When Mohan’s wife arrived in Thirumugam we could hardly believe it. Her skin was white, so white that we could not see where her hair started. Once we looked closely, we saw that her hair was golden, like our paddy on the eve of harvest day. The two of them climbed down from the Ambassador car in front of Ammani Mami’s house, where they were to stay for a few weeks. We were slightly disappointed. Little Nandu had run around the village for days yelling that Mohan and his white wife from Australia were coming, that Mohan was now very rich, that they had a cell phone each, and drove shiny foreign cars. His news resounded in our cluster of mud huts. When we waited outside Ammani Mami’s big landowning brick house, though, all we saw was an Ambassador car pull up, with her nephew inside. The Ambassador was something we saw everyday—even our school headmaster sometimes used it to get to town.
Mohan’s wife was introduced to us as Ray-chil. It was her first time in India. We saw them go into Ammani Mami’s house’. Ammani Mami was Mohan’s father’s third cousin, and single-handedly brought up Mohan after his parents died. We were very happy to see that Mohan remembered his relations here in Thirumugam, and that his wife Ray-chil was honourable enough to pay her respects to her husband’s relations.
We heard a lot about Ray-chil in the next few days, and quite a bit about Mohan as well. It was all Nandu’s doing. Nandu visited Ammani Mami’s house a few times a week. Her son Velan taught Nandu 8th Standard Math. But when Mohan and Ray-chil came, Nandu found excuses to visit them everyday. We saw Ray-chil and Mohan around Thirumugam a lot, and when we didn’t, Nandu would tell us all that we needed to know.
Mohan and Ray-chil had met and fallen in love in Australia while studying. Her divorced parents were not invited to the wedding. Having them together in the same room would remind Ray-chil of her childhood, smelling of citronella, scratching her body acne, wearing peasant blouses and standing pointlessly next to her mother at rallies. Nandu said he wasn’t sure what all this meant, only that these were reasons for Ray-chil insisting on coming to Thirumugam for her honeymoon. Mohan did not have the option of saying no.
Ray-chil loved Thirumugam and we loved her right back. She came to our riverbanks in the mornings, where we washed our clothes and ourselves. She smiled at our stares, and in television English once said, “It’s just so hot,” to nobody in particular. “But I’m going to get some clothes stitched.” Nandu repeated her words to us in Tamil, but we already understood her apologetic tone, about her jeans and bare arms. Mohan was with her, and when some of the men waved from the river and called out his name, he at first pretended he hadn’t heard. They kept calling out to him, till Ray-chil turned towards him and said something too soft for us to hear. Mohan then turned around, and smiled and nodded at the men.
“Mohan is a foreigner now, he has no time for us,” Chellamma said later that evening, as we walked back from the fields. “Yes, did you see, he hardly had any gifts for anyone,” we responded. “Only his wife.”
The next day we saw Ray-chil walking the streets, smiling at the small group of boys that had formed around her. The group eventually became so large Ray-chil and Mohan could no longer move. Mohan tried to shoo them away, but Ray-chil knelt down at their eye-level and spoke to them. She took their pictures and learnt some words. She seemed to already know some Tamil, and practised it on the boys, who would laugh, congratulate her, and teach her more words. Ray-chil was very clever, Pandi said. She knew how to make herself pleasing to Mohan’s family. We guessed they must have married without his family’s consent—but Mohan’s family should have thought of these things before sending him to Chennai, and then Australia, to study. “Those that go so far away, lose a little bit of what they initially knew,” said seventy-year-old Tenkasi. He would know, he’s lost four sons to the big city. “They have to make space for new things, new ideas, new languages, new ways of thinking, and to fit it all in, some of the old things had to be pushed aside.”
But Ray-chil seemed to know that, and seemed to be making up for it. One day she came to Manickam’s sundry shop in the middle of the village, and asked him for a box of matches in Tamil unmixed with English. Manickam did not understand her accent at first, but when the words unfurled in his brain he was very impressed, and, grinning, gave her the matches for free. Not long after, Nandu reported that she had been taking pictures of cows, and had turned up one morning at the milkman’s house, asking if he would be so kind as to teach her how to milk one of his cows. That news spread very quickly, and some of us did not know what to make of it. We heard she had been alone—Mohan wasn’t with her. But she had genuinely just wanted to learn how to milk a cow. Besides, she was white—she would not have the same ideas of honour.
Still, Velan said he spoke to Mohan about it. And Velan was very diplomatic—he did not make it seem like a complaint. Had he told Ray-chil yet about Velan’s grass, we asked? ’No, he was scared. He watches Ray-chil very carefully. Ray-chil and Mohan have never been up on the roof of Ammani Mami’s house. We laughed.
Nandu’s stories kept us entertained, but we were also a little concerned about Mohan. He was no longer the Mohan we remembered, the Mohan who would run to the river in nothing but red shorts and dust and splash in with a leap and a scream. He first arrived so stiff, so uncomfortable, as if he were the foreigner, not his new wife. He walked with her in his odd pants that had too many pockets and stopped at his knees, and shirts in thick material with collars. He looked like a Bombay film star, but still faded next to his smiling wife, from whose skin and hair the sunshine for our fields seemed to emanate. He almost always spoke English, even when Ray-chil tried to speak in Tamil.
But after Ray-chil’s milkman episode, Mohan seemed to relax. Pandi thinks it happened after they all went to the cinema in the neighbouring town, Nandu in tow. They were showing an old movie, a Sivaji Ganesan mythology where the great actor played Lord Shiva. Apparently Mohan had burst out laughing at a small joke, and later explained it to Ray-chil. He had heard that joke before, he said, when he was in primary school. It was about punning on the word ‘hot’. Dust from fruits collected on the ground had to be blown away, like blowing on hot food. Mohan laughed and laughed at this, and Ray-chil laughed a little with him, pretending to understand.
After that, we all agreed, Mohan seemed better. He would wear his old veshti, his white lower garments, speak in Tamil, and once Nandu spotted him using a neem twig to brush his teeth in the morning.
We don’t think Mohan told Ray-chil anything about going to the milkman’s house. Maybe he felt it was something beyond his wife’s comprehension. But Ray-chil had become more and more like us as time wore on. She was now on laughing terms with Ammani Mami, and had started to learn her recipes—something we received dubiously from Nandu, as Ammani Mami was very particular about them. But Nandu insisted he saw it with his own eyes. He’d gone to Ammani Mami’s house, since Ray-chil had called him. He had rushed from his homework like a shot. We didn’t blame him—we noticed many of us, young and old, found excuses to go see Ray-chil, to touch her skin, feel her hair, hear her speak Tamil with such pink pink lips. But Ray-chil had not been there. She was out with Ammani Mami, who wanted to show her where she got some ingredients for her avial from.
“What did you do then?” we asked Nandu, a little jealous of Ray-chil for accessing Ammani Mami’s secrets, and wanting to distract ourselves.
“Well, Mohan was there, and he gave me a gift,” he said.
“Mohan gave you a gift? What was it?”
“A crystal pyramid.”
“A crystal pyramid. He showed me how to use it. If you hold it at a certain angle to a light, the elements of light break into its individual components—the colours of the rainbow. Mohan said I could use it in school later.”
“You can see the rainbow in the pyramid?”
“No, you see it through the pyramid. The crystal is the prism. You see the bare elements through it. All the colours are there, but my favourite is green, because it is strong, and it reminds me of our fields.”
But we had lost interest. Ray-chil was not in this story.
We all knew Velan was nervous having Ray-chil and Mohan around in the house. But we realised that over time, watching Ray-chil, Velan slowly changed his mind. He was as curious as us at first, at Ray-chil’s eagerness. Initially Velan would answer her questions with his eyes on the floor, as if shielding them. He would laugh if she made a joke or made a mistake in her Tamil, but would then carry a guilty look about him. Gradually, though, Velan would look evenly into Ray-chil’s eyes, and Nandu once reported that Velan himself had cracked a joke about the village well, and swelled when Ray-chil laughed. We understood completely. Not only did she look like the Americans on the television we’d crowd around in the schoolteacher’s house, but she also ate our food and spoke our language—something that we never saw in that bright box.
We felt Velan must have changed his mind the day Ray-chil and Mohan visited the Kali Amman temple on the outskirts of Thirumugam. She was our village guardian, this Kali Amman. She made sure the rains came on time, and that we harvested enough each year. When Velan saw Ray-chil there, with her eyes closed and palms pressed together, he must have finally felt she was trustworthy.,p>She was dumbstruck, said Velan to us the next day. Overwhelmed. Velan had finally taken Ray-chil and Mohan up to the roof, after they returned from the temple. “I show you view,” he had said, using it as an excuse. But Ray-chil had seen it right away. They emerged from the side stairwell on the second floor of Ammani Mami’s house onto the open-air cement rooftop. It was a large open space, perfect for summer nights when the house was simply too stifling. We knew the floor now had black stains, and the sides were crumbling, and the ground was littered with little seeds and flowers from the trees overhead. But in a corner, to the right of the house, Velan had set up something, something that showed foresight.
Ray-chil gasped when she saw it. Although she should have been struck by the greys, blues and reds of the thatched and cemented rooftops around her, what drew her eyes was a patch of the clearest, brightest green, right in front of her. It was in such contrast to the rest of the musty environment it almost seemed to glow. Ray-chil went closer.
“Why you son of a bitch, you waited this long to tell us?” Mohan said to Velan, who just glowed. He seemed to want to share his pride. “Emergency supplier,” he said in English, drawing out each vowel, savouring the mouthful. His secret patches of grass came from the hands of gardeners and watchmen in landowner houses, and went to hotels and stadiums in towns and cities at a fraction of the market price. They were all the rage, he said. Everyone in the district came to him, just by word of mouth. “And also,” he said, “it is re-cycling. Take one from old, give one to new. Take old grass, give new grass. No waste.”
The patch of grass was rectangular, the size of three cricket pitches. It started from the rooftop door and seemed to lead to the far wall of the rooftop, from where one could look over the whole village and marvel at our squalor all in one go, not piecemeal over days. Mohan hedged away from the patch, turning slightly so that he stood at an angle from it, neither facing nor turning away from it. He said it hurt his eyes, and looked the other way into the mountains. Ray-chill seemed very drawn to it, however. She stood and stared at the secret stash, admiring the painstakingly nourished patch of first grade carpet grass. She even bent down to feel the blades with her fingers, caressing its velvety smoothness, running both her hands through them, feeling their over-cared for voluptuousness. She stayed that way until Mohan interrupted her. She then regained her bearings and attempted a small smile at her husband, a smile he did not return. Both of them told Velan he could trust them, they wouldn’t tell anyone. Later, they found this was something they agreed on, that Velan was a genius.
All of us spoke about nothing but Ray-chil. She was in our thoughts when we started the day in the fields, and still there when we returned home. Manickam boasted as a complaint that he had run out of Fair and Lovely creams. He had ordered more, and when they arrived, sold them at a higher price, and still ran out. Ray-chil began to recognise some of us, especially the little girls, and remember our names. She clicked photographs of us. She had them printed in the next town, and gave them to us one day. We didn’t know what to make of it—most of the young ones who visited took photos of us keep for themselves, to look at us when they were far away. In the photos, we stood on the dirt tracks doing nothing but smiling, hands hanging uselessly at our sides. It made us look lazy and jobless, like we were louts. Still, there was something captivating about holding a photograph in our hands. Some of us placed the photos in our houses, next to the painted calendar of the gods. That way we understood the photos, the way they were cocooned in time while we aged looking at them. It gave us the idea to take a picture of Ray-chil, so we could put her in our houses too, forever. It made us excited, to be able to show others the beautiful white lady who came one day.
Ray-chil understood what we meant quickly enough, and with a big laugh that made her whole face go as red as Aruni’s tomatoes, she agreed. She gave the camera to Mohan and stood under a tree, facing the sun. We started to pose with her—first Ramnath, then Gopi, and then Prasad. Some of us who were passing by realised what was happening, and began to line up for the same opportunity. Nandu did his part by spreading the word even further, and bigger crowds began to form. Ray-chil was very nice about it all. She smiled, laughed, spoke a little bit in our language to encourage the shy ones among us. Mohan kept taking the photos. Women wanted to take part, then entire groups of children on their way back from school. Time passed, the day grew long. Ray-chil never stopped, never said no. In fact, we noticed a glow come to her face, a strange kind of breathlessness that came over her as we lavished our attention, as we let her know we wanted a piece of her to be with us forever. She seemed to know it, drink in our yearning with her eyes, aware of a yearning of her own. Our crowds, our easy spotlight on her gleaming skin, seemed to feed her.
We think Mohan noticed too. After some time he seemed to slow down, taking the photos in a more lackadaisical manner, as if his heart was not in it. Many times he suggested they stop for the day, but Ray-chil would goad him on, saying he should not disappoint his fellow villagers. She ignored Mohan’s retort that he cared more for her health than the villagers’ disappointment. “Oh, but they like looking at me,” Ray-chil said, and we agreed with her. After a while Mohan no longer met Ray-chil’s eyes, and finally when dusk came, Mohan abruptly shut off the camera, picked up his bags and started towards Velan’s house, leaving Ray-chil with Balu the blacksmith.
Nandu managed to eat breakfast at Velan’s house the next day, showing up unannounced with a hungry grin that Ammani Mami recognised, letting him in with a swat on his head. He said things were different. Ray-chil sat down on the floor with Velan and Mohan, trying to cross her legs the way they did, but ’unable to stay that way for long. Mohan showed her how to use her hands to smash up the idlis, to dip it into the chutney before bringing it to her mouth. Velan told Mohan he thought Ray-chil did do it well—perhaps she lacked some grace, but there is no use being fussy over the little details with someone who hasn’t been brought up in our ways. He wasn't ’about to tell her that in small places like this the men ate first, and that women were to wait till after—things are changing; we must change with them.
But after Mohan finished and left to wash his hands, with bits of idli and sambhar running down his palm, Ray-chil barely picked at her breakfast.
Mohan came more often to the riverside, to bathe with Velan and other men from the village. He grinned more fully, like the young Mohan we knew. His lips stretched right to his ears, showing us all of his thirty-two teeth. He did not have Ray-chil with him. We saw her at different times, in different places, with her camera, taking pictures of us while we bent our backs to plant our paddy. Since that day when some of us were able to take photos with her, word had spread through Nandu and some others, and Ray-chil received a lot of requests. No matter where she went, there would be someone who had missed out that day and wanted another chance. Some of us even dared to say we wouldn’t mind having a second picture taken with her—after all, we said, she looked so different in anything she wore. Ray-chil seemed pleased with our compliments, but felt there were too many of us, and too little time—she and Mohan were leaving in a few days. Nandu then had the brilliant idea of organising a single day where we could all wait in line and take photos with her. It would be a special occasion. Ray-chil seemed pleased, and said for that occasion she would wear something Indian.
We saw her visit our local tailor, who was so honoured by her visit he insisted she stay and have something to eat in his house, cooked by his wife. Many of us loitered around outside while she was with the tailor, and surely some of the young men wished they were the tailor instead, taking her measurements. At times like this we forgot Ray-chil was married, and to this day cannot recollect Mohan’s presence during these preparations.
On the day, we dressed up as best as we could, as if it were a festival at the temple. We wore our best silks, and brought out our best gold, and obtained the freshest jasmine and orange kanakambaram flowers for our hair, the cleanest shirts and veshtis. We gathered around to wait for Mohan and Ray-chil.
We waited for nearly three hours. They never came.
Nandu said it might have been his fault, although he was not very sure. He had been sent to Mohan’s family orchard, with the mission of delivering some of Ammani Mami’s jewellery to Ray-chil. He had run as fast as he could, and when he arrived at the orchard, filled with mango and guava trees, he saw Mohan and Velan in the water tank, stripped to their shorts and frolicking like little boys just off school. Ray-chil had come up to them, in the tailor’s sari and matching blouse. The tailor had really found the right colour for her, Nandu told us, such lovely maroon and sandalwood hues. He caught up with her just as Mohan spotted them, he said.
“You look beautiful,” said Mohan, as Ray-chil strung on Ammani Mami’s gold chains and bangles and dangling earrings. She stood close to the tank, occasionally dipping her hand into it to splash the back of her neck, a tip she had picked up from us to help with the heat.
“Thank you,” said Ray-chil. Apparently she looked touched. “Do you like the bindi?”
“Yes, but here we call it pottu,” said Mohan.
“Pottu. Never mind. What’s the occasion?” Nandu saw Ray-chil’s face change at the question. Nandu found the conversation hard to follow, since he’d learnt English only through some extra classes and some American television. It all sounded like ‘das-bus’ to him. But he knew enough to tell us nobody was going to win.
“The photos, don’t you remember?”
“Of course I remember.”
“No, you don’t.”
“You’re going in that?”
“What’s wrong with this? ’They seem to like me in it.” It was true, we told Nandu, that we liked it on her, because it made her stand out more, made her rise out of a flat background, like the curvy statues at the temple.
“Why do you always need to make a spectacle of yourself?” said Mohan, and Nandu said Ray-chil stood very still. Velan climbed out of the water tank, but neither husband nor wife looked in his direction.
“I’m already one,” said Ray-chil, tilting her chin up.
“Then don’t make it worse.”
“Why is it worse? What’s wrong with them liking me?”
Mohan didn’t answer, and Ray-chil’s eyes widened. “Oh my God. I can’t believe this. You’re jealous.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Oh God, it’s true!”
“You’re being silly. Why on earth would I be jealous of my own people?”
Ray-chil looked triumphant. “And so they can’t be my people. I’m only doing this for you-”
“You’re doing this for yourself.”
Apparently it was Ray-chil who first splashed the water onto Mohan. Mohan initially froze, mouth agape, and with a yell splashed his wife right back. She responded in kind, and Nandu started to laugh, thinking it was a game, the kind he played with his brothers when bathing in the river. The married couple laughed too, giggling and squealing in their wet frenzy. In a few seconds they both lost strength and subsided—Ray-chil took a step back from the tank and stared at her husband, as if sighting a peculiar animal. She then looked back at herself, her wet clothes, and sighed. Mohan’s face collapsed momentarily, but before he could say anything, Ray-chil said in a flat voice Nandu hadn’t heard before, “There, you got your way. There’s no way I can pose for anything now. Happy?”
Some of us were loitering around Ammani Mami’s house, despondent and full of questions, when Nandu informed us the photography session was cancelled. We were devastated. We thought it would be easy enough for Ray-chil to change into something else, perhaps wear something of Ammani Mami’s, or maybe even dry the sari and wear it another day. But it became clear nothing like that was going to happen, not anymore. There was a high amount of hustle and bustle in Ammani Mami’s house, with only snippets of information leaking out about the married couple having to leave urgently. The word spread, and like the first time, the crowds swelled, wanting to say goodbye. Manickam, Balu, the milkman, even the Kali Amman priest came. Some of the younger ones burst into tears. Nandu, the little traitor, now that he was conscripted into helping the couple pack and shift their luggage into the Ambassador, suddenly behaved like their insider rather than ours, and refused to tell us anything.
We surged ahead as they came out of Ammani Mami’s house for the last time, trying to catch a last glimpse. Velan and some other men pushed us back, deaf to our cries. Ray-chil and Mohan came out, carrying their luggage, and our pleas grew louder, our arms outstretched. She saw us and shrank back. We wanted to tell her we only wanted to talk to her, touch her one more time before they disappeared into their shiny world. She shielded herself behind Ammani Mami, almost like a child. Mohan hugged Velan, and Ray-chil put her palms together. Both of them squeezed into the Ambassador, which could barely move because of us. Ray-chil kept her eyes down, like a good Indian wife. Some say her eyes were red. Mohan spoke to us, called some of us by name, even smiled a little, but if we looked at him, it was to plead for a glance from his wife.
We waved at the dusty road as their Ambassador roared away, shouting “bye-bye, ta-ta!” like we had seen in our films. We kept waving much after they had turned the corner, still looking at the road, still thinking of Ray-chil. Though we understood, we felt bad. We felt somehow responsible. We had cut Nandu down to size just a few minutes before the couple came outside, and discovered from him that for about half an hour before Mohan and Ray-chil were to leave, Ray-chil had climbed up to the roof all by herself. He had been sent to fetch her so they wouldn’t be late, and he had found her standing on Velan’s patch. She had stood rigid, feet deeply embedded in the grass, looking down at the luxuriant carpet of almost artificial green. She had stayed that way for some time, despite Nandu’s increasingly nervous calls, unseeing of anything but the grass. Nandu said she hadn’t even blinked.