Mornings were magical in Mudgal. It’s true, the sun rises everywhere and we all see the wonder of daybreak from wherever we are. But, in Mudgal, dawn was special.
I threw the rough, fibrous blanket off me, rubbing my cheeks with both hands where it had left an itchy imprint. At some point in the night, my mother had pulled my mattress (with my little dozing body on it) to hug a wall, making way for the numerous uncles, aunts, farm hands, and housemaids to get going on the day. In the darkness, they rolled up bedding and stacked it in one corner. Someone started sweeping the dirt floor, freshening the home for a new start. I could see legs walking back and forth. I looked around – it was still dark, but the household was well on its way. Down below, my grandfather loudly garbled, spitting out the water in a strong jet that hit the flank of a wayward calf. Startled, it scampered to its mother’s side for protection.
I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and then went searching for my mother. I couldn’t see her among the strangers around me. She wasn’t with my grandfather either, something she did sometimes, sitting on the stone steps while he brushed his teeth in the open courtyard below.
I came to the threshold leading into the kitchen. It was a raised one, too high for a child like me. I bent down to support myself while I lifted one 6-year old leg over it and then the other. Smoke from the clay oven billowed on my face, and I coughed. My grandma pulled her face from out of the oven, where she was trying to get a fire going, and gave me a big smile.
“Hey, Archu is up! Why did you get up so early?”
“Where’s my mother?” I asked, warily, scanning the kitchen area for the familiar figure. At that age, a mother who is out of sight is enough to bring on the tears.
“I’m right here, my love,” my mother said, emerging for behind the tall jute sacks that were filled with wheat grain, rice, and tamarind, all from our farm.
I ran to her and hugged her legs, burying my face in her soft cotton sari. That is the best place in the world, I’m convinced, so comforting and safe does it feel. Everything feels right in the world in my mother’s embrace. She stroked my back, and then swiveled me, pulling me into her lap as she sat down next to my grandmother.
“Have you brushed your teeth?”
I shook my head, still too affected to speak.
She pinched some ash lying near the oven, and put it on my open palm.
“Here, go clean your teeth with this. This is how we do it here. Use your finger like a brush. Go over there, by the door, and come back once you’ve washed yourself.”
She pointed to the other door, the one diametrically opposite to the one I had come from. Like that one, this one also had a high, raised threshold. It had two iron, swinging doors, bigger than windows but smaller than a typical door. I went towards it, pushing the iron doors and looked out.
The morning sun glimmered softly, still unveiling itself from the night’s slumber. It danced on the river that flowed by the village. The river was so close to our house that I could see the village women washing clothes on the bank. I spotted two aunts walking towards our home, carrying pots filled with water for use later. Smoke from behind me wafted out. In the distance, cattle bells rang through the air. The day was unfolding in front of me.
I rubbed the bitter ash on my teeth, bunching up my face as I went though the motions. I rinsed my mouth and spat out, rinsing again as I tasted ash from a corner of my mouth. Setting down the small copper vessel, I ran back inside, where a glass of fresh milk, still frothing from the morning milking, waited for me.