In the region of Coorg, in the south of India, amidst beautiful coffee plantations and rainforests, Ponnappa and his mother arrived. It was the monsoon of 2020, months after the first Covid lockdown and his father’s death. The chilly morning air greeted them, the lush greenery and gentle chirping of the birds was something a city man like him was not accustomed to.
Ponnappa was in his 40s, a tall chubby man with dimpled cheeks that made him look like he was constantly smiling even when he was not. His mother Aarthi was in her late 60s, a once talkative woman who was now quiet and grieving the loss of her husband.
His parents along with his extended family had lived in Coorg for most of their lives before they moved to the city. They owned an ancestral home where he had spent many years of his childhood vacations. He rarely visited the house after he joined university, his father was the only person in their large family who had visited Coorg over the years to take care of the house and eventually after his demise, the house was neglected.
Ponnappa had a coworking start-up in Bangalore that didn’t pan out as Covid had hampered it’s growth. With a heavy heart and burnt pockets, he ended the business. He was drowning in debt and needed to get out of it. Despite the losses, he wanted to start something new again, his entrepreneurial streak was not over. He needed time to strategise and his mother needed time to heal so, moving to his childhood home after the first Covid lockdown was over was the best temporary solution.
“We should have brought your father here as soon as we heard about whatever this Covid thing was. He could have made it” his mother said as they sat on the old silk covered couch looking at the family portraits that lined the wall. “He had a lot of prior health problems Amma, you know we tried everything” Ponappa said feeling guilty that his mother still blamed herself for his father’s death. “I don’t see you being emotional about what happened at all. You went back to work as usual” she said as she opened each bedroom door to check for hiding thieves. “Amma, I don’t have the time to be upset, I have to save us both financially. I can’t even sell this house since Appa’s brothers are co-owners…..I have a lot going on” he told his mother as he was setting up his workstation. His mother felt no need to continue the conversation and decided to set up the kitchen instead. What they didn’t know was that the events in their family history were not as squeaky clean as they looked.
It was 1975, the best year of Elvis in the west and Amitabh Bachchan in the east. Sarala was 18 and the only daughter of a gardener. She and her father worked at a wealthy spice business owner’s house from sunrise to sunset. Sarala was one of their cooks, she assisted the older cooks with less complex dishes and brought all the groceries they needed every week. The house had a sprawling garden with dense rosewood trees, and flowers in unusual colours and at the centre was a beautiful bronze statue of Goddess Kaveri. The Goddess had a special meaning to the people of Coorg.
Sarala and her father lived a simple life. They were grateful to have employment and they considered the rest of the staff as part of their family. Their employers were a large family of 3 brothers, their respective wives and their adult children. The men were part of the spices business while the women took care of the children and the house with the staff.
It was a rainy day in July when Kushal arrived at the house. He had returned to India after his studies and was happy to be home after many years. It was on one of the rainy evenings that month when he ventured into the kitchen to grab a bite. “I can make it sir, you don’t have to make anything,” Sarala told him as he was looking for the ingredients. “I’m used to making my food, I have very specific taste” Kushal replied smiling. “Can you send someone with me tomorrow to take me to the forest?” he asked as he was cooking. “The elders told us that it’s haunted so nobody would be willing to accompany you. And if your parents found out, they would not allow it either” she responded secretly admiring how he knew his way around a new kitchen. “Okay, don’t tell anyone then. I can go alone, you can keep a secret right?” he asked. “Yes, I don’t think it is haunted anyway. I have already been there, there’s nothing to be afraid of” she confessed. “Perfect, then why don’t you show me the way? I will keep it a secret as well” he asked. “Okay, we can go after my work in the kitchen, if you’re willing to wait,” she said hoping he would change his mind. But, he didn’t, he was more than happy to oblige.
What started as an innocent stroll through a rainforest resulted in Kushal enjoying Sarala’s company. During his time abroad, he was interested in a few women but cultural differences and his desire to move back home prevented the relationships from culminating into anything concrete. He found it difficult to stay interested in a woman after some time. His interest weaned, the conversations became shorter and silences were uncomfortable.
With Sarala, the conversations flowed with ease even after a year of them exploring the vast forest together. They were so different in economic backgrounds but they still had so much to talk about. She never pitied herself nor was she envious of what he had, “I couldn’t control where I was born and how people treat me but I can control how I lead my life, I intend on leading it how I think is right” was her simple reasoning to life’s purpose.
Sarala had long black hair that she kept plaited, large kohl-rimmed eyes and chocolate brown skin. She was always amused when Kushal’s bamboo curry was better than the head cook’s version. She admired how he never treated her like his cook and the stories of his life experiences were honest, he was not afraid to show his vulnerability.
One sleepy afternoon, Sarala found Kushal reading a book under the rosewood tree. “Your father has a gift, look at how beautiful the garden is,” he said to her. Sarala smiled in response. Kushal reached out and took her hand, he slipped an emerald bangle on it. “It’s a gift, you look beautiful in green,” he said looking into her eyes. Sarala was taken aback by the gesture, she didn’t refuse the bangle, she knew she had feelings for the man.
“Is it true? The head cook said you’ve been having an illegitimate relationship with Indra madam’s youngest son” Sarala’s father demanded. “It’s not illegitimate, the mere fact that he is wealthier than us that doesn’t mean I am not allowed to love someone like him” she responded. “I found the bangle that you’ve been hiding, I didn’t want to trust the cook but it’s true after all” her father was now visibly angry. “Reaching beyond our level, aren’t you?” her father said waving the bangle in front of her. “He is going to get married soon and you will be discarded. This is not what I wanted for you, I want a better life for you but this is not going to give you that my child” he said, his anger turning into disappointment. “We won’t lose our jobs or our respect here, I will make sure of it” she told her father confidently looking into his teary eyes.
Kushal’s wedding was a grand event. Sarala chose to stay despite Kushal’s marriage because they both had never committed to anything, they were aware of the circumstances and what they were required to do. Sarala remained in the maid’s quarters for the rest of her life, she became the head cook with time. They maintained a dignified silence around each other in the house while their personal lives progressed. They had both married and had children and Kushal had stepped into his father’s shoes.
For the next 30 years, Kushal and Sarala met in the rainforest and their conversations never ended. They took comfort in each other’s company, there was no pretense in front of each other. They had more in common, now that they were parents. They went to great lengths to ensure their families or the staff were never aware of their whereabouts.
It was when Sarala contracted a terminal disease that their families found Kushal’s behaviour suspicious. He paid for the best doctors to treat her, and he constantly enquired with her children regarding her health. Sarala chose for her ashes to be scattered in the garden that her father had so lovingly tended to over the years. Kushal’s family disapproved as this was not the custom for them and certainly not for the staff that worked for them. But, he ensured her ashes were scattered under the rosewood trees and the Goddess Kaveri statue. He never quite recovered after her death, he felt he had lost a part of himself with her.
Ponnappa, Kushal’s son, had now inherited the house along with his cousins who continued their family’s spice business. It desperately needed repairs but none of them was willing to invest in a renovation project of a house that was shared between a large family.
Ponnappa’s parents had a cordial relationship. They cared for each other and functioned as loving parents to him. He had shared many drinks over the years with his father while sharing his troubles at work and in his personal life yet, his father never mentioned his past and took his secrets to his grave. On some days his mother would tell him that she always felt his father looked for ways to escape from the city and visit Coorg to spend time in the house.
A week after his arrival, it was late at night and he was working on a new business idea. Ponnappa heard hushed whispers from the garden. It sounded like someone talking in a hushed tone right outside his window. He walked outside and the cold air hit him. The whispers had stopped, it was replaced with an eerie silence. Fearing there were thieves around he kept the lights on that night.
On several afternoons, he heard a woman singing, a folk song he had not heard before. He walked into his mother’s room to find her fast asleep. He followed the singing and it led him out to the garden to the Kaveri statue and it stopped abruptly. Some nights when he awoke to drink water, he looked outside his window to see movement in the trees. The rustling of the leaves on nights when there was no breeze.
They had a caretaker taking care of the property. He stayed at one of the rooms in the old maid’s quarters while the rest of it was locked up. The caretaker was rudely woken up to banging on his door late at night. “I called you several times Raju!” Ponnappa exclaimed standing in his pyjamas outside the door. “Sir, it’s 2 a.m. I don’t keep my phone next to me at night. My wife gets suspicious” Raju responded yawning. “Are you sure there are no electricity problems? I saw the lights flicker in the rooms that were locked” he asked the caretaker. “There are no lightbulbs in the other rooms, sir, we removed everything years ago,” the caretaker said judging Ponnappa.
A few months later, he was eating lunch with his mother. “Have you heard any strange sounds Maa?” he asked her hoping it was just him. “Is it the singing and the whispers?” she asked him without any emotion. “You know about that?!” he asked her shocked at her response. “It’s been happening for several years, I’ve got accustomed to it,” his mother said. “Aren’t you supposed to do something about it?!” he questioned her. “Not necessary, whatever it is, has helped me after your father’s death. It’s almost like it understands” she responded looking almost peaceful. “Helped you by doing what?!” he asked her certain that his mother needed a therapist. “It’s difficult to explain, when I sit in the garden, I can almost feel someone wiping my tears, it’s a lightness in the air. The singing is comforting, it’s an old folk song that your father used to love” his mother said as she cleared the dishes leaving Ponnappa in a state of anxiety over his mother’s mental health.
Over the next few months, his mother worked diligently in the garden. The flowers were now in full bloom and the weeds that made it look like an abandoned property were now cleared. The grass was green again and the beautiful rosewood trees were trimmed. At the centre was the Kaveri statue that had now been polished and sacred Tulasi plants were planted around it. His mother spent most of her days tending to the plants and she was healing in the process.
One night when Ponnappa was working, he heard the faint whispers again. This time he didn’t turn on the lights, he stepped out and walked around the garden inspecting it thoroughly. It was when he was on the other side of the property that he spotted her. A woman was walking across the rose bushes and towards the rosewood trees. There was a hint of green that he could spot as she glided through the garden. He rushed to the trees but she was nowhere to be found.
Out of breath and overwhelmed with fear, he called his cousin immediately and narrated the whole incident. “Have you been drinking by any chance?” his cousin asked. “No! I haven’t had a drink tonight. I am sure I saw this lady, something weird is going on here” he exclaimed. “Alright, let’s bring in a priest to bless the house” his cousin suggested.
Their extended family were in attendance when the priest performed a ritual at the house. They sympathised with his mother when she declared she was against the ritual but they were firm that it had to be done. Raju chose not to attend the ritual as well, “Sir, we shouldn’t trouble the spirits that protect us” he said. Ponnappa felt at ease after he completely stopped hearing whispers, singing and any movement in the garden. The blessing of the house had worked!
At the end of the year, they decided to move back to the city. Covid deaths had reduced, and the lockdowns had eased up. Ponnappa was doing well, his mother was almost back to her old self and he had just launched his new start-up. His family had agreed to sell the house and he could clear his debts and be a free man.
He decided to enjoy his last night at the house with a drink. He fell asleep after a few drinks when he awoke to a gentle tapping on his window. He threw his duvet aside and walked groggily to the main window in the living room. He looked outside to see if the street cats were trying to get inside the house again. What he saw made him rub his sleepy eyes hard to double-check. There she was, the woman in green, sitting under the redwood trees and smiling back at him.