Janu was planning to watch a film on the TV that evening. At the nick of time electricity failed. Resting her chin on her palms, she became heavy with thoughts. I was about to share her grief when Janu said “If only Amir Khan or Sharukh Khan were my papa…” It didn’t occur to me that it was either their glamour or their expertise in dance that attracted her. Perhaps she was calling to her mind some movies in which the Khan fathers played with their children… bearing them on their shoulders… laying them on their bosoms… tickling …
“ Why now a father thought?”
“Simply.” Janu was sipping her coffee. I didn’t ask anything further. Wishing to make some banana fry for her, I made for the kitchen. Janu followed me. Sitting on the kitchen step Janu caught hold of an ant, dropped it on the floor and then poured for it a drop of coffee. I pretended not to have seen that and was plunged in frying the banana slices.
Least interested in Janu’s coffee, the ant left the place taking its former route. Fixing her eyes on the retreating ant, Janu said “I simply don’t understand why these papas, despite their new families, come to visit their former children?”
Oil spurted from the fry and my hand was burnt. Janu ran to me and smeared butter on the red burn. “Oh these idiotic doubts of Simon D Philippose! Do you know how he wrote antonyms the other day? darkness – sans darkness, brother – sither.”
The peals of laughter did not seem to stop. I knew pretty well that these were the blunders Janu herself wrote on her answer paper the day before yesterday! I took care not to be transparent. At times she is doubtful “Are my deeds becoming of good children? … mischiefs … blunders … audacity…” She escapes by putting the whole blame on Simon D Philippose! After that she tries to read my mind.
Any way this time, I was on Simon’s side. “So what? Anybody can go wrong once. Ask him not to repeat the mistake.”
Janu nodded happily. “Simon is a good boy. Quite intelligent but for his forgetfulness in studies.” With this statement, she sank deep into the taste of banana fry.
If I had laughed at Simon’s blunders, Janu would have hung her head down murmuring.
“He’s not all that bad.”
I perfectly know that ‘the sensible Simon’ and ‘the not so bad Simon’ are one and the same child called Janu. ‘Simon’ is just a tricky tool with which she could test my reactions. Taking a break from the banana taste Janu said, “According to Simon, ‘Janu’ is not a very good name. He thinks that ‘Ashakutty’ suits me better.” What she told me last week as Simon’s opinion was that the name Bhanumathy suited her best. Bhanumathy could be the beautiful princess in the story she read last week. Perhaps Ashakutty comes in this week’s story. She may be the little girl who helped the police to catch the bandit !
“Simon is indeed strange!” Janu continued.
“ Will papas have love for their former children, even after their second marriage?” was Simon’s genuine doubt yesterday. I couldn’t help asking,
“Did papa come to school to see you?”
Janu sprang from her seat with a shudder.
“Shouldn’t we manure the cheera?” She asked. Within seconds, she was near the cheera bed. While I was manuring the loosened soil, Janu examined whether there were cankers on the cheera leaves. Suddenly she became serious and said “I am thinking of starting a factory where cow dung would be powdered and sold in packets. Now a days, cow dung powder is very dear in the market. So, it will have a great demand. Money will flow like anything. So many heaps! You won’t have enough space to keep all the money!”
Janu had brought the cheera seeds from the school science club. I once casually told her that if you manure cheera with cow dung powder, it will grow luscious red. Scarcity of cow dung powder has haunted her as a crying need from then onwards. These days she has been distressed at the thought that cow dung powder is not available anywhere … in the bakery, at the grocers, in the flower shop, no, no not even in the manure shop! Her disappointment has now evolved into the idea of a cow dung factory !
The one and only thing where Janu slacks is in her studies. Only if you learn well, you will get a job, only if you get a job, you can make money, only when you have enough money you can live beautifully … not that Janu doesn’t know all this. But for the life of her, she can’t study. Nevertheless she wants to make money! My salary is enough to make both ends meet. An extremely modest life without a speck of glamour. Every day Janu takes my purse and is vexed to see the steadily decreasing currency notes !
Suppose I catch viral fever and am hospitalized for a long period! If our neighbour Gopu uncle’s marriage is fixed, shouldn’t we buy a wedding gift for him ? Or if the gas stove stops to work and is beyond repair … where will we go for money then? These burning thoughts devour Janu for ever.
Of course I can borrow money from my colleagues, pawn my gold bangle or even my chittal number shall be prized. Though I comfort her with these options, Janu seems to be perturbed . It is such thoughts that disturb her studies. It is not for any luxury that Janu needs money. When a need arises, she must have money before her eyes, within her reach. Only such a state would give her peace. Yet, she doesn’t like to cheat any one and make money. That’s anyway a consoling thought.
Leaving Janu to her musings on the cow dung factory, I went to the kitchen. Soon I could hear the jingle of her anklets close behind me. Tomorrow I shall make onion curry. Why not peal onions and keep them ready? Janu was helping me in pealing onions. A question arose after some time. “Mom, will you help me to run the factory? If this table of nine did not exist at all, I would have kept all the accounts myself. If I go wrong in calculation, will my factory break down?”
I did not want to hurt her by telling the truth that I was not prepared for anything that would demand forgoing my job. So, hiding the truth I asked her “can you stand the stink of cow dung ?… and then the worms?”
Instantly Janu closed her nose and said, “No, we’ll start the factory after your retirement. Till then we have another scheme- outfits for houses.”
That’s another piece of Janu’s fancy. Till last year this house looked very shabby and stained, with its paint dropping out as flakes! Sensing several times that Janu was ashamed to live in such a house, I decided to give her as a birthday gift, a house made beautiful by painting, despite the expenses. I went to the shop along with Janu to select the colours. The paint price made her start. She had been dreaming of different colours for different rooms but ended up with a single colour- a light blue one for the whole house.
“Why don’t you buy the washable paint?” The shop man became eloquent, “a bit expensive… you have a child ma’m … if she dirties the wall, you can always wash it.” Janu silenced him with a stare. She wanted to convince him that she was not the type of child who would dirty the house. While walking home with the light blue paint – the cheapest one, she was mute.
In the following days, it was I who became mute because of the heavy wages of the painters. I was somehow finishing it off with the help of the news paper boy who claimed to have some previous experience in painting! Thus for half the wages the house looked like the light blue sky.
But how my back bone broke… helping the news paper boy- cum-painter, emptying each room, replacing the furniture, arranging things, sweeping and scrubbing… oh what a fate …. To add to my miseries, Janu was laid up with asthma. How my Janu coughed and wheezed… all for a light blue house!
Janu discovered something in her sick bed. It is rain that washes off the paint. It is in the sun that it fades away. Paint price is shooting up! So, paint the house once, then stitch an outfit for it! That makes sense. It should be made of a thin transparent material. Raindrops, falling on it will evaporate. It won’t fade even in the hottest sun. That means no more painting the house in future! The house would, forever stay brand new and in style. This scheme will bring money! There is only one problem. No one has so far invented the thin transparent material. The moment it is in the market, the house outfit scheme would flourish. It would shoot up to the skies! Piles and piles of money! Janu would buy a car at the age of twelve. You won’t get a driving licence at that age! That’s okay. Who knows whether Janu ‘The pride of the nation’ wouldn’t get a special sanction from the Prime Minister to drive without a licence – all because of her invention at this tender age!
I thought that Janu would continue the discussion during the pealing session. But sitting amidst the onion peals she is now talking about a poem she wrote. “That poem , mom, the one I wrote in your old teaching note book, yesterday I took it to school and showed every one. Janu recited the poem in an invented tune, raising her voice to a high pitch and then suddenly dropping it.
The tree for play is a bird’s tree
A bird’s tree is the tree for play…
“Good,” I said. Janu was so overwhelmed with pride that she did not know what to say. She seemed to forget herself. These words might have slipped off her mouth in that fit of pride.
“Do you know where we keep our doll? In the crack of a big tree in the school compound. She has a good friend – a teddy bear!” When I raised my head and looked at her, she stopped abruptly in an embarrassment. My suspicion was not out of place. Janu’s papa had been to the school to see her. This time he had gifted her with a doll and a teddy bear. Don’t know what else had taken place there!
I have never forbidden Janu from going near papa, receiving kisses and gifts from him, not even from going out with him. But Janu somehow feels that news about papa’s comings kills my peace. So if papa gives her sweets, they are distributed among her classmates. If it is a dress, it is given to the sweeper’s daughter. If they happen to be toys, they are for the whole class to play with. If it is money, it is tucked into the way side temple collection box.
Janu threw perplexed glances at me several times and made sure that I had not extracted anything from her ‘bird’s tree talk’. Once more she became eloquent.
“Have you read the ads, mom? The Novodaya calls. The Defense Department calls. The Cadburys calls…” With a half smile I understood that Janu is changing the papa topic. “The way they give titles! As if, if you answer their call, they would immediately tell you ‘come children, take your job’. All bluff. If you read enough, you understand that big degrees are required … must clear their test too … oh … what an ordeal!”
I couldn’t guess what Janu’s problem could be. Why this employment wish? At times I had seen her bending over the employment page in the news paper, together with the boy staying next door—an M.A degree holder. Only now it struck me that Janu also was hunting for a job!
Janu explained “Mom. Suppose you are run over by a car and your arms are broken… or your eyes burst in a bomb blast! Can you go to school after that? Suppose the manager closes down the school and starts a toddy shop saying that the strength of the students is decreasing! what will we do then? That’s why, mom, I say it is good that I too have a job. It is not written anywhere that only after a calamity occurs, that I should start seeking a job! Even though you are safe with your job, isn’t it good that I too am employed? What if you have excess money? It won’t go stale, would it mom? Yet, I prefer doing business. Money will come profusely. Then you can buy any number of shapely cars! Also silk skirts and necklaces made of precious stones matching to every saree”.
I could read something more between Janu’s words. Her papa had come to see her not in that Santro but in a Contessa. He was accompanied by his wife decked in a necklace and his daughter clad in a silk skirt.
After such pompous arrivals of papa Janu feels small and belittled … as if the ground drifts away from under her feet! Losing her grip, she feels reduced to the daughter of a primary school teacher living in a small house- the girl who squeezes her long legs and grown up body into the little space of a rusted three wheeler! Not to hurt me she locks up everything in her little heart. Yet sometimes her sorrow gently drips through the slits of her words and at times leaks out of their very bosoms.
Janu wants to surpass the necklace and the silk skirt! Wants to prove that she is self sufficient. Wants to be at par with the well off. For that only this cow dung factory, the house outfit scheme, employment in the defense etc.
Enough of pealing onions. This will do for the curry. I washed the onions and started to slice them. Janu sat at a distance lest the onions should water her eyes.
She said, “Making a movie is far better than employment in the department of defense or the cow dung business. I have a story and the title ready. Fantasminta.”
Before I could ask what that word meant she started to describe.
“A little soap solution in a small bottle. An eye shaped ring at the end of a plastic tube . Dip the ring in the solution and blow through the tube. Bubbles … bubbles… endless bubbles… float around you. When sunlight falls on them, you can see the rainbow colours- small, big, medium sized. Bubbles that burst dashing at the branches, that stick to the whiskers of the cat, that hang on your hair… So many of them. That world of bubbles is called Fantasminta! Terrific name, isn’t it ? Yeah, that’s the name of our movie. I want to include in it the song ‘The tree for play …’ Krishnaveni is singing the song in the movie. She is the heroine. Even I could have acted as the heroine. But if it is Krishnaveni we can save the money spent on costumes. Krishnaveni has a lot of expensive shining dresses. Moreover she wears a pair of spectacles. Mom, have you noticed one thing in the movies? The heroes and heroines take off their spectacles when they are sad or serious. Deepak Pillai is coming as the grandfather of the heroine. He has a toy telephone and a gruff voice. The heroine’s parents are in Delhi. Here she lives with her grandfather. Whenever there is a call from Delhi, the grandfather runs to attend the call. Since it is an STD, he speaks at the top of his voice with all his strength … can’t hear … what did you say? … a little louder…. When we make an STD call to our aunt, don’t we talk in a softer voice ? But in a movie, it has to be loud from both ends. That’s the cinema style! Anyway with his voice, Deepak Pillai is going to excel in the role of a grandfather. We can’t afford super stars like Amir Khan, Mamooty or Samyukta Varma. They demand huge amounts. All the actors and actresses are my classmates.”
Pictures become clearer and clearer. Bubble pipes are sold in front of the park. Papa had taken Janu for a ride in his Contessa. He had bought the bubble pipe for her on their way to the park!
Janu continued. “To make a movie, you need so many other things too. When the red-lipped girl runs about singing and dancing along the border of the fields flying rainbow bubbles, she should have a little lamb to hold. That’s not a problem’ cause Kunjammu has many lambs at home. Though the heroine is an ultra modern girl fresh from Delhi, she is an innocent thing. In movies innocent girls should have a lamb to carry close to their bosoms. That’s compulsory. Until marriage the heroine has bobbed hair and wears modern outfits. Once the marriage is over, the very next day, she appears in a saree draped over her shoulders, after an oil bath, gently swaying her plaited hair bedecked with flowers. With that her scooter rides and all the showing off come to an end! Then she asks shyly to her husband ‘When are you going to take me out?’”
“Mom, will you lend me a few of your sarees for the heroine to wear? We won’t spoil them. What even if they are spoiled? Our Fantasminta is going to become a mega hit! Heaps and heaps of money! You will go sick buying sarees.”
Lying on the floor Janu blew up the onion peals. She asked me for one more favour. “Mom, you must teach me a few English words too… for the bridegroom to shout at his wife when he is angry. Isn’t the girl smart and fresh from Delhi – the type that gives tit for tat ? Mom still doubts whether she would endure all this shouting! You seem to forget the fact that women in movies, after marriage, seem to be weeping for ever receiving their husbands’ blows.”
In an exhilaration Janu throws onions up and catches them playfully. She says: “Once Fantasminta is made what will we be! What happiness! How much wealth!” Not wishing to burst Janu’s bubble world, I nodded to everything. “You make the onion curry now itself. By that time I’ll learn the table of nine. When Fantasminta becomes a hit, mom alone can’t manage all the accounts. We’ll be that rich. I too will have to join you then. Anyway let me learn that neglected table of nine. No problem should arise from not learning that!”
When Janu comes near me learning by rote the table of nine, myself, this onion curry, my life itself – everything rise above me as bubbles. I don’t wish them to burst. God, into which Fantasminta shall I take refuge? Who is the one who blows rainbow bubbles out of my tears ? What shall I do with him?
Translated from Malayalam by Mary Nirmala.
Priya A.S. stands unique among the contemporary women shortstory writers of Kerala. This resourceful story teller has published three collections of short stories in Malayalam namely ‘Ororo Thirivukal’ (Each, Each Turning), ‘Priya A.S. nte kathakal (The Stories of Priya A.S.) and Manja Marangal Chuttilum (Golden Trees Around). Her translation of Jayasree Mishra’s ancient Promises into Malayalam (Janmanthara Vagdhanangal) is enough proof of her expertise in the field of translation. She bears the stamp of originality in the selection of themes and in the use of language. She has won many prestigious awards like Grihalekshmi Award, Anganam Award, Ramu Kariat Special Prize, S.B.I. Award and V.K. Unnikrishnan Memorial Award.
Ullitheeyalum Onmpathinte Pattikayum (Onion Curry and the Table of Nine) is the second short story in the collection Manja Marangal Chuttilum (Golden Trees Around). In the story Priya A.S. tries to recapture the innocence of a child’s world. At the same time it is a critique of the contemporary society. There is subtle humour and irony at the customs and practices of today’s society. The author seems to be essentially a feminist. Besides the feminist impulses one experiences the deep sorrow in the sub text. Priya’s style is simple, succinct and sharp. Her prose often verges on poetry. There is an elusive and lyrical quality about her language. The strikingly original imagery by which the writer conveys her thoughts is perhaps the greatest charm of this story.
MARY NIRMALA. Her Ph. D is on the thesis “The Image of Woman in the Poetry of Kamala Das and Sugatha Kumari”. She taught English at the St. Xavier’s College, Thiruvananthapuram and has now retired. Writes poems and has contributed to various journals and magazines.