She came home and put on her “ordinary sari,” the one she cooks and cleans in. The blue one, with not too much conceit in it, the cloth relaxed enough to exercise in. She suggested I wear it for my morning run.
We slept on the floor of her mud-brick home last night. Three in a row on straw mats with a foot pillow lay at my feet: she, her fifteen year old son, and me on the living room floor. Her husband is a security guard in distant Coimbatore, the big city 300km west.
I really wanted to sleep well to make this night perfect. This was one of those amazing experiences you realize just how amazing in the middle of it and you curse yourself for not having your camera. But I didn’t. No visual proof that I actually slept in a mud hut in a mud hut village in the middle of nowhere in South India. So you, the reader have to suspend your skepticism of what sounds like thwarted logic, but is in fact, the unadulterated, only occasionally sensationalized truth.
And I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned beneath the capricious ceiling fan that at first swished and swayed away the revolting heat, then turned villainously cold much like love does overnight. And when the fan was turned off, its villainous spite hung in the aftermath’s vacuum like the drool of a carnivorous ogre, waiting to be picked up like a baton by the mosquito militia who rushed in truculent, shoulders hunched forward, salivary needles aimed to feast on the ocean of new blood lying mangled and weak from sleeplessness.
I am accustomed to sleeping without a bed. Without a roof even, in the cold, in the rain, in the middle of a field armed by farmers lugging AK-47’s like handbags. Still, the spaghetti smell of your own sleeping bag with of your own sweat, a pad, mosquito net and a tent set up in the prime real estate of a harvested rice field behind a hill or in the middle of a bamboo forest trumps the solace of a night in the new environs of a house that is not your own.
The trauma must have been too much, because my body revealed its stress in ruthless revolt: I woke up to clinking pots and scraping grains completely and ludicrously voiceless. The ludicrous part being that when I opened my mouth to speak at any given moment, I only had enough breath to utter: “Vannakam. En peyar Nakia. Unkal peyar enna? (Tamil for Hello. My name is Nakia. What is your name?)” Then all energy would drain synoptically from my voice to the rest of my body – my eyes, head, legs, hips – like blood leaving the heart for more mobile places. Like a daughter leaving home. What a horrible curse!
But this is not about me leaving home. This is about the aforementioned she, Latha Selvaraja, born in the coconut fringed village of Kuvanalangottai 100 km into the flat green plains of Tharangapadi Pillyarkoviluranipuram Taluk in the orange mud district of Kol. She was married at somewhere between 18 and 21 years old to a man 16 years her senior. Her wedding pictures show a properly fed beauty feeding her newly introduced man with cake and a sly smile that betrays her peace with so astronomical an event.
The young Latha Selvaraja likes the sensation of splashed water. She likes to put her hands in a clean pool and watch it swell beneath the surface. She grabs the elusive water in her palms, individual fingers eclipsed by the depth, right before breaking the surface and tossing the water out and onto her feet, onto the grass, darkening the green moss of the backyard, until everything is wet. It is a trait her elder husband has to attribute to the puerile recklessness of his young bride in order to restrain himself from cutting off the water supply to the house.
This night in these pictures, her family packs a van with a virgin, a dowry of clothes and pots and electronic items, and a stranger (who wasn’t actually a stranger but in fact her long lost uncle) to play husband in the epic story of marriage.
“How did you feel?” I pointed to my face, and then screwed my eyes to indicate tears 16 years in the future when she has invited me to her “poor house” to feast on a self-replenishing mound of red chicken biriyani, chicken gravy, and pickles.
“I was afraid. But this is my life! My life is my husband and my son. Without them, I would have no life.”
Scratching my head, I crept back into the past, disguised as one of the sari donning aunties, and tried observed the young confident, elegantly jeweled 18-21 year old Latha Selvaraja.
She wears an ocean blue sari, this one silk and embroidered with gold, adorned by a dazzling cone-shaped bindi in the spot between her eyebrows. From there, the bindi points upward to gold loops that hangs from the crown of her head down over her forehead, orchestrating the bride’s face in an optical atlas that gives the eyes direction to the god within her. When she bows to her husband, the message is clear: the god in me recognizes the god in you.
A thali, or marriage locket, has just been placed around her neck. Neither she nor her husband look at each other as if to contain the laughter that would break out if they were to catch sight of each other’s bashful blushes. They focus instead on the aunties and sisters and cousins attentively putting food into their mouths.
I inch in between the crowd of wedding officials, Brahmin, auntie, sister, and eavesdrop on her inner thoughts:
I hope that your mother is nice. And that you have a good job. I won’t need too many jewels, just a pair of nice gold earings, a nose ring and a silver anklet for each leg. I hope i can have a son.
Luckily for Latha Selvaraja, the van that arrived to transport husband, wife, and dowry only had to turn the block and drive 3km before it came to a sputter, shaking out its hood, fanning out its hind, and rest its laurels at a tiny house across the street from her sister’s. She, having married her uncle, would live in her maternal village, where her father, mother, sister, brother, and extended family would always be around to give her milk to make curd rice and coconut chutney, firewood to cook with, and an ear to voice the concerns of adult life.
But Latha Selvaraja, who had the acumen to know that once you start complaining, life would never be good enough, never turned into a moaner. She woke up at 5am the morning after her wedding, rolled the dough for the parotha, put the wedding clothes in a bucket to soak, swept the painted concrete floor, put the new pots and pans in order, and took a splash bath before her husband awoke for his first cup of chai at 7am. Happy with the swell job of housewifery she was doing, Latha Selvaraja continued the same tasks for 14 years until things got tough and raising a teenager became unsustainable on a landless laborer’s back.
Around that time, news of urban jobs where people wear crisp uniforms and watch as much Bollywood music videos as they wanted came on the backs of cart-pulling cows in the lazy little town of Kuvanalangottai.
When her husband left, Latha Selvaraja continued her private water splashing fantasies, but added a twist: she would splash water over the interior walls of the entire house and scrub it from ceiling to floor as if to shave away the smell of her husband, whom she didn’t want to miss while he was away.
The village Kuvanalangottai is scattered with mud huts, temples to Shiva, god of destruction and his wife Mari Amman. Tea kiosks selling biscuits squat with overweight men and women in moomoo’s chatting to customers. The temples sit next to ponds with marble steps where people sluice themselves before praying. The huts are awned with thatch roofs that flop to the ground like straw hats. They have grown out of the earth like an extra digit. It is hard to know whether the house starts and where the ground ends. Everything is smooth and rounded here like a Gaudi invention: no sharp edges, no straight lines. Only the old women have bent at 90 degree angles from years of planting rice paddies.
Latha Selvaraja’s house is just a rectangle, with every room serving as a corridor for the other, each visible from the street. There is no privacy. Every matter is a village matter. 50 of Latha Selvaraja’s siblings have already come sneaking in through the living room to meet me.
On the morning after I did not sleep, I was visited by Latha Selvaraja’s three mothers, the oldest of which had a pigment discoloration that seemed endemic in Indians as far as West Bengal. Her hair had gone as white as her skin in the shock of age and its battering of the body. Her energy, flushed out like the melanin in her skin, was mollifying. She invited me for my second cup of coffee at 8am on the wooden cot of Latha Selvaraja’s father’s firewood store. Caffeine ravaged my heart as I “took rest”, widening my eyes to show delight at the syrupy coffee, wobbling yes and no answers, waiting for someone to invite me to leave.
In India, the nation of villages, it is absolutely necessary to sit down and take chai before anything occurs. To be hasty is to fight against the treadmill of the universe, which recycles itself, coming back with second rounds of tea, and three rounds of mothers. You will only tire yourself if you fight against it.
The second mother dropped in as if to relieve the responsibility of the 1st. Her hair was also white, but her skin still a supple almond brown. She spoke quickly, first to first mother, then to me, as if to indicate to both of us that she was talking about me, but not expecting an answer.
Then third mother, the haughtiest of them all, hobbled in, back bent at 90 degrees, and hair as white and curly as Punjabi’s beard. She was the type that didn’t let you get away with murder. She gripped my wrist in her slippery shaky hands and pointed at herself then out the door, to indicate that it was her home I had refused to go in for tea the night before when it was raining. I, pretending to be stricken by her grip, bowed at the god in her, and asked forgiveness with my eyes. She wobbled her head: “Ok. We cool,” then sat next to me to me to display the fractured bone jutting out from the side of her knee.
In this land of ludicrously green rice paddies, unpronounceable names and complicated family relations, I am unperturbed by the dearth of language. Communication is as simple as a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Gestures are amplified, and even a mute can communicate. A smile is repaid with an invite to tea. And a hand gesture with a head wobble, yes. My face is undergoing significant exercise as I learn to use it much like I used my voice.
I have learned to sing with it: raising my eyebrows so that they almost touch my hairline, stretching my smile so that my lips touch my ears and nose simultaneously, all the while keeping my eyes flexible so that they can look up and down, slant sideways and swivel much as my voice would hold a high note ripe and maneuverable.
Once, as I sang with my eyes, and Latha Selvaraja, with her helium voice, we hit a note of such symbiotic harmony that it was hard to separate us, and we almost morphed into the same person, my body sucked like pigment into the supple swathes of her blue sari. I felt my skin loosing its color. I saw the hair on Latha Selvaraja’s head begin to sizzle into short steaming kinks. I saw what looked like a white face peeking through the wooden planks of the entrance room separated from the living room by only a curtain.
Then, her son, the amazingly strong shot put champion Boominayagi, sauntered in pushing the world forward with his broad shoulders, and sucked back the energy of his mother. All eyes on him, Latha Selvaraja, shifted back to hostess mode and immediately asked me if I liked parotha. I nodded, and she rolled the dough, slid the twigs of firewood into her clay stove carved from the very mud of the house walls, and fried flattened wheat pancakes on an iron skillet. She reheated the chicken gravy from the previous night, reached into a silver pot and pulled out eight magical rice flour cakes and a bag of coconut chutney. Four for me, four for Boominayagi. Then, when I started preparing my stomach to devour the feast already laid out, she reached into the voluptuous layers of her blue, ordinary, housewife sari, and pulled out an entire white icing cake!
The sly Latha Selvaraja of the marriage pictures has softened into a woman plump with love. She pinches my cheeks then kisses her hands, the Tamil version of a blown kiss. I am weak with love for a woman I’ve known for less than a week. How is it possible? In the distant lands of my birth, it is not uncommon to drag an engagement on for three years, then two more just to be safe, then divorce after three years of realizing you were just not meant to be. Best friends start in primary school and go on through college and old age. Love is slow. Life is fast.
With Latha Selvaraja, it is the absolute opposite. I have just met her and I am now sleeping with her. I have fallen in love overnight. This is a crash course in best friendship. Relationship immersion. Like two people alone on a desert island. Differences minimized. Necessity draws action. Intentional bonding occurs.
Latha Selvaraja’s mothers, the three witches came cooing as Latha Selvaraja took a splash bath in the back yard. Meanwhile, Boominayagi sat on the table watching antediluvian Tamil music videos inches away from the ancient TV. They talked to each other as they circled me like I was a vat, scratching their chins with their scrawny fingers, rolling their erratic R’s beneath their sharpened K’s, as they pulled the kinks out and watched them roll back in like a pig’s tail. They delighted over my mystery.
I sat, voiceless, and concentrating on the mental picture to capture this moment in my head. I enjoyed the commotion and found the fingers titillating. The clinkety clank of thier gold bangles soothed me like water. I could hear the shaking of their old bones as they wiggled in and out of loose sockets.
Latha Selvaraja, dressed in her official sari, salmon with gold fringes, came in singing Tamil pop songs by Chitra. The mothers suddenly intensified their evil finger work, moving down to the muscles in my face, until my non-vocal sounds began to merge with Latha Selvaraja’s voice.
Our melody built as the the notes of a distant sitar wafted through the corridors. Thammátama drums kept a delayed beat that pulled my hips in the opposite direction of my torso until I was swaying like a snake from a basket. The witches began to clap their hands and galumph their anklet bejeweled feet, swirling the tortuous rhythm into a rapture. Latha Selvaraja’s 50 cousins reappeard at the door along with 50 of their sisters and brothers.
This was a festival of colors. Of cultures combined. I was loosing myself in the welcoming arms of Kuvanalangottai. My bicycle tan draining away. My thigh muscles softening beneath the heavy lethargy of South India’s sun. Could it be that this was my destiny? That I rode a bicycle for 6 months across several countries only to arrive quiescent and content in a village that would never leave me, whose sisters and brothers and cousins would always be there for me to borrow pots and deliver freshly squeezed milk?
To be continued…