Written by Purnima Bala
It’s the crack of dawn, and I sit in a corner of the family workshop. My feet are bare. A light breeze brushes against my arms and goosebumps form; pinprick mounds shadowed by the towering hills beyond our window. The trees are filled with the trills of birds, and if I listen closely, there’s a clanking beyond the whisper of leaves, where someone draws water from a well. My father sits in his usual straight-back wooden chair, a cup of freshly brewed coffee in hand. Its rich scent mixes with the smell of damp mud. He tilts his head and meets my eyes, questions in his gaze.
Fiyaz, is this all you want? Are you sure?
My lips curve upwards; I nod once and turn back to the view.
I went to the neighbourhood school down the lane for six years, where everyone dreamed of going elsewhere, being far away. We bowed our heads over notebooks, copying letters from the blackboard, reciting passages in a monotonous chorus. “Repeat after me,” the teacher said. “This is how you learn about the world outside.”
But for me, the world consisted of the garden towards the south end of my family’s encampment, where I joined the locals picking tomatoes under the sun. It was the line of stalls where I worked alongside our neighbours, the cobblestone paths that wound their way past labelled trees and herbs. My world was this heritage zone my parents brought me up in, the view of vast fields and stately old buildings—built by Portuguese settlers, my mother told me—and so I dropped out of school when I was 14.
I’ve seen this view my entire life, but never have two days been the same. Leaves have grown and floated away with the turn of the wind, clouds have clashed and broken apart into beads of rain that fell onto our tongues, then faded. My mother faded as well, four years ago, and a part of the world crumbled in her absence. But time kept moving and the world moved with it, carrying us along in its wake.
My father bustles around the workshop, wading through bits of twine and shavings scattered about the floor, his arms filled with sticks of bamboo. His empty coffee mug lies abandoned on the table. I place it in the sink.
My muscles move on their own accord, picking up our wares, piece by piece, and wrapping them up in paper. Wipe, wrap, set aside. I then stack them up in boxes and carry them past a line of workshops, through a tunnel of trees, to the open ground where fellow artisans are up and about, getting ready for the day. My father joins me at our stall, its tarpaulin cover now nestled under bags and boxes. We sit in silence, each of us painting a clay cup; I try to match his strong, deft strokes.
Shailendra ji walks by, balancing a pile of block-print sarees in his arms. He gives us a cheery wave as he passes, and it almost topples over. His wife mock-scolds him from behind. At the opposite end, kids take turns using a jump rope, their laughter carrying through the air. Their parents scurry about, dusting, arranging, sneaking in a few sips of chai in between. One of the security guards walks about the perimeter, whistling jovially. He stops to taste a rice cake at Ms. Mira’s stall.
We’re all outcasts here; our stories born from chaos. My parents came here when I was a child, with meagre possessions, our small home and everything in it lost to a fire. This is the world I’ve known ever since: the blending of colours on chipped walls, the scent of wet clay and damp paint, the tattered silk sheet spread out over our display table. My mother’s warm presence was replaced by a portrait on the stall’s back wall, hanging over bare brick and a single nail, a fresh garland draped around it every day. As I greet visitors with a smile and gesture towards our pieces, she watches over me. My father, too.
Two women gaze intently at the ornaments in front of me, pointing out figurines to one another, little wooden dancers in different poses. One of them pulls the other towards coiled vases placed in the corner. While they discuss their favourites, I turn to the family that approaches—a little girl wedged between her parents—their gleaming eyes fixated on the bold kites swaying from the sides.
“I wish I could fly like a kite,” the girl says with a sigh. “Don’t you?”
“Only if someone holds onto the string real tight,” I reply.
She giggles and points to a bright yellow one. Her ponytail sways as she skips away, holding onto her mother’s wrist. My father wraps an arm around me.
When night falls in a velvety blanket and our stalls have been boarded up, the site gates closed, my father and I sit around a campfire with the other artisans, singing a song while we eat.
Shailendra ji plays an upbeat rhythm on his djembe and the children dance around, the light from the flames flickering about their brightly painted faces. Ms. Mira sits on a wooden log to one side, a gentle smile on her lips, cradling a cup in one hand. She tosses it back and joins the children in their dance.
“Your mother would enjoy this,” my father says.
“She always did.” I give him a wistful smile.
“Fiyaz…” he begins.
I know what he’s about to ask. “Don’t, Papa,” I cut him off. “You know my answer. Nothing’s changed.”
“I just want a better life for you, Son, you know that.”
He’s said the same thing every year on this day, the anniversary of my mother’s death. And my answer has always been the same.
But my father asks me anyway. “Are you sure?”
I give him a nod, grasp his hand in mine, and reply, “This is home.”
featured in our fall 2019 issue