Fiction: A MAROON SUNFLOWER

A Annapurna Sharma

Peering out of the grotto, I stared into the night. The iron of the window cold against my stoic cheeks, stars visible through the lattice challenged the city lights. The moon was obscure, part of it veiled by a dark cloud. Smoke forming curls, fracturing the air already swathed with sweat. Traffic below swirled in a mad rush, like me.

I recalled the hut, warm amid the rice fields on top of the hill where I used to live. My father’s earnings as a farm laborer sufficed our needs. My mother was an intermittent laborer. She trailed my father during harvest season when our minimalism shammed her and the crispy money beckoned her. My brothers and sisters and I, five of us stayed at home with Bajai who dished her vegetable broths, full of spice for us. When one of us caught cold she added more herbs. She played with us and on afternoons when it rained and we couldn’t play outside, she chattered the whole time – her stories of the knight never losing a battle, the fairy with a silver wand granting wishes, the maroon sunflower helping everyone and the clown with a limp making us laugh…stories of the magpie, she guffawed. Bajai, old and dusky, with her tales, no longer fresh, sent me away from home – ‘Your Baa is dead,’ she said.

My father died in that massive earthquake, mingling with the rubble under that building where he had gone to drink tea. They sent pieces, broken bones and flesh stitched and covered with cloth. His disfigured face was buried under a bed sheet thinner than him. It took them two days to dig out the dead from under the building. If the heap of cement and rocks really contained him, a farfetched possibility, expressed one digger. My mother recognized his shirt, the green one that he wore whenever he strolled in the evenings, to banter and drink some ginger tea with his friends. They regularly joked that they would live and die together. Probably they knew they would one day soar to the heavens in a bunch. I couldn’t even say a proper goodbye to him as they do when someone left home.

Bajai said, ‘we are a big family, we need money, to eat, to live. You are the son of this family. You must earn and send money home, so I can take care of them,’ her cracked fingers pointed to the bunch of them huddled in a corner, ‘your brothers, your sisters and your dumb mother.’

***

That day, the day I left home to work, kissing my youngest sister and patting and hugging the others, I hadn’t known it was the last goodbye. When I left with Bajai to the market, they cried and I giggled.

‘We will buy lipstick, pink color, your favorite, right, pink lipstick, a hair brush, talcum powder, what is that, jasmine scented talcum powder, pink skirt and a white blouse…’

Pink. I loved pink. The lighter shade. The pink of the oleander, the pink of the wild roses, the pink of the hibiscus, the pink of the sky, the pink of the ocean, the pink of trees, birds, pink, pink and pink.

‘Iha. Say something.’

‘Why?’

‘The first impression matters, at your first job, you must look pretty.’

‘Why spend money? I will manage with what I have?’

‘I don’t know if ever I will be able to buy you anything again.’

‘Why are you saying like this?’

‘Oh! I mean, I mean you will have more money and better things to buy in the city. And you know I’m growing old.’

‘Oh Bajai, you will outlive us.’ I didn’t doubt her smile, duller than her wrinkled face. As we walked, the road appeared wider, people in colorful clothes, busy with their work, some walking, some cycling, some on two wheelers, battery rickshaws, cars; I was soaring skywards on a carousel, a sense of pride leaped in my heart, that I would work, earn money, money for my family, and when I return as a rich woman…

***

At the check post – ‘Where are you going?’

‘To buy clothes.’

The officer gazed at me as though he wanted to ask something, but he didn’t. Amused by his uncertainties, I wanted to tell him about my plans to work, work in India but Bajai had warned me not to say a word about work.

‘Why?’

‘Jealous! They don’t want us to work in their country. You quiet.’

I nodded, a dumb dancing doll that I was. They questioned Bajai separately.

‘What did you tell them?’

‘Oh! I told them about my beautiful granddaughter.’

‘What did they say?’

‘What will they say? They smiled and allowed me to cross over.’

After shopping, Bajai and I stopped at a roadside eatery and ordered my favorite – shrimp noodles. I mentally calculated the wastage of money but thought best not to say a word for I enjoyed every bit of it, the clothes, the food and the people. Fear lurked in the corner of my heart that I might lose the moment, if I opposed Bajai’s over-spending. 

Only once in a year we had fun when Baa brought us to the market to buy clothes. ‘Iha, have some, it is tasty.’ Baa used to slurp shrimp noodles, his favorite and fed me some.

Tears welling in my eyes, I glanced at Bajai. Poor woman! She had cried and cried, her nose and cheeks turned pink, her eyes red and sore. I didn’t want to trouble her. I turned my face to the other side. And then a man approached us.

‘Go with him. He will take you to your workplace.’

How could I go with someone I didn’t know?

‘You trust me?’

I nodded.

‘Then go. You will be fine.’

‘My clothes?’

‘They will give you everything. Work hard. Don’t forget you have sisters and brothers at home.’

Mounting the bike I waved at her. Not a tear from her eyes. She waved back. I was dumb like my mother who stopped talking when she saw my father stuffed up in the sack. She sat in a corner and no tears rushed out of her eyes. I have seen women howl, beat their chests, mourn for days when their husbands died. But my mother became quiet, as quiet as the wind after a storm. Bajai thrashed her with a stick, thinking that she might cry out in pain. The neighboring women shook her, pulled her hair and snapped her wrists. She didn’t say a word nor did she drop a tear. 

‘Your mother is of no use. Shall I throw her away or better still shall I kill her? Will I do that to my own daughter?’

Next morning our neighbor enquired – ‘Did your Aamaa cry last night?’

‘Bajai did.’

‘Poor old woman,’ she said. Bajai wept, instead of my mother. She beat her chest and slapped herself, so uncharacteristic of her – on the days when our tantrums reached the peak or we troubled her with our pranks she chased us or lifted her eyebrows to frighten us but she hadn’t hurt us ever – I had never seen her so fragile and defeated.

I don’t know for how long I sat on the bike, but the sun had begun to descend, its glow red on my face. I reached a house where there were a lot of men and women. Some smiled, some smirked at me and there were some who scanned me from top to bottom like I were a gourd with defects. Displeasure textured my eyes, when a woman said, ‘You have lovely lips. A nice name. Tina.’

Before I could tell my name, she corked my mouth with her right palm, ‘your name is Tina. What?’

I didn’t answer. She repeated, ‘Tina.’ She uttered ‘Tina’ with mesmerism, ‘Tina. Say Tina.’ I disliked being manipulated but having no choice for it seemed she might go into a trance if I didn’t respond. I said, ‘Tina’.

Perhaps Bajai didn’t know what they did. She must have thought they will send me to work in an office in Bombay. I remembered her cringe as I squatted in the corner, beside my mother, holding her hands in mine – ‘I am growing old. I cannot go to work in the same way as a young woman. I need your help. Iha, I need your help. Iha means Prithvi, the Earth. Your baa knew it, which is why he named you Iha. Iha, I cannot manage without…’

Iha. Such an earthy name. I sensed the virgin breath pouring out of the virgin stream from the hills behind my home.

‘Are you listening Iha? There is food for only two days. What will we do after that? No starving with Iha around – the son of the family. She will work to keep us alive. She loves us. Iha. Promise me. Promise!’ I promised her. I pledged to the old woman that I would work hard and earn money, money to stuff the family with food.

‘Hey, listen…’ I nodded in random. ‘She might faint.’ The woman shook my shoulders to bring me back from my memories of home.

Why did she do that? I would have as well died, died an oppressed death, a body, unwanted. Lapping up the water she gave me I lay on a couch while she sat there caressing my forehead. I closed my eyes and my mind wandered in the dense bushes behind my home. Where have I landed? Those nights when we trembled to the howls of the hyenas resonating in the valley and tucked tightly in our beds beside Bajai, ‘Iha, stop crying. Your siblings will do the same as you. You know when we were kids, a tigress roared into the village every night…’ We slipped into sleep listening to the tale of the unpaired tigress and its conquests at night, sometimes about stealing a chicken or startling a dog or dragging a goat out of its pen. We wrapped the end of the story in our dreams. I don’t know for how long I slept. When I woke up, the woman was slouching beside me on the couch.

‘Ah! You awake.’

I stared at her.

‘There is a lot to learn, the kajal, see it is smudged, you should learn to run a thin, neat line, I will teach you how, and see, the lipstick drawn beyond your lips, spread over your entire mouth line. Did you eat a toffee? In your dreams?’

Her laugh reminded me of the witch on the bamboo tree on hot afternoons.

‘Oh! Don’t you understand a joke?’

What would I gain by painting my face black and red?

‘I want to go home.’

‘Home! Ah! This is home.’

‘My home.’

‘Hmm!’ Anger built up within her, the loud sigh, she might explode, hurt me, injure me, shouldn’t have asked her, but the longing was stronger than the probable bruises. ‘This is your home. You will have to learn to dress, to talk sweetly, to smile beautifully and to behave nicely.’

‘Why?’

‘Why! Now, now, now, as if you didn’t know why, don’t tell me, you don’t know anything.’ The woman put her hands on her hips as she spoke, the air about her visible in the way she stood with her legs apart, the way men stood. ‘I know you girls coming from the hills, you act innocent, but I know you. I know your nature, you race here to make money and then whine, as if we forced you. You want money?’

The heat from her nostrils rushed out with a sound, her chest heaved as if she scaled the highest peak. When she spoke her eyes danced red and wild, like someone possessed by some spirit – ‘Your brothers, sisters, whoever, they need to live, they need to eat, to survive, become, whatever, and you want to send them money. Right!’

As she spoke her hands accompanied her eyes making gestures in the still air of the room, ‘If you didn’t want the big money, then why did you come here? Did we beg at your house? Did we kidnap you? You came on your own.’

She paused a while, perhaps thinking what to say next. Her eyes searched mine – ‘You, beautiful. You just have to learn to please them.’

Did Bajai know about this? She wanted the money, badly. I could hear my heart beat faster and wished to scream at her, I couldn’t believe the old woman would do such a thing. Trust me, she said, the hag. I struggled to stay afloat in the waters of the ocean, the currents choking me, suffocating me. What was happening to me? Where did the ocean come from?

I heard some girls whisper, ‘We cater to their needs. The men you know, they make a lot of money, big businesses and such, they travel a lot, don’t have time.’ Excitement spurted in their voices, ‘they don’t have time to make it home, to their wives. But you know, their need, they need to relax…to work better…’ an eagerness to start work filled their chatter, ‘they need attractive girls. Whenever they ring us up we have to go in the cars they send for us to their hotels. It is big money…’

Big money! The air was shrouded by the sickening word – big money, I could hardly breathe. 

‘But we have to learn the tactics. You know, some are nice and polite while some rude, some abusive, I heard…you must know how to escape, because we don’t want to make noise, attract people, you know, the police coming in…there is so much to learn…’

It was apparent from their talk; they knew what they were into. I lost my mind. Bajai must have known. The dirty old one! I can’t imagine myself dressing up for some old fat fool of a man. The next door Rocky, when he winked at me, I felt embarrassed. When his tongue made wet circles around his lips, I wished to slash his face; instead I sprinted home. And now, what have I put myself into? I cried. My head ripped apart, ready to explode, the chaos in my heart, loud and clear.

I have to find a way out – out of this catacomb. In the night, I decided to slip through the backdoor, when it is quiet, when the guards are shrunken in sleep. I could slither in the manner of a viper down the hill till the market and then run back home.

‘What are you thinking Tina?’

Who are these girls to ask me? Turning aside I closed my eyes.

***

‘Wake up. Wake up.’

I sat up groggily on the bed and noticed the other girls in the room sleeping as if they were at home.

‘Come with me.’

A maroon sunflower swayed in the air before my eyes. It’s radiance like the aura around a holy man, a spectacle I hadn’t witnessed before. It must be the one, Bajai told us about, the sunflower helping good people.

‘Hurry, quick.’ The urgency in her voice made me wonder where. Bajai must have sent the sunflower, to rescue me. I had imagined myself locked in a dungeon below the earth. The sight of the sunflower brought some relief and I mused – following the sunflower might be the only way out of the crypt. There seemed no harm in pursuing a sunflower rather than the harm that I could foresee. Swift as a nimble footed nymph I jumped off the bed and followed her.

She glided ahead. I ran after her and fell on my face, thrashing my nose against the hard floor. She looked back and said, ‘careful.’ I got up and ran again. Increasing my speed I crossed several thresholds and doors. This time, I banged my head against a door. I sat in a daze and peered at the miniature door in front of me. The door was purposefully made small, so that one needs to bend to enter or go.

‘Come on,’ the sunflower prompted me from the other side. I hurried after her. Down the steps we went and into the backyard filled with shadows. ‘Follow me.’ I walked close behind. Darkness of the night dared to frighten the light emanating from the sunflower. Not a soul around.

She said, ‘there’s a rope ladder.’ I had never climbed a tree before and I stared at the only escape hanging over the enormous, white concrete wall, the size of a hill. It appeared if I didn’t climb; the wall might swallow me. ‘There’s little time,’ she almost yelled and I grabbed the ladder. The twisted strands of coir bruised my palms, making them pink, a shade darker than their original. Every time, I slipped a rung, I glanced at the smiling sunflower, taunting me with her, ‘will you be able to?’ looks.

On the final rung when I collected my wits, I wasn’t aware what was in store next – the shiny, curvy point of the glass piece, embedded with care on the deadly bulwark, pierced my tender skin. The bastards, I cursed and plucked the shards from my hands and feet. My eyes fluttered as the white wall stained red with the color seeping from the gashes. Escape wasn’t an easy goal to achieve and I jumped on to the other side. It was all in my mind – if I wanted to fail and go back…just as the marathon I ran every day, with Zahira, to collect firewood from the forest, and I failed and cried. But, I did try, everyday. I scrambled to my feet and ran through the mat of thorns. And every time I let out a cry, the sunflower shushed me with her long ‘shhhhh…’

The desire to see light was powerful than the mighty sun, I gagged myself with my hands, tasting my own blood. I don’t know if it was out of pain or what, but I dared to whisper, ‘how long?’ She pointed, ‘just out of the tunnel.’

I gasped at the darkness of the tunnel and walked through the wildly grown bushes eager to kiss my body. I couldn’t allow my precious tears to ruin my will. Focusing on the only light in front of me – the sunflower, I dragged my marooned feet. A faint smell. Was it characteristic of a tunnel, wrapped in death? The smell became strong, nauseating, overpowering, flesh and blood, I could literally smell the rawness of my skin. The sounds of the tunnel muffled my blood-curdling cries. Was it the hyenas or the cannibals? They were fierce than any animal I knew on earth. Their hands wriggling all over me, in places I never knew, in places I thought were sacred. What was I taught at home?  I fail to remember. But it was all the places that never existed for a girl of thirteen.

I don’t know for how long I traveled. I could see only her, leading me away, away, away…we see the redness, the redness of the wounds, but there is the unseen redness of the heart that longs to heal and so I will heal, I repeated to myself.

Suddenly, there was silence spread over the night except for the wind whistling, a different tune. At places where the bushes burgeoned, they parted to give us way. The softness of the lush undergrowth under my bloodied feet relieved my pain.

‘Speed up!’ When she spoke she dazzled similar to a lightning in the open fields.

‘Where are you taking me?’ My voice sounded rusty like that of a lock that hadn’t been opened for years.

‘You will see.’ She smiled. I smiled back, my first smile after I left home.

Branded as the talkative girl at home, Bajai often ordered me to shut my mouth. ‘What did you eat, when you carried her in your stomach?  Firecrackers?’ My mother smiled at Bajai’s complaints and I burst out laughing, sometimes making sounds that resembled real firecrackers. My eyes grew wistful as I laughed at the pleasant remembrance.

The sunflower smiled again, ‘you must laugh. Laugh always – happy times or sad. Good for you.’

‘How long?’

‘Ah! We are here.’

The tunnel seemed to end abruptly and we reached the edge of the hillock. ‘There you can see the village. Dash down the hill, cross the fields and hurry home.’

‘Home?’

‘Your home.’

‘My home?’

‘The one where Bajai lives, your mother, brothers, sisters. Run now.’

My home! I hadn’t expected to ever see any of them again. I visualized the joy in their eyes; finally I would be home, with my people. I wanted to dance, sing, somersault…

I turned around to thank her. The maroon sunflower wasn’t there. I searched the surroundings – behind the trees, under the bush, in between the wild flowers, I couldn’t find her. Alone and thwarted, I peered around – from the edge of the cliff I could see the village, amongst the captivating foliage, fires at dawn, the smoke rising from huts as they heated up to make tea. The smoke mingled with the virgin dew from heaven and formed a blanket covering the village. I had to race down the hill to reach my place. I put my foot forward. I stumbled over a root jutting out and fell forward. My head hit a hard surface. Nursing the bump on my forehead I rose from my stupor. The cold floor, harsh and cruel, guffawed at my imprudence. The other girls were blissfully asleep.

Early morning dreams turn out to be true, Bajai often said. Her words on the last night at home just as the resonance of the temple bells – Your brothers will own a tea shop – Iha tea shop. One of your sisters, the younger one can become a teacher, one of us must study, don’t you think and the other, happily married, nursing her little one at home…and your mother and I will soak in the winter sun in the backyard, knitting mojas and sweaters and debating about your brother’s marriages. What do you say? Isn’t it lovely?


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