In all, there were two tangerine trees for the house–one planted in the front and the other in the back. Perhaps one was for embellishing the house, through the little gateway that seemed to tower over the girl when she was younger. The other, speculatively, could have been for relishing– a private entity, squirrelled away at the back. It held a certain charm in its secrecy. It was as if to gaze at it was to look upon something unknown to the passersby on the gali, quietly stowed away for a chosen audience. There was a certain inexplicable delight in this furtiveness that she basked in.
Of course, that would be the singular reason why the two trees were positioned in such a manner– it was the only obvious explanation she could conjure when she was younger. And it was precisely things like these that would occupy her mind as she sat on the wooden armchair, laced with red and gold antimacassar, sipping her shikanji and digging her little fingers between the red crochet and the gilded threads. These ideas were concrete in her mind, cemented over hours of personal pondering, as the heat of summer was worn down by the attrition of the oscillating Usha pedestal fan. The little periodic puffs of wind on her face cooled her perspiration and she unwittingly leant her head a little closer every 30 seconds, which her body had registered was three-quarters of the time period of such a fan. Her mind would catch up to this primitive notion in the 6th standard , when she would agonise over pendulums and their maximum velocity. Perhaps if she had spent her summer afternoons occupied with musings of a more scientific nature, instead of wondering about people and their need to plant the twain of tangerine trees, perhaps then such pendulums would be more appealing.
This was Badi Nani’s house, the mother of her maternal grandmother, and her great-grandmother. Of course, such things could not be fathomed at that age. Afterall, her grandparents were truly the oldest and wisest and most respectable people she knew. How could it be that they too answered to someone? In her mind, it was an utterly strange notion and so in a way, all the older people had been levelled out on one plane, and that in the hierarchy of things Nani and Badi Nani seemed to sit side-by-side in the simultaneous occupancy of a role that had now been bifurcated. At other times, it was merely a matter of perspective, a detachment of sorts– to think of the two of them in isolation. As if they in fact did not belong to one another, and were two separate older , wiser and respectable people. None of this was a conscious mechanism. It was the subtle way, her mind flickered between the two ideas, because after all
one had to be able to hold things in the palm of one’s hand, to understand them. Any other predicament of the mind was onerous to sort out.
Summer had a slow, languorous feel to it in these parts of town. The mood was tepid intermixed with sounds of the whirring fan and the aroma of Narangis in the backdrop. The scent lingered a little longer in the air than was necessary. It was a lukewarm, fuzzy feeling intertwined with droplets of perspiration and the mechanical sound of the mixie grinding in the background. It was the shuffling of feet, as people slowly relinquished their slippers and relaxed into the sofas and the armchairs. It was in a half-awake sluggish state of consciousness that newspapers were read nonchalantly in the safe haven from the beating, afternoon sun. But, it was also a terrible agitation of long, hollow hours of the ticking of the clock. Of empty, unfilled spaces of near nothingness, the external heat only trumped by the steaming curries being prepared. A stillness that produced sudden itches against the unbearable, dangling heat and the buzzing of flies around plastic meshes that covered sickly, sweet papayas.
Embedded in that house was a piece of history that in this present day fascinated her. It took on a particularly vintage form, an old, yellow tinge as she thought of her mother as a child spending summers in her grandmother’s home. This was a lens she seldom viewed her mother through, and it was hardly revealed in the maturity of the woman either. There were moments of deep resonance with her mother, as her eyes grew somewhat keen, “I was around six or seven and I remember being very bored in summer . In a way, my only companion was the mehari who came to wash the vessels and I remember looking forward to her coming. She came twice a day, you know. And she was so lovely, I still remember her perfect white teeth that shone so brightly against the sun- burnt darkness of her skin. We would sit down, me on an upturned bucket and she on a wooden stool in that hooded verandah where vessels were washed. She had such sturdy arms I remember! I would watch as she scrubbed the tavas with a brick and the kadhais with the sponge. There was such power in her arms. Then the story telling sessions would begin, that was how she entertained me you know. She would tell such strange stories, I remember cracking up on those. They were so uncommon and funny, I used to wonder how she came up with those. Sometimes I would add some details and she would gladly incorporate them into that web of stories.” She asked her mother, “Can you tell me one or two of those? How come you never tell me any?” Then the adult veil of maturity that had flickered just a bit descended again, “Oh, I don’t remember anything. It was so long ago.”
There was such an endearing egalitarianism to such childhood accounts of her mother, as though the water that scrubbed the vessels clean, washed away whatever boundaries separated the mehari and her from one another. And just for that half an hour each morning and each evening, there was a beautiful communion of two entities, laughing with white teeth against the sun-burnt darkness of their skins.
The girl had gone to the house a total of as many times as she could count on the fingers of one hand. Her mother had told her that Badi Nani had been very fond of her–a little porcelain child with a talkative nature. Was it strange that despite it all, she could not conjure her face? Was it strange that she would travel all the way to Ghaziabad only to sit before the cathode ray tube television and watch Nemo, while all the adults fondled and loved her although they too had met her recently? Was it strange that she remembered the way the SONY T.V. had sent minute electrostatic shocks through her when she fiddled with the singular button to turn it on and off again, but did not remember anything that had ever been said to her in that home? Was it strange the way she so richly loved the place she had so seldom been to, and now no longer stood, as though it had burrowed itself deep into the very fibre of her being? It was one of the first memories she ever had of any place. The architecture of that home and its people cropped up in every vision of every book she read that referenced a house. It was a template of a home that she had carried within herself since she was five- memorising every brick on the wall, and every calendar with Gods painted on it. It still thrived in her being as a living, breathing house with living, breathing persons and the scent of Narangi Achar . It still existed most concretely in the taste of wheat ladoos sealed in stainless steel jars, with scrawny Hindi engravings of whose wedding they had been gifted in.
The house had grown dilapidated as its owners waned. It was not a sudden desolation that lingered for a time after. There were no vestiges except one that remained. It was a slow fading,the kind that allows one to recover and yet is deceptive when it finally leaves without a trace. Brick by brick, the wonder of that home was deconstructed. Piece by piece the people who were so dearly loved disintegrated. What does it mean then, that all that remains of that home now is that singular tangerine tree rooted firm in the front yard, bereft of its arcane shadow in the back ?