Gundamma bent over the plant to pick the half-awakened jasmine buds. Their fragrance wafted gently through the air. Tomorrow they would adorn Lord Nataraja and the delicate scent would waft through the temple sanctum . A faint smile danced over Gundamma’s finely wrinkled face as she collected flowers from her little garden.
Gundamma had been a vender of garlands in front of the Nataraja temple for over thirty-five years now. Her shop, on the pavement leading to the famous Nataraja temple in Tamil Nadu, was the size of a small verandah. There she sat every day, from 7 AM to 8 PM, her wrinkled hands continuously stringing flowers into garlands with various patterns. As her fingers automatically threaded flowers , her exprienced eyes were on the lookout for a possible customer. She sang in a monotonous tone from time to time, “Jasmine garland, sugandha raja garland, gulabi mala, kakada, whatever you want. Come and pick yourself. Only Rs. ten . . . only Rs.tennnn . . .”
Devotees preferred her garlands , for the patterns she made were extremely attractive and the flowers were fresh and fragrant.
Gundamma had the best garden in town. It had originally belonged to her father, and she had inherited it from him as she was the only surviving child. Her husband, an alchoholic, had never done a day’s work in his life, but she had more than made up for it by her diligence. The garden and the garland business ran smoothly because of her. At dawn, in the soft light of the rising sun, she picked the budding flowers in her garden, collected them into the pallu of her saree—hollowed like a basket and tucked into her waist—prepared ragi balls for her husband and son, and rushed off to the pavement carrying on her head a basket filled with flowers and some garlands left over from the previous day.
Gundamma’s life was a tale of woes. Her drunkard husband was found dead, one night, on the street near the toddy shop . Her son was barely eight years old. She raised her son well and married him off to a nice little girl from the nearby village, but her daughter-in-law died while giving birth to her grandson. Gundamma’s son fell victim to T.B and died shortly after his wife’s death. It seemed Gundamma was immortal, silently witnessing one death after another. Her round face wrinkled, every line standing testimony to each of her tragediesHer straight shoulders drooped under the weight of the responsibility of raising her grandchild.
In spite of all the events that crushed her life, her routine never changed. For thirty-five years she had followed the same schedule of gathering the flowers, cooking ragi balls and wheat milk—first for her husband, then her husband and son, then her husband, son and daughter-in-law (even though her daughter-in-law had taken over the housework, Gundamma did the cooking), and now for her grandson, Nataraja—then scurrying off to the temple bearing the big basket of flowers on her head. The simple devotion with which she had served Lord Nataraja for so many years in her own small way stood her in good stead. She tied each garland with veneration pouring forth from her heart, visualizing the malas around the neck of the deity. She rarely entered the temple but she never missed catching a glimpse of the murthy from outside whenever the maha mangalarati took place at noon and in the evening. Her eyes peered at the idol and slowly welled up when she saw Lord Nataraj wearing some of her garlands. She would touch her cheeks with her hands, mumbling incoherently, perhaps begging for the lord’s blessings, and slump on the sack to get back to work, her hands weaving the garlands as skillfully as a dancer dexterously rendering the steps or a master musician scaling the notes.
These days little Nataraja, her grandson, was seen hanging around the temple after school, as he had some friends among the pavement venders’ children. He would throw his school bag near his ajji (grandmother), bug her for fifty paise to buy some candy and run off to play marbles with his friends. Sometimes, if she wanted to go home for a break, Gundamma would ask him to take her place, and Nataraja did well with the job assigned to him. He was a sharp kid, full of mischief natural to his age, but when it came to selling the garlands, he was no less talented than his grandmother. People admired the little boy’s expertise in describing the flowers, quoting the price of the garlands, and not budging from the price no matter how much the customer bargained.
“One fixed price,” he would say firmly and turn to another customer, putting a finality on the transaction. The buyer would be left with no choice. If he stood wavering, Nataraja would turn to him and say, “You will not find a similar sugandharaja garland in the entire market. Go look for yourself and come back.” He then briskly carried on his deal with others, ignoring the haggling buyer, though keeping a sharp eye on him. In case the bird-in-hand turned away, the young lad knew ways to entice him back.
“If you want a garland for Rs. 6, here buy this beauty,” he dangled a little withered garland before the unsure customer. Eventually Nataraja would succeed in baiting his buyer. Gundamma swelled with pride at her grandson’s skill in business. He was going to be an heir to her garden and she could not have asked for a more worthy one. She thought she could lay herself at Lord Nataraja’s feet when the end came, peacefully.
The day seemed to come faster than she had anticipated. Gundamma was picking flowers one morning when she twisted her foot and fell. Unable to walk, she had to stay in bed. The garden needed to be watered, the flowers picked, strung into garlands, and sold at the temple pavement. If that wasn’t done, she and her grandchild would starve. Gundamma was worried. True, Nataraja was a smart boy, but he was too young to earn the livelihood. Why, he was barely nine years old, she thought. How could he shoulder the entire responsibility? Besides he was a very playful boy. He could not be expected to feed his grandmother and himself.
And yet, was there a choice?
When the money she had saved and put aside tied in an old rag had been spent on food, Gundamma said to the boy, “Go pick the flowers from the garden. I will make the garlands and you take them to the pavement. We are out of ragi today.”
Nataraja was busy counting his marbles. He had taken out a bunch of worn-out marbles from his mud -stained shorts’ pocket and laid them out on the floor. A rusted oil lamp burned dimly, casting an enormous shadow of the little boy on the mud wall. He was bent close to the lamp, counting and recounting the dull glass marbles. He had to be sure there were enough of them to beat his friend Hari in the game the next day.
Gundamma repeatedly told him to pick the flowers but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
In the morning Nataraja wore his uniform, juggling the marbles in his pocket. He then sat down on the floor with his aluminum bowl and asked his grandmother impatiently, “Where is my ragi ball? I am getting late for school.”
“I told you yesterday there is no ragi at home. You have to sell the garlands, so we can buy ragi.”
Nataraja threw the bowl with a bang on the floor, grabbed his school bag and walked out.
When he came back to the hut in the evening, he was exhausted. He had lost four of his seven marbles to Hari and had not eaten anything all day, save for the peanuts his friend had shared with him.
“Ajji, give me ragi balls,” he shouted as soon as he came in.
“There is no ragi in the hut, I told you to pick . . .”
Nataraja threw the school bag at her feet in a rage.
“Give me wheat milk at least,” he screamed.
“There is nothing in the hut, I told you to pick flowers,” the old lady repeated.
Nataraja curled up on the floor. He lay there thinking. His stomach was empty. He realized that there was no way his ajji would give him food.
Gundamma was fast asleep when Nataraja opened the door of the hut at four o’clock in the morning. She did not hear him melt away into the thick of the darkness. She did not know where he was all day.
“Playing truant at school, I bet,” she thought as she lay on her torn mat, weak and famished.
Nataraja ran into the hut in the evening and pulled out a bunch of rupee notes from his pocket. Gundamma was stunned.
“Have you been stealing money?” she chided, making a feeble attempt to sit up.
“No, ajji. I sold garlands at the pavement,” said Nataraja. “Look I have a few leftovers and I will sell them tomorrow.” He pulled out three garlands from his school bag.
The old lady’s face lit up. “He has it in his blood,” she thought joyfully as she rolled in her toothless mouth the vadas that her grandson had picked up from the roadside vender, savoring every bit of the fried stuff.
Days went by. Nataraja put food on the table, so to speak. The flower business went on more smoothly than Gundamma had ever hoped. They had idli and vada everyday instead of ragi balls, a luxury which they previously had, occasionally on the day of the fair or a festival. Lord Nataraja was not going to let them down.
The old lady started thinking that her illness had come like a blessing in disguise. The boy had taken over the reins while she was still alive.
Everything went on fine until one day when a policeman entered her hut and waved his stick menacingly at the feeble figure stretched out on the mat.
“Where is that little rascal? He can’t hide from me, the young little thief,” he said and looked around.
Nataraja peeked from behind the hut. Even though he was panting from being chased by the policeman, he was careful not to let a breath be audible. He had to run while the policeman was inside the hut. He waited his chance and bolted, disappearing into the crowd.
Gundamma sat up in alarm.
“Hey, watch your wicked tongue. Who are you calling a thief?” The old lady was indignant.“He is my grandson, Nataraja. He sells garlands at the temple.”
The policeman gave a nasty little laugh.
“He sells garlands all right. But do you know where he gets the garlands from?”
“Why, from my garden of course,” she said, a little unsure. She had not seen him pick the flowers or string them into garlands, but she had seen the garlands with her own eyes. Where did those come from, if not from her garden? She had presumed her friend Bhagya had strung the flowers once Nataraja had collected them from the garden. For the first time a small doubt crept into her simple mind. She was a little bewildered now.
“So you think, old woman,” the cop said. “He steals the garlands from the cemetery every morning and sells them for the god. We found this out when a Christian lady complained that the garland she put on the stone of her grandfather was missing and she recognized it when she went to purchase a bouquet for some one. It was because her garland had special purple roses that she could tell it was the same one.”
The old lady slumped down slowly on her mat.
“Hey Lord Nataraja, all these years I bedecked you with the best of flowers. I brought up my grandson thinking he was a gift from you—you reborn in my humble hut. Today he decorated you with flowers from the cemetery..from the cemete . . .”
She breathed her last.
A small crowd gathered around her hut by evening. Her body was decorated with several garlands made by neighbors and relatives as was the custom.
Nobody saw little Nataraja pull a garland stealthily from her dead body and hide it under the pile of her old sarees and his clothes, in a corner of the hut.
Next day the little boy was on the pavement, busily walking up and down it with garlands hanging from his left arm and his right arm waving one.
“Fresh garland—the best one for Lord Nataraja, only Rs. Ten . . . only Rs. Tennnnn . . .” his voice shrilled above the din of the crowd.