Leaning on his plough, Mayandi squinted up at the burning sun and then looked at the stark landscape, a medley of various shades of browns. The sinews of the earth had stretched and cracked like empty rivulets.

Little beads of glistening sweat trickled down his dark wry face. Some had sought the furrows on his brow to tumble into his rheumy eyes. Stung with the stinging saltiness of his sweat, he bent down to lift his soil-splattered dhoti to wipe his grimy face. His children had said that the earth would no longer yield anything. But he knew that this land would prove them wrong.

They merely saw the cracked barren earth, but for the wry sixty-year-old with a BA Honours (History), Mayandi, it was the land that had risen so many times like a phoenix and even now he knew that the mysteries she contained had never been fully unravelled.

For his Punjabi son-in-law this land, cut across by the Cauvery in the north and which languidly tapered to caress the sea on its eastern side and rolled over to play a peek-a-boo with the dark mysterious hill ranges on its western side and then decided to pierce like an arrow into the Indian Ocean, knew no struggles that changed the course of history.

Yes, Mayandi had agreed with him, you don’t mess around with your son-in-law for your daughter’s life was at stake. But Mayandi knew that this land may have not witnessed the slow trickle of the Aryans, may have not heard of the cries of the Mughal invaders and may have not witnessed the trauma of Independence and throes of partition.

But this land was the womb that had throbbed as the thundering forces of Pandya kings had fought to preserve her sanctity against the Cheras and Cholas. It was this very soil that had soothed the feet of traders as they made their way to the sea shore to see their business grow in lands far away. His son-in-law could never hear the soothing sounds in this rain-shadow area that had long spells of peace when culture and art grew.

How could he argue with his Punjabi son-in-law that Madrasi was not a language but what people spoke here was called Tamil – a language that had withstood the might of Sanskrit and had in its own way accepted their union and was still evolving.

Of course, he tapped his feet to ‘Kolaveri’ and he would smile at the kolaveri he saw in his wife’s eyes, when his eldest daughter-in-law spoke Tamil with a staccato-burst of syllables that were rough-edged and peppered with Telugu supplements. He would grin when his youngest daughter-in-law rolled the same words with a cadence that had the essence of Malayalam. Even today, his wife would ask in a hushed voice if these girls spoke Tamil. She could never understand how her sons who were born in a land that was synonymous with Sangam literature could find themselves so comfortable speaking a language that the British had brought in.

But it was this tolerance that had made this little land grow. Across the villages, Mayandi had seen little gods sitting erect on horses protecting their small areas and people. These deities had witnessed the seeping in of Brahminism with their elaborate rituals, they had also watched in fascination as ochre-clad Jains painstakingly climbed up hillocks and made their stone beds. Yet they remained in the edges protecting the villages, secure in the knowledge that the Goddess, who had given them their birth would also bring these alien religions under her shade.

It was this feminine mystique that had given the swarthy men of the soil their sangfroid pride. Not long before, Mayandi had gone to Palani with his family and that is when he saw the excavation work at Porunthal. He saw broken terracotta pieces and also glass beads that had been made about 2,500 years back. A green glassy bead at the site had captivated him. The bead looked familiar and it was only when he was back working in his field that he remembered where he had seen it.

The bead had shone on a dusky woman, who was shaped like those exquisite dancers carved out on temple walls. She had been there like a mirage smiling at him as he in his youth had come to this ground to puff at a stolen cigarette.

Then he had thought to be a figment of his overwrought hormones. In his middle age, she had beckoned him and had taught him ways and means to unravel the mysteries hidden in her. He remembered those days, when he had basked in her pleasure as she turned into a carpet of green and then with the swaying cobs of millet she had danced across the landscape.

Like all women, she sure had her share of womanly wiles. Some days she drenched him with a monsoon that seemed never to end and some months she eluded him in the dry desert of loneliness.

And now at this age, he could still remember in detail the little green beads that dangled in her ears with every step she took.

Now, he understood that it was she who had attained bliss in birth pangs to people this land with her progeny. It was her life blood that had flowed in his forefathers and was now pulsing with vitality in his grandchildren. It was this woman, who was ready to again take in her embrace the dead and make them her own.

She had again disappeared with a tinkle of laughter and with an alluring sway of her hips. Mayandi, grinned still remembering those mischievous glances she had thrown at him as she had slipped away. Lifting up the hoe, he plunged into the earth and as a shower of sweat fell from his head, he saw her sucking it in.

And as he reared and ploughed again, the earth wafted out the sweet musky smell with a hint of rains to come. Mayandi had come out victorious; he had proved wrong those sceptics who had said that this land had nothing more to give. The sap in her veins had not congealed, and Mayandi could feel the rumble as she woke up to add another page in the annals of history.

— Beulah Rose

As the earth yielded her bounty, the gods looked on. They were also there when she lay parched waiting for the rains to satiate her thirst.