Pagli (Madwoman)

“inside my head, inside my head,I think I made you up…” Nine year old Amey was shocked the day he realized the garbled refrain was the same language his teacher routinely drilled into his head in the first period every day.

“Maa,who is that lady at the corner of the street…the one who sits there all day? Nitin’s mom said she is ‘pagli’ (a madwoman)” he asked his mother in a hushed tone as she served him lunch.

“Don’t use that word, Amey. It isn’t a nice thing to say. She is just unfortunate. There are a lot of people in this world who aren’t lucky enough to have a family like us.” His mother patted his head and went into the kitchen. Amey sat bemused- Maa never answered the questions he actually asked. Well, I’ll just ask the lady- she speaks English after all, I don’t think she’s too scary.

The next day after school, he hopped off the bus and said bye to his friends, telling them he had to go meet his mother at the supermarket. The lady was murmuring as usual, sitting in her corner. The tea-stall owner,Rahim Chacha, had once told Amey that unlike other mad people, she never bothered anyone. She kept to herself, sitting there for a few hours each day and went away after the sun had melted into the sky. She didn’t look dangerous, there was just an aura about her that made you doubt whether she existed at all.

Trying to control his heart, that was pounding loudly, he walked up to her and asked “Whom did you make up inside your head?”

For nearly three minutes it seemed like she hadn’t heard. He waited, curiosity dominating fear. Then she looked up, a tiny veiled movement through her curtain of hair, unkempt yet strangely beautiful. “I didn’t. Sylvia did. I didn’t make him up, did I?” She smiled, the guileless smile he’d seen only on people much younger than him.

“Who’s Sylvia?” he finally managed to choose a question out of all the ones he wanted to ask.

“Sylvia writes poems. I used to write poems too. I’d write him a new one each day and he’d read it out loud. He hasn’t read them for a while now.” she murmured. Amey wondered why they called her mad, she seemed perfectly fine to him- just a little lost, the way he felt when he suddenly woke up from a nightmare.

“I like poems. ” He smiled. “Will you recite one?”

She smiled again. The tea stall owner watched the exchange bemused. In the past decade, the woman had never so much as noticed the existence of another human being. There was something about this boy.

“For often thro’ the silent nights, a funeral, with plumes and lights

And music, came from Camelot. Or when the moon was overhead

Came two young lovers lately wed; I am half sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott.”
Amey listened spell bound to her lilting voice. His English teacher in school read out poems too, but never like this. He clapped. She laughed, a carefree laugh. Then she grew sombre again. Her eyes greyed with their usual quiet storm. Not wanting to lose the moment, he quickly asked “Did Sylvia write this one too?”
“No,” she whispered. “I don’t remember who. Was it William? No, Alfred did. Lord Tennyson they called him.”
He’d just begun to ask another question when he glanced at his watch. Maa would be angry.
“I have to go now, I’m very late, I’ll come again.Bye!” he ran, Alfred, Sylvia and William running through his mind.
——————
“Miss, is there a poet called Sylvia? And someone called Lord Tennis Son?”
His teacher laughed, “Not Tennis Son, Amey. Tennyson. And Sylvia, I suppose you mean Sylvia Plath? Where did you hear that name?”
“I heard someone recite a poem. It went like,”his brow furrowed,”I think I made you up inside my head.”
“Ah yes, Mad Girl’s Love Song. But Amey, this is not appropriate poetry for you at this age. If you like poetry, I’ll give you a few books. But steer clear of Plath for now, okay?” his teacher gave him a kind smile, with just a hint of concern.
He smiled back, thinking of all the new questions he’d ask his Lady.
——————–
“Hello Miss.. What should I call you?” He asked as he sat down next to her on the pavement.
“Call me? No one’s called me anything in a long time.”
“Can I call you Miss Story? I like the stories your poems tell.” he beamed.
She stopped muttering for long enough to give him a surreptitious wink. “There’s a lot of mystery in my story, little one. I wish I could tell you. But all I can tell you is, I’m waiting for him, and once he comes, we’ll do what we’d planned. Maybe I can tell you then.”  She whispered.
Amey smiled as he ran back home, excited at the thought of being a part of an adult’s secret.
———————
He didn’t find her sitting there the next day, or the day after. Days changed into weeks, and each time he asked the tea seller if she’d come, the answer was no. Maybe He came, maybe the mission’s begun, he thought excitedly.
One day, he noticed the teashop owner calling out to him as he got off the bus. Quickly he ran over to Rahim Chacha.
“She came for a few minutes today and left this for you,beta. I don’t know where she went, she wouldn’t say.” he said,handing over a small,grimy leather bound book. He took it slowly, and walked over to their spot before he opened it.
Pencilled in crooked lettering in the back cover was a message-
” ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—”
–With thanks and love from Emily and me
———————-
“So kids, which of you know Sylvia?” twenty five year old Amey smiled as he peered at his class of fifth graders, all of whom looked confused.
“Today we are going to read a poem that they say you aren’t old enough to understand. I heard this when I was your age.”
“Shall we?” he laughed at the excitement on the faces of the kids as he turned the pages of the brown leather notebook to a few verses scribbled in faded black ink.
This one’s for you, Miss Story, he blew a kiss to the heavens.
———————–
[I don’t own anything you recognize-by Plath,Tennyson and Dickinson. This is an ode to the poetry lover in me.]
#AmritaBrahmo
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