For A. R.: “Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Leela and Karia smiled down from the trees where they had finally found love. Mary, an old farmhand, discovered their bodies by the aechi panne tree. A bottle of poison lay beside them. “Immoral. . . Immoral,” Achiah had said. He would not speak of them again.
Achiah, the owner of the Red-Roofs estate, had loved this slight girl whose eyes sparkled with mischief. For two years, she had swept his yard and washed his clothes, all the while curious about the world, while her Ajja(1) language read his newspapers and magazines. After Leela finished her chores, she would sit on the front stoop overlooking the areca nut fields. Achiah too sat on his verandah watching sparrows, mynas, and on occasion a flock of parrots that descended upon guavas, their beaks scooping up the delicate pink-and-white flesh.
“Who is she, Ajja?” She would say picking up a copy of the Outlook magazine or pointing at a headline in the newspaper.
“She speaks for people like us, moule,(2)” he said. “Wanting farms to continue. So you have work. So we both have something to eat.”
“Is she right, Ajja?”
“Yes, child. Few people think about what she’s saying.”
Leela’s male cousins had left the village to work in factories far away. In such cases, the girls had to take on the tasks of their men as well.
“Chayaakuwa Ajja nangada kennemakka? Ajjandaneneke lokaella notiyande bakkuwa?”(3)
“Some will, moule. Some won’t. Let’s hope your brothers do well.”
“I better run Ajja before Writer uncle yells for me,” Leela said. “We are weeding around the big kala(4) today.”
So began each morning of their separate lives.
Brushing against coffee plants along the way, Leela ran uphill to the coffee drying yard where workers gathered before they were assigned their daily tasks. Writer Shankar’s duties went beyond book-keeping. Each morning, he also fetched workers who hawked themselves to the best bidders from the town four miles away. Others like Mary and her family stayed in the labourers’ lines. The Writer kept the two groups--the migrant workers and the farm-bound ones--separate and assigned them different tasks.
“About time,” the Writer said to Leela as she clambered uphill to join them. She knotted her head-scarf as she joined the rest. “We have a new family. This is Karia. His wife Sarsa,” he said introducing them. “Take them with you, Mary. We want three acres weeded this week.”
“And you,” he said turning to the men he had picked up that morning, “You come with me.” They trooped downhill after him.
“Maryamma. Gracious leader. Where shall we begin?” Leela said as she picked up her weeder and unrolled her sleeves to cover her arms. Her face was framed by a paisley, green scarf which had been the palloo of a saree. Her brown, floral skirt came down to her ankles. She wore canvas sneakers.
Sarsa giggled, her hand over her mouth, at Leela’s comment. She was about eighteen; her full face and plump breasts suggested early stages of pregnancy. Her ebony skin was a mark of the Kurba people, basket weavers and honey gatherers, who for years had worked on Kodava plantations. They were not entertained inside Kodava homes, but were made good for manual labour.
“Shush! Girl,” Karia said not unkindly to his wife. They had come looking for work from the southern borders of the state and wanted to make a good impression. He awaited instructions with his weight on one leg, one hand in his trouser pocket, the other picking at his whiskers. He wasn’t much older than Sarsa. Dark curls fell over his forehead, revealing blue eyes in a round face. That was how the three met. Leela, an Airi, was above them in social class but of a similar age. She saw a beautiful boy and a charming girl and was pleased she would have company other than the old, farmhand Mary whom she loved and teased everyday.
“With me, Maryamma,” she said, “I’ll keep an eye.” So the friendship began with promise and without intimation of the tragedy to come. Achiah was the first to foresee it; even he could not know how badly it would end.
Perhaps, it began on the day Leela pushed Sarsa into the shallow pool where they were washing themselves after a day’s work. Sarsa grabbed Leela by her feet and pulled her in. When Leela regained balance, she looked about her and saw Karia, his head thrown back in laughter. Without hesitation, she reached out for his trouser cuffs and dragged him in. Sarsa and Leela were still laughing when they stepped out of the pool, their skirts clinging to their bodies. Karia had not seen his wife laugh with such abandonment before.
Growing up in a labourers’ line on the Silver Cloud coffee plantations, they had worked beside their parents from the time they learned to walk. Their elders had told them about the British and wealthy Kodavas starting coffee plantations on land where elephants once roamed freely. With no place to go, their elders had stayed; they had seen estates partitioned, change hands, go through transformations. They told Leela and Karia about their new Kodava masters and their women, for whom they had worked, washing and weeding. In those days, the women had addressed them through their cooks and maids. In recent times, it was not much different. Karia and Sarsa were used to being addressed as “Aeey!” or “Whatshisname.” Even Karia’s name, because of the color of his skin, was tagged on to him by a former Writer. He had forgotten that he had been named Surya after the sun.
When Silver Cloud was sold to hoteliers from the North, they were given three months notice. The new management kept the older labourers and brought in college graduates to entertain guests. Many of the younger ones left for the big city of Bangalore, to work on roads and the new airport. Karia and Sarsa, fearful of the big city, wandered for weeks working odd jobs, sleeping in bus stations, before Writer Shankar spotted them and brought them to Red-Roofs. Finally, they had a one-room unit with a little verandah to themselves. In the front yard, Sarsa planted a jasmine bush. In the mist-laden mornings and starlit nights, she began to laugh. They learned to make love without urgency. The child in her stirred.
Under the coffee shrubs, Leela told Karia and Sarsa about her aunt Mutḥe who had died young. How her death had taken her grandmother’s smile. How her twin, Kamala, hated their grandfather. How he never forgave their mother, Goṃbæ, for eloping with a truck driver and burdening his household with bastard twins. Once they completed middle school, their grandfather had stopped their schooling fearful they too would disgrace him. He awaited offers of marriage, longing to be rid of them, his shame. “Even if it’s to the same man!” Leela said laughing.
Karia and Sarsa in turn told Leela about their fear of the big city. About their relatives sleeping on the streets while they did road work. About a father and son crushed by a truck. That they too had longed to go to school and learn to write. “We can ask Ajja,” she told them. “He’s a teacher. Loka ella noteyande bandithe.(5)” Achiah’s travels meant nothing to them, but they were eager to approach the Ajja, of whom their friend spoke with such affection.
“Why? Achiah asked them.