Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Right Places

The pale sunshine bounces off reflecting surfaces, filtering though rough wooden tiles and cracks in between walls. It penetrates the world, slow and sure, and the crows get cawing. Grandmother has just started to heat the water in the bathroom which is steamy from the pervading heat. Utensils clink and clank in the hissing kitchen and outside, the roads are getting crowded. But the six year old mind is asleep, and its brilliant dreams surpass anything that this world can conjure up. She continues to slumber. When from the realm of semi-consciousness, she returns to the present, she feigns a deep repose until her grandmother forces her awake.

“Wake up, and get ready…”

She’s fussy over a ruined dream as grandmother bathes her, and she finishes her prayers dutifully right after. When that’s done, Granny hands her a tumbler of milk, meaning to be a small reward for following up. But she sees punishment in that tumbler of milk, distastefully gulping it down in one go. Few things off the checklist. Her day has just begun—orderly and planned.

The coconut oil is cool on her scalp, and her hair has been quickly plaited for school. She likes it that way, presently. She likes staying by Grandmother’s side, clinging. There is a secret joy she derives from following her commands. When she earns the “good!” from the slightly critical Grandmother, she knows that this means a job well done. There is happiness in doing her Granny proud. The wooden swing in the Verandah, the stashed evening papers from Grandpa’s reading, the framed paintings of a variety of gods above her head, the sweet incense from the Puja Room, her favorite black dog Blackie who’s still sleeping upstairs, the guava tree in the yard, the traditional prayers she knows by-heart, the cheerful Rangoli drawn up front—they are all part of her world; sights, sounds and colors that define home, define her zone of comfort. But stepping out of it is what she forebodes every single day.

School, is not her special place. School is where the reprimands are serious, and tantrums never get her anywhere. Numbers and language. Much of it seeps past the disinterested brain, confusing and muddling and irritating in the process. She uses pencils that she doesn’t know how to sharpen, to scribble symbols which she doesn’t even understand. The wood of the benches isn’t as comfortable as that of the ancient swing which rocks her, making her fly. No, School can never be that special place.

The blue school bag is waiting. The lunch is packed. The mind is brainstorming excuses. Granny is ready to walk her. They start off, hand in hand. Her little hands find granny’s and hang on, not wishing to ever let go. She knows the moment must come, but she suppresses the pangs of cold terror that course through her at the thought. Grandmother is talking as they step into the wide outdoors, and she feels insecure.
“Eat your lunch,” says granny. “And bring back the homework. We’ll do them all together.”

The girl nods, resenting even the reminder of what’s in store for her. The hands cling tighter to the older ones now, clutching. She hates lunch period, where not finishing translates to severe punishment. She isn’t a gobbler, and even a few bananas that grandmother packs for her seem like the biggest meal ever.
“Don’t throw the peels everywhere, Lakshmi. Teacher will scold. Put it in the right place.”

The “Right Place” for the Banana peel had been behind the verandah doors of Grandmother’s home. She cannot think of where else they could belong. After her daily banana was consumed she would place it behind doors without thinking about alternative “right places”. The maid picked up all her garbage the next day, inviting her to fill up the space behind doors with more peels. But school doesn’t have verandahs. She doesn’t know what to do now. This adds to her her resentment.

School looms closer and the staircase that leads her to her hell looks threateningly tall. Grandmother’s hand squirm out of hers and she encourages the child with big smiles. Panic invades. The six year old stays rooted though, hoping, like every single day, that her escapist tendencies might suddenly create a way out. But the Ayah is near, ushering her to the staircase. Every step takes her away from comfort, love, and warmth and she is screaming to run back to it. She desires a release.

As her attempts fail like every day and she unwillingly turns away, tears are birthed at the edge of her eyes. She can’t control the hollowness, and she looks back to granny who’s still watching. She clutches the railing hard, making this a very difficult job for the Ayah...the tears are over-flowing now. The little heart flutters with a whole range of emotions and the eyes strain to hold her favorite person close as long as possible. Instructions echo sternly “Put the Banana peel in the right place”.

“Come back, Ajji,” she silently prays within her head. This prayer is more sincere and fervent than the verses she recites every single morning. Her horror and deepest fear is not spotting Grandmother among the crowd when it’s time to go home. Without Granny’s able hand, knowledge and guidance, she doesn’t know to manage life, the way home and unfinished homework. So far, Grandmother has always kept her promise. And even though she is being propelled into a world which she can hardly comprehend, she finds respite in the thought that Grandmother would keep her promise again today. She knows she is loved, and granny would solve all her problems. That is her sanctuary.

The little creature frantically searches for the grandmother after a few hours, the blue school bag hanging limp on shoulders after the classes are dismissed……..panic is building…..her eyes are continiously searching.......and Happiness explodes in her heart at the moment of recognition, and the face bursts into a smile. They walk back together, light-hearted at the end of an ordeal. She beams at Grandmother for once again saving the day.

“Did you eat your lunch?” questions Ajji affectionately.

The six year old prefers not to answer. She has a chore to complete. Excitedly, she rushes through the doors into the cool interiors, and takes out banana peels from her lunch box which she never discarded in school. Triumphantly, she throws them to behind the doors of the Verandah. She giggles as her heart wells with contentment. She is back, and the peel is behind the Verandah door. All things are finally in the “Right Places,”

She is home.