Thatha, my mother's father, ran away from home when he was sixteen and at various points in life, worked as an exorcist's assistant, cinema reel operator, rose grower and turkey farmer. Later, he found employment in the railway catering service and when home between rail journey duties, learned ayurvedic healing from his vaidyar friend. He didn’t tell me any of this. I pieced these together from the stories my mother and others told me and from the number of eclectic crises that we used to call upon him to solve.
I remember when I was nine and suffered from a headache that refused to subside no matter how much sticky Tiger balm my mother rubbed on my forehead. I lay whimpering on a woven floor mat, my petticoat soaked in sweat. The room was utterly dark, save for a sliver of light that showed in a slanting line under the door. Even that I could not look at without feeling blinding pain behind my eyes.
Suddenly, the door swung open and I squeezed my eyes shut, keening. Thatha came in, and with him, the sweetish smell of sandal and camphor that I associated with temples and other sacred things. It was from the three lines of holy ash that he smeared across his forehead each morning in one swipe. Three lines, each a different width to match the finger that drew it.
His breathing was heavy, as it became whenever he was concentrating deeply. “It has been three hours,” my mother whispered. He grunted, then squatted beside me, pulling his white cotton mundu between his legs.
I felt the back of his palm with its light silvery hair graze my forehead, then my burning cheeks. He wiped the sticky balm off my forehead and cleaned his fingers on his mundu. Even in the dim light, I could make out the rudraksha beads strung up on a silver chain around his neck, swinging a little away from his chest as he bent forward. Though I couldn’t see his chest, I knew what it looked like: a wrinkled parchment criss-crossed by fascinating whorls and folds. There was a tulsi leaf screwed into the locket of his chain, pale and grey now but still fragrant.
From the hip-fold of his mundu where he usually hid coins and hard little sweet-sour lemon drops, he took out a tiny packet wrapped in newspaper. I heard the paper rustle as he opened it, then the smell of camphor became stronger. He started chanting in a low voice, the rhythmic pronouncements punctuated by his wheezing breaths. The words were unintelligible. Because he has no teeth, I thought, and refuses to wear his false teeth unless he is going out.
It was a prayer of some kind and he stopped as abruptly as he had begun. He took a pinch of sacred ash from the newspaper scrap and rubbed it on my forehead. Just one long line, starting above my left eye and ending above my right. “Thatha,” I told him, “It hurts here also.” He smiled a little and took another pinch of ash, extending the line all the way to the corner of my right eye. “Now it won’t,” he said. “Keep your eyes closed and go to sleep. In the morning, you will be okay.”
I was okay by midnight.
I woke up suddenly, the dried sweat cold on my body. I didn’t know where my mother had put my spectacle case and stumbled my way to the bathroom where I squatted and peed a hot, burning stream for a long time. As I washed my hands, I stared at my face in the spotted mirror above the washbasin. It looked pale and ghostly with a lopsided grey line straggling across the forehead. On the mirror was a round red pottu my mother had taken off her forehead and stuck on it before washing her face. I moved my head left and right trying to superimpose that red dot onto the center of my mirror-face. It didn’t hurt at all, my head, even with all that moving. Before I went back to bed, I decided that thatha was a mantravadi, a sorcerer. But the good kind, the one who knew healing secrets.
Another time, my mother told me about thatha and the bull. It happened in Madurai many, many years ago, a few streets away from the Meenakshi temple. Thatha was walking up a narrow street, so narrow that if he had stretched out his arms on both sides, he could have pushed open two front doors, one on each side, with his fingertips. He was dressed in spotless white. White half-sleeved shirt, white pants with blade-sharp creases, black shoes so shiny you could see your face on the leather, and on his face, a big mustache, its ends curving up into two sharp points. He walked briskly up that street, the air heavy with the sound of bhajans from the temple and the perfume of mallipoo, on his way to the main bus stand from where he would take the 23H to work.
Suddenly, a bull appeared at the opposite end of the street and charged towards him. I can imagine the scene: two large aggressive males, one in white, one dark grey; one with horns and the other with mustache ends, both curving upwards; both angry, red-eyed, determined not to back off. They sped towards each other, never taking their eyes away. People gathered on their tiny verandahs on either side, shouting, but too terrified to step out. “Ay, ay” someone tried to shoo the bull back, but he tossed his head, snorting, barely taking his eyes off thatha, the rough hair on the back of his neck bristling in rage. Someone tried to stop thatha, but he paid no heed.
At the centre of the street, they came to a half, an impasse, panting heavily, snorting in thunderous rage. The street was so narrow that neither could pass the other. Someone had to back off but neither did. They stood there staring at each other for what seemed like hours. The bull finally lowered his head, ready to charge, ready to gore thatha and spread his intestines out on his spotless white clothes. Then thatha snapped his fingers.
“Onlookers said his eyes glowed like coals,” my mother told me, her own eyes shining, “There was fire in them.” The bull went still, mesmerized by his eyes, and started to walk back the way it had come. In reverse, all the way to the end of the street, where thatha slapped its rump and walked away while it stopped blinking, dazed, in the sunlight.
“Is it true?” I asked thatha later. "Did you really stop the bull?"
“Stories are stories,” he said and I was disappointed until he continued, “But some are based on fact.” He was always evasive about things like that.
I used to spend weekends and holidays climbing up and down the trellis grill that boxed in our sit-out, while thatha stood shirtless in the doorway, his thumbs stuck in his armpits, his elbows jutting out, staring at the road and watching what went on.
“But is this story true?” I persisted, trying to swing from one trellis wall to the one perpendicular to it, a challenge because my legs were too short to reach it.
“If you want a story, let me tell you a good one. Have I told you about Parker sayippu?” he asked me.
He had, a thousand times, and it was a boring story. Parker was the Englishman who was thatha’s boss at the Indian Railways. He didn’t think too much of Indians and lost no opportunity to rub that in their face. Thatha’s story involved Parker sayippu insulting his educational qualifications, thatha discovering three grammatical mistakes in the sayippu’s own important letter to his boss and pointing them out while delivering a bombastic speech on the excellence of the Indian intellect, the sayippu apologizing humbly and the two shaking hands as friends.
It was boring because I wasn’t entirely sure it was true. He had so many variations of the same story. In one, thatha had corrected six mistakes, not three. In another, it was the script for a public speech, not a letter, that would have embarrassed the sayippu without thatha's intervention. And in another, the sayippu was reduced to tears and applied for a transfer to avoid the humiliation of having to work with a smarter Indian subordinate. Somehow, I preferred the wildness and danger of the grey bull to the dull greyness of Parker sayippu’s complexes.
I knew thatha had raised turkeys and cultivated roses because we had a picture of his farm. More yellow than black-and-white, it was slightly larger than the usual size and fit into none of our family albums. There were white splotches on the edges but you could still make out the image. It showed my uncle when he was seven or eight, staring grimly into the camera in a light shirt and too-short trousers, with his left arm around the neck of a large, ungainly turkey. Behind them were rows and rows of rose bushes and standing amidst them were two of thatha’s farm hands — Pechiyappan and Muthu, my mother told me. “Photobombed,” I said triumphantly to thatha, “They photobombed you.”
“Sss...” Thatha made his characteristic noise, sticking the tip of his tongue between his upper and lower front teeth. Depending on the situation, the noise could mean anything. The precursor to laughter. An expression of mild amusement. A background hum to his thinking. A substitute for a non-committal ‘hmm’.
“Your thatha’s roses were the biggest and the best,” my paatti told me. She was sitting on the floor, her right leg tucked under her and the other swollen left leg, a reminder of the filariasis that had struck her at thirteen, sticking straight out. She was rolling soft, hot rice dough into kozhukattais. After she was done, she would let me scrape out the pan and eat the crispy flakes of roasted dough. “Did he have a secret?” I asked her. “Your thatha is full of secrets,” she snorted. “His roses were never affected by insects, never drooped for want of nitrogen or phosphorus. They just went on making tight, perfect blooms the colour of blood.” I shuddered.
A few years later, a snake appeared in our garden, which was overrun with weeds and covered in the leaves that constantly fell from the many teak and mango trees. Every two months, a large coconut palm leaf that had gone dry would break off and crash into the garden, sending reverberations through the house. “Oho,” my aunt would say, “Which one is it this time?” My mother would step out through the backdoor, slip into the plastic garden slippers a size too big for her (because everyone used it, from thatha to my uncle) and peer around the garden. “The one near the back wall. Now that Verma’s wife will start nagging us again with her ‘cut your coconut tree’, ‘cut your coconut tree’ refrain!”
My cousin Nanu discovered the snake when he was hunting for his cricket ball amidst the fallen leaves. It was not too long, but dark and shiny, with a beautiful diamond pattern on its skin. It slithered away rapidly at his excited shouts but by the time everyone assembled, it had reached the foot of the mango tree —the one that gave tiny green mangoes so perfect for pickling— and lay still, waiting, watching. “It is a moorkhan!” my aunt exclaimed. A cobra. “Stand aside, children!” Nanu and I stood as close to the snake as they would let us.
Someone fetched thatha and he came panting from the junction tea shop where he usually spent an hour between four and five every evening, painfully chewing a crisp parippuvada with his gums and gossipping. He was bare chested and wheezing a little as usual. The crowd parted ways and he stepped forward. He bent down and examined the snake. It lay perfectly still. “Sss…” he said. The snake’s tail flicked a little. “Moorkhan,” he confirmed. Someone handed him Nanu’s wooden cricket bat. “Move back,” he said, and stood, his thin arms raised above his head, holding the bat. I could see how his stringy biceps strained to support its weight.
Thud! The snake writhed under the edge of the bat, its tail flailing left and right. Thatha didn’t take the bat off, but sort of ground it heavily, crushing the snake into the ground. Next to me, Nanu vomited. After everyone departed, I examined the thing on the ground. Mangled and torn, it longer looked like it had ever been a snake. There was some blood staining the sand, but it wasn’t the colour of roses.
There were heavy footsteps behind me and the sound of someone wheezing. Thatha had come back with a little silver tumbler, the one he used for his morning prayers to offer milk to the gods. “Milk,” he told me when I tried to peer in. “This snake is the incarnation of Ananta, the serpent god. We sinned by killing it. Now we must ask for forgiveness.” He dug a shallow grave near the wall and with a stick, moved the thing on the ground into it and covered it up. He chanted under his breath, his vein-knotted hands pressed together in prayer. He let me pour the tumbler of milk onto that grave. When I told Nanu later, he didn’t believe me. “The snake didn’t die,” he said with conviction, “Thatha only hit the ground next to it. It slithered away. I saw it.” When I tried to argue with him, thatha stopped me. “Don’t believe everything you see,” he told me, his toothless jaws chewing rhythmically. Nanu looked triumphant.
Thatha had a special friend, a short, squat old woman called Sarasamma who wore a blouse and melmundu that did not quite cover her breasts. She used to come by once or twice a month with a large plastic carry bag of savoury snacks: crispy, spiral rice murukkus, large brown thattes with chana dal bits embedded on them, ribbon pakkavadas so spicy they made you cough, and fine, yellow ompudi strands that melted on your tongue. Nanu and I and his younger sister Ammu would stand around her as Sarasamma lowered herself onto our doorstep saying “Hu, hu, hu...this heat!” In the monsoon months, she would say “Ayyayyo...this rain!”.
She would grin at us widely, showing two canine teeth with an expanse of bare gum between them. Carefully extracting the blue checked handkerchief tucked between her breasts, she would wipe herself off. The back of her neck, her throat, her face, her arms. “Where is saami?” she would then ask, peering into the darkness of the house behind us. That’s what she called thatha: saami, master.
As if on cue, thatha would appear. “Sughamano, saami?” she would ask, smiling coyly. “Oh, what to say at this age, Sarasamma,” he would grin back. Nanu would disappear into the front bedroom where our grandmother sat bent over, squinting at the tiny font on the pages of her weekly magazines. “Sarasamma has come,” he would say, waiting for her reaction. Paatti would snort. “Here we work ourselves to the bone trying to give him good food. Never have I heard one good word for it! Let him eat all this cheap oily stuff and give himself ulcers. What do I care?” Satisfied, Nanu would hop back to the verandah, where thatha would have picked out his favourites from Sarasamma's wares.
“What do you kids want?” he would ask us generously. In the early days, we used to squabble over our choices but we had now come to an agreement. I would choose one week; Nanu would choose the next time. Ammu was still too young to care. And anyway, she wasn’t allowed to eat any of it. I always chose jackfruit chips because I knew Nanu did not like it. That way, I didn’t have to share.
Then the haggling would begin. “Every week, the price of everything goes up! I am a poor old man, Sarasamma,” thatha would say, shaking his head seriously, “I live on a meager pension and I buy this for my grandchildren. I cannot afford to spend so much.”
“What are you saying, saami?” she would counter, equally querulous. “At my age, I am walking in the sun and rain, going house to house, selling these snacks to make a living. If nobody will buy, what will I do? I was once so beautiful, so fair —now see how dark I have become!”
“You are still beautiful,” thatha would quip, and they would both burst into laughter. This was always the point at which paatti would made her appearance, quivering with rage. “Here, take your money and go!” she would say, thrusting a few notes at Sarasamma. “Don’t you come back again.” With many protestations, Sarasamma would get up, hoist her bag up, and leave. At the gate though, she would always stop. By that time, my grandmother would have gone back inside, muttering. Sarasamma would turn around, look at thatha and smile. “Varaame, saami.” I will come again.
Once when Sarasamma came, thatha was not at home. He had gone out to visit a friend of his who had come from out of town and fallen sick here. She seemed unperturbed that he wasn’t around. “I will come next week,” she said, picking up her bag. “I will come when saami is there.”
“Do you like him, Sarasamma?” I asked her curiously. She burst into peals of laughter. “Saami is a great man. He makes my problems disappear.”
“Like magic,” I said.
“Like magic,” she agreed.
Thatha was 84 when Sarasamma died. The milkman gave us the news. We hadn’t seen her in over a month, quite unusual really, yet we hadn’t wondered. “Are you sad, thatha?” Nanu asked him. “Sss…” he said, his head jerking up and down slowly. He blinked a few times. “She was an old woman. When the time comes, we must all go.”
“But you won’t, right thatha?” Nanu asked anxiously. “You will chant the mrityunjaya mantram and send death away. Right, thatha?” Thatha smiled. “Yes, of course.” “But,” I protested, “You told me the mrityunjaya mantram is chanted to ward off the fear of death, not death itself.” “Ah, yes. But one is the same as the other,” he said enigmatically.
A few years later when I was fifteen, a thief broke into my friend’s house as she lay asleep on her bed that was pushed against a window. Feeling a tug at the nape of her neck where her thin gold chain lay pooled, she opened her eyes and saw a hideous dark form, upside down outside the window. It was she who was lying on her back, not the thief who was upside down, but that image horrified her so much that she screamed and screamed. There was a thud as the thief dropped to the ground —he had been standing on tiptoe on the sunshade plinth outside the window —and rushed away. Lights came on in the houses nearby and people started shouting and waving torchlights. Eventually, someone had to slap her face to make her stop screaming.
She told me the story in graphic detail and I developed an irrational fear that this would happen to me too. Not just thiefs, but ghosts. Satanic forms taking on shadowy forms, men lurking around corners, and skeletal arms cracking through the walls as I passed by. I refused to sleep alone and moved from my room to my mother’s. When I had to go to the bathroom at night, I would edge along the wall, always facing the light, yet jerking my head back, convinced every second that hands would shoot out through the wall and grab my neck. I started wetting my bed and talking in my sleep, shaking with nightmares until finally, my mother told thatha. He was very old by that time, past 90.
My mother took me to see him where he lay in his old bed in the front bedroom of my uncle’s home. He had moved there when my father returned and we moved to a house across town. Slanting rays of afternoon sun fell in bands across his thin form through the partly open windows. I sat down on the edge of his bed with its hard coir mattress that he had used all his life, feeling strangely self-conscious. His frailty did not bother me though. Thatha was thatha, even with his once-luxuriant silver hair thinning and his face scraggy with beard. He took my hand in his own thin one. “What is this I’m hearing?”
“Nothing,” I muttered, “I saw some ghost film…”
“Ghosts,” my mother scoffed. “There are no such things.”
“No, no,” thatha said, his voice raspy from the decades of smoking. “When there is light, there must be darkness also.” The sun suddenly went behind a cloud and the room turned a shade darker. I shivered.
“Remember this,” he said, his eyes shining with a sudden light, “There is no thief, no ghost, no sorcerer bigger than me. Are you afraid of me?” I shook my head, though I was really, just a little bit.
“Well, then don’t be afraid of anything.” he said, fumbling on the windowsill with one hand for a scrap of newspaper. My mother had to unwrap it for him, but it was his trembling fingers that drew a line of grey-white ash across my forehead as his lips moved silently.
I never wet my bed again.
Gowri N Kishore is a writer based in Bangalore. Her works have been published in Kitaab, Second Chance Lit, Huffington Post India, Women’s Web, Indian Express, Deccan Herald and Reading Hour. She is a winner of the Elle Fiction Awards 2013 and a recipient of the President of India’s Balsree Honour for excellence in Creative Writing. She blogs at https://gowrink.wordpress.com