AKKA (Elder Sister)

As kids, Akka and I loved to play by the old well near Bucchamma’s house. Bucchamma considered this trespass, but she was out most of the day herding her buffaloes and grazing them in the forest beyond the fields or letting them forage on Naga’s land. If Naga ever caught her, she’d yell at her buffaloes. Everyone knew how mean Bucchamma was, especially me. She once caught us in her guava tree when she had returned early from grazing. Akka managed to clamber down before she got near, but I got caught between the shrieking demoness and a deep blue sky. All the same, we frequented her well with cautious excitement. We plucked peepul leaves just because we wanted to, and threw stones at the lizards just to see them scamper. We killed a couple of them too, and then gazed in horror at the bloody mess we had created. The well was dry now, but there was a lot of growth around it. Thick vines fought with neem and tamarind trees to form dark nooks where danger lurked and fantasy reigned.

Sometimes, we would walk down to the river and play in the shallows. Our naked bodies would glisten and sparkle in the midday sun as we splashed around. If the boys came to look, we’d yell abuses at them. “Son of a widow, go tend your cattle,” we’d scream, but they’d laugh as they squatted in the shade. Sometimes they’d dance and pose like the Telugu film actors we’d see when we went to Macherla to buy and sell our produce at the bazaar. These encounters didn’t last very long because sooner or later they’d have to go back to their herding. We tried fishing several times but all that ended up in our nets were tadpoles and tiny minnows. The tadpoles looked disgusting, so we’d throw them in the sand and watch them wiggle. I used to have a really mean streak in me, but I think that’s changed now. Before leaving, we would wash our clothes in the water, but they never really came out clean, they just didn’t smell as much.

Akka was five years older than I was, and at fifteen, she was very well endowed. The kirana store dukandar would deliberately dally with our rations of ground wheat and oil, just so that he could steal lecherous glances at her ripening breasts. She enjoyed it. She would stand with one hand on her hip, the other scratching her dry and matted hair. Hips to a side and chest pushed out to accentuate those luscious lines, she was irresistible to men.

We had grown apart in the past few years though. She was working in the landlord’s house, and she would come back quite late. When we did get some time together, she would tell me of the kitchen stocked with huge urns of rice and flour. Milk flowed through the taps like water, and you could see your face in the polished floors. The landlord’s wife wore thick chains of gold over bright silk saris. A huge vermilion bottu on her forehead, and beetlenut juice dripping from her fat face she would sit on the verandah, chewing absentmindedly in her rocking chair. The leftovers they fed their dogs were better than anything I had ever seen, she said, but when I asked her why she didn’t bring some back, she said she wasn’t allowed to. I decided that someday, I would work in the landlord’s house too.

Akka had been very proud of working in the landlord’s house, but in the recent past I had begun to notice a change. She seemed a little distraught, and if I tried whispering to her in the quiet darkness of the night, she would hush me and ask me to go back to sleep. A few streaks of yellow streetlight shafted their way through the cracks in our bamboo walls, and I awoke sometimes to see her eyes glistening with a moist and choking despair. I didn’t speak, I didn’t move, I just fell back into a troubled sleep.

The festival of Dusshera was just around the corner, and mother awoke early in the cold darkness of the morning. She would make meager preparations of assorted sweetmeats. Rolled dough wrapped over little morsels of sweetened coconut and rice would sizzle as she watched them fry. We didn’t have much to go the rounds, but she had been saving up for the festival, and Akka’s contributions to the household had certainly made a difference. Akka awoke early too, complaining of nausea. When I went out to milk the goats, I saw her hunched over a rock, her head in her hands, crying as she retched. I went up to her, mute and unsure of what to do, but she didn’t seem to want me there. Fine strands of her matted hair were blowing in the cool wind as the stench of her retch reached me. The eastern sky was warming in anticipation of a rising sun, but I shivered as I watched her. When she was done, we walked back to the house, our footsteps punctuating the strained silence. I didn’t go in because I realized that I still had the goats to milk.

When I got back, I saw Akka lying on her mat, one arm over her face, her crumpled clothes bunched over her dark brown body.  Mother boiled the milk and gave me some to drink. She didn’t look at me, but I saw her hand tremble as she handed me the small dented aluminum glass. I looked at her as I blew on the scalding milk. Hot steam rising to shroud her impassive face, she looked strangely feeble, leaving me wondering whether I hadn’t seen her in a long time. She was a small woman with grey hair, wrinkled and bony, but strong as a buffalo within. Her parrot green cotton sari was old and torn, but it had that wonderful smell of mother when you held it to your face. It made me think of goats, dung, the wet paddy fields, chillies. It was the sweat of the earth itself. Warm and sweet, hard yet soft. She cried sometimes, and cursed often but that was only because such was our way. Her mother had done the same, and so had her grandmother, but they had all struggled day after day, and meal to paltry meal to feed and raise a growing family. They were all gone now, lost to the shadows of her memory, yet they lingered in her- her eyes especially.

I was listless at school that day, and although the teacher droned on, all that I heard were the crows outside. I don’t even remember what I wrote on my broken slate, or for that matter what I copied from the board; I just wanted to get back home. Mother was drawing a Muggu at the front entrance when I got home. Patterns sprang to life as she poured white chalk power through her clenched fingers, her greying head bent in concentration. She had already sprinkled cow dung and water on the courtyard floor, and the fresh scent of dung made me hungry. Not that I ate dung, but it meant that the evening meal would be next in her endless line of chores. I ran to look for Akka, but she was nowhere to be seen. When I asked mother what was wrong with her, she simply said in an irritated tone “What has happened to Akka? Nothing has happened to Akka. Did you tend the goats?”

Akka was brought back very late that night, pale and shaking. She was leaning on Venkatamma the village midwife as they walked in, one hand pressed to her loins, limping slightly. Mother ran to her, embracing her with her soft wailing. I tried to help, but I think I only got in the way. Akka still wouldn’t look at me, and I felt strangely distant. It was that same feeling that I had got in the morning, as I sat listening to the crows in the schoolyard. Mother looked weak, helpless and old as she sat there, one hand on Akka’s brow, the other wiping her tears. Why was I thinking of Mother when it was Akka who was in trouble?

Not much happened for a few days following that incident. Akka seemed to get better, and although she didn’t go back to work, her spirits seemed to lift. A few nights later, Akka asked me whether I wanted to pick mogra flowers at Buchamma’s well. It was already quite late that night, and I was surprised by the question, but it had been a long time since we had done anything together, and so I said yes. As we walked down the dark trail lined with bramble and weed, the incessant buzz of mosquitoes swarming around us, I asked Akka why she wanted to do this now. She was walking ahead of me, and without breaking her gait, she replied “Because I want to,” as if speaking to the path ahead. Moonlight shone on her, dancing on the folds of her clothes and lighting her hair with a silver glow. I did not know my sister, I realized. I did not know her life. I was a part of it, but I did not know it.

When we reached the well, she drew me into the shadows of a banyan tree, and told me to climb up. I was frightened by now, but I did as she told me to. She climbed up beside me, wriggling to make herself comfortable. As we sat there in silence, looking down into the clearing beneath us, wondering what to expect, certain only that something would happen, I began to feel a cold chill creep up my spine. I was trembling, and to my surprise I could feel Akka trembling too.

It wasn’t long before we heard some muffled groans and footsteps. Through the dark branches, we saw men carrying a large sack, hung on a pole that they were bearing on their shoulders. I felt Akka’s hand close around mine in a tight wet grasp as I clung to the branch.

The men threw down the sack, and one of them opened it as the others watched. They didn’t speak. We didn’t move. We could hear muffled groans, and we could see enough to know that the sack contained a man. He was wearing pearly white clothes and I could see that he was a large man, well built and well fed. I looked at Akka and knew immediately that this was the landlord. Two of the men left, searching for something on the ground, and when they returned, they had a large rock to carry between the two of them. While the others held the landlord down, they cracked his skull, and threw him into the well. They spoke a little after that before throwing the rock in as well. We waited a long time after they had gone before climbing down.

As we stood there, wondering whether to approach the well, I asked Akka who the men were. “Nexalites,” she replied, “They’re Communists”. Slowly, we approached the well and leaned over its side. As I looked into its dark depths, I couldn’t see a thing. I only saw my own fear gaping back at me. There was no life there, only Akka’s past. “Why Buchamma’s well?” I asked. “I don’t know, but they say that she left her husband for the landlord. That’s how she came upon this land,” Akka replied.

Akka’s never been the same again, and I’ll never know how much of a part she had to play in that fateful nights’ horror. We don’t speak about it, but all I know is that she doesn’t sleep very well. She works in the fields now, and mother’s looking for a groom for her. She seems to have aged a bit, and it’s remarkable how much she resembles mother now – especially in the eyes.

I don’t venture near Buchamma’s well nowadays, neither do I kill any lizards. I hear that the Mogras are out in full bloom, but I guess they’ll be there next season.