Sitting on the verandah of my house in Kerala, swatting mosquitoes that hover around your head making a halo you otherwise will never have, flipping through glossy Malayalam magazines... A warm languorous evening drenched in the smell from a miscellany of trees and plants…
When the gate creaked open, the dog and I looked up. 50ish from what I could see. A trifle hesitant, a trifle unsure they walked the long stretch from the gate to the house.
I'd never seen them before. Calling out to Valiamma who knew everybody, even people who didn't exist, pushing the dog away from the chair and dusting it as best could be done, they sat on the space that was made for them.
Valiamma didn't know them, I realized when I saw her faintly searching look that was almost masked by the familiar smile she wore for people who were well dressed and belonged.
I will not go into what transpired between all of us before this story was recited. It is not important because it is of niceties and hesitance and overcoming them.--------------
Sujata. That's her name the lady said. She'd lived years before in one of the houses below the bridge that ran a little way away from our house, 'Gitanjali'. 'Gitanjali' was always stayed clear from, by all the children who lived under the bridge. The children were unruly, bullies if you will and chased them who dared to venture to forbidden land enticed by the peals of laughter and fun that seemed forever to be happening behind its low walls.
Her mother scrubbed floors and worked in the match factory and an endless list of jobs to feed her 3 young girls and her alcoholic husband. The girls ran wild until their mother discovered the government school and sent them there, brushed and as clean as she could get them.
They weren't always this poor, her mother would wistfully tell them. They'd had cows, warm food with papadam everyday and a huge garden with the most colorful of flowers. But that was a long time ago when their mother was a girl. Cows and papdam lost their charm in front of the flowers to her might-be-10-year-old eyes.
Walking to school with tightly plaited braids coated with glistening coconut oil, she would walk past 'Gitanjali' and look longingly at the zillion flowers that grew with careless abandon in the garden. A fleeting look before her sisters and she were chased away by the boys of the house, till the end of the street after which they lost interest much to the relief of the panting girls.
That summer the flowers glistened with temptation. She's never wanted anything more and she promised in her prayers she wouldn't want anything ever again, if only she'd been allowed to pluck some from the garden at 'Gitanjali'.
That day was going to be different. She knew that when her mother threw the milk that had turned sour and had in a fit of temper asked them to stay back and do the laundry instead of going to play on the Sunday that no one worked, except her mother. The girls washed and rinsed the clothes. And her sisters took the clothes to be dried by the river that ran a little away from the bridge.
Walking down the road all alone, she found herself in front of the house with the prettiest flowers she had ever seen... inviting and forbidding. The house was unnaturally silent and she stood by the wall looking at what she would pick if she was given a choice. Her eyes fell on a flower -the reddest rose she'd ever seen. The reddest rose that looking at it was sin itself. So enraptured by it was she that she failed to notice a boy who was younger than her looking at her curiously.
When she realized that the house was not as empty as she'd have liked it to be, she almost gathered her skirts to run when she heard herself calling out loudly to him, "Can I have that rose please?"
Her loud voice brought the herd of the dreadful boys who ran after her with war cries. She fled as fast as her tiny legs would carry her, calling out in terror that she was going to be murdered. She reached the safe and comforting arms of the end of the street and she heard the boys turn back laughing and howling at her expense.
She never spoke about it to anyone.
The next day gearing up to run past the house till the end of the street, all of them ran on cue. Reaching the end of the street, they realized that their attackers hadn't given up. They broke the rule they themselves had set. Running as fast as they could they saw that the street was long left behind. Until that day, they'd often wondered what would happen if one of them would be caught by the dreadful boys at the house. But it had never happened… not even to anyone they knew. They'd discussed it, long and detailed; but not one the punishments seemed befitting to what the awful boys at the house were capable of.
Turning behind to take a look at her attackers, she found to her surprise the small boy she'd seen yesterday. He caught up with her and taking her terrified hand placed the rose she'd asked in her palm. And he'd gone running back the street he made her run extra that day. Looking at the day old flower in her palm she stood there until her sisters who'd missed her had run back in an act of supreme selflessness to save her- they wouldn't have been able to account for her missing to their mother!
She walked to school that day, her head help proudly and the flower struck on her head like a crown. She laughs to this day thinking on how ridiculous she must have looked, but that day it was her declaration to the world to envy her.
And from then, everyday she would wait at the end of the street for the little boy. And he came, unfailingly each day with a different flower. Some days she was disappointed in the flowers he picked for her, but she bit down her disappointment and smiled as always at the boy. Her sisters looked with open mouthed wonder and as days passed, hedged slowly to show the boy that they too loved flowers. They never got any.
In all the days that they met, they never spoke a word. But she'd learnt from her neighbor who cleaned the house, his name. And a lot of everyday incidents she would dramatically tell her spellbound audience which consisted of most of the kids from under the bridge...
They moved to another place that year. And the day before she left, she'd gone down the familiar way and waited for him. She told him that she wouldn’t need flowers from the next day, as she was going away. She looked on with disappointment at the flower he'd brought that day. She'd so hoped it would be one of those roses again. Maybe he saw the disappointed droop of her mouth for he took her hand and walked her to the house with the garden. All the dreadful boys that were there stopped whatever they were doing in astonishment at the nerve of the girl who dared come past their gate.
Holding tightly onto the little hand of the little boy she plucked as many flowers as she could. She would have been plucking to this day hadn't she had to get back home. Holding onto an overflowing bunch of flowers of every kind and color, she'd left, throwing a scornful look at the still stupefied smattering of dreadful boys.
That'd been the first and last time she'd walked past the gate of the house... until again, too many years later.
Education, a job and a husband who worked relentlessly until he made the money he deserved. A home and across seven seas in a country far far away called the US.
And why now after all these years? Because she'd never thanked him, the little boy. Not once.
She'd wanted to come several times before, but it wasn't meant to be so. But this time, she was decided and she brought her husband to whom she'd told the story a thousand times.
She'd asked around and was told that the same family continued to live in the house. And she had to come to tell the little boy who must be all grown now that she has a house with a garden and no one who comes to her house asking for flowers is refused any, even if it breaks her heart to part with her favorite flowers.
Of course I knew the boy. We all did. No one asked her who it was.
She'd like to meet him, she said. Valiamma thoroughly uncomfortable whispered in the fading light words that meant to say- he was but alive in the memories of some people
... and hushed tones that continued saying, it had happenend a few years ago...
She must have felt a little cheated. After waiting all these years to finally get to know him, she came too late.
She left as she came, hesitant and unsure.