“The Plastic God-Box” – Ambai

Tamil Title: Plaastik Dabbavil Parasakthi Mudhaliyor (பிளாஸ்டிக் டப்பாவில் பராசக்தி முதலியோர்)

Author: Ambai

Translator : Vasantha Surya (From the translated volume Place to Live (2005), Edited by Dilip Kumar, Penguin Books India)

Ambai

`Krishna, raa…’

Ladling out some rice-and-ghee on the window sill and tap-tapping it once with the back of the ladle, Amma called out to the crows in Telugu. Why especially Telugu? That was a mystery as yet unrevealed. Amma’s crow language had remained unchanged although Dhanam’s father had been transferred many times, and they had gone to Assam, Ahmedabad, Orissa, Bangalore and many other places. Even in Assam, as soon as Amma said, `Krishna, raa…,’ the crows came flying to her. Perhaps crows are united in the matter of language. Amma had initiated everybody around her into this rite of word and gesture. Even Dhanam’s younger brother Dinakaran’s American wife’s first husband’s child, whenever they were in India, would call out `Krishna, raa…!’ to the crows. With the window sill as the base, Amma had found herself a place in the world where crows exist, irrespective of states and nations and completely without any border disputes.

A window sill, a drop of ghee, a ladleful of rice. It seemed to Dhanam that although it contained such little things, Amma’s space did not confine itself to them. This `tok-tok’ of the ladle as it descended on the sill was like a magnet, drawing in everything that was outside the window. Formless, lacking clear boundaries, Amma’s space seemed to spread and open out.

Dhanam’s elder sister Bharati’s married life in America had ended in divorce. She was shattered. Panic, fright and shame engulfed her. She was so badly shaken that at each step she took she felt the lack of firm ground beneath her feet. Acceding to Appa’s request, Amma boarded a plane and went to her. Some ten days later a long letter arrived:

“Dhanam, Amma has come. Two days after she reached here there was a phone call from the airline in whose plane she had travelled, pestering her to accept a contract to supply bitter-lime pickle for their in-flight meals! It seems Amma had brought it out during the security check, and they had tested it by tasting it…As if this were not enough, on the fourth day after I came home from work, I saw that Amma had been stirring up some paalkova out of a couple of litres of milk and had just taken it off the stove. When I asked her about it, it turned out that she had seen two or three pregnant women in the neighboring houses. It was good for their health, she said. She dragged me along to see them, and told them it was `milk-sweet’ with saffron in it. (Amma has brought some of the very best saffron with her. Why she felt she must bring saffron she has not yet explained. It’s like my questions about the bitter lime which also haven’t as yet elicited any answers.) She made me describe the wonderful things that saffron does for the health of mother and child. Now I’m terrified that somebody will ask Amma to see them through their delivery!

It’s very sunny here. I can see Amma’s hands itching to make vadagams. Do you remember how in Bangalore Amma would put on a cap against the sun and squeeze out vadagams? She would tie stones to weigh down an open umbrella to scare off the crows, and place us both on guard over the vadagams spread out to dry in the sunshine. Remember how she would tell us about the drama, Valli’s Wedding, from the days of the freedom struggle? How the two of us would pretend to be Valli and her girlfriends, playing in her father’s millet-field and singing `Aalolo! Aalolo!’ to shoo away the birds? That song we used to sing—Oh, you white, white storks! –do you remember it? What had we seen of the freedom struggle? At least, did we know anything about the `Aalolam’ –about how birds are shooed in the countryside? Girls and boys going into the fields and twirling stones on long strings and singing `Aalolo!’? Wasn’t it just a song that Amma had taught us? When we sang,

Who knows where you come from
To plunder India, you who squat here
And peck at her like thieving sparrows!

How angry we used to get! Even now, if Amma were to sit down to make vadagams, we could think about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and sing that same song!

The windows here have no sills. I have attached a wooden rack for keeping flower pots. Amma puts rice on it every day and calls out `Krishna, raa…’ as if there are any crows here…In just two days squirrels turned up. Every single day now, as soon as they hear the sound of the ladle they come—squirrels the size of bandicoots. They’re Amma’s friends. Even among them she has discovered two pregnant ones. Perhaps she’ll even feed them that herbal medicine along with their rice, who knows? Come to think of it, it seems as though this secret language by which Amma summons crows and squirrels is the very one that binds together the sky and the earth.

Amma hasn’t asked me a single word about Kumarasaami. She hasn’t spoken about the divorce either. She just goes on as usual, seasoning things with sizzling mustard seeds and spreading the aroma of ghee. If I just stare out of the window, she pesters me to come and grind a chutney in the grinder. Or she explains to me that banana flower is good for health, all chopped into little pieces, soaked in buttermilk and made into a tasty side-dish with onion and cumin, ginger and coconut. In a town where no banana flowers are to be had at all, how will such a piece of information be useful to me? And yet, Dhanu! My mind just opens out—right into the backyard of Grandmother’s house in Coimbatore. How many banana tress there were in that yard! And the huge fan-shaped palm tree in front of the house. Both of us sitting on the stone bench and having a photo taken—do you remember it? I remember my face, skinny, with hair combed down flat, the plait tied up with a stringy ribbon and let down in front, grinning with all my teeth showing. Before Grandfather sold the house, we both bought a eucalyptus sapling and planted it there. I think about it every once in a while—have the people who are there now left it as it is, without cutting it down?

Though I asked her to come and take care of me I never thought she would whirl around like a cyclone, doing things like this. There’s a shop owned by a Tamilian on the street where Indian things are sold. Amma has already discussed Tamil Nadu politics twice with the shopkeeper. She’s actually doing her best to disrupt my daily routine and ruin the discipline I need for my work. She gets on my nerves—makes me yell, `Amma, why don’t you let me alone!’ Yet, you won’t believe it, I’ve put on a whole kilo in these ten days.

Day before yesterday when I came home from work, Amma was singing `Dhikku Theriyaadha Kaattil’. After elaborating on the `flowers that kindle a fragrant flame in the heart’, when she got to `with weary limbs I sank down…’, I leaned against the door, Dhanu, and I wept! At the Bharati1 competition in school you sang it, tossing your head this way and that way, you with those two plaits of yours.

We went to the house of a couple called Sivanesam who work in the university here. There, Amma talked to Mrs Thilakam Sivanesam and discovered that her mother was her girlhood friend Shenbagam of Vilaathikulam. It seems Shenbagam’s family was very much involved in the Self-respect Movement2. There, in the Sivanesam’s house, Amma sang a song of Bharatidasan’s3:

Arise, o ye virtuous women of the Tamil land
Come forth, avenge this affront
To your cherished Tamil heritage!

–just as she had done back in those days with Thilakam’s mother. Thilakam was terribly moved. It seems her mother had died when she herself was very young. She went on and on saying she hadn’t known all these things about her mother. She was so thrilled. `But my mother believes in God,’ I told her.

`Do you do poojai in a big way and all, amma?’ Thilakam asked Amma.

`It’s only four-five idols that I brought with me. In a small plastic box,’ Amma said.

Inside this plastic god-box of Amma’s, there’s a little Amman, a Siva-lingam, Ganapathi, Murugan, a crawling baby Krishna, and other such deities. Has she come all alone, a woman by herself, or has she rolled up the world and put it into her bag? I just don’t know, Dhanu.

*

Squirrels, information about her neighbors’ lives, food that had the savour of salt and tamarind and chilies, and Tamil songs that she had completely forgotten—when all these had found their way back into Bharati’s world, Amma left. Only later did it come to be known that she had met and spoken with Kumarasaami. One day, people from his family brought back the silver vessels and jewellery. Amma served them a fine meal and sent them off.

When Dhanam asked, `Why did you ask for all these back, Amma?’ she countered, `Aren’t these Bharati’s? Weren’t they given to her for her own use?’

After that no one talked about Kumarasaami. A couple of hours later, when Bharati married a Gujarati and came home for a visit, Amma gave her the jewels. She converted the silver vessels into cash and gave it to her to spend in India.

Just as Dhanam was watching Amma calling out to the crows, Amma turned and came towards her.

`Have you eaten, Dhanam?’ she asked.

`I just ate a dosai at a hotel before I came,’ ma. I didn’t know I’d be coming, that’s why.’

Amma sat down and began to eat. A month had passed since Appa’s death. The landlady kept asking for the house to be vacated.

`Tell me,’ma.’

`What can I say? Such a thing your father has done and gone. Let’s build a house, I kept telling and telling him. Why bother, it’s such a headache, he told me. Left me all unsettled and knocking about like this, with no place to live…’

`Why do you say that, Amma? You must stay with me or with Bharati. You can go to Dinakaran once in a while.’

`Oh, fine. When you yourself are struggling somehow…’ she said, dragging out the words.

Dhanam’s husband Sudhakar had tried to start some business or the other. It turned out that he had taken too big a step. There was a loss. Even the savings were gone. He still hadn’t come out of it. It was Dhanam’s salary from her bank job that kept the house running. That was what Amma meant.

`All that is nothing, Amma. I can keep you and take care of you,’ said Dhanam.

`I haven’t said no, have I? Do I need a “palace tall and tower’d hall”? One meal of rice, one of rice-water…Love is the main thing, di,’ said Amma.

`All your things have to be packed, no?’ said Dhanam.

`Me? What things have I got, di? I can just put four deities in a plastic box and start off,’ said Amma.

It was only after Dhanam had taken two days’ leave and come with Sudhakar to help Amma pack her things that she understood certain things. From the glossy, dark-red stone with lines on it picked up in Hardwar before Bharati was born, the round-bottomed frying pan purchased for eight annas when Bharati was a year old, to the tiered oil lamps inscribed `Kumudha’ that had been bestowed on her when she went to her natal home for the first time after her marriage –everything had a story behind it. Though Amma kept going round and round inside the house, she couldn’t decide what to take and what to leave behind. In the drawing room, the mirrored almirah—the one that Amma had brought away with her when Paati died, the dolls collected by Bharati, Dhanam and Dinakaran, the magazine serial novels, preserved and bound, the green trunks full of letters that Amma had received, cooking hints and recipes for siddha medicines that she still collected, nothing could be easily done away with. Like the demon whose life would end only if you crossed the seven seas, came to a certain tree, reached inside a hole in the trunk, took out a box, and crushed the beetle that was in it, Amma’s life was buried deep inside all these things.

Dhanam and Sudhakar briskly took a few decisions. They temporarily rented an unused garage two houses away and stored Amma’s things safely in it. With seven or eight pieces of luggage—including her plastic box – Amma came to Dhanam’s. With her vina, of course. Every time Appa had been transferred the vina had always been very carefully packed. It had been given to Amma when she was six by her father, who had bought it in Andhra. Of carved dark wood, it was in a cover that Amma had sewn for it out of a saree. There was not enough place in Dhanam’s house for it to be stored in a horizontal position. They leaned it against a wall, propped up with a piece of wood.

Amma looked around for a place to unpack her plastic god-box in Dhanam’s godless household. Parashakti and the other divinities all finally climbed up and settled on one of the steps of a new set of shelves (intended for books) that had been fixed to the back of a door.

One evening a week later, sitting at the table next to the window and watching the parrots which kept perching on the branches of the fruit tree and then rising up and flying around, Dhanam wrote Bharati a letter.

Bharati, Amma has come to my house. But she is not at peace. There is no daily hustle-and bustle of cooking here. Sudhakar is mostly at home, trying to decide what to do next. He takes care of his own meals—some bread and eggs, and it’s finished. At the most he’ll cook rice, dal and vegetables all together and feed himself. Regular cooking is done just for Amma. She tried once or twice to compel Sudhakar to come and eat. Then one day I told her, `Amma, Sudhakar will cook what he wants for himself. Let him do what he wants. We should give each other that freedom, Amma.’

`So this is called freedom. I can’t understand it,’ Amma complained.

As soon as she arrived, she was just quivering to make the year’s supply of rasam and sambar powder before the rainy season set in. Here in my house, in this one week, all the powders have already been prepared. And there are three months more for the rainy season! Day before yesterday she went and bought limes, cut them up and made both salt pickle and hot pickle, separately. Sweet ginger chutney and hot ginger pickle are all ready. Because I said something or the other just to make conversation, she went out in the sun, bought spinach, and has cleaned and picked it over. Seems the two of us do so much thinking, about work and this and that, so she’s boiled some hibiscus flower oil for our head-baths. For Sandhya, who’ll be coming home from Rishi Valley School, she’s made fried snacks and put them in a tin. Good water (what Amma has filled up herself), ordinary water (what we have filled up), vessels in which meat and eggs have been prepared, and those in which they have not been prepared, Amma’s plate and our plates—several such property divisions have taken place in the house.

The god-box is quite small, of course. Yet in just three days this business of Amma’s poojai has spread out to include a wooden plank underneath, which has a copper pot, a plate for offering camphor, a daily kolam, incense, sandal, kumkumam, flowers. The idols must be bathed and scrubbed with tamarind. So many different skirts for Amman, and half-sarees, too. Sandal and kumkumam to decorate them with, milk and raisins to worship them with…the things that have to be done for these gods keep multiplying. Because the milk-and-raisins have to given to somebody, the little girl next door is called in. Then, because the little girl’s father’s brother’s wife has no child, Amma prepares a siddha medicine. Because our neighbor Lingamma’s husband has a headache at nine o’clock at night, Amma grinds up a dry ginger-and-peper-and-milk concoction.

That Amma’s deities live in a small plastic box is true enough. It’s possible for her to take them with her and fly anywhere she likes. But when she returns, she needs a place for the brass things that are etched with the name `Kumudha’, for the teak almirah, for the kitchen cupboard with the wire-net door-a place with window sills, a jasmine bower, a snakegourd vine and a place where the vina can rest in a horizontal position. Amma may sing the Thevaaram verse that begins with:

Clinging to no other thing
With the mind intent upon
Its destination –
Your sacred feet,

But she is one who’ll remain bound to the earth. Even if she flits about like cotton-fluff, she always looks forward to touching the earth once again.

…She could stay in my house. Or in yours. But she will suffer. A thousand lies she’ll tell—this one to hide that one, and that one to hide this one. It will be one lie after another. It is not only a place to live that Amma needs. It must be a place that’s under her sway. Because Amma is not an individual. She’s an institution. What she needs is not just a little space to keep her plastic box. She’s wandering about looking for a realm of her very own. And if you and I wish, we can give it to her. Your jewels and mine have been given to us by Amma. If they’re sold for cash we can give her back her house. The landlord is trying to sell it. Let Dinakaran send her a monthly amount. In a couple of months Sandhya will return after completing school. She’s eager to be with her paati. English lessons so that she can talk to your children, embroidering a salwar-kameez for Sandhya to wear to college, music lessons, experimenting in healing, ideas of writing her memoirs, rose graftings and spinach-beds-with such long-term plans stretching over many years, Amma will live in her own house”

*

When she had finished her letter and looked up, Amma was in the easy chair, looking out at the street. The parrots that had kept fluttering up and flapping around, were now peacefully perched on the branches.

(Originally published in India Today [Tamil], Anniversary Issue, 1994-1995)

——————————————————————————————————————-

[1] Eloquent poet of the freedom movement and the Tamil renaissance (1882-1921).

[2] Periyar E.V.R.’s radical social reform movement of the twenties and thirties, which had a great impact on Tamil culture and society.

[3] Well-known poet of the Dravidian movement (1891-1964).

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