The Old Man And The Little Leaf — A Fantasy/Magical Realism book — Chapter 1
THE OLD MAN & THE LITTLE LEAF
Copyright © 2019 Tara Smith All rights reserved.
The sturdy, simple yet stylish house on 7 Oak Lane stood stoically upright and calm, as unsettling events stunned the occupants inside.
Several generations of T’s family were now gathered inside — not in celebration, although this handsome house had seen its share of those.
This time it was a sad affair.
The clang of cymbals and the soft, rolling tinkle of prayer bells seeped into the street, as if to find some release from the thick air of grief inside the house. Kling, ting, tring, tinkle — rang the bells, interrupted at frequent intervals by the soft crash of the cymbals. A steady drone of chanting floated lightly atop the tink-tink of the bells.
T’s wife was cremated yesterday as per the Hindu norms, amidst a great deal of crying and wailing among the coterie of relatives who had gathered here at T’s house on hearing about her death.
T was still numbed from the event. Yesterday, he and his wife were living their quiet lives as usual. And today, she is no more.
Lalluji had been summoned. He was a young Brahmin pundit who had learned the ropes of the business from his father, who had now retired and was spending his time reading the ancient Sanskrit scriptures.
Lalluji was a millennial and had no patience for reading old tomes; after all, his clients did not understand a word of what he said anyway.
All that the clients needed from Lalluji was the assurance that the higher forces had been appealed to and appeased.
His confident and bright smile assured them that that was undoubtedly the case. That was enough for his clients to shower him with gifts of money, rice, sugar; a nice sari for his wife, and sweets for his kids.
And so after Lalluji was settled comfortably on a little carpet, he blessed the body of Mrs T by placing garlands of golden marigolds and other fresh flowers on the white sheet covering her earthly shell.
He rapidly fired off Sanskrit shlokas that were specific to such an occasion, as the gathered family sat behind him with folded hands, and dressed in all-white. He sprinkled holy water around the lifeless body, and the room.
Now the stage was set for the men to head towards the cremation facility. They departed with the pundit to confer the last rites on Mrs T, as she was carefully placed in the waiting van with its seats folded away so as to accommodate the casket.
At the cremation ceremony, T had clutched onto one of his late wife’s saris, as if to hold on to her as long as he could, while he obeyed Lalluji’s instructions as they attended to Asha’s last rites.
T’s older brother Jiva and his wife Sushma were of great help here; they were highly experienced in these matters. Mina, T’s older sister, was also here during this difficult time in her brother’s life; how much of a help she was was hard to tell.
Sushma was a gem, as she took charge of the household as well, for the living who had descended on this house had to be fed and kept in good humor.
An Indian cook Kaku had been commissioned to cook for the huge gathering of about 50 people. Enormous quantities of produce and groceries were ordered in — pounds and pounds of potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, spinach, rice, wheat, sugar, coconut, lentils, milk, and tea.
And of course the ubiquitous spices that breathed life into everyday Indian cooking — turmeric, cayenne pepper, hing or asafoetida, cumin, mustard seeds, curry leaves.
Kaku and his assistant had started early on the day of the funeral — washing, chopping, prepping, and turning the material into delicious meals for the family.
The women had stayed behind, screaming at and cajoling their respective kids to brush their teeth and shower before the other kids made a dash for the three bathrooms in the house.
Between chasing down their errant kids, who were more interested in racing madly around the house, they exchanged soulful looks with the other women they passed in the house, quickly narrating their own sweet memories of Mrs T.
Kaku’s efforts in the kitchen were showing visible results as the spicy aroma of sambhar and idli filled the house. This breakfast was then briskly served in large, disposable bowls and handed over to the women, who in turn took them out to the dining table to the old and the infirm who had managed to come this far for the occasion.
The rambunctious children were served next. They had been harassed enough now by their mothers, so that they were all finally seated on a long carpet on the floor.
The steaming bowls were placed before these waiting mouths. The kids chattered noisily as they slurped and gobbled the food.
The mothers looked on fondly at their own precious offspring, while the old women at the table ate quietly, occasionally looking up to take in the scene around them.
It was now the turn of the younger women to eat, and they did so standing in a circle, exchanging information about where their lives were now, the challenges of raising kids in America, an important one being that the kids barely knew their Indian languages and soon outgrew the traditional meals that the mothers were trying so hard to feed them.
“My son wants to eat pizza all the time,” lamented Veena. “ It’s either that or chicken. We cannot have chicken in the house, so I have to give in to his demands for pizza. What to do!”
The other American moms tut-tutted sympathetically. They all felt the pressures of raising kids in America, but none of them would trade their way of life. They were very comfortable here, away from the often crushing social norms and expectations of their native India.
A number of T’s relatives had flown down from India. As they listened to the woes of these American-Indian mothers, they felt a wave of momentary relief that they did not have to face silly problems like their kids refusing to eat roti-sabji. Oh these American brats, was their unanimous, silent thinking.
There was more than a twinge of envy too among the visitors from India. Both groups of women, the American-Indian and the 100% Indian, eyed each other with a certain degree of incomprehension and derision. Of course, on the surface, it was all exceedingly polite and family-like.
Soon the men were back. They shuffled in, and settled down on the couches. The women rushed towards them to ask how things went.
T looked haggard and weary, as someone offered him a glass of cool water. Lalluji settled himself on the sofa next to T.
Lalluji too was offered water, in keeping with the deference that was due to a pundit. He was now comfortably perched on the sofa, his legs folded up next to his groin, and his long orange silk scarf embracing his neck and then falling majestically down his chest. He was a good-looking man, our Lalluji.
His wife often teased him to become a model or a film star. His chest puffed with a narcissist’s delight; after all, he had often looked at himself in the mirror and had noticed his exceptionally handsome face and physique.
But nah, his current profession was very lucrative. He made very good money with the endless rounds of births, deaths and wedding ceremonies he was sought for.
In addition to the cash (not taxed, of course), he was generously loaded with silk clothes and foods for him and his family. The icing on the cake was the deep reverence with which his clients treated him. After all, in their eyes, he was the agent of God.
The men were now recounting for the women everything that happened at the cremation. It was all quick and smooth, they noted. Very satisfactory.
By now, cups of tea were being brought in for the men. The sweet hot tea revived their spirits as they sipped each sip with a satisfied smacking of the lips.
T too sipped his tea. Quietly at first.
And then suddenly, he burst into tears. Heaving, gasping sobs that shook his body violently.
Everyone was taken aback for a bit. But it was to be expected. The tea, it seemed, had hit home with his loss.
Since he had retired a few years ago from his job as an accountant in a NYC firm, he had had morning and afternoon tea every day with his wife. Unfailingly. Except for those very rare days when he was out meeting with a school friend or an old colleague from work.
The men and women rushed to T, the men reluctantly putting away their piping hot tea for the purpose. They patted his back and shoulders in support.
His brother Jiva squeezed himself between T and Lalluji , and held his bereaved brother’s shuddering body close to his chest.
T’s two sons Abhi and Ashish too swooped in to offer their support. His daughter Ari was not far behind, but she wasn’t much help with her loud sobs.
Ari was not very good on such occasions. She cried easily and readily. Some women now converged to offer support to the grieving Ari.
After an hour, things had settled down. T and Ari were both quiet now.
Ari sat close to her dad, holding tight onto his arm. Her two children, a boy and a girl, 8 and 6, huddled next to their mother. They had been alarmed enough by her piercing wails, so that they had abandoned their wildly excited cousins to be with their mother.
With the situation now under control, Lalluji felt it his duty to impart some words of wisdom to this grieving family.
And so, in a loud clear voice, he expounded stories from the Bhagvada Gita wherein Lord Krishna teaches the grieving Arjuna the futility of anguish, and the nature of life.
There is no death, He informs Arjuna, only a passing from one state to another. A happier, more peaceful state.
Lalluji continued, displaying and relaying wisdom far beyond his years. “All of us here on this earth are part of the same One. We seem varied and diverse but each one of us is simply playing our roles here in this brief time on earth, roles that are neither punishment nor banishment for bad deeds done in the past.”
“Rather these roles are based on what each individual soul needs for its further growth, its own good.”
“When the soul’s purpose for coming to this life here on earth is complete, the impermanent garment that is our physical bodies is shed, not unlike shedding a coat; we then move into a better, permanent world.“
“Then why should we grieve for the departed? Thank them for all the joy they brought into your life, and focus on celebrating all life, here and now.”
There was silence in the room. All the adults contemplated what Lalluji had just said.
In their hearts, they each felt a stirring, a resonance. And though they could not fully understand what Lalluji had so eloquently pronounced, they all felt a little more at peace.
Finally Ari spoke up, amidst staccato, gasping moans, “But why did my mother leave me now? What will I do without her?”
Lalluji mulled for an appropriate response to give. Finally he said,“Because she knows that you are in a good place to take care of yourself. And you know that too.”
“We humans have learned to feel helpless, whipped by circumstances around us. It is due to the veil of Maya, the great delusion.”
“By engaging so fully and completely in this physical existence, we have forgotten our real Self. The real Self that is indestructible, immortal, all-powerful - because it is a part of the One, the Creator — that is who you REALLY are. So why are you so utterly focused on the little, destructible, and very temporary YOU?”
“Look at your world through the eyes of the REAL YOU, the BIG YOU, the FOREVER YOU — then there is no sorrow, no enmity, no fear or anger.”
Ari heard him with eyes gaping wide.Then she buried her head in her father’s shoulder.
None of this made sense to her. Her raucous wails rent the air again, joined soon by the shrill cries of her children, and then by those of the fearful other children.
The elders, still sitting at the dining table, closed their eyes and meditated with rosary beads gliding between their thumbs and forefingers.
Mercifully, Kaku walked into the room with folded hands — a sign of humility, but also of respect for this grim time in this family’s life.
He informed Sushma that lunch was ready to be served, if they were.
Sushma nodded in relief. Nothing like warm, freshly-made food to soothe and console the aching hearts that were gathered here.
The dining table was quickly cleared of the dregs of breakfast, more chairs were commissioned around the six-chair polished wood table so that more of the family could be served at the same time.
Steaming pots and bowls of food were paraded in, and gently placed on the white, embroidered tablecloth that draped the brown body of the table. This was Mrs T’s favorite tablecloth; it really was pretty with huge bright red poppies scattered throughout amidst a bed of lush greens.
As T was ushered in to take his place at the dining table, his eyes misted at the sight of the tablecloth. He and his wife had had many a good times around this tablecloth.
The women served the seated elders and the men their first full meal of the day. The yellow dal was poured into individual bowls for each diner, and their plates were speckled with the cauliflower-potato sabji infused with fresh ginger, boondi raita, hot and sweet pickles , roasted papads. Hot rotis then flowed in from Kaku’s kitchen .
The fresh yogurt of the raita breathed a pleasing coolness into the eaters, for it was a very hot day here in late June.
The room was filled with the heavenly aromas of the meal.
Everyone ate in silence — they needed this respite, this aloneness from the intense emotions of the others. Just each one with his food — nourishing, calming, sustaining food.
The wailing women and children had been moved into the upstairs bedroom to sleep off their anguish. Oh, the wonders that good food and good sleep can inject into the human body and spirit!
For the bellowing children who had been having so much fun with their cousins and the other kids, this trying time was anything but; they too were now seated cross-legged on runner carpets laid on the floor in a room off the kitchen. Here they dug into the food, filling up their stores for more hours of crazed racing around, screaming and screeching, tormenting and teasing.
They continued to chatter, taking just a few moments to shovel more food into their ever-open mouths.
Little Pinky screamed for her mommy as her plump cousin Vinny, who was sitting next to her, plucked a papad off her plate.
The women came in now and again to keep up a steady supply of food on the kids’ plates. Well-fed kids are crucial to everybody’s well-being, every mother knows that.
Then the chatter among the kids died and a hushed silence descended on the group.
They listened with rapt attention to Deep’s findings of the day. Deep’s face glowed with pride as he noted how they were all hanging onto his every word.
Deep, who was T’s grandson and Abhi’s only child, was a strapping 14-year old. He had taken after his dad, in his strong physique as well as his smooth, glowing brown skin. T was very proud of Deep, and the two shared a great bond.
“You won’t believe this,” Deep was now regaling his obliging audience. “There is this parrot next door, hanging in a cage on the porch. When I was peeking into the neighbors garden today, he screeched a hello to me.”
“Go away,” his cousins said, in disbelief.
Unfazed, Deep continued, “And then the parrot asked me ‘What’s your name, little boy?’”
“My name is Deep. And I am not little”
“Hello Dip Dip, little boy, how do you do? How was your day? It is going to rain today, mark my words,” Deep did his best to mimic the bird.
Deep continued telling his story.
“I was astounded to hear this talking parrot.”
“What is your name, little bird?” Deep explained that he wanted to return the favor of the bird calling him a little boy when he was anything but.
The kids tittered.
“I ain’t no little bird, you stupid boy. I am a beautiful parrot, you dumb-head.”
“And then the parrot cackled at his own joke,” Deep recounted, the hurt at being called a dumb-head still pricking his heart.
The children exploded into gleeful laughter. Imagine Deep being called a dumb-head!
“Wait, there’s more. The parrot never told me his name, but continued to taunt me with stupid names. Dip-Dip, Fatty Dip, No-good Dip, Useless Dip.”
Then Deep lowered his voice so as not to be heard by his mom and other women hovering nearby. “He hurled terrible words at me too, hateful words.”
Deep’s voice cracked a little from the memory.
“So guys, stay away from that home and that stupid parrot. He is one big bully, I tell you.”
All the kids were shaken. They ate silently till the end of their meal.They would certainly not venture anywhere near this nasty bird.
The above is an excerpt from Tara Smith’s new book “The Old Man And The Little Leaf”. You can buy the ebook at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07X98Q1YD
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