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“Hullo my name is Helen Burns and I am reading from my manuscript Where Swans Wander. It’s a creative travel narrative about my search for a girl who lived in South India twelve hundred years ago. This excerpt is in her voice.
My father’s name is Vishnuchitta and I am called Kotai. But today he gave me a new name, Choodi K Kodutta. Shall I tell you my secret?
When I was born my hair was straight but now it is curly. My skin was red like gurivinda seeds but now it is fair. Sometimes when Aama is combing my hair she says my face is bright as the moon. If Aapa is at home he jokes and says, no I am a thief who stole the moon’s light. Aama laughs and corrects him, it was the moon that stole light from my face.
My name is Choodi K Kodutta and I have lived all my life in Villiputtur. Its streets are wide and lined with mansions. Sculptures of lions with elephant trunks hanging from their mouths stand either side of every gate. In the evening women sit on verandas and play dice, blowing air into their right fist for luck. The sound of their jingling bangles distracts the yogis walking by. The women laugh at this as they adjust their breasts high in their bodices.
There are mango groves and rows of coconut trees, date palms and areca nut. Jackfruit trees as old as the city grow near the river. When the fruit ripens and falls the air is stinky and sweet and the ground turns soft and syrupy. Black bees swarm all over them so they look like green elephants tied up with chains.
Every courtyard has a bathing pond. Afterwards we sit on the steps and massage turmeric paste into our skin. At night wild swans come to drink then sleep, safe from mountain lions. Their white feathers soak up the turmeric left behind so when they fly into the dawn we look and say, “Golden swans from heaven have been sleeping in our garden.”
My Aapa will be at the temple and the musicians playing. I can hear them over the wall; first conch shells then flutes and drums. I watch the swans disappearing and imagine it is them playing the music with the beat of their wings. “Lord Vishnu,” they call from their long red beaks, “it is time to wake up.”
Villiputtur’s cows give the creamiest milk and our sugar cane juice is the sweetest. The jasmine growing in my father’s temple garden blooms day and night. In this city where swans wander I imagine myself a cowherd girl in love with the sapphire skinned One. This is my secret.
My name is Choodi K Kodutta and I am going to marry him.”
ABOUT HELEN BURNS:
Helen is a Byron Bay writer and serial traveler. Her adventures have been published in The Australian, Courier Mail, Adelaide Advertiser and Northern Rivers Echo. She has had poems and haiku published in The Famous Reporter, Free Xpressions and several Dangerously Poetic Anthologies. An encounter in Iran inspired her prize winning poem at the 2007 Northern Rivers Writers’ Festival. In the following year she was a guest poet at Southern Cross University’s International Human Rights and Peace Conference.
“My first travel memoir, River of Stones and Stars, was awarded a LongLines residency in 2007 then shortlisted for the Varuna Harper Collins award in 2009. My current manuscript, Where Swans Wander, is in many ways fruit ripening from a tree planted four decades ago when I majored in Hindi and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. Now, in between return visits to Tamil Nadu for research and inspiration, there is a yearning for time again inside the fertile arms and wonderful whispering walls of Varuna.” Helen Burns
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