Every evening, the limbs of the frangipani tree that shaded our second story apartment shivered and rustled, strewing star shaped blossoms onto our balcony’s floor. Balmy lake breezes mixed the petals’ thick perfume with the aromas of brewing coffee and fried snacks wafting from our neighbors' kitchen windows. In the distance, auto rickshaws and motorcycles revved their engines, announcing the start of Bangalore’s evening commute.
The minute I heard the creaking branches, I'd stop what I was doing and come outside. Leaning over the balcony’s wrought iron railing, I smiled and waved at the black-haired girl who was, inevitably, perched somewhere on the tree’s trunk, her bare feet tight against the rough bark, her long fingers plucking flowers.
Varuna,” I’d call out. “Hege ideera
? How are you?”
Akka! I am fine,” Varuna would reply, waving back.
“Good,” I’d say, reaching for clusters of newly opened flowers nestled between the leaves. I handed them to Varuna in fistfuls, careful not to crush the dewy blooms that felt as soft and delicate as wishes.
÷ ÷ ÷
Varuna’s body was like a stretched rubber band, long and thin and taut with momentum. Ropey muscles lined her arms, and her hair, which looked like it had never been cut, hung past her hips in a straight, disciplined braid. She always arrived wearing a pair of sun-faded salwar kameez
, a plastic shopping bag looped around her wrist. I never saw her wearing shoes.
Varuna’s mother tongue was Kannada, a language that she chirped like a parakeet, musical and clipped. Since I was just starting to it — my mother tongue is Tamil — there were only so many things we could say to each other. I’d greet her, ask how she was doing (always fine, big sister, always fine), and what she had for lunch (biryani or roti or halwa). Once I asked her what class she was in at school (third standard) and how old she was (11) and why she wasn’t wearing a school uniform (I don’t go to school, big sister). When my husband was home, he’d try to translate, falling easily into the Kannada he spoke while growing up in Bangalore in the 1990s. Some days, she was willing to speak to me through him. Other days, she ducked away, too shy to speak to a man who wasn’t a member of her family.
“Can you ask her what the flowers are for?” I asked him on a day when Varuna was feeling particularly comfortable.
I plucked a plush bunch of blossoms and buried my nose in them, inhaling the smell that reminded me of starlight.
After a few rapid phrases, my husband translated, “She says that they’re auspicious and they’re good for puja
. Her mother is praying for something, and she needs them.”
It never occurred to me to ask what Varuna’s mother was praying for. I figured that if she needed the flowers badly enough to send her daughter climbing strangers' trees, it must be something important.
÷ ÷ ÷
When Varuna first started coming by, my landlady — who lived downstairs from us — caught her climbing the tree, and immediately flew into a rage.
“Get down from there,” my landlady yelled in Kannada, shaking her fist. Her tightly permed, hennaed hair quivered, and her cheeks flushed an angry pink. “Those aren’t yours.”
“They’re just flowers,” I said. “Why can’t she have them?”
flowers,” my landlady said. “She can’t just take
things. It’s not right.”
For the next week, my landlady sat vigil in her front room, ready to spring outside the second she saw Varuna within a few yards of the frangipani tree. Through our floor — which was her ceiling — I could hear her muttering about how the nation’s youth were out of control.
During that week of hyper-vigilance, Varuna and I developed a system. She would turn onto our street and look up at me. If my landlady was home, I’d signal that Varuna should leave. If she wasn’t home yet, I’d beckon Varuna frantically. She’d flash up the tree, and the two of us would pluck furiously, filling her bag before we were discovered.
÷ ÷ ÷
I was in Bangalore because I received a Fulbright fellowship to study India’s publicly funded early childhood education centers. Most of these centers were in slums and, consequently, were some of the only places poor women and girls could gather and talk. During my visits to centers around our neighborhood, I found myself spending less time observing lessons, and more time gossiping and giggling with the mothers who stopped by the centers for rations, forms, or just a moment of rest.
The women were curious about me, with my dark, South Indian skin and twangy, Western accent. They asked me about my parents, my husband, my work. Inevitably, they’d ask me when my husband and I were going to have kids.
“Soon,” I’d say, smiling and avoiding the question.
“When you want children, here’s what you do. Buy a packet of milk and take it to the koil
just here,” one mother told me, gesturing in the direction of about four different Hindu temples.
“Or else you can go to another koil down the road there and ask for a special puja,” another said. “The priest will give you ghee. If you eat that ghee, you’ll get pregnant immediately.”
“Don’t forget to bring flowers,” yet another reminded me. “Puja is always better with flowers.”
I wondered what kind of pujas were prescribed for women who wished for something besides marriage or children. What if a woman wanted a college degree, or a book deal, or a visa to travel to a country I’d never seen? What if she wanted to leave her husband, or move into her own home, or start a career?
I never asked, not because I didn’t want to know, but because it didn’t seem right. In Bangalore, women live in worlds governed by certain rules that prohibit too much wanting or wishing, too much hoping.
In the social class that I inhabited, the details were different, but the fundamentals were the same: women who test the limits of hope shouldn’t expect help, human or divine. Men want, women provide. That’s the way the world works.
No one told me this, exactly. They didn’t have to. I already knew.
÷ ÷ ÷
One day, after returning home after a morning spent discussing divine intervention with yet another mother in the Bangalore slums, I stopped in front of the frangipani tree. Lost in thought, I plucked a plush bunch of blossoms and buried my nose in them, inhaling the smell that reminded me of starlight.
At that moment, my landlady stepped outside, clutching an expensive purse and a set of house keys.
“Oh!” I said, holding up the flowers in contrition. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be silly. Take, take!” she said, breaking off a few more and handing them to me.
“Thank you,” I said, puzzled and relieved. After a minute, I asked, “So it’s okay?”
“Of course! Why do you ask?”
“When Varuna came, you didn’t want her to have any,” I said. When my landlady looked at me blankly, I said, “The little girl with the long braid?”
“That girl? Chee! That’s different,” she said, wrinkling her nose in recognition. “You, you please take as many as you like.”
One of the last times Varuna visited me, she attracted the attention of the gang of nine- and ten-year-old boys who ruled our street. They gathered at the foot of the tree, peering up into the branches, their faces wrinkled with suspicion.
“What is she doing?” the leader called up to me.
“Ask her,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. He turned to Varuna and, switching into Kannada, asked, “What are you doing?”
She spoke to him so rapidly that I only understood every third or fourth word. Still, I knew it had something to do with pujas and flowers and her mother.
“Did she tell you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “She’s doing it for puja.”
“Can you help her?”
After a minute, he said, nodding approvingly, “Okay. Puja is good. We can help.”
He sent the youngest boy to get a plastic bag, then delegated the other two to go to the other frangipani trees on our block. The boys weren’t very good at climbing trees — they were too young — but they managed to fill their bags. Varuna dropped onto the pavement and accepted them graciously, her smile tight and proud.
Then my landlady’s red Toyota pulled into the driveway.
“How dare you!” she yelled as she let herself out of the car, not even waiting for her driver to open the door, as she usually did. “Those are mine!”
The boys watched curiously, but didn’t say anything. Neither did I.
Varuna turned on her heels and walked away, her steps rhythmic and measured, her back as straight and poised as a queen. A few days before, when I had been caught with frangipani in my hand, I had stuttered out an apology.
But Varuna knew that those precious flowers and the power they held belonged to her just as much as they belonged to me or my landlady or the boys on my street. Knew that the poor deserve as much desire as the rich, that women and girls ought to be allowed the same number of wishes as boys and men. Knew that, despite what anyone told her, she and her mother were entitled to their dreams.
Varuna’s gods hadn’t showered her with luck. But they weren’t interested in withholding it; only humans were interested in doing that. I watched her retreating back and, for the first time in years, I had the urge to pray.
÷ ÷ ÷
is an award-winning Indian American writer, author, and educator. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Teachers College of Columbia University, and the recipient of a Fulbright as well as other fellowships. Her writing has previously appeared in the Washington Post, Quartz, Al Jazeera America
, and elsewhere. A People's History of Heaven
is her first work of literary fiction.