Everyone kept saying Madurai, which was about a hundred leagues and several days away. But Uncle’s farm was on the outskirts of the famed city of culture and worship.
I also looked forward to seeing Chinnamma, who was much younger than Mother, and remembered her as having a wild streak about her. Chinnamma was direct, shocking, and mischievous. She had naughty humour, and spoke of matters that made me blush. I last saw her when she and her family visited us during the previous harvest festival, Pongal. She taught me many things, including the strange behaviour of adults.
I recalled one late afternoon when Father returned in a foul mood. Chinnamma and I remained cloistered in my room while the drama unfolded in the house.
Father, in his anger, found fault with Mother, and words and voices escalated. I heard a crash, a brass tumbler sent flying across the vast kitchen; then jingling footsteps, and Mother running into her room. Even at home, Mother geared herself for battle and went about dripping in an assortment of jewellery. I welcomed the ornaments because, when I was up to my usual mischief, the tinkling of her bangles and anklets forewarned her arrival. And I always looked innocent by the time she appeared.
After her dramatic but well-choreographed run to her room, Mother remained locked behind the doors. Chinnamma wore an intriguing smile. The servants, intent on not drawing attention to themselves, went quiet, scurried in silence, and spoke in whispers. The household sank into deep gloom. Meanwhile, Father withdrew upstairs to his work room.
Chinnamma and I were having dinner when Father came downstairs and called Mother. We stopped and listened hard. There was no reply. Father called again. He was standing outside Mother’s locked doors. Not receiving a response, he persisted.
‘Is Father angry?’ I asked.
‘Is Mother angry?’
‘Wait and watch the drama,’ said Chinnamma.
‘If Mother does not eat, she will starve, shrivel into a dried pea pod, and perish,’ I said, with genuine concern.
‘Your mother is so layered that she perspires even when bathing in cold water, and it’ll take two full moons of starvation before she withers to my weight.’
That horrified me. Poor Mother starving and reducing into a stick insect. But recalling that day later, I chuckled. Chinnamma was much fatter than Mother and I wondered how Mother would ever wither to Chinnamma’s weight.
After a pronounced series of sharp raps and calls, by which time all the servants, their features twisted in anxiety, had gathered to peep from the kitchen, Mother relented and opened the door. Father slipped in, closed the door again, and drove home the bolt. Hearing the unmistakable snap of metal on metal, the servants sighed with relief and returned to their chores.
‘Now, will Mother eat dinner?’ Not yet clever enough—I became clever only later in the day—I remained worried that Mother might wither and get mistaken for a stick insect.
‘Yes, but not until an hour or more,’ said Chinnamma.
Chinnamma called it a couple’s game. I remembered making a face, for I did not know adults played games. According to her, there were several scripts. In this play, the woman took the role of a victim, and often welcomed it because of the rewards promised when the man, feeling remorseful, made amends.
‘These little dramas add spice to life,’ said Chinnamma, ‘and result in babies, especially drama-children.’
‘Mother always says I drama, so does that make me a drama-child?’
‘You are a drama-child because you were born ten years into your parents’ marriage.’
‘What do you mean, Chinnamma?’
‘Well, if you were born in the first year of marriage, you would be a love-child.’
‘I don’t understand!’ I stamped my foot and cried.
‘No tantrums now. I’m Chinnamma, not your father.’
‘Okay, listen. In the first year of marriage, the honeymoon year, couples seldom quarrel because they’re blind with love, or rather with the newness of married life. The man is poetic and the woman never has a headache. But by the tenth year, the man’s snoring is not music but an irritant, and the woman’s unwashed hair is, well, unwashed hair. Familiarity loses the fragrance of discovery and the stink of life needs perfume and spice.’
‘And they make a drama-child!’ I interrupted and clapped with glee.
Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019
Song of the Ankle Rings, an adaptation of Silappatikaram
Continued on Monday: The River Incident