Incense and Marigold

by

Ananya Nair


These days I live in a constant state of nostalgia. Everything that I am surrounded by, makes me wish I was in the past. The constant presence of exhaustion, academic pressure, and a pandemic makes me feel as though the days of my childhood were the stuff of fantasy novels. Every minor thing, from an Instagram post about ’90s cartoons, were the best’ or an old Bollywood song that came out when we were in middle school or the jarring realisation that my entire day is spent plopped in front of a screen makes me crave the days when I was just a naughty 5 year old.

Mixing powder and shampoo water pretending to make a potion and practising witchcraft or buying two toffees for a rupee that I bullied my grandfather into getting for me on my way back from school, all these little incidents that are slipping from my memory like sand, I scramble to hold on to them even tighter now as it dawns upon me that there never will be that sort of happiness for me again. Perhaps, my laptop screen and the tiny icons inside it will be my only companions for a long while to come.


Born to a working mother and father, I was dropped off at my grandmother’s house every morning at eight, as my parents set off to their dreary 9 to 5s. I never bothered to find out what they did for those eight odd hours, I was so content with my own little world of cartoons and stories and the park and my little gang of friends that I never imagined that almost a decade and a half later I, too, would be standing on the precipice of wanting one of those jobs, of fulfilling my place in society and becoming my own person.


After being dropped off at the door I would run to kiss my grandmother who was always up to something in the kitchen, mixing batters, chopping vegetables, whisking eggs and it seemed like her time there would never end. I would set my things down inside my room and run out into the street after my grandfather, early mornings in that street are still fresh as ink on parchment in my mind. The scent of incense and marigold flowers would hang thick in the air, women with slightly wet hair and lovely sarees would walk with plates full of flowers and holy water to the temple nearby, the tailor would open the shutter to his shop with a loud ‘Hello Baba’ to my grandfather who would stroll about with his hands at his back and a very distinguished air of self-importance, two men selling colourful Kashmiri shawls would roam around the colony with giant bundles on their backs, calling out women to buy from them, even they would salute Appa, everyone knew him somehow which made me feel like a local celebrity. I would run around and stand in front of my school. It was such good fun to be able to look at the shabby red building when I did not have to go in and sit in the class. Every kid in that street went to this school, we all knew each other, sometimes I would shout at their balconies and ask them to come down and race to the park, sometimes I would go and see the park by myself, in the morning when there were no kids, bathed in golden light and the crisp morning air, the park looked bigger than it did in the evening when it was lit up by streetlights and full of kids and bicycles. The monotony and familiarity of those mornings would bore me rather quickly and I would run back into the house while my grandfather would find a corner near the shops to sit down and read his newspaper.


Back in the house, I would make a huge fuss about breakfast, was the tea served in my favourite teacup? Had my favourite cartoon with the blue octopus and his pet dog started? Was I supposed to eat alone?

Amma (what I call my maternal grandmother) would sit with me for a while as I pretended to drink my tea and eat my eggs and bread, like some protagonist from an Enid Blyton book. I remember being so heavily influenced by the food in her books that I would ask Amma to make me ‘scrambled eggs and tea with two spoonfuls of sugar’. She would entertain my childish demands and I would fancy myself to be some main character who was about to set out on an adventure. Not long after breakfast, my mother would call and I would run to snatch the phone from Amma, I was always so happy to hear her sweet voice over the phone, asking me if I had breakfast, asking me what happened in the latest episode of Oswald, telling me she will see me at night and I should not trouble Amma too much. Sometimes I wished she would take me to work with her, this was before my sister was born and I felt rather lonely and I only saw my parents for a few hours at night. However, I was young and easily distracted so I would quickly find something else to occupy my mind with. The day would drag on and I would do all sorts of things like hiding under my Appa’s creaky old bed to scare Amma into thinking I had run away, sometimes I would take a bucket and fill it with random cosmetics and water and pretend to be making magical water if I got scolded for that I would raid the almirah and pull out random things and ask ‘What is this?’ or ‘Will you give me this saree when I am older?’ or ‘Was this my mom’s book?! Wow, may I keep it?’


Afternoons were always my personal favourite. My Amma would get done with her work and lie down with me, she would draw the curtains and the room would be coloured in faint orange light, then I would say ‘Story?’ and she would tell me of her childhood in Kerala, of her youth in Delhi as a young bride and also the most wonderful stories till I fell asleep. As a five year old I always thought my Amma wrote and came up with those stories but as I grew up and got exposed to literature, I realised they were excerpts from Greek Myth, British literature, and Indian epics, my Amma is a well-read woman and I have been delighted to find some of the mesmerising stories she told me to be taught in my literature course at college.


On days when she could not get rid of her work I would lie in the room alone, bored, and so I would try and pick apart the small dusty bookshelf that was full of my mother’s old books, to a kid they did not make much sense, but as I grew up I realised the shelf was chock full of DH Lawrence, Tom Hardy, Mills and Boons ( which I read later with much surprise and curiosity) and Sydney Sheldon. This blasphemous shelf also contained a copy of the Old Testament along with these novels, I assume it was from when my mother did her course in literature.


The evenings were full of Glucon D, rushing to the park in half worn-out shoes and playing till my limbs ached all over and I had bruised knees from falling onto the stone pavement. We would climb the Mulberry tree at the far end of the park’s entrance and I would give those to Amma to rinse for me so I could devour them. The games we played and how we got scolded for climbing trees and bringing our cycles into the park, all of that now feel like a fever dream, too good to have been true. I cannot remember, as a twenty-year-old, the last time I came home running from a park, sweaty and thirsty and giggling, full of incidents that happened and who fell and who cheated. I remember coming back to Amma as she sat and watched some Malayalam daily soap on the TV, having done her puja, she would make me sit with her till my father would knock on their door at 8 pm and then take me back home.


It feels, for the past two years, as though my father took me home and then I never got to go back to my place of comfort and happiness. I stay confined to my room typing away on my laptop and saying ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no sir’. I have not climbed a tree in years, maybe I have forgotten, I whine and complain when I get a slight bruise now, I get exhausted if I walk for more than an hour, my social battery runs out if I talk to people or go into crowded places, the stories I come across now do not interest me. I cannot go out into the street and smell incense and marigold because I have to wear a mask. I have not asked my grandfather if I can go through his old newspaper clippings when he used to write for them, in years. I have not seen my old school in ages and I do not know what the old park looks like either. My bicycle lies locked up in the shed on our terrace, rusting away while I once used to ride it every day and show it off as a trophy. I see my grandmother once a month and we greet each other politely. She asks about college, friends and jobs, and I reply, ‘It’s all going good’, I have not run into her kitchen to kiss her in ages.


Recalling those days and all the odd friends and days that I had, it seems unreal that I had experienced all those things, I wish I could do it for just one more day, just one where everything is not uncertain, where I know what I will do for the rest of the day and I can be happy without feeling like it comes with a price, I would like to be the old English protagonist having scrambled eggs again but unfortunately, I have grown up to be allergic to eggs now.



Ananya is a second year student of English Honors at Hansraj. Writing has always been her way of escaping the monotony of life, not assignments though. She hopes, one day, to be able to write in a way that is not just for personal pleasure but for a bigger reason. Ananya can be found watching Joe Wright's Pride And Prejudice any given day of the week. Her dream is to own a very imaginary (for now) book cafe that she plans to open right next to Ruskin Bond's house. She lives in greek mythology references and hating on Zeus is a side hobby of hers.

Ananya Nair
Ananya Nair
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