The thing that warms my heart on these icy mornings is nothing but the sight of sun rays slitting through arecanut trees, forming warm patches among the mist. The lazy call of The Greater Coucal makes me smile, my eyes searching for the ‘Good Luck Bird’ on instinct. Ah, the brains of a village girl, I think to myself. Finding omens in nature. As I should. I smile. Though my grandfather paid little heed to these superstitions, I still managed to extract stories from him that incorporated these very omens. It made everything more interesting, in my opinion. “The chombuka? Ah, ponn, we used to say that it brought us good luck, seeing one on the way to school. Ironically enough, it was the same day we received more punishments!”
Besides, birds have always fascinated me.I grin. I remember hearing the wails of the Indian Hornbill from the estates, the panicked flight of the house sparrows, the rapid swimming of the water crow - and of course, the ivory white storks that stalked the lime-green paddy fields. They would stand and arch their necks, alert, but still managing to give off a snobbish, proud vibe.
The fields! I remember with a smile. The pre-sowing days, my cousins and I would go down to the muddy fields and fling the bund at each other, like a bunch of wild monkeys. Once, my cousin and I got into such an intense mud fight, that my grandmother was picking out stray pebbles and grass from my hair weeks later! “Shivaratrik Kaliporde?” “Dressed up for Shivaratri?” a passing relative had asked, amused and I’d shrugged. I’d won at least!
There was another story, involving the same cousin, who, despite our repeated warnings, wore his chappals into the sticky and all-sucking bund. Just as we prophesized, his chappal was lost, and despite his panicked cries and exclamations, we could not find it. He had to travel barefoot and muddy. Of course, he received quite an earful (and likely a firm whooping) from his mother. His chappal is still out there somewhere in that field to this day, waiting to be found!
I sigh, my eyes darting through the arecanut plantation to the fields - rather, the ginger plantations that are coming up. I’d never understand my fellow humans. To prepare the plot of land for ginger, the soil had been dug up, pesticide had been sprayed. All this resulted in many, many crabs being killed, something I’d seen with my own eyes. They lay there, soft bellies facing upwards and weakly retaliating as the labourers poked slightly at their pincers. It enraged me to see them so. This was as much their land as it was ours, was it not? And these corpses had no use. We couldn’t eat it, our bodies wouldn’t be able to handle the effects of the same poison we sprayed. And the wolves and foxes that feasted on these crabs were nowhere to be seen today, wiped out due to the same poison.
Foxes. I remember hearing their howls when I was maybe six or seven. I’d heard them all my life. They’d howl, and I’d stare longingly from the balcony to the fields as my parents or grandparents told me stories of how the most daring of those bastards would steal chicken from their coops. “I’d be on the verge of tears!” My grandma exclaimed as I tried to fathom a fox with a plump chicken between its teeth. “Foxes are cunning.” My mother told me, and my six year old self had nodded, for I had read countless stories of their quick thinking and wit.
Alas, they howl no more.
My grandfather’s voice echoes in my head. “Ah, ponn, you are blessed to be born here. Our ancestors knew every animal has their duty. So do we.” He’d said, when I’d remarked that it would be so much easier to be a cow grazing in a meadow. Or perhaps a tiger in the Sunderbans. “A cow produces milk. It is it’s way of saying thank you to it’s master. And the tiger, you may think it only kills - but it keeps the population of the prey in check, does it not?”
The same thought had struck me as I pulled off a blood-drunk leech from another cousin’s leg (my okka is close knit and we all live really close by). She was being dramatic, tears in her eyes and cursing the leech. “Oh, shut it already!” I’d snapped at her. “The leech sucked out all the toxins from your blood. You should be thanking it, really!” I had laughed.
I smiled at the memory. At least the leeches were still there. Why, if you simply put your foot in the grass during the monsoon and pulled it out after just a second or two, there’d already be at least three to four of those slimy little things, waving their slick bodies in indignance and still sucking blood. Everyone hated them, but I always felt a little thankful towards them though.
I shuddered as the wind whipped around me, but I felt glad. After a whole year of unusual weather, the icy coldness of Kodagu’s winters was like a fresh breath of normalcy, despite the many papers that claimed otherwise. Besides, these winds were a part of home, I remembered. Everything has a place here in Kodagu. The winds were one of them. It raged in swift, strong gales atop the lofty mountains of Choma Kundh, whipping clothes here and there. Or other times, it was a cool breeze during the summer, whistling through the trees as we dried ourselves after playing in the river. Other times, it was just wind, no names attached, blowing quietly but cheerfully through the gold and green fields of Kodagu, ruffling my tresses as I breathed in the scent of coffee blossoms and wildflowers too plenty and pretty to be named.
I looked at the sky, rapidly turning orange now. Just like the hue of the wild berries I and my sister would religiously pluck. They were called ‘Lakote’ I think, in local dialect, but my sister and I nicknamed it ‘Chore-pann’ or literally, ‘Blood fruit’ because of the vivid red colour of it’s flesh. Slightly sour to taste, it was a relish and grew near the cremation grounds. Like Lychees in every way, except skin and colour, and with a slightly earthy taste to it’s tang.
And of course, there were the three most popular fruits of the summer: the Kaccha mango, the sun-ripe guavas and the Jawa-apples (it goes by many names, so bear with me). This formed the Holy Trinity of our childhood, and not a summer went by without having at least one Kaccha mango dipped generously in salt and chilli powder eaten with happiness. And the Jawa apples - pink hued and tangy and subject to ire from elders weren’t spared either. “You’ll have tummy aches and cold and a terrible cough!” They’d warn, but they were bold to assume that we’d listen.
As for guavas, it was none other than me who would climb up the tree like a little langur and settle on a forking branch, dropping a few to my cousins below me. They’d always favoured the yellow ones, but I found them sickeningly soft. Yes, I am a very fussy eater. Especially when it comes to Guavas. My favourites were the ones whose flesh was pink - not red, nor whitish yellow either - pink is just right. Like a sage who achieved moksha, I’d perch on that forking branch and munch my guava as I overlooked the vast stretch of green paddy fields.
“What are you doing in the cold there?” I hear my mother’s sharp voice, and I whip my head around. She is peering at me from the kitchen window, no doubt wondering about what kind of a girl I was. I smile sheepishly as she berates me further - about how I get colds exactly because of this.
I smile at her, sniffing the air. It smells like the classic Otti and Baimbale curry, a smell endemic to Kodava kitchens. I rush inside, to the dining room to sit with my family. I look at the vacant chair at the head of the table, devoid of the person who occupied it, and grin.
Thaatha was right.
Blessed am I to be born in Kodagu.