Miss Beston spotted them through her window. She rushed out with her rifle.

In the heart of the Coromandel jungle, a spectacle greeted her: two pubescent girls stood before her, decked in the most charming style of jewellery south of the Vindhyas, as though they were on a
formal visit. And alone, all alone.

‘Thank god I shot that leopard this morning,’ she said to her shikari.

‘Absolutely,’ said her tufted gomastha from behind the shikari.

Little Worker Aunt widened her large kohl-lined eyes and stared at Granny Appachchi on her hip, as though she was a mango discovered days after the harvest, hiding under a leaf – a dagudukayi.

‘I am glad we have left the hounds behind on the boat,’ Miss Beston said to him.

‘Absolutely,’ said the gomastha.

Little Worker Aunt widened her eyes again and slowly turned to look at her vadina’s, sister-in-law’s, face. Perched on her hip like a water-pot or an outsized terracotta doll, lovingly enclosed by an
arm, she had proved the trusted pilot even in the jungle. Worker Aunt only worried now about the thorn wedged in her sister-in-law’s foot.

‘Who are you looking for?’ asked the white woman.

The famous Boat Woman’s Telugu sounded just a bit odd, but it made sense, almost as much as that of a local speaker.

She towered over them, a good six-feet tall. As though the very forest goddess had materialised before them, suddenly, in the hoof-path, and in a white man’s clothes.

Granny Appachchi slid down...but in a second Worker Aunt recovered and lifted Appachchi and placed her back on her hip.

‘For you,’ said Granny Appachchi, from her cosy vantage.

The white woman widened her deep-set, blue eyes.

‘For me?’

She smiled sweetly. She turned to her shikari and said, ‘I am honoured.’

‘Absolutely,’ said the gomastha from behind the shikari. ‘These little girls are from Karanam Mangayya’s family, madam.’

‘I know. Brahmins. All the more shocking.’

The girls now turned their heads and stared at the two guns the shikari was carrying.

‘White hibiscus,’ said Granny Appachchi.

‘What did she say?’

Before her gomastha could open his mouth and say ‘Absolutely’ once again, Granny Appachchi repeated, ‘White hibiscus.’ The gomastha’s face fell.

The gomastha did open his mouth again but Worker Aunt anticipated him. ‘You look like a white hibiscus,’ she explained.

Miss Beston smiled. The gomastha was fidgeting with his pigtail; it looked like a malfunctioning lightning conductor laid low by an uncommon bolt.

When the gomastha began explaining the compliment, Miss Beston looked around, as though for a white hibiscus. Worker Aunt put her charge down on her feet and formed the lotus mudra, trying
to conjure up the flower for the white woman.

Miss Beston got it, or some idea of it.

‘Of course!’ she said and laughed.

But she wasn’t certain she was being admired.

‘You are a red hibiscus!’ she returned the compliment. ‘You too! No less!’

She was charmed by Granny Appachchi’s complexion.

Later, Miss Beston gathered enough from her munshi and her own personal library on Indian flora and fauna, especially on the fascinating lotus, to deliver a discourse to her European visitors, who spread it all over the Raj, calling the information the Lotus Sutra.

The colourful party reached the boat on the canal. The dogs had started barking from far away.

The little girls did not worry about the hounds; they forgot all about their encounter with the wild as Miss Beston’s boat home appeared before them on the Blotton Canal. What a home to live in!

A home which floated, rocking gently, in the canal. It was anchored firmly, tethered with a python rope to a huge jamun on the bank.

‘You are welcome,’ the Boat Woman said with a sweet smile, ‘to my cottage....’ Then, taking a quick look at a framed mirror in front of her, she said, ‘White hibiscus!’, smiling to herself.

The Boat Woman attended to Appachchi’s foot. She bent down, cleaned the little foot with alcohol – ‘Spirit,’ she told the girls as their nostrils dilated – carefully extracted the thorn from it, and swabbed the spot with a white lotion. ‘Red hibiscus!’ she said, lifting Appachchi to the mirror, and then Worker Aunt, ‘Creamy hibiscus!’

‘Punditji,’ she told her munshi, who had appeared, ‘I need to work on my Telugu. Just to win the approval of these young ladies. And learn all about the lotus.’

‘You will, no doubt,’ he said, smiling. ‘Can anything in the world stop you?’ He turned to the little girls and acknowledged their greetings.

‘How are you, little girls?’ he said to them with a cheerful smile. ‘As mischievous as ever?’

The girls nodded vigorously. They felt completely at ease.

‘These are brainy girls, Miss Beston, I have taught them the alphabet.’ He patted Worker Aunt on the head and said, ‘This girl is the best brain in my experience.’

‘Better than mine?’

‘That, I cannot be sure,’ he said.

Both of them laughed. The little girls joined in, simply because the adults were laughing.

Worker Aunt told the munshi how her little sister-in-law had guided her through the jungle. Appachchi had said to her, ‘She is not far, vadina. After finishing off a leopard in the morning she has
gone back for the day and tied up her dogs.’ And Appachchi had added something that had worried Worker Aunt then: ‘The Guru of the Stream told me this, he was standing next to us a moment
ago, didn’t you notice? Without the command of Lord Siva, even an ant will not bite you.’

Granny Appachchi confirmed: ‘He lifted a foot. Two thorns were stuck there!’

‘Yes, Meenakshi,’ said the munshi and put his right hand on her head, ‘you have already received His grace.’

‘Is this the same holy man you were talking about, Punditji?’ asked the white woman.

‘Yes, the same.’

‘Can I also join your school?’ Miss Beston asked the girls.
‘No need for you to go to the school,’ said little Granny Appachchi, ‘our teacher comes here to teach you.’

‘You know everything about me!’

The girls nodded.

Miss Beston turned to the munshi.

‘True,’ he said, softly.

‘Let’s see,’ the white woman said with a smile, ‘how much you know about me. What time do I get up in the morning?’

‘In Brahma Kalam,’ said Granny Appachchi.

‘In the small hours,’ the munshi translated.

‘True!’ Miss Beston almost shouted, delighted.

Appachchi followed up with a brisk account of a typical day in the life of the Boat Woman. It was graphic and complete.

‘No, I haven’t told her,’ said the munshi to the white woman’s unasked question.

During the years and decades that followed, Granny Appachchi’s words and actions would cease to surprise members of her family, as well as the villagers. She would also gradually stop mentioning the Guru’s presence.

Miss Beston tended to avoid body contact. After the impulsive act of lifting the girls to the mirror, she kept a practical distance between them and herself.

The one question she had left unasked because it was too personal, the munshi answered later: they both were married, each to the other’s brother.

Miss Beston received at least one appeal a week for bride money. These girls were different; they had married within the family. ‘Marrying and giving in marriage in this country is,’ Mr Blotton,
a veteran engineer, had observed, ‘sharp, short, and decisive.’

She had been charmed by the girls’ mangalasutrams but she did not touch them. The girls became self-conscious when they caught her staring at them and tucked the gold discs into their tiny blouses.
Miss Beston now remembered the dogs; they had torn a leopard to shreds. She did not want any accidents.

‘Have you told your people at home you’re here?’

Worker Aunt glanced at Granny Appachchi.

‘If I know them, they have not,’ said the munshi.

Worker Aunt looked at Appachchi again.

‘They will be missed back home,’ Miss Beston said. ‘Take the girls home in the bandy.’

And the young woman herself walked a distance behind the cart, gun in hand, jodhpurs tucked into gum boots, engaging the girls in small talk until they put the jungle behind them.

Those Women of the Coromandel

Excerpted with permission from Those Women of the Coromandel, Ranga Rao, Aleph Book Company