In this story set in India, a boy spends a summer day with his grandmother.
1 I was ten years old. My grandmother sat on the string bed under the mango tree. It was late summer and there were sunflowers in the garden and a warm wind in the trees. My grandmother was knitting a woollen scarf for the winter months. She was very old, dressed in a plain white sari.1 Her eyes were not very strong now but her fingers moved quickly with the needles and the needles kept clicking all afternoon. Grandmother had white hair but there were very few wrinkles on her skin.
2 I had come home after playing cricket on the maidan.2 I had taken my meal and now I was rummaging in a box of old books and family heirlooms that had just that day been brought out of the attic by my mother. Nothing in the box interested me very much except for a book with
colourful pictures of birds and butterflies. I was going through the book, looking at the pictures,
when I found a small photograph between the pages. It was a faded picture, a little yellow and
foggy. It was the picture of a girl standing against a wall and behind the wall there was nothing
but sky. But from the other side a pair of hands reached up, as though someone was going to climb the wall. There were flowers growing near the girl but I couldn’t tell what they were. There was a creeper too but it was just a creeper.
3 I ran out into the garden. “Granny!” I shouted. “Look at this picture! I found it in the box of old things. Whose picture is it?”
4 I jumped on the bed beside my grandmother and she walloped me on the bottom and said, “Now I’ve lost count of my stitches and the next time you do that I’ll make you finish the scarf yourself.”
5 Granny was always threatening to teach me how to knit which I thought was a disgraceful thing for a boy to do. It was a good deterrent for keeping me out of mischief. Once I had torn the drawing-room curtains and Granny had put a needle and thread in my hand and made me stitch the curtain together, even though I make long, two-inch stitches, which had to be taken out by my mother and done again.
6 She took the photograph from my hand and we both stared at it for quite a long time. The girl had long, loose hair and she wore a long dress that nearly covered her ankles, and sleeves that reached her wrists, and there were a lot of bangles on her hands. But despite all this drapery, the girl appeared to be full of freedom and movement. She stood with her legs apart and her hands on her hips and had a wide, almost devilish smile on her face.
7 “Whose picture is it?” I asked.
8 “A little girl’s, of course,” said Grandmother. “Can’t you tell?”
9 “Yes, but did you know the girl?”
10 “Yes, I knew her,” said Granny, “but she was a very wicked girl and I shouldn’t tell you about her. But I’ll tell you about the photograph. It was taken in your grandfather’s house about sixty years ago. And that’s the garden wall and over the wall there was a road going to town.”
11 “Whose hands are they,” I asked, “coming up from the other side?”
1sari—an outer garment worn by women of India, consisting of a long lightweight cloth wrapped around the waist and
draped over the shoulder
2maidan—a level, open space near a town in India
12 Grandmother squinted and looked closely at the picture, and shook her head. “It’s the first time I’ve noticed,” she said. “They must have been the sweeper boy’s. Or maybe they were your grandfather’s.”
13 “They don’t look like Grandfather’s hands,” I said. “His hands are all bony.”
14 “Yes, but this was sixty years ago.”
15 “Didn’t he climb up the wall after the photo?”
16 “No, nobody climbed up. At least, I don’t remember.”
17 “And you remember well, Granny.”
18 “Yes, I remember . . . . I remember what is not in the photograph. It was a spring day and there was a cool breeze blowing, nothing like this. Those flowers at the girl’s feet, they were marigolds, and the bougainvillea creeper, it was a mass of purple. You cannot see these colours in the photo and even if you could, as nowadays, you wouldn’t be able to smell the flowers or feel the breeze.”
19 “And what about the girl?” I said. “Tell me about the girl.”
20 “Well, she was a wicked girl,” said Granny. “You don’t know the trouble they had getting her into those fine clothes she’s wearing.”
21 “I think they are terrible clothes,” I said.
22 “So did she. Most of the time, she hardly wore a thing. She used to go swimming in a muddy pool with a lot of ruffianly3 boys, and ride on the backs of buffaloes. No boy ever teased her, though, because she could kick and scratch and pull his hair out!”
23 “She looks like it too,” I said. “You can tell by the way she’s smiling. At any moment something’s going to happen.”
24 “Something did happen,” said Granny. “Her mother wouldn’t let her take off the clothes
afterwards, so she went swimming in them, and lay for half an hour in the mud.”
25 I laughed heartily and Grandmother laughed too.
26 “Who was the girl?” I said. “You must tell me who she was.”
27 “No, that wouldn’t do,” said Grandmother, but I pretended I didn’t know. I knew, because Grandmother still smiled in the same way, even though she didn’t have as many teeth.
28 “Come on, Granny,” I said, “tell me, tell me.”
29 But Grandmother shook her head and carried on with the knitting. And I held the photograph in my hand looking from it to my grandmother and back again, trying to find points in common between the old lady and the little pig-tailed girl. A lemon-coloured butterfly settled on the end of Grandmother’s knitting needle and stayed there while the needles clicked away. I made a grab at the butterfly and it flew off in a dipping flight and settled on a sunflower.
30 “I wonder whose hands they were,” whispered Grandmother to herself, with her head bowed, and her needles clicking away in the soft warm silence of that summer afternoon.
3ruffianly — tough or rowdy
20. In paragraphs 1–6, the grandmother’s actions imply that she is