“Maalu, Maalu”, where are you? Come quickly, the cashews are nearly done.” In my house, someone is always telling me what to do. But this is different. I love watching cashews go “pop”.
I run down the stairs towards our soot-encrusted cheriya adukala. Chechi straightens up. She’d been stirring a bubbling aluminium vessal of rice. There’s a wood-fired stove next to the rice. It’s filled with slow-burning coconut husk and what looks like little black smoking pieces of coal. She takes a stick and turns the ‘coals’ over. There’s a slight spice in the air, wonderfully fragrant nut oil. “Oh chechi, why didn’t you call me earlier, the cashew nuts are already roasted fully,” I wail.
Chechi smiles. My little spurt of anger melts away and I take the stick from her. I give the nuts an extra ‘poke’. The cashews are coarsely blackened. She digs them out for me and carefully peels away the crusty skin. Steaming or no, who cares. I crunch on them happily. Chechi is not really my sister, but she has been with us so long it doesn’t matter. I am Maalu, actually my real name is Shriya, but everyone calls me Maalu kutty, or molu. I am nearly twelve; in fact, there’s just one more day to go for my birthday.
I take the nuts and pass by the valiya adukala to go outside. “Don’t go out like that. You can’t just wear only a petticoat, you’re not a little girl anymore,” chechi frowns. I shrug. Who cares. When it’s summer in Calicut, my petticoat is the coolest thing to wear.
I sit on my swing–the little wooden board Achchan strung up nice and tight around our mango tree. The nuts are over, sadly. I swing higher and higher, almost flying off the board. With an extra hard kick, the swing nearly touches a tree branch. I jump off in a sailing arc just as it reaches the very top. My body is weightless, the wind lifts me up, I am a bird, soaring higher and higher....
“Ooof”, an involuntary grunt escapes me when I land. No twisted ankle, I decide, pressing my foot gingerly. I look up and there’s Amma, glowering. “You are an idiot, Maalu. One day, you’ll break a bone.” “Nothing’s broken, nothing’s broken,” I chant, dancing around her. She smiles despite herself. “Shari, come molu, get ready or we’ll be late.”
I go upstairs to my room. I don’t have too many ‘colour dresses’, to be honest. I’m always in my school uniform and it’s not like we go out everyday or something. Colour dresses are for our annual day and those boring weddings Amma drags me to. I rummage in my cupboard, finally find a dress that doesn’t look too creased.
“Did you put on some powder, comb your hair?” she inspects me. “The dress is already tight around the chest. You are growing up so fast,” she remarks. I fidget. Honestly, why are adults always saying such things! “Come on, Ma, let’s go”. I run down.
“S M Street, please,” Amma tells the auto rickshaw driver. We are going to buy me a birthday outfit. Sweetmeat Street doesn’t just have entire rows of halwa-chips-and-biscuit shops; it has everything a proud Malayalee can ever want. Naturally, it’s always crowded. There are saree shops, shoe shops, toy shops, a movie theatre, little mobile carts serving piping hot pazhampori and chaaya in glass tumblers, ‘fancy’ stores Shilpa chechi, my elder sister, used to love going to for earrings, bangles and bindis; shops for ‘school needs’--bags, water bottles, umbrellas; shops for ‘kitchen needs’....Every kind of shop, really.
I especially love Brahmin’s, the little place Amma buys our coffee from. She makes kattam kaapi every morning. At exam times, especially, I wake up at 5 am just to smell that freshly made brew. I have it with lots of milk and sugar and it’s my second most favourite thing in the world. The coffee, I mean, not exams.
We get off at the entrance to SM Street. There are too many people milling about so it’s better to walk than have the auto rickshaw crawl in like a slow yellow-and-black beetle, and a sweaty one at that. “Have you decided what colour you want, or what kind of dress,” Amma asks. Seeing me shake my head, she sighs.
I spy Malabar Bakery on the right. “They have really nice banana halwa, and salted cashews, Ma. Please, please, please, can we buy some,” I tug at her arm. “Hmmm later…, on our way back maybe,” she says distractedly.
We pass by a hosiery shop called ‘Nightie, Bra, Panty’ (what a funny name, I always think). I’ve gone inside with Shilpa chechi before. Today, there are three grinning salesmen standing outside. They make eyes at me, and whistle softly. They are not so much older than me really but the way they’re looking doesn’t feel good. “You’ll soon need this,” one whispers as I pass by, waving a luridly red bra. I glare at him. “Why is he doing that,” I exclaim loudly. But Amma doesn’t hear. Her attention is fixed on the other side of the road. “Look Maalu, is that Lakshmi aunty, you know, my colleague in the physics department,” she gestures. “I don’t know Ma, let’s just go please,” I drag her away, away from that horrid shop.
“Ah, there’s Patel and Sons,” she cries, jolting me from my angry thoughts. We went there last year just before Shilpa chechi’s wedding. “Let’s check the readymade section, okay,” she adds. Mr Patel, Uncle to me, is sitting in front, his usual spot, talking to his manager. The shop was started by his grandfather but Uncle has been there for as long as I can remember.
“Hello Madam, how are you? How is Shilpa, any vishesham” he asks in his funny Gujarathi-speaks-Malayalam accent and a knowing smile. I am irritated. Why do people ask Amma that all the time? As if getting married is something special. Suddenly I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Uncle. “What Maalu, not such a little girl, anymore, eh,” he gives his booming laugh. He’s a big man, balding but always in a safari suit and munching as usual, on something. He usually has a store of chips or peanuts or nuts by his chair.
Uncle pats me, still laughing. The sight of his stomach moving like a gentle wave whenever he laughs usually makes me smile. I don’t find him so funny today, though. Amma is nodding, happy at the attention. At St. Xavier’s college, she takes Shakespeare for Uncle’s daughter Payal. He is always nice to us, gives us a little discount. His younger daughter Komal is in my class. She is my best friend.
Uncle and Amma are already in the readymade section. “Karuna, look sharp. See what Madam wants, she is a special customer,” he roars. A timid-looking girl darts forward with nicely-wrapped churidhar-kameez sets. “No, no, let her decide what colour she wants,” Amma turns to me. I glance down at the various crisp-looking packets—blues, reds, greens swirl before my eyes. I am feeling unsettled, don’t know why.
“This green will suit you, molu,” says Amma taking out a pale green outfit. Uncle is still by my side. To the shop assistant’s surprise, he takes out the kurta, holds it out to me. I don’t take it. So he guides me towards a nearby full-length mirror. “What do you think, Maalu. It’s just right, isn’t it,” he asks. Uncle is behind me holding the material tight against me. But his hand is pressing my waist and the other is moving up and down my back. I don’t know what to do, what to say. Amma is looking on smiling. She hasn’t noticed anything wrong. Dimly, I hear her reply: “Yes, we’ll take it. Maalu obviously likes it, since she’s not being her usual talkative self and raising objections.”
I feel sick. I want to run to her and hide. But my heart is racing and I’m scared.
“Come along now, girl, you are such a slowcoach,” scolds Amma as she follows Uncle downstairs. I don’t want to look at him; I just want to go home. He is standing by the entrance though, so I have to pass by him. Amma is thanking him profusely because he’s given us a little discount, again. “So kind of you,” she says.
“Oh, that’s nothing, after all, Maalu is a special child,” he smiles. And then, as Amma watches, he hands me a little packet of salted cashews. “Go on, where are your manners, girl,” says Amma, the stern teacher, as always. I don’t want the packet but he’s still holding it out. So I take it and run.
Outside, there’s an auto idling. “What luck, Maalu,” exclaims Amma, giving the driver directions. I get inside. I can’t speak. I glance up as the auto driver turns the vehicle around so we can go back the way we came. Uncle is looking at me. He is still smiling.
I stare at him. The cashew packet crackles in my palm. I throw it back into the clothes shop. Back at him.
Amma is angrily muttering in my ear at my behaviour. But she sounds far away and I don’t care. I hate cashews. I shall hate them forever.
Cheriya adukala: Inner or smaller kitchen
Chechi: Elder sister, term of respect/affection
Valiya adukala: Main kitchen
Kutty: Term of affection for a child
Molu: Endearment for a girl child
Shari: Alright, okay then
Kattam kaapi: Black coffee
Pazhampori and chaaya: Banana fritters and tea
Vishesham: Literally, something special. Euphemism for asking if the newly-married girl has conceived