A Small Adjustment
By Shalini Ramchandran
The notice announces in bold letters that the government’s new public improvement program is putting our tax dollars at work: they are going to build a sidewalk on our street, and they will need half a meter of our land along the front of our property. “A Small Adjustment for Our Services” they ask from us. My hands freeze in the middle of knotting my graying black hair at the nape of my neck. My bangles stop in mid-jangle.
“They are going to what!” I exclaim. My husband takes off his rectangular glasses and shakes his white head. “I suppose it is for the best of the neighborhood. We must just bear it. Anyhow, it is only half a meter. Let us go tend to it one last time.” I slowly pull my sari over my head and follow him outside.
I have always liked to think of us as two shadows, or ghosts maybe, that float out in the dawn dew, neither visible nor invisible. He in his white veshti and I in my cotton sleeping sari (dating back to my great-grandmother’s time) tucked securely around my waist. After over fifty years, our early morning routine is nearly the same: wake up, heat water for bath, say our prayers, then tend to our garden. By now, the small bulbs and seeds we had lovingly sown into the earth have grown strong and big, but we still remember them young, just as we remember our own children. To imagine half of this piece of our lives together wiped away wrenches my heart. My husband goes to the back to get our gardening tools and I stand in the rectangle of pavement in front of the garden, seeing the antics of our grandchildren over the years, the three brick stumps they used for cricket, hearing the shouts from the Diwalis from long before as the fireworks burst like fountains through the air, reaching up toward the heavens and falling back. Children screaming and running away in delight. All witnessed by the silent, leafy aunties and uncles growing around our house.
I should tell our tenant upstairs to move his auto rickshaw. I still remember the fateful day when we decided to rent out the upstairs floors. One week after my husband, in the middle of his meeting, had gotten the fateful notice that our child had been critically injured in a motorcycle accident. After our son was gone, the house just seemed too big. For hours, my husband would stare blankly from his desk or calculate endless stock prices as I weeded the garden even after it was completely purged of weeds. And I began sleeping on the floor of the living room to hear the crickets chirping rhythmically outside and the poor people bustling on the streets. Always busy, light the stove, clean the floor, pump the water. The hands must keep moving. There were other chores to do.
My husband comes with the tools. He walks, plant by plant, checking for infestations, weeds, rotten things thrown in by passerby. Pruning here, there. And I inspect the smaller pots lining our doorway, transplanting the medium-sized flowers, testing their supple stems for strength before lugging out the bigger pots, the next level before connection straight into the earth. I sometimes wish there was someone who had done the same for me, guiding me by the hand to the next best place, always knowingly traveling toward the end goal. But there never was. Gardening is time-consuming. It is easier to throw the seeds and hope for beauty, rather than to cultivate it. Women as a group will always be a lost people, wandering around, searching for the bigger pot, the fertile soil for our seed that we will never find, that no one wants us to find.
I glance over at my husband beginning to water my favorite little plant, the tulsi, which I had planted myself years before for good luck, a prayer to Lord Krishna. The water flows out in a thin stream with the virility and conscientious accuracy characteristic of my husband. He leans effortlessly against the low wooden frame above our garden, still exuding the ease of life at the age of seventy-three that he had shown since our wedding day. Everything was simple for him. No hard choices, no difficult decisions. Everything would work out in the end. I smile to myself at how different we are. My nervousness aptly accounts for the high blood pressure for which I take five gray tablets a day.
I move to my jasmine, the flower of the common woman. Lining any street near shopping areas are poor women of all ages, stringing jasmine flowers together into garlands for privileged women like me to wear in our hair. I don’t know if they know that the jasmine fades. It becomes sticky and brown and lodges in our privileged hair like burrs that we must pry off. I sometimes have the urge to tell them that all the pretty white flowers decay. But seeing their eyes, lined with wrinkles of pain, I don’t. I inhale the sweet smell of the jasmine as I pluck some flowers for my puja later. Sweet and sickly all at once. Always a duet. The poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy. Jasmine is the flower of India. My granddaughters do not understand why I ask them to wear the jasmine flowers in their hair even though the scent is so overpowering and different. When I tell them that I do so because the smell is different, they shake their heads and walk away.
The Spinach Lady’s calls reach my ears faintly. She is turning down the street now, balancing on her rusty blue bicycle with one arm holding in place the expansive basket of spinach leaves on her head. When I was growing up, I had once hugged the Spinach Lady’s mother because she had told me I was pretty. That evening, my older brother told my parents what I had done, and they gave me the worst chastising I had ever heard. She was not like us, she was dirty. We are Brahmins and we don’t touch them and they don’t touch us. There are certain rules we have to follow. Other things I didn’t understand through my tears and bewilderment. Spinach Lady the Younger bikes by and looks at me, and I nod. We are friends, but in the distant way, where we both know each other well but acknowledge our bond through a nod or a small lift of the corner of our lips. I don’t know why I never ask her how her family is, whether she is getting by all right without her husband. I heard her son is doing well in the government school. Most people like her have children who drop out and become drunk or homeless.
My husband is pruning the bushes with his long pair of scissors. Last year, my son brought a big machine from America to cut the bushes. I screamed and began to cry when he turned it on. The teeth on the monstrous thing looked like it would bite off anyone’s hand in a second. He took it back, needless to say.
The daisies are beginning to fade early this year. I look closely and see broken glass in the middle of the flowers. People in my village used to call me pretty, like a daisy. Always smiling. I feel silly now, knowing that I was smiling like a little fool when there were people who begged daily for my father—a lawyer—to loan them money. Daisies are silly flowers. I don’t blame the drunk man who threw the bottle into the heart of the daisies. I pick up the broken shards and hold them up to the orange sunlight. Fragments of light reflect off each piece, onto the pavement in a kaleidoscope of shapes.
My childhood cuts through my thoughts. Images of my brothers playing, of me washing dishes in the back, the residue of food running in rivulets down the street. Answering only “Yes” always. I grew up knowing that my opinions were a useless waste of time. Why does it matter what you think when whatever unfolds is what will be and thinking will not lead to solutions or change? That was the school of thought of my parents. We live, we exist, we survive, we die. For some reason God only knows, we are invariably here, on this giant spinning planet soaking in the sun. Somehow we must persist, reach the final goal written in the Vedas of moksha, union with God. When will the Spinach Lady attain moksha? I wonder.
Then, in a jagged piece broken off my childhood came adulthood, in a rush of change and uncertainty. I can still remember my wedding day: the nervousness, the folds of my rich silk sari, the glittering gold and diamonds that covered my face. I had never seen my husband-to-be before; I had merely been informed two weeks before that I was to be married. I laugh softly to myself, thinking of all the questions my grandchildren from America ask me. Did you love him? Did you want an arranged marriage? I feel a blush spread over my cheeks and I bend closer toward the mint leaves so my husband does not see it. There was no question of love or want. Only of necessity, duty to my parents, duty to my progeny. Love? Only mutual acknowledgement of each’s services to the other through a nod, a small smile. No, there was none of that flashy lust with hands on bellybuttons like they show in the cinema. My American grandchildren could not understand, naturally.
It’s funny how as I age, I seem to remember more from the early years of my life. Life goes in a full circle, like a vine, intertwining with others yet returning to its origin. I hobble over to the rose plant—my ankle is paining again—and begin gently to pull up the drooping stems covered in buds, fastening them to the protective surrounding cage. I had never liked that there had to be a cage. My mother-in-law was the one who had suggested it long ago, when the plant was merely a fledgling—a few weeks after my marriage, when I was rushing, sweat dripping off my forehead, to grind dosa batter for nine mouths.
“How in the world are you going to get anything to grow like this! Stupid girl.” she had exclaimed in her authoritative way. Everyone else had a cage for the roses. Yours would be the only droopy ones, hanging low like an old woman’s breasts, and none the prettier. The cage would make the vines of the rose stronger, as they would never be strong enough to stand on their own.
She didn’t say that every single rosebud would also be trapped in its cage.
My mother-in-law was a very blunt woman, caustic and arrogant. Her death two years ago from all kinds of cancer came more as a relief to her children than a sorrow. I wonder who will grieve for dead flowers but the gardener. Are the people passing my garden gaining any delight from seeing the blossoms? Some people do great things in life: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi. People grieve for the deaths of great souls, mahatmas who make deep imprints on society and give their life’s breath to the bettering of their country. Destiny puts them in such situations so they can bring change. Who will grieve for the Spinach Lady’s death? I wonder. Where will be the throngs of people who remember her daily call and her daily good mornings after she breathes her last?
Roses are unpredictable. Sometimes, even in the right season, the plant will deign to give two or three blossoms, and then will haughtily stop. Or is it haughty? Is it merely a product of its incarceration, a protest to the cage that constrains its body and beauty? Memories of an old poem drift through my mind—yes, the poem that my first daughter had memorized for a contest. Did she win? Perhaps. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” What was next? As a schoolgirl, my teachers had always told me that I have an elephant’s memory. I chuckle, remembering the time I told my granddaughter the same phrase—the granddaughter from America. The granddaughter burst into tears and screamed, “I’m not an elephant!” It was one of my first experiences of culture shock. Then the consoling, the explaining, the laughing.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Why the buds, why not the roses themselves? I suppose, in the bustle of life, in the dearth of time, we have only a moment to gather the rosebuds before we rush off to the next arena of life—the next birth, the next visit, the next meal. And wait to see if the rosebuds will bloom in our hands.
When I was younger—maybe in my early twenties—I would ask my mother what was the purpose of all of this. The cleaning, the cooking, the subservience. The purpose of this cage around the rose. A thorn from the rose pricks my finger, drawing some blood. My reward for carelessness. My mother knew I had wanted to be a lawyer, like my father. She would secretly buy me books with the little spending money she had, though he had already pronounced that I would never amount to anything, going to college. “There is no place for a woman in our world except in the home!” he had shouted upon discovering my little library, eyes furious at my mother for encouraging my dreams. His turban had come unwound in his rage, and I remember having the unseemly urge to laugh amidst all the emotion in the room. And that was all. End of discussion.
Pansies. I remember my grandson from America as I stoop to pluck some pansies for offerings. He calls spineless people pansies. I feel like a pansy when I half-acknowledge the Paper Boy, the Spinach Lady, the Ironing Man. When I look at the caged rose. Each traveling through a miserable life in the shadow of the past, following the withered footsteps of their ancestors. The same. Even if the rose could stand on its own, we would never know. It will always be in its cage, with the pansies growing upright, beside it.
A boy across the streets runs around without pants. He squats and begins to do his business. I avert my eyes and tend to the flowers. I wonder if his mother, as a little girl, envisioned her children squatting outside houses without clothes. You sometimes wonder if God hears the little people. Perhaps the famous, important people have a hotline in their air-conditioned offices to God. To request personal favors. But the little boy across the street doing his business prays only to faraway gods in faraway temples behind wrought oak doors. And there is some refuge in knowing that God isn’t listening. Here, in this night, we are all on the same street with garbage lining the side.
With a heavy heart, I wipe my hands on the edge of my sari. My day’s gardening is done. Half of our garden will be destroyed within hours. Each year, each day, each step has been leading to this moment, when I sit on the concrete slab in front of the three make-believe cricket stumps, watching my husband water a rose in a cage. So much of life is unexpected. I would never have dreamed of having a television in my living room and a car parked outside. I would never have dreamed, as a little girl growing up in Pudukottai, that I would have daughters with Masters Degrees living in houses with central air-conditioning in America, the golden land. Looking outside, from this worn sack that shrouds me, the world around seems to have aged while I remain the tiny figure in a bright skirt, running through the village streets. This little garden, which started out as a disfigured collection of weeds and shrubbery, is now our—mine and my husband’s—little diary.
The gentle tendrils of the rose wrap around the cage, up and up. They do not break. I’m sure they will never break. My husband gathers his tools and walks over to me as I stand beside the metal grill. You have leaves in your hair, he tells me. He sifts through my hair and removes two leaves, a twig. We stand side by side, with deliberate space between us, deliberate silence between us, watching our garden. And as we watch, side by side, the vines seem to grow together, the fragments of the sunrise seem to collate into one beam, and, together, we walk inside our house.
[Written in Twelfth Grade]
Shalini is a freshman at Emory University majoring in Creative Writing and Journalism. In addition to writing for the Emory Wheel, she sings in the Gathering, Emory's all-female a cappella group, is on the Hindu Student Council Executive Board, and is involved in Theater Emory. She hopes to spend some years with the Peace Corps after she graduates and eventually write novels.
Scholastic Publishing sponsors the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards every year for teenagers to submit their short stories, poems, and other works. "A Small Adjustment" won the gold award for short story--the highest award possible in the category. In addition, Scholastic chooses roughly 60 of the gold award winners for all categories to be in a book called "The Best of Teen Writing" for each year. This year, Shalini's "A Small Adjustment" was published in "The Best of Teen Writing of 2008."
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