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July 22, 2016

Patali Panna Cotta

Text by Gouri Dange. Illustration by Surasti Puri

As 51-year-old Yamini grapples with the scandal of her recent past, she stumbles on true artistry in an unsung corner of a gur-maker’s village. In a short story written exclusively for Verve, Gouri Dange explores the workings of a human mind thirsting to erase a deep hurt

When Yamini woke to her 11.45-p.m. phone alarm, she could hear the three men moving about quietly in the dark. She swung her legs off the rope-bed that they had given her, reached for her camera, and sat up. Jogen was already halfway up the first khejur (date palm) tree, and calling out instructions softly to his two apprentices below, to watch carefully how he planted his feet for the ascent. In the dark she could see only the brighter blue checks of his lungi, doubled and tucked above his knees and between his legs.

There were 10 more trees, which he must climb in the next half hour, his sickle tucked into his waistband, a fine clay-collection pot on a rope tied across his shoulders. Yamini watched as he secured himself at the top, deftly cut three perfect zigzag cuts in the light cork-like part where the bark meets the palm fronds. He then slung the clay pot on the stick that had been lodged there at the beginning of the season, and adjusted the lip of the pot to rest against the cut. From here, the thin sweet sap would begin to drip, as if by appointment, at the midnight hour; the clay pot would fill in three hours…and the khejur tree would have spent its sweetness for the night.

It will then be boiled, very early in the morning, in giant vats, and cooled into golden mounds of jaggery – the nolin or patali gur. Jogen will repeat this cycle every night and early morning, till the tree gives of itself, only through three months of winter. The gur will find its way to the towns and the big city nearby. Occasionally, someone from quite far away will discover this sweet seduction, and will be changed forever. A visiting French chef had become enamoured of it. He had created a Patali Pana Cotta and commissioned Yamini to photograph the gur process for his book.

Yamini covers her camera and climbs back into her bed. It is now 12.45; Jogen has made his slashes and set his pots up on all 11 of his trees. She sets her phone alarm for 3 a.m., when he will climb the trees again and hand down the brimming pots. She must wake herself up; they will not wake her — as they will not touch her or raise their voices to call out to her in the still of the night, as the rest of the village sleeps. She is an onlooker, and that too aurat-zaat. They will remain respectful, aloof; she has to account for herself.

Above her, the Milky Way runs like a freeway, an autobahn across the sky. On which accidents don’t generally occur, but if they do, they are usually cataclysmic. The swarm of stars keep their distance from one another, stick to their path. If one of them strays, veers off its track, collides, explodes and implodes, somewhere a world will fall apart.

Enough with the cataclysmic thoughts, she tells herself. She turns on her side and watches a duck swim out of the reeds of the pukur, the village pond, five ducklings swimming behind, safe in the inverted-V of their mother’s wake.

The day before she has taken refuge in Jogen’s village and in her photography, the reporters who had descended on the university had asked her what she would do with her husband Professor Som’s body of work, especially the 11 stone pieces that everyone was now talking about. At first, she thought she had heard it wrong — why was this reporter asking her what she would do with the body of Som? He was absconding, staying off the radar of the news channels, but alive, not dead. Sensing her bewilderment, her son leaned in close to her and said softly, carefully, “Ma, this reporter is asking what you will do with Baba’s body of work, particularly the 11 stone pieces.”

Som had worked over the last year, in his new medium, Deccan-trap stone. There were 11 pieces and stone left over for one more, which he had not completed. He had numbered them L-1, L-2, L-3…up to L-11. They were abstract pieces, she had thought, and he had let her think. She remembered him telling his students and the committee from the Paris Biennale that had come to interview him: “If I name or title the pieces, then what is the use of the abstraction? The viewer must have no clue from the artist what the source of inspiration is, what the piece represents — you bring your own interpretation to it. Let the artist have his secrets.” That artist-academic explanation now sounds simply like a piece of sophistry.

And then the secret was out there, spilled all over the campus, and standing brazenly on the porch on which the pieces stood, just outside his studio. The pieces, now it was common knowledge, were inspired from his student, his protégée’s body.

How had it fallen apart? Had Latika found Professor Som Rath’s attention exciting at first but then found his descent into abject adoration over the rest of the academic year just amusing and a little revolting? They had found mails in his laptop, in which he had declared his passion unambiguously. In her reply emails, she had kept him skilfully at bay, but at whistling distance. When, during this last year, she had given him full access was not clear at first, but that they had become lovers was common knowledge, Yamini now knew. And this much was also clear that Latika had simply pulled the plug on him in month-11, after she graduated and just left without saying a ‘proper goodbye’, as his mail whimpered wretchedly. That’s why L-11 was the last sculpture. And what would have been L-12 now stood uncut, unwrought, with no one to hammer, imprint and lavish the code of love-lust-longing on it.

When Professor Som became a real clinging pain, and threatened in his wretchedness, to land up at her doorstep in Paris, and plead with her new boyfriend, she had warned him that she would have to complain about this ‘sexual harassment’ to his Vice Chancellor. And had then gone ahead and done just that.

Yamini had stopped trying to figure where Som had gone to. He had bolted the night before the matter became public. The media had made much of her and her son’s refusal to register a missing person’s complaint. Apparently he had informed the Dean and ‘proceeded on long leave’. No, he had not told his wife-of-26-years anything, and no, he was not in ‘secret contact’ with her, as one reporter had suggested. Not even a sorry note, no texts, nothing. He had taken his passport; that much she knew. He could be up in the hills right within the region, “licking his wounds, and leaving us to face the media”, as her son had said bitterly, or he could be making a more giant fool of himself by going after Latika to Paris, who knows.

What would Yamini do with this body of Som’s work, then? The abstract forms had been rendered rudely concrete, overnight. The equation now clearly spelt out, L = Latika. And there was one stone piece for every month since he had met her. L1 through L11. The shadow play of that relationship had come into the savage stare of media light. Now Yamini could clearly discern, in the brown-beige pieces, a swollen young breast, a pert navel, the curve of a firm buttock, dimples in a lower back, inner recesses. All intertwined or dovetailed expertly with chiselled male angles, corners, junctions and protrusions. Abstract had now become painfully concrete, to her and to anyone who came to look at the pieces.

Perhaps when all of this died down, she would donate the pieces to his department — let them dot the lawns, Orgasmic Odes to Latika. After some years, the lurid story would die down, and the pieces would return to their abstract selves, allowing later batches of students to project completely new and refreshingly inaccurate interpretations of the artist’s intention. Or perhaps she will put garlands and garish golden blouses on them, daub each one with a bright red kumkum, heave them on to a handcart, and have them all immersed, along with the Saraswatis and Durgas, during the festival season. But unlike the clay goddesses, these pieces would not quietly dissolve and return to the mud. They would sit there, brazenly flaunting their exotic curves and angles.

The abundant yielding clay of the area around them, the medium in which Som had worked and taught for more than two decades, did not interest him anymore, he had said suddenly a year ago. It all added up now, for Yamini. The clay was too pliant, too everyday, too undemanding, for him. His mind and body had been utterly taken over by the rock-hard challenge of Deccan-trap — difficult to procure where they lived, and difficult to work. From this he had created the 11 stone-sonnets to his — what had he called Latika in the email — ‘Demanding-devi-of-the-Deccan’.

Lying in the rope cot, Yamini felt a frisson of something like embarrassment running through her at the abject idolatry and verbose outpourings of those emails, which were now out there for all to read. When something stops hurting, and suddenly sounds simply corny in your ears, perhaps you have entered the next stage of grieving — transiting predictably, as the psychologists assure you, from shock to anger to bitterness to sadness to acceptance. And now perhaps she had invented another stage — she had moved on to contempt?

Her alarm wakes her again at 3 a.m. Jogen is already descending the first khejur palm tree, carefully carrying the full pot cradled across his shoulder, while his apprentices, Hamza and Poltu, are stumbling out of their huts. Go wash up quickly, Jogen tells them — don’t want your stinky breath on my fresh nectar. Yamini smiles to herself. It is interesting how teachers, even of dying arts, continue to abuse their students roundly. An age-old tradition that believes that apprentices benefit by a swift clout about the ears, real or verbal.

As Jogen hoists himself on the next tree, avoiding the very slippery clay-soil at its base, Yamini raises her camera and begins to click. Carefully dislodging the next overflowing pot, Jogen descends, jumps deftly away from the tree so that he doesn’t have to step into the clingy mud-clay at the base, and moves quickly on to the second of his 11 date palms. There’s simply no stone to be found in this area, he tells her, to make any kind of base at the tree; the earth here is all soft clay, till several feet down. If you get too much of it on your feet, you just can’t get a grip when you climb.

One of the apprentices tries to climb, but his mucky feet slip on the bark; they both guffaw as he comes down in a heap. “Giggle…and go hungry,” Jogen mutters to them as he passes. He demonstrates once more, how to avoid stepping in the mud at the base, how to take a large step straight on to the tree, and how to jump away from it when you descend.

And then, there it is. A clear sign, about what she will do with Professor Som’s ‘body of work’, the 11-stone Latika-parts. The solution is so fitting, that she almost laughs out loud. She will have the pieces moved from Som’s studio, to Jogen’s village, and place one under each khejur tree, so that he has a solid step to climb on and off.

And when, if, Som returns and asks about them, she will tell him that they have been placed in the service of a real artist. One who coaxes liquid gold from a tree every winter night, gets paid not more than 100 rupees a kg for it, and will never be at any Paris Biennale. An artist of the everyday world.

It is now 5 a.m., and the air is fragrant with the caramel aroma of the bubbling golden gur. A bulbul alights with accustomed ease on the stick lodged in the bark, and sips the last drops that the tree gives out. She raises her camera and clicks a silhouette against the dawn sky.

Yes, this is the place for Som’s L-series sculptures, Yamini decides. Over the season, they will sink and settle firmly into the soft ground around each tree. Their saucy contours and angles will get blurred; their brazenness tamped down, humbled by a patina of homely clay.

She might then, Yamini thinks, even cook and feed Som a silken Patali Panna Cotta, if she felt so inclined. If he returned. If she took him back.

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