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  • Daffodils

     

    It was the middle of the school year. Mala’s family had just moved to the little obscure town of Belgaum in the interiors of India. The only school within walking distance was the vernacular one. This was her last year at school, the most important one since it would determine admission to college. Unfortunately, this became the hardest year of her entire school life. The medium of instruction in her new school was Kannada, whereas she had been studying in an English medium school until then. Every class was now a battle – especially science and math. The concepts didn’t make sense; she had to read everything twice. Since she read Kannada really slowly, this, of course, took a very long time. Needless to say, with all the re-reading, Mala didn’t get much time to make any friends.

                The only class she looked forward to was English Literature. In this class, she could forget her troubles as she listened to the works of Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. Mala loved poetry. While everyone struggled to memorize lines from a verse, she could recite an entire poem without once looking at her book. A few weeks after she had joined the school, Mr. Kumble had asked her to recite a poem by William Wordsworth in his English class. She had stood unfazed in front of the sixty students and recited, “The Inward Eye.”

                “When all at once I saw a crowd,

                A host, of golden daffodils;

                Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

                Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”          

    She continued; her diction clear, her voice strong and lilting. As she recited, she closed her eyes. The students, the teacher faded from her consciousness. All she could see was those golden Daffodils. She didn’t look up once at the book, the verses spilling from her heart. She ended the rendering

                “…In vacant or in pensive mood,

                They flash upon that inward eye

                Which is the bliss of solitude;

                And then my heart with pleasure fills,

                And dances with the daffodils.”

    As she finished and looked up, she could feel the breathless silence in the class. She shifted uneasily, her trance now broken. Finally, Mr. Kumble, her English teacher, began to clap. “Wonderful, Mala. That was very good,” he said. As he stood there in seeming obeisance to the brilliance of Wordsworth and her flawless delivery, Mala saw in the eyes of the other students, a resentful scorn take birth. The scorn followed her through the rest of the school year. There were no warm invitations to birthday parties for her. No one walked with her to school and no-one shared their lunch with her.

    Mala tried to blend into the background as best as she could. She didn’t raise her hand to answer questions and she didn’t speak out of turn. Every available minute was given to catching up on lessons. At home, she would finish her chores and then, while her sisters slept, she would stay awake and continue to make sense of the huge textbooks the teacher had let her borrow.

    It was hard. Not the lessons themselves. A student loves a challenge. And young minds can absorb a lot. What was hard was taking in the growing disdain from the rest of the students. That is what exhausted her. She fought the alienation with her own sentence of self-imposed solitude. She poured herself into her work. Where she had been always at the top in her old school, Mala came out much below. But still, she placed honorably enough among the first ten students in the mid-terms. That only pushed the axe of resentment against her further into the hearts of the other students.

    Months went by. Her sense of nothingness and worthlessness fortified itself further. It was almost the end of the school year now and Mala still felt like an outsider. She couldn’t wait to finish and no longer face the daily charade of social interaction. The walls of her house were enough for her existence. Like her sisters, she would just focus on household duties until a suitable match could be found for her. It was in this fragile state of emotional fatigue that she attended the last science class of the year before the board exams.

     

    Mrs. Joshi, a stern middle-aged woman who wore thick red-rimmed glasses, was the teacher. Since they had finished the syllabus she announced that she would do something different that day. “Students,” she addressed the class, “today instead of the textbook, let’s talk about what is in your young scientific minds. What would you all like to be when you grow up?”

     

    “Astronaut, Doctor, Nurse, Scientist.” The answers poured in like the tumultuous keys of a piano playing a masterful symphony. The music grew louder and louder. “Engineer, Professor, Civil Servant”. It reached a crescendo. “What about you, Mala?” the teacher now asked. All eyes turned towards her.

    Mala stood up, and unable to face the salvo of stares, looked down at her feet. “What do you want to be?” repeated the teacher. After a long pause, Mala replied, “A housewife.”

    The room exploded with laughter. She bit her tongue trying to hold back the deluge of tears. “Why do you say that?” the teacher now asked, a little more kindly. Mrs. Joshi had brown eyes Mala noticed as she looked into them through her the thick red rimmed glasses. Mala shrugged and said “I know that’s all I will be. I won’t be going to college Madam.” After the initial tittering among the students, there were one or two who walked up to her and smiled at her. Was it the evidence of her failure, her smallness that now endeared her to them?

    Later that week, Mrs. Joshi and Mr. Kumble came home to talk to her parents. Mala stood by the door while her mother served them fresh coffee and idlis. The teacher persuaded her parents to let her study more. Maybe she could find a scholarship, maybe a few teachers from the school could help her. “She is bright,” said Mrs. Joshi. “She just needs some guidance and time.” “You should hear her recite Wordsworth,” said Mr. Kumble. Her mother looked uncertainly at the professors. “I guess she can study until she gets married,” offered her father in conciliation.

    Mala had been listening at the door. She slowly realized the implication of this discussion. College. She ran inside. Suddenly it was as if the weight of a mountain had been lifted from her shoulders. Nothing mattered – not the disdain from her classmates, not the trouble she had had with the lessons. Nothing seemed insurmountable.

     

    “Padma, Padma, listen, I am going to college,” she whispered to her sleeping sister. Padma would not stir, so she rushed up alone to the balcony. She looked up at the open sky. Her face still turned toward the sun, she spun around until all she could see was a cerulean blue. When she stopped suddenly, a multitude of color exploded in her eyes covering the earth everywhere she looked. Her body still swayed caught in the aftermath of the spinning. She giggled in delirium, holding unsteadily to the parapet. She sat there for a long time after, dreaming up all the books she would read in college and all the money she would make, all the clothes she would buy and all the big places she would go to.

     

    The exams were held, the school year ended and summer rolled in. Mala day-dreamed of the things she would be once she went to college. She tended to the neighbor’s dog pretending to be a doctor. “Here take your medicine three times a day and get some rest,” she pronounced. The puppy snuggled up to her and woofed softly in compliance. As she climbed the mango tree in her cousin’s farm she thought maybe she could be an astronaut and fly away into space. As she sat in the evenings with her parents and sisters eating poha and tea, she thought maybe she could be a writer like Prabhakar Uncle. Thus she secretly plotted and connived the entire summer.

                At the end of summer, her cousin was getting married in the beach town of Gokarna. The family made their way there. Gokarna was hot and humid. They had four days before the wedding. As soon as they arrived, all the cousins got together and spent an entire day near the beach. They dipped in the water, collected seashells and kicked sand at each other. The next couple of days they ran from house to house collecting berries, mangoes, and sweet hibiscus flowers. At the end of the day, they had stood in a circle counting each person’s winnings. Mala lost the competition, but she didn’t mind. She was busy gathering other things. She was observing what her uncles and aunts and cousins and their friends worked as. Maybe she could be an advocate like Rao uncle, maybe a dentist like Seema aunty. Her basket was brimming, not with fruits and flowers, but with dreams, ambitions, transformations and flights. The universe had been generous to her.

    The wedding was a flurry of activities. Everyone was determined to look their very best for the ceremonies. Mala didn’t object when her aunts dressed her in her mother’s blue silk Sari. She didn’t fuss as they outlined her eyes with kohl. She sat decked in full finery and examined the reflection in the mirror. The intricate peacock design on her necklace caught her eye as she held the pendant to the sun. “Mala you are looking so pretty,” her sister said. “Like an actress.” “Well maybe I will become one then,” replied Mala and the two sisters giggled.

                The day of the wedding came and went. Her cousin left to go to her in-laws’ house and Mala and her family headed back to Belgaum. There were now only three weeks to go until college began. She had to go shopping for books and pencils.

     

    August finally came and so did the first day of college. Hundreds of students wore their new clothes, clutched their new bags and made their way up the steps to the sanctum of their new place of learning. But Mala was not among them.

                Mala was sitting in a plane, by the window, ready to fly 8,000 miles away to a place called America. As the plane rose and took off, she looked outside. The buildings and trees became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared into the clouds. “Mala, what are you looking at?” asked Arun, her new husband. Mala rested her head back on the seat and sighed. “Daffodils”, she replied.

     

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    Glossary

     

    Belgaum – a small town in Karnataka, India

    Kannada – the regional language spoken in Karnataka, India

    Poha – a snack made of beaten rice, onions and potatoes had in the western regions of India

    Gokarna – a town near the beach in Karnataka, India

     

    ***

    Lemons, Sweet Lemons for you!

     

    It was a dreadful monsoon day when I first met Suman Bai. The sky was filled with engulfing darkness. The clouds battled each other and showered their war-weary visceral on us hapless mortals below. Finding no outlet in the clogged city, the water had risen in several low-lying areas and swept the city into disarray. But, in spite of the monsoon fury, the people of Mumbai went about their daily chores. No flood or storm could keep them from seizing the day. It is said that there is a spirit of Mumbai- Mumbra Devi- that is alive here. It is this spirit probably that goads its people to keep going- to keep walking even when their shoulders fall and feet fail. And the spirit happens to burn the strongest in the stomachs of the hungry.

    I was on my way to college. It was about eight stations away and it took me forty minutes to get there. I climbed into the ladies compartment and found my way to a soaking wet seat. The windows were bedecked with colorful umbrellas propped up in odd corners since the shutters were not working. It was not peak time and, therefore, the train wasn’t as crowded. There were not too many people standing in the aisles or by the doors. This meant that there would be vendors who walked from seat to seat selling us their wares. Bindis, earrings, churmura to eat, handkerchiefs. They walked back and forth, each shouting out their own unique pitch.

    Handkerchiefs were on sale- you could get seven for the price of five today. Earrings to match any outfit and any occasion were magically sourced from little plastic containers balancing on each other. Bindis dazzled like the raindrops- numerous and colorful from their plastic display sachets. Some sizzled with sparkles, some tempted with shapes of peacocks and the moon and some were rather stoic with just bold monotones. It was easy to lose track of time watching this continuous parade of color wash away the dreariness of the day.

    Just then, out of nowhere, as the train left Mulund station, a beautiful voice came lilting through the doors and windows. It was the sweetest sound one could have heard. “Lemons sweet lemons for you”. And like magic, the rains suddenly stopped. A brave defiant rainbow stood outside the window. Overjoyed by this happy coincidence the ladies brought their hands together and clapped for Suman Bai. “Look what magic my lemons bring”, said Suman Bai equally elated.  “Lemons sweet lemons for you. Buy them for your in-laws. They will love the lemonade you make for them. Make some tangy lemon rice for your husband. It will spice your life. Add some lemons in a pickle. Your kids will be clamoring to eat it with everything. Lemons sweet lemons for you.” Needless to say, Suman Bai sold all her lemons that day.

     

    I ran into her often. We even began to chat. Suman Bai was a single mother. Her husband had died years ago from tuberculosis. Since then she was raising her son by herself. One day she even brought his report cards all the way from Kindergarten for us to look at. All the ladies marveled at the scores. He was no doubt a star student. He was now studying in one of the most prestigious colleges in India and that, too, on a scholarship. Suman Bai had achieved all this on her own.

    Each day she would wake up at 4 A.M. She would haul the days produce brought to her from nearby farms. She would balance three baskets precariously on her head under a little brown cloth headrest and catch the 5.00 A.M train from Ambernath. She would ride the vast network of trains on all routes adeptly managing to find the best times on each route to sell her wares. She would avoid the peak hours, but otherwise, from sunrise to sundown she walked continuously from compartment to compartment closing sale upon sale.

    She had a gift. When she entered a room, the mood changed. Was it her voice with that sweet comforting quality to it? Was it her disarming smile that stretched and spilled into her twinkling eyes? Or was it her skill with words that wove poetry into every sentence that she sang in praise of lemons? She would skillfully conjure up stories for each one of us where we were the central characters. Her stories were replete with happy scenes and happy endings. And of course, these happy stories always had to do with the lemons you bought from her. Your sister-in-law would ask you for recipes and tips; your neighbor would make you famous in the locality for your delicately made lemon rasam; your mother would beam with pride at your culinary skills. She also had a monstrous amount of recipes stored in her head. I didn’t know you could make so many things with lemons before encountering Suman Bai.

               

    Days passed and I graduated out of college. I was now working in a bank as an associate in the Fountain area in South Mumbai. The company provided a bus for transport so I rarely took the train. Then one day as I was stepping out of office, the world below my feet shook. Smoke filled the air. Panic struck as people ran helter-skelter. There were a string of bomb attacks by terrorists that assailed the city that day. One of them was close to my office. We waited in the office until morning- until some sense of normalcy was restored in the city and finally buses, taxis and trains were running again. A group of us took the train back home.

    News snippets were being exchanged in the train. Hundreds had perished. People were confused and anxious. I was badly shaken too. My heart was still pounding and there was a nervous tick in my left arm that hadn’t left me since the previous day. Young students were sobbing. Wives frantically calling their husbands. Mothers crying and asking to talk to their children. It was the longest journey I ever took. And as I sat there waiting to get home, for some reason I missed hearing Suman Bai’s comforting voice. I looked at each station, but she wasn’t there. I hoped she had gotten home safe.

    Days passed. The city slowly healed. The spirit of Mumbai now added bomb blasts to its list of things it couldn’t be deterred by. Laborers still heaved cement, shopkeepers still opened their roadside stalls, autos still ran the crazy maze of the city and people everywhere went about their lives. For most people, getting back to normal was a necessity. Sometimes there is happiness in the lack of choice.

    I was doing well at the bank. I was doing a rotation in the reporting group now. Every month end I would work long nights closing books. Then for a few days after that, I would return home early to compensate for the overtime. When I did that, I always took the train. And every time I took the train, I looked for Suman Bai. I saw vendors selling notebooks and pencils. I saw beggars singing old romantic songs on the harmonium. I saw ladies fighting over who got to sit on the fourth seat. But I never saw her.

    One day I was walking home and passed by a cart making fresh lemon juice, the citrus smell of the lemons suddenly hit me and tugged at my heart. I really missed seeing Suman Bai. I concluded she must have taken a different route. Or maybe she was gone on vacation for a few days. Life went on.

    While I was working, I had applied to universities abroad and got into an Ivy League business school. I decided to take one last trip on the trains of Mumbai.  I wanted to savor my last ride as much as I could. I observed the passengers come in and go, the vendors walk by dexterously selling nick-knacks. I enjoyed each moment and captured as many mental images of the scenes around me for my future stock of nostalgia.

    Somewhere within me, I had wanted to see Suman Bai one last time; bid goodbye to her. I felt like I owed it to her. In some strange subconscious way, I felt my journey was a debt I owed her. Her optimism, her determination, her beauty, her affability. But she wasn’t there.

    I met a few regulars who used to frequent the same trains as I did. While talking to them I found out that no-one had seen Suman Bai after the day of the blasts. Someone said she believed Suman Bai might have been caught in the skirmish. She was probably on the train at the time the fourth blast had gone off near the C.S.T station.

    That evening I went home with a heavy heart. Even when I sat in the plane embarking on my exciting new journey in life, I carried around me a tight band of wistful sorrow. The sorrow of Suman Bai’s needless demise. It seemed like such a loss of light and joy to the world.

               

    Years passed. I was now working at a world-renowned company in the bay area as part of their corporate finance team. I juggled numbers and spreadsheets, drank smoothies, shopped organic and traveled the world. My parents had been on my case asking me to get married and get settled. I decided to humor them on the latter request and buy my own home. After a quick tour of the nearby towns, I decided to move to sunny Santa Clara. It was close to work and a quiet residential neighborhood. I found a beautiful home with an enormous backyard. I didn’t have too much furniture. The movers had finished packing and moving my things in about three hours. I stepped into my new home walking from room to room. I was excited about decorating it. And the garden would be a fun project. Going by the bountiful fruit trees and beautiful flowers in the neighborhood, I knew there was a lot I could do. But first, I had to unpack the countless boxes and get the kitchen in order.

    It was a hot day and after a few hours, I was thirsting for something cold to drink. I was just looking up the nearest Starbucks to go to, when the doorbell rang. A little boy of about four stood outside. “Hey, I am Neel,” he said. “We live next door. Welcome to your new neighborhood.” Behind him stood a handsome young man in jeans and a white t-shirt – probably his Dad. Right next to him stood an elderly woman – probably the little boy’s grandmother.

    She was dressed in black slacks and a long Kurti. Her hair was cut short stopping just before her shoulders and it was turning gray near the ears and the forehead. The graying lent her a very distinguished look. I would not have recognized her had she not spoken. “Here’s some fresh lemonade for you from our garden”, she said, stepping forward. I looked at the tray she was holding. A big jug of cold homemade lemonade was positioned in the middle and next to it was a little basket of ripe, round, bright, yellow lemons.

    Our eyes met and a smile flew across her face stretching and spilling into her eyes. My heart sang with joy. “Lemons, sweet lemons for you.”

     

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    Glossary

    Bai – A term used in western India to address a lady

    Mumbai – A city in Maharashtra, India

    Ambernath  – A train station in the outskirts of Mumbai, India

    C.S.T station – The main station in Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

    Kurti – A loose tunic worn by ladies in India mostly paired with jeans or slacks

    About The Author

    sandhya

    Sandhya Acharya

    Sandhya Acharya grew up in Mumbai, India and lives in the Bay Area with my husband and two young sons. A dance and running enthusiast, Ms. Acharya spent a decade plus working in corporate finance, and is now a writer fulfilling her life-long passion experimenting with different genres. In March 2016, Sandhya self-published a favorably received children’s book titled, Big Red Firetruck on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. She is a contributor at NPR (KQED), and has articles featured in Thrive Global, India Currents, Indian Moms Connect. Acharya blogs regularly at www.sandhyaacharya.com and is working on her next book.