The light morning breeze wafted in the smell of fresh mangoes from the orchards. It came in with droplets of rain, which fell in from the open window onto my closed eyelids. They prodded me every morning to get up.
Here, in Warangal in Andra Pradesh, in June the rains greet you more often in the morning than the warm sunrays.
I sat up in my bed, which does not have four legs like the one in the big haveli of the Zamindar. Even that morning my bed did not grow those four legs, though Allah promised me in my dreams.
I have told Abba to buy me a bed like the Zamindar’s bed. But Abba always says, “We don’t have the money to buy it. We are poor, perhaps we may be able to buy it in few years.”
I know the bed of the Zamindar takes him to the skies, next to the stars and the moon to sleep. I have seen the bed once, it was that time of the year when the trees throw away their old clothes and get new bright ones, their bright, shining leaves.
That afternoon I chased a rabbit towards the haveli, forgetting the forbidden lines of the lawns surrounding the haveli. I didn’t remember Abba’s words, who had once ordered me that I should never go near the haveli. “The Zamindar doesn’t like the gardeners and the people who work in the mango orchards to come near the haveli. He says that the haveli is only meant for him, and the people who serve him.” That is what Abba has said.
But that morning at the haveli, I peeped in through the open window and saw the bed with four legs in a room that was as big as the orchard. Pushing my head inside the window I tried to see where the walls ended, but I couldn’t. They were rising high as though there was no end to them.
The bed was draped in a shiny blue sheet with silver flowers. It seemed just like the sky on a full moon night, each star sparkling. I thought the Zamindar woke up in the skies every morning, and when he looked down from this bed, we would all have appeared like ants.
Just then I heard a heavy voice from inside the haveli, I think it was of the Zamindar. And then the ferocious barking of dogs. Abba had also told me that in the haveli there are five big dogs and they can eat a man.
I quickly ran back towards the mango orchards, not even stopping once to look back. I was scared. What if the dogs were following me? Since then I have never crossed those green lawns. I wanted to see the bed with four legs again but the fear of dogs never allowed me.
Amma, Abba and I stay in these mango orchards in a small hut. Abba says that he has to guard these mango trees, so that the villagers and their children don’t steal the mangoes. He says that these trees are his best friends. They have seen him as a small baby. Sometimes his father left him during the day to go and sit in front to guard these trees.
Lying under them, when he looked up at these trees, the slight movement of those branches high up made him feel as though they were waving at him and talking to him. Abba never had any friends because he never left the orchards to go to school, also there were no houses around here. Abba spoke to these trees, and they always answered his questions.
Once I asked Abba, “How?”
He replied, “First become friends with these trees, and then you will learn their language.” I never learnt their language. Perhaps they never wanted to teach me.
The only time I visit these orchards is when I have to sit on the swing Abba has hung from a branch of a tree, a few months ago, for me.
I heard the thudding sound of Abba’s stick. I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. Abba always said that he liked to see my smiling face early in the morning. So I greeted him at the door when he came back for breakfast. But I hated leaving my cozy bed which he had made for me by stitching the jute bags and mother’s tattered saris together. In the morning, Amma sat next to the clay stove, trying to force in the wood, while the smoke fogged her eyes.
“Janvi,” I heard Abba’s voice. He called me ‘Janvi the angel’.
He would always put his long stick near the door, then lift me in his arms. And say, “Janvi, my life, I have brought you mangoes today.”
And I always laughed covering my lips with my fingers, along with Amma. Because Abba said that he brought mangoes for us, but the truth is he ate them all alone. I thought Abba could eat mangoes in the morning, in the afternoon, even while he slept.
The long bamboo stick crossed Abba’s height, as he walked inside the hut bending his long body at the threshold. He said, “The stick is very important, I beat the thieves with it.”
During the rains, Abba’s white kurta payjama was always blotched with brown color near his calves and ankles. The wet mud filled itself in the cracked lines of his ankles, forming vines on his feet as though they were creeping down from under his pyajmas.
I saw a bundle of cloth in his hand. I knew very well what was inside. Mangoes. My father’s favorite or rather I should say my father’s life. But then he opened the cloth and there was a plastic bag inside. I saw the contours of something lying inside the bag. “What is there in the bag?” I asked Abba loudly.
“A surprise for my princess,” he said, giving the bag to me.
I felt the hands and feet through the plastic bag as though there was someone sleeping inside. I quickly opened the bag to see there was a doll inside. She wore a long skirt, with a blouse with small mirrors on it.
I saw the features of my face in the mirrors. In one of them my brown eye, in the other my nose, in one a part of my lips. Her head was also covered, while she held two sticks in her hand. It seemed she was about to dance.
“Janvi’s papa,” said Amma, pulling the dupatta over her head. Amma was busy pushing and pulling the rolling spin over the flat dough while she said, “Don’t pamper Janvi so much. That seems like a costly doll. We hardly save any money.”
Amma never called out Abba’s name, unlike Abba who always called Amma by her name, Noor.
“Noor,” Abba said, wiping the dirt from his feet with a piece of cloth on his shoulder. “Ram Aziz the gardener brought it from his village. I had asked him to bring it. I knew Janvi would love it. These dolls are made in his village in Gujarat.”
Walking towards Amma, Abba squatted next to her on the floor and said, “I can do anything for my Janvi.”
Still holding the doll in my hand, I turned to look at Abba. He was smiling at me. But it wasn’t the usual smile I couldn’t see Abba’s teeth.
And then there was silence in the room. Abba told Amma, “Give me the roti.”
“You haven’t brought mangoes today?”Amma asked, knitting her brows which appeared like the open feathers of a bird. “What happened? You haven’t had a meal without mangoes ever.”
Amma looked at Abba’s arm. Pulling it towards her and twisting it she asked, “Is this dry blood on your kurta?
“No, this isn’t blood,” Abba replied, “it must be mud.”
“No, let me see,” Amma said, and pushing the kurta up, she saw gashes of his wound coming to life.
“What happened?”Amma kept repeating the question, “I want an answer?” she said, looking into Abba’s eyes.
“Nothing, it was just that Babu, the Zamindar’s cook, and I had a fight. Every day his son comes to steal a few mangoes.” Folding the sleeves of his kurta, Abba said, “Earlier I thought he was a child, I did scold him a few times, but he just ignored my words. And today he was making faces at me.”
“Why didn’t you tell his father, Babu?” asked Amma. “Let me clean that wound,” she said, “I’ll smear it with neem paste. It will make you feel better.”
“I did tell the boy’s father today,” Abba said, “rather I called him from the haveli and confronted the boy. But instead of scolding his son, he said that I was a thief, I stole mangoes everyday for my own family.”
I saw Abba’s moist eyes. In a very heavy voice he said as though something was giving him a lot of pain within, “After today I will never bring the mangoes. In fact we will never eat mangoes…”
Amma didn’t wait for Abba to complete his sentence and she asked again, “But how did you get hurt?” I saw her puffing air out of her mouth on those red lines on Abba’s arm, before smudging it with a neem paste.
“Nothing, the argument got heated. I am not hungry,” Abba said suddenly. He left the half eaten roti as he stood up and left without turning back, “I will come in late today. I have some work,” he said, leaving the house.
“Just listen to me,” Amma kept calling out to Abba, but Abba didn’t stop.
We saw Abba walking towards the mango orchards. He had even left his stick at home.
Abba didn’t return for lunch that day as the sun was preparing to go to bed. Abba always said that the clouds prepare a bed for the sun to sleep, hiding it within them.
I saw Amma pacing up and down the small room. Whenever Amma heard the crushing of leaves she rushed to see, pronouncing loudly that Abba had returned. But then at the door, Amma and I stood just staring at the emptiness in front of our eyes.
“I think we should go and check in the orchards,” Amma said, walking straight ahead while I ran after her, my little feet trying to keep pace with her. The spiked grass pierced my toes and fingers, making me itchy. But Amma seemed unperturbed by it as each step of hers was faster than the previous one.
We saw no one. Everything was quiet, the chirping sound of the birds was falling each octave, as we walked further through the trees, and the darkness grew. I felt the sweat in my palms as I gripped the doll tightly.
“Where is your Abba?”Amma kept calling, looking around. Now she held my hand in hers, her strong grip around my wrist that evening was similar to the way she held my hand when we went to the village fair, in which people seemed like ants creeping out of their holes. Amma always said at the fair, “I can’t leave your hand. I’m scared you will get lost.” Perhaps that day Amma was scared.
I saw the lines on Amma’s face becoming deeper as we walked but we could not find Abba.
Just then a gardener crossed us. “Have you seen Janvi’s papa?”Amma asked, stopping him, “he hasn’t returned since morning.”
“Yes, I saw him,” the old man said, pointing towards the haveli, “the Zamindar had called him.”
“Come Janvi, we will go to the haveli,” Amma said, looking down at me. She was running, trying to pull me along. “We have to reach the haveli fast.” Coughing, she said, “The Zamindar has called your Abba, there is something wrong, otherwise in so many years he has never called him.”
I saw her pulling her dupatta up with her hand. “Your Abba was very upset in the morning.”I saw the hollow cavity in the centre of her neck between the collarbones going deeper. Her breath raced through her nose making its presence felt in the silence of the evening.
Amma and I stopped at once at the open door of the haveli, just like the train I had once taken with Amma and Abba to Hyderabad. We had gone to attend a wedding. Suddenly the engine stopped at the station. For us the station was the Zamindar’s haveli.
Opening our mouth again and again to take in the air, we gasped for breath. A few strands of her hair clung to the sweat on Amma’s forehead. I felt a tremble in her hand as she kept moving her palm on my tiny wrist.
For the first time that day I saw those white walls so closely. I saw they did have an end, even as they rose like high mountains. The stone floor wore a dress of red color with flowers growing on it. As we walked on it bare foot it seemed like a warm blanket had been spread over the floor.
Amma kept licking her lips as she walked very slowly inside, looking down as though searching for something that had fallen.
“Where are the dogs?” I asked, my eyes darting here and there. “They can eat us up.”
But Amma didn’t pay any heed to my words. “This hall is so huge,” I said, freeing my hand from Amma’s grip. And I leaped forward to hear my voice echo, “It can accommodate so many huts like the one we live in.”
“Keep quiet,” Amma said.
Then my eyes were caught by the pictures that hung on the walls. Those pictures were of men. They all seemed different but there was something common in those pictures, it was the necklace in their necks and the turbans which they wore all had a big stone in the centre. And long moustaches that extended from over their lips, covering half of their cheeks, and were all curled up from the side.
“How can all of them grow long moustaches, why doesn’t Abba have one like them?” I asked Amma. “You can literally braid them.”
At once Amma stopped and held me by shoulder; spoke in a whisper, showing me her finger, “I don’t want another word from you, Janvi. We have come to find Abba.”
Just then a servant walked out from behind one of the closed doors. It all looked like one huge white wall, but there were doors cut in that wall that looked like secret entrances.
“I have come to meet the Zamindar,” Amma said, this time I noticed how words were not coming out of her mouth. It was as though she had swallowed one of those chicken legs she made on Eid and it had got stuck in her throat.
The servant didn’t respond but just moved his head up and down. Amma had told me that when adults move their head up and down it means yes.
We quietly walked behind the man. I saw he wasn’t wearing chappals, nor were his feet naked like ours but he wore white color clothes on his feet. I had never seen them before.
He opened the same door through which he had come out. As we entered into another big room, this one looked familiar. I had seen the blue color of the walls before. And then I saw the bed with the four legs.
This time the bed seemed different. A man lay on it. He appeared like the ones in the pictures outside; he also had the same curled-up moustache. As he watched us, he caressed them, trying to join all the wisps of hair together, like Amma tried to join all the locks of my hair when she braided my plat.
There were five men in that room, standing in one corner, forming a semi circle around the bed, and Abba was also there in that room, but he stood alone in an another corner. They were all facing the man on the bed.
The servant who ushered us into the room bowed down his head and called out Abba’s name. He said, “Asraf Ali’s wife and daughter have come.”
Amma laced her fingers, finally leaving my hand. I cuddled the doll, making her rest on my arm.
“Why have you come?” the Zamindar asked, looking at Amma.
Amma didn’t look up; with both her hands she pulled her duppata more. Now it shielded her eyes as she spoke, biting her quivering lips. “I was waiting for Janvi’s Abba, he hadn’t come home.” I saw Abba had changed his direction and was facing us, as he stared at Amma.
Everyone stared at Amma, thinking she would speak some more but then she was quiet.
The Zamindar laughed, turning his fat body towards the roof above. “Your wife really loves you,” said the Zamindar, his eyes were still fixed at the roof while he spoke, and his hands rested on his big stomach. “All the servants and my dear cook, Babu, whose ten generation have been with our family say, ‘Asraf Ali steals the mangoes everyday and takes them home.’ Lady what do you want to say about this,” he said. “You tell me, is it true?” he asked, now he looked at Amma from the corner of his eye, and raised his eyebrow.
“Yes,” Amma said and then she was quiet.
“Your wife also says that you are a thief, Asraf Ali. Your father also served us…”
Amma didn’t let allow the Zamindar to complete his sentence, she spoke. “I am sorry to interrupt you, but my husband is not a thief.”
I saw the Zamindar turning his heavy body to face Amma. “How?” he asked.
“Your cook will check the salt and the pepper in the food before serving it to you. And he might even eat a bowl of it. Nobody will call him a thief, it is part of his job. My husband guards those mangoes like they are his children. If he eats them it is his right because he keeps a check on the fruits to see they are losing the magic pulpiness and the trees are losing the sweetness, and then he tells the gardener.”
“But that is the work of the gardener,” said Babu, the cook, at once.
“Yes, the work of the gardener is to plant these trees and pluck the fruits. For him all those thousand trees are the same. But for their janitor, each one is his own child. He protects them from the outsiders. He sees that no one harms them.”
“She is right,” said the Zamindar, “you can’t call AsrafAli a thief, because if he is a thief then Babu you are also one.”
Amma, Abba and I returned to our small hut. And everything continued the way it did for years. Abba brought the mangoes every day, I saw Abba holding that white bundle of cloth on his shoulder everyday till he got me married to a man in the city.
Hyderabad was very different. My eyes missed looking at those mango trees. I missed the smell of wet leaves. I would go to meet Abba every Sunday. It took three hours by the local bus. But as soon as I stepped down in those mango orchards, those trees took me back to my childhood where I stood at the threshold of our hut, waiting for Abba to bring those mangoes, his life. Every day he squatted on the floor sucking the pulp out of them as the orange liquid smeared his lips, and he was surrounded with mango seeds.
Abba tried to plant all the mango seeds he used to eat, in these plantations. Spending hours just watching the biscuit-color earth, hoping a tree would grow out of any one of them. But they never sprouted.
Abba passed away last summer before the rains. Amma had gone to the Zamindar to take permission from him to bury Abba in one corner of the orchard.
On my first visit home after Abba’s death, I could see the seed near Abba’s grave had finally sprouted. I am sure a huge mango tree will grow out of this seed. He had planted this seed with Amma before his death.
Amma often said, seeing the growing tree that Abba went under the earth and his love for mangoes made the seed grow.
Amma lived alone in this hut, the Zamindar never asked her to leave the orchards. Whenever I came home to Amma,I went to that tree and watered it. This time I noticed that the tree had grown till my waist and there was a mango on it.
I plucked it and took it for Amma. Just as I turned to look back I saw Abba. Holding mangoes in his hand, he was squatting there near that tree and licking the pulp, with orange liquid all around his lips.
He was smiling, holding the mangoes, his life, in his hands.
Natalia Suri has lived most of her life in New Delhi. She teaches Spanish at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. Her passion to travel has taken her to numerous countries.
Her work has been published in Earthen Lamp Journal, Samvada, Boloji, E-fiction, Literary yard, Indus women.
Her favorite authors are Khaled Hosseini and Jeffery Archer.