Pandu is jittery on the broken seat of the bus stop outside his basti. Hugging himself, he is trying to hide the stiff, newspaper-wrapped package cradled inside his shirt. It is a gift for Shevanta. But he cannot yet take it home, a blue dot in a blue maze. If he brings home a gift in broad daylight, people will speak about it, and for long.
So, he waits for the evening light to fade further when the basti falls under shadow and a lull breaks the hustle between men returning from work and the unemployed heading out for the night. Then, Pandu will navigate the narrow lanes leading inside the sprawling slum to the corrugated iron he calls home.
He built his home with materials borrowed from his boss, Contractor saheb, who takes up house renovation projects for middle class families in the suburbs. After Shevanta came into his life, Pandu added small things here and there to make home resemble something more domestic. A piece of saree curtained the entrance; cups, plates, utensils, a mug and a bucket next to the stove occupied one corner, huddled together like refugees on a raft. He is glad of the things he has acquired. But he is proudest of the package hiding inside his shirt. Finally, something for Shevanta, something that is only meant for her, and not for the home.
A racist newspaper that happened also to be the country’s bestseller accused Mohammad Hafeez – a doctor of the national health service – of singlehandedly carrying out sterilization surgeries on 4500 Sinhalese women. A Muslim man, Hafeez was the father of three girls, whose second daughter and I were in the same class in primary school. When this charge that shocked a country came out, we were 9-year-olds in the 4th Grade in the town’s most popular school. Ours was a Sinhalese-Buddhist majority school in which non-Sinhalese like the Hafeez family were given a ten percent quota of classroom space. Along with Shafinur Hafeez, there were two other girls who were Muslims. More often than not, they sat together (or maybe they were made to sit like that – I cannot be sure) in the corner of the oblong room.
Every morning, after tea, I water my mother. I water her even in the monsoon when it rains incessantly and the trees do not need more water. It has become a sort of ritual at this point. She stands still in the garden outside, uncomplaining, as lonely as she was when she lived inside the house and spent days looking forward to when I would return from college and while away time with her. The very thought now fills me with guilt and shame. Perhaps I steadfastly water her as a form of penance, hoping that the water will cleanse me of my sins. Now, she stands outside my study window and waves her branches in the breeze. Even when there is no wind, the chirping of birds that live on her branches informs me that my mother is alive and well. On winter nights, I hear her shivering, but I can hardly do anything about it. Once, I tried to light a fire under her, near where her roots dug deep into the earth, but it started to burn the low-hanging leaves, so I had to put it out. She is happiest on spring mornings. I can almost hear her laugh when the first sun shines through her bright leaves and bees dance around her. My mother is as beautiful as when she lived inside the house, in human form. I sometimes look at her pictures—old photographs from her college years when she went to the University of Calcutta—and wonder at her beauty. I can almost understand how my father fell head-over-heels in love with her. There is a photo where she is standing in front of a bookstall at College Street, dressed in a churidar, her long dark hair flowing like a mountain stream. She is not looking at the camera, but sideways at another person who is left out of the frame. Behind her stands my father, his hair wavy, his face placid with a large moustache. He is wearing large-framed sunglasses so I cannot see his eyes. It was taken two years before I was born, one year before their marriage, and nine years before father’s death.
This is a tale of a young Odissi dancer, a fish, a literary ecologist, and water bodies. On the surface level, all of them are separate entities. But by the end of the story, you will realise how tangled-up everything is. As earthlings, the dancer and the literary critic were steeped in the world of arts. Their apparently divergent practices (one pertaining to bodily movement and the other to linguistic diversity) were quite interlocked. The elder sister Ayesha, training as an ecocritic, was a person of letters studying nature from a literary perspective. Her world was enmeshed in studying the interconnectedness between nature and culture. The younger sister Shirin was participating in the world as an ‘Indian classical Odissi dancer’, a label that was constructed by the cultural revivalists under the aegis of cultural institutions established in independent India post 1947. She derived inspiration for movement in an aesthetic and corporeal language from the natural world that was home to humans, nonhumans, and more-than-human elements. Her dance teemed with images of the earth and earthlings who were re-presented through the dancing body’s movements- as living creatures that moved and participated in the oneness that unites all living and nonliving beings. In their different ways, the siblings were weaving their lives around nature and the environment. The difference was the threads with which their narratives were being woven.