The woman from across the coconut

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Time is this flexing, rubber-band thing that joins us all everywhere at once. We seem to possess the ability to warp it around ourselves, snipping off bits of time and culture that we like — to create little life-raft time capsules. I found out about relativity at recess in the library at my school. I remember taking out all the reference books I could find then in my quest to understand, and since it was my misfortune to be dyslexic with numbers and equations, I began to hunt down every bit of prose I could find on the subject. I have spent a lifetime wrapping my head around time and space. And there are still things I am not able to grasp.

One afternoon in hot, tropical Kerala, I was staring out the window. Through the gaps in a field of coconut trees, I watched a woman setting up a makeshift cooking station outside. Slowly, she began to pile up a mound of gathered firewood. She set a blackened aluminium pot of water to boil on the smoking pile, finally throwing in some washed rice. I tried to get a closer look in at her. She reminded me of women I had seen when my grandmother was still alive. She was deeply tanned from a life spent clearing other people’s lands. Her hair was rough, straggly and sun-bleached. And she wore garb that women in my grandmother’s time had worn. A sarong or lungi wound around her waist and legs. Over bare midriff she wore a short-sleeved blouse. A thin white Kerala towel called a `thorth’ in Malayalam was tucked into her sarong. The loose end of the towel was thrown over one shoulder and this carefree towelling was used to signal modesty. She walked the pebbled ground beneath on unslippered feet.

As a child I would watch my grandmother draped in widow white walk barefooted on the uneven hard laterite ground around her little house in the Western Ghats. I would try to follow in her wake but my citified feet were always unequal to the task.

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The woman I watched from my window lived in her own capsule of time undeterred by the changing world around her. There were no mobile phones and modern kitchens to spoil her solitude. But what was a beautiful encapsulated moment for me, to her must have been harsh poverty and the travails of illiteracy. In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, astronauts become time travellers of sorts when they land on a planet orbiting a black hole. Time on this planet moves slowly in comparison to Earth. A couple of decades on Earth is equal to a few hours on this planet. From the vantage point of my darkened, cool Kerala room, the woman across the coconut immersed in her own unhurried stream of time was a window into a lost age.

We are all adrift in these capsules of time floating around in a zeitgeist that in its own way too is connected to one or other time period. Take for instance the one that has taken hold of my country at this very moment. It is a throwback to a pre-modern culture with its violent enforcing of meat bans, feudal caste bigotry, and aggressive insistence on bovine worship. Similar, but even more brutal throwbacks have taken over other parts of the world.

Strange as it may seem, even gender seems trapped in time capsules. It is not freedom of choice when a woman wears a veil. Inside her particular capsule, time is marching to the tune of a past era in which one gender has to display its submission and modesty through the donning of head covering. Within my capsule, I am a free woman and I have the choice to be trousered, my head free from covering, I can get educated or have a job. But often my capsule will collide with another, in which the gender I belong to remains trapped in a bygone culture of submission and indentured servitude within extended family units. Such collisions are frequent in modern India and these cause much pain and conflict. The values of the people living in these past times appear farcical and merciless to the modern person. But such is the woeful warping of time here on Earth.

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