Saturday 15 August 2020

Sangeetha Kamath, Short Story 2020 Third Prize



                                 Hiraeth: (n.) a Welsh word

                          for a homesickness for a home

                              you cannot return to, 

               the nostalgia, the grief for the lost places

                                of your past


Most rainy afternoons make me jog down memory lane, to the rhythm of the downpours that cascades down in sheets. And I slacken to the percussion of the raindrops tapping against my window pane.

Flashes of memories of the halcyon days of the mid 1970’s come back to find me, to haunt me like mists hanging heavy and still. My only solace at this juncture, are my vintage albums. The windows to the past and my very own time machine.

Mulling over the pictures, I pen her a tribute:

Once upon a time, there was a time

when photos were Black & White, Monochrome, Sepia

But the trees in your backyard

were a much Idyllic Green--Verdant, Jade, and Lime.

The fire in your hearth, a sunset Orange

--red-hot, Amber and glimmering as you stoked it.

The skies, immensely boundless,

a much Pristine Blue--Cornflower, Sapphire and Azure,

As you pointed out to me the floating frothy clouds,

the eagles gliding with their fanned out wings;

Or the occasional lone airplane soaring dominantly,

a tiny speck high up, chinks of silver light glinting off it

like stars, crystal and diamond.

The twilight sky from our patio

a splendid show of a star-spangled violet dome

with streaks of plum and blueberry rivers

The Ivory sequin of the heavens,

the incandescent Mother-of-Pearl full moon

as big as my palm,

Outstretched to catch a gleam or perhaps to stroke

the fabled grey rabbit who you said had pinched the carrots and the beetroots from our vegetable patch,

In plain view on it--- a bold stowaway!!!

Your lullabies- so euphonious, enchanting.

Your story-telling- so gripping, riveting.

Yes, the photos are Black & White,

dulled over a spell like pale buttermilk, obscured, blurred.

But the memories engraved in them

dazzle a bright Golden, radiating rays of untold hues

Like sparkling gems---iridescent, prized and treasured.




Hisssss! Sizzle!! Those were the pods of crushed garlic and red chillies spluttering in hot coconut oil getting ready to season a pot of Black-Eyed Bean stew. As the seasoning splattered on the bubbling peach-coloured liquid, an appetising aroma wafted through our old-world kitchen into an L-shaped lengthy corridor where I was keeping myself amused with my dolls. These were much-loved to the point of fade, wear and tear. I had an indigenous collection of toys and knick-knacks which I adoringly called as ‘toyyo’ when I had first started speaking and had stuck to this even when I could coherently say the word ‘toy’.

Today, it so happens that Mamama, my maternal grandmother has cooked my favourite dish for lunch which she will feed me shortly with a plateful of steaming rice porridge dotted with homemade ghee. “Ghee makes one big and strong,” she always told me. I was over the moon at lunchtime. I loved the roasted bits of garlic and the soft black-eyed beans which Mamama would further mash between her fingers and blow on them gently to cool them down. 

She would feed me each mouthful of rice lovingly and patiently, all the while narrating interesting folktales. On some days she would read out to me from a Grimms' Fairy Tales book or tell me stories from The Jataka Tales and The Hitopadesha, until my plate was polished clean. It was not yet the era of television and hand-held gadgets, fortunately!



Ancestral mansions have a charm, magic and a snugness of their own. This particular one was substantial and cosmic, with rooms so enormous that it could only belong to a certain era. A heritage of the eighteenth century, of a Portuguese or Spanish origin perhaps, it was high ceiling-ed with rosewood beams and skylights in the tiled roof. For me, with my pattering toddler feet, it was too vast a labyrinthine space, and too quiet during the day with only me and my beloved Mamama. It was only towards evening that I got to see my parents when they returned home.

Throughout the day, I was only too happy to play along the sunny and sizeable L-shaped corridor which had vertical iron grills. It overlooked a sunken garden below, which fringed the outer borders of the high walls and stretched into a vast space behind the house. This corridor was next to the roomy old-fashioned kitchen. It was where Mamama would be most of the time, in her kingdom of reign.

 The kitchen was an absolute retro where there was an antique hearth to cook porridge. Small bundles of hacked coconut tree fronds, empty coconut shells and fallen twigs were used to start a fire early in the morning. I would find Mamama in front of the warm fire, stoking it and blowing at it through a hollow iron rod. Sun rays seeped from the skylights in the roof. Fine particles of dust could be seen dancing and twirling merrily in it. I would spend hours sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor marvelling at this.

A huge door led outside the kitchen into a wide open veranda with pillars. A flight of steps led down it into the backyard. In the middle of a grassy patch, on a raised bed was the jewel of the backyard—the chikoo tree. It seemed to reach out for the sun, majestically tall and lush. The thick boughs spread out high and wide like a green canopy through which only small patches of the sky could be seen. The sunlight dribbled through the gaps, forming dappled puddles on the muddy mounds below.

I could manage to grab hold of the lowest branch of this chikoo tree which was within my reach, and I would swing to and fro from it. On the days I felt bolder, I would hoist myself up on it and lean against the stocky trunk for support to reach out and pluck my favourite fruit. It was my perch- and at that moment I was Tinkerbell.

The cynosure of all eyes at the driveway was a luxuriant mango tree. Every flared-out branch was heavily over-laden during the summer. When the fruit trees were bountiful with a ripe harvest, Mamama would hire an odd-job man. I could only manage to call him by a three-syllable 'Marara'. It was a simplified version of a longer name. He would climb the sky-reaching tree with a harness around him and gather sack loads of fruits. Mamama would selectively slice open the biggest, juiciest Alphonso mango and chikoos. She would then cut them up into bite-sized pieces for me in a heartbeat. It was the sweet fruit of her hard labour of watering the limitless garden, devotedly.




Summer is the queen of all seasons! Every morning, I would eagerly await the moment when Mamama decided it was time to unbolt the door to the garden and I would excitedly bound down the flight of steps into a sun-drenched space. There were shrubs of Evening Rose, Periwinkle, Lady's slipper, Ball lilies and spindly trees bearing Ratnagandhi flowers. Mamama was extremely fond of the towering medley of hibiscus plants with its thick, woody, out-of-reach branches with blooms of various colours, which she had to stand on tiptoe to pluck.

There were also some stunted, miniature trees in the garden which were as tall as Mamama.  These were host to a variety of birds’ nests. mynahs, sparrows, magpies and the tiniest of them, the names of which neither well-read Mamama knew.

At times, I got to see fledglings in them while Mamama carefully drew back the veil of leaves to hide them again. Amid each vibrant leaf and bloom, I got to see myriad fauna. Buzzing honeybees, ladybugs, an assortment of butterflies and sometimes baby squirrels.

Mamama had a story to tell or general knowledge to impart about all of them.

Some patches of the garden were a thick woodland of tangled brush. Wildflowers grew in abundance in them which I liked to pluck. Mamama taught me how to make posies, weave mini garlands and wreaths out of them. I would stick these posies into my short, bobbed hair, place the wreaths around my forehead and pretend I was a 'Fairy Queen' while parading in front of a full-length antique mirror in the corridor.

We would gather all the swelled up blooms and buds into the flower basket, for the daily prayers and for the offerings at the feet of God’s idols. This was the routine every morning.

Everything was like clockwork, never missing a beat, and Mamama never missing a step. She worked tirelessly and enthusiastically all day.


After lunch and half the day’s chores were done and put aside, it was time for my afternoon nap and Mamama’s siesta in the capacious, airy room which held a gigantic bed. Mamama lovingly put me to sleep, patting my back. She sang lullabies in the most melodious voice and lay down to rest for a while beside me.

Forty years back, life was without its cares and worries and less stressful. The only people I got to see regularly apart from the people living in my house were the neighbours who lived quite a distance away. Houses were few and far between in this quaint, rustic hometown. The populace too was very sparse and everyone knew about everyone. Life was simple and predictable and so were the seasons.


1978 June

Every year, the end of May brought down a torrent of monsoons and for the next four months or so, the people of this town had sunless weather. Dark, gloomy, wet and cold! I was a sunshine person who loathed rains and the raincoats that I was made to wear. I had started going to a Nursery school for half a day. I missed being at home terribly, as do all kids in the initial days.

I would be miserable all day and look forward to going home to get bundled up in warm rugs after a hot meal, a cup of Bournvita and to be pampered by Mamama. The afternoons were cloudy and dark, with rain pouring down mercilessly and relentlessly.



All around this ancestral mansion was a serene orchard and a forested area. It was a grove of fruit trees like Mango, Chikoo, Jackfruit, Guava and an abundance of Coconut trees. There was a thicket of shrubbery and these were home to much insect life, most commonly the fireflies. They flitted into the house this time of the year into our bedroom, like little twinkling stars. As they settled down on the canopy of the net covering our bed, I imagined them to be tiny fairies with shimmering wings who watched over me, as I drifted off to sleep.

I greatly missed going down into the garden, which would be a rain-drenched slush this time of the year. It was during these afternoons that Mamama taught me how to make boats out of paper. It was a monumental task for my tiny inexperienced hands, but Mamama very patiently taught me every crease and every fold. I was a fast learner because I had a very good and considerate teacher.

Whenever the torrential rains abated, even briefly during the day, much to my thrill, we would go down into the garden with our paper boats. We looked for clean puddles of water which had flowing trails, leading out of the garden and into the vast yard beyond.  Mamama would very delicately place the paper boats in the rippling trail of water, which was our imaginary flowing river, and both of us would watch them sail away. It was our one and only entertainment during heavy monsoons.


Days passed. A couple of years had passed. And I had started going to a regular, full-time primary school. I had formed a deep bonding and affection towards Mamama, which brought with it a paranoia that someday she would grow very old and die, and that the separation would be permanent and inevitable.

I already knew of death from the storybooks, but that it would one day happen at close quarters to one of my own, brought with it an immense foreboding. On a certain day like this, I could hold it back no longer, and in all innocence, but to the horror of all present, pointedly told my Mamama, “When you die and go to heaven, you must write me a letter!”

I was reprimanded and admonished for the rest of the day, and I knew not why such a big deal was made out of it. I was sternly told that it was blasphemous to talk ill of the oldest living member of the family. But, Mamama was calm and unstirred. She said that she certainly would abide by her devoted granddaughter's wishes. She would definitely reply if I wrote her the messages on a paper boat and set it sail.




"The doe and the fox were like siblings. They had a shared childhood. The doe lived in a grotto surrounded by a beautiful garden, lush grasslands and flourishing fruit trees. The sly fox had begun to fancy the doe's aesthetic grotto with its artistic design and the possessions around it. The exclusive and decorative floor tiles of her grotto which were shipped from far and wide were without exception, irresistible to the fox who admired them a lot.

Besides, he had a whale of a time scampering about in the doe's vibrant and vast garden which was as pretty as a picture. He brought along his brother foxes to play there together in the expansive grounds of the grassland and they and the doe were all like one big happy family.

Many years passed, and the sly fox started breeding ill intentions on the doe's dwelling place. He wanted it all-- for himself!!!

He conspired with his fox brothers to oust the doe out of her house and make it their own. On a day when the doe went out to the market, the sly fox and his vile brothers entered her house and locked her out!

The doe went to the owl, the wise old advisor of the jungle but in vain. She went to the Tiger, the minister of the jungle, but with no success there, she finally went to the lion, the king of the jungle for justice. But the fox and his brothers were too heinous. To cut a long story short, they had proved to all that the house belonged to them and not the doe. She was shattered and miserable... And drained from the hopelessness of it all.

She was conned and betrayed by her own. 


April 1989

Mamama, the naive and gentle doe had lost the whole nine yards. She pined away this treachery to the extremity of severe wither, heartbreak and desperation.

And I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would make a paper boat for her, so soon. I did write my first message on it, didn't I???  Maybe-- I must have.

I wish I knew for sure...

I was jolted senseless and was stumbling to find my way through a fog during this cursed year. And the rest of the years to follow went by in a daze for a long time to come.





Years had passed. A few more. And a couple more...

Time zips by! 

It's three decades and a year now since I am permanently estranged from my Mamama and our home. The ancestral mansion which fell prey to the greedy and fiendish evil-eyes, had in no time been razed to the ground then, while the sunken garden was ruthlessly dug up and levelled...  

In this nostalgic, sacred place, now stands a ballooning, unfeeling, looming edifice which blots out even the moon and its dreamy halo from a particular angle. 

But, the fabled grey rabbit who pinched the carrots, the beetroots and spinach from our vegetable patch and beat a hasty retreat to hide on the moon has nothing to come down to now. She has remained there since as a sole, solemn worshipper looking down forlornly at this once happy, flourishing sanctuary and shedding her tears at the ruination.

Reduced to a shrine of haunting memories- and of the echoes when our souls sang and laughed together.

My Hiraeth!!!



When the rains torrentially fall down these days, I have no sunken gardens with water trails to set sail paper boats on.

All the same, I no longer wait for the Monsoons. Whenever Mamama crosses my mind, I play a Ghazal which I had come across at some point, by a stroke of luck and much to my delight, speaks of the very same emotion which had left a large void:

Woh kaagaz ki kashthi,

woh baarish ka paani…”

-         Jagjit Singh

(Those paper boats, the rainwater…)

As the soulful voice and music reverberates, a warmth as subtle as the glow of a firefly envelops me and I have no doubt, that my paper boat with my messages, albeit telepathically, has reached Mamama. And so has her instant reply arrived…

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