Under a Different Sun

Shivani Prabhu shares her Christmas wish: to eat and drink and visit with her family in India again, soon.

Growing up in Ernakulam, summer was always in April and May. On the last day of March, my best friend Divya and I would jump up at the gong of the last bell, leaving behind sweaty thigh-imprints on our chairs, running to the back of the class to grab our bags. Summer in Kerala was heavy and wet, and the air felt thick. I read away those two months, splayed out on the sofa in our lounge room or with my cheek pressed against the cool mosaic tiles, the fan on the highest speed. Sometimes I’d spin round and round until I got dizzy and would lie down just to watch everything swirl around me.

As I read, snacks would appear on round steel plates. Sliced mangoes from the tree in our backyard that made my hands sticky and transferred yellow stains onto the pages, cubed pieces of sugarcane to chew the sweetness out of, and orange chakuli spirals. Amma and I would walk up the street to a small private library to borrow books for 10 rupees each. We’d stop to get roasted peanuts from the cart outside our lane. I’d take in the smoky smell as the vendor swished them around in an iron wok, marvelling at how nimbly he scooped them into a cone fashioned out of a rectangular piece of newspaper.

When we moved to Melbourne, I felt like we were living under an entirely different sun. This sun scorched and burned in summer, which came in December instead of April. The air was arid, and the pavement burned my feet. There was no mango tree, and in its place was a tall eucalypt. In the spring, when the grass was softer, and the sun more forgiving, I’d lie under the tree and snap the fallen leaves under my nose for the sharp, minty smell. For most of the summer though, we’d be back in Kerala, where December was cool and silky. In early December, we’d pack suitcases full of Tim Tams, Freddo Frogs, and Cadbury Favourites to distribute to cousins. We’d come back at the end of January just before school started and have one month of summer left.

We’d spend two months visiting relatives’ houses, being fed juices and coffees, banana chips and platters of spiced cashews, attending weddings and ceremonies, and going on a week-long pilgrimage to temples in Southern India in our old Toyota Innova – my parents in the front seats, me in the middle, my brother in the back using blankets as curtains looped across the windows, the boot full of snacks. I’d lie down and watch as we passed by rows of coconut trees, rice fields, hills and bustling town centres. In between, we’d stop to have meals or snacks at one of the Ananda Bhavan franchises, excited every time by crispy dosas and creamy pongal with cracked peppercorns. By the end of the trip we’d be replenished, our suitcases stuffed with pickles and chips, and our hearts bolstered by spending time with family.

Last summer was only the second time we spent all  summer in Melbourne, though it had been a decade since we’d moved. I spoke to my grandparents and aunties over WhatsApp video calls, a silent panic growing in our hearts when there was no mention of the borders ever opening – when would we be able to sit around the same table and eat together again? When would we be able to drink chai, laughing and arguing, while India’s Best Dancer plays in the background?

On Christmas Eve in my partner’s family house, I began to cry out of nowhere, my chest twisting into a knot I couldn’t untie. I pretended to have hayfever and fed minced beef to fat kookaburras. I spread out a cheese platter with fig jam, set out the silverware with his mum, and felt the knot loosen when their dog ate a whole wheel of brie and spent the rest of the night farting.

My family bought our first Christmas tree, a rose‑gold tinsel tree on top of which we clipped a chubby bird, a silver angel sparrow. On the night of Christmas Eve when I got back home, I sent out a silent prayer to the sparrow angel to let us travel under our other sun again soon.

Shivani Prabhu is a Melbourne-based writer and editor, who edits non-fiction for Voiceworks. You can find her on Instagram @ShivanisPrabhu.

First published in ed#650.

Illustration by Lauren Rebbeck.