CREATIVE FICTION : A river of yellow flowers & white milk By Anusha Veluswamy
Ganga wet her dry lips and waited for the throbbing pain to envelope her abdomen. They came in waves; wild, stoic, and towering. Curled against the wall, clutching her stomach tightly, her eyes focussed on the machete hanging carelessly beside the window against the peeling yellow wall, powdered with dark soot. It was a typical bill hook machete; a weapon and a tool. Ganga may have hoped but never dared to pick that machete to end this pain once and for all. Pain numbs you but also unravels a deep courage. The menstrual pain that racked her body every time she bled split her feeble body in two. Day one was the worst.
Ganga lay with only a single ink blue sheet with perfunctory white stripes on the frayed edges between her and the chipped concrete floor. An old pink sari of her mother’s was carefully rolled together as a pillow. She lay there quiet, focussed, and bleeding unceremoniously. Ganga’s straight waist-length hair was oiled and parted to the left side. The thick black hair was neatly divided into two braids that coiled around her abdomen like healthy black snakes as she cocooned herself. Her brown skin glistened as it broke a sweat from the pores to keep itself cool on this hot and humid morning. The loose-fitting purple cotton skirt and blouse concealed her growing breasts and tender body. Ganga was 14 years old, an age ripe with fears and dreams in equal magical potions.
Ganga heard her mother cooking; the shrill scraping of utensils broke the noiselessness of her home with strange patterns. She also heard her father's tired feet shuffling against the dry concrete floor, making his way inside their no-bedroom home, his eyes pale. Ganga shut her eyes pretending to be asleep, for even the darkness inside her head was brighter than her home today.
"Ganga”, called out her mother, her voice cracking. Ganga opened her eyes and for a curt moment, she felt her mother was finally going to tell her everything.
Pressing her trembling lips together she poured steaming kanji* into Ganga’s misshapen steel tumbler. Her mother’s dark brown eyes glistened with tears as their eyes locked. She motioned her eyes towards the steel tumbler as she continued to stroke Ganga’s hair. Ganga’s mother had aged 10 years in the last 8 months. The dark rims around her eyes looked like she had dabbed Kohl with a powder puff. Ganga heard her father coughing. With a cloak of heaviness, like that of a rain-ready cloud, Ganga’s mother got up to walk toward her husband. She tugged at the old and tattered green sari that closed Ganga in and separated her from the rest of her family today. Ganga stayed still as the sounds of her father’s muffled whispers and her mother’s soft weeping found their way toward her; a regular these days at their no-bedroom home. Ganga hauled herself up and fought hard to open the window beside her and as the faded blue window broke open, she gulped down a cheeky sob along with a ton of muggy hot summer air that found freedom on her mellow face.
Ganga never shed a tear over the no-bedroom home or the poverty that seemed to have found them recently. She only cried over the old memories of her father and mother. The memories of bright love and laughter were relentless in reminding her of what she lost. That cruel monsoon night when her father came home, he looked like the light in him was gone forever. Her parents talked for what seemed like a long time as she waited in her favorite garden gazebo, talking to her plant friends that night. She later fell asleep on the heavy iron chair amidst the beautiful garden only to be woken up by her mother a few hours later.
The same night Ganga and her parents left the city with a mere 2 bags of belongings, leaving behind their 2 storeyed home and with it their lust for life.
In these 8 months, no one cared to explain why they had moved cities, or why her work-loving father had not bothered to go out to work in the last 8 months, or what happened to their home, her school, and her dog Kanni. She missed all of it very much but what she truly missed was her amma’s boisterous laugh and appa’s shy sense of humor. She was also smart enough to not question her parents, for even if she did want to; Ganga knew they did hold the courage to answer her.
Ever since that fateful monsoon night 8 months ago, this 11x10, no-bedroom space was her home. In that no-bedroom home; a 2x3 space was demarcated for Ganga’s menstruation-isolation. As she menstruated each month, she dealt with the rising hormones and the racking pains in this little closure. She hid herself in this fort and simply waited for the days to roll by, enjoying her packaged and mere freedom in stillness. She revisited her dreams in leisure here. But what she enjoyed the most was looking over her tiny blue window, into the streets below. The view from her no-bedroom home on the first floor was cheery and optimistic.
The busy streets bellowed with fervor under the scorching summer heat. The noise, the sooty smoke of lorries and autos, the smell of spices, and dying food sometimes dug into the pit of her stomach. Across the street on either side of the street were the houses. They were stacked one upon another with a ferocious callousness, similar to the building where she lived. Cloth lines and small pots of herbs and thulasi maadams* lined the window sills on the building elevations. Pan stains and handprints decorated the walls and stairs.
Ganga’s parents hardly left their no-bedroom home ever since they fled their home and town 8 months ago. Every Saturday her father went out at around 8:00 am. Some weeks he came back with meagre food supplies for the week, some weeks he returned empty-handed too. But Ganga wandered out of her home every day. She wandered the streets, made friends, laughed, and remained free; all through the eyes of the little blue window.
From the window, she always loved to count the number of times the rusty green gate to her building opened and shut through the day. The gate made a peculiar shriek; protesting each time it was open and shut.
The milkman was usually the first one to open the gate in the morning. He supplied milk to everyone who lived on the street. On some rare occasions when he had some extra to spare, he left Ganga a tiny tumbler of milk outside the dilapidating door of their home and smiled at her friskily when he closed the gate. Across the day Ganga watched faces enter and leave the gate, only to melt away onto the sea of faces, dust, and noise of the street below.
Her favorite part of the day was to watch the street settle into a slumber. When the night poured in, flickers of bulbs shined from within the homes along with the stars. That is also when the shadows of the inhabitants screened a story for Ganga each night. The calm of the night enveloped silently, lulling her and the street into a peaceful sleep.
For a few weeks now Ganga had one exact recurrent dream, every night. A tall man with a fat mustache banged loudly at her blue window in the deep darkness of her dreams. He left each dream with a promise to a faraway land of yellow flowers and milk-rivers. Yellow flowers and milk-rivers sounded very promising to Ganga. That night as she got ready to sleep, she straightened her blue sheet and softly pressed out the creases. She made detailed mental notes to ask the tall man the right questions when she met him tonight in her dream. Her breathing fell into a steady rhythm as sleep found her.
A strange yet powerful voice accompanied by a fierce and rhythmic noise of the drums woke Ganga that night. Balancing herself on one arm she pushed herself up and proceeded to peek into the blue window.
It must have been around mid-night she gathered, as her eyes darted across the street. She watched the petite man in a blue lungi* and white frayed banian* close his tea shop. Ganga wondered if the petite man ever slept, he was the last to shut the shop and the first to open on the street. She heard the soft snores of her parents from the other side of their no-bedroom home. The rest of the street looked peaceful; resting before the planned chaos of the dawn swallowed the whole street. Then she saw him, a tall man. Walking with a kind of courage Ganga had never witnessed before. He went on to pronounce with utmost devotion, “Your good times are here! Jakkama’s* promise is truer than truth. Your good times are near!”
This real tall man did not resemble the tall man from her dreams, except for the matching mustache. The real tall man was dressed in yards of green silk below and a red checked shirt that was safely arrested inside a dark black coat; his attire bright and loud. As he dangled his Kudu-kuduppu* in quick successions, the fiery red cloth on the hour-glass shaped musical instrument danced in the cool midnight breeze. His yellow turban looked like it was covering a lot of hair, for his mustache was thick and black; tamed with oil. A bulky yellow cotton bag hung precariously from his left arm, jostling about as he went on with his business of fortune-telling. He marched with vigor and a vision, stopping strategically at only a few houses and not all.
Ganga watched the tall Kudukudupukaaran* carefully and he stopped his drum roll. He did not mutter a word as he walked straight ahead. In a few quick strides, he was directly below her window. She froze, not with fear but with an overwhelming emotion. She could have shut the window, but did not. The Kudukupukaaran began nodding his head ferociously playing the Kudukuduppai and announced victoriously, “Your good times are here! Jakkama’s promise is truer than truth. Your good times are near!.” His red eyes bore into hers, spewing out a burning truth.
Third day of menstruation-isolation meant Ganga will have to race against the sun and wake up before the sun does. She will have to carry her sheets, her plate, tumbler, and the tattered sari curtain, wash them all and also take her first bath in 3 days. Where she lived now, the luxury of a toilet for each family did not exist. There were two common toilets and a common bath on the ground floor for all the 13 families that lived in that building.
Ganga picked all the things along with the bucket and soap her mother had placed beside the door of the house. She opened the door quietly, to not wake her sleeping parents.
It was still dark, so she will have to be very careful, finding her way to the bathroom on the ground floor. The single light on the staircase was usually switched off at 10:00 pm every night by the owner of the building who lived on the terrace, alone.
The stench of the toilet signaled to her that the destination had been reached. She groped the wall and found the switch to the bathroom door. She set down her blue bucket and went about the fairly difficult task of cleaning her clothes, washing away the blood her body had discarded. The blood ran from her clothes in shades of deep red and brown. As she scrubbed and washed, her mind wandered freely to lands of stories unheard and her lips hummed songs of hope.
The first rays of sun filtered in through the jaali* window of the bathroom, dusting the cobwebs on the jaali with a fiery golden glow. Ganga stuffed her washed clothes dripping with water into the blue bucket and juggled her utensils with the other hand. As she stepped outside the bathroom she noticed on the vent of the bathroom a black raven sitting notoriously, awaiting his morning feast. Crows made her chuckle with a fear-tinged mock. As she watched the crow declare his hunger, she also remembered the soothsayer; remembering his words this morning made her shiver.
Ganga raced up the single flight of stairs and she noticed the corridor was crowded. Frenzied noises were coming from inside of her no-bedroom home. Bursts of cries and compassion swam towards her in slow motion.
Amidst the people and their faces, Ganga saw her parents lying on the floor. The blood from their bodies had formed a pool of red beside them. Some parts of their insides floated on the scarlet puddle. The bill hook machete was safely locked inside her father’s swollen fingers. Her stomach churned and she was afraid she might vomit all over her parents. She swallowed hard instead, it tasted metallic. She wanted to scream and cry, but the tears did not come as yet. Ganga pushed past everyone and found her way to her blue window.
As she sat there beside the blue window, gulping air, she saw people rush into her building. She watched the rusty green gate open and close all day, shrieking tunes of deep sorrow.
She hardly knew any of the faces that walked into her home that day. Men dressed in khaki, flower decorators, a pair of short dark men with curly hair busily readying the last journey of her parents, women crying like they were paid to, children running about like they did not care but they were the only ones who clearly understood the truth of death. The street however looked busy as usual. The world and its chaos never paused.
It was about mid-noon and the sun now stung ferociously, burning the skin, killing with damage. The noises around Ganga were getting fainter.
By the time the sun sank into his home, the chaos of the streets, and the chaos inside her home began to diminish. Her parents were washed, cleaned, doused with milk and flowers, wrapped in an unstained chalky-white cloth, only to be burnt into insubstantial black ashes that evening.
The women of the building came back, but this time to wash Ganga’s no- bedroom home and feed her food to survive the grief. The blood splattered on the walls that had a strange oily smell in the morning had begun to reek as the hours rolled by. Some of the women poured buckets of water while some others drove away the stench of death with their strong arms and the coconut leaf brooms. As they scrubbed and cleaned Ganga’s home, the leftover flowers and milk from the rituals mixed up with the dirt, the faint smell of disinfectant, and death. Together they streamed down gracefully through the stairs onto the busy streets.
Like a river of yellow flowers and white milk.
Hugging herself tightly, lest she may fall apart physically; Ganga rocked herself to sleep that night.
A strange yet powerful voice accompanied by a fierce and rhythmic noise of the drums woke Ganga that night. Balancing herself on one arm she pushed herself up and proceeded to peek into the blue window. It must have been around mid-night she gathered, as her eyes darted across the street. She watched the petite man in a blue lungi* and white frayed banian* closing his tea shop. Ganga wondered if the petite man ever slept, he was the last to shut the shop and the first to open on the street. She heard the soft snores of her parents from the other side of their no-bedroom home. The rest of the street looked peaceful; resting before the planned chaos of the dawn swallowed the whole street. Then she saw him, a tall man. Walking with a kind of courage Ganga had never witnessed before. He went on to pronounce with utmost devotion, “Your good times are here! Jakkama’s* promise is truer than truth. Your good times are near!”
*Banian: A vest or singlet
*Jaali: A perforated stone or latticed screen
*Jakkamma: Goddess Jakkamma
*Kanji: A type of rice gruel/porridge
*Kudu-kuduppu: An ancient hour-glass shaped musical instrument
*Kudukudupukaaran: A Tamil Soothsayer
*Lungi: A traditional skirt-like lower garment wrapped around the waist
*Thulasi maadams: Thulasi or holy basil is a sacred plant according to Hindu belief and maadam refers to a special pot to house this sacred plant.
About the Writer
Anusha Veluswamy is an architect and a mother of two children (a tween and a toddler!). She runs her architectural practice where she fulfills her Lego dreams in concrete-scapes and finds joy in teaching design and being book drunk. Writing and motherhood to her is therapy. She is also the author of What If Rainbows Were Your Shadows? – A collection of poems and the children’s book ‘My beautiful Amma & her White Stone Mookuthi’ published by award-winning publishers – Batani kids (December 2020)