Flowers in the Dust

I love her floral kolams, their grandeur, the way they bloom on newly washed and swept dust.

Village India kolam dust

kumutha kolam 1

Village India kumutha kolam 2

Village India kumutha kolam 3

kumutha kolam 4

Village India kumutha kolam 5

Though Kumutha is a busy mother of three, now and then you glimpse that teen-age expression of hers, the kind that young goddesses wear.  When I inquire about her art, she seems reluctant to speak. I imagine that she comes from a long line of mothers and grandmothers, an unbroken thread of female wisdom and craft that has withstood our plastic bag culture.

Village India kumutha portrait

One day I asked her if this was true.

“My paati (grandmother) never made a kolam in her life and my mother’s kolams were always lumpy. I taught myself.”

As a little girl, Kumutha would buy ten rupee kolam books and wander around the village lanes, observing what other women were creating in front of their homes. She would beg a few rupees off of Thatha and Maama and instead of buying sweets, would purchase colored kolam powder. It wasn’t long before Kumutha was winning the village kolam competitions held during Pongal.

“I can do traditional white powder kolams too, but I prefer the colored rangolis.

“How many designs do you know?”

“It’s not like that.” She pointed to her head and smiled. “I never make the same one twice.”

My daughter Andry sat her down once and asked about her background.

“I grew up in Sillai in S.C. Colony and studied until 5th grade, but the teachers used to beat me so I dropped out. Before joining work at Blue Mango, I took care of our cows, drew the water for our household, and looked after my younger brothers and sisters.”

“And your husband?”

“He studied until 10th grade. We had an arranged marriage, but thankfully we fell in love, so we’re really happy together.”

After working full days in Blue Mango sewing toys and bags, Kumutha goes home to bathe Karthi, the kind of kid who is always happy dirty, zinging head first down the slide, charging around with his pants off, and shouting ‘Goodu morning, sahru’ with his clean little lungs. Then there’s rice and kolambu to cook, children’s squabbles to sort out, pots to scrub, and grannies to feed. No wonder Kumutha always seems a little exasperated–except when she’s creating her kolams.

Village India kumutha family

I look at her and muse at how different we are, not in the cultural sense, but in stage of life. She’s still too young to really grasp what it means when footsteps, wind, and rain return her colors to the big neutral gray.

To me with no more babies and passing middle age, a man whose parents have recently been ravaged by decline and an ignoble death, dust is the slayer of youth.

 Village India kolam blm

Village India kolam blm day old

Village India kolam blm faded

To Kamutha, dust is a clean screen waiting for yet another kolam, the unknown face of a child in the womb, a new species of flower never before seen upon this old earth.

Village India kumutha kolam 6

Perhaps we’re both right.

Village India kolam flowers

About the Author

Bruce DeJong

I am an Indian of American parentage who practices medicine in rural Tamil Nadu. After years of getting to know the local people, they have begun to open up their lives, allowing me to paint a portrait of their village one story at a time.

  • Jenna M. Gibbs

    As always, a wonderfully written and touching piece. Kamutha’s are as exquisite as your prose, and brought many fond memories of South India rushing back..