One evening, I sat on the step of the kitchen door – the women’s porch – and watched as three cowherds walked their wards back through the long dirt path, their shadows lengthening along it. I could recognise them from afar from their shapes and gaits: Animalar, tall and slender, Kayalvizhi, whose left arm did not sway as she walked, and Matatilli of the hips like a wooden spinning top. I hoped they would have the time to talk to me today, that their own homes did not beckon them away too quickly.
In the gathering darkness, I could not see their faces until they were almost at the cowshed. “Kodhai!” called Matatilli. “You’re going to be eaten by fever-carrying mosquitoes. Go inside, kannamma.”
“No, I’ve been waiting for you,” I called back, a little softly in case my grandmother somewhere in the rooms behind me stirred, curious.
In a few minutes they were tying the cows back into their places, enjoying the excitement of the calves. Matatilli picked a calf up and hoisted it on her shoulders. She reached one cupped hand above her and gently found the top of its head, rubbing between its ears. She smiled at me. She was almost ten years older than me but had never married. On either side of her nose were the tiniest rivets of metal, which caught all manner of light.
Animalar was the youngest, not even fifteen, her elbows still bony. Kayalvizhi was a mother of two, and somewhere between my age and Matatilli’s. I knew that the both of them would not be able to tarry for long. I kept my eyes on Matatilli. She held my gaze and smiled again.
“Animalar, your parents will be waiting for you,” she said.
“I’ll walk with you,” Kayalvizhi said to the girl, and Animalar reluctantly finished stacking the mud pots. “I must be leaving too. Matatilli Akka, what about you?”
“I won’t be long,” Matatilli replied. “You two go ahead.”
The other two began to walk away. We watched them, and the descending dusk. The sun was a deep marigold colour, sinking and sinking. A flock of kuyils uttered overhead, identifiable by their coos.
Matatilli squatted and leaned over to feel the embroidery on the borders of my sari. Then she leaned back on her haunches and smiled broadly.
“Will you tell me or will you not?”
“How are you, Akka? What’s happening?” I began.
“I asked you a question, girl.”
I rested my face in my forearms and sighed. “Nothing, Akka. I just wanted to talk to you a bit.”
“Oho? Something about the festival you had at your house a few months ago?”
“No, not that...”
A lump formed in my throat. I turned my face away as though to wave off a flying insect.
“What happens next?” I whispered.
Matatilli must have understood, because she glanced quickly behind me, as though to ensure we were out of earshot.
“Your parents are looking for a match aren’t they?”
“That’s not what I want.”
“What do you want?”
“How come you never had a match arranged?”
I waited for her to respond. When she finally did, she was looking at the tops of the silhouetted tamarind trees as she spoke. “I was engaged once. My betrothed died of a snake bite three months before the wedding. I had already been with child, and my baby died in my womb from my shock. After that, no one asked, and I asked no one.
This was startling. “Oh god –” I ventured.
“You were still quite little then. I used to work for the Ramachandrans’ cowshed then. But I couldn’t stand the gossip around me after it all happened. So I came here. Your mother –,” she paused to smile. “Your mother is not...”
She wasn’t going to finish the sentence, nor did I need her to. I knew my mother was as peregrine to this domicile and its original ethos as I was.
“She is the loveliest woman,” Matatilli went on. “And she has a daughter too lovely to be left to wilt on the vine. Do you have a lover?”
I blushed. “No.”
“Do you want one?”
“If you cannot find him in the marketplace, you will find him by the waterfalls. If you cannot find him by the waterfalls, you will find him in the temple. If you cannot find him in the temple, you will find him in the our mill. If you cannot find him in the our mill, you will find him in the weavers’ quarters. If you cannot find him in Puduvai, you will find him in Madurai. And if not there, in the Chera country beyond the mountains. And if he is not to be found even there, then you will find him after the month of Margali, after you have completed the vow you made.”
“So impatient!” She pinched my arm. “I told you to search afar first.”
“You know my family doesn’t let me go anywhere alone. I am not like you. I don’t get to be so free.”
“Shush, you are too young to be bitter. And you don’t know yet that freedom must be paid for, and with what.”
She smiled and stroked my hair. “Try all the other things first. And if they don’t work, I’ll tell you then how you can begin to teach yourself how to live alone.”
“And the vow?”
“Ah, the vow.” She paused. “The pavai nombu.”
“You have to tell me.”
“I’m going to tell you, child. Only I’m going to have to tell your grandmother that I told you, otherwise she will be furious.”
“Please, please, I’ll keep it a secret.”
“You won’t be able to, and anyway it’s not such a secret. You see, the god Krishna who you pray to in your house had a wife, Nappinai, who was a cowherd lady like me. And among us cowherd ladies, those of us who long for love or for – ,” she blushed now. She cleared her throat and continued. “Those of us who long for love, we spend the coldest month of winter in worship of the mother goddess, asking her to make us like Nappinai, and bring to us men who will love us as Krishna loved her.”
I felt as though a peacock had suddenly swept in from a place of camouflage, tail unfolded, and rearranged the world with its resplendence.
“How do I make this vow, how do I keep it?”
“Go and ask your grandmother who Nappinai is. After that, let’s talk again.” Matatilli stood up and brushed the earth from her beautiful hips. And then she tucked the loose end of her sari back into her waist and was gone.
Excerpted with permission from The Queen of Jasmine Country, Sharanya Manivannan, HarperCollins India.