By Betsy Selvam
Wildflowers and weeds grow in abundance here. They are brightly redolent of evenings that I spent roaming outside home barefoot, content by myself, plucking leaves and flower buds; bunching them into finger-sized bouquets.
Lantana shrubs pepper the landscape around me. Their tiny clusters of pink and orange flowers add an undertone of sweetness to the air, making my nostrils flare and twitch. As a child, I squeezed the juice of their berries into my palm. In the bowl of my palm, I whisked the mushy juice with a finger pretending it was cake batter. I don’t remember the last time I consciously paid attention to milkweed or plucked one of its showy lilac flowers to play a game of Find the Raja and Rani.
Thumbai shrubs and Spanish needles dot the grass in whites and yellows. They are so common that they hide in plain sight. These are the sidewalk flowers growing out of cement cracks–wildflowers which sprout and survive anywhere. I remember the sweet nectar of Thumbai, and how I would string the white bell-shaped flowers together like beads. The latter, Spanish needles, lent itself to a funny game with a funny rhyme. Pop Pop Pop I would sever the bulbous yellow flowers off with my thumb. Every time I sniffed my fingers later, I saw green somewhere in my head.
I named this hill The Faraway Hill when I was eleven years old. It seemed to me then that if I started from home, it would take me days to reach it on foot. I never found out how mistaken I was until now, years later as an adult. It was never all that far away. That morning, when I first saw the hill from the terrace balcony of my home, the sky was a dull white. It was the beginning of the monsoon and the sun had gone freshly into hiding. Squinting through my toy binoculars, I beheld The Faraway Hill; the brooding mist hanging at its crown. It looked picturesque, idyllic–like a hill station scene on a postcard. I longed to climb its peak and feel the chill of the high air shiver my jaws.
The boy I met in the village streets below guided me up the hill. He is a stranger I had approached for directions at the foothills. Instead of merely pointing left or right, he offered to guide me for an amount of thirty rupees. I was sceptical at first – half afraid of getting swindled or robbed en route – but I relented hesitantly afterwards.
Now, standing a few feet behind him on the hilltop, I ask him about the iron rod that is hammered into a rock close to the steep precipice. It has a rusty bowl-like disc attached on the top. The disc is burned black, showing that it has held fire.
It’s for when we have processions. We bring fire and light it here, the boy points to the disc. Sometimes it’s used for pujas during festivals.
These hills have lost and wandering spirits. He continues, the temple priests light fire on the disc to cast spells. They chase the spirits away. The fire is left to burn throughout the night.
You can hear them late at night, the spirits. A few times, I have heard lost ones calling out and walking the streets back and forth. Sometimes they call out in the voices of people you know. But you should not open the door. Otherwise, you will fall into a trance, and blindly start to follow them.
Until now, I have only been vaguely familiar with Mayana Kollai (the festival of grave looting) of the Hindus. All I have known of it is that it is celebrated in graveyards with elaborate rituals. But, as the boy describes the festival to me, everything stands out in arresting detail and I grow simultaneously intrigued and afraid of the ritualistic happenings that have taken place here. I listen and nod as my vision lowers to the remains of past rituals next to my feet: shattered coconut shells, dry peels of half-cut lime, and vestiges of chrysanthemum garlands.
As I grew up, the Faraway Hill transformed into more than a childish fancy for adventure. In a split second, I went from an oblivious child lost in the cosmos of make-believe to a premature veteran of an unfriendly world. I changed into a world-weary teenager who wished to leap off the same terrace I had spent countless hours playing in. A dramatic turn, I know. Perhaps for a long time I imagined the hill to be faraway and beyond my grasp simply to preserve the hope it gave me. Entrenched within me was the paradox that no place so tranquil-looking could ever exist within my reach. Still I knew it existed and felt its tugging pull. After the longest time, I have finally obeyed its stubborn beckon. It has not disappointed me.
Standing at the edge of a steep cliff, I am foolishly tempted to take one more step. I know I will not, but a war still wages somewhere inside me. In front of my eyes, the city stretches on like the whole wide world. Maybe, I am one of the hill’s lost and wandering spirits. Maybe that is why I have felt its persistent call for so long. Unlike the myriad buildings sprinkled across the landscape in my panoramic view, each one claiming its own spot, I am unfixed and meandering. Not fully belonging anywhere yet. Before turning to leave, I whisper to myself a thought that I must visit again with a better idea of the route. Maybe next time, I will be less lost and wandering. Maybe I will find my own way.
Betsy Selvam is an artist from Vellore, south India. She also likes to dabble in writing. Her work may be found in The Blue Marble Review, Samjoko and Oyster River Pages, among other places.