Before she even opens her mouth, we know Prema is from way up north of nowhere. Not that we’re from somewhere, exactly, but it’s a lot more somewhere than Prema’s nowhere. We can tell from the way her eyes dart and scatter. The way her heart thumps like a trapped rabbit’s back leg. The way her body hunches and curls and tenses like the jungle still tangles and knots its roots around her bones, pulling her taught and tight.
Probably we should feel sorry for her. But we don’t.
The truth is, we’re a little bit jealous.
Those darty jungle eyes of hers? Sure, they’re full of fear. But they’re full of something else too, something the rest of us wish we had. A certain kind of memory. A memory of air that isn’t salty with petrol and construction dust. A memory of skies lit by stars instead of the headlights of two-wheelers. A memory of sounds that don’t come from angry drunks or angry dogs or angry drivers.
A memory of the sound of birds.
Prema’s Amma’s eyes, on the other hand, are always full of tears.
For weeks and weeks, she cries and cries.
She cries when she hangs the laundry on the clothesline strung between our houses. She cries when she pours the dosa for tiffin. She cries when she sweeps the floor that will never be clean, because it’s made of dirt, and how can you get rid of dirt when it’s all that you have to work with? She even cries when she sees Prema, even though Prema is the only one who makes her happy.
One day we ask, ‘Why’s your Amma so sad?’
‘She misses the jungle,’ Prema tells us. ‘Or at least, what lives in the jungle. She misses the birds.’
There are plenty of birds in Bangalore, especially in Heaven. Mynahs with feathers the color of mud. Pigeons with necks that pop like rusty bed springs. Eagles that carry pieces of rotting flesh in their city-sharpened claws.
But jungle birds? There’s not so many of those.
Except if you take the long way home from school. The one that goes through the posh neighborhood full of houses so big they have gardens full of roses and carnations and driveways full of two- and four-wheelers and whole floors to rent to strangers.
Or, in the case of one house, a whole veranda just for birds. Birds that look like they cost more than brand new shoes. Feathers the colours of the necklaces in the Joyalukka’s window. Birds so posh that if they applied for visas at the American embassy, they would get them on the first try.
City birds that still know the songs from way up north of nowhere.
And around the house, trees. Leaves the shape of every phase of the moon. Trunks knotted with footholds and resting places. Bits and pieces of jungle twisting and straining their way out of the concrete.
The first time we take the long way home together, Prema licks her palm and smooths down her hair and walks right up to the bird-veranda-house. Sucks in her breath and rings the doorbell.
‘Madam,’ she says to the lady who answers. A lady dripping in actual necklaces from the actual window of actual Joyalukka’s. ‘Do you need a maid?’
‘Actually,’ the lady says. Voice neatly pleated, like she hired the ironwallah to press her tongue. ‘Yes, I do.’
The next morning Prema brings her Amma, memories tracing watery tributaries on her cheeks. Nothing too difficult, the pressed-tongue woman says. Just some sweeping and dusting and tidying up.
‘And then, of course, we need you to care for the birds.’
Prema isn’t sure then, but she thinks she sees the currents of her mother’s waters still.
For three months, everything might be better. Prema’s Amma sweeps and dusts and tidies up. Brings home rupees folded in the damp end of her sari. Brings the birds their food and water and keeps the verandah clean. Pets them and coos to them in her Marathi-Kannada-village voice.
The pressed-tongue lady doesn’t understand what Prema’s Amma is saying but claims that she has never seen the brood so plump and lithe and fluttery.
‘These village women just have a way with wildlife,’ she tells her neighbors. Tilts her pretty pale face for a minute and adds, ‘I suppose it is because they are half wild themselves.’
The pressed-tongue lady doesn’t notice that Prema’s Amma is still crying rivers of tears. But these days, the waters run with determination, not despair.
When she speaks to the birds, Prema’s Amma’s wrinkled tongue is filled with salt.
‘Do you see the city out there?’ Prema’s Amma whispers, pointing to the world beyond the verandah. ‘It is full of rage and fear, but you have courage. You have wings.’
‘Do you see the buildings?’ Prema’s Amma chants. ‘The offices and shopping malls and flats? Between those buildings there are trees. Between those buildings there are homes. All just waiting for us to find them. Just waiting to become ours.’
‘If you think about it,’ Prema’s Amma murmurs, ‘Bangalore is just another jungle.’
One morning, the pressed-tongue lady finds Prema’s Amma whispering to the birds. Thin brown body leaned against the wire mesh walls of verandah-cum-aviary. Freshwater eyes turned up to the sky.
‘I’m going out,’ the lady says, placing the key on the table in the hall. ‘When you leave, lock the door and tell the watchman.’
It is that moment. The moment between maid and housewife when trust is bestowed, privilege given. The moment when the press-tongued lady lets Prema’s Amma know that she is guaranteed a job here forever and ever and ever. Here among the jewelled birds and the flame of the forest trees and the floors that are made of tiles and so, with time, can be cleaned.
Prema’s Amma stands at the wire mesh wall and watches the pressed-tongue lady gather up the folds of her kanjeevaram sari and adjust the position of her Joyalukka bangles and step into her Mercedes Benz. Prema’s Amma picks up the key and feels its cold metal weight.
For ten full minutes, Prema’s Amma holds the key and thinks about home. Thinks about trust. Family. Money. Thinks about birds. Trees. Farms. Thinks about right and wrong. Prisons. Freedom.
She is as still as a neem tree in a village square.
Prema’s Amma lays the key back down on the table. She reaches into her sari blouse and removes a knife. Sharpens the blade on the edge of the table. Cuts a hole in the wire mesh verandah in the shape of a summer moon.
Some of the birds leave immediately, but others aren’t sure. Prema’s Amma takes them in her hands. Knows their hesitation. Knows their longing. Feels their feet and feathers make crooked tracks on her palms.
Prema’s Amma sings them village songs. Jungle songs.
Whispers, ‘You are strong. You have wings. Use them.’
Speaks the shared language of the half-wild.
One by one, they go. Prema’s Amma watches them disappear, fading from the colours of emerald and diamond and sapphire into the colours of leaf and cloud and sky. The hues of their new lives. Or perhaps their old ones.
When they are gone, she sweeps away the feathers they left behind.
Eyes dry, hands steady, she gives the key to the watchman. Presses the weight of cold metal into his blistered hand.
Prema’s Amma doesn’t work at rich people’s houses any more.
She doesn’t cry any more either.
Mathangi Subramanian, EdD, is the award-winning author of three books for children and young adults. The 2015 winner of the middle grade category of the Katherine Paterson prize for Fiction, her work has appeared in publications like The Hindu, The Indian Express, Quartz, Al Jazeera America, and Thinkling Magazine, among others. A former government school teacher, assistant vice president at Sesame Workshop, senior policy analyst for the New York City Council, and Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar, she currently serves as the head of the innovations team at UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education for Peace and Sustainable Development in Delhi.