( Let me explain the title first. It was this crawly creature that turned the whole household topsyturvy. The dictionary refers to this creature as a nocturnal lizard with adhesive pads on the feet, found in warm regions. And warm, was our home. And there were plenty of geckos)
I went to the kitchen to see Amma squeezing the boiled mango fruits.
“Oh! No! Not the mango gravy again.” I said. Amma looked at me helplessly.
“Your Leelu Aunty ( Appa’s sister) wants it.”
Ever since my father’s sister landed here in Cochin on her usual annual visit, it would be the ripe mango dish that graced the table at least four times a week. The name of this gravy being Mambazha Pulissery. It was very tasty and all of us loved it. But not every day ! Familiarity breeds-just breeds! And we children were becoming wary of the same. She would land here in the season when the three mango trees in the backyard would be over laden with luscious mangoes. She would stay for a month, ruling the roost ( my poor Amma will be reduced to the status of a maid and cook on hand) and finally leave with jars of Tender Mango Pickle, Mango Vathal, Mango Pappad ( the sweet ones made with ripe mango extract), Mango Thokku etc. etc. This routine or ritual started even as Leelu Aunty got married twenty years ago, Amma would say, when my grandmother would expect my Amma to cater to her daughter’s whims and gastronomic indulgences and preferences. Amma being the epical over- subservient -daughter-in-law ,would dance to their tunes. (That she learnt Bharatha Natyam in her younger days and was aspiring to become a renowned dancer is something of the past. Like the girls of those days, who ‘married the whole family’ she also lost her identity and the artistic talents she developed only found expression in drawing rangoli, making crispies, pounding masalas and dancing to every body’s tunes).
I went to the back yard verandah in disgust and sat with my favourite book- Little Women. We were also four sisters. Elder sister had married last year and was at Bombay. I was doing my B.A. in English Literature , third year in college. My younger sister had just joined Pre-University (Biology and Chemistry) and was aspiring to become a Zoologist. She was a hard core fan of Gerald Durrel. Thank God, she never brought in any insect or creepy crawly things that were found in plenty in our compound! The youngest was a Tom Boy ! Getting picked by every one at home and by the neighbours. Amma would call her Kali( her name is Durga) and my Grandma( left for the heavenly abode after seeing my sister getting married) and Leelu Aunty would call her Kutty Pisasu (little ghost). But Aunty was genuinely fond of her too.
I glanced towards the back yard. The man had come to pluck coconuts and the servant was supervising the procedure. The milkman was bathing the white cow we had and Leelu Aunty was stacking the hay and in the shed, talking to the calf at the same time.
I bent to read the page I was on and suddenly heard the piercing shriek coming from the direction of the shed.
It was Leelu Aunty. Carrying her weight of ninety kilos ( No exaggeration. It’s the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. She had a huge appetite and loved Ghee on everything including dosas and iddlies) she came running towards the verandah where I had perched myself with the book.
The coconut man hung there precariously, leaving both his hands and looking down to see what it was that had upset the mental equilibrium of this woman of gigantic proportions. The maid Ponnamma came running towards her. I placed the book down and rushed towards her too. Amma had come out of the kitchen retaining her cool, as she always does, and was walking towards the conglomeration in the back yard. My sister, who was taking a photo of the colourful cocoon of a butterfly hanging on a leaf of the Oleander tree, stopped midway in shooting the Photo of the Century (invariably, every snap that she shot would be that, according to her. Her dream was to become a famous Naturalist Photographer. Sigh ! I know, she too would end up in someone’s home and kitchen cooking, raising kids and day dreaming !) and came running towards my Aunt.
“Oh ! God ! Siva Siva. Narayana…God knows what’s going to happen to me. Ayyayyo ! Why did this have to happen to me !” She was hitting her head with those plump hands.
“What happened”, all of us asked her. The cow could not have kicked her. It was near the well. The calf would not have butted her. It was very docile. Kutti Pisasu was upstairs reading a book and munching raw mangoes smeared with chilli powder and probably wondering what trick she can be up to, next. By now our neighbour and her nephew from Delhi who was visiting her had turned up too.
“The lizard fell on my hair,”she said.
“Aunty , it is not lizard. It is called gecko . Everybody makes this mistake…”
My mother cut short the zoological explanation being put forth by this budding naturalist sister of mine, “Come in Akka. Have a glass of water.” I had brought a glass of water, which she gulped down.
“Sundari(the budding naturalist),” Leelu Aunty called wiping her mouth with her saree, “Just refer to the Panchangam (Almanac) and see what it predicts when the Palli (gecko) falls on the head.”
My sister brought the Almanac in a jiffy and turned to the last page where the gecko’s falls and calls were explained with the events to follow.
My mother looked a bit uneasy. So did the maid. Perhaps they knew the prediction.
She read out, “Hair….Death ! Mrithyu.”
The silence was so profound that it could be heard by everyone present there.
Amma pulled Sundari aside and muttered under her breath, “Who asked you to see this!”
She said, or rather whispered defiantly, “I thought it would be written TRAVEL and she would leave soon !”
I suppressed my giggles with great difficulty. Anything would tickle my funny bone and I sometimes ended up receiving scoldings from Amma for laughing.
“You have reached the age of begetting two kids and this much laughter!” she would say.
Now Leelu Aunty was perplexed and looked ashen.
Madhavan Kutty, the milkman said, “Amme, don’e believe in these almanacs. They are all bunkum! May be the gecko would die.” All of us laughed .By now the coconut tree climber had also reached our group.
“Endha (what happened)?” he asked.
Ponnamma described to him the whole thing with added macabre details in sad tones. She loved reading detective stories and Manthravaadi books. In Kerala even the maids are literate and read a lot.
The neighbour Karthyayini Amma said, “Leelu. Don’t take all this seriously. Just pray to Guruvayurappan. Nothing will happen to you.”
The Delhi based nephew of hers chipped in, “Aunty. Don’t be worried. Just take a bath with dettol water. That will prevent any infection which will lead to death.”he did not have to rub it in.
Leelu Aunty winced at the mention of death.
Amma spoke for the first time. “Akka…anyway you live in Madras. Madras is quite close to Chidambaram. Make a trip there as soon as you can (indirectly giving her the bum’s rush) .There, in the Chidambaram Temple, there is this God Pallikeshwarar. Just do a pooja for Him. No harm will befall you.”
“Hey come on Aunty. Yeh sab sach hai kya?”(is this true).Suresh this nephew from Delhi was a budding agnostic.
“Yes Suresh. This is in the inner prakaram of the temple, near the Dakshina Moorthy. And people do perform Abhishekham here to ward off such fears from the fall of the palli.”
Kamakshi Patti from the house across the road joined the congregation now. Everything that happens in our colony reaches her ears somehow. We had named her Paambu Chevi(snake’s ears. Though zoologists are of the opinion that snakes are deaf! I doubt it though). The milk man had been pretty quick in spreading the news of the gecko’s fall on Leelu Aunty. He is always very generous in these matters. With him, the news paper was a redundant product!
Kamakshi Patti was our family priest’s mother-in-law.
“What happened?,” she asked.
“Oh what am I to say, Patti. This wretched gecko fell on my head and the almanac predicts death”.
“Rubbish !” she snorted. In her previous janma she must have been a horse. She was famous for her snorts.
“I’ll tell my son. You can do a prayaschitham. Make a small golden gecko and give it to a poor man,” She said.
“May be the poor receiver will kick the bucket!” my sister whispered to me.
All of a sudden my little sister came rushing towards the cow shed.
“Hey Durga what is it?” I asked.
She was stooping down and picked up something. She came towards us holding it between her index finger and thumb.
“Oh ! I thought I lost my gecko! Oof ! Here it is.”
She was holding a very realistic looking gecko made of rubber.
* * * * * * * *
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