The day Babu died was the hottest day in all the year. The kitsch Krishna calendar on Paatti’s wall had even announced with a fat asterisk that it was the day of the Agni Nattrachatram, the Fire Star.
Sindoori Chitti had warned the children that it was going to be a hot day. The previous fortnight, almost seven hundred people from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh had succumbed to the heat wave. They died of dehydration while working in farmlands and construction sites, or while pulling rickshaws on sticky tar roads. Chief Minister NTR held a press conference to which he arrived dressed in three shades of saffron and gave a speech advising people to stay indoors and drink plenty of water till cooler weather returned.
Dry winds caused by low pressure in the Bay of Bengal had blown down trees and ripped apart power lines in Madras, costing the city corporation close to sixty lakhs in damage. Men complained about the unscheduled power cuts, leaning back in armchairs and fanning themselves with newspapers, while wives came and went carrying steel lottas of cool water, the armpits of their blouses darkened in a sexy spread of perspiration.
But Babu didn’t die of the heat. He drowned in the river.
The previous afternoon, Sindoori Chitti had given them each a large lotta of buttermilk spiced with salt and asafoetida and had advised them to play in the shade. She knew they were going fishing, early in the morning and without any adults, but she didn’t mind, and Paatti and Periyamma didn’t either.
They didn’t mind because the river Puyalaru had shrunk so much in recent years, the water in it wouldn’t drown a tea cup. It looked less a river and more a muddy stream in a vast tract of arid land. For even the December rains had started to fail, and as far as the eyes could see, Mother Nature in her every manifestation was wilting and crumbling like dried up pods of cow dung.
Kavitha didn’t get to go fishing with Babu, because Anand had tricked her into staying behind. Paatti said it was really lucky that she had stayed behind. Being the smaller child and known for her clumsiness, it could have easily been her who had drowned.
And Paatti said it was lucky for Anand as well, that it wasn’t him who came under the eye of Yama riding his buffalo looking for victims to drag into the underworld. She said this three days after the funeral, and Sindoori Chitti told her it was a not a nice thing to say, in light of ‘their suffering’. She was referring to Babu’s family, who were only distant relatives, more neighbours than family. Kavitha didn’t think it was lucky for her to have stayed behind. She thought Babu wouldn’t have died if she had gone too. Wouldn’t have been killed.
They had all slept on the roof terrace the previous night, on account of the weather. Kavitha couldn’t sleep for a long time as she was too excited about going fishing the next day, and had lain listening to the occasional breeze rustling the coconut fronds nearby, sounding just like clods of batter sizzling in a tawa full of hot oil. Everything made her think of hot things. They were stretched out in a row on straw mats and pillows. Anand, Sindoori Chitti, her, Paatti and Mani Maama. Panneer Maama slept inside the house on account of the ghosts. Periyamma was too old for terraces.
She tried not to glance at the trees, for in the darkness, they resembled all manner of strange beasts, and instead concentrated on the stars above that cruised the still sky in undulating patterns. She lay thinking about the adventure that awaited her the next day. She saw a half sketched boy fishing on the milky moon before she drifted off to sleep.
They were going to catch plenty of Viraal, maybe even some Keluthi and Kendai fish, and roast them on a fire. The fire they would make themselves, using sticks scrounged from shrubbery near the river. Babu had showed them the matchbox he had acquired for the very purpose, a big Homelite. He said they would roast the fish and sprinkle some salt and chilli powder on it, and that it would taste like Amritham, the food of the gods. She had always imagined Amritham to be liquid nectar, somewhat like honey, a bit too sweet, but the way Babu said it, Amirtham could now only be pit roasted river fish.
Early morning, just after the crack of dawn, was the best time for fishing, because the fish would be very sleepy at that time, he had said. Anand and Kavitha had asked Paatti to wake them up at the right time without fail. Paatti always rose at dawn to sweep the front yard and draw a kolam and could be trusted upon to remember their request.
But when Kavitha awakened, the sun was half way up in a sky that was drained of all memory of stars and the coconut fronds stood exposed for the bunch of uninteresting leaves they were. She was the only one left on the terrace, cast adrift on a sea of twisty blankets and rippling straw mats. When she ran downstairs and checked the hall clock, it was ten past seven.
Kavitha ran into the kitchen to find Paatti cooking breakfast, and cried, ‘Why didn’t you wake me up?’
‘Anand said you’d changed your mind and didn’t want to go after all,’ said Paatti, leisurely pouring idli batter into the moulds. She was freshly showered, her hair in a tight grey bun.
Kavitha felt like grabbing the bun and pulling it down till Paatti screamed.
‘When did he say that?’ she asked.
‘When I woke him up first.’
‘That liar. You should have woken me up and asked me, not him.’
Paatti wouldn’t let her go to the river on her own, even though she begged and begged. She could always go again, maybe even the very next day, with the two older boys. But not now; not on her own.
Kavitha went to the old bedroom at the very end of the house, right behind the new storeroom across the yard, where she knew no one would be, and stood in a corner below the tiny window that was too high for her. The window looked out into the small yard of the tailor’s house opposite, where there always was a sterile banana tree (standing) and an ancient grandmother (sitting), both forlorn. She stood there and cried for some time, vexed that Anand would play such a mean trick on her, and vexed that Paatti didn’t understand that it wouldn’t be the same thing, going tomorrow or the day after. She pulled up a stool and stood on it, looking out through the slim iron bars, but the view didn’t make her feel any better. It was all spoiled now, and only Anand knew how to spoil things for her so they could never be unspoiled again.