A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Fatima M. Noronha
Bee—the youngest child of my parents—was born after humans walked on the moon, after Woodstock, indeed after Des—the eldest of us four—completed school. My parents had retired early from their European jobs to live a challenging life in our ancestral village in Goa. Within a year came an unforeseen challenge.
“There must be a good reason for my pregnancy, uh?” our middle-aged Ma confronted her doctor.
He chuckled. “The native air!”
During the six-month gap between school and university, Des sang his own brand of lullabies to an appreciative baby sister. His course at the University of Agricultural Sciences at Bangalore would begin in June. Dad who loved to travel realized that if we were ever going to tour together it would have to be in April.
“All through the month of May,” he accurately predicted, “we’ll be entertaining an endless stream of friends and relations.”
“Have a heart! We can’t go touring with a babe-in-arms and piles of diapers!”
Ma was outnumbered by the rest of us who thought it would be fun. Ten-year-old Pitti, the sister between me and Bee, was the most excited of all.
“We must go swimming and mountain climbing. I’ll eat only ice-cream.”
The bus we boarded at Margao in Goa took us smoothly enough through the sun-soaked plains where red soil alternated with deep brown, with here and there a patch of green where a stream or perennial well helped the dogged farmer to grow a summer crop of okra, aubergine and cucumber.
All went well till the foothills of the Western Ghats, the range which, with an arm around her, turns Goa’s attention towards the Arabian Sea and away from the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The latter was our destination. We were to check out the areas around Bangalore and the city itself before Des moved there.
Most of our co-passengers were peasants from the villages along the way. Peasants, as I noticed then and since, do not hold forth on Newtonian laws but usually know exactly which parcel may or may not be placed on the overhead rack of a speeding bus. We sat as best we could with sacks of rice under the seats and large copper water pots pressed against our elbows. Ma wore the expression of Joan of Arc at the stake. Bee slept blissfully as long as the bus was in motion.
As the bus started uphill, a few bags slid back a little along the rails of the luggage rack, met immovable objects and stopped sliding. Dad drew the conductor’s attention to the heavy moulded suitcase poised on the rack two rows in front of us. At that incline, it was not in the least secure.
“That is likely to fall.”
The conductor called out, “Whose maroon suitcase is that?”
The proud owners of the maroon suitcase ignored him. The long-haired man, in bell-bottomed trousers and (despite the heat) yellow polo-neck, whispered something to his partner, which made her giggle. Hers was the get-up of a fairly traditional Hindu newlywed: a red sari, glass bangles, massive gold earrings, vermilion on the forehead.
The farmer in front of me leaned forward, tapped yellow arm, and pointed to the teetering suitcase. The yellow torso contorted towards the rear row.
The farmer said nothing, but in mime his hands explained how a small jerk would knock the suitcase off its perch. The yellow fellow was aggressive.
“What’s your problem?”
Several male voices rose at once.
“It will fall.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t fall.”
“I’ve been travelling on this road since Independence and I can tell you that nothing of that size can stay up when we come to the hairpin bends.”
“You know nothing of modern suitcase designs. The weight goes to the back and—”
“I’m telling you it will fall. Then what will you do?”
“If it actually falls, then you can put in a complaint.”
“Oh yes, the person with the smashed skull will sit and write a complaint. To whom?”
At the first hairpin bend, the maroon suitcase slid to the edge of the rack. Members of both parties raised their hands to protect their own heads or the heads of their children. Then the bus swerved in the opposite direction and the suitcase sat back. The yellow man looked triumphant.
The fear of crashing objects, fatigue and motion sickness were plain on Ma’s green face. I was quite scared myself. Des specialized in looking as if nothing was going on. Pitti, who had the window seat, kept staring out. Dad seemed lost in thought.
At a particularly sharp bend, without the slightest warning, the woman in red stuck her head out of the window and was awfully sick. The yellow man left off acting cocky and became by turns helpless and solicitous. While he was thus preoccupied, Dad strode over the rice sacks, pulled the maroon suitcase off the rack and, with help from passengers in the front rows, stashed it away in the driver’s cabin.
It was just before sunset. The valley below was all green treetops courting a single gorgeous gulmohur. Incredible flame set in green.
With the exception of Dad, who was ever on his feet, none of us did much in Bangalore the next day. We relaxed at the Airlines Hotel, listening to piped music.
“It was there,” Des recently told me, “that I first heard Abbey Road.”
“What I recall most vividly is the pink mosquito curtain suspended from the ceiling and tucked around my bed, like a gauzy tent,” said I.
Dad returned to the hotel that evening looking pleased about the arrangements he had made for the remainder of our trip. We gathered in our parents’ room for a short briefing on the salient features of our itinerary.
“I interviewed several taxi drivers. What a tribe! I’ve fixed up our trip with a nice, friendly chap called Maniappa. He’ll take us to Mysore, Ooty, and the usual places. I was keen to see Halebid, but he said it was much too far west. We should turn south after seeing Shravanabelagola.”
“Whom?” said Ma.
Gleefully Dad repeated, “Shravanabelagola. That where we’ll see the statue of Gomateshwar.”
“They’re not short of syllables around here,” Ma noted.
We all tried our luck with the names.
“Shravanabelagola,” Dad pronounced authoritatively. “It’s a hundred and thirty kilometres from here, so we’ll set out at seven to beat the heat. Be ready before seven, all right?”
Despite her religious observance of such rituals as mashing a banana, squeezing out the juice of a sweet lime and making sure the baby swallowed all of it, Ma managed to get Bee ready by seven. The effort took its toll, though, and she kept grumbling to no one in particular that it was unwise to change an infant’s routine and that it was, of course, a waste of time to travel with so small a child. The infant concerned was all smiles and ready to sit on the lap of any sibling, including Pitti who she seemed to consider a rival for parental affection, the ten-year gap between them notwithstanding.
We (minus Dad) sat in the hotel lobby waiting for Maniappa and inhaling the smell of spicy sambhar from the nearby restaurant where breakfast was in progress. All of us had gulped down our buttered bread at the crack of dawn and now, a whole hour after the appointed time, the marvelous scents of a South Indian breakfast increased our restlessness. It was probably an elaborate meal (a mere snack to Bangaloreans) which was delaying Maniappa. Dad, not known to be patient, fumed as he paced up and down the driveway. And then suddenly Maniappa appeared in his black Fiat. A strapping man somewhere in his thirties, he tossed back his oily black curls and smiled broadly at Ma.
“Sarry, late.” That was it.
He opened the boot and all the doors, we and our bags were quickly in, Maniappa saluted the guard and within a minute we had cleared St Mark’s Road. By then the city had woken up and traffic slowed us down a bit. We were not yet out of Bangalore twenty minutes later. Dad was in the process of brainwashing Maniappa on the subject of punctuality. The head of oily black curls nodded vigorously in agreement.
What happened next is now well-worn family lore.
The car slowed down and stopped. Opening his door, Maniappa turned amiably to my father.
“Fifteen minutes for tiffin.”
Shock is too mild a word for Dad’s reaction. Instead of attempting to make up for lost time, here was this indescribable maniac stopping at his favourite eatery for a leisurely brunch.
“Oh Mr Maniappa!” cried Dad in amazement, sorrow, anger, and despair.
“What happened? What is a tiffin? Where did he go?” Pitti had many more questions.
Des and I shook with laughter. In a moment, Ma joined in. Dad took a while to accept the situation.
The summer sun was directly overhead when we reached Shravanabelagola. Maniappa parked the car at the bottom of the hill. The only way up was on foot, we learnt. Ma sat in the car to nurse the baby while the rest of us trudged up barefoot. Footwear showed disrespect, the officials of the Jain shrine told us. Hot and hungry, we climbed up the rock-hewn steps, which seemed never-ending: 614, we heard later. Not a bush, not a wisp of shade anywhere along that cruel stairway. I felt faint and sat on the ground, but the prospect of a fried behind got me to my feet again.
Only Dad, I think, really thought nothing of the exercise. Places of historic interest supplied all the adrenaline he needed. Up at the top of the hill, he introduced us to the world-famous monolith: the holy being had no worldly attachments whatsoever, hence no clothes, and he had stood there in deep meditation long enough for creepers to entwine themselves around him.
With Maniappa at the wheel, we drove south to the city of Mysore, then to the Krishnarajasagar dam for an evening among the fountains and pools of Brindavan Gardens. I thought the coloured lights were awfully gaudy. We were all tired out by then.
The following day we were off to the hills. The Nilgiris are the pride of South India. We made for Ooty, the highest town there. It must have been close to 40 degrees Celsius in the plains, but as we drove up it became a trifle cooler at every hairpin bend. The hills were very lovely.
Pitti said, “I wish I could run up that way,” pointing to one of the narrow paths which led off the road and disappeared among the cypresses.
When it was time for Bee’s elevenses, we left her and Ma in the car and walked beneath the trees off the road.
At Bangalore we had bought pairs of colourful slippers. Pitti was wearing her orange pair. She forgot she was not in her normal sneakers. Thrilled with the sudden freedom to run uphill, she did not notice those rough rocks bore no resemblance to the beaten paths she was used to back home. When we were called back to the car, each of us turned back from our little explorations.
Pitti was at the top of a short steep slope. She turned and took a quick step downward. The slipper sole had no grip at all. Her foot skidded. The slipper strap broke and Pitti shot forward.
She lay a few metres away from where Des and I stood but neither of us could move our feet. We had never seen death. From much further off, Dad came running, calling out to us the while.
“Lift her up! Hurry, son!”
Dad picked up the limp body. There was blood on her face. He carried her to the car.
Ma screamed at each one in turn for not taking care of Pitti.
The body groaned.
“She’s alive, thank God, she’s alive!”
In a few minutes, she came out of her dead faint.
“Pitti, Pitti, how are you?”
“OK,” she mumbled.
Her face was raw and blood oozed from the corner of her closed eye. Would she be disfigured for life?
Maniappa drove in unaccustomed silence to Ooty. At the first roadside kiosk he asked for directions to the nearest doctor.
The doctor checked her eye.
“Not damaged,” he said.
After examining the rest of her face and asking her to move her various joints, he quickly and most skilfully cleaned and dressed the wounds. Except for a gash that ran dangerously close to the edge of her eye, all her injuries were superficial. Apparently she had fainted from fear, not pain, when she fell down the slope.
We knew Pitti was going to be all right when she broke our nervous silence after lunch. “Is it too cold to eat ice-cream?”
It had rained—as it does almost every day in Ooty—and we all felt a bit chill in our summery cottons. But Dad scoured the damp little colonial town for ice cream. Then we drove back to Bangalore.
In a couple of weeks Pitti’s scars healed completely. She grew up to be the prettiest woman in the family.
This summer, thirty-five years later, I was again in Bangalore. The city has expanded in all directions. Traffic has increased a hundredfold. But St Mark’s Road still smells, not exactly of breakfast but of tiffin.
Fatima M. Noronha is a freelance writer and editor. After gypsying around India for twenty years and raising two daughters, she and her husband have settled in Goa where they delight in growing green things. E-mail: fatimazi[at]sancharnet.in.