This Pongal morning, we heard someone calling out — Thangam ! Thangam! (Thangam means gold in Tamil) It was distinctly our neighbour Shaniamma’s voice, getting louder and louder as she came closer to our house. Quite unusual. For Shaniamma is generally seen or heard amidst the tinkling of bells and the bleating of her goats and her going Hrr-Hrr, Shush-shush or click-click and other such herding noises.

But, on this Pongal morning, here she was, sans her goats (thank goodness)…looking for Thangam.

It turned out that Thangam was her little puppy. A new development in her life. Her dog had recently delivered puppies. Having given away all the rest she had kept one for herself, and why, she would have liked to have gifted us one too, if only she knew that we wanted one. We shook our heads saying No, no, not this time. She also told us about the tragic loss of all her goat kids. Not even one survived, she grieved. Perhaps it was because of this year’s long stretch of cold and wet weather or perhaps the mother goat didn’t have enough milk to feed . Again due to not being able to graze in the wet weather.

Anyway, it looked like she had transferred all her affection to her little puppy, Thangam.

But, where is Thangam?

We hadn’t seen him, but assured her, that we would definitely let her know when we did.

Meanwhile, we told her that we were ‘houseful’, with our three mother cats and their kittens! Then pointing at Vikari’s cute-cuddly four rowdies sleeping in a heap on the stabiliser in the verandah, we enquired if she would like to have; not one but two of them. We gave our usual sales-pitch of how two is better than one … etc. ‘So you have only these four?’, she enquired. We clarified that we actually have Nine!

Shaniamma grasped my hands into her own warm ones and burst out laughing. She found it all extremely funny. Then from holding hands we hugged each other, laughing all the while. Just like that.

Then she became a tad serious and softly said she would first check with her Veetu-karan, her husband, Aandi about having cats. Perhaps her polite way of saying No thanks.

Aandi is another of our rogue-friend-neighbours. He is tall and thick-set, and stubborn and arrogant. Always ready with his sarcastic wit. He is responsible for single-handedly destroying our upper tier’s newly planted tree saplings over three successive years by simply lettings his cows graze on them. Now, he is sort of our friend, having sold all his cows and being mellowed with age and his knee-pain (sometimes real, sometimes pretend). But, I must say, like others of his generation he is quite knowledgeable about the forest, medicinal plants etc. Once, in a weak moment, he showed me how to use the sticky first two leaves of the Terini Maram as a green bindi!

But, Shaniamma is so lovely. Slim, long-limbed and tall. Her shock of white hair complemented by her beautiful dark complexion and large crimson coloured ruby earrings and her sort of tribhanga gait. She has always been so warm and pleasant in her speech and manners.

However, what endears me to Shaniamma and her ilk, and I am glad to say that there are quite a few of there feisty ladies in these villages, is, their ability to set aside all their day-to-day tangles of living and break out freely into hearty laughter, teasing and warm embraces so easily. It is quite a riot when many of them get together. A certain joie de vivre. As if, this was their real self, the rest is all a charade.

I made her wait a bit, to put in some lemons into a bag for her and Aandi, and also a few Pongal laddoos. She received them reverentially and regretted not being able to gift us some rice for Pongal, as she and Aandi were living by themselves now, having fought with their two sons. ‘Well,’ Sunder pointed out that they too had contributed to the fight. She acknowledged saying ‘Yes, of course we did’ and then added, for good measure, Konjam ille meaning ‘not a little’ with a shrug of her shoulders.

After more hand holding goodbyes we parted. She returned to her search, calling out Thangam! Thangam!

There is another beautiful scene etched in my memory starring this couple.

Soon after Aandi and Shaniamma were ousted from their son’s houses, they settled themselves in a new hut on a part of their land sloping down from ours. (No doubt using our bamboo from the clump growing close to their place.)

Once, about two years ago, Sunder and I took a walk and found them in the middle of their millet harvest. While everywhere and for us too, there was an acute water crisis and drought, here were the two harvesting what looked like a bumper crop of mixed millets- Ragi (finger millet) and Samai (little millet).

The stalks bending over with the heavy heads of grain.

Just then, the light of the late afternoon sun came upon them all, crops and couple, painting them with colours of shimmering golds and yellows and brown. Husband and wife, now standing, smiling and conversing, now bending, to crisply cut the stalks, filling the air with the comforting, earthy smells of cut straw.

At that time how I wished I had a camera at hand or that I was an accomplished artist to put this lovely sight of beauty and resilience on canvas!