Aided by a new setting, and no doubt powered by will, an old woman sheds her constraints and her frailties. Her “No” vanishes and “New” and “Now” prop up in its place.
No, I’m not talking of Tomb of Sand, but of March, Ma, and Sakura by Geetanjali Shree, here in Prachi’s translation. The woman is a septuagenarian in this one and is visiting her son in Japan. At first, she’s tentative and won’t step out of the house at all, not even to the street corner. But later, as February and March tumble forth, her transformation manifests and an entire country—or so it seems to the son, our narrator—blooms with her.
The son’s journey is as important to the story. As Ma changes, the son’s latent notions of what a mother, and a woman, must be come to the surface with concomitant fear and suspicion. Banishing the old, we realize, is as necessary for the son as it was for the mother.
It’s an unforgettable story.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
March, Ma and Sakura
Sakura bloomed with Ma’s arrival in Japan.
I could sense something that very day when I went to pick her up from the airport. I was standing in the arrival-lounge, and, as one rarely expects, the Air India flight had arrived on time. I stood nervously gawking at the crowds. Air India passengers were beginning to file out of the exit. I feared she’d lose her way and I’d find her, moments later, hidden in some corner of the lounge, shaking like a leaf. My gaze shifted from one face to the next. Passengers were approaching with luggage carts as tall as themselves. In Delhi, a troupe would have accompanied her to the airport; friends and relatives would have helped check-in her luggage. But here, it was her own might against that of the conveyor belt, her aging eyes against a sea of similar suitcases. Would she be able to find her own? She might not even recall the color of my car, or the number on its plate since only Papa and Bhai Sahab have driven it all these
It was then that I spotted a young man appear in the lounge with Ma at his elbow. The man was pushing the trolley with Ma’s luggage as well as his own, and Ma was following, carrying a mini air-bag on her shoulder. In a flash I thrust myself under her nose, so she could see not much beyond my face.
And see me she did, as the sheepish smile on her face turned into a giggle. I bent down and touched her feet. He too is a first time visitor, she said, and is as nervous as I am, so I told him my son is coming to pick me up, he lives here, you can ask him anything.
I could sense it then.
But I’m only saying it now.
I should’ve sensed it then.
This year, with Ma’s arrival, Sakura will bloom.
When March arrived, Ma began to trouble me.
But March arrived much later. During the initial months, I would call her up every now and then from the office—Ma, what are you doing?—and she would always have the same answers: Beta, I was sewing a button in your kurta, now I’ll take a shower, or beta, I was making your favorite gajar ka halwa, now I’ll go do some laundry. Countless times I told her—Ma, it’s a beautiful day, get out, perhaps take a stroll around the house. But every time she’d say—and I could tell by the whimper in her voice that her face was puffed up like a little girl’s—what if I get lost? Kamaal hai, I’m not asking you to go explore the city, we walk down that street every evening. But she was indifferent to my pleas and prayers. Unh-huh, she would say with a sullen face. I would scold her further—so many times we’ve been to the supermarket, go get some milk and groceries for the week. Arre, I won’t even be able to ask for the way back home. You’ll come back the same as you leave, my silly mother, yet, keep my card with you if you’re so afraid, show anyone the address, they’ll tell you where to go, not only that, they’ll drop you right to the door. What if I can’t get the door to unlock? It’s too complicated, a right turn of the key, then a left, she would whine.
Ma, go out of the house, I would reproach her.
No re, she’d insist. I’m good here. I’ll leave only once you’re home.
In the evenings, I would try to blackmail her. I come running home from the office because of you, I’d say. I never make a stop or visit a friend because you stay at home all day and never leave the house. If only you could go around on your own, just around the block if not too far… Her nostrils would flare and she would raise a hand to silence me: Beta, don’t tell me all this, keep in mind how old I am. And the safety pin hanging from her bangle would sway in agreement.
As February came to an end, buds were shooting out of every branch in the city. Ma had started talking to the young man at the fish shop, if only in broken English. The Japanese man would ask what she meant to do with the fish, and the Indian mother would explain the recipe for her fish pickle, and promise to bring him a jar or two, cracks in their English deep enough for an Englishman to fall into.
Then I saw one day, if not on more than one days, the young man at the fish shop approaching, lugging Ma’s groceries in a bag, and Ma leading with her handbag swaying on her shoulder, rushing on to get the door.
Then another day, I came home to find the neighbor’s son eating Ma’s egg curry. “You love Indo food,” he told me, burdened with the weight of the foreign tongue, replacing his “I” with “you”.
When Ma broke into laughter and put her hand on his cheek, and kept it there for a while, I felt as if someone was playing a joke on me.
Something about that hand on his cheek, perhaps lingering for a fraction-of-a-second more than the average, perhaps placed with more firmness than the average, made me look away.
When the young man left, I said: Ma, the custom here is to bow from a distance, like you must have seen. Or like the English, you can shake hands. But I couldn’t go on, my face turned red, and I choked the words in my throat.
What could I say? That which hasn’t been said before, ever, how could I say it? Yet some things were said, and she had obeyed, and in the obeying, she had
accomplished something else altogether, so I kept my quiet. I admit, I had expressed my concerns, I had told her: Ma, it’s cold, saree-nighty won’t do the job, you’ll be better off in my kurta-pajamas. But only in bed—this was left unsaid, yet referred to in the light of the situation. Now, even in the daytime, even before that young man, Ma had started to wear my soft, silky kurtas, my Aligarhi pajamas with my woolen bundy.
Out? Perhaps the word hadn’t yet left my mouth, when Ma graced the edge of her pashmina on her kurta—my kurta—and strode towards the door. It’s quite amusing, to be without a care, to have no one tell you what to wear and what not. Here, where no one knows our attire, no one can bother you, she said.
I know, don’t I?
Another question that didn’t make it out of my mouth.
On the subway now, she sits next to me going over the names of station stops, committing them to memory, tracing with the tips of her fingers the lines on the map. So there is only this one exit? Wonderful, no way to get lost! Deguchi means exit, she tells me with more than a hint of pride. This is Nakano-Shimbashi. We get in here. This is Nakano-Sakaue. Get off, hurry. Right across from here, we can get a train to Shinjuku. And then Akasaka-Mitsuke, or Ginza, or Tokyo, or Otemachi, or O-cha-no-mizu—this she would utter carefully, because I had chided her when she had said Aachonamazu, although was I chiding her only for the mispronunciation?—or you could go all the way to Ikebukuro! Isn’t that wonderful, she would say, as if I had asked her the most simple, obvious question and she had obliged.
It was she who told me that Shinjuku Gyoenmae was the nearest station to Shinjuku Gyoen, and not Shinjuku itself.
I am going to Shinjuku Gyoen—she called me at work once—remember that man who accompanied me on the flight from India, I’m going with him, so don’t worry.
At this, I became apprehensive. I mean, even more apprehensive! From where does Ma round up these young men? Why does she keep smacking them gently? My ears were burning. You asked of me Ma, that I shouldn’t forget how old you are—I thought, bent over my papers.
March was lingering close at hand.
One day, when it was still on its way, she declared: I saw Sakura.
What are you saying—I was irked—it’s not yet time.
It is not, she said, and her eyes sparkled with disdain. Almost as if the Sakura could not, dare not bloom until she went on them and laid on them that sparkle in her eyes.
Looks like you have a bee in your bonnet, I chuckled.
There’s just that one tree in your neighborhood, she told me. The young man next door had told her about it, he had taken her, in fact, to show it to her.
Let’s pay it a visit, see how it is doing, she would say, when in honesty she only wanted to press the pedestrian switch at the Bina Naga signal. Her eyes would light up—only for me the pedestrian light will turn green, and for me the cars will stop? She would press the button and skip across in a rabbit walk. Let’s see what all this Sakura fuss is about, and led by her, we would spend the evening inspecting the tree.
And then March came right around the corner. The winds tippled as if going crazy. Broadcasts on the television interrupted their grand announcements with daily updates on the rustling on the branches of the Sakura, the tinkling of the new buds as they blossomed into full bloom.
Hokkaido won’t bloom just yet. Ma would follow each photograph on the television.
The buds would dance in her eyes.
I laughed: How will it, without you there?
I want to go everywhere, I want to see everything, Hokkaido too. Ma spread out her arms and reached out to the sky. As if she pitied the buds that won’t bloom in her absence.
You’re like a little girl, Amma! I felt a tender love for her.
Beta, I am seventy. What is there now, to be afraid of? She threw her hands in the air. Loose on her arm, the sleeve of my kurta slipped towards her shoulder, exposing the loose, dangling flesh on her arms. My mother was seventy, and my father, in his senility, had little clue if she was around or not, and so for the first time in her life, she had left everyone on their own and come here.
You’ve come alone? I found her standing outside my office.
On the subway home, I kept scolding her, but she was busy memorizing the names of stations. At Harajuku, she jumped up from the silver seat, like soldiers do at the commander’s call, and took my hand in hers. Before I could ask what, or tell why, I was being rushed to the door, and only God knows how it didn’t happen that I was left on one side, she on the other, and our hands stuck within the closed doors. Dragging me behind her, she made her way to Yoyogi park.
Right or left, she murmured under her breath, and then made a left turn.
I know, I know, the old disappointed man within me buried his face in his knees and said, I know she has been here before, with another young man.
The sun was setting. The evening had sprawled against the sky. Before our eyes, the rain began to drip-drop on the Sakura trees. Ma was looking there too, and showing me. The buds must have started twitching about then. That soft drizzle of the rain on that evening was the beginning of the Sakura, which were now glistening like grains of sand on a moonlit night.
I opened the umbrella above our heads, and we stood there for a while, the two of us. And then I could not do anything, anymore. Ma slipped out of my fingers, like the glistening grains of sand. In her absence, if the phone rang, I was still nervous to find someone from Delhi on the other side—what would I tell them?
March was coming to an end. And following in my mother’s footsteps, the entirety of Tokyo was losing its head. In her footsteps, everybody alike was chanting Sakura-Sakura. Wait until next week! Only four more days! By Sunday, it will be a sight! And like always, those who in the beginning hold on to their wisdom or balance or call it what you will, and are knocked right off their feet when spring comes along, I too find myself singing my mother’s song. The chord she has struck with the whole of Tokyo, it seems I am flowing in it as well.
Then Sakura bloomed entirely, like the sea rising on a high tide. My mother and everyone else in Tokyo walked with their heads thrown back, eyes lifted skywards. But instead of the sky, there were only leaps and waves of endless white flowers. Going on and on, endlessly.
Everyone walked with their eyes to the sky, and so everyone staggered. The faint scent of the Sakura intoxicated the air and those who breathed it, and brewed inebriety into the foods kept beneath the trees and the bottles of Sake.
As many flowers on the trees, as many people under them. In Chidorigafuchi park, where Ma had brought me, someone was taking a close-up shot, while someone was getting clicked themselves. Yet someone else was painting, or eating, or singing, someone just jumping around. Ma would lead me on, then stop me, then lead me on, then stop me again. Below was the river, Sakura on the other side, and tall buildings in its cover.
What is that, Ma asked, pointing at one tall building.
Fairmont Hotel, I answered.
Ma stopped, and stepped on a chiseled rock. A branch from the Sakura bent and touched her lips.
I could kiss it, she said.
Perhaps she kissed it too.
We stood there, our hands resting on the railing. Above us, and beyond, before us and behind, was the endless white sea.
I wish that was my house, so I would live there and always look at the Sakura, Ma said, pointing at an apartment at the top of the building.
And then something happened. The Sakura began to flutter. The sea rose and fell, rose and fell. And I thought we are standing at the window of the hotel apartment—which is not the apartment but Ma’s house—and peeking at us, and we are there, not here, and Ma is flitting like a petal through the winds.
Next to my hand was her hand. Tied to the railing, covered in wrinkles.
Behind us a group set off some karaoke. I pulled the Sake from my hip-flask. Ma put the rim of the cup to her lips. Then I picked up my cup, took off the flask hanging by my neck, looked at her, and in the name of the blooming white Sakura, raised my hand in a kampai. Applause thundered in the background, and in the twilight gleam of the Sakura, the colours of my mother’s face too glowed. Then she took my hand in hers and broke into a dance. The petals of the Sakura fluttered in the wind like butterflies. Across the river in Fairmont hotel, which was not a hotel at all, but Ma’s house from another time, a window opened, and there she was, my mother, not seventy but only a girl, looking at us jumping and dancing beneath the Sakura, and she looked on and on and on.
Image credits: Graffiti artist A-Kill‘s “Sushi Patti” wall mural at the Sakura Sushi restaurant in Kuilapalayam, just outside Puducherry, Tamil Nadu.
Who is A-Kill? In the artist’s own words: “”I’m Aqueel, graffiti artist based in Chennai. My tag name is Akill and the cofounder of 1st graffiti crew in Chennai T3K (Tic Tac Toe, The Third Kind). I studied digital illustration at Malaysia for 4 year. I’m been painting since 2010.” Check out his work here and here.
Geetanjali Shree (author)
Geetanjali Shree has written five novels: Mai, Hamara Shahar Us Baras, Tirohit, Khali Jagah and Ret Samadhi, and five collections of short stories in Hindi. Her stories and novels have been translated into French, German, English, Polish, Serbian, and Japanese as well as in Indian languages. She has received various awards for her contribution to Hindi literature. The French translation of her novel, Ret Samadhi, was shortlisted for the Emile Guimet Prize, 2021, and the English translation won the International Booker Prize, 2022. Shree also writes scripts for theatre and essays in English and Hindi for various publications. [bio courtesy Jaipur Lit Festival].
The contributor writes across forms, wherein she often engages with the themes of womanhood, familial bonds, and belongingness, or the lack thereof. Torn between language identities, she finds translation to be a familiar middle space between a dwindling mother tongue, and a foreign inheritance that doesn’t fully set in. During her undergraduate years, she started going around in sarees, reciting Urdu poems, a pursuit that might or might not stay. She likes to read across languages and forms and these days, feels inspired by, in no particular order, Geetanjali Shree, Arundhati Roy, Agnes Callard, Jeanette Winterson, Eunice D’Souza, and Amruta Patil. She is currently a postgraduate student of literature in Mumbai, where she moved only to be close to the sea.