I had a hard time writing this story because so much of it was so personal, and since I didn't know my recipient, I wasn't sure how much personal detail I felt comfortable sharing. Fortunately, Meena rescued me with her own awkwardness and silence and stifled artistic impulses and the wonderful dotfic did a beautifully sensitive beta.
So here's the story - the summary is "Pitiful is the one who, fearing failure, makes no beginning."
"Making a Beginning"
Ashok comes back three times with the wrong kind of biscuits and mumbled apologies -- as if she would ever let Santhanam eat anything with such artificial colors, chi chi chi -- and finally Meenakshi skips her afternoon nap to sneak out and do what her mother-in-law would call servant's work and get the Marie biscuits herself. The shopkeepers know better than to make suggestions to her, and she's back at the flat in only a few brisk minutes.
There's a strange satisfaction in knowing she can do this without anyone's by your leave, provide for her child and keep him happy. She soaks the biscuits in hot milk, mixes up the mess with the silver spoon, and feeds Santhanam, smiling down at him. He gurgles happily and reaches up for her jimiki, fat little cheeks as round as gulab jamun, and it's odd that she's waiting for the shadow of rustling leaves to cross his face. Of course he can be happy in the sunshine.
And so can she. What sort of mother would she be if she needed more than him, her little prince, always such a laughing baby?
His flailing hands make contact with her stomach, the edge of his tiny bangle a cool whisper across her flesh. "Are you tickling Amma, Santhanam?" she coos, teasing his sides with her fingers, overcome once again that he is hers, healthy and strong.
Meenakshi steals a biscuit for herself before leaving the kitchen, Santhanam held firmly on her hip.
He's refusing to shut his eyes and sleep, delighting in reaching for his own rosy little toes instead, entranced by the jingling of his anklets, so she's staying awake too. She sighs as her bare feet hit the floor, the cold surface sending an unwelcome chill through her body. The tall metal cupboard unlocks easily, the scent of jasmine wafting out from the folds of her silk saris, and she reaches past the lockboxes of jewelry to find the shopping bag with bundles of yarn.
The crochet needle is still holding its place from months ago, only one bit of blanket no bigger than her hand successfully finished. Santhanam will need something for when the rains come in June.
She settles back on the bed, curled around him, watching as his eyes start to droop despite his efforts to keep track of the movements of the crochet needle, of the flash of her bangles as she works. She quiets her humming until it's nothing at all, not even breath in her throat.
The only nice thing about this is that she doesn't have to think while she does it; her hands know the routine all by themselves. Meenakshi sets herself the task of finishing at least another two inches of blue and green blanket before she can lie back, throw her sari over them both, and sink into sleep with her warm bundle of baby.
Her braid is still wet, dripping uncomfortably down her back, small shivery droplets sinking beneath her sari blouse, and the kitchen's stone floor is cold beneath her feet. But her arm is burning from her efforts with the pestle and her fingers are clenched tightly around its smooth marble length. Meenakshi shakes the mortar, peering inside. That looks fine enough.
The front door squeaks a protest, as always, when she opens it, and the hallway is, as usual, full of dust and crowded with bicycles and chappal. Meenakshi clears a space and scrubs it down. Only when it is gleaming and still slick does she go back inside to fetch her little pot of pounded rice flour.
She's never been very good at this, at imposing order on a blank space, but this is her duty, her joy, so she recites the Mahalakshmi slokas as she begins painting the dots. She is slowly getting better at not lifting her hand once the dots are done; the trick is to go slowly, steadily, and let the rice flour flow like a stream of dry water. The end of her braid nearly sweeps away the pattern of her kolam when she's done, and when she straightens up, her back is already aching a little, and there's still Santhanam's bath to see to.
At the threshold, she looks down at the kolam once more. It is lovely, but she wishes it didn't have to be scrubbed away, washed clean again the next day.
"Damn thing just stopped ticking," Mani grumbles when he comes home to find her reclining across their bed, playing with Santhanam's toes. "I already replaced the battery. What do you think, Meena? Shall we go out to the shops tonight?" He holds it aloft for her inspection.
She remembers that watch on his wrist, the first time she saw him in her house, after the wedding had been agreed on and there was just a question of which auspicious day would allow the most family members to be in attendance.
She nods, getting off the bed and tucking the pleats of her sari more securely into her petticoat. "Shall I change?" she asks, since she keeps the cotton saris mostly for home wear, but this one is quite fine, a favorite from before she was married.
"No need. Let's just leave Santhanam with Appa and Amma and go, shall we?"
A tumbler of buttermilk each, and then they're in the street, walking to the corner to hail an auto-rickshaw. Mani is strong and handsome beside her, taking the outside seat so she doesn't have to watch the death-defying speeds the little cab achieves. She clutches his forearm as they go around the bad turn just before the Titan Complex, sighing in relief when the ride is over.
There's not much to choose from with the men's watches, to be honest; she knows that Mani will simply get the one that looks most like the one he's trying to replace. She wanders aimlessly, ignoring the slim boys ranked behind the counter, all waiting for her to express the slightest interest in the jeweled watches next to the silk lotuses in the display cases. There's a glass door to the next shop over, and she walks through, expecting it to be a silk merchant or a costume jewelry shop.
Instead she's faced with rows of cameras, bulky black things with peering lenses. Meenakshi lenses, maybe, and she swallows nervously, for the first time realizing the air conditioning has raised her skin into goosebumps. "Yes, madam?" one of the clerks asks, and she shakes her head silently.
"May I help you, sir?" she hears, and spins to see Mani, his face lighting up when he realizes he's found her.
"Meena, what is it?" he asks, and she steps close to him. The new watch -- stainless steel band, just as she expected -- is shining on his wrist. "Are you interested in photography?"
"Yes," she says, without meaning to breathe a word, imagining her hands fitted around a protruding lens, her decisive finger on the shutter, the world falling into place as a series of images.
He smiles at her, a tiny smile not meant for the clerks to witness. "You have a birthday coming up, haven't you, Meenu? I suppose there's no harm in letting you have your present a bit early."
"Not too early for my star birthday; that's next week," she says, not even caring that she's wheedling like a child, like she used to when all she wanted was a new hair ribbon or an extra jilebi.
She only lets him buy the simplest, least expensive of the cameras with the protruding lenses. She vetoes the slim digital cameras because they feel like magic, like the photographs they produce will have nothing to do with her.
"I'll tell you what I'd like," Mani says when they've gotten themselves comfortable in the auto-rickshaw, the bulky parcel at their feet. "I want a nice photograph of Appa, Amma, and Santhanam we could hang in the hallway."
She nods even as she imagines wild green fields spotted with flowers, or mist rising over the smoke-blue tops of mountains. A world through her eyes, her eyes overlooking all the world.
Such a world does not exist within her flat, but the flush in Santhanam's cheeks is like dawn streaking through the sky. She sees it, her camera captures it, and Mani hangs that first photograph in one corner of the room, with space left for the rest.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.