One of my vividest memories of my maternal grandparents’ home at Kuthukuzhy is that of a snake crawling over my feet. It is one of those childhood memories which in hindsight, leaves one unsure whether it really happened. Moreover my childhood is so mixed with stories that I read and imagined that the line separating reality and fantasies is vague, blurred.
There are other memories, mother’s younger brother, my Kunjammavan eating ‘Avial’ out of a plate, just the curry, no rice. I remember taking a great liking to that dish after that, fascinated by the relish with which he ate; myself later, imitating the way he ate, spooning out just the curry from a plate. Incidentally around that age I had also taken a liking to ‘buns’, after reading a story about a boy stealing warm, crispy buns from some neighbor’s window.
Annually, every summer vacation we travelled to Kuthukuzhy; mother, my elder brother and me taking a bus journey of around 4 hours, mother with plastic packets full of sweet orange and biscuits, to keep me from getting nauseous, brother taking the seat on top of the ‘box’ by the side of the driver to observe driving mechanics (I was later to learn from my husband that boys don’t just watch, in their heads they become the drivers; As age progresses, they become the hero drivers rescuing a bus full of passengers, being chased by the trailing vehicles and so on!), and myself invariably sticking to the window seat, singing out to the wind (literally singing in a low voice with lips moving). Father would follow us there after about a week or so and after a couple of more days we would all go back home.
Until my brother entered the ‘big boys’ age and found playing with little girls as demeaning for his boyhood, we used to wander around the rubber, banana plantations around the home throughout the day. It was during those holidays that we got a tamarind seed stuck inside my nostrils, found a pot of toddy and vomited later on, chewed the betel-chalk-tobacco mix of our grandmother and fainted, learned to climb slippery guava trees. Much later when I read God of Small Things in college, I could smell our own warm summer days in the book.
There were cocoa trees lining the unpolished mud pavement from the main road to home, we would climb and rest leaning on the strong branches hidden beneath the warm pleasant thick leaves, had our own see-saw on a low leaning guava branch, spent hours trying to create bow and arrows out of fallen dry sticks and rubber bands. It was around that time also that we were rescued just in time from being pasted to earth by an elephant.
The animal was lodged in our plantation for some wood business. We got up at sunrise the next day, found a piece of jaggery and banana from the kitchen and out of elders’ eyes fed the elephant from our own hands. Bravened by this new association, we held its trunk from either side, about to do God knows what, when mother saw us from the kitchen and ran at us shouting, making us flee.
After my brother moved on to only-boys adolescence, I was left to my own means to spend my summer days. During one of those days, the said encounter with the snake happened. I had been running to and fro, between the kitchen and the cattle shed at the back, for a while. Now this cattle shed was just a bare establishment with a cemented platform, no walls, 4 posters holding up the roof made out of dry palm leaves. My game involved running to the shed, standing on the platform for a while, waving at the imaginary audience in front, running back. During one of this runs as I stood there waving, I looked down and saw this coiled mass beneath, slowly making its way up the platform. I stood there rooted to the spot, looking down, as it smelled my toes, slowly slithering up my feet. Halfway up my knee, I woke up from that petrified state, and screamed. By the time mother, uncle and a neighbour aunty who had come over to chat, ran to me, there was no snake anywhere to be seen.
My brother had a similar incident in the past from his own own childhood. He had come back home from his wanderings in the plantation and told my mother that as he had stood under a tree, a long ‘leech’ had crawled swiftly over his foot. But leeches are slow and small. So this had led to a thorough cleaning of bushes around that area.
So now, they took my word also seriously about the snake and its climb up my leg. A search was done but no snake found. My mother always took care not to make fun of us or scold us for whatever we reported from our adventures. Now at this age, I realize that this just made sure that we hid nothing from home ever in life, out of fear of ridicule or shouts.
As childhood moved on, to college and then jobs, when the trip to Kuthukuzhy did not have to be a tedious bus journey but in our own car, the visits grew less in number. My uncle never married. First he was in search of a permanent job, then he was building the new house and after all was done, he had just aged, accommodating his singleness. My grandfather had passed away back when I was around 10. So it was just my uncle and grandmother at our Kuthukuzhy home.
One evening 2 months back, my father called me and told me that grandmother passed away. I was with my husband at our home in Bangalore, my brother was in Chennai with his wife. All of us caught flights to Kochi by night and everybody was here by morning. My parents had reached at night itself, neighbours and uncle’s friends were here.
All of us stayed for a week. Uncle could not be left alone. Though he had friends in the neighbourhood, he could not be left to return to an empty house just like that. He is 45 now and getting a wife now is becoming tough. We had to get back to our jobs, mother stayed on for another week, father went back home. We travel down during weekends, spend a couple of days here, or have uncle come over to our home. Mother is here during weekdays too, spending much time trying to find a suitable partner for uncle.
Last weekend it was just the 5 of us, without the spouses. It was like a grown up version of the old days, but with no grandmother. I was leaving clothes out to dry in the sun, when I felt a rustling in the grass. Just like before, I was not wearing any chappals (though it sometimes cracks my apartment-friendly feet, walking barefoot on the warm grass around the bushes in the plantation is a thing that has stuck from the past).
I saw the snake. And this time I saw it clearly. I was awake, full aware, and scared. I am not a snake-fearing person. Beyond that childhood incident, I have come across snakes several times in my life and never lost my senses. But now I did. I was back to being 5 years old. Everything was the same. I just got rooted to the spot, blank.
And memories of grandmother just came flooding in. The smell of oil from her damp hair, the way she would sit just smiling, listening to us, lost in thoughts, all the pickles, mangoes, jackfruits, and snacks, she would unfailingly keep ready for summer, waiting for us, the way a smile would slowly break over her face, as we got down the bus, opened the gates and walked in,
She saw and heard everything. Even during that adventure with the elephant, I knew that she had seen us leaving with the jaggery and had called my mother only when we got hold of its trunk. She had always picked us out from whichever tree we were hiding. She was the looming figure in the background of the warm summer that my childhood was.
In fact, that single incident with the snake is the only memory from my childhood that doesn’t have her shadow. And now when she is gone, here I was rooted to the same spot, with a snake crawling over my foot. I felt a heaviness rising up from a depth far too deep in my heart. Like the day 25 years back, when I lost my senses to fear, and she was nowhere around, I realized how much I had missed her even then, like a prelude to what was so lucidly happening to me now.
Like Ravi, held back in Qasakk, without an escape, so here I was. Trapped in a moment of my childhood where I had unknowingly been scared for missing something I would lose 25 years since then.
Name : Archana Prem
Company : Oracle India Pvt. Ltd
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