(Continued from page 1)
“Can we come now?” I asked, feeling the need to distract him from dwelling on inheritance which had proved, in our house, to always lead to tears and accusations on the part of some otherwise sober adult.
“Wait. You wait there until I check the place out. I haven’t come here for a long time. Avindra, you look after the little ones okay? ‘Till I come back?”
I turned to look at my oldest brother. I didn’t think he was capable of looking after us. Even then my guess was that he was far better at providing us an example, of dispensing advice, of perhaps translating the numerous dictates of our Buddhist philosophies as he sometimes did, or singing to us, than he would be at warding off danger from any quarter. His was a Jui Jitsu kind of engagement with the world, a conscious choice to deflect and redirect and sometimes absent himself rather than the head-on tae-kwondo assaults that were called for by our cultural predilections.
The other brother though, the middle child, stood straight and alert: he could navigate through any waters. By then he had already picked up the speech patterns and concerns of the land-deprived peasants, the up country estate laborers, the factory workers in the free trade zones and, most importantly, my father’s politics. He gave political speeches and amazed the working classes whose representatives were omnipresent in our lives, and equally reliably silent, as they were required to be. If we needed help from someone in these parts, I was sure he could summon it.
But navigating actual threats, from water-dwelling creatures or the ones who lived inside ant-hills or even, for that matter, large humans, for those things, they needed me; for wasn’t it I who boldly ventured outside to check on the night-noises that made us jumpy when our parents were away? Wasn’t it I who fought the actual battles with people, shouting and stamping and scowling until our adversaries, whatever boy or girl had crossed our paths – usually my path – had wilted away?
“Let’s go,” I said, and clambered to the top. My brothers followed. We couldn’t see Loku Māma, nor could we hear him.
“He must have gone to the other side,” my oldest brother said.
“He’ll be back soon. This island is not that big,” the second brother offered.
“Better not follow him though. He’ll get mad,” I said.
“We don’t have to worry. We know this island,” my second older brother said, “let’s split up and find kottamba.”
We wandered away on cue like small ripples set off by an unseen pebble dropped into our center. Kottamba, a variety of wild almond, was hard to find and even harder to eat, so the pleasure must have come from the exercise rather than the taste. By the time our black heads were almost too hot to touch from walking in the sun, we gathered in the shade of a mango tree to share our finds.
“I got masang,” my oldest brother said, opening his palms to reveal the peach and pink fruit.
“Where’s your kottamba?” the other brother asked.
“I didn’t find any.”
“Masang is better,” I said, officiating as always, “we can have it as dessert!”
“Well, nobody told me we were looking for masang. I found masang too, but I thought we were looking for kottamba.”
“If you brought masang too then we would have too much and we would get sick. You can’t eat too much masang, that’s what Aththa said.” I told him, trying to coat my voice with the ineffably calming quality it found hard to display having such little practice in the art; among boys, in my experience, there was only room for my just-as-good-and-often-better-than-you-are boy skills. I used to listen with fascination to my grandmother who drifted in and out of my grandfather’s orbit making statements that were seemingly addressed to a third party and were never in direct reference to the topic at hand – firing the watcher, for instance, or the price of the large fish that my grandfather preferred – almost all of which appeared to end to her satisfaction. How did she manage it? Would I ever find out? More importantly, what was it that gave her great joy? For that, too, was just as obscure. Whether she felt it, desired it, or missed it.
“Anyway, you have the most kottamba,” I told my second brother now, who still looked annoyed. “See? Even I only got five and you have eleven!”
He smiled the smile that often made him look younger than I was, and pointed back the way he had come, “There’s a lot over there. That’s how I got them.”
“I’ll get a stone,” I said.
“Get three,” my oldest brother advised.
It took a long time, as I recall, for us to finish this repast. First, each kottamba pod which was small to begin with, a puffy oval about two thirds the length of a little finger, had to be held just so, so that it could be hit repeatedly with a rock without also hurting our own hands. Then, the last strike had to be made with just enough force to reveal the kernel within but not so hard as to shatter it; shattering meant picking off tiny particles of the yellowy-white seed and there was no way to do that without also being forced to taste the sour fibers of the pod itself. Our count was usually 50-50. Half of them would be whole, half a mess. But that day we didn’t care because when all was said and done, there was masang to follow; an easy fruit.
“I think we should go and look for him,” my oldest brother said, after the last masang had been consumed and after my other brother and I had continued to sit there pretending to be busy, piling empty kottamba pods in one corner, our stones on top of each other and then in a triangle, and so forth for a little longer, delaying the inevitability of having to locate Loku Māma and cope with whatever mood he had worked himself up into.
This time we walked in a row, in birth order, myself bringing up the rear. I don’t know how the island got to be so large, so vast, bigger than it had ever been to us when we had visited it alone. Now, with Loku Māma missing, it seemed endless and treacherous. How had I missed the caves made by the piles of large rocks at its summit? Even the tall grasses and fruitless coconut trees had escaped my notice. In the distance we could hear the sound of the coconuts falling, brought down by the pluckers who either stood on the ground and sent their knife-topped poles into the trees marked for harvest or shimmied up the branch-bare trunks, miraculously aided by a band of cloth looped around their ankles. But here, there were no pluckers. Why didn’t these trees produce any fruit?
“Stop staring and hurry up!” my second brother yelled at me from ahead and I ran to catch up.
“Where do you think he went?” I asked. “There’s nowhere to go from here except to the fields. To get back to the main estate, he has to go the way we came and we would have seen him.”
“Maybe he fell somewhere,” my oldest brother said, “or maybe he sat down to rest and fell asleep.”
We speculated in that way as we walked, our ideas sometimes bordering on hilarity, sometimes verging on such possible tragedy that it made us quiet for a few moments. And maybe it was the very fact that we had entertained almost every eventuality that made us so unprepared for the one we had not thought of: Loku Māma was neck deep in a pool of water between the two fields behind the island. A wiry, muscled man, sundarkened to a vigorous deep, wearing red and white underwear several sizes too tight for him and nothing else was standing by it, urinating and spitting into the water, laughing.
“Stop that!” I shrieked, and then my trump card: “I’ll tell!”
The man finished peeing with a thrust of his hips, the urine almost hitting my uncle in his face where he stood, weeping with rage and, we all knew it, fright. Then he snapped the elastic of his underwear and swiveled to face us.
“Tell whom? That naaki vesi who owns the land?”
To hear my grandmother referred to as the old whore was one thing, to learn that it was she, not my talkative grandfather, who owned the land was another. I couldn’t decide which of these was worse.
“Putha,” Loku Māma blubbered, still standing in the muddy water, “don’t…say…anything. You leave them alone!” he said to the man, “You leave these children alone.”
“Filthy rich brats. You think you own this land? My ancestors have farmed this land for decades now. My grandfather planted most of those coconut trees. This land should belong to me!” His fist bounced off his own chest and he spat again into the water.
“This is our grandfather’s land,” my oldest brother said, “please go away now.”
“Please go away now,” he mocked. “And what if I stayed?”
“I know whose son you are,” my other brother spoke up. “If you say one more word I will make sure that the entire village knows what you did here. By tomorrow your father will not be working at any of these estates.”
The man stared at my brother, his eyes full of hatred. For the first time, I realized that there were things I could tell and things that I could not, no matter how much the truth burned into my body, no matter what justice I felt was deserved. For the first time, my grandfather’s land was complicated by people who weren’t family and weren’t glad to simply exist on the fringes of our needs; for fresh mangoes, for warm food, for the management of lost reptiles and the flapping of mosquitoes. For the first time I hated somebody and it was this man with his bare body, crude language and lack of fear.
He spat again on the ground and cursed us. He stepped threateningly toward us, stamping his feet, and snickered when we all moved back, my brothers closing ranks in front of me. Then, he turned and ran. I picked up a stone to throw it after him, but my oldest brother caught my hand in mid air.
“Don’t. Let him go, nangi,” he said.
Not that my stone would have hit him anyway. I threw it furiously to the ground. “I hate him,” I said.
“He hates us. So that’s a lot of hate already, isn’t it?” my brother said. My oldest brother was like my grandmother that way. He said things that had no immediate relevance. I let his cryptic remark go untended. Instead, I turned, and we all watched the man run through the fields until he was out of sight. It was like an apparition had disappeared when he was gone, the way the fields moved with the breeze again, the way the sun shone determinedly on us all, the way the return of our previously unharmed surroundings now seemed scarred irreparably by something we could no longer see. We walked down to the water’s edge, to where my uncle still stood.
“Come out of the water,” my oldest brother said, stretching his hand out to Loku Māma and getting his feet wet in the process. My uncle did not move toward him and my brother waded in further, trying to be close enough to touch my uncle’s hand when he eventually put it out. But he wouldn’t come. He shook his head, weeping. I couldn’t have known, then, what those tears were made of, but I knew they were different. They were not miserable, or angry or impotent, like all the other times. It was more as if the mud-filled paddy water in which he was standing had seeped into his body through the pores of his skin and, having saturated him, was now returning back to the earth through his eyes. He didn’t even put up his hands to wipe his face.
“Malli,” my brother said, calling to my other brother. “Here, hold my clothes.” They were both wearing khaki shorts and blue and white checked shirts; my mother always dressed my brothers alike, it was easier to buy a double shirt-length than it was to buy them separately she said. He removed the shirt, the shorts and his white Bernard underwear and tossed them, one at a time, to my second brother. I took them from him and folded them neatly, not knowing how else to contribute to the moment. It was when I held the clothes that it struck me that the man had put on my uncle’s underwear and that my uncle was, quite possibly, naked in the pool. I started to tell my brother why Loku Māma wouldn’t come out of the water but when I turned to him, my brother had already reached our uncle. The water was not as deep as I had thought if my brother could stand in it; my uncle had to be kneeling.
“Don’t cry, Loku Māma,” I called out, my voice sounding useless in that place. “Loku Aiyya will help you to come out.”
But he simply shook his head. Not even my brother’s voice, so calm, so unhurried and devoid of urgency, could make him move. Next to me, my second brother stripped down, leaving his clothes in a heap, and went into the water. I didn’t fold them; there was no use pretending all was well. I watched. Perhaps that was all he needed, two boys to hold him up. Or maybe the words my brothers were murmuring to him, soothing even to me though I couldn’t distinguish what they were saying, gave him strength. I thought my uncle would care that he was naked, that I was standing there, watching him being dragged out of the water, so limp, so like some large bit of vegetation, a weed even, but he didn’t. He stood up, still leaking water from his eyes, silky brown water sliding off his skin, and began to make his way back to the edge of the pool, leaning as he did with equal weight on my two brothers.
He had always needed us, our uncle, but never with such clarity. Embarrassed and frightened, I walked away to look for his clothes. The shirt lay balled up and wet, quite close to the pool of water, his trousers had been tossed into the branches of a guava tree. I had to climb partway up to retrieve it. His white undershirt was completely covered in mud, so I left it there. My brothers helped him into his trousers and then asked me to stand next to him while they put their own clothes on.
“I’ll squeeze the water out of the shirt, Loku Māma,” I said. “When we climb back on the island, there’s a place with lots of rocks. We’ll dry it there for you.”
He didn’t say anything. He was still sobbing, but quietly, like a child at the end of a long bout of crying. Like children at funerals who know something has been lost but are not sure what it might be. When I had finished squeezing out the shirt, I took his hand and lead him over to my damp brothers. We climbed back to the island without further conversation, simply holding out hands, as needed, to help each other up.
“Loku Māma, you can sit in the shade while the shirt dries,” my second brother suggested. “Here, by the mango trees.” He dusted a flat stone lying nearby and directed my uncle to it. Loku Māma sank onto it without fuss.
“I’ll go and lay this out,” I said, and walked away to the rocky hill we had passed by earlier. I found a smooth spot and spread the shirt on it, inside-out the way my grandmother had taught me. When I returned, Loku Māma was alone.
“Where are they?” I asked, not really expecting a reply.
“I don’t know putha,” my uncle said, turning up both of his hands, the weak fingers stretched out and curving halfway up as though he were checking leather balls for a game of cricket. “Your Loku Māma doesn’t know. You are by yourself now. All of you. I can’t help you. I can’t help you anymore.” And he began to cry again.
“Don’t cry,” I said, “I’m still here. You are not alone. Don’t cry.” I said those words because there was nothing else I could think of to say. My faith in my brothers was intact: they would return and there was a reason for their absence. But I couldn’t convince him that he was still an adult, still to be depended upon. The fantasy we had allowed him was over. Looking at him I noticed how bony he was, stringy, his rib cage visible beneath the hairy chest that protruded above, small muscles on the arms that lay crossed over his knees, all of his body just barely organized into a full grown human being. Anything could spread the pieces of him around, scatter his limbs and splinter his torso, and he would be gone; but not as a dandelion might disperse, floating away in grace, but like a meatless bone chewed by an old but hungry dog. I stroked his head and repeated myself, “I’m here. Don’t cry Loku Māma.”
Continued on page 3
Photo source: Magic Bean Trippers