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The Book

The Finger Puppet
By: Anu Jayanth
ISBN: 9788172236956
Format: Paperback
Extent: 275 pages

Chapter 1:

Tara stabbed a dot of red to her forehead and ran her finger over her lips. Drawing her face close to the round mirror no bigger than her mouth opened wide, she eyed her tongue, a pink cushion on which words slumbered. She flipped back a corner of the newspaper, spread like a tablecloth on the dresser and slid out the razor blade stored under it with her thumb.

At the sound of caws and beating wings, she stopped, flew to the window, her ears antennaed to Amma and the neighbour talking in hushed tones through the barbed wire fence wrapped in thorn bushes. As Tara suspected, she was the masala for their daily prattle amid samplings of the morning's cooking. Stories of surgical slip-ups shuttled between the two women, their voices entangling. What if her tongue hung out permanently, like a dog's? Better to hire a servant girl as a talking companion, no? But she might pick up the awful accent, the other bleated. A definite no-no. What to do then? Give it another week.

For as long ago as Tara could remember, her speechlessness had tongues wagging among the brahmans whose birthright was sound, chanting a lineage of poets and priests and pandits all the way back to the great sages, the rishis, the lingual acrobats of ancient India, now taken the form of crows. Reincarnated, Amma had said. A splattering from them equalled a blessing, which, of course, Tara had sought, but her tongue remained tethered to the floor of her mouth. It was time for the scalpel.

Tara's pointed chin thrust forward. Hadn't she reset her dislocated thumb by twisting it back into place? Hadn't she knocked out a loosened tooth with a stone? Hadn't she dug out a deeply embedded thorn from her heel with a safety pin? Nothing to this. She was not going to let anyone mess with her tongue. Three heel-thumping strides back to the mirror and snarling in silence she prepared to cut the whitish band of tissue underneath her tongue, its tip tucked inward and forming a double scallop. Thumb and forefinger tightened their pincer grip and up the blade flashed, past a ladder of hooks and eyelets, stitched close to prevent any accidental exposure of skin, on a green blouse matching her green, mango-print skirt. Green for healing. That's what Amma had said when she'd pierced the ears of her three daughters with a sewing needle, leaving a loop of turmeric-coated thread behind, and, later, a clean shaven neem twig, and finally the thick-stemmed gold earrings. Tara swabbed her mind with green, but inches above a gold chain around her throat her hand trembled and the double-edged steel shimmered and shivered.

And slipped, carving a lopsided crescent on the face of her right thumb.

She frowned at the thin curved line pumping crimson. It was a crooked, smiling mouth.

My first facial feature.

By the end of the week, she had refined my features, defining the black dots and the whites of my eyes, thick eyelashes, and a straight nose with perfectly winged nostrils, with her poster paints. I could have been her twin, except that I had a longer, prouder neck whereas hers disappeared between two bony shoulders pushed up to her ears. And my skin was pinker than hers. Whorled, of course, like the tight spiral on a salagrama. She protected me with a plastic candy wrapper when she bathed, cleansing me separately using a bud of cotton moistened with a drop of rosewater.

For my mouth, she became adventurous and innovative. In addition to the appetizing pinks, reds and oranges, she experimented with green and blue, long before such lip colours grew to be a vogue in the West. She dressed me up in frocks and gowns made of scraps of cotton and nylon and silk from the tailor's shop (Amma's needle mended emergency rips and tears, including some on the skin). Tara even made me a wig out of her own black curls. Less than an inch, the hair fell straight and stiff. At least she left it unadorned, without the wilting string of jasmine that dangled from her double braids.

Initially I was far too curious about my surroundings to notice Tara's silence. After all, there were many things in the house shabby and vintage that did not speak, even if they creaked or groaned. Or wept, like the chandelier whose frozen teardrops made me shudder. Sometimes a dog barked self-consciously. Deafened by the radio I did not immediately hear the female voices, their volume switching from soft to loud depending on the language of a pair of leather slippers worn by the head of the family, Appa. He was the only one who wore slippers inside the house. Those times when the slippers stomped around discontentedly and the sound of whispering voices died down, Tara did not venture out of the bedroom, which was fine with me because I loved hopping over bangles and combs and hairpins and powder puffs and oil spills, sometimes grabbing a word here, a word there, from the newspaper on the dresser. I backed away from the picture of a charred body surrounded by a ring of spectators and dove into a handcrafted jewellery box offering endless delight, rubbing my nose against the gold and silver ornaments to get rid of the smell of petrol and kerosene and burning flesh. Any lingering confusion spun away when I whirled like a one-legged ballerina on a round pendant, the same pinkish yellow as the chain around Tara's neck. A horizontal S split the circle in two mangoes, each with a bumpy dot, like the beady eye of a lizard. Why was she not wearing it? When I framed the question, Tara slapped a finger on my lips as if afraid someone might hear. My eyes, evading discipline, roamed past her in small circles coming back each time to the dresser.

Two wooden arms soared high bearing an oval, mirror-less plywood. On this Amma had stuck a compact mirror just big enough to adjust the dot on the forehead, to check the eyes or nostrils or mouth. Only in parts. Appa had smashed the original mirror so the girls would not beautify themselves. The many suitors for his eldest daughter were already beginning to enrage him. How dare someone take away his precious possession? The girls could not even smuggle a stainless steel or silver plate to their bedroom because then the servants might be accused of the theft. Since Amma, too, feared that a mirror would make them vain, they stole reflections of themselves from any polished surface, including the gleaming chrome headlamps of their Daimler and the Austin Princess. Tiny as I was, I could see my entire face and body in the round mirror or even on a spoon and made small adjustments to my face, hair and clothes. I turned this way and that way, checking myself from all angles. It was 1965.

Newly made and pulsing with life, I sprang up at the softest fall of approaching footsteps. Tara immediately folded a white cotton handkerchief over me. I looked like the Irish nuns at her convent school. Once when I was hanging out of the window of the school bus, I heard a parrot sing out, hello, hello from a wood and wire contraption as coins clattered into the beggar's tin cup. Tara could not even say 'hello' clearly, so she still templed her hands in a namaskaram that many here in Tiruchirapalli had dropped for the fashionable hello. The diminutive and deceptively simple 'hi', introduced by American comic books, awaited acceptance as youngsters and adults exploded into laughter, fights and tears over the pronunciation. Should it be hee or hye or hai?

Already a subject of mockery, Tara decided to stay away from that volatile word as well... Read the rest of Chapter 1 in PDF format!