The moment I heard the dragging sound of coconut leaves, I would rush to the portico of my grandfather’s house. My eyes would search eagerly around through the wooden half door for an old, stooped figure dressed forever in a faded old blouse and a mundu torn in various places. Hobbling into view, Kunji or Kunjiyamma as we affectionately called her would keep her bundle of grass and long coconut leaves in one corner and give me a paan-stained toothless grin. I used to love the way her whole face crinkled and lit up with that one smile.
Kunjiyamma was one of Kaanikkars, the tribals who had settlements all over the hills surrounding our village. They used to come to big houses like ours in the village, to do odd jobs. Kunjiyamma would come every morning and cut grass for the goats and was always greeted by “Kunji, innu pullu paricho?” (“Did you cut the grass today?”), for she was well known in the village for her sickle wielding skills. She would again flash her grin and go back to her cutting. By afternoon, she would come and sit in our verandah for having the previous day’s rice broth, pazhankanji. My grandmother would take out the special bowl that she kept for the workers who were from a lower caste. Kunji would be given the food in the verandah, for she was not allowed to enter our house. And over the pazhankanji, my grandmother would ask her all about what was the latest in the village, about Kunjiyamma’s grandchildren, about the catching of the temple thieves, about the birth of two calves and so on.
After her lunch, she would carry all the coconut leaves she had gathered from the estate and start weaving them. These weaved leaves were used for roofing. Sometimes when I would go and sit near her, she would take my little hands and guide me through the weaving. And sometimes when I would just sit there watching, she would suddenly break into stories about the white snake seen in those parts, about the silver leaves of a jackfruit tree in the hill yonder, and even the one about how when she was a small girl, the British officials came all the way to our village to dig out diamonds. So I would be there, happily lost in the tales of the hill-people till my grandfather came home from the market. He did not encourage the kids from our house mingling with the Kaanikkars. So I would sneak in and pretend to be taking my afternoon nap and invariably end up falling asleep anyway. By the time I would wake up, Kunjiyamma would have finished cleaning all the vessels, drawn water, swept the place, carried the firewood and have done umpteen other odd jobs. My grandfather would then give her some money, some coconuts and some firewood. She would go off carrying all this to her home up in the hills only to be back again the next day and the day after.
I would wait in the afternoons for her stories every day till I returned to my house in the city after my holidays. And back home, I would occasionally think about her intriguing stories. I wanted so much to go to the tribal hamlets and see the white snake and the silver leaves for myself. Every time my grandmother would phone, I would ask her about Kunjiyamma. But after a while, I got busy with my school and friends and Kunjiyamma and her tales gradually slipped off my mind. And for my grandmother also, she was far too inconsequential to be talked of.
The next time I thought of her was the night I dreamt of a long white snake slithering out of a thatched hut. It was too haunting, particularly since I felt as if I had seen that hut somewhere before. I woke up and somehow could not sleep again. Then one day, after many weeks, we needed someone to weed a plot near our house. My mother asked my grandmother to call Kunji. My grandmother replied that she had died of snake bite a few weeks back. It had created a lot of excitement in the village because someone had seen a white snake going into her hut. A white snake was considered extremely lucky to be associated with, and that included being bitten by one. I got the shock of my life. Was that the same day I had that dream? If so, why me? I tried searching for some answers but never found any and was eventually forced to give it up as a coincidence. But Kunjiyamma, I never forgot. Not her torn attire, not her grass bundles, not her paan-stained toothless grin. And definitely not her enchanting stories. I still have to check if the one about the silver jackfruit leaves were true.
Amala is a 3rd year MA student. Her candid and down-to-earth writing has charmed us all and we look forward to more from this philosophically inclined girl!