The Greener Side – Short Story
By: Sneha Susan Shibu
The temple under the peepal tree housing the Elephant God Ganesha was rather small. There was just enough room for the priest to do his rituals. Time and again he pulled at the thread that ran across his naked torso while chanting the mantras of devotion. Devotees crowded at the small door waiting for the aarti, the purifying fire followed by the prasad of beaten rice and rock candy. Annalisa watched all these in fascination and etched them into her camera.
Shalini awaited her turn. Her hair, still not dry from the morning bath, smelt of coconut oil. A tiny sprig of tulsi leaves secured in her raven locks rested at the back of her head. She looked pretty in her red bordered set mundu as she came back with a folded banana leaf.
“Prasad,” she said cheerfully, unfolding the leaf and applying the cool sandalwood paste on Annalisa’s fair forehead.
“Thank you. So you’ve made your petitions to God?”
“Mmm…yes.” Dimples bored into Shalini’s cheeks.
The restaurant near the jetty was awash with tourists. Over crispy dosas, oily pooris and fluffy idlis, they exchanged their experiences on this new land. The locals ogled at the fair skinned foreigners and stared at their blue eyes and golden hair with curious fascination.
Once aboard the boat, before it took them to the open backwaters, the sights were one of a kind. People brushed teeth, bathed, washed clothes while bare bodied little boys splashed about in glee.
“How long have you been working as a guide?” asked Annalisa.
She had chanced upon Shalini when the shopkeeper of an Ayurveda shop struggled to explain in English about how the medicinal oils worked. And Annalisa found it convenient to tag her along wherever she went.
“Just about a year,” said Shalini. “I want to save some money for a visa and find a job abroad. I’ve too many people to take care of and it’s getting difficult to make ends meet comfortably.”
“Do you enjoy travelling?”
“In a sense, yes; takes my mind off all worries. I’m on a journey…to get… myself… back.”
“Oh. We never think that foreigners have problems. All we see is that they’ve a lot of money to throw around.”
“Life’s not easy.”
The engine coughed and sputtered at full throttle. The stretch of green paddy fields and dense coconut groves were soothing to the eye. Churches facing the waters stood like sentries guarding the land. People looked for peace in different ways, in different places.
The cold Alpine air of her homeland seemed like a distant dream to Annalisa. She had sojourned through various ashrams in the Himalayas before travelling south. A saffron clad guru had told her to look within herself for what she longed for. Dawdling in self-pity, her muddled mind clouded her outlook. Weed and wine did no help. She felt like drift wood in the ocean of existence. Slowly the light of the guru’s words dawned upon her as she was enlightened to new perspectives and discovered many truths, about herself and others.
Kathakali reminded Annalisa of the masque she had watched as a child; hence the visit to the resort once more. After a massage of hot herbal oils followed by a refreshing shower in warm vetiver infused water, Annalisa felt an awakening of senses. The simplicity of the calm nature and soothing green cracked something inside her.
“Ayyo, what happened?” asked a worried Shalini.
“I’m just relieved,” said Annalisa, smiling through her tears. “There’s so much peace within me that I can’t contain the happiness.”
“Weren’t you happy back home?”
“I realized that I wasn’t.”
Boats plied up and down the backwaters ferrying people from shore to shore. Egrets settled on bobbing hyacinths, eagerly looking into the green water for a catch.
“What could be wrong? Don’t you have enough money?”
“More than I need. But it can’t buy any happiness. There’s no one to love.”
“That’s what people say. But in my life, I’ve plenty of people to love but no money.”
“My husband left me for another woman after my son died. I feel empty.”
“I’m sorry,” said Shalini.
“But I’ve realized that life doesn’t have to end there.”
“As for me, my father’s no more, mother’s sick and I’ve three younger sisters who’re in school. I want to go away from here and find a means of good income which shall ease my problems and ‘buy’ me happiness.”
“Oh. How ironic!” Annalisa gazed into Shalini’s moist eyes.
The setting sun spread vermillion on the water. Light played on the swaying palm fronds. The other side, it seemed, was greener.
It had to be. For a time.