THE VERVE OF A TENDER SHOOT by Nidadavolu Malathi

“Mommy…” Kinjalka came running, from school.

“Ah! Don’t jump on my like that,” Sarada said, annoyed a little. Kinjalka’s face fell.

Sarada noticed her mistake. “Come here,” she said, pulling her close.

That’s all the little Kinjalka wanted. What does she know the havoc in mommy’s heart?

Sarada can’t explain it either. Poor thing. A simple “Come here” is enough to please her!

Kinjalka showed the picture she painted at school.

“See. This is for you,” she said.

“Beautiful. I like it very much. I’ll put it on the refrigerator,” Sarada said.

Kinjalka’s face blossomed like an early morning bud.

Murari walked in. “Here, a telegram from your mother,” he said, throwing the piece of paper in her lap.

“Telegram?” Apparently it was a surprise to her too!

“Yeah! She is coming at the end of this month.”

Sarada did not say anything.

“Send another to her; tell her it’s not a good time,” he said, trying to me casual about it.

“Ha?!” Sarada was almost shocked.

“I mean…” He did not finish the sentence.

“It is over ten years now. Not a weekend passes by without setting one more plate at the table. They are all your friends. Now, for once, one person, my mother to be specific, would like to visit us; and, you want me to tell her that it is not a good time?”

“You know what I mean. Do you, honestly, believe that she can have a good time under the circumstances?”

Sarada turned to Kinjalka and said, “Grandma is coming.”

“Really! When?” Kinjalka felt elated at the prospect. She didn’t spend a lot of time with the grandma, but remembers her very well, because of all the gifts that keep coming from her. Grandma sends silk outfits and jewelry through the friends, traveling back and forth.

“So, are you going to do it, or should I?” Murari pressed for an answer.

“I won’t,” Sarada replied, watching Kinjalka, playing with her saree end. The atmosphere in the room is getting tense; and that showed in the the little face.

Sarada added, “See this. She did it at school today.” She showed the picture to him.

“Wow! Beautiful. You will become a great artist, one day. You know, my cousin on my father’s side, thrice removed, is an artist. It is in your genes,” he said enthusiastically.

“I will make one for you tomorrow, daddy,” Kinjalka said, expressing her sense of fairness. She does not want daddy to feel left out.

“I’ll put it on the fridge. We all can enjoy it,” Sarada repeated her offer.

“Come. Let’s go shopping.”

“What for? Why now?”

“Your birthday is coming soon. Isn’t it?”

“Not yet, you silly,” Kinjalka said, with a naughty smile.

“I know that, you silly! Just, in case I am not in town at the time,” he replied.

Sarada sighed, and got up to go into the kitchen.

***

Mother arrived the same day, as planned. Sarada went to the airport, and brought her home.

Kinjalka jumped at her like a leopard, even at the door, “ammummaa..”.

Mother’s face lit up like a hundred-watt bulb. She wouldn’t mind traveling ten thousand miles for that brief moment!

She stroked the little girl’s cheeks gently, and said, “You are so thin. What is your mom feeding you?”

Kinjalka cracked up, “I told you.”

“Look. I don’t understand all this wishy-washy language. You must talk to me in Telugu,” said mother.

“Okay,” Kinjalka shrugged her shoulders as she replied in English.

Sarada explained with a smile. “In India, people always say ‘you’re losing weight’ all the time; as a matter of concern, you know! She thinks it’s funny,” and added, “Come in. I will show you the bathroom.”

While mother was freshening up, Sarada made coffee. After taking a sip, mother opened her suitcase and started pulling out the gifts—a silk saree for Sarada, a pair of dhoti for Murari, a silk skirt, and jewelry for Kinjalka…

Kinjalka could hardly contain her joy, for all the gifts she is getting.

Sarada’s heart sank.

Murari left the room, sulking.

“You shouldn’t have gotten all these things. There is no need…” Sarada mumbled, trying to hide her heartache.

Mother kept quiet.

***

Mother kept herself busy with Kinjalka. She is teaching the little one, songs and games, playing with her, getting her ready for school, putting her to bed, and so on…

There is one song, Kinjalka liked very much, and learned to sing, very quickly.

chitti chilkamma, amma kottindaa? (Little birdie, Did your mom spank you?)

thota kellaavaa? pandu thechaavaa? (You went to the grove? Brought a fruit?)

gutlo pettaavaa? Gutukku mingaavaa? (Put it in the cupboard? Gobbled it up in a snap?)

Kinjalka started singing ‘chitti chilkamma, kinjalkamma’. It was fun, to build her name into the song. Mother tried to correct it but Kinjalka wouldn’t listen.

“My mommy will never spank me,” she said firmly.

Mother tried to explain to her, that it is not about her mom; that is the way the song was.

Sarada laughed. “You can’t argue with her,” she said.

The phone rang. Sarada picked it up and said, “hello!”.

Revati was at the other end. She called to invite the family for dinner on Saturday.

“I heard, your mother came from India. How was the flight? How is she? Please, bring her along,” Revati added.

In the evening, Sarada told Murari about the dinner invitation.

“I am busy. You all can go,” he said.

“Come on, daddy. It will be fun. You like Vishnu uncle too!” Kinjalka wants him to go with them.

“Not now. I have work to do. We will see next time,” he replied.

“You tell him,” Kinjalka would not let go. She wanted her mom to try.

“May be, you can make time, for this once. All the other children come with both the parents,” Sarada tried to be as specific as possible.

“I will go with you next time, I promise,” he is just about as stubborn.

Sarada got up to do laundry, and asked mother to bring her clothes for washing as well.

While sorting the clothes, she felt something in Kinjalka’s pocket. It was a pack of cigarettes.

“It’s not mine,” Kinjalka said.

“How did it get into your pocket?”

Kinjalka closed her lips tight.

“Come on. You have to tell me. How did they get into your pocket, if they are not yours?” Sarada asked tauntingly.

“I am telling you. They are not mine.”

“What happened?” Murari walked in.

He heard the story and hit the roof. Hell was let loose.

He starting stomping all over the living room. He wanted to know what Sarada was doing, while the child was taking to bad habits; Isn’t it her job to take care of the child? Isn’t it her responsibility to teach propriety and good behavior? Today, she started with cigarettes, and tomorrow she would steal cars… Mom is at home, doing what?

“That’s cute. If she shows talent, it’s in dad’s genes; and, if she errs, that’s mom’s fault,” Sarada commented calmly.

“Stop, daddy! It is not mommy’s fault,” Kinjalka said.

“Never mind whose fault. How did they get into your pocket?” he insisted.

After a few minutes of wrangling, Kinjalka finally let the cat out of the bag–a boy from the fifth grade asked her to save the pack for him; he was afraid that his mother would kill him, if she finds out.

“There is a smart idea! What are you thinking? Your mommy would give you a big hug, and pat you on the back?” mother asked her.

“My mommy won’t spank me,” Kinjalka said, pouting.

Sarada is losing heart. “Please, mother! Let me handle this,” she said meekly.

“A fine way to raise a kid,” mother said, seized the child by the arm, and whisked her away into the next room. Instinctively, she knew that this argument between the husband and the wife was not going to end in near future.

***

At night, Sarada lied down, next to the child in her bed, and tried to talk to her. In this country, people’d say, “Talk, talk, talk.” But, she never knew how to do that. She did not grow up “talking” to the parents. They talked, and she listened. She didn’t find anything wrong with that either. Actually, she became a good listener, in the process! Now, it is time for her to talk; but, the child is growing up in a different culture, with a different set of values.

Sarada could not figure out a viable way, between these two streams!

“Are you angry with me?” she asked, after what seemed to be an eternity.

“No,” the child replied.

“Do you want to talk?”

“No.”

“Do you want to talk to someone else?” Sarada asked, holding her breath.

“Can I?” Kinjalka almost jumped at the prospect.

Sarada’s heart felt a thump in her heart.

“With whom? Amy?”

“No.”

“Why not? You’ve been friends all your lives.”

“Her mom says you will leave us.”

 

Oh God! The words were lashed out across her face like a whip. She held the child tight to her bosom.

For the first time, a huge fit of sorrow leapt to her throat, like a massive tidal wave. All this time, she was thinking, only about the other children, who might give Kinjalka hard time. She never thought, that other mothers could be as cruel! All along, she was looking at the problem as her own. People keep asking her how she (Sarada) is doing, but nobody seem to think how a child thinks; I mean, the workings of the little mind. Of course, they do ask, “How is she?” or “How is she taking it?” But, who knows what really is going on, in the child’s mind?

“Sorry, mommy” Kinjalka said.

“It’s okay,” Sarada said, and stayed with her until she fell asleep.

***

Next morning, she woke up early, to make coffee. Mother walked in, and asked, “Did she sleep okay with you?”

Sarada was confused. “What are you talking about?”

It seems Kinjalka woke up in the middle of the night, and said that she would go, and sleep in mommy’s bed. But, she did not go to mommy. She was not in the house.

Murari heard the noise, and woke up.

All the three started searching all the rooms, under the beds, in the closets, in the garage… and even inquired the neighbors … hoping, and praying, that the child is okay, somewhere…

The phone rang, as they were about to call the police.

Janet called to ask, if they wanted her to keep Kinjalka for today, also.

Janet is a long-time friend. She knew Kinjalka from the day she was born. She lives nearby. It’s a five-minute walk, if one takes the short-cut, and a ten-minute drive, on the road, by car.

Relief and anxiety took over; Sarada talked, simultaneously, to Murari and mother on this side, and to Janet, on the other side, over the phone. She said that the child is okay; and told Janet that she is on her way, to come and get the child.

Kinjalka, after telling her grandma that she was going to sleep in her mom’s bed, grabbed some shirt, slipped it on; opened the door; and went straight to Janet’s house. She knocked on the door; and told Janet, that there was some family emergency at home; grandma had to be taken to the hospital, and so, they dropped her off, here, at Janet’s door. Nobody ever thought that Kinjalka could fabricate a story like that, not until now.

Murari was irate, like any father would, under the circumstances. How could a six-year old child leave home in the middle of the night, like that? What was she thinking? It seems she is past the “talking” stage; he must take some drastic measures to make her understand; yesterday it was cigarettes, and today running away?… Where will she stop?.. How could a mother not know when the child is not home?…

“You two squabble as you please, and as long as you please. I will take the child back to India,” mother said.

“I am not going anywhere,” Kinjalka said, crossly.

“Pull her out of that school. We will send her to a private school, or to a boarding school,” Murari said, making the decision on the spot.

“I am not going anywhere,” Kinjalka was just as firm.

“First, tell me why did you run away like that, in the middle of the night?” he asked her straight.

“I did not run away.”

“What would you call it, leaving home in the middle of the night, like that, without telling us?”

“I went to see Janet. Janet is nice. She understands.”

“Look! You might as well get this straight, right here, and right now. You are not going to do any such thing again. Understood?”

“I don’t have to listen to you.”

“Oh, yes, you will. You must listen to mom and dad. Got it?” Murari nearly screamed.

He was losing patience.

“I hate you.”

“Shut up. Learn to listen.”

“Why?”

“ ’Cause I am your dad!”

“I don’t care. Did I ask you to be my dad?”

Wow! Mom and dad were stunned, and looked at each other. Where is she getting these ideas from?

Sarada picked up the child abruptly, and took her to the next room.

Mother went into the kitchen. Murari disappeared into his office.

Sarada kept thinking all day. “Choices” is a huge buzzword in this country. The grown-ups “choose” to marry whomever, and whenever they please; “Choose” to have a child, when, they think, they’re ready; they even get to “choose” the gender; and “choose” to get a divorce as and whenever they want.

Where is the choice for the child? Does anybody think what the child might “choose” to have or not to have?

Who decides, what the child wishes to have, or not to have?

The adults and the courts decide, pretty much, like kicking a football; and the child falls wherever she is destined to!

Sarada couldn’t help wondering, how many children would “choose” to be born into this world–a world brimming with violence, hatred, greed, and selfishness!

***

On Saturday, Sarada and Kinjalka asked Murari one more time to go with them. He said he has work to do, and stayed home. The others left, without him.

At Revati’s home, it was an interesting mix. There were about 30 adults and six children. They all were speaking in about half a dozen Indian languages, between English phrases and sentences. The atmosphere is funny for mother. She has some knowledge of English, but, this hybrid language is hard to follow. She sat in a corner, feeling a little lost.

At the other end of the room, Revati’s father-in-law, Krishnaya was sitting, looking, just as much, amused, or lost, or both! After his wife passed away, a year ago, his son, Vishnu and the daughter-in-law, Revati insisted that he move to the States, and spend his golden years with them.

Krishnaya and mother struck a conversation.

“How are you managing in this god-forsaken country? It is about a week, since I arrived here. I am feeling like the chataka bird, hanging upside down, in the sky. What is it our people see here, that is such a big draw?” mother wondered, sounding a little despondent.

Krishnaya smiled complacently. “It is all in our minds. Once we set our mind to it, and create an environment for ourselves, these outward trappings will not touch us,” he said, philosophically.

“Probably, you are right.”

“Could you, please, come this way,” he said, as he walked toward the fourth bedroom.

Mother and Sarada followed him.

It is a small room, could be a walk-in closet. It is sparkling clean, and filled with floor decorations. The traditional designs on the floor; the red and yellow dots, the green mango leaves—all comprised of plastic and oil paints, yet, for some reason, did not look odd. Against the eastside wall, there was a wood frame, built like a little temple. In the center, the Goddess Syamaladevi was set, looking gorgeous, in a silk saree, and jewelry.

Krishnaya lit up an incense stick, and, suddenly, went into a reverie.

In an uplifting voice, he started singing the famous verse, Syamalaa dandakam, in praise of the Goddess Syamaladevi…

Maanikyaveenaam upalaalayanteem madaalasaam…

    The music was from out of this world. Krishnaya was miles away.

Maatangee, madasaaleenee, maahendradyuti…

Sarada, also, was lost in the reverberating sounds. She was feeling goose bumps all over.

Saagaraabdha sangeetha sambhramaalola..

She did not realize when Kinjalka came in. The little girl was sitting, cozily curled up, next to her. The child was staring at the entire setup, with amazement.

The noises in the next room, also, subsided.

Krishnaya finished the song softly, like a plane landing, and prayed for a few more seconds. After that, he gave them raisins for prasadam.

Kinjalka held out both her palms, respectfully, and looked at her mom. Sarada nodded with a little smile. The child took her palms near her eyes, as per custom, and ate the prasadam.

Krishnaya gently touched her cheek, and said, “The goddess is gorgeous, like you.”

“I know,” Kinjalka replied, narrowing her eyes playfully.

Sarada laughed. “You’ll have to excuse us. We are a little short on humility,” she sounded apologetic.

Krishnaya did not laugh. “No! That’s good. We all have to have that self-esteem. That is important for survival,” he said solemnly.

They stayed there for a while, and were ready to leave.

“Can I get a ride?” Raghava asked Sarada. He lives, not too far from their home.

“Sure,” she said, and walked toward their car. Raghava sat in the backseat, next to Kinjalka.

Raghava started talking. “I can’t understand our people. Our Indians are so brilliant, yet, they act like total morons. Here, in the West, the scientists are building ladders to the skies. We, Indians, are still digging deeper and deeper into the nether lands, like ostriches. In stead of looking up, we are wallowing in the rut of the outmoded traditions; we, continue to believe, that the boulders and tree trunks save us from our miseries. While the West is producing great scientists, we are looking to the stones for rational solutions. Look at Krishnaya. He is an intelligent man, I am sure. Why can’t he use his faculties for some logical thinking?”

“So be it, Raghava. We all follow our hearts,” mother said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Yes, madam, I agree. At the same time, what is wrong in developing some concrete mode of thinking. He has a stunning voice. I’ll give it to him. He will be a smash hit, if he holds a concert. But invoking a goddess? Ludicrous, if you ask me! The man is deluded.”

“No, he is not,” Kinjalka said.

Raghava looked at her, surprised, as if he couldn’t believe what he just heard.

Sarada looked, at both of them, in the rear view mirror, and turned to mother.

Mother was, complacently, looking straight ahead.

“I saw her too. She is beautiful,” Kinjalka said again.

For some reason, Raghava did not want to continue his speech, anymore. Sarada dropped him at his place, and reached home by about 9:30.

Murari and a couple of his friends were playing cards in the living room.

“You said you had work to do,” Kinjalka asked.

“I did. I just finished it. They just got here, a few minutes ago. How come you are home early?”

“Mother is not used to staying up late,” Sarada said and went in quickly. She was in no mood to offer explanations to anybody.

She changed into pajamas, and was going to the kitchen for a glass of water. She heard mother talking to Kinjalka and stopped at the door.

“Come with me to India, honey! You can play with grandpa, uncles, aunts, and your cousins. They all can teach you songs, games, and all that, you know,” mother said to Kinjalka.

“No, ammumma! I can’t. I have to be here. Mommy and daddy need me. Don’t you worry. That little girl will take care of us,” Kinjalka said.

Sarada forgot about the water. She went straight to bed, and kept thinking about the words Kinju said, for a long time.

The verse Krishnaya sang was an elaborate description of an adult woman, in the prime of her life. Kinjalka called her the “little girl”. That is strange!

But the words that kept coming back to her, all night, were “Mommy and dad need me”!

[End]

Published on thulika.net, March 2002

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.