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The teashop keeper Pathrose had said about a mile after the chapel there would come a canal. Kesu had been walking for nearly an hour. So far, no canal. The bag he carried on his shoulder with nothing but a few clothes, although light to begin with, was bruising his skin red. A pack of languid stray dogs—bony, scaly pariahs—watched him indifferently. The tarred road strewn with potholes was otherwise deserted.
A few hours earlier, when he alighted from the rickety KSRTC bus at a teashop of straw walls and squeaking wooden benches, the few hoary men loafing about were all agog. This godforsaken village hardly has visitors, they complained, and they went on to ensnare Kesu in banter bordering on interrogation: where from, what job, why here... Pathrose the teashop keeper offered Kesu a ceramic plate of complementary fried bananas, "specially made for our visitant," he announced, then adding, "I am Pathrose," beaming, his one front tooth missing. The fried bananas were crisp, golden slices of heaven, naturally sweet with a surprise seasoning of pepper. Kesu had had two. His burps still preserved the taste.
All that Kesu divulged in the teashop was, "I am here to see my great grandmother, Ammini." The men went about conjecturing amongst themselves as to which Ammini that would be until Kesu settled them with, "The Ammini who has the big banyan."
"Oh, Muthi Ammini!" they exclaimed, "Arayaal Ammini!"
Kesu was relieved to hear the Arayaal was still intact, immense and ever growing. Pouring fresh hot tea from a steel tumbler to another and back like a ribbon dancer with a ribbon made of tea, Pathrose claimed, "Big is too small a word for that tree, dear fellow."
If big was too small a word for the tree, Kesu thought, its worth in money would surpass all his estimates. It would be an ordeal for certain. Coaxing Muthi Ammini to comply with its felling, finding labor and a truck to transport... a month's work in the least. The trifles of details Kesu had drawn out of his mother suggested Muthi Ammini was close to a hundred. He hoped she was senile and uncomplicated. Maybe she was even dead. The thought brought a spring to his feet. Apart from the gravelly scrunch of his Bata footwear and the clamor of crickets rising from the woods on either side, his pace picked up at the faint sounds of water and voices laughing.
In the waist-high, pellucid water, a bunch of children were having a ball, their voices gurgling. The canal was as wide as a highway, water from river Chaliyar running shallow. "You wade through the canal until you find a bridge. It will take you much less time, but if you don't want to get wet, you can trek the dry trail," was what Pathrose had soundly said. Kesu should have asked him how much longer it would take by road, but he hadn't. It was nearly sundown. The crows and cranes were returning nest-ways, the sky in places crimson, the September air in Nilambur still wet from the southwest monsoon.
Kesu moved to clamber down the few disintegrating steps to the canal but paused when the children all hushed. A few of them had catapults aimed at him with mango-sized rocks, their eyes feisty—even the girls, who had only minutes ago looked demure. Kesu considered slighting their threat, but like a small militia they inched forward.
"Anyway, I don't want to get wet," he said loud enough for them to hear as he backed away. Almost out of earshot, he heard them calling him names, laughing at his expense. "Rowdies," he muttered. "Rural good-for-nothings."
The elusive bridge was found after sundown, hijacked by creeper weeds and prone to be missed if one wasn't looking for it. It was too narrow for a car to pass but wide enough for an auto rickshaw. Kesu halted in the middle of it, let his bag thump to the floor, and prayed there was another, broader, truck-able road. Shipping logs by rickshaw would take a lifetime. He did not have a lifetime. A ball of agony travelled up in him. He spat a jet of bitter saliva and lit a cigarette. The tip crackled, a speck of orange in the gloom. It was his last cigarette, but three packs of beedis bulged in his shirt's chest pocket. Preoccupied, he stroked the beedi bulge.
In the moonlight, one couldn't see the creamy skin he inherited from his Gujarati mother. Or detect by his wiry frame and somber stance his streetwise charm—another trait of his mother's, susceptible to fluidity. His father's influences were even more intangible: elusiveness, and a knack for acquiring debt. All these traits had both ensnared and preserved him in the fatal game of hide-and-seek that was his life in Salem. His creditors, even the milder, commiserating ones, of late had their talons out, owing to Kesu's capricious line of work—or lack thereof.
The bridge, when he crossed it, led him to a cluster of houses where in the purple-black sky, like the silhouette of a mountain range, appeared Muthi Ammini's banyan canopy. Kesu felt an odd tingle in his gut. It was a meld of reassurance and apprehension. The tree was a feral giant. He had half a mind to retreat. But the other half had by then begun bargaining at the timber mill. Through the strait lanes, Kesu set off briskly, carrying his bag in his palm turned up and twistedly resting on his shoulder, elbows jutting like the sharp end of a pickaxe. From huts with lone light bulbs lit, dogs chained to poles growled. Babies' wails, TVs' blaring, and sounds of evening prayers collided in the air with mosquitoes.
With every step the colossus tree loomed closer. And so did the logistic trials of the task at hand. There was the risk of Muthi Ammini not believing he was her son's son's son. Kesu had stocked a string of stories sketched out by his father to rewind her memories, but for all he knew, they could be mere fabrications. His father was a known fabricator. Perhaps Muthi Ammini, even if she believed he was her great grandchild, would hate him and his father for never checking up on her. "But she was kind of a witch, Kesu!" his mother used to bicker whenever the subject was broached. Which, despite her is being hundred, posed the possibility of trouble. Then, of course, there was the challenge of transporting a tree as expansive as a mountain range on auto rickshaws.
Kesu passed a house where three children wrestled, rolling on the ground. From a kitchen unseen drifted the irresistible tang of fish fried in coconut oil. Hunger gnawed. He prayed his Muthi would offer him at least supper if not the tree.
The moonlight, which had been showing him the way until then, waned beneath the banyan. The darkness Kesu found himself in was dense, and he tripped on chunky, lawlessly snaking roots. Pathrose was right. Big was indeed quite a small word for the tree. The banyan was Brobdingnanian. A thousand aerial roots dangling, tangling, some of them substantially woody, so that it seemed like the tree had numerous trunks: primary, secondary, tertiary, the denary ones as thick as Kesu's slim midriff. He slinked through the tree-verse, encumbered by its boundlessness, netted by spider webs, looking out for a clearing, a lone bulb, and a door to knock on.
It took him longer than admissible to concede there were none of those. Frustration hotfooted from his temple down all they way to the tip of his toe—which stubbed painfully against something rock-hard—and returned upwards with a roar. He slumped, shaking loose his Batas, nursing the injured digit.
The sky behind the blanket of wavering elliptical leaves was still gray when Kesu woke, feeling a pair of eyes on him. His back was numb from the awkward night spent on a wide-laying root softened by moss. He lay for a while, willing his limbs to move, eyes locked with hers, which were deep-set. She was diminutive, her head the size of a large coconut, features chiseled but not in a handsome way. She was crouched, clad in a faded red sari, blouse-less bare shoulder with wrinkly skin mud-brown. Her spare palms were curled around a standing smooth cane that seemed to share her weight with her fleshless bare feet pressed firmly on the earth. She watched him like a bird on a tree, distant yet with intent. From his parched and aching throat and a mouth bitter from the pack of beedis he expended the previous night to combat hunger, Kesu heard his voice stutter out. Her fading brows furrowed in response, her sapless lips pursed.
A while later, perched on a sturdy stub, she exclaimed for the umpteenth time, "Kesu!" in what sounded more like wind and less like voice. Her smile revealed a toothless cave. "Yes, Muthi Ammini!" Kesu mouthed and dunked into the green watered pond she had brought him to for rejuvenation. Blue lotuses squiggled as he swam past their stems.
Muthi Ammini had no qualms about believing Kesu. She could clearly grasp in him the traces of his great grandfather, her late husband, Palani. In the way his nose tipped like the end of a mango, his lean-muscled forearms with veins showing, his feet with the long toe twisted, and the pinky curved out. Even his walk in ways evoked Palani. A sense of uncertainty in his footsteps, and skip of an odd beat in the swing of his arms. Their smiles, however, greatly differed. Palani bared his soul when he smiled, unlike the great grandson who palpably contained secrets in his.
This particular inferred difference between her late husband and her great grandson made her somewhat twitchy. Muthi Ammini deduced that to have kin visit after decades of not was questionable. Her calculus instinctually pointed the needle at his coveting her bequest. It amused her to think one would presume she had anything at all to bequeath.
Kesu was disquieted under Muthi's piercing gaze, but he smiled and nodded in agreement to the millet rice and something yellow he was served and found insufferable. He remembered Pathrose's banana fries and determined he would make daily trips to the shop if this was the kind of menu to expect in Muthi's residence, which as it turned out was a cocoon of a shack camouflaged within tangles of trunk-like roots ranging from senary to nonary. He had understandably missed it the previous night. Thatched in places, mud plastered in the corners, the shack was painfully austere: a rolled up bed stood like a clothed Chenda; a deftly ordered assembly of pots and ladles hung at attention; a couple of soft cloth bundles sat like gigantic potatoes. There were nailed photographs of mustachioed Lord Siva, Bala Ganapati in Goddess Parvati's lap, and a man strikingly similar to the scrawny men of the teashop, whom Muthi Ammini quite vehemently asserted as Kesu's great grandfather Palani. "What have you been doing if you don't know your own forefathers?" She spat.
One would expect a centenarian to be burnt out, but Muthi Ammini was perpetually on the move. She did things that didn't necessarily need doing but once done enhanced a certain je ne sais quoi of life in general. She swept the leaves off the entire ground in the shade of the banyan, which took her hours, bending her bent back farther, almost leveling her face with her knees. She burned the piled up leaves before sundown, sending up smoke like mist stroking the graying skies. She grew patches of vegetables and greens on the wet banks of the blue lotus pond where she bathed, swimming several laps when the sun was brightest. She drank numerous demitasse cups of herbal teas, the herbs grown by her, and ate two meals, cooked minutes before having. She fed the birds—mynahs, robins, orioles, munias, and crows even. And she hurled stones at cats as they mated lustily. A few mangy dogs made visits when she cooked fish or meat. She made them wait for it as long as she pleased. The canines waited.
The first few days Kesu trailed her like a toddler, vainly scraping at the huge block of ice wedged between them. He unloaded the stories he had stockpiled onto a Muthi Ammini who showed no signs of being impressed or in the least touched. Not when he spoke of how his father was bitten by what snakebite experts professed could either have been a krait or a viper. Or how miserable their lives in penury were. Nonetheless she was embittered when he asked her one night to return with him to Salem. "We will take care of you, Muthi Ammini. Why should you live alone here and suffer when you have got a family who loves you?"
Baring her gummy cave, she then snarled at Kesu, "Do I look like an imbecile who needs to be taken care of?" and slapped more millet rice onto Kesu's plate, commanding him to finish it.
Muthi Ammini was not predominantly brittle. In the afternoons when the banyan tree teemed with children of all sizes and shapes, who swung from aerial roots like Tarzans and leaped from branch to branch like primates; and when upside-down bats that hitherto hung undisturbed took off into the blue skies at once alarmed; she unwound into a creature of love and laughter. Little ones hemmed in around her like flies around jackfruit. The folk songs she taught made no sense to them, but they sang along. Older ones took turns to help with maintenance. They shoveled in her garden, scrubbed fungi off her shack, and scaled fish they caught for her. The children seemed to love her sharp tongue, and they did all they could to vex her. But even when she lashed out at them, her windy voice endorsed mirth.
Kesu made no attempts to join in on the fun, but he grew increasingly chary of seeing his schemes through. One evening as the skies began to turn crimson before darkening and she shooed the rowdies back to their homes, Kesu held his heart in his mouth and asked her, "Muthi Ammini, I have told you about my troubles, haven't I?"
Muthi ambled away to burn the piled up leaves.
"About my debts, which I have to pay off, or else..." Kesu watched his great grandmother fan the flames, her stick-thin legs showing beneath her scrunched up sari, wishing for her to die, then and there. "Or else I will have to kill myself, Muthi."
"Oh, I can help you with that," she said breezily. "You walk up that little path behind the pond," she said straightening up briefly before falling back to her usual posture. "There's a pong-pong tree. Take as many as you like, but I would say about two fruits would do," and walked away for her evening prayers.
Kesu did not back off. Folding his legs, he sat beside her on the cool earth in the shack, facing the photographs of the Gods and Palani, his palms adjoined before his chest like hers, eyes shut, heart determined. "This tree is worth half my debt. The land this tree stands on, if I sell it, will pay the rest. I have worked this out, Muthi. I am not going to beg to you anymore. You are a hundred. Why are you being so selfish?"
That night Muthi Ammini crouched out at the woodstove as pigmy owls cried from the branches above and concocted a pot of pongal tampered with oleander. She was in no doubt of what the toxic plant would do to him: a fortnight of agony. As easy as it was to make the concoction, tending to the person who consumed it as they sunk into sickness would not be. It would require rigorous scrutiny and exactitude. Even an infinitesimal slip would mean death.
Palani was the first to fall to her industry. She infected him to lure him out of his affair with a woman much younger than her. During his suffering, Ammini showed Palani unadulterated, kingly devotion. After which the paramour was eventually erased from their lives. That was years ago. Thereafter she operated a few times on vituperative husbands of women who came to her for succor. Or their irksome mothers in law. In sickness, Muthi Ammini was convinced even the worst breed of wickedness might be brought to heel. The art was to caress their hearts with all the love one could muster just when they began to envision death. For her great grandson, all she needed was for him to love her just enough to not want to destroy her life.
Muthi Ammini craned to gaze up at her banyan sprawled across the silvery sky. In the tracery of branches, she caught a pair of yellow eyes watching her. A corner of her papery lips twitched. "Ey," she whispered. Hey, there. The owl blinked, a crisp moment of black. She imagined the tree gone. Her being elsewhere, beneath another sky, without the hiss of the glossy leafed branches that never quieted. Without the loyal, woody arms shielding her, the scent of fallen leaves infusing the air she breathed. It left her woeful and her limbs weak. For a few superfluous minutes, she needlessly beat the pongal. Reinforced her resolve. Added an extra dollop of ghee, and heaved the pot off the fire.
An unsuspecting Kesu lapped up the dish, pleased to be freed of the insipid millet rice. "Are you not eating?" he inquired, barely looking at her.
She gestured at the plate with yellowish pongal remains on the floor before her folded legs. "I have, can't you see?"
In the middle of the night, when Kesu tossed around on his mat, yelping in pain, Muthi Ammini forced him to chew down cloves of garlic and rubbed his belly with pungent oil. All through the ensuing two days, Kesu shivered, his skin burning hot. He belched into an aluminium pale placed for the purpose, his head spinning on the inside like a top toy.
With timely supply of various potions into his system—wedging a ladle between his teeth to keep his mouth open in the process—Muthi Ammini kept Kesu from dying. She placed wet cloth on his head to restrain the fever. Consoled him with head massages and belly rubs when his groans rose in pitch.
In the shack as he lay effectively comatose, spiraling around in a crypt of fever, Kesu had visions of Muthi Ammini the Witch, fangs and all. Her hysterical laughter thunderous, her eyes red, she threatened to kill him, sibilantly whispering in his ears, Pongpongpongpongpongpong... The delirium was exacerbated at night when her snoring sounded like drills boring holes his skull. The gales rattling the shack swept him up and threw him in the air where he wheeled before crashing to the ground, splintering his bones. During the day, sunlight was blinding. A troop of imps surrounded him every now and then. They pulled him apart like he was a mass of dough, all the while humming. Muthi Ammini spoke gibberish, evil spells. He wanted to crush her coconut head, but his hands wouldn't move.
Muthi Ammini went about her days unperturbed. In the afternoons she made the older boys scrub a whimpering Kesu squeaky clean, replace his vomit bucket, and massage his legs, all of which they diligently did. At night she fed him rice gruel and more garlic. "It makes you better," she cajoled him, even as he darted his gaze at everything else but her. She thoroughly enjoyed tending to her great grandson, whom she believed deserved the lesson she had imparted. She hummed to him lullabies, the words of which she had forgotten. She patted him down as he jittered from nightmares. She sat by him, fanning on nights too humid. When his vomiting ceased and his senses aligned, she asked the boys to bring him out, where he was laid on a bed of gunnysacks in the cool shade, the younger children playing raucously around him.
After being holed up in the crammed shack for days, smelling his own reeking garlic breath, the air outside filled Kesu's lungs. He felt like a balloon, blown dangerously large, vulnerable to touch. A wave of self pity rushed over him. He sobbed. He hurled epithets at Muthi Ammini and stopped her from singing folk songs. The children laughed. Muthi Ammini did, too. And in that moment, he couldn't help but laugh along.
In the evenings he watched the burnt-leaf puffs of smoke float up and wrap around the branches like moony lovers. He took note of the subtle shifts of light in the sky as it slid from day to night. He delighted in spotting birds and occasionally called out to Muthi Ammini for their names.
"What color?" She would ask, and he would describe them. In a little over a week, Kesu convalesced and went for a swim.
From behind the pot of gruel she was stirring for supper at the woodstove, Muthi Ammini regarded her great grandson like a wary rodent from a thicket. He had a beedi lit. The smoke he blew formed ephemeral clouds over his head, then vanished. He sure had warmed up to her. And he revealed no hints of skepticism at Muthi's oleanders. But, in Kesu's restored strength, unlike her other victims, Muthi Ammini found not quite the same appreciation for the care given, not quite the same requited love. Covetousness, like death, was cureless, she feared.
As a way of navigating into chitchat, gummily grinning, she asked him, "Who told you I am a hundred?" Kesu shrugged. "I look a hundred?" She questioned, feigning dismay. Kesu nodded, and she affected a burst of laughter.
Kesu was relieved to have regained himself, and he couldn't stop thinking how relieved he was. He thanked his constitution and nothing else. As he absently watched Muthi's frail figure vigorously shake with hollow laughter, he plotted his next move. Wiht her and her child militia hollering about, tree-loggers could not work. She had to go. When her laughter subsided, he noticed her shrink, like air had escaped her. "I had your grandfather when I was 14, in this very home," the shrunken Muthi Ammini was saying. Kesu nodded, irked by her chatter, wondering why she couldn't ever stay mum.
"You may not think too much of it, but I have been living here for all my life," she said, feeling dejected at spotting the return of secrets in his smile.
They stared at each other, wordless for a long moment. Then they looked away, each glimpsing defeat. Branches creaked above them like bones breaking. One kindred thought sprouted in both their hearts and skated up the path behind the blue lotus pond. At the pong-pong, the thoughts entwined, and the fruit of death was quietly beheld—one to die, the other, to kill.
Muthi Ammini doused the woodstove. Kesu stubbed out his beedi.
"Shall we eat, Muthi Ammini?"
"We shall. We shall."