Sylvia Nair 

1985-89 IC

Weariness seems to have become my predominant state. Ever since
May- saying goodbye to Mother but with no real chance to grieve for her,
deadlines of previous commitments coming up, polite reminders from agents,
directors, even friends.

Friends who say- “Life goes on, Death is very much a
chapter in life. At least you could be with her for over a month- be grateful
for that”. And finally- “When will you be back in New York?”

I did not stay for long after the memorial service. Dad was
silent and broken- but it was so long since we communicated beyond the mundane,
so I stayed silent. John and his family would be there for him. John hugged me-
with the unspoken message- “Be back soon, brother”.

Today I am tired- bone tired. All projects wrapped up. Promo videos
released. Upcoming works shelved for a month or so. Because I sell- the
directors had agreed.

Suddenly I am alone with myself. Now what? UK was out of the question- too raw, too early to step back, with the huge vacuum left with the absence of the most important, most supportive person of my youth. No place to go but away. As far away as possible from the glitz and carefully posed photographs and perfect smiles. And from Christmas. The first Christmas without her

I typed in keywords- trying to capture the essence of  what I sought. Not too optimistic of the
results. I was no longer the average tourist. I was one with a deep soul
hunger.

*******

Her work was done for the day. The house, built of bricks and
mud, with open spaces and deep windowsills, was silent and quiet, settling for
the night. She loved the evenings best; this quiet time which was neither day
nor night. The sweetness of  jasmine
floating indoors  in the breeze. This
peace and calmness made everything that went before seem totally worthwhile.

The farm and homestay were still not in the red- but it was okay.
Someday they might. In the meantime, they brought happiness- both to her and to
the families who opted for an off beat travel experience. She especially loved
wandering under the starlit skies with the children. Children who have never
seen a star studded night sky in their light polluted city lives. She pointed
out constellations to them- Orion the Hunter- with its brightest stars; Beta
Orionis and Alpha Orionis. Sirius, Andromeda- the stories accompanying each
constellation.

These simple joys made the past bearable. Eminently bearable.

She turned the laptop on.

*******

The first email was brief and terse. “Possible to book a
stay of  a week?  Second half of December? Regret the short
notice. Appreciate an early reply”.

And further below- another email- from a familiar name.

“Mummy, won’t be able to come down this Christmas.
The only available opening for the IISC internship is in December. Slave labour,
I know. But what I always dreamed about. Will be there asap”.

*******

The first things I notice as the aircraft circles for landing are
the sunshine- warm and golden- and the myriad shades of emerald in the green
landscape. Both were soothing.

My agent had gone ballistic. “You are going to
the back of beyond!”, he remonstrated. “Rob,
you really need to be careful, wandering off like this. What is this place? Who
runs it? Have you checked their credentials? What about the ratings? What – you
don’t know?”

What was I? An irresponsible teenager ? Or a man with a
recognisable name (and face) in the industry?

The person who replied to my mail had promised to be at the
airport. Too late, I had realised that I had no idea if the sender of the mail,
one A Menon,  was a he/she/they.

I see no one remotely resembling Mr./Ms. A Menon among the people
thronging Arrivals. I do receive curious glances though, which I assume are due
to my height. I stand 6’ 3”
– I also stand out like a pale sore thumb in this sea of dark haired
people.

There was no way I could have missed her approach, but I have.

“Excuse me”, says a soft voice from somewhere
near me. “Are you Mr Taylor?”

Who the hell is Mr Taylor, I wonder, then suddenly remember that
I had made the booking under my mother’s maiden name, which makes me Mr
Taylor.

A diminutive woman, in a pale green kurta (what is it with these
people and green?) now stands  in front
of me, the top of her head barely reaching my shoulder. She repeats her
question.

We have found each other- the man with the assumed name and the
woman who was careful to be sparing in information about herself.

“Shall we leave?”

*******

She drives carefully along narrow roads, frequented by cars,
buses, cycles and cattle. I should have a panic attack coming in, but strangely
there is none. I somehow feel calm, even though I am in a match box sized car,
with a woman driving and with would-be-suicidal speed maniacs all around me.

*******

The traffic eases once we are out of the city. Roads become
deserted; then narrower; then even more deserted. The dusk eases into night.
There is silence in the car; I couldn’t have sustained a conversation even
if I wanted to do so. I am cramped, cranky. My legs are too long- I am too
long- this car is designed for midgets like my driver.

The car stops at a wrought iron gate.  An imp, a little boy wearing a pair of shorts
and nothing else, comes dashing out of the night and opens the gate wide. She
says something, a smile in her voice. The imp asks with what sounds like a
question. Her soft voice replies, which I understand to be a yes, when the imp-
a thin boy of eight or so- peers inside and says “Good Evening, Sir”,
in perfect English. I am flabbergasted!

She explains apologetically- “the children around
here, they are so thrilled when a guest comes to stay; and because I have no
time to keep interpreting, I taught them basic English. The rest they picked
up. Gopu there, he goes to school and despite his background- his parents are
farmhands and illiterate, you know- he is one of the best students there. He
does odd jobs for me after school. But please don’t get the wrong
idea, they will never be tiresome”.

This is the longest she has spoken to me, we only had  polite exchanges at the airport. “Welcome
to India. Hope you had a good flight”. “Thank you for
having me; it was really very short notice”.

*******

My room is large. The walls are unplastered brick. The window is
wide and has a deep cushioned sill; as if she has known that I would like to
sit there. The room is sweetly scented. I see the source- a jasmine vine
twining around a tree, just outside the window. The flowers glow in the dark;
or so I think.

It feels neither like a hotel or a homestay. It feels like
another home. The bathroom has warm water- (“we run on solar”,
she had said). I wash away the tiredness of the long long day.

*******

She knocks. And waits. She hears the water running. Leaves and
returns with a slip of paper- slid  under
the door- “ Dinner is ready, whenever you are”.
And scrawled as an afterthought- “It will be simple. And vegetarian”.

*******

It was. Also the lightest, gentlest meal I had ever had.

“Indian” in Leicester had meant fiery curries
and butter chicken. In NY it was fancier. The posher the restaurant, the more
likely you were to be surrounded by artefacts.

Here a tiny Bluetooth speaker plays what I recognise as ghazals
in the background, crickets chirp, fireflies do their mad signalling thing
outside.

I feel a knot loosening. A healing. The sadness seems to be
receding. Or is it my imagination?

*******

She knows that her coffee bushes have bloomed. She is still in
that half way land between sleep and wakefulness. The sweetness of coffee
blossoms is a part of her dreams. Then comes the bell of the milkman,
signalling that the milk bottles have arrived. Time to wake up. Time to just
sit- before the waiting chores start demanding attention.

It is half past five in the morning; the day is yet to shake off
its own drowsiness- it is December; with long nights with a the slight whisper
of a chill in them, despite the proximity to the Equator.

She unrolls the meditation mat. Woven of grass, soft and worn at
the edges.

*******

She will brew coffee later in the old fashioned way. Like her
mother and her mother before, used to brew. Homegrown Robusta coffee beans.
Roasted and ground. Boiling water. Stainless steel filter.

*******

It is the aroma of coffee and not coffee blossoms that wakes me
up. I am disoriented and confused for a moment and then realise with a shock
that I have  just had the deepest sleep
in years- despite the strange bed, strange room and heck, another country!

I feel the tentative budding of joy somewhere in the recesses of
my psyche.

This place- where no one knows me, where I am plain nondescript
Mr. Taylor, where there are no stunning, long-legged women hanging onto my arm
and where I don’t have to smile and be polite to the
camera always-  this place feels like
freedom.

*******

She hears a crystal clear voice. “Tell him that he
has grieved enough. He needs to move on with his life”. A woman’s
voice. British accented.

What? She opens her eyes. The familiarity of her bedroom. The
grass mat. The tropical sun streaming molten gold outside. She thinks she must
have dozed off.

She shuts her eyes again- focuses on the breath. And is back
there again- a brick fronted house, sitting room, chintz sofa.

The voice is insistent now.

“You will tell him this from me. It is really important. He
is so talented and used to love his work so much. Do you know, he ran away from
home as a teenager to join a circus. Nearly broke my heart!  But now- he grieves so much; grief, guilt. I
cannot understand. He needs to regain his old self- feel hope, joy and love
again”.

She understands without being told that it is about the man
sleeping in her guest room. She had seen his eyes yesterday- the bleakness in
them, as if he had brought winter along as his travelling companion.

“Madam”, she had replied, as if it was all in
a day’s work to talk to disembodied voices, “even
if I had the courage to go and say all this to this gentleman, who do I say
this message is from?”

“Sorry, I am Margaret, his mother”, replied the
voice. “This is his first Christmas without me. I cannot bear to see
his sorrow. You are the first person to whom I could connect”.

“Lady”, she tries to reason, “I
don’t know how to explain this to you, but suppose you went away
for a holiday and a random stranger came up with personal messages from the
otherworld, how would it feel? Your son may be a hotshot lawyer; or he may know
plenty of hotshot lawyers. Americans are famous for their love of litigation,
anyway. I cannot afford to have my enterprise in shambles. I cannot even return
the money he paid me, at least not until I get another booking or sell whatever
little jewelry left. So please don’t do this to me. And I am sure that
this is a dream; I am going to wake up any moment”.

She did not wake up.

The voice was sorrowful now. “It is a small
favour. What if you wanted to comfort your son and couldn’t?”  And then with a smile, “You
can be sure; he is not a lawyer, he will neither sue you nor ask for his money
back”.

“I will feel like a freak. I am not brave enough, anyway”,
she muttered.

“You know very well you are. Both of us know it”.

*******

The dining space has only three walls. It is open to the outdoors
where the fourth wall should have been. There is music around me. The twitter
and chaos, chirrups and calls of what seems like a twenty varieties of
birds.  But are in actuality only (only?)
about six. I listen spellbound to whole conversations going around me in
birdspeak.

The shirtless imp of last night has finished sweeping the
courtyard and shouts out a cheery good morning. His sister (from the
unmistakable likeness between them) seems to be assisting in the kitchen.

My hostess serves breakfast. She appears troubled but courteously
asks me the usual questions. She is not young; maybe a few years older than me.
Her skin is unlined and is the colour of old dulled gold, both of which I
failed to notice yesterday.

I still do not know her name. And ask.

“It is Annapoorna”, she says. Her eyes skitter to the
floor.

After breakfast, Annapurna asks me if I have any specific plans
for the day. I am open to her guidance, I reply. After a few questions and
truthful answers, she has divined my interest in architecture and historical
locations. I notice that she is somewhat reserved today.

The driver reports soon- a cheerful young man, accented English,
but we understand each other well. I am off to visit the original palace and
its adjacent temple, belonging to the royal dynasty which once ruled this
corner of India.

*******

It is evening when the car deposits me back. The imp’s
sister politely informs that she will be serving dinner, whenever I wish. Aunty
is out and will be back late, it seems. The imp, Gopu, joins in. I soon become “Mister
Rob” to him. He is full of questions, which
fortunately I am able to answer truthfully.

He also gravely informs me Aunty has gone to meet the old medicine
woman of the forest. “Why?”
I ask. “Is she ill?” There is a peal of laughter from
brother and sister.

“No, she goes to talk to the medicine woman. She is writing a
book”.

Good- my hostess is a writer too.

I have dinner and sleep the sleep of the weary.

*******

“You did not speak up”- the voice is back the next morning,
holding sorrow and  reproach in equal
measure.

“I am sorry”, she says. “My nerve failed”.

At the thought of those steely blue eyes, which depict a spectrum
of emotions. At the fear of sounding like a freak.

“It will help him heal. He has been carrying this sorrow for
long. It is time he laid it down. You can help him – if you wish”.

She decides.

*******

Anna is in the kitchen. (Since when have I started addressing my
hostess as Anna?) I hear the tiny bells on her anklets tinkle as she moves
around. The music is different today- Instrumental- Indian classical music played
on a stringed instrument. Santoor?  Its
melody sweeps over me like molten starlight.

I hesitate at the door.

The kitchen is airy and spotlessly clean. A brass statuette of a
beautiful smiling goddess stands on a shelf, surrounded by flowers. Her right
hand holds a ladle. The left one holds a bowl. A kitchen goddess? 

Anna must have heard me.  “Breakfast
will be ready in a moment, Mr. Taylor”.

Coffee is brewing. Steam rises from a steamer on the stove. She
is stirring something in a cast iron pan.

I sit on a cane chair. “Please call me Rob”,
I hear myself say.

She smiles. And serves breakfast. It is lightly spiced; the gravy
is coconut based and delicious. I have never come across the like in any Indian
restaurant so far.

“Who is that?” I ask, indicating the smiling goddess
statue. I can see her from my vantage point.

She is silent for a long moment. I wonder if I have committed
some unwritten cultural gaffe. Was it rude to be curious about kitchen
goddesses? Were the names of goddesses not supposed to be spoken aloud?

“She is Annapoornadevi. I was named after her”,
replies Anna at last. “An avatar of the goddess Parvati.
Annapoorna is the giver of nourishment and sustenance. Supposed to make life
perfect, fulfilled and absolute”.

She pauses. “There was a message for you”.

I stare.

Nobody, except my agent, is aware of my whereabouts. And he
definitely does not have the contact details of this remote homestay in India.
Apart from that, he is away from work, celebrating Christmas with his family.

Anna looks definitely uncomfortable now. “It is from
Margaret- your mother. She asked me to tell you that she is very happy, where
she is now; happier than you could imagine. She wants you to stop grieving for
her. She asks that you go back to your old self. To live, to love again, to
love your work and put your heart and soul into it again. She said that she is
always watching over you”.

I feel a slow anger rise in me. My cover is blown. Anyone who has
followed my career will be aware of my recent breakup and about my mother, who
passed away in May, after a brief and painful illness. Perhaps this woman has recognised
me. She will next seek money from me to communicate with my mother. 

“Madam”, I say through gritted teeth, “try
that spiel with someone else. Do you honestly expect me to believe all this New
Age rubbish? Forget it. This is downright unprofessional. I will be cancelling
my booking effective today. Kindly arrange to refund the balance”.

Her face is averted. Good, I think with satisfaction and stand
up. I know how intimidating I can be standing. I have practiced that stance in
quite a few movies.

“Wait”, she says, “I know how that
must have sounded. Perhaps she might have known how you would  react. She also told me to remind you of the
day when she took you to Norwich. To remember the Cathedral”.

I notice her hands are trembling.

“You are free to disbelieve me”, she continues. “I
promise to credit your refund in three days. Sorry, but not earlier than that”.

I hear Gopu’s arrival outside and his yoo-hoos.
She leaves the kitchen.

*******

The car is waiting outside. I ask him to take me to the Vivanta,
which had good ratings on Tripadvisor. I check in under my own name (Vivanta
people wanted a copy of my passport, unlike Anna, who took my word on trust).

I book the next available flight back to New York.

*******

There is no website on earth which documents my trip to the
Cathedral of Norwich, as a lanky thirteen-year old, accompanying his mother.

My mother spoke often about the anchoress, theologian and mystic-
Blessed Julian of Norwich. I was too young to understand the mysticism of
Julian but I remembered clearly the most famous saying attributed to her- “All
shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

And the other, not so well known one- “And
this word that He said is an endless comfort: I keep thee secure.”

We were in the Norwich Cathedral when my mother had quoted it
softly. “Remember that Rob, whenever you feel sad, lonely or
overwhelmed”.

I now remembered the echoing vast cathedral, the brightness of
the day, the statue of Julian, the touch of my mother’s hand – like a
benediction.

*******

Anna was true to her word. Not just the balance, but the entire
amount I had transferred on booking the stay, was returned and showed up as a
credit in my account; without any explanation.

*******

There was no birdsong in New York to wake me up, nor the aroma of
coffee, unless I brewed it. No classical ragas played on santoor, no ghazals.
No Gopu to call me Mister Rob.

My kitchen was all steel- sterile and functional. No Annapoorna
Devi, smiling benevolently from her corner.

No Anna with her tinkling anklets, of course.

*******

Many more mornings on her meditation mat, they continued to have their
virtual conversations across the veil of reality- Annapoorna and Margaret.

She listened to a mother’s reminiscences about the sensitive young
boy who loved music, dancing, acting and roller-skating.

She also learned his real name, looked him up (he had a Wikipedia
page!) and understood his outrage a bit.

Margaret was sorry about what had happened.

She became the daughter Margaret never had. Daughter of the mind.

*******

The pale circle on her finger where the gold band used to be
worn, slowly regained its normal colour. The jeweler, as is usual, had
undervalued it; still the money it fetched was enough to refund what she owed
Margaret’s son.

And to fund the next semester for her own son’s
education.

It was high time she took it off, anyway.

*******

One morning, in the borderland between sleep and wakefulness, I
hear my mother’s unmistakable voice- “Rob, you owe her an
apology; it was I who asked her to talk to you. And never forget – all shall be
well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

*******

I am at a loss on how to begin the mail.

Dear Madam? Ms. A Menon? Annapoorna?

Dearest Anna?

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