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Floating Free

By Lakshmi Kannan

 Harshavardhini sat on the swing, like a still, motionless figure. The birds were still around, for it was not too late in the evening.  After the revelry  and the din of an entire  day spent in the Disney Land, Harshavardhini needed the quiet space of this community park at Irvine, California. Her friends pulled her into one last trip to Disney Land before she would leave for Delhi. She spent the day taking thrilling rides, watching shows, shaking hands with a friendly Mickey Mouse, eating endlessly, winning games and losing, all the time looking at things through the eyes of her children. She longed for their company. They would’ve doubled her joy.

Perched on the swing, she looked at the children playing around in the park under the watchful eyes of their parents. On the lanes around the edge of the park, people were walking briskly, some were jogging on a steady pace. Harshi, as she was called by most of her family and friends, counted the remaining days she had in Irvine, before she would take her flight back to home in Delhi in four days from now. I should come to this park again before I leave, she told herself, pushing the uncomfortable thoughts about tidying up the apartment before handing it over, packing clothes, books, and things from the final shopping trip.

 She would miss Susan Green, who had not only enrolled for the same course, but also shared Harshi’s nice apartment on the campus. Susan offered to share the rent and  both of them could put the money saved to good use. They each had a room of their own and met only in the living room, the kitchen and dining room in that comfortable, sunny and spacious two-bedroom apartment. Sure enough, Susan spelt her name as Hershey, after the famous chocolate in the US  and justified it by saying it sounds much the same as ‘Harshi’. She became Hershey to everybody else in her course, including the professors. It was a happy surprise to find that Susan was equally earnest in giving her full focus to this rare course on Hermeneutics for which the university had hand-picked a galaxy of faculty from the rest of the US – some of the best minds from Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and Chicago and a culturally diverse bunch of participants both overseas and American, whose paper publications were the main criteria for selection.

Before the program started, Susan, Harshi and the others were in awe of the professors and their fame. All of them were star academics whose books they had read and admired in print,  and who had influenced their methods of teaching and thinking. Now they were going to see them in flesh and hear them. What would they look like?  And their voice, would it touch them?   

The professors arrived like a proverbial breath of fresh air and put them through a breathless pace of course work. Susan, Harshi and most of the others loved it, every moment of it.

Harshi bought some of the books written by these academics, got them inscribed by the authors and sent them home by surface mail, as most of the books were heavy, hard back editions. It was unlikely that she would find them in the book shops in Delhi. Now she was left with  only a few light paperbacks to pack along with her clothes and the shopping she had done for Siddharth, her husband, and their children. She was anxious to return home and relieve him of all the additional work he had taken on. It was so brave of him to take care of their kids and home in her absence.

 If only her mother had been around, she would’ve been the first one to reach their home to take complete charge of running the house and managing the kids who got along with her very well. But Amma left this world and for the first time in their lives, Siddharth and Harshi had to manage their travels out of the country and other professional contingencies without her. It was tough. As they struggled hard to cope with their work, their home and kids, they realized how much Amma had taken upon herself selflessly, to let the two of them function smoothly and peacefully. Harshi couldn’t have got her Ph.D., made some career moves, pursued creative writing and taken Indian writing to other parts of the world without her. Thanks to Amma, both Siddharth and Harshi could be away from home with a sense of security that their children were looked after by their doting grandmother. 

 Now, there was the reality of the next few days. The apartment had to be thoroughly cleaned before she handed it over, and there was the packing.   

 Let me not think of that, let me just listen to the restful sounds of this evening, thought Harshi, closing her eyes. She continued to sit still on the swing when she heard a faint buzz near her face. Oh God, that was probably a honeybee! It would surely sting! Slowly, she opened her eyes to avert the bee. It was a hummingbird fluttering its delicate wings that had caused the sustained drone. It now hovered very close to her face, almost making eye contact with her.  It can’tharm me, I’m wearing my specs, so that’ll protect my eyes. Rather, I shouldn’t harm this darling little bird by my hard stare. Let me just pretend that it’s not there, even though it’s hovering near my nose now. Let me not scare it away by my jerky movements. I’ll sit absolutely still and just listen.

Harshi froze like a statue. This dainty little bird with tiny feet, it doesn’t seem to sit anywhere to rest, but just hovers around so joyfully. It’s blowing gusts of happiness on my face with its small wings. It’s telling me something.  

She closed her eyes to absorb the beauty of the moment. It was only in California that she got to see the famed humming birds. It was also interesting to read about them. She recalled a legend that was wrapped around this bird. The lines came across as sheer poetry!  

                                             Humming Birds

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

 Slowly, Harshi opened her eyes. The bird flew away from her, made a large arc to hover over the flowering plants nearby, and then returned to circle around her face. It  moved close to her ears and was saying something with its flapping wings. Harshi nodded.  

 I know, little bird. I know you’re my Amma who has come back from the other world to talk to me for a while,’ whispered Harshi, her eyes going moist. Amma, I know this is you, flapping within the tender little body of this humming bird. Yes, I hear you clearly. You’re my fragile, underweight Amma with innumerable health issues that were unmatched with your immense reserves of strength.

 “A hummingbird being small, it’s logical that its egg is also small, it’s just the size of a pea,” said an article in National Geographic. But Amma, to everybody’s shock, you gave birth to me, an overweight baby, 4 kg. 536 gms (10 lbs.) at birth,  instead of the usual 3 kg. 175 gms (which is 7 lbs.)! The doctors and the family found it miraculous that a thin, emaciated, undernourished, underweight young woman like you, who never kept well for long, would deliver a baby like me. You told me that the newborn baby dresses that were made for me wouldn’t fit, that new dresses were ordered and that there was a permanent mark of black kohl on my left cheek close to my ear that my grandma had applied, to remove kann drishti.

You raised me without a nanny, although I gave you a tough time. I was naughty, adventurous, but you saw me through all that and more, and those were my foraysinto sports and athletics. You never once forgot to alert me that I shouldn’t slacken in my studies. Your frequent spells of illness, your inability to eat, or retain anything you eat, cast a shadow on our lives. You continued to lose weight, yet your unconditional love for me and for your family throbbed on your little feathered bird breast.

 You gave me a baby brother at great cost to your life and health. The doctors were amazed to note your high pain threshold. My grandparents were furious that you should have risked your life with another pregnancy, but you pacified them by saying your husband and in-laws craved for a male child.

 When the doctors diagnosed a serious malfunction in your small intestine, you had to go through a surgery. I was in primary school then. I would rush to the hospital as soon as I returned from school and you sat up on bed to butter those long, crisp golden hued imported biscuits for me to eat. Eyes shining, you would ask me about my day and if I had played games after school. As if on cue, you would apply butter on one more crisp biscuit and put it on my plate…and one more… until I couldn’t eat any more.

Post- surgery, the doctors put you on a liquid diet that was to continue for the next fifteen years! Naturally, you lost more weight and became this frail packet of indefatigable energy, love and selflessness that astonished all of us. Still, there were some cruel people in our extended family who took you for granted. I seethed with anger, one of the many other spells of anger I was to experience as a growing girl child. Later, I had to learn a lot about anger management, as did my friends. Some of my anger was directed against you as well. “You’ve internalised patriarchy and that’s regressive!” I would argue hotly, while you looked bewildered by my feminist pedagogy, a new burden I carry now, along with my peers. We fought over issues, like mothers and daughters do, until I realised that you too were quietly evolving as a clever feminist-in-the-making, unbeknownst to the family.  Wisely, you didn’t squander any feminist vocabulary on the resistant family. Instead, you used strategies to grow your wings independently, right under their nose!  

What blossomed through all these travails was your stunning talent for painting. You were a natural! Noting this, my grandfather enrolled you in a professional course on painting in a Fine Arts College. He ordered for the branded imported paints, Windsor & Newton, specially flown all the way from England. Their superior quality glows till date in the rich tints behind the glass of your framed paintings. While your diet was liquid,  your output was solid. In a prolific abundance, you did landscapes, still-life, thematic triptych and portraits that won accolade from your teachers and art critics for their intuitive depth. The water colours, charcoal sketches and oil on canvas drew the attention of visitors in art galleries. Your high point was portrait. You were counted as one of the best artists for your haunting portraits of well- known personalities  such as Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahans, his consort Sarada Devi and the lovely Shobhana Samarth. As for Mahatma Gandhi, commissions rained on you for painting his portraits. Art critics were quick to observe that you excelled especially in portraits of elderly people, and made the wrinkles on their face speak eloquently of all they had endured in life. Portraits became your unique selling proposition. To everybody’s utter surprise, you chose to paint me. Why me, a mere frisky ten-year old, an odd misfit in this gallery of ‘the famous’? I sat for you, thrilled beyond belief, while you chided me for fidgeting on my chair. When an artist, a scion of the Tagore family visited our home to buy two of your paintings, you sat demurely in a far corner with a shy smile on your face, and let my father completely monopolise the conversation with the distinguished gentleman.  

 Amma, you were here, there, everywhere, flying around, looking after us and the large extended family selflessly. You were like seven women put together. And when you left, all seven of you went out of our lives on a single day. The world around me shrank to a miserable little size. Something vital went out of my life. And now Amma, you’re back in the body of this small hummingbird that just doesn’t let me go out of its orbit. Like this bird with its tiny legs, you with your small fragile frame, were a strong woman. Ephemeral, yet eternal. You float on time, so I will always wait for you. You’ll come when I need you, I know. You’re untrammeled by body mass or messy emotions that weigh us down. You lived life the simple way – with love, joy, service and acceptance.

 The bird hummed on near Harshi’s ears.    

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Glossary                                                                                                    kann dhrishti  An Indian belief that one can remove ‘the malevolent eye’ of people by applying a black spot with kohl on the face of a healthy child.  

kohl: Dark substance that people apply around their eyes to make them look attractive.  

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Lakshmi Kannan, also known by her Tamil pen-name “Kaaveri”, has published twenty-five books till date that include poems, novels, short stories and translations.  Wooden Cow (Translation, 2021) Sipping the Jasmine Moon: Poems (2019) and The Glass Bead Curtain, Novel (2020, c 2016) are her recent publications. For more details, please visit www.lakshmikannan.in  

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