If India was a heart, pulsing and beating in my palm, then the National Highway 66 was a pounding capillary with traffic as steady as the flow of blood. Sixty meters of rugged ebony asphalt and mud-ridden intersections, the National Highway 66 guided everything, from taxi drivers with beetle juice between their teeth to bickering couples across the western coast of India. The sun blazed like a copper coin in the limitless blue sky, beating down upon the well-worn stones of a tired road. Anyone, from the street children selling coconut water at the junctions to the farmers guiding oxen through the rice paddy fields could tell you where these roads might take you.
But few travel the old road that diverts from NH-66. Only a handful of those people would cross the bridge that connects to the monsoon-blessed Shambhavi River, its waters meandering into lazy, stagnant marshes. Hardly any would care to remember the name ‘Hejmadi’, the old village settled on Shambhavi’s northern banks.
But I remember. And my reason to remember has charcoal black eyes and silvery hair tied tightly in a knot at the back of her neck. Paper-thin wrinkles line the edges of her cheeks, crimping into little folds every time she laughs. The world calls her Radha. I call her Maomma, my grandmother. And for years, I was content with knowing her solely as the latter, while falling asleep in her arms as she sang Ranganayaka in her low, powdery voice. It was a holy song meant to awaken God from his heavy slumber. So, as God’s eyes opened to my grandmother’s words, mine slowly and drowsily closed.
As I grew older, Radha’s presence became more than a shadow, details that I had overlooked as a child now sharpening into focus. I pored over photographs that smelled lightly of mildew, struggling to weave her tale. Yet the more I learned, the more I realized that there was a whole other side to her.
Before Radha, there was Meera.
And she was a flurry of bare feet thudding against the grasses of rice paddy fields, the peal of her anklets following her like a shadow. It was the age of black and white — of an India that was free, but in bloodied pieces. Of post-Partition pressure tearing apart the Indian soil, but Hejmadi wrapped in its own cocoon, unperturbed.
It was amid this sea of contrasts that Meera grew up, a nine-year-old with a charcoal dot beneath her ear to ward off the evil eye. Seven children in all, the Shenoy family was virtually a village of its own, scurrying about the mud-walled courtyard in the midst of their boisterous games. Meera’s mother watched and smiled. Meera only had a few faint memories of her mother — a gentle caress, tender hands weaving her hair into braids, a chime of laughter. She would count the callouses on her mother’s palm as they walked hand in hand through their coconut groves. Bare feet muffled against the silence of the fertile earth, the ghosts of their footsteps erased by the wind. It was during the handful of years with her mother that Meera learned to befriend the stubborn coconut. How to burst it open against the ground with a single crack. How to scrape the last bits of flesh off its shell.
What Meera didn’t know is that some coconuts bear tiny, fine cracks beneath the surface. They shrivel slowly from the inside, the white flesh dissolving beneath the sun. She would soon see these thin, jagged cracks in her mother’s waning health. For months, her mother battled fevers and a hacking cough. But still, she roamed the leafy groves, dismissing the signs of her growing illness with the wave of her hand. Little did Meera know that her mother would never live to see another coconut season, never guide her through the dense arms of palm trees again.
The courtyard was silent as her mother lay on her charpoy. Those few fleeting hours before she died, she swallowed her finals sips of coconut water, the glass trembling in her hand. Soft sobs filled the night as Meera sang Ranganayaka to her mother. God arose from the distant horizon, welcoming an old friend.
Life without her mother was wounded and fragmented. Meera learned to tie her own braids, her stubby fingers fumbling with the ribbons. She ground coarse masala powder against a stone and swept debris off the courtyard floors with a broom. She carved the ground beyond her house with white rangoli and lit sticks of incense beneath the altars of the household gods. Ashy plumes of smoke clouded her vision. The temple was no different from what she had become, clouded by the obscurity of what was no longer there. In all her teenage years, Meera was a child struggling to fit in her mother’s skin. She rebelled, thrashing against the void she was expected to fill. In local paan stalls, she secretly smoked beedi cigarettes, the feeling of tobacco mixed with temburni leaves burning in her throat. Meera’s aunt speared her left nostril with a pointed stick, her eyes screwed shut through the agony. When the pain subsided, she threaded a glimmering crescent of a stud through the hole.
“There,” she said, beaming. “You are a woman now. ”
But at night, when the coconut trees whistled in the wind and her father sang Ranganayaka to the sky, Meera was still a little girl wrapped in her mother’s shadow.
The years passed by slowly. Old scars learned to heal with the gentle fingers of time. The village was the same, with the medleys of grey-bellied cuckoos reverberating across the fields. It was Meera who had changed, with her hair longer and threaded into spiraling braids, her features the very image of her mother’s. The knee-length skirts and blouses were now replaced with half-sarees, the ends of the cotton fabric tucked into her kamarbandh. Her nose ring was larger than the last, but gone was the stinging pain that had come with it. Gone was the anguish that marked her early childhood, the vision of her mother now blending like watercolors into the past.
Meera still roamed barefoot, the soles of her feet resilient against the Indian soil. But the ground where she had learned to walk had changed. The seamless rice-paddy acres, so enormous they could have swallowed her, were now but a faint horizon through the window. With time had come the overbearing verdicts of her conservative older brothers, imprisoning her within the confines of four walls. “A woman’s place is in her home”, they repeated, their words twisting into firm metal bars. But the stern gaze of her brothers only made Meera love the open air with reckless abandon. Heartfelt but headstrong, she refused to watch life slip between her fingers. Bare feet tiptoed across the courtyard as she slithered into the night, the village fair awaiting her. Her eyes grew wide as she watched larger-than-life actors prance across the stage, the bells of their costumes jangling in the distance. It was those nights when Meera tasted the stolen fruits of freedom.
As she grew older, her father and brothers descended into a whirlwind of preparation for her marriage. Meera’s father counted the acres and examined the cows of local landowners, demanding nothing but the best for his daughter. Marriage was a circle, a rhythm of brides leaving their homes to make new ones. The day a woman adorned her forehead with the vermilion dot of good fortune, she became a strand of an age-old fabric much larger than she was. But in between the threads of red and gold tradition, Meera saw the same pattern of captivity, the same narrow walls of domestic drudgery. She had no interest in walking in the footsteps of her mother and the mothers before her. Her brothers pleaded with her. “Why must you argue? Are you not happy?”
“Of course I am happy. I just want more.”
But what did she want? Frankly, Meera didn’t know what she wanted. All she knew was that sometimes when the village ferris wheel ground into motion, her fingers grasping at the breeze, Meera felt irrationally but utterly complete. Bare feet fluttered against the sky as Meera’s ferris wheel cart swung gently at the top. Her gaggle of friends waved to their companions below, but Meera looked nowhere but upward.
She wanted to spend the rest of her life reaching for the sky.
Meera was sprawled on the charpoy on the terrace, dreaming of the ferris wheel when the stranger from Bombay arrived. Her sister grabbed her arm, whispering excitedly.
“Meera! There are visitors at the door! They are bringing a boy.”
Meera rolled her eyes. “Another suitor? The matchmaker had just brought in a boy two days ago.”
Her sister giggled. “This boy isn’t the same as the rest!.” She leaned closer, her smile only growing wider. “He’s different. You know, these other boys come swaddled in their dhotis, looking like baby ducks crossing the pond. But not this one! He is wearing crisply ironed brown pants. ”
Meera’s eyes widened. “When will I get to see him?”
“No, you cannot see him. What would people think?”
“How can I marry him without seeing him? What if he’s short or plump or..” Meera struggled to find words, “…or ugly?”
She darted across the courtyard, leaning against the walls in a desperate attempt to catch broken pieces of conversation. There were muffled words, the voices of her brothers too faint for her to discern. As the discussion continued, Meera stared at the chicken-wire window etched into the wall a few feet above her. Her eyes hardened into resolve, as she knotted the loose end of her half-sari to her waist.
Bare feet mounted the tiles that lined the courtyard walls. Her sister stared at Meera’s antics in silent horror, entirely prepared to flee in the case that she was caught.
When Meera stared through the spaces between the wire mesh of the window, she saw nothing at first. The faces of her family members were hidden behind a billowing cloth hung to dry. She cursed her fate under her breath, clutching the edge of the window sill for support. Then something flashed before her eyes, and she gasped.
Shoes were not for Hejmadi’s farmers or businessmen. They belonged to those who walked down bustling roads carved by slabs of concrete. The shiny black Indian loafers meant nothing to brothers who accounted for land and the aunts who prized the family name. But for Meera, shoes were the symbol of a world she had never seen, of the things that she never had. Every scuff mark brought a piece of the city’s crumbling sidewalks, every stain of shoe polish was the mark of city monsoons. No one in Hejmadi cared for those shoes because they had no interest in its whereabouts. For the earthen village soil, living barefoot was enough.
But not enough for Meera.
“Of course he’s different!” Meera whispered to herself, recalling her sister’s words. “He’s from the city.”
In the midst of her joy, she lost her balance and fell to the ground with a thud. Bruised bare feet on the ground again, giddy and quivering. Her sister clucked like a mother hen, scolding her for being so foolish. But still, she smiled in a daze of some sorts, remembering nothing but the shoes. It was settled. Meera was to be wed.
Marriage in India was not simply the exchange of rings in front of a fire. It was a moment of change, when women left the final pieces of adolescence in their childhood homes. Meera stared at herself in the mirror, her hair coiled into a bun and slicked with coconut oil. Thin strokes of kajal lined her eyes. There was once a time when Meera wanted nothing more than to be a woman, to fit into her mother’s cotton sarees and carry her borrowed confidence. Yet as the moment had finally arrived, she wrestled with the fear that simmered beneath the surface. Meera remembered the moment before she had broken her first coconut. Gingerly, she had looked up at her mother asking,
“I don’t know if I can do it, am I ready?”
Her mother smiled. “You always were.”
The coconut cracked open that day, its fruit for the taking. Wordlessly, Meera draped the loose end of her saree over her shoulder and walked into the light.
They say when God chooses to awaken on Earth as a mortal again, his incarnation is given a new name. Meera had grown up chanting these names in the household temple, singing, “Hare Rama! Hare Krishna!” And now, wrapped in red and gold, she was gifted her own name. When women were married in Meera’s village, they were given their new identities, the shells of their previous lives unraveling into the mandap smoke. As the vermillion dot of good fortune was painted on her forehead, she was christened Radha — the namesake of God’s beloved. It was a new name, one that did not conceal Meera but rather embraced her. That night, it was Radha and her husband, Govind, who left the village, promising to write letters home. Bare feet welcomed the new earth below it, regardless of what lay ahead.
It took another thirty years before the National Highway 66 was built by the Indian Government. Carefully, the changing times molded pieces of Southern Karnataka, constructing buildings where there were grasslands, factories where there were terra-cotta homes. But the banks of the Shambhavi River are the same. The golden stretch of land resists not the water, but accepts its tranquil ripples and currents. Coconut trees reach towards the sunlight, its fronds whispering in a language of its own. I stare at Maomma. Her nose ring glints beneath the sunlight and I am reminded of both her pain and her pride. Time has been both kind and cruel to her, but my grandmother is at peace with the waves that have molded her.
I begin making my way down the waterside, but she halts.
“You are forgetting something,” she tells me, her eyes twinkling.
Silently, Maomma slips out of her sandals, beckoning for me to do the same. We cross the patchwork of sand and silt, the two of us barefoot and laughing. My feet sink into new soil. Grains of sand coil between my toes and suddenly the generations between us disappear. Gone are highways that divide us, the languages that separate us. With every growing step our footprints grow closer and closer, until the horizon melts into the water below and no longer can we tell them apart.