The view of the distant horizon, a promising one, devoid of drudgery is alluring from the dock. A loud cry, a siren, perhaps, disturbs my thoughts. I can feel a kind of rocky hardness on my back and then without warning, there is a sign of dampness that slowly spreads over my body. I force myself awake and find the woollen blankets wet along with the mattress, sheets and my clothes. It is Kusela, my fourth born. How is it possible for a six-year-old child to not realise that he has a full bladder while asleep. This cursed being! This just adds to my chores. It is probably the cold mountain air. I should stop blaming my four children for the rugged life bestowed upon me by the hills.
The constantly recurring dream of me in a ship sailing into an elegant sunset disrupts my thoughts, like a giant stone thrown into a calm pond after a rainy day.
I kick Kusela awake and drag him to the bath area that is close to the kitchen, after mindlessly draping my saree. I pour a pot of hot water from the furnace over him and myself and send him back to bed. I head to the common pipe in the village a few feet away to wash the sheets and blankets.
‘Where are you going? It is not dawn as yet,’ mumbles my husband from his room, the one adjacent to where I sleep with the boys. Though my first born is almost pre-adolescent, the four of them twine together while asleep and they need me around in the same room.
‘’The house will smell of urine if I store it for later,’ I dismiss him as I walk out of the house. The bruises on my hands from two days ago are still visible though the pain has starkly reduced. I brace myself for the next bout of this man’s rage which lashes sharply like winter storms. And like the accompanying hailstones, they are abrupt and unpredictable, but always cause mayhem.
The crickets are still active as I close the door behind me. With another sleepless night, the day at work is likely to be a nightmare.
Setting the Path
After completing my duties at home, I begin the routine ascend to the Whittman household. Like the Johnsons, Winstons and a few other English families around, the Whittmans refuse to leave to their homeland, something that annoys Ganesh Anna, my co-worker at the Whittmans.
‘This is Ms.Gandhi’s second term in office. Like the Minister, Mr Whittman and co refuse to retread to their homes,’ he would often scoff. Lakshmi Akka’s cold stare always controls many a wagging tongue including Ganesh Anna’s.
On reaching their quaint English cottage, the one that is isolated on a hill thick with rich canopies, I rush to the servant room and leave my shawl and sweater there. The vessels have not piled up in the kitchen. I go to Mrs Whittman’s room and softly knock as I was trained a few years ago. No reply.
Mr Whittman, back from his morning rounds to the tea estate is out in the garden, sipping his morning coffee, while a familiar tune from the gramophone fills the house. In the last few months, Mrs Whittman has been addicted to sleeping. When not dormant, she is out in the garden starring into the wilderness. On rare instances, there are extended monologues from behind the closed wooden doors.
She has set an eye on the path I think to myself.
The Preparation and Planning
Mr Whittman is at the table for breakfast, and Arasa is ready to serve him toast and eggs. He always emphasises on appropriate etiquette. Mrs Whittman is unorthodox and sometimes joins us for lunch in the backroom, without his knowledge. She teaches us English on lazy afternoons and always fixes her cup of tea. Like her, the brew is refreshing with divergent flavours (like citrus) combining to form an exclusive blend as unique as her.
I knock at the bedroom door again and hear a ‘yes.’
I walk in to find Mrs Whittman carefully pacing the room in her nightgown oblivious to the brightness outdoors.
‘What is wrong, Madam?’ This enquiry was long due.
‘Nothing. Why do you ask?’ she forces a frigid reply.
‘Madam, you have not been yourself lately.’
‘I am fine,’ her mysterious indifference is at times alarming. ‘Just that I have this recurring dream of me on a huge ship, and there is a sunrise in the distance.’ She is lost as soon as she blurts it out.
I am taken aback, but I leave her to her thoughts which I guess is conspiring to swallow her quickly in swift motions just the way her favourite garden lizard engulfs its timid prey.
Late afternoon as a distant woodpecker sets out to etch a home somewhere in the surrounding woods, she asks for her tea. She asks me to sit by her side on the lawn as I serve tea in her favourite bone china tea set. She watches with bewilderment in her mid-length dress, from the cane chair, as I carefully pour the thick milk from the pot stirring it into the strong decoction in the cup. The colour in the cup changes rapidly with every stroke of the silver spoon.
‘Run and fetch a glass for yourself,’ she asks.
I refuse and slip into a comfortable position by her side. She looks at me, puzzled. Her once big, brown and cheerful eyes are slowly losing its magnitude and sheen to the vagaries of advancing years. I say that out loud, and she smiles.
‘I am in my late fifties now, Venni,’ she tries to justify. ‘I am planning to go,’ she continues, carefully pausing between each word.
‘’Where to, Madam? Visiting your sister in Bombay?’
‘No. Home.’ There is an old fervour in her voice.
‘But this is your home, Madam. It has been for the last thirty years.’ I realise that there is a change in my voice, and I try hard to swallow the hasty lump in my throat.
‘Not anymore. It stopped being one when I failed to conceive after five years of my marriage. I held on.’ She has her gaze fixed at the sparse view of the distant plains in between the folds of the mountains.
‘Madam… But? Sir?’ I search for the right words.
‘He is going to be fine here. I feel like a bird trapped in a glass cage, Venni. There is no hope of fresh air. I am going to join my friends and relatives, only a little more than two decades later.’
I find that an opportune moment to confess my dream and desire.
‘But, your children? Family? Think well, Venni. This, to me, is foreign soil. Your ancestors have been here ever since these mountains came into being. You belong here.’ She pleads.
‘Madam, you know where your home is. I am still looking for mine. This cursed land has imposed upon me a life of maltreatment, the one I accepted out of respect to my ancestors. I want a home where I can shed the identities that are glued into my being here’ I confess for the first time.
She holds my hands and succumbs to soft sobs, and we both stare at the plains peeking at us from behind the mountains.
The date was fixed. I come home late afternoon from work on the day of departure and carry my bundle of clothes in a hurry before the kids are back from school. In my bundle, I also carry some knick-knack from their collected treasure. I run uphill to the Whittman villa. As planned, Swaminathan Anna is there with his Fiat. Mr Whittman is nowhere in the vicinity.
Mrs Whittman steps outside with a medium sized aluminium trunk box and a small suitcase. As we step into the car which is to take us to the train station 30 kilometres away, she looks back at the house one last time, devoid of emotions.
The city of Madras radiates splendour, more than what my imagination could assume. The colour, the buzz, the heat is all new to the both of us.
‘My ship is in three weeks. We will find you a home before that’ she beams from her chair on the porch, in her Cousin Mendez’s house on a secluded street. ‘Hope nobody comes looking for you before that.’ She seems to be as anxious as I am.
The vibrant evenings in this place are spent outdoors. One evening as both of us try to catch the joyful waves; there are people of all colours around us. As hoards of them, more than ten times the people in my village, wet their feet in the welcoming waves, their clothes- sarees, gowns, salwar kameez soak in the acceptance, their identities dissolving with the foam.
Darelle Whittman looks around fondly, an uncanny illumination in her eyes.
‘Are we home, Venni?’ She smiles.