Surya’s grandmother and mine were cousins many times removed. No one who can trace the relationship has survived, but everyone knew that fifty or sixty years ago, the two had been inseparable. I happened to be present the very last time they met. It was at a family wedding just before Surya’s grandmother died.
“Shailaja, Shailaja”, she had called out.
I had never heard anyone call my grandmother by her name. Most people called her Ajji, as if she were some universal grandmother with no other role but to be benign. On rare occasions I’d hear her referred to as Usha Bai, the name she had been given by her husband’s family when she was married at thirteen. Maybe they felt the moniker better suited the alignment of the stars that ruled their household. I wonder if it had made my grandmother’s life happier.
“Shailaja, Shailaja.” Surya’s grandmother’s voice was soft, yet it carried over all the other noises at the wedding hall. Ajji hurried forward, her eyes bright with tears. Just then the drums sounded fast and insistent, accompanied by the sharp, reedy melody of the nadaswaram, announcing the tying of the nuptial knot. “Maalu, my dear Maalu.” Ajji’s body bent at the waist as if her whole body was reaching towards her friend. Malathi Bai extended her arm and gently touched Ajji’s elbow. They walked slowly to the folding steel chairs near the fan and sat there hardly speaking.
“Why didn’t you talk more to her, Ajji?” I had asked when we got home.
“What is there to say, Ramu?” she’d replied. With everything I know now, I could counter: “What is not there to say?” But at the time I nodded as if I understood.
Malathi Bai’s grandson Surya contacted my mother to say that he and his fellow students from their university study group had to spend three weeks in an Indian village; there was no question that they would come to our village, or what was left of it, gobbled up as it was by the city.
The students arrived one morning around eleven, an odd scruffy bunch. In addition to their appearance, their coarse, wide-mouthed tones drew us in, and we gathered close to stare as they unloaded their things on to our dusty main street. They were obviously taken aback when they found that the village was not some idyllic pastoral place, but an ugly cluster of small concrete structures creeping in from a city fast encroaching our outskirts. It was only when one looked in the direction of the lake that there was any evidence of the tiled mortar buildings and granite courtyards that had characterised the area.
Surya and some other students stayed in the village while the rest were housed in a hostel nearby. They were like alien creatures; the noises they made, and their daily routine completely unlike ours. They were skilled at getting their way. They were not intimidated about asking for what they wanted as I imagine I would have been if I were visiting their place. “Oh the bath water’s cold. Papamma, can’t I have hot water, please?” The request was made with a pout and a hug. And Papamma set to lighting the fire to heat the water.
A few years ago someone left the fire untended under one of Papamma’s trees and scorched it to death. Every leaf had curled in brown agony and fallen to the ground. Papamma had cried and moved the spot where she lit the fire to one where there was no shade, which was fine most of the time since the water was only heated in the early mornings or during the cool winters. But this student rose at noon and only wanted to bathe in the middle of the blazing summer afternoon. Pappamma used mountains of good firewood to heat water.
“Thank you,” the girl would simper as the older lady carried buckets of steaming water, perspiring and red from the effort. Then bending ineffectually the girl would add, “Don’t lift it, I can do it,” after it was done. I don’t know why Pappamma didn’t just say, “Bathe in cold water,” as she would have to her own grandchildren. Maybe the foreignness of the girl was intimidating.
“Why are you here?” I asked one of the students. “Beats going to class,” he replied. What did that mean?
I got a better answer when I asked Surya. “Why am I here? Treasure my boy, looking for treasure.” He was laughing when he said it but I knew he was serious. Many people had searched for Tippu Sultan’s treasure chest which was supposed to have been buried in the sand near the lakebed. There was a perpetual debate about whether it contained coins or jewels. Some even said it was filled with chopped body parts of Tippu’s family. “Don’t worry, Suryanna. You’ll see, it will be full of gold, not bones” I said, wanting to reassure him that our village, our connection, and thus somehow, I, wouldn’t fail him.
“Gold?!” he roared. “This is bigger than gold. We are looking for treasure my boy.” More valuable than gold!? I laughed too, uncomprehending, excited.
Surya had a handsome face, a large unwieldy body and a friendly charm. He was more disciplined than the rest of the group. He rose early even when he’d stayed out late with the others. Once he was up, all he seemed to do was wander about, and talk to anyone who was around. I was fascinated and tagged along; happy when he paid attention to me, and bored when he asked people again and again for versions of old tales that none of us cared about.
The only time I enjoyed the stories was when he spent time with my grandmother. He would ask her questions that none of the family ever broached. My grandmother responded to the encouraging sounds he made; she forgot I was around, forgot that she had spent a lifetime hiding the family history from me. She talked about her son, the alcoholic recluse; about my mother, widowed and lonely; and about her own late husband’s mistress who lived on the next lane and who, my grandmother said, had given her husband something she never could. One day I walked into our cool, dark hall with its old rosewood table and chair. In the moments it took me to adjust to the dimness, my perceptions obscured by the afternoon glare, I saw my grandmother wiping her eyes with the edge of her cotton sari. “I wish”, she was saying softly. By the time I blinked a few times and could see again, she was sitting in her usual posture, leaning erect and gracious against the back of the chair, her head tilted solicitously towards us.
That evening Surya whispered excitedly into the phone, “Bonanza man. You won’t believe what I just learnt.” He looked up as I entered, and straightened. He changed his tone and started talking loudly about a walk along the lake bund which had a crumbling mortar structure. I knew, and I knew that he knew that there was nothing there. Why was he deliberately misleading whomever he was talking to?
Generally the April holidays were a nightmare. I had to resist the activities my mother tried to enrol me in at the high school, while she was at work. This time, however, her energies were distracted by a new colleague, so I was left to myself. While my mother was relieved that I was occupied following Surya everywhere, she was also irritated. “Gone all day again”, she said with a bitterness that had nothing much to do with me — she was bitter about everything in those days. “Well, I don’t care what you do, so long as you don’t get into any trouble and are back on time. Also, make sure you practise. Just because your violin teacher has traipsed off on holiday — imagine, she has gone to Disneyland while you and I can’t go anywhere — doesn’t mean you don’t keep up with practice.”
To appease my mother, I would take out the violin in the hot, torpid afternoons and play wild, wandering versions of tunes I had been taught. Surya would take a siesta, or work on his laptop, a sleek, city-looking device that he stored under his bed in a soft velvety grey, envelope-like case. Occasionally I would drop my bow and try to read over his shoulder as he typed but he would shoo me away with a laugh saying, “No peeking. This is a treasure hunt remember, each man for himself. We each have to follow our own clues.”
“How can I recognise the clues? I don’t know what I am looking for.”
“Man, there’s treasure everywhere” he laughed. “Just look around. Look around, and listen. Listen!”
They hadn’t found anything, I would have known if they had. They spent their last week working together and typing furiously on their computers rather than doing any more searching.
They used Mrs Kamala, the widow’s place for this final stretch. Her house was at the other end of the village and out of bounds for me. My mother distrusted Mrs K. “Why does she hang around near the gate, waiting to chat with every passer-by?”, I heard her saying to my grandmother.
I finally worked up the courage to sneak off and go to Mrs K’s. She happened to be in the garden, and took my arm and led me in. The small, pink, distempered hall had plush upholstered sofas arranged in a sharp square around a low glass-top table. The students lay about with their computers, their dirty feet everywhere. “Poor things, they work so hard”, she said as she looked around. “I have to provide refreshments.” She took out a bottle of ancient whiskey from a musty cupboard filled with her dead husband’s clothes. “He was saving it for something special”, she said with a sad smile. Then she perked up and took out some glasses and said, “Please, please, take some!” The group drank greedily once they got over the fact that the Scotch had apparently been wrapped in old-fashioned underwear for many years. Surya was leaning over his computer as one of the girls read out to him from a notebook. He looked up and grinned, and winked at me. I felt left out and embarrassed.
That week my mother arranged for me to take math classes as preparation for entering high school. And in a few days the group had left. “They’ve tossed their cardboard boxes into my storm drain” Mrs K cried, the morning after their departure as I wandered past her place to convince myself they were truly gone. “I’d had it cleared just before they arrived.” Her fingers anxiously balled up the material of her sari as she lifted it with both hands before stepping outside her compound wall. The border of the grim flower-print played at her skinny calves. “Cheeky things! When I asked them to clean the veranda before they left, they said, ‘yes, Mrs K, no problem, Mrs K’. And now look at the pulp that’s clogged up everything.” She gesticulated with both hands at the disintegrating boxes. A fine layer of stress-sweat gathered in the creased pockets below her eyes. She sighed and used the end of her sari to dab at her face, leaving a crushed rosette shape in the fabric she released. “I wonder why they were here. What did they want from us?”
“The unscrupulous creep. I knew I shouldn’t have let him into our lives. Thank god your grandmother is no longer with us.” My mother tossed the book into the waste-paper basket and dusted off her fingers with a grimace of disgust.
My mother had been annoyed when Surya didn’t correspond, but that was a couple of years ago and she soon gave in, with an odd pleasure, to other more pressing melancholies involving that colleague who was now her beaux. But whatever Surya had sent made her angrier than I had seen in a while. She picked up the bulky yellow envelope with the Abraham Lincoln stamps and extricated a letter. Holding it by the corners as if it were something dirty, she read out loud, “Hello dear friends.”
What the hell did he mean, “dear friends”? I was the one who had been his friend. My mother was my mother and my grandmother was dead. I cursed loudly. My mother glanced at me, continued reading quietly, and then exclaimed, “The pompous ass!” She crumpled the letter and threw it after the book.
As soon as I had the chance, I retrieved the book from the wastebasket and took it to my room. Finally I would find out what their stay was about, and what they had been searching for.
The introductory essay went on about folk tales and oral histories! No mention of the treasure. There was a section about the psychological implications of covert lesbian affairs on the dynamics of the village. Lesbian! Here? In our village?! Did anyone know that word? Did it even exist in our language? Next there was a bit about extra-marital relationships – men and their mistresses. There was a section on feminism and freedom, and I thought of Papamma and how all those grand concepts hadn’t trickled down in their attitude towards her. Abstract theoretical terms such as gender hegemony frameworks ran across the page. I laughed. This stuff had nothing to do with our small, conventional, characterless and squeezed-in corner of the city that, through developmental neglect, still retained some aspects of the village. This book was about some other interesting place.
I flipped to the chapter on the lesbian affair which sounded like a promising read for the afternoon. I was surprised it was written by Surya.
The story began with a description of an elderly lady, separated from her female lover by an unfulfilling marriage. The lady was described in great physical detail, down to her soft pink saris. It was without doubt my grandmother, and her lesbian lover? Malathi Bai, Surya’s grandmother! I understood why my mother had flung the book away. It all sounded so sordid and intimate. I recalled that afternoon when I had walked in on Surya and my grandmother, and how excited Surya had been afterwards. What did she say that led him to conclude that which he did? My grandmother was discreet and gracious. She would never articulate something that didn’t even have a word in our language.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I screamed into my pillow. We had been bloody naive to assume they wanted to share our lives, when all they wanted to do was to take our stories and twist them out of shape. When I woke up it was dusk, just the kind of light in which Mrs K would lurk by her gate, waiting to talk to someone and share her husband’s whiskey. I could taste the vomit coating my tongue. I turned over, peeling my face off from the dampness of perspiration, tears and saliva that had soaked into the sheet, and returned to the book.
It concluded with a paragraph written by Surya. In it he said that during their stay in the village, a passing conversation with a child led to the project being viewed as a treasure hunt. “The boy asked me why I was there and I spontaneously responded that we were looking for treasure.’’
I had thought of myself as Surya’s companion and confidant, not some random child. I was offended but my rage was exhausted. I read on. “A treasure hunt! It was a perfect analogy. We were digging, digging deep for treasure, treasure that would enable us to examine our roots.”
I washed my face and slipped out of the house to visit Mrs K. There was no mention of her in the book. I took the long route via what was left of the lake, past the glass structure that was being constructed where the village square had been. I hoped on one hand that Surya had remembered to send her a copy of the book, and on the other that he had forgotten to do so.