In ten years, these roads will be walked by ghosts. Memories will hang from the once green trees and the voices of Aachi and Potte and Ayya will float in with the wind, boundless, undefined, united. There will be no hierarchy or stratification, no proper place and appropriate behaviour. There will only be History, the ghosts of a time gone by.
Today, there is a skeleton of a town that once was. Perhaps village is a better word for the one street that constitutes their world. We ask of other worlds and other peoples, and we are pointed in a vague direction. They are There and we are Here. The world goes on. Heads rest where they belong.
There is a temple huddled away somewhere, behind that wood there, to the right of those trees. Scooters make their way on a path once meant only for feet, unsandalled. Yet today, they speak of locks and gates and property names. The temple is quaint. The Sunshine plays hide and seek with trees unnamed, probably a few generations young. They sway with the barely-there wind, almost as if to say Welcome, this is Here, where you belong. Here looks like white dhotis and holy strings cast across shoulders. Here smells of nei-abhishegam and panchamritam. Here sounds like bells tolling too loud too near, ringing in the spirit of all things holy. It feels like the flame under your palm, the grains of ash that adorn the forehead, the cold gold on wrists and necks and deities ahead. It speaks the dialect of belonging, inviting no one, drawing boundaries in blood and righteousness. It is the way it is over Here, no questions asked.
Every once in a while, the gatekeepers of Here face a little trouble. There is a noise or a skirmish, something to remind them of There. Someone shows up, standing a little too close, trying a little too hard, acting a little too comfortable. Reminders are given, loud and clear. Lines are redrawn, thick and bold. And even if There comes Here, it is reminded that it does not belong. It should go back There. It has no place Here.
Thatha was from There. So were Aachi and Potte. They stood, heads bowed, clothes ragged, hands poised to receive. In their faces was etched Distance, Difference, Deference. They knew they were from There. They knew they had strayed Here. They knew these streets and these footsteps were not theirs to keep.
Aachi called out in a feeble voice, stick in hand, unable to walk. Are you well, she asked, her memory clear as the water she used to wash their doorsteps with. Do you have children? Where are you now? What took you so long to come by? Ayya, she called. When did you come? Why didn’t you come sooner? What took you so long to look me up? Amma, she said. Are you well? Do you remember? Do you remember?
Aachi stood just outside the door. In her hand was a stick, picked off the ground and smoothened till it didn’t hurt her roughened palms. On her shoulders, a towel, once-white now dotted with the brown of poverty. Her sari was closest to blue, if you had to pick a colour. Her hair was silver, her lips red from paan, her demeanour filled with gratitude. I’ve missed you, she seemed to say. If only she had the words. If only There could miss Here. If only the rules had spaces set aside for emotion, age, relationship.
When I heard the story of Aachi, they told me the story of Potte too. No one knew Potte’s real name, the storyteller chuckled. She was just Potte. She couldn’t see from one eye, you see, so it made the most sense. Just like Umacchi, they told me by clarification, calling upon another ghost of another village at another time. Not that that made it better.
Potte slept at the foot of the door I had just walked through. Or perhaps it was the other door, or the one next to it. There was a chance it was the one on the other side though. After all, all of it was ours, I was told. It was all ours. She slept at the foot of a door, woke up when the clock struck 3, and worked her way through all the doorsteps. Sweep, sprinkle, cleanse, decorate. Perikki, thelichu, saani, kolam. Again and again and again. Till the street sparkled, the air had that peculiar smell of dung and cleanliness in equal measure, and the ants of the village had a feast awaiting them. Again and again and again.
The storyteller smiled as she told me of Potte, her eyes glistening in the memory of the woman who used to count the chimes of the clock before waking up. She told me Potte would demand her way into the house at the strike of 5, peer closely at anything she needed to look at with her one seeing eye, and worked like “that”. You see, in the local tongue, working like “that” was the ultimate compliment. Apdi vellai panniva. The certificate had been given, the story had been passed on, the memory had been kept alive.
The last of all, there was Thatha. He didn’t belong, you see. Definitely not from Here, but apparently not from There either. He was from Outside, a place even farther away from There. He looked different, stood away, seemed nervous. He said he’d been cheated of his wealth by two men, his brothers maybe? They’d hurt his son, chopped off an arm, and beaten up another. He’d sought refuge in the powers that be, travelling from town to town, temple to temple, until he hit a thousand. Until he landed up here, in the quaint temple of a sleepy town where the sunshine played hide and seek and the wind whispered of memories gone by. He said he sought refuge, blessings, an end to this constant rollercoaster he had been on. He seemed to expect the brashness, the cruelty, the consequences of being from Outside.
Talking to Thatha, there was a woman, child in hand. Don’t stand here, she said. Go to the back, stay there, come at the end. Don’t touch anyone, don’t go near anything, just be. Do as you are told, don’t ask questions, be grateful for setting foot into Here. It wasn’t the first time Thatha had been told all this, it seemed, or maybe Outside was a harsher place with stricter rules and more rigid allowances. He listened, Thatha did. He stripped down to his underwear for a short while, a pair of maroon shorts that had seen too many wears. A few minutes later, a towel wrapped itself around his waist, decorated by a hole for each time he had been asked to stay in his place. When he did tell them parts of his Life written by his Fate or his God, they claimed it was Fiction, dictated by a scheming, plotting Human. Thatha waited his turn, sought holy blessings when the time was right, unmindful of human intervention and ire, and then he made his way back to the Outside, to wherever he came from, to wherever he was going. No one asked him where or how or why. They didn’t ask what happened to the one-armed son or the one lakh spent. They looked the other side and turned a blind eye. No one
wanted to know the way Outside.
Today, there is a skeleton of a town. It has a Here and a There. It has an Outside that no one wants to know. It has rules and boundaries and ways to be. There are things to wear and distances to keep and foods to eat. There are hymns to chant and songs to sing and prayers to murmur. There are people to meet, others to greet, and yet others to ignore. Today, there is a skeleton of a town. Its bones are made of diktats from an era gone by. It is held together by the threads of Tradition, the strings woven in the language of Ought and Should. It is oiled by Fear, fed by the need to Conform. Today, there is a skeleton of a town from an age gone by.
Tomorrow, there will be none. It will be a Ghost Town, walked by the footsteps of Aachi and Potte and all the Ayyas that ever were. Maybe they will hold hands as they step across the slush to visit Ayyanar. Maybe they will banter merrily as they watch the Perumal abhishekam together. And maybe, just maybe, the ghosts of Ayyas and Ammas of many generations past will decide it is time; time to walk from Here to There; to see what lies beyond, to break a few rules, and to remind the ghosts of Aachi and Potte and Thatha that they are missed too.