By Abha Iyengar
Marushi, the bird, with his blue beak, yellow head and bright orange plumage, his red breast adorned with black dots that shone like live coals when the sun fell on them, watched the young fifteen year old girl, Ramlu, as she danced on the hot, deserted road.
Ramlu was slim, brown and smooth skinned. She wore red and green bangles on her arm, her bodice was short, and her long skirt had once been a deep emerald velvet. Now patched and muddy, its beauty was still visible. Just like Ramlu’s angular features and soft eyes shining through the dirt on her face. She had no instrument in her hand, but her fingers strummed the air. Her dance was slow as she was lost in her world. She sang the song her mother, Sura, would often sing:
O bird who sits on the tree
Come close to me
Marushi, the bird, spread his wings out and flew down onto her shoulder.
“Here I am,” he said, matter of factly.
Ramlu was startled. “Who are you?”
“You called me with your song,” he said. “You called for the bird on the tree. Here I am.”
“Go away,” she said. “I will not sing the song again.”
“Take me home,” Marushi whispered in her ear.
“I can’t look after you. Mother will scold me.”
Ramlu’s little sister, Kuchina, came scampering out from the trees that lined the road. In the distance, there was a thick forest.
“Ramlu,” she said, “see what I found.”
She held a sparking grey stone to the sun. It was smooth. “Should I eat it, I am hungry.”
“Wash it then and suck on it, Kuchina,” said Ramlu. She tried to shrug Marushi off from her shoulder, but he held on tight.
Kuchina spotted him,“Oooh,” said Kuchina, forgetting her hunger,“who is this? So beautiful. So beautiful.” She began to jump up, wanting to touch Marushi.
Marushi watched as Kuchina ran circles around them. She smiled at him.
“O bird who sits on the tree…what is the song, Ramlu?” This is my bird now, Ramlu. I am taking him with me.” Marushi knew there would be no refusal and that he would go with them. He sat quietly on Ramlu’s shoulder.
“We have nothing to feed him,” Ramlu hissed.
“I will give him my stone,” said Kuchina. Her eyes big in her face, she passed the stone to Marushi.
He opened his beak and swallowed it up.
They looked at him, surprised. They had not seen any bird eat a stone.
“He will eat whatever we have,” cried Ramlu.
“I want to take him with me,” said Kuchina. “Let’s just take him.”
They had walked quite a distance now and had almost reached home, which was an uncovered place under the shade of a tree on the roadside. Only a charpoy, some cooking utensils and a brick fire indicated their settlement. The brick fire had been prepared, but not lit. Sur, their mother, was sitting under the tree on her haunches, smoking a bidi, and their father, Salura, was not around.
Kuchina ran up to her mother and snatched the bidi from her fingers. She put it in her own mouth. She stood there, hand on hip, and drew its smoke in deep, her eyes now hungering over. Ramlu tried to push the bird away, sick of it sitting on her shoulder, and not wanting her mother to comment on it. Marushi hopped away, lighting on the charpoy that was in one corner, a mobile bed which Salura carried on his back when they moved ‘house’.
It had rickety wooden legs, with splits down the middle of three of the legs. It was a wonder it held, but was their pride of possession. The ropes had hung, forming a kind of shallow pool in the centre.
Marushi sat on a tree branch and watched the scene. He watched Kuchina jump into the charpoy and then yell to be pulled out. “I am stuck, help me!” Ramlu ran to hoist her out. Kuchina giggled, holding her stomach, then saw the look of resignation in Ramlu’s eyes and stopped. Sur continued to smoke the bidi. Kuchina, knowing that her mother was hungrier, had put back in her mouth after taking a deep inhale. Ramlu was rummaging in the dustbins nearby, hoping to find something to give to her mother for cooking. Kuchina now sat on the ground, making a garland of flowers. Occasionally, she would suck at a flower, and then swallow it.
Sur had not commented on the coming of the bird into their life.
Night fell. They were to go hungry again. Marushi had taken care of himself as only birds know how to do, flying to places and getting what they want. Sur continued to sit under the tree, waiting. She could not bring herself to move, and there was nothing to do. Ramlu had taken a stick of sorts and swept the place free of dry, fallen leaves. Kuchina had scampered around, picking a few, putting them in her mouth and spitting them out. Ramlu had told her to stop, but Kuchina had made a face at her.
“Give me something else to put in my mouth then,” she had said, and Ramlu had looked at her, dry eyed. Ramlu did not want to hear the sound of her stomach growling for food. She wanted to drown it with something else. She began to sing, “O bird on the tree…”
Marushi perched on Ramlu’s shoulder again.
“Why are you here?” Ramlu hissed.
“I will help you,” he said.
“How? You want to gloat over our misery. You even ate the stone my sister picked to suck at.”
“Oh, I can give her many like that,” he said.
“But you have not.”
“The keeper of promises. That’s what I am. I have come to keep my promise. Wait and see.”
“What promise? To Kuchina? She does not need stones in the stomach.”
“No, a promise made to your mother. As for Kuchina, she needs more than stones. It will come to be.”
“Who are you?”
“You called me. I have come for you, for my family.”
“You are joking.”
“No song goes out without a want. You called out to a bird.”
“And you are that bird?”
“I was waiting. I heard your call.”
“Do something for my mother then. Look at her.” Ramlu tried to swallow a lump that had formed somewhere in her throat.
“I know your mother.”
“Yes. I know. It is for her that I have come. We have sung many songs together. She was named Sur or music by me.”
“But I sang the song. You have been sitting on my shoulder.”
“It does not matter who calls. I heard the call, it was her calling me through you, my child.”
“I am not your child. I am my mother’s child. And why would she call you?”
“She needs me, I have heard her desperation.”
“Ha,” Ramlu’s voice expressed her disbelief, “as if you can do anything. You are just a bird.”
Marushi swept a wing over her face. It was a gentle sweep. She felt the softness of his touch. Blue powder covered her cheek. She removed it from her cheek, looked at her finger.
“Lick it,” he said.
Her hunger suddenly jumped up from her stomach. She put the finger in her mouth. She tasted of something that was sweet and warm. It reminded her of the time she had stood outside a big building and one of the people from within had thrown an egg out of the window. It had somehow landed on her lap, a beautiful decorated egg. She had opened it, and licked the brown gooey stuff inside. A sweetness that she had never known had filled her mouth. This taste was the same. Her eyes filled with sudden tears. Then she laughed. Marushi could see the chocolate lines down her tongue as she stuck it out at him, a kid once again. She sat on the charpoy now, legs swinging, with a little secret of hers to nurse, of the taste of chocolate in her mouth.
Salura staggered into the space, for there was really nothing else you could call the area under the tree where they had settled for the time. He was drunk. He may have earned some money, but had spent it on hooch. His body sparse, black, his beard a shambles, his clothes as black as the body, he saw Sur, and lurched, falling on her. She pushed him away with a feeble hand. Then she just rolled him over and soon he was snoring. She had been shaken out of her stupor by his weight falling on her. She pushed her hair off her face, her thick, red bangles jangled in the night. An owl hooted somewhere.
She lay down on the pavement, too tired to do anything. Her children slept.
Marushi went and stood by her side. He observed her breathing. He matched his own to it. It made her aware of his presence.
‘I am here,’ he said.
‘So what?’ she answered,talking to him without words. She knew him. He had been visiting her in her dreams.
‘So now you can rest. All you have to do is come with me to the Garden of Many Senses.’
‘I will take you on my back.’
She climbed onto his back without a murmur.
Then she asked him, ‘What is the price?’
‘I will tell you when the time comes.’
She glided silently with him then.
The night air filled with the smell of jasmine.
Soon he alighted at a small clearing in a forest. The leaves shimmered in the moonlight. The river sparkled blue. He himself was beauteous, glistening under the silver moon, blue beak, orange wings, his red breast a ruby. She was sliding off his back and into the streaming waters, cool and clean. Her hair now covered with rainbow dewdrops as she emerged from the water. They played in the water. As the moon disappeared behind a cloud, she once again rode on his back, to return.
‘It is good,’ she whispered.
‘It always is,’ he said, ‘for both of us. Now listen. When the seed becomes a sapling, he will leave. When he decides to go, you have to say goodbye to him. He will go away, this player of the flute, this singer of songs, from your life. Let him go. He will bring you to me. We will be together.’
‘Yes.’ She agreed. It did not matter to her right now.
Marushi was gone the next morning. He had left, next to Kuchina, many small grey stones. She picked one up to suck on it, and it tasted like sweet mango. She bit into it, and the fruit filled her mouth. She gave Ramlu some. “Sister, eat,” she said. Her eyes shone like a thousand stars.
Ramlu had a flute next to her. She was scared to pick it up and play it.
Sur was soon big with child. Salura kicked her around, beat her, telling her it would be another girl. Sur bore everything in silence, not retaliating, not shouting back at him or hitting him in return.
Salura realised that she had reached some space where she was no longer accessible to him. Whatever he said or did had no effect on her. He knew that she now had only the baby on her mind. His spirit began to dry up and even the drinking did not help him. A few days before the baby’s birth, he withered like a prune and fell on a corner of the road to die.
Sur just lived and relived the memory of the night. It was her dream where she visited Marushi, lived with him, spent time with him and talked to him.
The baby was a boy. He had two little stubs under his armpits, which Kuchina noticed. No one else bothered about it. The boy was called Mahroop. Sur’s life revolved around him. There were little wings sprouting under his armpits but she ignored them.
Ramlu gave her flute to Mahroop, who played it all the time. He sang as well, his sweet voice filling the air. Sur was scared to let Mahroop out of her sight. As the days went by, sudden fears would grip her. She had begun to remember the promise. She would often lie, feeling a part of her was getting mutilated, being taken away. She would search then for Mahroop, and be relieved to find her playing next to her, or under the tree.
One day Mahroop began to walk away. He put the flute to his mouth, and his strong black limbs moved in the direction of the forest, which was to the north of where they were.
“I am going, mother,” he said, “wish me luck.”
His voice sounded strange to her, as if coming from a distance.
“You know.” His voice was quiet, sure.
Sur knew the promise she had made but could not let him go. All kinds of thoughts came to her mind. She thought of herself, all alone. She would be lost. She would have no reason to live. Marushi was a dream. Mahroop was the reality. She could feel and touch him.
She asked him to come to her. As he came towards her, she tied him up with her sari. She was now in her petticoat and blouse. She had nothing else to wear. She watched him.
He could not understand. “Mother, why are you doing this?”
She took the flute away. Threw it and stamped on it.
“Mother, I am dying,” he said now.
“No, how can you die?”
“I am.” His eyes closed.
She saw him turn to blue ash in front of her eyes. Only two feathers remained. They fluttered to the ground. She held them to her heart and walked in circles around the place where he had been, just moments ago. In the distant, an owl hooted. She put the feathers to her bangles, and tried to fly.
Ramlu and Kuchina returned from their long day of work as labourers at a building site, and saw their mother sitting under the tree, with two blue feathers held over her breasts.
“Mother, mother,” they whispered. They looked around. “Mahroop, where is he? What happened, mother?”
Sur shook her head and pointed to the ground. Nothing was visible except dust. The flute lay there. Ramlu picked up the battered flute and put it to her lips. No sound came.
Ramlu began to sing, she was desperate for her mother, tears stung her eyes.
“O bird who sits on the tree
Come close to me”
There was a whisper in the wind. “I cannot come to your world now. Your mother broke her promise to me. She has killed our son, he will never come to us, and she will never be able to meet me. As long as we kept our promises, we could be saved. We could save our loved ones regardless of where we were and who we were, but not anymore. I kept my promise, but because your mother… your mother…did not…so much loss…my children…”
The whispers grew loud. Ramlu began to cry, she could not be brave and dry- eyed any more, she could not bear all this. She sat next to Sur and held her. Kuchina put her head on Sur’s lap.
“Mother,” they said, “mother, we are here. We will be here for you. We promise.”
Sur pushed them away. “Mahroop, he is there,” she said, “My son is there. Can you see him?” She got up and began to walk. “He is calling me, I must go. I will bring him back.”
She clutched the feathers to her breasts. She walked towards the forest, her figure disappearing in the night. The girls watched the lightning flash, an orange winged bird that set the forest on fire.