April 6, 2014, Sreepuram
When Shalini arrived in Sreepuram, a quaint little village in the northern coast of Kannur district in Kerala, it was six in the evening. She had fidgeted in her seat and bitten off half her nails during the six-hour bus ride that took her from Thrissur to Sreepuram. Her new job, as a live-in literary assistant to the eminent author Arundhati Mukundan, was the best thing that could have happened to her. Yet, an unknown fear had raised its head and kept her nervous throughout the trip.
A jasmine-scented breeze entered the living room where she sat now and caressed her cheeks. A Gulmohar tree stood in the stretch of the garden visible through the open windows. Shalini felt a kinship with it. Stripped of all colours, it resembled her life.
Gopu, the middle-aged man who had welcomed her into Arundhati’s house, was now pruning the row of decorative bushes near the tree with a pair of garden shears. A child’s wail from somewhere inside the house shattered the silence and Gopu’s shears paused mid-air. He seemed to be pondering whether to go inside when the crying ceased. He resumed his job. Was the child his?
While she sipped the coffee, Shalini wondered if Arundhati would like her. She didn’t have any previous work experience in the publishing world.
“You will love Arundhati. Don’t worry that you don’t know her personally. She is almost like me in her likes and dislikes. We are, in a way, soul sisters,” her grandma had assured her.
Shalini’s grandma, Parvathi, had been Arundhati’s best friend in school. They had lost contact with each other after getting married early on in life. Ten years ago, Arundhati had debuted with a poetry collection that went on to win many awards including the state award for literature. She had followed it up with novels that were hugely popular. The two had met again at a book launch in Kochi three years ago. Calls and handwritten letters had rekindled their friendship. Now they were close like before.
The beaded door curtains tinkled. Arundhati Mukundan, draped in a simple, spotless white cotton saree, entered the room. Her silver hair was gathered neatly in a bun. She smiled at Shalini.
“Did I keep you waiting, child?”
“No, ma’am.” Shalini’s voice trembled slightly as she rose to greet the person whose writing had touched her heart.
“Sit, sit. Don’t be so formal with me. After all, you are Parvathi’s grandchild. That makes you my grandchild. Call me auntie or Ammamma. No ma’am business from now on.” Arundhati settled in the chair opposite Shalini.
“Yes, ma’am,” Shalini said. “I mean, auntie,” she corrected herself.
“That is better. I hope you had a pleasant journey. How did you come?”
Arundhati scrutinized the frail, dusky girl with doe-like eyes as she talked. Draped in a simple green chiffon saree, she resembled the Radha in the mural painting hanging in the study. Thick black hair cascaded gracefully down her back. The sadness that pooled in Radha’s eyes was reflected in Shalini’s beautiful eyes as well.
A few months ago, Parvathi had beseeched her for help. From what her friend told her, the girl had undergone quite a lot in the past two years. She needed a change. Arundhati required someone to help her with the manuscript she was working on. As Shalini was a post-graduate in English literature, the decision to appoint the girl as her literary assistant was easy.
As an introduction, she briefed Shalini about her work.
“Your primary duty will be to transcribe while I dictate. I prefer my good old pen and paper to create my stories. But age has slowed me down. The computer is an enigma to me. I get lost in the task of hunting for the letters to form words. You understand my situation, don’t you?” asked Arundhati.
“I completely understand. I am looking forward to beginning my work. It is a privilege to be able to read your unpublished work,” said Shalini.
“Hmmm… let’s see whether you will feel the same a month from now.”
Shalini smiled, sensing a new beginning, a new hope.
Arundhati led her to an upstairs bedroom. The light of the setting sun had tinted the room a pale orange. A few beautiful paintings and sketches decorated the walls. The bed was adjacent to a three-panelled window. A door opened onto a tiny balcony. A writing table and chair stood opposite the bed. The wardrobe was empty and lined with newspaper sheets to store Shalini’s things. The adjoining bathroom was spacious and clean. Adjacent to the room was a small library.
“Hope you find the room comfortable. This used to be my granddaughter Ananya’s room. Now that she is married and settled in Dubai, nobody uses it. Those are her paintings. She is quite a talented artist, isn’t she?” asked Arundhati with grandmotherly pride.
“She was a brat, a hurricane during the school vacations along with my other grandchildren.” Arundhati’s eyes sparkled with love.
Arundhati gave her a tour of the house; a double storied, tiled-roof building with four wings and a small open courtyard in the centre. Arundhati’s bedroom was on the ground floor in the East wing. Gopu, the gardener cum housekeeper lived in the South wing with his wife Devi, who was the household help, and their two-year-old daughter Chaitra. The kitchen was in the North wing.
It was in the study that Shalini saw the photograph on the wall. Her heart skipped a few beats and involuntarily she ran her fingers on the framed photo. Five children—one girl and four boys—stood posing with bright smiles on their faces. A perfect shot of childhood innocence. The tallest boy among them and the other one who had his arms around the smiling little girl were the brightest memories from her own childhood. Memories tugged at her heartstrings.
“Ah, the notorious five! Those are my grandchildren. It was taken almost two decades ago, but it remains my favourite photo of them. Kishore, the tallest one was in high school then. The two others on either side of him are Naveen and Navneeth, sons of my eldest daughter. That is Ananya, daughter of my youngest daughter. That is Vishal who is hugging her. She was his pet and still is. Kishore and Vishal are my second daughter’s children,” Arundhati explained.
“I know Kishore and Vishal. We were neighbours while we lived in Puvattur,” Shalini exclaimed. This was such a pleasant surprise. Her heart was racing. Puvattur, a sleepy little village lying at the northern tip of Kerala, was still close to her heart. Her fondest childhood memories belonged there.
“Ah, the world is such a small place. It is wonderful how these unseen chains connect us. So, you must be the Shalu they talked about incessantly,” said Arundhati.
“Yes. We were very close. Vishal was my best friend. Kishore was a prankster,” said Shalini.
“Kishore and Ananya are now civil engineers. They are both married and live in Dubai with their respective families. Naveen and Navneeth are software engineers and Vishal is a paediatrician. Naveen and Navneeth keep changing their jobs. Vishal is doing his fellowship in London. It is time for the boys to settle down. But they are not interested. They love the freedom they have now,” said Arundhati, narrowing her eyes. She clearly didn’t agree with that sentiment.
That night, while the moonlight bathed her room in pale blue light, Shalini’s thoughts wandered into the realms of the past. Especially to Kishore and Vishal. They had been her neighbours for six long years. Kishore had been the teasing tormentor and Vishal her protector. From the age of six to twelve, happiness had inundated her days and spirited away shadows of sadness because of their presence.
She had loathed summer vacations as Kishore and Vishal spent the summer holidays at their granny’s place in Sreepuram. In a bizarre turn of fate, she was now in the same house that she once hated. For her, this house had been the reason why she had spent many miserable vacations alone.
An owl hooted somewhere nearby and her thoughts began to cloud. As was her nightly routine, Shalini sat on her bed and prayed. For strength. For peace. For a new beginning.