Savithri amma?" I asked, in half hesitation and half excitement, of the frail form in a faded cotton saree who answered the door. She nodded her assent and looked at me keenly, before asking me to step in. There ended my search that had gone on for more than an hour, first driving up and down a now very unfamiliar road and painstakingly entering each multistorey apartment block, checking the names of the occupants. But the search for Savithri amma began almost thirty years ago in a manner of speaking...
I woke to the mild strains of Hamsadwani played on the veena that floated in through the open window. It was summer time and for a seven year old, it was bliss time- no pressure to wake up early and rush to school. I could play for hours in the yard and no one would care. I could have lain there, half awake, soothed by the music, but an unkind sun, streaming down through the high window made me squirm and pull myself up. I gave a frustrated shout and got up. My mother stood over me grinning and said,
"Good for you! Now roll up that mattress, brush your teeth and come and have breakfast!
I know, once you go out to play, I won’t be able to catch you!"
I lumped up the bed as neatly as I could and placed it atop the pile of mattresses in the corner of the room. I ran to the backyard to quickly finish my morning routine. I loved to splash the cold water kept in the pail drawn out from the well. I had the day's events planned out really well. I would collect the baby mangoes that fell off the large trees in the backyard, which my mother pickled. I would hunt around the front yard for 'treasures'. In the afternoon, I would 'cook' food in my little earthenware pots and pans. My evenings were mostly spent in visiting temples with mother. I got to eat tasty 'prasadam' and listen to very interesting musical narrations of Hindu mythology that were performed there regularly.
I drank the glass of milk in three straight gulps and rushed out. It was a typical hot summer day, but I was rather comfortable, shaded as I was by the large neem tree in the front yard. I was quite busy, talking to myself, playing with the odds and ends- the 'treasures'- I had found in the vast spaces around the house - bits of stone, pieces of broken ceramic tiles and plastic jewellery. Green, bitter neem berries fell around me from time to time. They resembled grapes so much in appearance, that I was always tempted to bite them. And every strong breeze brought down a tingling cascade of the soft, tiny, cream coloured neem flowers, with their distinct smell. Then all of a sudden I heard the tinkle of an all too familiar bell. I knew instantly, it was the sonpaapdi seller with his cart. I ran to the kitchen window and called,
"The sonpaapdiwala is here, please, please, can I buy some at least today?"
I looked pleadingly at my mother, who came to the window.
But as expected, she shook her head.
"Oh, Devi," she said, "You know appa, will not like it... look here,
I will make peanut candy for you this afternoon, ok .."
"But, amma!..." I trailed off as my mother turned and moved away from the window.
I returned crestfallen, to the neem tree, when I heard someone call my name softly at first, then again. I looked up, through the leaves and I could make out aunt Savithri standing at her window.
"Devi," she said,
"Do you like sonpaapdi so much?" I nodded my head in assent.
"Can I buy you some?"
I was quite confused. I wanted it, but was afraid.
"Amma, will not like it," I said, in a meek tone.
She said, "Wait," and was instantly in the street, talking to the vendor.
The cart had a large, green, bell shaped glass jar and as always, the flaky sweet filled less than a quarter of it. I loved to watch the way the vendor would reach all the way to the bottom of jar, sift and loosen the flakes and arrange these in a piece of newspaper torn into neat squares. The passers-by, stopped around him, and I watched eagerly from the gate as aunt Savithri bought some. She came up to me and handed the paper carefully through the bars. Temptation got the better of protest and I ran to the play area and sat down and ate slowly, savouring each mouthful of the tasty sweet.
Thus began my interactions with aunt Savithri that summer. My mother had specifically warned me not to speak to aunt Savithri. Having been 'bribed' in this manner, I never breathed a word about this incident to my mother. I did ask her several times, as casually as I could, why I was not allowed to speak to aunt Savithri, but was only reprimanded on each occasion.
But, unknown to my mother, I made several stealthy trips to aunt Savithri's house. I found myself drawn to her. She was rather tall, with a fragile build. She wore her long hair that almost touched the back of her knee in a neat braid. She wore very few ornaments - and I loved her delicate wrists that were adorned by a simple pair of gold bangles. But she sported a large diamond ring on her ring finger, which stood out from the rest of her jewellery. I always found her dressed is simple cotton sarees. She had large kind but sad eyes and a smile lit up her face, whenever she talked to me. She spoke softly, and most of all, I liked the way she looked into my eyes and spoke. Sometimes I felt she was as much a child as me and as I didn't have a play mate other than my imaginary one, she became my play mate in a sense. Her music kept me company all the timeas I played in the yard.
One afternoon, we had guests over and my mother was lost in the melee, shouting something to her, I rushed next door in a trice. She was playing a soft raga on the veena. She smiled, and asked me,
" Devi, what raaga is this?"
Now this was a game we played all the time. She would play popular ragas for my benefit and then quiz me about them.
I asked her shyly "Is that Abheri?"
"Sabash!" she exclaimed.
I asked her hesitantly, whether I could play the veena too. And she smiling sat me on her lap and guided my fingers over the frets. I winced as the strings almost cut my fingers, and I was disappointed with the choppy wooden sounds that now ensued from that magical instrument. Seeing my absolute disappointment, she comforted me by saying,
"It sounded that way, when I started too ... you will improve if you practise more!"
So saying, she gently held me and planted a kiss on my cheek. I enjoyed that kiss, and the nearness it brought.
I was struck by her gentleness and warmth and I was puzzled why my mother was so antagonistic to her. Since, I couldn't ask my mother, I decided to ask her instead.
Aunt Savithri had begun to leave her front door ajar for my easy entry and I had flitted into her house to have a quick drink of water from the earthen pot near the door. I looked at her pensive face even as she sat on the large wooden indoor swing, lost in thought. I asked her shyly, "Can, I swing with you?" She jumped out and led me gently to it and seating herself next to me, she began swinging gently with me. I found her nearness so comforting and I suddenly asked her, " Why doesn't my mother like you? "
Aunt Savithri somehow seemed to know that the question was coming and she said,
"Paru is actually a very nice person, she is only punishing me, because I have done something bad... you know like when you've been naughty ... "She struggled, to find the right words and she said, speaking more to herself,
"I should have been more responsible, but mistakes are inevitable I suppose, my dear!"
One day, I was in her house, trying to match my stride to the large tiles that patterned her living room- with each stride, I almost fell as I had to stretch a great deal to place each of my feet on the sides of the tile... I had covered about half of the room, when I heard a strident ringing of the doorbell. Savithri hurried to the door and I overheard her urging the tall stranger who stood there to keep it low as I was inside. She hurriedly took him to an anteroom and very hesitantly asked me to leave. I sensed her agitation, I wanted to stay, to be by her side, but was also scared of the tall swarthy man who had entered so impertinently into the house.
The rains came and with it the start of school and a new class to sit in. I couldn't visit aunt Savithri anymore as my days were packed. I would often stare longingly at her window and I would wave eagerly if I spotted her there. I had grown more bold and despite my mother's glares, I waved to her.
I thought of her often, in the midst of homework, while at school, recalling her face, her smile and her tone.
Within a couple of months, however, my father had a job transfer to a different city. I was upset and extremely disturbed. One evening, I was very surprised to see my father at aunt Savithri's house. He was standing at her doorstep and Savithri was saying something earnestly with folded hands, my father mumbled something, turned abruptly and walked out of her door.
(To be continued...)