On Summers with Totto-chan
“I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
-The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt
To meet Totto-chan, I had to cross two streams: the first ran along the edges of my grandparents’ house. I would cross the small stream first, then walk on a narrow path in the middle of the grass, slender as a snake, curved as a scythe, a path made by walking. One side of the path was lined with cocoa trees laden with their green and yellow pods. The stream ran on the other side. Then, I cut across patches of pineapples interspersed with wild purple flowers. I crossed the second stream on a narrow bridge—two half moons of an Areca palm laid side by side. This was where I met Totto-chan for the first time, next to the second stream.
There are places and moments people go back to. In one of my earliest essays, I came close to writing about how I didn’t believe in nostalgia. Though understood as a longing for a lost place, in my case it is the longing for a particular slice of space-time—the point that I keep returning to. On the one hand I’m aware that I can never go back to the slice of space-time that I have frozen, but on the other hand, there is a tantalizing desire to find these slices of time elsewhere. As I catch myself doing this, I realize that even I have succumbed to nostalgia for the summers I spent with my maternal grandparents. After the school closed for the summer holiday, my family would head to a small village where my grandparents lived. My brother and I would arrive tired, speckled with remnants of the bouts of motion sickness from the long bus rides in the hot, sticky summer sun.
My grandparents lived beside a canal, which was part of the Kuttiyadi Irrigation Project. There was a dam nearby and a center for raising crocodiles. One of the pictures from an old photo album showcasing a time of which I have no memory of, a time when I was too small, shows some crocodiles twisted around in such a way that it could be the fuel for nightmares. The crocodile picture sits alongside other pictures of my baptism, which leaves me trying to figure out the connections between baptisms and crocodiles. During the holidays, my brother, my mother and I would go for evening strolls along the canal, sometimes watching people cast their small nets in the water.
Imagine a flight of stairs with only three steps. The lowest step is the land that lay close to the canal; it had a dirt road that ran up to my grand parents’ house. A cool, grass covered stretch full of trees: mango trees, jackfruit trees, areca palms, a few nutmeg trees, guava trees and small coffee shrubs. A stream ran along the edges of the land. There was also a brook, pond and a well that I could remember. The house was situated on the second step. A stone flight connected the lowest step to the middle step; this flight would take you to a house with a front yard ringed with jasmine bushes. The third step, which rose behind the house, was terraces of land covered with rubber trees. These terraces had few pineapple bushes as stragglers, and we’d go pineapple hunting before the end of the holidays, just before our return.
When the time to go to our grandparents approached, at first, I was always reluctant to go because it meant leaving behind my familiar surroundings. My biggest problem was that at my grandparents’, the toilet was situated outside the house. I was afraid of going out in the dark by myself, which meant, if I wanted to use the toilet in the middle of the night, I’d have wake someone else up, usually my mother. There was no television either, but after the initial inertia wore off, I’d find plenty of ways to amuse myself. The first way was to go through the children’s weeklies, which my cousins subscribed to, full of talking animals and spirits. Within the first couple of days of our arrival, I’d burn through the weeklies. The second way was to go outside and do whatever you pleased. You could sit on the grassy banks of the stream and look at water bubbling through rocks, and listen to the sound of water. When the heat of the sun became too much, you could stand on one of those rocks and let the cool water wash over your feet. If you could keep still long enough, small fishes would nibble at your feet. You could sit by the pond, strategizing about the best ways to catch dragonflies hovering around the water lilies. When hungry, you could look for ripe guavas or mangoes. Often, I’d try to maneuver a stick several times taller than myself so that I could pick the fruit. The third way was to cross two streams and visit the house perched near the edge of the second stream. At this particular house, aunty used to ask me what I had for breakfast and then what I’d eaten at 10 ‘o’ clock. A little like the second breakfast of Hobbiton. After aunty’s two daughters asked me all sorts of questions, I was allowed to leaf through their bookshelf. It was there that I came across the Malayalam translation of a Japanese book—Totto-chan: The Little Girl by the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.
In Totto-chan, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi writes about her childhood. Though her name is Tetsuko, she is never referred by that name in the book; instead she goes by the name Totto-chan. When I was small, I gave myself an embarrassingly simple name because I couldn’t pronounce my name. I named myself P-mol: the first part comes from the first letter in my name and the second is a suffix that’s sometimes affixed to names in Malayalam, meaning daughter or small girl. To this day, everyone in my father’s family calls me either by the same name or just P. Totto-chan was a special book because once a child read it, it was impossible not to dream of going to a school like Tomoe, Totto-chan’s school, where classrooms were train cars, where you could choose what to study for your first period, where there were no timetables, and where children were rarely admonished.
It is easy for me to say this now—because looking back is an exercise in finding connections and laying parallels—but summers at my grandparents’ were my Tomoe. The headmaster of Tomoe wanted to develop the minds and bodies of children equally. So while children studied Maths and English, they also studied farming, taught by a farmer who worked beside the school. My grandparents had rice paddies, so during one summer I got to see a rice harvest. I remember the rhythmic chants of women as they threshed the hay, the giant smoking vat in which grain was being boiled, the smell of hay and husk, and at the end of the day, a mound of rice heaped in the sit-out. Then there was the frisson of delight as I plunged my arm into the cool dark inside of the pattayam—a large wooden storage box—and felt the unhusked rice grains.
One of the memories that I look back on fondly is about an old farmer named kunhaepu chettan who gave us sweet potatoes he had grown himself. We were standing in the stream; he was sitting on his haunches on the bank; he smiled with his toothless jaw stretching wide. He wore a chain and cross—a line of spooled silver on his tanned wrinkled skin. We roasted those potatoes on coals and ate them. The headmaster at Tomoe encouraged children to plant things so that they could see how things grow, so that they grew deep connections to the earth. My grandmother (inadvertently) did the same for me. She sent me and my brother around the fields, to gather up fallen coconuts, spikes of pepper and areca nuts. We’d scour the land around the house and bring her whatever we found.
For lunch at Tomoe, the headmaster would ask the students if they had something from the hills and something from the oceans in their lunch boxes. At my grandparents’ for meals, there was often something that was produced on the land. There were large jackfruits that grew abundantly on trees, tapioca tubers that grew in the nearby fields and eggs that chickens reared by my grandmother had laid. The biggest thing that Totto–chan taught me was that it was alright not to have fixed desires and that it was alright to want different things at different points of time. In the opening pages of the book, Totto-chan, after being fascinated by the ticket seller at the train station, tells her mother that she wants to be a ticket seller when she grows up. When her mother asks about her plans to be a spy, Totto-chan doesn’t miss a beat. She replies, “Couldn’t I be a ticket seller who’s really a spy?” Then she changes her mind again and wants to become a street musician.
At Tomoe, students were allowed to discover things themselves. They had personal trees, which they could climb. If you wanted to visit someone’s tree, you could only do it if you had an invitation. At my grandparents’ I had my favourite trees to visit— one of which was a small coffee shrub with a comfortable nook. I loved to spend afternoons in this nook. One afternoon, I noticed a vine hanging down from one of the branches and I almost reached out to grab it. The vine moved. It was a slender green snake. Later, when I repeated the incident to my mother, I had a nagging suspicion that she didn’t believe me. I’d try to turn the incident into an unfortunate short story which never went anywhere. Crossing the two streams and reading about Totto-chan became my summer ritual; each year I read the book as though I’d never laid eyes on it before. During those summers, no-one asked us to do anything; we would idle around in the grass covered earth replete with sunshine.
I only have vague memories of my grandfather’s death. As for my grandmother’s death, I remember it more clearly. My mother went to look after my grandmother when she was sick. My brother and I stayed in town because we had our annual exams, the big ones just before the school closes for the long two month summer holidays. It was sometime at the start of the holidays that my grandmother died. I remember travelling in the sticky heat for her funeral. I kept asking after every 10 minutes if we’d arrived. After her death, our visits declined and gradually stopped.
I always carried those summers with me; a good ten years later, I’d write to the owner of an organic garden to let me work on the garden in exchange for food and a place to stay. When I was filling up the form, in the section that asked me about my motivations, I wrote about grandparents who were farmers and how I wanted to reconnect to the time I’d spent with them. When I arrived to work on the garden, I was shown my living area in an old house; I didn’t really have a room; I stayed in a small space, a space that was cordoned off a corridor with a curtain. There was a table and a folding bed. On top of the bed was a skylight. After living in a city where it rained frequently, where it was often grey, it was wonderful waking up to the sun coming in through the skylight. The most important thing was a large grass covered open space; I could take off my shoes and feel the grass under my feet. I weeded the garden patch, pulled out weeds which came out in large fibrous clumps, shook the clumps to let the soil loose, then checked to see if there were earthworms in the clumps, picked the earthworms off, put them back in the earth and then threw the weeds into a wheel barrow. All the weeds went up in a bonfire at the end of my stay.
In the mornings I worked. In the afternoons I lounged in the open space nearby, laid myself down in the grass, under the sun. Sometimes, I’d take a book or my journal. In the evenings, I’d chat with my fellow lodger. One evening, as we were drinking coffee, we saw a hedgehog. I taught him the word ‘hedgehog’ and he taught me the word ‘hérrison’; it’s a word I shall never forget. As my stay neared its end, I made furrows in the patches I’d weeded and planted potatoes, and I remembered kunhaepu chettan who gave us sweet potatoes all those years ago.
Before I left, I stood behind the house, looking at donkeys that the neighbour owned. As I stood there, I smelled mangoes, not just any mangoes, but the distinct smell of mangoes I’d eaten as a child. At my grandparents’ there was a mango tree so large that three people or more needed to link their arms to encircle it. Every morning when we woke, we would run to this tree to pick up the fruit that had fallen. Small green mangoes, popsicles of sweet and sour delight. There I was, separated by several landmasses, oceans and years from that tree, yet I smelled those mangoes. Mango trees did not grow in that part of the world, yet I was sure that I’d smelled mangoes.
What is it about this landscape of my childhood that speaks to me so? The one other landscape for which I have so much affection is from the anime named Arpusu no Sh?jo Haiji/Heidi, Girl of the Alps. Directed by Isao Takahata and featuring contributions from giants in anime, including Hayao Miyazaki, the show aired on Cartoon Network when I was in high school. The show and the novel maintain the same plot: an orphaned Heidi is brought to live in the mountains with her formidable grandfather. Heidi meets the mountain, its trees and flowers, as well as Peter, the boy-shepherd and his flock. When I saw those images on television, I thought it to be the most beautiful dream. Perhaps the images of wooden huts, hay filled attics, sheep, milk, grass and tress away from the city reminded me of the summers with my grandparents. Years later, when I made a trip to the mountains, I told myself that I was finally sharing the same landscape as Heidi from my childhood, the girl with eyes so big and exuberance so bright that it was almost blinding.
What is it about some landscapes that one can never say goodbye to them? Paul Cézanne, the impressionist painter, says the following about landscape “The landscape thinks itself in me and I am its consciousness.” While in the mountains, I was in a forest full of conifers that seemed to blend with the sky. When I had a moment to myself, I placed both my palms on a tree trunk, laid my forehead against the creased bark, closed my eyes and wished it would say something, anything to me. To see if landscape would speak to me, to see if it would give me a world, just as it did all those years ago.
Priscilla Jolly is a firm believer in the power of books, stories and tea. Her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in Gravel, The Missing Slate, The Hamilton Stone Review and Tinge Magazine.