The Gifts from an Orchard
A short story from Satendra Nandan’s forthcoming collection, Ashes and Waves. His two books, Dispatches From Distant Shores (essays) and Across the Seven Seas (poems) will be published in March.
My Nani’s orchard had six tall coconut palms; in fact, five. One of the tallest trees had broken from the middle during a storm, its headless stem stood forlornly like the sixth finger on Boothalingam’s left hand without its thatched fronds swaying in the breeze, green coconuts huddled together with dried ones about to fall. The stem had become our favourite climbing tree.
There were also two huge mango trees, rooted solidly in the black clay soil with branches stretched over a large area; nothing else grew under them.
One of the trees produced crimson and red mangoes, small, juicy and exclusive to Nani’s farm. The four tamarind trees were smaller than the mango trees but more stringy, fruitful and remained untouched by the annual hurricane.
Beyond, closer to Nani’s tin house, grew two lemon trees; and near the well, a banana grove and a tangled bush of jasmines – white ‘chamelis’ – flowers with the fragrance of scented flesh of a woman, soft and delicious.
The orchard had been planted in the centre of a 12 acre farm given to Nani by the CSR Company’s local overseer, Mr Sim after she’s completed her indenture. It was native land leased from Ratu Waqabuka’s mataqali.
Nani used to say, ‘I’ve too many tall cocknuts growing. Not good.’
‘Why, Nani?’ we asked, mystified.
‘Too many cocknuts mean reserving the land one day,’ she explained; ‘reserving’ meant the land reverting to the native owners, thus leaving the indentured labourers and their children landless.
Near the orchard was a shallow well full of frogs: it was also a veritable death trap. Once a little calf had fallen into it and was saved from brutal death by Mangru, who happened to be there stealing coconuts.
Beyond the well was a pond with water lilies and little fish creating ripples on the surface. Around the pond grew para grass, green and fresh for Lali’s grazing.
The orchard was our favourite playing and resting ground; in the midday heat we would spread a mat under the biggest tamarind tree and play cards while Lali colonised Mangru’s rice and cane fields.
In the afternoons, when the sun was fierce, and the cane tops were still and sullen with a film of heat throbbing like a membrane over them, we’d lie down and stare at the birds on the tree, avoiding the sun’s glint through the myriad minute tamarind leaves.
On one of the mango trees bats had made their home; we’d watch them hanging upside down, blind and screeching, like some sirdars.
Once a month Mother would allow me to go to Nani’s to spend a weekend; we lived in another village across the river.
When the river got flooded because of heavy rains in the hills, I was allowed to stay on sometimes for a whole week. Often I prayed for rain, even a hurricane. Nani’s place had become my favourite; she was a wonderful cook.
Her fish and chicken curries still make my mouth water; the rotis she made in the embers had a special village taste of Indian wheat.
In her home, there was an abundance of food and caring and plenty of time to play and lie down and watch clouds take the shape of elephants, lions, and Hanuman flying across an empty sky towards Lanka, with a hill on the palm of his right hand and a mighty mace on his left shoulder.
Then there was the orchard and the fruit trees. Besides, my cousin Ramu lived only a kilometre away, so we could play together and go to school, eating mangoes, guavas and tamarind on the way.
Ramu and I were usually late to the school and hid in the bushes or behind the school building until recess when we mingled with the pupils.
No teacher noticed our absences. Or presence for that matter. Those were the days when nothing much mattered.
Ramu was tall and athletic; I was short and plump. Ramu had a lot of lice too, so the teachers didn’t mind his absence from the class.
He was in class three and I was in class one. My slate was clean, his was broken at the edges from digging stones on the gravelled roads.
One evening Ramu and I were returning from school and had just rolled down Ramchander’s hill when we heard a huge commotion near the orchard.
Zhaman, Mangru’s mad daughter, was zooming downhill with her dishevelled hair, looking like a churail – a witch. She was screaming and waving her hands frantically.
Ramu was petrified; I dived into the sugarcane field like a mongoose. As Zaman saw Ramu, she stopped and became silent.
‘Manua, you are a man-manukh – don’t be afraid.’
Ramu had wet his pants.
Zaman came and took his school bag and made him read the first book in Hindi which began: Lar-zhagar (fight and squabble). ‘Lar-zhagar’ Zhaman repeated as if relishing the sound and the meaning. Then Ramu read, sang:
Dhum dhama dhum dhum
Dhol bajai hum
Dhum dhama dhum dhum!
The onomatopoeic rhythm pleased Zhaman so much that she started ululating it like an incantation and forgot about Ramu. With his book in her hand, she ran downhill shouting ‘Dhum dhama dhum dhum…’
Ramu started shaking. A terrible stench greeted me as I came out of the sugarcane field. I took Ramu to the pond where he washed his shorts much to the delight of the little fish darting in the evening sun.
One evening it drizzled a little and Nani asked me to take Lali to the well and give her some water and cut a bundle of para grass. Lali was grazing near the pond, her calf dozing off in the guava grove.
I walked gingerly toward the orchard, avoiding wet para grass on which drops of rain glimmered like diamonds as they caught the rays of the sinking sun. As I approached the jasmine bush, I saw the tree in a frenzy as if some animal, possibly Mangru’s pig, was ferreting for some filth underneath the bush.
Then I heard a muffled, moaning sound, heavy breathing, a gulp or two and then a long satisfied alaap – the sound Bisun used to make before singing his wedding songs.
As I came closer, there lay Zhaman on the wet earth.
And she took my hand and led me towards the well.
Zhaman pulled a bucket of water from the well, washed herself behind the banana bush and then filled the half-cut drum for Lali. Together we walked back to Nani’s house with Lali in tow and her calf bruising her udder all the way.
That night Zhaman stayed with Nani. She slept on the floor, I was on one plass, Nani on the other. They talked about tomorrow’s puja.
Early at dawn, Zhaman got up, picked up the broom made of bariara saplings, a bucket full of Lali’s fresh cow-dung (how much that cow shat !) and went into the orchard under the mango tree, the one with red mangoes.
She swept the ground, then wet the earth, pouring the bucketful of cow-dung to ‘leepo-poto’, creating a neat rectangle for the sacred ceremony, as the sun shimmered in its morning glory over the hills, trees and through the mango leaves quivering in the breeze.
As the cow dung dried, and a few ants crawled on it, she went to the well, cut a few banana leaves, gathered fallen mango twigs, collected flowers – marigolds, hibiscus, and jasmines – and laid them neatly by the cow-dung painted place. And waited looking holy and happy.
Then Nani arrived, dressed in white kurta and lehenga, with a copper thali full of many colours of powder, red and yellow threads, a clay lotah, white sugar and black sultanas and a dozen rots, rotis made with ghee and sugar.
Rot was offered to Hanumanji – the monkey-god Nanai worshipped. She never used a priest: all her mantras she knew by heart and also the Hanuman Chalisa.
She made Zhaman sit on one side, me on the other – always facing the sun; in the middle she sat peacefully and then the incantations began.
I didn’t understand any of it except when Zhaman at the right intervals would shout, ‘Jai Bajrangbali ki!’ Victory to Hanuman! I pretended to move my lips but the sound seldom came out.
As Nani’s mantras mingled with the morning dew, the rays of the sun and the chirping of the birds, I’d watch Zhaman’s fresh, young flesh looking radiant in the dawn, while my mind was on the ‘prasad’ and the rots made with an abundance of ghee from Lali’s milk.
The hour long ceremony was interminable to me but I sat patiently for what deliciousness was to come at the end of it.
After Nani finished her prayers, all three of us shared the rots, distributed the white sugar and sultanas on fresh banana leaves, and in the incense burning smoke, sat and enjoyed the ‘prasad’.
It took me years to understand why so many people in my village were named ‘prasads’: they were their parents’ offering to their gods and goddesses.
The place had really become sacred and at the end of it all Zhaman and I would touch the ground and the root of the mango tree with our foreheads and follow Nani back to her fragile, unpainted tin house.
A little of the essence of that ceremony performed by my grandmother who had come to Fiji under the indenture system has remained with me: Lali, the cow, her black dog Zabbu, the red flag – a new one for every ceremony – on a bamboo pole and the mud calabash surrounded by marigolds: these images bob up into my consciousness now like children in a summer river floating and swimming.
One thing Nani said, has remained etched on my mind – a germ of knowledge she must have carried from India in the inner recesses of her gnarled being.
Before she broke the mud pot and threw flowers into the pond, a day after the ritual, she would make me sit next to her, mumble a few mantras and place her right hand on my forehead and say in her Hindi:
We’re like the mud pot, Munuwa. God is in all of us – every living and non-living thing: I am the life visible and invisible.
Like mud, it envelops everything that exists. We’re like different mud pots, each different in form, shape, colour, consciosness and with different names according to the things they contain or according to the purpose for which they are used.
But each permeated by the same stuff – mud – without which their individual existence is impossible. From mud we came, to mud we go. And it is mud that holds us together. Once the mud pot is broken, the air within, like our imprisoned soul in the body, is released and we become part, once again, of the divinity that envelops the universe, from grains of sand to the galaxies of stars.
Much of this philosophy went above Zhaman’s and my head. We were more interested in the ‘prasad’ after the holy words. Nevertheless, Nani’s power of storytelling and her faith kept us close to the root of the mango tree. She’d also recite from the Gita in Hindi:
I’m the ghee, the mantra, and the flame and that which burns. I am the Prayer. I am the Ocean. I am Sat and Asat. Visible life, and Life invisible. I am the Brahman with the scrolls and sanctities, the cow, the elephant, the unclean dog, the outcast gorging
dogs’ meat, are all one; all are you, all are me.
One day in the midday heat as I lay dozing next to Zabbu, who had his long red tongue out and was panting furiously, we heard a terrible, piercing scream coming from the orchard. We dashed down to the orchard, Zabbu leading the way, followed by me and Nani with her lathi. Near the well stood Zhaman holding Hari Prasad’s son, Bhola, by the hair. She had pulled Bhola out of the well, drowned-dead.
She explained: she was walking in the orchard looking for fallen ‘cocknuts’ and then came to drink some water at the well. The frogs inside were unusually quiet and as she plunged the bucket down it hit something hard, not the sound it normally made. Zhaman peeped into the hole and as her eyes got used to the well’s darkness, she saw a head of hair floating below. She lifted the corpse by the hair. When she saw Bhola’s swollen face she screamed.
Hari Prasad Mahajan came on his white, one-eyed horse, Kanwa. He said something to Nani, lifted his son’s body to the saddle and rode back. We all followed him except Zhaman who went and lay prostrate under the mango tree where we worshipped Hanuman.
Everyone in the village said Zhaman had gone ‘fool mad’ – she was half-mad already. Hari Prasad even hinted that the ‘churail’ had drowned his little boy. She herself danced and flew with her hair open down the hill with increasing frequency. Mangru killed pigs and goats to propitiate his ‘devis’ and get sanity back into his daughter. Village folks frightened their children by telling them: ‘Go and sleep or I’ll ask Zhaman to come and take you to the well.’
My cousin Ramu began wetting his bed.
Then again something terrible happened. One evening Ramu and I were sent to get Lali from near the pond. I had stopped going alone into the orchard. Lali’s stomach looked full and she waddled her way up. Under the tamarind tree she halted abruptly. Zaman stood almost naked, holding the legs of Hari Prasad, who hung by a snake-like rope from a branch of the tamarind tree. She was crying. We were terrified. It was only later, when Nani, Mangru and a few other villagers gathered in the orchard that we were told that the village mahajan had hanged himself and Zhaman had discovered the body a little before us.
After that we never went to the orchard. My mother didn’t allow me to visit Nani either. The malevolent rumour was that Zhaman had murdered the man. All I recall now is the truth of the moment – an image etched indelibly on my imagination: a woman under a tamarind tree, a man hanging by a rope, two little boys standing petrified, and a well-fed cow staring ahead.
My father took me to another school. Nani’s land was ‘reserved’ and she moved in with her elder daughter, Ramu’s mother. Occasionally, I’d see her ageing face like an old pillow full of pieces of cloth and bits of newspapers. The orchard, I heard, was cleared up to plant sugarcane by the new farmers who were given tractors to bulldoze the trees and boulders. Hanumanji’s tree was cut down and thrown on the huge boulders gathered together, looking like fossilised, prehistoric animals, rotting in the sun.
I myself didn’t return to the orchard again. There were other worlds to see and my tastes had changed. I found apples, grapes and pears more to my liking.
Years have passed now and the waters of the stagnant pond must have changed, perhaps the well has dried up too. I myself carry a cross around my neck on a gold chain given by Ruth.
And it is while saying goodbye to Ruth at Nadi airport that something happened : I smelled the jasmine fragrance from the tangled bush of my childhood.
Ruth, for me, was the loveliest woman I had met. She was English and worked at the British Council in Suva. She’d come to the school where I taught to give us books to read. I became an avid reader of her books.
In the evenings we strolled by the Wailoaloa beach. I’d rented a room in the town – a flat owned by Master Ramjan and although my village home was only a few miles from Hotel Mocambo, I never took Ruth to see it. I regret it now – so much. But Ruth had to leave.
‘You Indians are too romantic,’ she’d tease, her eyes flashing like a dancer’s. My idea of love had come from Hindi movies which we saw at Harry Braiya’s theatre on Friday nights.
When she said goodbye to me on a Sunday morning, I felt bereft. As she passed through the immigration door waving her last goodbye – how I remember each line of her palm – I felt quite broken. Her floral dress trembled on the tarmac. Ruth was going away: an adventure for her in the South Seas, was ending. A world was vanishing in the blue, birdless sky. The thought of going back to teach at a school where Ratu Reddy would be sipping from his copper bowls was not an inviting prospect.
I sat on the empty bench waiting for Qantas to fly away so I could wave the final farewell to Ruth without seeing her. She would not see the tears in my eyes or hear the sorrow in my muted voice.
Suddenly I heard a sound from the past:
‘Jai Bajrangabali ki, Munuwa!’
A woman in a green sari, red blouse, sindoor in her hairparting, a blotched powdered face, black shining sandals, and her feet cracked, calloused with dust settled between her toes was standing in front of me. She was smiling.
‘Namaste,’ I uttered spontaneously, hiding my embarrassment and grateful that Ruth hadn’t witnessed this encounter. After all, part of education is to know that one is not judged by the company one keeps but, more importantly, the company one keeps away from.
‘Arre, Munuwa, me Zhaman bahini hai.’ She introduced herself and made a gesture as if to touch my head. She must have sensed something and paused. Shock, then a tremor of recognition hit me. I was beginning to recognise her.
A tall, dark boy of about eighteen joined us. ‘Say Ram Ram to Mama, Ashok,’ Zhaman instructed him. The boy bowed, folded his palms, and a faint smile showed a set of sugar-white teeth.
‘Ashok going Oozland, Munuwa, for engining,’ she explained proudly. Zhaman had come to see him off with her relatives who had gathered in their multi-coloured clothes in one corner of the terminal building. The Air New Zealand flight had been delayed.
I stood there at the airport between Ruth and Zhaman – one a vanishing world, another a remembered one – both vivid and real.
And as the Qantas jet took off, Air New Zealand landed. Zhaman moved, saying, ‘Jai Bajarangbaliji ki, Munuwa’. She was soon lost in the heart of the peasant crowd, excited, forgetting me. Ashok, the future engineer, had their attention and their blessings.
I sat down on an empty, rusting bench and stared at the pitiless sky with a patch of black-white clouds hovering above the lapidary Sleeping Giant on the Sabeto Hills.
Suddenly I saw Hanumanji flying with a hill in his left hand across the sea and Nani sitting on the mace in his right hand as the Qantas jumbo disappeared in the blue haze that hung over the hills and waves, beyond the green fields of cane.