By Krupa Manerkar
She is a little thing of twelve; filled with the zeal and curiosity that childhood demands. Sitting by the countryside river, she’s rippling its water near the shallow end. Her eyes are intense, as if she never knew anything between black and white and never spent a dull moment in her life. She is in deep thought. She has learnt something which has aroused her curiosity. She smiles as she remembers her Dadu’s words, “You never had hair when you were born, Missy. Ya see that curled up pumpkin vine? I just picked it up and sloshed it on you…and TA DA! You grew that hair.” Her mind is as confused as her frizzy hair. She wants answers, and she wants them now. She is wearing a white petticoat trimmed with fringes. It’s stained with the dirt from the riverbank. She now collects three rounded smooth pebbles and throws them one by one. She shouts as she flings each one of them.
“Why don’t they tell me anything?”
“Why am I too small to understand what they talk about?”
“Why do people die?”
She catches a smell wafting through the air - it’s the smell of burnt sesame seeds. She knows that smell. Milli Tai has burnt the seeds which are usually added to enhance the flavour of food, yet again. She groans as she heads towards her house. Inside, she finds Tai preparing the dishes for lunch. She promptly sits down, motioning to her that she’s hungry.
“Rui, where did you run off to, hanv? I’ve been calling you for a long time. And why the long face?” Tai asks.
Rui gazes at Tai while trying not to notice the taste of burnt sesame seeds overpowering her mouth. Tai is wearing a light blue cotton sari. Her frayed hair is tied up in a bun, she has tired but sympathetic eyes. She works a lot, Rui thinks, and feels disappointed in herself for not helping her with the chores. But Tai would rather work tirelessly all day than let Rui help out.
“I was playing by the riverside. Can I have more curry?” she says, at last.
“Alright, but don’t go out into the deep end of the forest. You’re grown up now, I shouldn’t be telling you this again,” Tai says, and fetches the curry.
So now I am suddenly grown up? she wants to ask Tai.
She realises that she indeed has a lot of questions for Tai. Milli Tai or Meenakshi (which is her actual name) is an integral part of their family rather than just a caretaker employed for Rui. Rui feels like she has known Milli Tai since the day she was born, and suspiciously so, because no other friend of hers has a caretaker to look after them. Is it only because my parents passed away when I was young? she thinks. She gets up, her brow furrowed. She does not know much about her parents except for the way they looked. Their garlanded pictures are framed in the living room.
Death hasn’t exactly been a closed topic in their house. Her grandfather, Dadu, is the famous carpenter of the village, specialising in coffins for over forty years. He knows the right type of oak - poplar or maple tree - to be cut down for a durable coffin, along with the bronze, copper or steel that should be embedded in it. He makes dying sound ornamental. Perhaps one could die more gloriously than live.
There’s a kind of aura about people who have lost too many loved ones. More often than not, the transience of life overwhelms them so much that they either start living their lives by the moment or by a thread of hopelessness. Dadu tries to spend most of his time taking care of Rui. He reminisces about the times when his son was still alive. Rui’s mother used to take her to the village fairs, treating her with toffees, while her father bought her bright red balloons and hardened milk sweets. At the end, he used to buy her a beautiful string of jasmine flowers. Her mother cut up the string in half; tied one half up her own hair and the other up Rui’s.
Dadu remembers the difficult times he had to go through when Rui’s parents passed away in an accident. The cruelty of burying his own son and daughter-in law-has taken a toll on him. But he manages to face every day with courage comforted by thoughts of Rui. In her, he sees his wife, who always carried a child-like spark within herself. He had lost her too, to pneumonia.
Dadu is at his workplace, where people visit him, referred to by other people, more often than not for making coffins rather than furniture. He sees teary-eyed widows, widowers, orphans: people who have lost loved ones and along with them a part of themselves. He watches them intently as they stare into oblivion and nod their heads speaking in a low voice, almost afraid that someone might hear them. When he asks them how they want the casket to look, he’s met with a confused stare. He realises that they have never given it a thought. They have lived with the certainty of being eternally alive and when death knocks close to home, they blame him because they aren’t ready.
“Umm, I don’t really know how it should look. Just do what you see fit.” A middle-aged lady says. “Is that all?” she further questions.
“Yes, that will be all,” he says in a hurried voice.
He wants to go home early today. Today is the village fair. Even after Rui’s parents passed away, he tries to take her to the fair every month. In a hurry, he gets up from his rickety old desk and heads home.
Rui eagerly opens the door knowing it is Dadu. She embraces him with joy and Dadu smiles exuberantly and swings her playfully in the air. She looks at his wrinkled dimples, his white hair; which seems as if it has been painted white, and the meagre teeth peeping out of his mouth. She realises in that moment that his smile is the only thing that has remained the same. And suddenly her innocent mind tries to comprehend the transience of life. But this fragile train of thought is disrupted by Dadu.
“You look splendid in that purple frock!” he says.
“Why don’t you go and tell Milli Tai that we’ll be leaving for the fair in a short time. Ask her if she wants to join us.”
Rui bolts inside and comes back after a while. “Tai told us to go ahead, she still has to clear out the weeds growing in the backyard.”
“Okay then. Shall we proceed my princess?” Dadu asks making a theatrical gesture.
“Yes, we most certainly shall.” Rui says, trying to control her giggles.
Rui and Dadu set off to the fair and after a while reach Sana’s house. Sana is a petite girl who studies with Rui and is also her neighbour. Both of them share a history of friendship that goes way back to their childhood. Usually, Sana too comes along to the fair with them. Rui trots towards Sana’s doorstep, knocks on it and calls out to her.
“Sana. Sanaa. Come on, we’re already late for the fair, aren’t you coming?”
“Don’t fret. I’ll be there.” Squeaks a spiritless voice.
Sana opens the door to find Rui’s grandfather reclining on an upholstered veranda seat. Rui is sitting next to him.
“Took you quite a long time to get dressed. We’ve been here for so long, even my hair has turned grey.” He points comically at his hair. “See?”
Sana smiles, but Dadu detects a slight frown.
“What’s that? What’s up with you today, eh?” he asks.
“Nothing much, just the exams,” she says, trying to avoid the topic.
“Do you know that Dadu has promised to let us ride the Ferris wheel twice,” Rui says enthusiastically.
“Okay. Can we get going already?” Sana cuts her off.
Rui is taken aback for a moment, but brushes the feeling aside.
“Come on, hurry up now darlings. We should get going.” Dadu calls out from a distance and the three of them head towards the fair.
The people in the village take the fair quite seriously. Every once a month, people pour from the villages to the fair. It is their most amusing pastime. Vendors from all around set up stalls a week in advance. The bus that takes them to and fro from village to village is always jam-packed with these vendors and their merchandise.
Rui stares open-mouthed at the giant entrance to the fair – strung up with sparkly yellow lights and half stemmed roses. She turns to Sana but to her disappointment Sana gives her a listless gaze. Usually Sana jumps with excitement at the thought of the fair.
Upon entering the fair, they chanced upon a range of stalls. On the right-hand side, there are food stalls selling cotton candy, toffees, ice-creams, bubble gums, spicy and mouth-watering fried snacks. Whereas on the left, any parent’s nightmare and every child’s dream, a seemingly endless cornucopia of fun-filled games, activities and toys. Remote control cars, dolls with the latest dressing set, puzzles for the young mind, spin-tops,s, teddy bears one would want to squeeze all day, and board games that would never let one be bored. A little away from these stalls, there are a bunch of stands selling lottery tickets with promising and generous rewards. Adjacent to them are balloon stands with balloons of different shapes, sizes and colours.
At the very end, there are rides that one can go on. The most sought-after ride being the Ferris wheel. It’s decorated with lighting to make it look even more awesome. Rui and Sana take their time to let it all seep in, although Sana seems a bit disinterested. Dadu brings them bright orange cotton candy and after having that, they spend an hour looking at stalls and playing ‘hit or miss’ games.
“Come, let’s go up on the Ferris wheel.” Rui says, tugging at Sana’s arm.
“I don’t want to go,” Sana says, indifferently.
“Why? What’s wrong? Isn’t this the most fun part?”
“I don’t want to have fun with you, anymore.”
“Maa says that I should stop being friends with you. Because we will be moving to the city in a few days and being friends with you will only burden me. I can’t keep our friendship once we move to the city. I’ll have different and better friends there.”
Saying this, Sana storms off. A bewildered Rui stands there, hot tears flowing down her cheeks. Dadu comes running to where she is rooted, asking her what happened. Seeing Dadu, Rui breaks down. She wonders, if her friend could leave her so easily, maybe Dadu could too? She feels sick in the pit of her stomach. Dadu, on the other hand, is perplexed. He cannot make her stop crying. Nor does he know why she is crying. He watches as Sana marches out of the fair. He lifts Rui and takes her home.
Rui wakes up in the morning with a slight headache and a numb mind. She still feels a void thinking about what Sana had said the day before. She runs to the river, hoping to find solace. Seeing the calm water soothes her mind to some extent. Just then, she feels a nudge on her back. She turns to see Dadu. Embarrassed by her behaviour last night, she turns her face away from him.
“Can I have a seat?” Dadu asks. Silence.
Dadu seats himself comfortably on the river bank and motions to Rui to sit beside him. Together, they listen to the slow rustling of water on edgy rocks. Rui breaks the silence.
“Why do people leave me?”
Dadu understands the seriousness of the question and asks her who she is talking about.
“Aai and baba left me. You don’t even bother to talk about them to me anymore. And now Sana is also leaving. She says she doesn’t want to be friends anymore because they will be moving to the city.”
Dadu ponders for a while. “Sana left because she is moving. On the other hand, she chose to break her friendship with you, it wasn’t you who did that. She is probably not your real friend. She chose her convenience above your friendship. You don’t have to blame yourself for that. I’m sure you will find lots of other friends in your life who won’t treat you right. Remember, never blame yourself for it. They will come back eventually if they realise how much you mean to them.”
“But ...” Rui stutters.
“And I don’t say much about your parents because I’ve already told you everything there is to know about who they were,” Dadu says.
“No, you always told me how they were alive but never how they died.” Hurt emanates from her voice.
“My dear child, I never said anything because you were too young to know about grief. But I think you have grown up quite a lot and quite beautifully, I must add. So, I think it’s time I tell you … your parents were out of town for some days on vacation and they were returning home. They were travelling by a rented car. A drunk driver hit their car and drove it off the cliff. No one in that car survived. When I found out that more than half of my family was no more, I was devastated.” He sighs deeply and continues,
“But you need to understand, I didn’t think it was important for you to know how they died as much as knowing how much they loved you. Who they were is far more significant.”
Dadu glances at her, and she looks as if she is on the verge of tears.
“What happened? Go on, tell me,” he says.
“What if you leave me one day? What will I do without you?” Rui asks in a trembling voice.
Tears have started to swell up in her eyes. Rui leans her head on his chest. Dadu pats her head gently and says after a while,
“Do you remember Dadi? She passed away shortly after your baba got married. It was a sad day for all of us. But when she passed away, she taught me something. She taught me not to mourn her loss but to celebrate her presence. Where is her presence, you will ask me? I see her in the diya that Milli Tai lights every day, because she used to, too. I see her in our backyard, which today has given us plenty of fruits to eat only because of her hard work. I see her in this river, like a ripple, spreading happiness to us even after her death; through her death. Why, I see her in you every day, and you remind me of the wonderful time we had spent together. To tell you the truth Rui, people never really leave you. They might die, but you always find traces of them everywhere, be it in your backyard, your old rug or the cracks behind your door. They tend to live on even after their death and in spite of it. So, I guess the worst news you can get is that you will never be able to get rid of me. I’ll always be watching your back and scolding you when you are naughty.”
Rui gives out a small laugh. She can feel the tranquillity of the river and, she breathes in the fresh air. Both of them silently listen to the river rushing by.
Krupa Manerkar is an emerging new voice in fiction. She is a student of Chowgule college, Margao. She has previously written articles and stories for The Goan in School, and has won several prizes for her essays at school level.