannered affection did not).Weddings where hundreds came and nobody rsvpd. Where the serpentine notes of the Nadiswaram coiled through the air only to be overtaken by the adrenaline rush of the thavil in gettimellam mode. Where food was ladled out of large shiny pails by sturdy men and you were plied with freshly fried appalam the size of frisbees, mountains of steaming white rice, and shockingly orange jelabis sticky with sugar syrup.

One day you watched a man climb to the top of a coconut palm pulling himself up with his bare hands. On another, you touched a garland thick as a tree trunk woven from tuberoses and marigolds. You woke a baby fast asleep in a cradle fashioned from nothing more than an old cotton sari, soft with use and slung low from a ceiling hook. Once upon a time you were bitten by an army of tiny red ants.You wondered about the white stripe that dances the length of a squirrel’s back. You rode triples with your sister on your father’s trusty scooter. You opened a pale blue aerogramme. You chewed a neem leaf (the memory still has the power to pucker your face). You cracked open a tamarind pod and sucked the sweet and sour flesh off its hard black seeds. You were stalked on a hot summer night by an impressively single-minded cloud of mosquitoes. You caught sight of a spiky green chameleon in the garden. From a small roadside stall that sold soap and sugar, peppermints and pencil boxes, you purchased at the princely sum of fifty paise, for a geography class, the outline of a world map printed on grimy grey paper. Nameless continents and countries stitched together. One vast and various world of implacable mountains, whistling deserts, talkative oceans, and fertile jungles. Not unlike the nation of a certain South Indian childhood. Each day a planet and a profusion. Of unremarked yet not unremarkable experience.

***

The poetry of a certain South Indian childhood (Part II)

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