A sweeping epic set in southern India, where a group of outcasts create a family while holding tight to their dreams.
Barely a month after she is promised in marriage, eleven-year-old orphan Kokila comes to Tella Meda, an ashram by the Bay of Bengal. Once there, she makes a courageous yet foolish choice that alters the fabric of her life: Instead of becoming a wife and mother, youthful passion drives Kokila to remain at the ashram.
Through the years, Kokila revisits her decision as she struggles to make her mark in a country where untethered souls like hers merely slip through the cracks. But standing by her conviction, she makes a home in Tella Meda alongside other strong yet deeply flawed women. Sometimes they are her friends, sometimes they are her enemies, but always they are her family.
Like Isabel Allende, Amulya Malladi crafts complex characters in deeply atmospheric settings that transport readers through different eras, locales, and sensibilities. Careening from the 1940s to the present day, Song of the Cuckoo Bird chronicles India’s tumultuous history as generations of a makeshift family seek comfort and joy in unlikely places–and from unlikely hearts.
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Amulya Malladi has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in journalism. Born and raised in India, she lived in the United States for several years before moving to Denmark, where she now lives on the island of Mors with her husband and two sons. You can contact her at www.amulyamalladi.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Tella Meda, the House with the White Roof
They took strips of coconut leaves and made dolls with them. The supple leaves could be twisted and turned without breaking. They would use red tilakam to make the eyes, nose, and mouth of the dolls. A small swatch of white cloth would sometimes become a sari or a shirt. Then the dolls would be forgotten, left to dry in the sun when the call for lunch or dinner came from downstairs.
Kokila’s earliest memories of living in Tella Meda, the house with the white roof, were of making those dolls with Vidura and Chetana. Closest in age to her, they were her best friends in the ashram, and together they got into a lot of mischief. They tied leftover crackers from deepavali to the tail of the cat, Brahma; they tortured those who sat in meditation by making noises and faces; and they ran around the courtyard, squealing and screeching in the afternoon after lunch, while everyone was trying to take a nap.
Those were the happy times, Kokila would think later on when she looked back. Those were, alas, only happy memories.
Kokila came to Tella Meda an orphan, a month after her marriage. She had just turned eleven.
In those days girls were married before they reached puberty, but they couldn’t go to their husband’s home until after they menstruated. For Kokila the three years before she menstruated were spent at Tella Meda, the home of her late father’s friend Ramanandam Sastri.
Built right by the Bay of Bengal in the small coastal town of Bheemunipatnam in southern India, the house with the white roof was not a conventional home. Tella Meda was a home for the weary, the only safe harbor for lost souls, the last refuge for some and the only home for others.
Tella Meda was an ashram, a religious dwelling where a guru led her folk to the right path through prayer and the reading of scripture. But it was not a conventional ashram. The guru, Charvi, refused to be called “guru” or “Amma,” as the norm was for those as enlightened as she. Charvi went by just Charvi and would not call her home an ashram but just a home, hers, which she willingly and openly shared with those who were in need.
Tella Meda was a beautiful house, the most beautiful house Kokila had ever seen and definitely the most beautiful house she would ever live in. On a full moon night the house glittered as if diamonds were studded all over it and its outer walls shimmered from the reflection of the waters of the Bay of Bengal.
The foundation of the house was first laid in 1947 but every time construction began the hurricane season arrived with a vengeance, destroying whatever had been built. Finally in 1955 a man named Srikant Somayajula succeeded in building a house on that foundation. It was a house unrivaled in Bheemunipatnam for its size and opulence.
As soon as Kokila walked past the gate with Ramanandam Sastri and stepped into the big front yard and garden of Tella Meda she was struck with awe. A large verandah covered with stone tiles was sprawled in front, separated from the garden by an ornate knee-high cement balcony. Big decorative flowers molded out of cement and sand adorned the short white balcony. Opening into the verandah were doors from four rooms, one left of the main entrance and three on the right.
The left door led into Charvi’s room and the three on the right led into guest rooms, which housed the devotees of Charvi. Many came to Tella Meda to give their respects to Charvi and to find some peace and quiet in the house with the white roof by the Bay of Bengal.
“This is the puja room,” Ramanandam Sastri told her as he led her into Tella Meda through the main entrance, “and the music room.”
A beautiful mahogany temple was the platform for a large golden Venkateshwara Swami and his consort, Lakshmi. Several other idols of gods and goddesses—Ganesha, the god of obstacles; Saraswati, the goddess of education—and a large marble Shivaling were arranged on mahogany platforms within the temple.
The temple had obviously been cared for; everything was polished and shone. Fresh flowers from the front garden—red and white roses, red hibiscus, and small white jasmines—lay at the feet of the gods and goddesses and the smell of sandalwood incense pervaded the room.
Between the temple area and the music area a bright yellow and red coconut straw mat was laid down as a divider. It spanned from the front door to the door into the interior of the house. The music area of the room was covered with a brown cotton rug; a veena, a pair of tablas, a tanpoora, a harmonium, and small and large cymbals lay on the rug, leaning against each other.
Kokila wondered who kept the large house clean. Ramanandam Sastri had warned her that she would have some chores, as did everyone else who lived in the ashram. Kokila hoped her task would not be to clean the house because the size of it was intimidating.
Past the temple room, Kokila stepped into another verandah and gawked as she saw how big the house really was. Coming from a small house that was more hut than real house, she felt as if she were stepping into a palace.
Beyond the verandah was a huge courtyard covered in the same stone tile as the front and inside verandahs. Ten rooms surrounded the courtyard, where clothes of different sizes and in different colors hung on clotheslines that crisscrossed the courtyard. Tulasi had been planted in a cement pot in the center of the courtyard. The pot was painted red and yellow, auspicious colors that signified kumkum and turmeric and were the colors of a married woman.
The bathrooms were on the right side; they seemed to have been built with less care than the house. The doors were made out of cheap wood, not like the doors and windows elsewhere, and the walls were uneven, not smooth as in the puja room.
There was one bathroom and three toilets. This was a luxury, Kokila knew, and she was now convinced she had fallen into a basket of ladoos. When her father had died and the question of where she would live until she could go to her husband arose, Ramanandam Sastri arrived like a hero to arrange the funeral and take her away with him.
She couldn’t believe she was going to live in a house with a bathroom and toilets. There no longer would be the need to take a steel mug with water and find a discreet place to go in the mornings. And she could take a bath in a real bathroom, not a makeshift one covered with bedsheets.
One room adjoined the bath area but Ramanandam Sastri didn’t show her the room, nor did he tell her what it was for.
A staircase from the courtyard led up to the open terrace where Ramanandam Sastri said some of the kids slept on warm summer nights. The Bay of Bengal lay ahead, an unbelievable blue, shimmering like a silk sari, and Kokila truly fell in love with the house when she saw the bay.
Ramanandam Sastri had then taken her to the kitchen to meet Subhadra, who lived in the ashram and took care of all the cooking. Subhadra was a portly woman, her skin dark as coal, her hair slick with coconut oil and tied in a neat bun. She wore small gold earrings, a thin gold chain, and two thin gold bangles, one on each hand.
Subhadra had a soft voice that Kokila would soon learn turned gruff when she became angry.
“This house used to be grander,” Subhadra told Kokila as she gave her a tiffin of idlis left over from breakfast and some coconut chutney. “Out in the verandah and courtyard you can still see the tiles, brought from Mysore, especially made for Tella Meda. Srikant Somayajula, a contractor from Hyderabad, built this house. But during the gruhapravesham itself his wife died. He never lived here; no one from his family did. Imagine that! Some people have terrible luck.”
Kokila ate the slightly hardened idli with the spicy coconut chutney and listened to Subhadra talk about the house, the people, Charvi, and everyone else.
Even though the kitchen was massive and could easily seat thirty people, meals were served outside in the verandah, Subhadra told Kokila, where a long table and a short one stood between thin strips of coconut straw mats for seating.
The kitchen had been built to feed an army. The stove had six burners instead of four and there were several large cupboards for storage. On the stone-tiled floor there was a wooden floor knife with its blade laid down, like a ship that had lost its mast. A large stone mortar stood on one side with an equally large pestle. It was used to make the idli and dosa mix from soaked urad dal and rice every Saturday and Sunday, Subhadra said, and she explained to Kokila that grinding the dal and rice was the worst thing she had to do every week.
“When the house was built all the rooms had ceiling fans. Not anymore, though,” Subhadra said as she fanned herself with a straw fan.
“What happened?” Kokila asked as she finished eating and washed her hands in the plate with her glass of water.
“Somayajula-garu was so distraught after his wife’s death that he left the house to looters and the like. When we came here the house was all but ruined,” Subhadra said. “We had to clean it all up, whitewash the walls. We set up the bathrooms; just had to, couldn’t have Charvi taking a chambu of water and going out, now, could we? But it has been all worth it—we live here rent free.”
“Rent free?” Kokila’s eyes widened.
“Hmm,” Subhadra said, and smiled. “Everyone should be so lucky to have a saint like Charvi live in their house. So, of course, Somayajula-garu doesn’t charge us a paisa.”
Charvi was Ramanandam Sastri’s daughter. There were different stories as to how Charvi became a guru and a representative of God itself and Kokila wasn’t sure what to believe. According to Subhadra, Charvi was goddess, guru, and saint all rolled into one.
“We found the house because Dr. Vishnu Mohan—he lives three houses down the road—and Sastri-garu are friends. So when Sastri-garu was looking for a house to rent, Doctor-garu suggested Tella Meda,” Subhadra said. “Did you know that it was Sastri-garu who first saw the light of knowledge in Charvi?”
Ramanandam Sastri had been living in Tenali when the alteration of his soul began and he saw the light of God in his daughter.
He hadn’t started out believing in God and Hinduism. He’d started out an atheist, always ridiculing his wife, Bhanumati, for her religious beliefs. Manikyam, his eldest daughter, with her fat pockmarked face, also turned to God; Ramanandam Sastri, who never learned to mince his words, told her that praying to God wouldn’t change the fact that she was ugly. But his second daughter, Lavanya, came out looking like a movie star. Her skin was light in color, her eyes light brown, almost catlike; she was beautiful. She grew up to be vain, stubborn, and shallow, and ultimately amounted to nothing.
And then Bhanumati had a third daughter. Ramanandam’s third daughter was ethereal and he named her Charvi, which means “beautiful.” When Charvi was but a week old, Ramanandam saw the light of God in her and deemed her a Devi, an Amma, a goddess. His sudden transformation from nonbeliever to believer was viewed with some skepticism by Bhanumati but she knew it was not her place to question her husband and she didn’t.
For years after Charvi was born Bhanumati did get not pregnant again and quietly endured the role of wife, mother, and particularly mother to an Amma. She was quiet and complacent and she fulfilled the duties prescribed to her.
Eight years after Charvi’s birth, the much-desired son was born. It had been a time of great joy, as both Bhanumati and her eldest daughter, Manikyam, were pregnant at the same time. And they each, by the grace of Lord Venkateshwara Swami, had a son.
Ramanandam named his son Vidura, for the great wise man from The Mahabharata who narrated the entire battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas to the blind king, Dhritrastra. Bhanumati died just a month after giving birth to her son because of a blood clot in her uterus, but not before she extracted a promise from eight-year-old Charvi that she would watch over her baby brother. It was a promise Charvi was unable to keep and until the day she died she felt the burden of that broken vow.
People who flocked to Ramanandam for his words, his books, and his writing didn’t question his ability to see a Devi, a goddess, in his daughter. The number of people who came to stay with Ramanandam increased dramatically. In the beginning it was students who came to discuss his work and pay their respects. Of course, everyone stayed for free.
Ramanandam could barely pay his bills on his meager schoolteacher’s salary and his book sales didn’t bring in much money even though he was quite a well-known writer among the intellectual elite. It was, after all, only the elite who could pretend to believe in Ramanandam’s theories that a woman had the right to independent living beyond the men in her life. Ramanandam wrote about a woman being a woman first and then being a daughter, sister, wife, or mother. He wrote about how man and woman were equal in nature and how he believed that a woman’s ability to give birth actually made her superior to man. Through his writings he encouraged women and men to break the traditional trappings in their life and be freethinkers and live a life unfettered with the customs and mores of an ancient culture.
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