- Summers in Agaas
Click for larger view
View full resolution
All I knew was to pocket some lemons in my favourite sky-blue dress before the scrawny old women realized. The objective of our gang: "Nimbu chinenge, pakad mein nahi aayenge." Pia had thought up that line, and in my six-year-old mind that seemed the cleverest thing one could do. At a distance, the lemon trees appeared in a blur, and we ran cutting through the light, vaporizing air, the sunrays springing from a blue blue sky, splashing on our hair. Today, it's the same smell of summer outside my suburban apartment that reminds me of the lemon raids: of new chrome-green grass and baby leaves lighting up fluorescent under the afternoon sun. [End Page 9]
What stays with me is the sound of my heart pounding in my ears and the bright yellow lemons hanging low, waiting to be picked. We were twelve: Reema, Medha, Pia, me and the rest of Pia's brothers and sisters and I think Ankur, too, though I am not sure. When one of the lemon-tree women saw us, she shrieked, "Aee! Aee! Chokrao," but we knew it would be some time before she would catch up with us, hobbling on her cane stick. We continued picking a few lemons and then made off. Barefoot. Because I wasn't sure if my oversized Kolhapuris could keep up with my speed. The small sharp stones in the red earth didn't hurt our feet as we ran. We just ran and ran. We ran blindly, following each other, without a sense of the distance covered, without making the decision to change direction; we just ran and ran, as if that was the only thing to do, as if our very lives depended on it; we ran till our cheeks were so hot they burned to touch, till our pounding hearts threatened to burst, till we could not speak anything for the want of breath. And then collapsed under Pia's bungalow gate, listening to Megha's rasping breath.
Pushing, jostling, we burst inside the cool kitchen with a matka balanced on the thick square of folded cotton. There were never enough glasses for all of us, and patience was hard to practice. "Jaldi, pi ne!" I would urge Pia's elder brother. As we drank thirstily, in loud gulps, we couldn't even taste water—only feel its coolness cascading in torrents down our hot cheeks, quenching parched throats, tongues, lips.
Pia's grandma hardly spoke to us or, for that matter, to anyone. But I think she liked us coming by droves to empty the matka. Maybe she liked children, but I am not sure. From the adjoining room she watched through her soda-bottle glasses as we drained away the matka, and that day for the first time she gestured, inviting us in. Surprised, Pia wondered if she needed anything. "Dadi, paani le aavun?" she [End Page 10] asked, and then noticing that her Dadi didn't have her hearing aid on, "DADI, PAANI LE AAVUN?" What we heard in reply was a torrent of broken Hindi and Marwari in furious whitewater force. Did Pia want to burst her eardrums? She insisted that she had heard her all along. Pia looked at me, amused; we both knew it wasn't true.
Pia's Dadi was old, very old. Pia thought she was eighty; I thought she was at least a hundred. She didn't exactly remember the year she was born, but Pia said the British were very much around then because Pia's father was born in 1947—the year of Independence. Most times she was quiet, rarely out of her room, except if she had to go to the bathroom. On cooler evenings she sat on the verandah, watching children play on a small mound of black soil that the construction workers had offloaded near her home.
She ordered us to sit around her, and we formed a skewed semicircle as we settled in. When Megha had stopped picking her nose and Reema had pushed back...