Yawning, Basavan nestled his head on the lap of his new bride. The light had unfolded. The village basked in the tender warmth of the sun.
The roof seemed to cut the sky into squares. The villagers had urged Basavan to at least mend the roof before his marriage. They would have given him the grass and the labour if he had made the effort.
Basavan had merely smiled. He was sure that Challi, his woman, would have come to him regardless of whether the roof was mended or not. She was from the next village, and though a seemingly fashionable young lady, she had found a firm niche in the heart of Basavan, whom everyone regarded a confirmed savage.
Her blue coloured chinnalapattu sari was coming undone.
Gazing deep into the clear blue sky, Basavan harkened. The limpid blueness of the sky had dripped on Challi’s eyes filling them with the same azure hue.
Basavan lay on the floor and looked into the distance, for his hut was not hampered by walls or doors. Beyond the fields, the spring had proclaimed its presence. The trees of the forest beckoned him with henna coloured fingers.
He sat up suddenly as if answering a call that he alone could hear. As his wife was about to move away, Basavan grabbed the end of her sari:
“Why do you need this blue sari?”
She was lost for an answer. It was her father’s gift. The groom did not give his bride anything. He did not believe in worldly presents.
“What colour should my sari have been?”
“You do not need a sari at all. When you drape a sari, your beauty dies.”
She covered her mouth to smother her laughter. She went to the grove of plantains to spit the juice of the betel leaves that she was chewing. The sari that had come undone trailed after her like a blue snake. As Basavan began to yawn again, a sound filtered in through the square roof.
A bee. A bee that shone like an emerald. It tore, like a saw through the languor that had wrapped the hut. Challi blocked her ears.
—“What a creature!”
—“A creature! This is the messenger sent by the panguru creeper.”
Seeing the sun rise on Basavan’s face, Challi was bemused. For two days his face had been shrouded with a fog. He yawned ever so often. Was he so bored? Bored and after just two weeks of marriage? Challi asked joyously:
“Where has the panguru bloomed?”
“In the forest! Let’s go. We will leave right now.”
Basavan tied his mundu securely.
“Why don’t you put on your shirt?”
“Why should I?”
The white shirt that a friend had given him for his marriage swung on the bamboo line.
“Should we leave at once?”
“Why should we delay?”
Excitement pulsed in his every cell.
The bee, which had fluttered in the cool interior of the hut, led the way.
In the village the calves bleated. The chimes of the bells that hung around the necks of the cattle which had gone to graze in the forest, echoed still in the country lanes.
Like a young man who had come to the village to invite folk to a wedding, the breeze lingered in the village.
Basavan and Challi began their journey accompanied by the speeding clouds that were rushing towards the forest boundary.
The village watched. They had not become acquainted enough with Challi, of the neighboring village. They had not become familiar with the particular features that contributed to her distant loveliness. For that matter, they did not know Basavan too! He was born in the village but was forever making off to the forest. He was of the wild. One who did not know the conventions of the town. They thought that marriage might change him. That he would be tamed into his nest. Basavan had always been outside the range of their understanding. Once in a while he would appear at the festival fairs. A pot of honey would be balanced on his head. Selling it at whatever price he could manage, Basavan would drink away his earnings and then disappear again.
The villagers did not misunderstand Basavan’s departure to the forest. They did not find fault with Challi either. She was his woman after all. The villagers turned to their ploughs once more.
In the air, the dragonflies danced like the waves of the sea in the comfortable warmth of the sun.
On the branch of one of the trees of the village, a hawk perched and asked in a jocular voice:
“Where are you going? Where are you going?”
“To my ancestral home! Are you coming?”
“Let them go! Let them go!” another hawk intoned.
Basavan smiled. The smile never left his lips.
The trees of the forest raised their tattooed arms. Waving their henna coloured hands in the air, they welcomed Basavan and his wife. The divine music of thousands of creatures filled the cool courtyards of the forest. Basavan’s parched inner space was blessed with water like an oasis. He began to hum a song. The forest cuckoo stopped its rendering and sat still on the branch of a tree.
Traversing thread-like forest corridors and winding paths they reached the dark valley. Standing still for a minute, Basavan said:
—“It’s true! The panguru is in bloom!”
Searching for the source of the fragrance that filled the soul, Basavan walked ahead. Behind him, panting with the effort of traversing the rough road, Challi toiled. Her blue sari, caught in the sharp nails of the wild creepers, tore.
A stream pushed its way through the thick forest. On the bank on its far side, was a raised area where the sun shone. Challi’s eyes widened in amazement. On the bark of a huge thanni tree, clung a sturdy, gleaming creeper. Bunches of flowers bloomed profusely on the creeper, seeming almost to cascade to the ground. The flowers — two or three in a bunch, like the rising full moon — the panguru! The panguru creeper was not just a wild creeper. It was one that twined its way to heaven. With a heart brimming with honey, transcending the leafy green steps of the thorny undergrowth that blanketed the dark, marshy forest floor, it reached towards heaven, iridescent in the moonlight. Basavan’s mind surged. The exhilarating music of the forest that issued forth in myriad notes, to break the silence, echoed in Basavan’s ears.
“Challi, this is heaven! We will stay here. It is here that our child will be born.”
Challi stood amazed.
They bathed in the fragrance of the panguru flower. They partook of the golden honey pilfered from honeycombs; they enjoyed themselves and dozed when they were tired. They forgot the ills of mortals. They did not choose to remember the village that existed somewhere, some time.
They slept under a roof fashioned out of the arrowroot plant in the rainy season. They nestled under the blanket of mists that arose from the depths of the valley. She forgot the changing seasons. They became two sheer consciousnesses that none could lay claim to.
To the little one who played his games in Challi’s tummy, Basavan said:
“Come out soon. We will feed on nectar. Play with the moon. Travel in the clouds.…”
In the evenings, after the summer showers, they would climb up to the grasslands from the valley of the panguru. On the boundary of the sky, golden skirts of the clouds were hung out to dry. On opposite sides of the meadow, the sun and the moon gazed at each other in bemusement. Pointing to them Basavan asked:
“Which one of them should our son resemble?”
She pointed a finger at the sun’s flushed face. The sun tired out by the games hid his face in the mother’s lap. The disappointed moon reflected shyness in every aspect.
Descending the grassy slopes to the dale, Challi said:
“The little one is knocking at the door!”
“If he is smart, he’ll open the door and issue forth soon.…” Basavan said.
The child born in the dung-smeared floor of the arrowroot leaf hut, roared loud enough to disturb the forest.
Black furred monkeys peered down at the baby from their safe perch on the branches of trees. How powerless is the newly born human child! How helpless! Unable even to stand up or turn on its back! The baby sucked the nectar of the panguru that his mother fed him. The forest accepted the newborn without a demur, without the slightest of changes. Nestled in the cradle fashioned out of one half of Challi’s blue sari, the baby slept. Awoke. Then slept again. He left the safety of the cradle — he crawled on the bed of dry leaves. He walked holding on to branches. When he walked alone without help, Challi’s memories awakened.
“Let’s go back.”
Basavan was startled.
He searched his wife’s eyes.
She had decided on the return. A mother’s determination.
“Where are your vessels?”
The vessels stacked, without being used, had been turned into dust by the white ants. Inside vessels made of aluminum were anthills. The palace of the ants towered in the light, aspiring to touch the sky itself.
“Never mind…” Challi said.
“Why should we go?”
“To take our baby to the temple of Malankali for his chorunu. He has to be sent to school — the school on the hillock.…”
Basavan started. He recalled the cement monstrosity that perched atop the rocky hill. Their baby would be fried alive in the heat.…
“Should we do this?”
Wasn’t it she who had given birth to the baby? Alright!
They began the descent. With the sun. They had filled bamboo flasks with honey. Pressing his feet against his father’s chest, Unni, the baby, perched on Basavan’s shoulders. He beckoned the animals of the forest. He imitated their calls. He pulled the tufts of hair on his father’s bent neck, in his excitement.
Basavan and Challi accompanied the cattle returning to the village from the day’s grazing.
A deep sigh arose from the bare fields. The birds hurrying back to their nests twittered and cried. A cowherd tired of minding the cattle was seated astride a buffalo, urging it on none too gently with a stick.
The village seemed swamped by a tide of tourists. They gathered before the shops in the village square. There were just four shops in the market place and all four seemed to stand obsequiously before the tourists. “What do you need? What do you need? What do you need?”
They needed everything. Country liquor, woman, temple visit, nature, aesthetics, cool bath, warm bed, forest nectar.
That was when Basavan and Challi entered the scene. Easing his bamboo flask from his shoulder, he gave Unni, the baby, to his mother. Basavan stood tall before Asnaar’s shop. A bit of his lungi still clung to his loins. It was a disgrace to his body that seemed to be built of polished teak.
“Hey, you… you still…” Asanaar stole a look at the figure behind Basavan. Asanaar swooned when he saw the naked Challi and the baby who clung to Challi’s breast. The boy who helped to make tea in Asanaar’s shop ran out. He did not swoon. He gazed at Challi as if he were savouring a sweet fruit. The gaze of a thousand eyes flitted to them from near and far. Like the flies that swarmed to honey pot.
The baby uncomfortable in his strange surrounding stopped suckling at his mother’s breast and began to wail.
Basavan wiped the outer side of his honey flask with what was left of his lungi. He swung the flask once more on his shoulders. Someone asked him:
—“Is the honey for sale?”
Then Asanaar woke up from his swoon. Fixing his eyes on the breast of the earth, Asanaar boldly asked:
—“Basava, you came here with the honey in order to give it to me, didn’t you?”
On hearing that Malankali in person, had appeared on the street of the village, the villagers flocked to the square. The square filled up. The streets filled up. Clinging to the horizon, the clouds also peeped into the village.
Basavan measured the earth and the sky. Challi clung to his arm like the panguru creeper and bloomed. She bewitched them like a daydream.
Basavan turned his back on the village.
Translated from Malayalam by Hema Nair R.
VALSALA, P. is one of the foremost short story writers in Malayalam. She has also written novels, which have received considerable popularity. Among her important works are Nellu, Pokkuveyil Ponveyil, Annamariye Neridan, Chamundikuzhi and Pazhaya Puthiya Nagaram. She is the recipient of several awards including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award. She writes mostly about adivasi lives in Wyanad and distinct feminist impulses can be discerned in her writing. After retiring as the headmistress of a government school in Calicut, Valsala has found more time to spend among the landscape and the people of Wyanad.
HEMA NAIR. R. Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. Has published widely in research journals. She is an experienced translator and is involved actively in translation studies. She is the Assistant Editor of Samyukta – A Journal of Women’s Studies.