Affairs of the Heart
Ammini sat on the porch, rocking herself to the soothing, swishing sounds emanating from the coconut fronds. The front yard was freshly swept and water sprinkled on the cream colored sands to keep it down. Anyone who has been outdoors after the first rain on a parched Indian summer afternoon knows what magic sprinkling of water does for the air around. The fragrance was heady, bringing back memories. Memories.
She searched hard in her mind. Memories seemed to be a hard commodity these days. At times she did not know where she was and searching inside her mind yielded no results.
This is really frustrating.
Maybe it would help if she went someplace else. The rickety gate at the entrance of the yard beckoned her like a lighthouse did a storm troubled sailor. She rose, entered the house and changed into a starched cotton mundu. The two piece cotton garb most Keralite women wore looked better with a wee bit of rice starch to maintain the folds. As a matter of fact any piece of cotton looked respectable only when it was starched.
Rice starch...I need to boil some rice for the midday meal before heading out.
The rice pot was duly placed on the brick stove; firewood hacked, stuck in and fired up. The smoke burned her eyes. She had to change her clothes again, as soot had stained her present white garb. And she couldn’t have that, could she? Not a lady of her standing. She quickly wrapped the mundu around her, and tied her silver hair in a knot, a pressing need to hurry filling her insides. She needed to hurry if she had to get there quickly.
Ammini had no idea where she was going. Her mind drew a blank from time to time, and most days she just had to calm down to get all of it back. Maybe some hot strong tea. Maybe some betel leaves with some crunchy betel nuts.
Ah well. It’s getting late. I really need to get going.
She snatched her black umbrella from the stand on her way out of the house and tucked it under her arms. One never went out without an umbrella. Kerala rains can be vicious. And anyway, if it was not raining, the tropical sun can be equally nasty. She slipped her dainty feet into her blue and white slippers.
Hmm, these are wearing down. I need to tell Raman to get me a new pair.
No sooner had the thought struck Ammini than her forehead wrinkled and her brows met above her eyes. Who was this Raman darting into her mind? I’ll work it out on my way. With that, she pushed the rickety gate open and stepped out onto the red, rocky street.
The bus stand at the junction where the pathway met the main road called out to her. People were scattered, some reading, and some just standing around. Waiting for the bus can be tiring, but it was a small village and everyone knew everyone else. Several faces smiled at Ammini. “Hello, Panikker madam, where to, today?”
Ammini frowned. She did not understand. Why had this strange man with bushy eyebrows called her Panikker madam? ‘The wife of the teacher.’ Wife? If she was the wife, where was her husband? The answer to the strange man´s question however, popped into her head easily. “Oh, the Guruvayoor temple of course.”
The reply had no time to receive a comment; all social interactions came to a standstill as the bus grunted around the corner and halted at the stop. Ammini gracefully stepped into the traveling crowd.
The Panikker quickened his steps. The rickety gate was wide open, as was the main heavy teak door of the house. A peculiar quiet filled the surroundings. That was quite unusual. The smell of burnt rice pervaded the air. Not sure what to expect, he rushed in. The rice had boiled over and burnt on the stove. The firewood was spent and smoldering among the bricks. “Ammini!” he called out.
“Ammini, answer me!” he barked his command into the air. Absolute silence greeted him.
A tomb. The house is a tomb!
He ran from room to room calling out his wife’s name, and searched in every nook and corner. Ammini was a small woman and if she had collapsed, she would not take up much space. He rushed to the outhouse and pushed the door open. A large lizard slithered away, startled.
Where are you, Ammini?
He ran to the woodpile, clawed away at the chopped wood and coconut shells and glared at a mouse which scurried away.
Mice! Where is that lazy cat when there’s work to be done? Hmm. I’ll take care of you later.
He quickened his weary steps to the cowshed. His black cow raised her long lashes at him and mooed a bit in recognition. Her calf dug deeper into her udders and sucked hard for leftovers from the afternoon milking. No sign of Ammini anywhere. Now his apprehension morphed into panic. His long silver hair was damp with perspiration. His thin frame began to shake.
She’s gone. And most probably she does not know where she is.
He ran the half mile to the village police station. Between gulps of cool water offered by the sergeant and short gasps, he was able to coherently tell the sergeant on duty about the situation. The sergeant patted the Panikker sympathetically on his back. “I’ll look into it right away. Do you have any idea where she may have gone?”
The Panikker shook his head, close to tears. If a seventy-one year old retired school teacher could cry like a little girl without losing his self respect, he would have. As of that moment however, all he could do was sit by the sergeant’s desk looking helpless. “Why don’t you go home, we’ll take care of it, sir.” The sergeant was very nice. Disappointment filled his heart. The sergeant was right in a manner of speaking. There was nothing he could do in the dingy police station. The Panikker nodded, stood up wearily and dragged his feet homeward.
His head hurt and his heart still beat loudly in response to the happenings of the day. The thought of going back to the dark empty house was nerve wracking. He needed to talk to someone.
Thomachan, the owner of A-1 tea stall welcomed the Panikker with a steaming cup of milky sweet tea and a cheery “What is this sir, you grace my shop at this time of the day? The day Panikker madam goes someplace your routine is all upset, eh?”
The Panikker snapped his head at the new information. “How do you know that she has gone someplace?”
“Ha, ha, ha, sir! From my vantage point at this corner of the street I can keep an eye on the entire world.” Thomachan’s white teeth gleamed. “These kids nowadays going to their colleges think that I cannot see what is happening. But nothing escapes Thomachan’s eye! I can see who is going with whom and...”
“Thomachan!” Panikker’s voice boomed. At last, some semblance of a link to fact. “Forget the kids and their colleges. Tell me what you know about Ammini!”
Surprise flashed on Thomachan’s face. The Panikker was never this rude or loud: he must really be serious. “I saw her get into the bus sometime back, sir. But I wouldn’t know where she went.”
A dead end. The Panikker sat down on one of the wooden benches in the stall and sighed. For a moment there he had glimpsed hope.
There was no point in worrying much about this — he just needed to calm down. He took a few sips of the chai. He then got up, threw a nod at Thomachan. The latter acknowledged and turned to enter the payment for the tea in his little record book. The Panikker retraced his steps back home.
The palm fronds shivered in the afternoon breeze. The house looked too desolate for him to enter. He sat on the steps of the porch, set his head in his hands and wept. As the slanting evening sun rays poured on him, he realized the only recourse left for him was his ancestral training at witchcraft. A most reluctant wizard, he had refused to practice, his belief in the scientific reasoning keeping him from his forefathers’ profession. But today, he was defeated. Defeated by science, which could name a disease for him but not name the cure.
He shut his eyes to reach out to his wife, his soul mate, who was probably lost somewhere in the masses of the place the bus had taken her to. He knew that his mind connected with her in a way only love could maneuver. It was not really black magic. One did not need much mental training, just an ability to concentrate. All those hours of yoga at sunrise was coming of help now. He closed his eyes and listened to his slow breathing. He opened his mind and gradually let it expand into the all encompassing ether.
At first it felt like a fog, something he could float in. Diffused light surrounded him and he could discern individual particles shimmering in the air. The particles coagulated quickly enough and the atmosphere, almost sterile and devoid of smells, suddenly grew denser and denser. He waved his hands in the thick foggy molasses trying to grapple at anything familiar. He could discern no shapes, and felt he was getting deeper into an opaque nothingness. Panic began to fill him.
Concentrate! Concentrate! Keep going, you can find her.
It was at that burst of confidence that suddenly he felt a strand of familiarity, of being lost in the crowd, of a seed for a feeling. A seed, which grew into an intense feeling dressed in a faint jasmine fragrance. Finally, an aroma had crept into the atmosphere.
Quickly, he grasped at it and held onto it, stronger by the second. Slowly, he guided the strand towards himself, and soon, the sense of being lost began to dissolve. The fragrance of jasmine grew strong. He even began to feel a smile of recognition. He gave a few more tugs and then let go. The direction given, now all that remained to be done was to wait. He opened his eyes.
Would it work? He did not know, but it calmed him down immensely. He could now feel the trees, the winds and the house. He was still worried about Ammini but his old heart was in less of a frenzy now. A smile crept on his face as he recollected the first time he saw Ammini, a lifetime ago when she was only sixteen and feisty, long black hair, large eyes. The families had arranged the very suitable match. She had chuckled when he told her his dreams for himself, his family and the village at large.
“You want to teach?” She threw back her head and laughed. The garlands of jasmine flowers adorning her hair shook slightly and a few flowers fell off onto the bed. Their conjugal bed, on which they had already spent half the night, talking. Then with some concern, she voiced his deep fear. “What about your family? They will disown you when you tell them you don’t want to practice witchcraft.”
He had looked into her large dark eyes and confessed the feeling that gave him strength. “I don’t mind if you are with me.”
She laughed again. “Oh, you are so dramatic.”
But in spite of her practical attitude, she had always been his staunchest support. His work, his philanthropy were all possible because of her altruism. He remembered the fierce fight between them when he decided to sell the household valuables to help some widows in the village. The very audible argument had drawn the neighbors to their porch. “If you want to give that badly, give something that belongs to you, not the entire family,” she had argued. Later that week, he realized that she had donated her gold earrings to the cause.
Age had definitely worked miracles on the relationship. An arranged marriage never acquires the tenderness of what people call love, he was told. But that was not the case with them. Looking back, he could not recollect at which point romance crept into their relationship. Oh, it was not romance in the sense of the young kids’ worlds. It was subtle and moreover it was entrenched in his life. He could not imagine a meal without her around. Nor could he imagine a morning without her voice resounding in the home, singing hymns. The home. She had made the red brick house a home. After his day’s work, the Panikker did not return home to the red brick house. He returned home to Ammini.
The Panikker looked up sharply. The rickety old gate swung open. Thomachan walked in with someone looking frail and barely able to walk.
The Panikker ran towards them. He helped her onto the porch where she sat and shut her tired eyes.
“She got off the bus and almost collapsed. I thought I’d bring her home, sir.” Thomachan explained. Relief and gratitude flooded the look that Panikker gave him.
Ammini opened her eyes and the recognition that filled them made Panikker almost fall on his knees. In a gush, words flowed out of Ammini. “I was walking among the crowds, Raman! I didn’t know anyone and it was so difficult. Then I saw a shop with huge mounds of jasmine flowers in a basket. And somehow the fragrance of the flowers reminded me of … of you.”
Raman Panikker heaved a huge sigh of relief. He knew not what pulled her back from that land of vague moving figures, surreal events and lost memories. Was it the fragrance of jasmine? Was it his heart reaching out to her? It was only the onset of the wretched disease. He knew a lot of things had to be changed, and soon. But for now, she was safe. She was home.
He smiled, and returned to the practical side of life she preferred. “Hmm. By the way, we have to do something about the dratted cat. There are mice among the woodpile.”