Summer settled on the country town like a curse. The cleft earth curled against its will towards the sun. Bull ants emerged from everywhere, darkening every crevice. The bush sang with insects. As the days went on, the heat permeated old eucalypts in front of our house and their stinging, astringent scent lingered in the air.
Sometimes we escaped the summer with a trip to India. One year, left with my care and without a shared language, my grandmother decided to take me on a long trip to our ancestral village. We travelled in a ramshackle vehicle with three tyres differently sized, so slow that we were overtaken by groups of skipping children. The land so dry that any motion on it created dust plumes that mingled with the settling fog.
At the entrance of the village, planted in a line like machinists on a shop floor, a row of ghost gums swayed in the dusty air, their silvery leaves catching the light. I stepped off the three-wheeler and scratched one of them with a tiny nail. The flesh young and green beneath the white. The smothering smell. Safede, my grandmother said, her hand resting familiar on the trunk. Whites. Named after their ghoulish outer sheath. Imports to replace cash crops that had decimated the land, reduced its people to exiles, flung like seeds to the corners of the earth.
Children swarmed and the commotion drew people from their homes. My grandmother was ten steps ahead, her heavy shawl undulating behind her. We were met with the gleeful faces of women, their sparse bangles chiming as they threw shawls over shoulders, clasped their hands in greeting, embraced my grandmother richly, their voices mingling in greeting as if in song. A hundred hands on my head and through my hair, muttering prayers, dispelling curses, expressing relief that I had come, my mother’s daughter, at last, to see the land.
My grandmother was taken with her duties and I was left to circulate, a small curio, from house to house. Each one the same – small dwellings hand forged from the earth, with the smell of moisture and mud and oil, thatched and low-roofed. In each home I was offered tea and twice my hair was untangled and plaited with ribbon. And in each home I was taken, in the end, to a hand-made shrine. Each time I clasped my hands and I was directed, next to god, to photos of men, often two or three, garlanded and smudged with ash. Photographs from different epochs but in the same jaunty military style. Some front on, some to the side, giving them a plaintive air. Some youthful and new. Sometimes epaulettes or medals pinned to the wall, evoking the missing body.
At the third home, stepping into the final room, I began involuntarily to cry. Quickly the women huddled around me, first two, then three, then five. So many and so close I no longer had to support my own weight. Swaying and cooing to each other as much as to me. Bass, putt was all I could understand. Stop, child.
In the summers we remained, our father imposed a boycott on Christmas. It was not our celebration, he reasoned, so why should we observe it. Instead the days was marked solemnly in the dead heat, the windows of the house flung open, with blaring commentary from the cricket and occasional unnerving cheer. Around midday he would doze and our mother would pile us into the car.
She drove erratically as if prosecuting an argument. To the supermarket often, so there was an excuse for the venture. When she was far enough from the house, she would shove a cassette into the player and a song would start mid-lyric. Sometimes she would sing, her stern voice straining in Lata Mangeshkar’s register. Aap ki nazaron ne samjha pyar ke kabil mujhe, dil ki e dhadkan taherja mil gayi manzil mujhe…
One year, perturbed by the heat in the supermarket, my little sister would not settle. She writhed in the trolley, threatening to upend it. Briskly and without thinking my mother took a pack of almond biscuits and handed one to the baby, placating her, then dumped the opened packet in the trolley.
‘Rita!’ a voice came from overhead. A lissom figure, ruddy with a stretching smile and linen shirt cuffed to the elbow, clutching two bottles of wine. My mother wilted under his gaze sending me a bolt of sudden shame. ‘What are you up to?’ he said addressing her but regarding my sister, grabbing her face like a peach, releasing as if it were unripe. They exchanged reserved words about work. ‘Well,’ he said parting, ‘Merry Christmas.’ And with an eye on my sister and her macerated biscuit added ‘The Lucky Country!’
We waited until he was out of sight. There was only a bottle of milk and the opened biscuits in the trolley. My mother explained her way through the check out and we drove home in silence. The baby slept, sated. Once home, I carried her to bed and my mother retreated silently to the kitchen. My father dozed in the midday sun. Both arms and legs crossed, head quizzically to the side, his white kurta catching flecks of illuminated dust. Implacable silence.
In the kitchen, my mother retrieved an aluminium pot to make tea. Dented and left with a claw instead of a handle; a victim of furies intended for others. She prepared tea and decanted it into a small bone china cup. She recovered one of the biscuits – a taste my father acquired from a relative in England – and placed one in the saucer. ‘Take it to him’ she said, pushing the cup towards me. Then she turned away and, pouring the dregs into a mug for herself, discarded the remaining biscuits.
This No Compass edition is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria, as a part of the 2022 Ahead of the Curve Commissions.