by Adithi Rao
She wandered away from the house. No one noticed because they were inside getting dressed or out in the back yard enjoying a respite from the heat under the colourful shade of the canopy. Buttermilk and sherbat flowed freely. The guests were almost drunk on them.
She walked on dazed feet that trod the scorching earth with the stoicism of a yogi. She was that – a yogi – for this one day; detached from the world and its surroundings, oblivious to its pleasures and pain. She walked on, further and further away, driven by some inner knowledge, an inner yearning…
Until she reached the mango tree.
There was nothing else around in that expanse of eternal space, and to her such barrenness was a miracle. Just as it is a miracle to find a mango tree in a desert.
She stood there staring up at it, the sun blinding her. Before her unblinking eyes the green leaves of the tree turned to dazzling gold with spots of black in them. The spots grew larger and merged into a sea of darkness, obliterating every colour, every drop of light. Slowly, soundlessly, she fell to the earth.
‘Lakshmi! Lakshmi! Close your eyes and smell what I have brought for you!’
Lakshmi swung around from the rice husks she was separating, a sudden smile chasing away the look of boredom from her eyes. Nandan had one hand behind his back, hiding something from her view. Lakshmi grinned and closed her eyes. She sniffed expectantly at the clod of wet earth that he thrust under her nose. She had been expecting a flowery scent, and her nostrils flared in surprise, making her nose ring dance.
Her head spun at the stab of sensual joy from this longed-for scent. For here, in this home of hers, it never rained. The sky was always a blazing blue, the earth ruptured by a hectic maze of criss-crossing grooves like the skin on an old man’s face. Hardly any greenery dared to grow here. The brave grass had long perished under the pitiless sky.
Only the mango tree survived.
Nandan’s eyes danced naughtily. ‘You asked me for perfume… Do you like it?’
Lakshmi looked at him joyfully, utterly entangled in this spell of rain and soil and the whiff of faraway forests. Nandan turned up her palms and rubbed the wet earth into her wrists. She eyed him curiously and he said, ‘That’s how the rich-rich ladies apply perfume in the city!’ They burst out laughing together.
Their laughter echoed around the desert and back again, giving birth to a water spring that bubbled over and flowed into the cracks in the ground. The parched earth couldn’t take the shock of it. It gave a gurgle and spat the water out. It was this water, born of laughter and filtered through earth, that Lakshmi gathered into her palms and gave to Nandan to quench his thirst with after his long journey home.
Then there was the time when Nandan went to the Surajkund fair with his troupe and met a folk dancer from the South. The man played sixteen instruments and danced to his own tunes. He taught them to Nandan. One day, when Lakshmi was returning home from the village well carrying an earthen pot on her head, Nandan appeared as suddenly as a summer storm and plucked the pot away. Lakshmi turned around with a cry to find Nandan standing there, grinning cheekily at her. A thrill flowed through Lakshmi’s being.
No one ever knew when Nandan left and when he would return from his travels. Every homecoming was a surprise for Lakshmi. He pulled her down into the sand beside him, drank some of the water in the pot and threw the rest away. Overturning the pot and resting it against his body, he beat on it gently, firmly, nimbly with his fingers, creating rhythms and words and conversations in an alien tongue.
To Lakshmi’s ears, so accustomed to the beat of the dholak, this was like a journey into another world. Her dholak conjured up sounds of the desert – of the rhythmic clop of camel hooves, of bangles on undulating wrists, of sandstorms and tightrope walkers. What was this hollow, wet sound emanating from her earthen pot? The resonant note shadowing each beat? What was this sensation of gold-bedecked silk touching her body; of elephants lumbering through dense rainforests; the smell of tamarind and coconut and some other spicy flavour that she could not name?
Nandan began to sing in a dialect that was harsh like teeth cracking into betel nuts or wheels running over gravel paths. Lakshmi closed her eyes and drifted away, and the song went on long after Nandan had stopped singing it. Its rhythm captured the beat of her heart within its cadence, pulsating sharply down into her womb where her unborn children slumbered.
Gently, Nandan woke her. Then he got up and went away. Two days later he left for a distant place where the sun rose from the sea, a land over which the Sun God reigned from his chariot of stone.
Lakshmi waited for Nandan, first with joyful anticipation, then with restlessness, and finally desperation. She spent hours and months staring out at the burning desert with unblinking gaze, looking for the lover who did not come. Sometimes she thought she saw him in the distance, but it was only a mirage.
By the time he returned, something precious had moved out of place and beyond his reach…
Hot winds gathered up fine particles of sand that glittered in the sun like gold dust. Now the sand was everywhere – on the earth, in the sky, inside the bodies of people and camels and sheep, in the waters of half-dried wells. Some of it even made its way into the pots of buttermilk and sherbat before the guests could rush around and cover them up with wet cloths. And still, no one noticed that Lakshmi hadn’t returned. Indeed, they never knew she had gone.
She, meanwhile, continued to lie there, just beyond the shade of the mango tree. Her dusky skin took on a golden hue as layer after layer of sand rose up around her and gently settled on her body like a blanket. Thus she remained for minutes, hours, maybe even a lifetime. The coordinates of time had changed for her that day. It was as if the hands of the clock had been removed and put away, and all that was left was time in its totality staring her in the face.
Dark hands reached out to brush away the blanket of sand. Tattooed arms lifted her up and carried her to the shade of the mango tree. Cool water drops brushed across her eyelids until they came to life again.
Lakshmi looked up at her Nandan, and darkness receding into the periphery.
He simply looked at her, saying nothing. ‘Sing to me,’ she whispered, in a voice of sand.
He rose and picked up his hatha and played and sang. The sadness in his voice and the pain in her heart rose up to mingle in the air and form a thick cloud over the mango tree. The song went on, the bells at the end of the bow jingling with every rhythmic jerk of Nandan’s arm as he dragged it across the metal strings.
As he sang, the Cloud of Sorrow wept down on them and watered the mango tree. It washed away the layers of sand from Lakshmi’s body, running down her in rivulets, smearing the kohl from her eyes and dripping off the tendrils of hair that framed her face. Nandan stopped singing abruptly. Lakshmi remained there quietly, her back against the trunk of the mango tree, eyes closed, a smile playing on her lips. Nandan reached out and loosened her braid to let her endless hair dance in the streams of water flowing through the earth around them.
She looked up at him and now she was crying. Her beauty reached out to cling to Nandan as lovers cling in parting. He rose, for there was one last gift she must take with her, a gift that would last forever…
It had stopped raining now. Lakshmi watched as Nandan plucked a tiny, unripe mango from the tree and smashed it open with a single blow. Bits of fruit flew up and scattered around, glistening wetly in the sun.
Nandan gathered them up in his hands and approached Lakshmi. She sat silently, waiting, accepting. He moistened his fingers with the juice of the mango, and with the thumb of his right hand, marked a clear, vertical line from the brilliant red dot on her forehead up to the glistening ornament in the parting of her hair. He smeared the juice on her half closed eyelids, her cheeks and across her lips, so that she tasted the sharp sourness on her tongue. He lingered lovingly on her lips, then moved along the line of her nose, running his finger on the place just below her nostrils, marking the smell of baby green mangoes on her memory.
Lakshmi sat with her head thrown back against the tree trunk and her eyes half-closed, while he anointed her body, smearing the secret spot on the inside of her elbows, and the soles of her feet. When she opened her eyes she could still feel his hands upon her. Nandan himself was gone. The rivers of rain had dried up and the earth was parched once more. The Cloud of Sorrow had evaporated into the seamless sky.
Lakshmi heard her mother’s voice calling out to her and didn’t respond. She remained there in a trance until her mother and aunts reached her, decked in their brightest, most beautiful clothes. The mother’s eyes were frantic. She grasped her daughter’s hands and began to scold.
Seeing that the mother was shaking from her recent fright and the secret pain of parting from her daughter, one of the aunts took her aside and soothed her. The other two gently raised Lakshmi to her feet.
As if from far away, Lakshmi heard one of them say, ‘At least she hasn’t spoiled her clothes and hair being out in the heat like this. What is that lovely smell, Lajo? It’s almost like… no, but they don’t grow out of wretched earth like ours.’
‘Oh Hema,’ sighed the other aunt tearfully. ‘I can’t believe our Lakshmi is getting married. Who will sing and play in the backyard after today?’
So, talking, wondering and crying all at once, the two maternal captors led Lakshmi back to the house.
Now the smell of raw mangoes is a part of Lakshmi. It has mingled with her skin and become a part of every thing that ever happened to her, that will ever happen again. It mingled with the tears that she wept when her child died at birth two years later. It resonated in her laughter when the rains came down in torrents and hit her in her upturned face. It lingers in her nose as she cooks the daily meal, washes the clothes and hums herself to sleep at night.
Wet earth dries and earthen pots break. Mango trees are cut down, and lovers go away to distant lands. But there is this smell – the smell of raw mangoes – that lingers in the air wherever Lakshmi goes. People notice it. Friends and strangers sniff expectantly when she passes them in the market place. They never quite understand why. Everybody longs to see her, sit by her, talk to her, do anything that will keep her close beside them. Nobody, not even Lakshmi, knows that it is because she carries with her the smell of raw mangoes grown in wet earth and watered by the echo of a song from a distant land.
This is the gift Nandan gave to Lakshmi on her wedding day.