What can I say that might even scratch the surface of who she was? She was a quiet one, always. When she was born, her face and body had so much hair, I was shocked. As a child, I used to have long, beautiful hair, until the water in Veni’s father’s house ruined everything. My first thought when I saw her was concern for all that hair. I could sweetly imagine braiding it with flowers, tying it in ribbons, oiling it and teaching the girl how to care for it. After all, when it comes to women, caring for
one’s hair is a form of self-love. I knew I’d teach all of this to my daughter.

Her father, though, had other ideas. He wanted to name her Rajalakshmi. I told him straight – I didn’t like the name. I wanted a name that wasn’t tied to one single meaning or even to him or his family. He was a sly one – I could see that by choosing the name Rajalakshmi, he was also immortalising his mother whose name was Lakshmi. That witch! Ayyo, for as long as she was able to move about, she was such a pain for me. Now that she is bedridden and cannot walk around due to the stroke, her incessant nagging has reduced, and I no longer have to suffer her criticisms of thisthatandother.

So, I put my foot down for “Sriveni” – she is named after a river, braided hair, a flood; so many meanings the word has.

Like a river in spate,
bearing water like a mother
bears her unborn,
so she goes, in this unseasonal rain
bursting the banks
walk along, if you must,
but step away to let her pass,
walk along, only walk along.

She was my first, and I was beside myself with fear that I might drop her or hold her too tight or smother her when she fed from my breast. I would often give her tiny pinches to make sure she was breathing because when I was a child myself, my beloved pet, a rabbit, suddenly stopped breathing one day and I, who was sleeping next to him, had no idea how long he lay dead beside me under the
folds of my davani. When I became a mother for the first time, I was so afraid my baby would die for no apparent reason that I watched her all the time and touched her excessively, until the old woman calmed my fears and showed me that she was no rabbit; she was, in fact, a small tornado, a force of nature, and my qualms were put to rest.

She was born to be called Veni. Her hair had unmatched beauty and we taught her how to take care of it as one would a sunrise-dream or a precious pearl. That is why I cannot believe she would do what they are saying she did.

It is impossible. I shudder to think that Veni would do something so hideous. You see, a mother knows. Would you both like some water? We still keep ours medicated with herbs the old woman taught us about – the taste is something else altogether. There you go. What were you saying? Yes, I was saying that in my bones, I can feel it.

She will return, my Veni, in all her crowning glory and then you can take your scurrilous chat about her cutting her hair, burning it – my lord! Strike the thought down! You will see what I say come true and then you will be served right, all of you. I don’t know why her Appa thinks like the others too. One’s own daughter – does one ever abandon one’s child this way? Her brothers, the woe that has befallen them. To lose their sister, to have all of life’s possibilities cut off , to never be able to dream of...this is fated to be. But they are loving boys, who, like us, have learned to wait. So long as they remember what Veni is capable of, they know she will return.

Don’t you remember, ei Appayi, that time when she was returning from Pudukottai and the bus overturned? 16 children died and so many were injured. Veni’s foot was damaged permanently and her dream of being a dancer died right then. We had all thought this would be the end of her dream but when she recovered in eight months, Veni was back to learning at school; it was as if she could not wait to get back into the world. Such a child, you are all saying, has done these things? Is it even possible? But who am I talking to? The old woman barely pays attention to what goes about her. And you people, what have you brought my family besides more grief, more pain? I feel like I’m speaking to walls, but a mother’s heart is never wrong; you wait and see.

How much love I taught her for her hair, you ask her when you find her. It was the colour of Krishna’s face – there was a shine to it even when we did not oil or tend to it regularly. Even as a 10-year-old, she had hair that reached her tiny hips, weighing down her head so heavily that she would cry that her neck hurt.

Aatha and I would then sit her down and gently trim the ends while massaging her neck with heated velakkennai in which Aatha added some nilagiri leaves, castor oil and eucalyptus, an age-old combination in our home for dealing with aches and pains. Then, while the little one was on our laps, we would both take some ellennai concoction made by Aatha and I would start by rubbing it on top of the head, the uccantalai, and a little behind me, Aatha would take in her hands the ends of Veni’s long hair, the fragrance of the sesame oil filling up our little room.

She lay there between our laps, her big black eyes looking at the ceiling, playing with her little hands and asking an endless series of questions, and Aatha would tell her of the different uses that household fruits and vegetables could be put to or how one could read the skies for rain or how to do arithmetic in the head with the help of red seeds. Mostly, I would stay quiet listening to the two twitter away, my head filled with other worries but becalmed by the ritual of oiling that I enjoyed privately in that hour of the day.

Where Mayflies Live Forever

Excerpted with permission from Where Mayflies Live Forever, Anupama Mohan, Picador.