CHENNAI: I took a step. Another. The ground shifted under my unsteady feet, and the feeling of being caught in a minor earthquake continued (but they didn’t have those in the Thiruvannamalai district, right? Right?). I would have fallen if a lanky woman hadn’t neatly slipped an elbow under my hand — and circled my waist like a competent waltz performer. “You know what your problem is?” She frowned at me like a teacher confronting a student who’d gotten her multiplication tables wrong. “You are thinking too much.”
This was a crime I’d been accused of often but never, in my wildest dreams, had I imagined that it would be thrown at my face for the simplest of things: walking. I thought I’d mastered this skill within a year of my birth but in PreciousGems, I realised that it had to be learnt again — because it’s one thing to stride across a flat surface but another, entirely, to walk on a wet field... full of swampy marsh-mud.
Four days after the vermi-compost episode. The occasion was weeding, an integral part of rice-planting; a merry band of women between twenty-five and fifty-five had gathered at 10.30 am (they’d promised to come at 8 am) to wade into our marshy tracts and rid our rice saplings of the weeds that festered in the rich, greenish murk. The requisite haggling over price followed (“Extra payment with breakfast, lunch and conveyance!” — “But you live right here, in PreciousGems!” — “Oh.”) with head-weeder Ponnamma who’d arrived with her sari hitched to her thighs — after which Santhakumari, Suguna, Meena, Arasi, Kanmani and Mottai Smitha waded into the marsh like ice-skaters, and began work.
I watched them as they divided the area between themselves; scrabbled industriously in the field, their sturdy fingers neatly picking up the rioting weeds, never touching a rice sapling by mistake until the field lost its murky green shade by degrees. It was at this point that Santhakumari was moved to wonder how city-people would fare in rice-weeding. And then proceeded the walkathon described above.
Accompanied by much laughter and ribbing (which made my ears burn), Santhakumari finally taught me the art of walking on the banks: (“Take off your slippers. Don’t put your feet sideways; you are doing that because you think there is no space — but there is. Now walk. Aiye, walk!”)
Apparently, the trick was not to think about how the space was as narrow as the top of a compound wall. Then, she pulled me into the field and demonstrated the noble art of marsh-walk: (“Sink your legs into the mud. Plant each foot firmly. Walk slowly. Now bend and pull up those weeds.”)
I might have been like King Kong (the real one) on ice… but I had passed an important rite of passage: I could walk. And I’d yanked out a clump of vicious weeds too.
(The writer is a journalist, artist, translator, historian and editor but not necessarily in that order)