“Don’t step into the water,” cried an elderly voice in alarm.
Glancing up, I saw a lady in a dark maroon sari and rare jewellery. She seemed agile, having draped the garment like a dhoti – some women in those parts of our country still do. She looked graceful with her grey hair.
“It has snakes and while they’re non- poisonous, the bite can be nasty,” she explained.
I stepped back hastily from the large pond and retreated a few steps.
A visit to meet Padmapur’s zamindar
It was my summer vacations and we were spending a part of it with my mother’s childhood friend. An affectionate spinster, she was the headmistress of a local girls’ school at Padmapur. She loved having us over and we too looked forward to spending time with her.
Raja Babu–Zamindar Thakur Soumendra Nath Singh–who was her neighbour, had invited us over for tea. I found it perplexing that we still addressed erstwhile zamindars as Raja Babu.
The adults got talking and my brother got busy with his Rubik’s cube. Bored as I was, I set out to explore the large garden.
The pond was at a distance from the house, secluded by the foliage of old trees. The water glistened under the rays of the setting sun. I wanted to dip my feet in and feel the golden water flowing around my ankles. I would have done so, had it not been for the elderly’s lady’s timely warning.
A snake bite would freak my mother out
I had no desire to risk it and so I climbed up the steps and sat on a bench by the side. The grey-haired lady settled opposite me, watching quietly.
“How old are you?” she asked after a while.
“Fifteen,” I replied.
“And you have glasses already,” she said, appraisingly.
“None of your business!” I thought. Like most teens, I did not take criticism well.
The wind rustled around us and the sun slipped down a little further. Soon it would be evening and time for us to leave.
My eyes fell on her feet – intricate silver anklets and toe rings, but ugly, crusted toes.
A cherished memory of bygone days
“This was a lily pond once,” she started,” Pale pink flowers bloomed over the surface. We sent a dinghy out to collect them sometimes.”
“Water birds flocked here – egrets and herons. But when our swans were let out, they came charging and drove them away!” she laughed happily at the memory.
“Then, Chandra Nath converted it to a fish farm. All the flowers were destroyed,” her face clouded,” One should never damage a plant in bloom or in fruit. It brings bad luck.”
“His idea didn’t work. The lilies were gone as well. Gradually, only snakes came to live here.” She sounded angry.
I heard voices on the veranda
My folks were saying their namashkars before departure.
“I should be going,” I said
She smiled, “I am Raja Babu’s grandmother. I live in this house. Nice meeting you my child.”
“Here’s something for your braid,” she added.
She then fished out a silver hair accessory from her knotted hair. I refused politely, but couldn’t help notice her dirt-filled nails as she held out the trinket.
Just then, there were loud barks. Three fierce dogs came dashing out of the house at us. Petrified, I swung my legs up on the seat and sat still, my eyes tightly shut.
I could hear them charge towards the garage near the tall imposing boundary wall. When I peeped out cautiously, they were at the foot of the wall, excitedly looking upwards.
Like some unearthly being, clambering high with her hands and feet was Raja Babu’s grandmother…