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One of those stunts had led to them being late to school, and the four of them – her sister, their two friends and she – had been made to kneel outside the principal’s office with their hands raised for two hours straight.
In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month gets bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry. The writing cue for April 2019 is these lines from Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, considered the “feminist before all feminists” in India, from the poem I will meet you yet again (Main Tainu Phir Milangi), a translation of her original poem in Punjabi.
but the threads of memory
are woven of enduring atoms.
The third winner of our April 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Manisha Sahoo.
“If you’re going to sit there doing nothing, get off already. And for God’s sake, don’t play with your hair in the kitchen!”
Her mother slapped her arm and nudged her to shift from her perch on the kitchen island. She swayed to the side at the pressure and returned to her original posture the very next second, much like a wobbling toy.
“I am about to add the chilli powder. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when you start to sneeze,” her mother continued in a stoic, severe voice.
She did not budge. Instead, she slouched forward and with one hand gripping her hair in a tight bunch a few inches under the chin, she used the other one to pat the black locks over her face. She did not want to escape from this self-made mask.
The ledge where she sat turned at a right angle and the length down this turn housed not only the kitchen sink, but also the stove and its chimney. Several condiments and spices, and tea leaves and sugar, were kept on a plastic assemble-it-yourself shelf in the corner. Polished wooden cabinets were lined along the wall behind her and the opposite wall as well, with a refrigerator snugly fitted into the space below.
Both the slots of the stove were alive with blue-orange fire. One had a saucepan of tea simmering over it, white of the milk dotted with blackish beads that were infusing it gradually with a pale brown hue, and the other had a kadahi on it to which her mother now added the spices and the condiments, including a red one.
Right as the sizzling sound began, Milli took a deep breath and held it. She clasped her free hand over her nose and mouth, hidden beneath the hair-mask.
Pretty soon, however, she began to sneeze uncontrollably and the meticulously made cage for her face escaped her hold. Her hair fell in a disarray around her face, neither concealing it anymore nor revealing it properly.
Her mother had not reacted to the fumes at all. The more she stirred, the more Milli’s eyes stung and her nose tickled. It was only after her mother had added in the vegetables that it all stopped.
She stirred them for some time before she lowered the flame and covered up the dish. She checked on the tea before she turned around and asked, “Well, what’s wrong?”
As if prompted by the question, Milli groaned and brought the hair-mask back into its original position. “It was so embarrassing, mumma,” she grumbled out. Her shoulders slumped and she hung her head.
Her mother waited for her to continue and she did after a moment’s pause, describing how she had been tripped by one of the girls in the class and that had made her fall face-forward. But that had not been the most humiliating part, no. Her skirt had been thrown up from the impact and it had not landed on her legs as it should.
“Ugh, mumma! Everybody in the class saw the tights underneath! They never stopped laughing till the end of the day! I don’t want to go back tomorrow or the day after or… or, any other day! That’s it, I’ll… I’ll resign from school!”
She peered through her hair at her mother’s expression, half afraid that her unrestrained claims might get her scolded. However, contrary to her expectation, her mother looked… amused?
She chuckled and signalled for her to bring the stools, stacked one over the other in the corner. As they sat down, her mother began to speak, “This reminds me of when I slipped into mud while going to school.”
“What?! That’s not possible!”
“Honey, we weren’t born adults.”
Milli giggled, the strands of her locks loosening around her cheeks.
“Anyway, back then, in our locality at least, they had not set up any bus system or anything. So, a couple of girls from the neighbourhood and I would walk to our school together. It took us about forty or forty-five minutes. We’d not walk down the usual road, but go down the farmlands, because it was easier.”
Of course, she left out the part that they would sneak in and steal the mangoes from the orchards. More than once, they had been chased away by the steward.
“One rainy day, while hopping over a fence, my foot slipped and I fell, much like you, face-forward into a pool of mud.”
Well, more or less. She had asked her friend to stay guard and warn her if the steward seemed close by while she climbed the tree. Her friend had become distracted by something and it was only when the steward had begun to yell that they noticed him. She panicked and lost her grip on the branch, hurtling down and landing on her back. She could not get up for days afterwards. Her father, miffed with her behaviour, did not speak with her for over a week!
“My dress was soaked, my hair was ruined and let us not even discuss the state of my face. And this happened right near the main road, so there was a crowd of people around. Imagine how mortifying that must have been!”
“You don’t…sound embarrassed about it,” Milli said. She had released her hair midway through the narration and now brushed her fingers through them to disentangle the ends.
Her mother laughed and shook her head. “See, that’s the thing about these moments. Eventually, they become memories you laugh about.”
Not always, but her daughter need not know that yet.
“The importance you’re putting on them now, as you grow older, it’ll stop to matter as much.”
“But… but…” Milli’s eyes darted from one end to another and she scratched her head, trying to find a way to say it. “But… it’s still… I mean, how… how do I face them tomorrow?” she asked in a small voice, jutting out her lower lip.
“You don’t! No matter what you do, what’s happened today has already happened. Can you change that?”
Milli turned her head from side to side.
“Then, do you think it’s worth worrying over?”
After considering the question for a passing second, Milli let out a loud sigh. “I don’t know! Why is life even so complicated? Can’t I walk around accident-free?” She threw her hands up in exasperation and rolled her eyes.
Her mother pressed her lips together and patted her on the arm.
She grumbled some more before she jumped to her feet and walked out of the kitchen. Her mother was certain she had heard her badmouth a couple of girls under her breath, but she pretended otherwise.
The tea and the sabzi were more urgent at the moment.
She turned off the saucepan right as the browned and fragrant milk was about to bubble over the edge. She picked up the lid off of the kadahi and stirred the vegetables before covering it back up.
As she strained out the tea into a cup, she chuckled, thinking about the infamous mango incident. One of these days her sister was bound to spill the beans to her daughter. She was part of the walk-to-school crew then and was the one who had been supposed to be the lookout that day, but of course, she would edit that part out in the retellings. She would probably even mention how the same stunt had been attempted three more times after that within the same year and possibly the same month.
Attempted and succeeded… mostly without injuries.
Their knees had turned sore when they returned home. Their mother had provided a balm for them, rather inconspicuously, and had hushed up the matter in front of their father. He knew from one look at them, but reserved his comment.
She and her sister though would not stop giggling through the night, talking about the punishment in the morning, and had slept late as a result. They woke up groggy the next day. She did not know about her sister, but shehad ended up spending the day in school yawning through the classes, snoozing in one too.
Ah, how the teacher had rapped on her knuckles that day!
It had not been the first, nor would be the last, of the knuckle-rapping in her school days!
She smiled as she raised the cup to her lips and took a sip. Funny how a single made-up memory opened a pool of others.
Bunking classes to go to the local theatre, eating the roadside food without permission, disrupting classes because she had been bored, sneaking out to go play with whichever class had the Physical Education going on … there was no end to the mischief of her teenage years. It had been just her sister, their two friends (both girls) and her being up to no good, and sometimes just her friends and she.
Sweet memories, quite like the tea –
“Mumma, you never told what you did after falling into the mud,” Milli said suddenly.
Her mother nearly choked on her beverage. She had not heard her come into the kitchen! As she coughed, the cogs in her brain began to whirl rapidly.
“Well… that is, you see…” – and she proceeded to spin another tale. As long as it somehow correlated to the current situation of Milli, it did not even matter how true it was not.
Manisha Sahoo wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the movie Fandry
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