Sunday Scribblings: Rooted (a fiction)
Every Saturday my father picks up a new movie on his way home from the office.
This is not as easy as it sounds. My mother prefers psychological thrillers, while Dad likes action movies. But my Dadima likes the family dramas best, the ones where someone (or everyone) gets married at the end.
As in most things, Dadima tends to get her way.
“What a nice looking couple,” she sighed as the end credits rolled, after yet another three hours of dancing, dresses, and finally wedlock. I usually watched these movies with one eye on the screen and one on my book. It only takes about five minutes of viewing, at this point, to figure out the story. And it’s usually not as interesting as the one in my book. Dadima always wrings her hands when I say that. “How can a book compare to love, a family, a wedding?” I know she doesn’t expect an answer, perhaps because she knows she will not like mine.
“They’re actually married, you know.” One of the maids piped up as she pulled her angular body off the floor with a groan.
“As it should be.” Dadima was old fashioned; didn’t approve of actors and actresses being paired together when they weren’t really married. The maids grinned and giggled as they wandered back to the kitchen to finish their cleanup.
“Ah, what a lovely wedding that must have been,” said Mummy, surprising me. She normally didn’t care about such things. The movie must have affected even her tonight.
I know the wedding must have been like every other wedding, from the beginning of our time. The sacred fire, the seven cirles, the bride and groom walking solemnly, her bowed from the weight of her jewelry and modesty, a corner of his shirt tied to her sari. Joined.
But I do remember that star couple’s wedding. The streets around their wedding tent, only about ten minutes from our home, were thronging with people, shoulder to shoulder. Waiting for a glimpse of one or the other. I wasn’t one of them that day, but I have walked past their building. It's one of the tallest in our area of the city, white and straining past the smog towards the clearer air. They are a rare couple—both famous and equally as successful, with the wife still working after marriage.
They don’t spend much time in their penthouse nest; they are always working, traveling all over the world. Soaring above even as they claim that they are forever rooted to India.
Secretly, I admire them.
Dadima sat in her special chair, darning a pillowcase. It didn’t matter how often Mummy told her that we didn’t need her to do that, that we could just get new ones. Dadima said she couldn’t properly enjoy the movie without some bit of work for her hands to do. She put one hand on the top of my head. It felt heavy against my hair. “You shouldn’t read in this light, Ambika beta. You’ll spoil your eyes.”
Mummy yawned and got up too, her chuni dragging on the ground. “I’m too tired tonight.” As she walked past me, she patted my cheek and then did the same to the oversized graduation picture of my brother, who is off studying in America now. He has on his most studious face. The kind of face that a family can hang its fortune on.
This is the official version of my brother, rooted solid to the wall of home.
I have a picture of him in my room as well, just a snapshot, really, stuck into the corner of the mirror. Of him and his new friend, the impossibly named “Shakti” (hippie parents, says Sunil with a laugh). She has marigold hair on top of a skinny white neck. They are both laughing, shoulders touching. Compared to them, my face looks brown and ordinary, serious. Even when I smile, there's something tight and frowning there.
"Smile more, beta, be happy! You're so young!" says Dadima. "I loved your hair long," Mummy sighs. "I don't know about jeans for girls so much," Daddy says. And the maids say nothing, but I can feel them thinking.
Mummy frowns at the snap and says sometimes a boy needs to sow his wild oats. I wonder about those oats. Are they just blowing around, like dust? Or do they grow roots somewhere, against their will? But she just shakes her head sadly, brown hairs escaping from their tight bun to wiggle their agreement.
In the morning, after chai, Dadima says, “You’ll come to the temple with me today, to do puja?” But it’s not a question. It never is.
She holds onto my elbow as we weave ourselves through the moving pockets of space in the street. Her white sari flutters like quiet in the full-throated, dusty noise. People rush from the lane into the road, and back. They know exactly where they are going. Their feet and their ancestors' feet helped trample the soil into city. They belong, as much a part of this as trees in the jungle.
Our favorite rick driver is waiting at the corner. The rickshaw putters and purrs like a well-loved pet. “Ah, Dadiji, I’ve been waiting!” he says in mock reproach as we climb in. A blare of filmi music starts along with the rick. Another love song. He turns it off with a hasty apology as we go.
Cows walk placidly past us as we rock and jostle our way down the lane. They belong to the temple, cared for by the priests. They roam with the complacency of well-loved things, always knowing the way home, pulled there by invisible strings and the promise of food.
The temple is quiet for this time of day; just us and a few other aunties around Mummy’s age. While Dadima prays, I watch the curls of incense smoke swirl upwards towards the painted roof, before sinking back into the ground, pregnant with everyone’s prayers.
The gods and goddesses look poised for motion. Arrested midstep. I wonder if they prefer to sit here, waiting and watching, instead of rushing about everywhere. Perhaps they've had enough of our hectic life. Or, perhaps, being divine, they can do both.
I stand in front of Saraswati for a moment—always my favorite goddess. Only she knows about the fat envelope waiting for me at home, from Sunil. An application to attend Boston University. And a postcard showing a tree, carved up with all sorts of letters and sayings. The postcard says only, “To be rooted is to submit.” But I don’t know if I agree with that. The carvings don’t change the basic nature of the tree. It still stands above what was done to it. It didn’t submit to anyone.
Dadima creeps up next to me, slipping her hand in mine. A slender hand, bones and veins standing up in delicate relief. A hand that reminds me both of a bird’s claw and the branch it lands on.
“I’m ready to go,” she whispers. I nod, my mouth suddenly full of incense smoke and half-thoughts.
Back at home, later, I steal up to our rooftop garden—really more of a perch, with a few straggly plants and dusty flowers. But I never come up here for the greenery. No, the lure is the old fashioned swing, the swing where I love to sit and read, each sway easing me deeper into daydreams. But today I can’t concentrate on anything but the envelope in my hand, my brother’s jagged black writing. At the poor, proud tree.
You can’t see its roots. I wonder how far down they go.
Downstairs Dadima and Mummy and the maids are preparing dinner, chopping onions, simmering sauces, throwing fragment cumin seeds that pop into a pan already sizzling with oil. I should be down there, too, helping them.
But I’m not.
Instead, I am up here, watching the dying sun kiss the muggy air, licking the clouds from underneath. Saffron and marigold. From here, I can make out the star couple’s penthouse. It’s hard to imagine them in there. In my mind, they are always modern and free. Moving. Free to leave, and to return.
I move back and forth, back and forth, but always stay in place.
I swing, higher. The swing rocks but does not topple. It’s firmly rooted. The breeze threatens the papers on my lap.
But I do not allow them to fly away.
To sink into more roots, go here.
Labels: sunday scribblings