She liked the symmetry of mandalas. The intricate lines and patterns that created a bigger, more beautiful picture. She moved to a small house on our block when I was six, and she in her sixties. I’d wake up earlier than the sun to watch her from our second-floor balcony. With a bucket of water, she’d first wash the area in front of our house. When it dried, she’d settle on her haunches and take out her packs of colored powder and create stunning designs. Sometimes she used colored rice grains, sometimes colored chalk. She was bestowed the name Rangamma, because of her striking Rangoli art, and Amma because it was a respected title for a lone woman of a certain age. I grew older, as did she, and yet her art never waned. Her hand never wavered, her designs displayed all the life and vitality that was perhaps depleting in her.
During a visit back home, I rose early one morning, when I heard a squeaking outside my window. There she was, four o’clock sharp, wheeling an oxygen tank behind her, making her way down the lane one house at a time, drawing mandalas and other Rangoli patterns on the front stoop of houses to rush in the celebration of Diwali.
“Rangamma, you’re still doing your mandalas? After all these years?” I asked.
“The world needs beauty, now, more than ever.”
“May I help you?”
“No. no. You’ve become a renowned artist in Amreeka, your mothers says. This work is beneath you.”
“Nonsense.” I sat next to her. I watched as her hand flew over the ground leaving solid white lines in shapes and swirls. I took her colored powder and filled in areas according to her instruction, most of the time she deferred to me to decide whether a paisley should be blue or violet. Before long, the Rangoli in front of my house grew into a gorgeous mandala of substantial size. “It’s remarkable,” I breathed.
“Only as remarkable as the people who reside inside the house it guards.”
“So Rangolis are meant to guard the houses? I thought it was meant for good luck?”
Rangamma stopped putting away her materials and looked at me, “When the Rangoli is done with a sound mind and true heart, it serves many purposes. But ask yourself, how can one usher in good, if one is not guarded against evil?”
I spent each morning with Rangamma during that visit home. I met her every morning before dawn at her house and beginning there, we’d make wondrous creations up and down our lane, drawing praise from neighbors near and far, once word spread. I took pictures and shared them with my friends once I returned to Chicago. “Neat. Gives a whole new meaning to ‘street art’,” they said.
The following year, when I visited my mother, I was told Rangamma hadn’t been down the lane for a few days. My mother wanted to check on her but owing to her own health issues she couldn’t.
Walking up to Rangamma’s small bungalow, her front stoop looked naked, lifeless, without a Rangoli or its remnants from the previous day. She never began her day without adorning her front stoop first.
Inside I found her lying on a wooden cot, softly reciting a prayer. She held out a frail hand and I immediately enveloped it in mine.
“Rangamma, you’ll be fine,” I whispered.
“I think I’ve gone beyond that, my child.”
“Please don’t say such things.”
“All these years you’ve helped me adorn the homes of our quiet lane. All these years you’ve become like my own. I’m leaving you this small house of mine. My colors are inside that cupboard in the corner; use them well. It’s all that I have to give, my colors and my home.”
“Sometimes home isn’t a place,” I sobbed. “It’s a person.”
Renuka Raghavan’s previous work has appeared in publications across the country, including, Boston Literary Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, Blink-Ink, Star 82 Review, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, and many more. She writes and lives in Massachusetts with her family and beloved beagle. Visit her at www.renukaraghavan.com.
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