The first crow to eat the rice

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Small things in life are where the life gets lived. Like Ajjamma’s peanuts.

She was one of the oldest ladies I had ever seen – must have been in her eighties then, yet it didn’t take away from the motherly affection she showed. After her ritual of afternoon nap, she would come out of her large ancestral home into the front verandah. There at the apex of the several steps leading to the verandah, she would squat carefully placing her swollen ankles that had given up after the years. Then she would beckon the neighboring children.

Ajjamma was the owner of this place, and being her tenants, we shared the same compound with several other families. For all these kids she was the great grandmother (Ajjamma). Her house situated centrally, and our row houses flanked on either side. The row houses were a place where all the housewives could be seen in their backyard, in a group ritual — of scaling and cutting fish, slicing and grating coconut, discussing about the types of fish available in the market that day, their ensuing rate, how they had to haggle for a fish that was not fresh enough, and so on.

The front yards however were our domain ? a place for kids where we would play cricket and soccer, and when tired retreat inside our homes to play cards, Ludo, Chinese Checker, and a peculiar game called ‘Name, Place, Things, Animals’ (which I cant still envision how it crept into our lives). Our concentration would then be interrupted by Ajjamma’s clarion call, and we would rightly jump in dismissing the game in its current state.

Then we would surround her making ourselves comfortable on the steps of her verandah. Ajjamma would then slowly uncover her old cotton pouch hidden in the wraps of her green sarree waist (why old women wore green sarree was a puzzle to me then). Carefully untying it, she would take out one or two coins (probably a fifty paisa) and place it in the palm of one of us volunteered to run to the sweet vendor one furlong away. We would then wait in anticipation, as if starved out of our wits, which would be a good time for Ajjamma to narrate her past. She had her stories alright. But most importantly it was the affection with which she told it. And when the kid returned with the cone wrapped paper, we would jump in, cutting in Ajamma’s trail of tales.

Time for Ajjammas peanuts. It’s funny how we attach food to people when we are kids. My mother’s brother was the ‘poppin uncle’ to us, because he would get ‘poppins’  everyday. One color for each of the five of us.  Then there were others such as ‘Ice cream’ uncle, ‘Banana’ grandma, and the ‘Beetle leaf’ grandma (indeed we were happy with the stock of the leaf!).

""…All her life Ajjamma had given us peanuts. Today we duly fed her with rice.""

‘Peanut Ajjamma,’ however reserved the right to distribute the goods. Starting from the youngest of us at age 3 , she would then proceed to the oldest of us age 12 years, all fifteen of us, one by one,  she would call us and give us a handful, all the time her hand shaking with tremor (probably because of reduced motor activity during old age). In the bargain she would spill some peanuts over and we would shamelessly giggle to collect them. After the peanut time it was a short time for more tales, and we would rush back to play, and Ajjamma would retreat back into her home. This ritual must have gone on for years, without missing a day.

Then one day, we heard one of Ajjamma’s elderly sons making long distance calls to their relatives. It was as if the whole premises were resigned to that fate. I personally witnessed her last moments when elders placed water on her tongue with a small spoon. The time eventually came for Ajjammas demise. A silence hung over us for the next few days. But as kids we moved on. It was yet another event in our life which comes to pass. But indeed we missed the Ajjamma’s call and the peanuts.

Nine days after her death, we were invited for the funeral meal.  The ritual was to give rice balls to crows before having the meals. Then, we didn’t know what this meant. The way we interpreted was that the first crow which eats the rice would be Ajjamma herself —  in her new birth. We all waited for this rendezvous. Three or four crows hovered around the rice balls. ‘Which one is it?’  We hushed. As kids we quietly discussed and compared our image of Ajjamma with these crows. ‘Hmm? that one looks like her?see the forehead?or see that eyes?.’ we would guess. Then, one of the crows pecked her beak into the rice, which seemed happy and peaceful, as she looked around for a minute, and silently flew away.  All her life Ajjamma had given us peanuts. Today we duly fed her with rice.

Author: Newton Dsouza- USA

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