SHATA PUTRAVATI- THE MOTHER OF A HUNDRED CHILDREN( Part 2)

But it was not Suresh!

The darkness outside was making it difficult to see clearly. The street  had only 2-3 lights and none outside his house.

When a flash of lightning illuminated the sky, Ramakrishnan Iyer could see a bearded man in a white shirt and veshti on the “thinnai”.  There was also a white jeep of some sort parked outside the house.

“Yes? What do you want?” asked Ramakrishnan

“I heard Amma was sick. So I came to see if I could do anything”  he said

“Who are you?” asked Ramakrishnan  reluctant to let this man inside the house.

“I am Selvamani. I am the district  secretary of the Makal Puratchi Kazhagam (MPK)” he said

“Look, we don’t know you. I think you have the wrong address” said Ramakrishnan as he tried to shut the door.

“ Please wait sir. You may not know me but our family knows Amma. She also knows us. Infact, she was present during my birth. My father Ayyan, had a small shop near the bus stand repairing shoes” said Selvamani with a smile.

Ayyan.. the cobbler! Amazing! Today his son was a political leader.

He looked back inside. Savithri was having another paroxysm of coughing.

Between the two of them they managed to support her and put her into the vehicle.  “Strange are the ways of God” muttered Ramakrishnan to himself as he locked the front door.

The drive to the hospital through the rain soaked highway took more than an hour. Selvamani was talking on his mobile as he drove, making Ramakrishnan nervous.

But they managed to reach the hospital without mishap.

They were obviously expecting them because a team of medical personnel rushed out with a stretcher on wheels , putting Savithri on it the moment she got out. Someone was strapping and oxygen mask over her face and yet someone else was guiding him under an umbrella.

Selvamani asked someone called Anbu to “take care of Vadhyar ayya” while he parked the car. They followed the medical team into the lift and then up to the door of the Intensive care unit where a nurse stopped them. “No sir you cannot go in. This is a restricted area” she said.

“But she is my wife. I need to know what is wrong with her” he pleaded

“Don’t worry sir, she is in good hands.” She said asking him to sit down outside in the visitors area.

Selvamani was back. He had a paper cup full of coffee in his hands which he  offered him.

Ramakrishnan took it from his hand automatically. He felt like a robot. “Sir, would you like me to get you some dinner” asked Selvamani. Ramakrishnan shook his head. He had already had his dinner. But this  coffee was most welcome on a rainy night especially when he was sure that it was going to be a long one.

It was about an hour later when the “specialist” arrived.  A middle aged lady who went rushing past him into the ICU. The nurse at the ICU reception smiled at him reassuringly. He bent his head down and started reciting his shlokas silently  in his mind.  Selvamani and Anbu stood nearby. Selvamani’s ears were glued to his phone as usual.

“Mr. Ramakrishnan?”  he heard someone call out to him. It was the nurse from the ICU. “You may go inside now” she said.

Ramakrishnan took off his slippers outside the door of the ICU and tiptoed inside. He went down the corridor until he came to another hall- this one with a glass door. He could see his wife beyond that – connected to a ventilator.

“Don’t worry sir!  Her condition is under control” he heard the doctor say as she emerged from the room.  “We will keep her on the ventilator until tomorrow morning. I am confident that she can be moved out of the ICU by the afternoon ”

“Thank you… Dr…?” he fumbled looking for her name tag.

“Savithri!” she said smiling sweetly at him.  “How can you forget me? I have come to your house so many times on my birthday to meet Amma” she said

Yes, he remembered now- Kuppan’s  daughter delivered nearly fifty years ago! He also remembered with shame, his father and grand aunt making Kuppan and this girl wait outside in the backyard and forcing  Savithri to bathe after she hugged the girl in blessing on one such occasion. Savithri had refused to do so. There had been a lot of tension around the house where Srinivasa Iyer the Vedic Scholar had not allowed his “polluted daughter in law”  to enter the house. Stubborn girl that she was, his wife had stayed outside for two days refusing to eat or drink anything until his mother intermediated the situation bringing her inside. The visits had stopped after that.

Ramakrishnan was feeling very overwhelmed with gratitude. His eyes were filling up with tears. Selvamani was by  his side. “Sir is anything wrong”? he asked. He shook his head and sat down on the bench outside.  Selvamani continued to look worried.

“Sir don’t worry about the bill payment etc. That will not be necessary. This hospital is owned by  a  friend of mine. He and his family are very indebted to your wife. You see, she also brought them into this world – just like me and Anbu here”

Ramakrishnan  was getting more and more overwhelmed by the minute . He was losing count of the number of children his wife had brought into this world! It looked like she had brought into this world almost all the persons of a certain generation in and around Mayavaram!

He remembered the blessing that had been given by almost everyone in the family and  in the agraharam to his newly wed wife on the day she had stepped into their world- “Shata Putravati bhava” – May you be the mother of a hundred sons! Not only was she a mother of a hundred sons, she was also a mother of an equal number of daughters. After all, what else do you call a person who braves a lot of hardships and helps to bring you into this world? And she was not just an ordinary mother –she was a PROUD mother of many children who had  grown up into good human beings- people who cared for her and for the good values in life.

His old feelings of vulnerability at the neglect from his two sons suddenly stopped bothering him. He had with him a town full of men and women who were his children too. His wife had delivered many and he had taught almost all of them. So weren’t they together the proud parents living among their children? So what was there to worry about?

He looked out of the window. The clouds had cleared and the sky had a red tinge around it. The sun was rising and a new day was being born!

( This  story is dedicated to all those men and women ( usually women)  who  help a new life travel safely  from the mother’s womb into this world. Again some explanations about Tamil words- “Thinnai” refers to the verandah outside traditional houses. “Vadhyar” means teacher.)

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SHATA PUTRAVATI- THE MOTHER OF A HUNDRED CHILDREN( part 1)

Savithriammal was breathing heavily now. She had been having difficulty in breathing since the afternoon. Her husband Ramakrishna Iyer, was worried . The inhaler was not working. Her breath was coming out in a very laboured way.. He had tried to call both Ramesh and Suresh. Ramesh , his older son who was in the US was not picking up his calls. It was going into the answering machine. And Suresh who was in Bangalore had said that he would try and come by on Sunday..! “Of course if your mother lasts until then” he muttered to himself as he put down the receiver.

He looked outside- it was raining heavily. How on earth was he going to get proper medical help? The nearest hospital was in Tanjore. Mayavaram, or Mayiladuthurai the small  town where they lived was a good two to three hours away!

“Do you want some warm water Savithri?” he asked his wife.. She shook her head and closed her eyes. Savithri- his wife of fifty five years was struggling to take breath and here he was an old man of seventy five unable to do anything to help her! He felt frustrated !

He remembered the day they had got married. Savithri was eighteen and he was twenty and just out of college. Savithri was from Trichy – a “town girl” according to Lakshmi Pati his widowed grand aunt. Savithri had completed school and was looked at by the other women in the agraharam as something of a novelty!  Ramakrishnan was in awe of her-she was a beautiful girl and he felt like a gawky teenager though he was a good two years older than her.

She settled down soon enough into the humdrum of daily life in the household assisting his mother in the kitchen and humouring Lakshmi Pati’s complaints about this and that!

It took them all  about a year  to realize that she had a special skill.

His sister Padma was having her delivery and the midwife was in panic. The  baby was a breech birth and she was very nervous that it would be fatal for both mother and child. Before anyone could realize it Savithri had found her way into the room and was assisting the midwife with the delivery. It was a miracle –both Padma and the baby were safe! Savithri was a heroine!

Soon, every delivery in the agraharam had Savithri assisting the midwife. Slowly, as she gained confidence she began to handle some of them by  herself.

The real trouble came when Kuppan came one day requesting for Savithri Amma’s services as his wife struggled through labour. Srinivasa Iyer, was furious that a person of a low caste could even imagine that the daughter –in –law of a vedic scholar would come into  his hut just because his wife was in labour! He yelled at Kuppan and asked him to get out before he polluted the entire agraharam with his low caste presence.

Ramakrishnan, a mild mannered boy had always been very afraid of his father’s wrath. So he was shocked when Savithri suggested that he accompany her after dinner to Kuppan’s hut! He flatly refused. But Savithri obviously had other plans .. In the night when she did not come into their room, he guessed what she might be up to!

All hell had broken loose in the morning. Srinivasa Iyer was yelling at his daughter-in-law who stood quietly in the street outside the house. Lakshmi Pati was calling her a girl of loose morals who was disrespectful to elders. But surprisingly, his gentle mother had eased out the situation, asking her daughter –in –law to come to the backyard where she kept ready the bucket of water for her to remove her pollution and enter the house.

After that it had become a routine. People from all castes in the village would come to Savithri for assistance during the deliveries. Sometimes, she worked with the midwife and sometimes all alone. She never denied anyone her services. The paraiyans , vannans and all the lower castes who were never ever allowed to even step into the agraharam felt overwhelmed as Savithri Amma came into their huts and delivered their babies…When she returned home, it was the same routine- entering the house through the backyard after pouring a bucketful of water over herself to remove the “polluting influence” of the places she had visited.

When the Christian missionaries set up a health centre in the village, it was not surprising that they tracked down Savithri and asked if she would be interested in joining their training program for birth attendants. Head strong girl that she was , she never stopped to ask either him or his father. Amma was her close confidante and silent supporter in this endevor…

The years went by. Savithri herself became a mother. She had also completed her training in midwifery and was now a certified birth attendant. She continued to work with the nuns in the health centre rendering her services whenever required. Srinivasa Iyer was a spent force.. he realized that he was fighting a losing battle.

Ramakrishnan who worked in a local school as a maths teacher, felt a sense of pride as some of the children in his class told him that they  were delivered by his wife! But he was never able to proactively reach out to the children from the lower caste settlements like his wife did. He taught them at school and was always conscious of his upper caste status sometimes cursing the government for its reservation policy which made “morons like these” to get admission in college despite their low marks.

The years went by and  Mayavaram became Mayiladuthurai! The impact of the MGR films and the dialogues written by Karunanidhi began to result in social transformations across the town. The children of the lower castes realized the power of education and went on to acquire degrees and good jobs in Chennai and elsewhere. The agraharam no longer was a “consecrated” place that would not tolerate the presence of other castes. As the older generation passed away their children who lived in cities began to sell those ancestral houses to outsiders- often people of other castes.

Ramakrishnan the  casteist  snob refused to have anything to do with his neighbours. He kept to himself and wished that his wife would do so too.

But that was too much to imagine! She was her usual friendly self talking in her Brahmin lingo to all her neighbours ignoring the smell of garlic that emanated from their kitchens and laughing at her husband’s anger..

She was too old to continue with her midwife services. Her asthma was getting worse by the day and today it seemed to have propelled her towards her death!

Ramakrishnan wondered if he should ask his neighbours for help. But he decided against it- He had never really spoken to them before. What would they think if he suddenly walked into their house in this pouring rain ..

When he heard the knock on the front door, he first thought that he must be imagining the sound. But when the knock became persistent he went out to see who it was…Was it Suresh, who had changed his mind and decided to come after all?

( to  be continued)

For those of you who are not familiar with Tamilnadu – the word Agraharam refers to a dwelling place around a temple in which the upper most in the caste hierarchy -the Brahmins used to traditionally reside! Paraiyans and Vannans are the castes who are lower most in the caste  hierarchy referred to today as Scheduled castes or Dalits

BONDS AND BARRIERS –Part 2

Life after Aradhana was difficult.  Anand started to miss her and this resulted in a lot of tantrums. Mohan found it very difficult to deal with them on his own. The new teacher was experienced enough but how do you replace someone in a child’s affection? And then there was that million dollar  question if it was only Anand who was missing her?

Mohan tried often to talk about Anand’s problems with Sheila. But to Sheila life was only about herself and how things affected her!! When she was so impervious to her own son and his problems then it became unrealistic to expect her to understand him… He felt sad that it was now “ him” and “her” and not “üs”!

When he thought back through the years of marriage he realized that with Sheila it was only “I , me and myself” !! A compulsive attention seeker she was unable to deal with anyone else’s need for attention. It was surprising that he had not realized it when he was courting her. Ten years ago getting her interested in him was like a dream come true. He had been so flattered that she had accepted his proposal. The only child of extremely privileged parents she was very beautiful and talented. An achiever like him she was very goal oriented going after what she wanted in life.  It was not surprising that Mohan himself being the proverbial “alpha male” had been attracted to her!!

The birth of Anand is a way had put the entire relationship to test- a test in which they had failed miserably as a couple. He had tried counselling but the counsellor wanted them to come together for sessions. Sheila had refused to cooperate and finally he decided that going alone would not really solve the problem…

Meanwhile Anand’s health problems had started worsening. His seizures were becoming more and more frequent. But it was the weakness of his lungs that finally became fatal. What started as his usual difficultly in breathing one evening became worse as the day progressed and he had to be rushed to the hospital. It only took four days for his story to come to an end!!!

He had stayed locked in the house for a week after that! Some of the other parents from the support group had tried to reach him but he had switched off his mobile and taken the phone off the hook!

He had tried alcohol to numb his pain. But the pain was too strong for a few bottles of a liquid to drown. He slept those days in Anand’s room surrounding himself with his clothes and toys. How he loved and hated those objects!! He loved them for the memories they held and hated them for the same reasons

Grief they say brings people together. But unfortunately for Mohan, that was not so. Anand’s death was the last nail on the coffin of their relationship. He had wanted to speak to his wife about the void in their life but he realized soon enough that the void was probably in His and not hers! Yes, “his”  and “hers” was now well and truly a reality as what was “ours” had slipped out of their lives..

So he was not really surprised when, Sheila    packed her bags and walked out. She had not even said “Good bye”. What saddened him was that it should have happened so soon after Anand’s death.

He resigned from his job, sold the house and moved to another town. He donated the money to the trust that ran the school that Anand had gone to.

The process of healing is very long winded. It took him over a year and a half to get back to normalcy- that is if one could call his present life “normal”. He lived alone and had no interactions besides his professional ones. Some of his friends from college sometimes dropped by when they were in town. They tried to get him out of his shell but he preferred carrying it on his back…it was his protection. He was afraid of anyone who might mention Anand !

He occasionally read about Sheila in the newspapers. She had become a successful designer and was opening stores in many towns. She was made for this kind of success he thought – interestingly he was no longer bitter about the divorce!

And now after these years – this voice from the past!

He wanted to “accept” her friend request! But he knew that if he clicked “ accept” there was no going back. He had to answer her question about Anand! He had to tell her what had happened and he was not sure he could handle it. Infact, he had never spoken to anyone about Anand’s “death”. He often wondered if he was denying it in his mind, whether speaking about it would lighten the load on his heart.

But what the hell… it was about time he found out.

So he extended his finger and clicked “Accept”!. He went back to her profile page and started looking at it. He looked at her albums and photographs- nothing personal only landscapes. There were some general status messages and inane responses from various people – nothing that gave him a clue as to what might be going on with her life.

He went back to the message he had received from her and typed his reply “Hi Aru. I am fine. Anand left this world last year.  We remembered you a lot after you left. Miss you- Mohan”!

There it was done!!

When that call came in the night  from an unidentified international number he knew it was her.

“Mohan? God.. I am so sorry” she said . He could feel the tears in her voice. He listened while she cried and then she listened when he poured out his feelings. He spoke like never before. He told her about how he felt when the news was delivered to him. How he spent those wretched nights on Anand’s bed- how he tried to numb himself with alcohol and most of all he spoke about how he JUST COULD NOT SPEAK UNTIL NOW!

They would have spoken for more than an hour. The mobile felt hot against his ears. They disconnected and then he called her on skype. He called her again the next day and the next. They spoke about Anand and the time spent together.

He asked her about herself. She did not volunteer much information besides the fact that she was now a registered special educator in the UK. She was obviously doing well professionally. But that was about all. There was no mention of any husband or boy friend and he frankly did not care if she was single or married or in a relationship! What mattered to him was the fact that through her he was able to re establish his connection with his son. He was able to bring back those memories without the pain and talk about them fondly.

She was that bond between his past and his present. For that he was grateful!

The rest .. well it did not matter-  at least not immediately!  He had come this far and that was indeed an achievement!

 

 

 

 

BONDS AND BARRIERS –Part 1

Mohan looked at the computer screen once again. He wasn’t imagining- it was indeed a friend request from Aradhana. He was relatively new to face book. He was just learning to navigate his way around it. Surprising how she had located him. He thought he had cut his ties with the world long ago

His fingers were on the mouse itching to click the “accept” icon. But something seemed to be holding him back! After  all that had happened over the last three years was he ready to be in touch with her ?  Time they say heals wounds but he was not sure that he was  healed completely. The hurt was too much and on too many fronts.  In fact he was surprised that he had survived all of what had happened! He clicked on the message that she had sent along with her friend request. A very short one – “Hi Mohan. Hope you are doing fine. How is Anand?” He navigated to her profile page – it showed her location to be London, her occupation was still the same “Special educator”. Nothing else to suggest whether she was married or single. No profile picture either – just a small icon  with a smiley on it.  Typical!

He remembered the first time he had met her. Anand was about eight  years old. A child suffering from cerebral palsy, he also had a number of emotional problems. Over the last few months he had become progressively more difficult to handle. The situation at home was not helping either. Sheila had completely abdicated her responsibilities towards her son. She seemed to be staying away from home more and more often travelling whenever she could. Mohan had been trying to manage the situation by using the “work from home” option. But he was beginning to resent the fact that Sheila was not doing her bit. There was a lot of tension made up of  sharp arguments or long silences! It was  therefore not surprising that it was affecting the child.

Her age came as a surprise to him. He had somehow imagined someone older. The fact that this twenty something girl was his son’s new teacher was a little difficult for him  to handle during his first meeting. But as the conversation progressed, he began to realize that this girl knew her stuff! Besides, Anand seemed to be obviously fond of her – responding to her in a way that he never did with him or Sheila!

“Parenting a child with cerebral palsy can be very lonely . The pleasure and the pain are unique and cannot be shared with other parents. But please try to keep your stress about it outside of the interactions you have with him. He senses it and it affects him” was what she had told him after that first meeting. He wished he could tell her exactly how lonely his life was ..

She had  wanted to meet “Anand’s mother” along with him to discuss his progress. How could he tell her that Sheila – his beautiful wife was embarrassed of her own child –that she looked for opportunities to stay away from home. That she was disgusted by the way the child ate or walked or talked.. !!  She seemed to be somehow holding him responsible for Anand’s condition. A woman who had taken beauty for granted and who revelled in it could  just not take the fact that a part of her could be so “ugly”!!

“But he is NOT ugly!” was what Aradhana said angrily when he told her about it. “All these children are beautiful  like others. You just need to be able to see that beauty and recognize it”

He was surprised that a teacher was able to see something that a mother was unable to. But then Aradhana  like his Anand was different. She had an inner beauty and gentleness that only those close to her could perceive.

A wonderful person, she quickly realised that he was probably going through a lot of personal struggle in parenting. She tried to involve him in the school’s parent support group so that he could be part of a community. She sent him articles about children with cerebral palsy and their achievements, called him up every now and then for a chat and sometimes even came home to spend time with him and Anand. They took  Anand for outings to the park and sometimes to the beach. Was it then surprising that Anand should one day draw a picture of a family  with himself, Papa and “Aru Auntie”?

Mohan was aware that both he and his son were becoming very emotionally dependent on Aradhana. He had initially tried to explain it away saying that it was but natural considering the situation. But he realized soon enough that it was not so. He had begun noticing things about a girl nearly ten years his junior in ways  that were beyond the boundaries imposed by professional interaction. He noticed the faint perfume that she wore, the silver jewellery that adorned her – the fact that she looked good in blue. He noticed the way she held her hand over her mouth when she was surprised  and the way she jumped with joy when it rained.

How could he forget that day after Anand’s birthday party when he was dropping her home. It had been raining. She had rolled down the window and was trying to catch the rain drops with her hands.  He had stopped the car on that tree lined avenue leading to her home just so he could watch her. She had turned to look at him when the car had stopped raising her eyebrows in a question. He had continued looking at her.  They sat together in silence for he did not know how long until his mobile went off. Sheila was home and wanted to know when he would be back.

He stated the car and drove silently up to the entrance to  her flat. “I would have invited you upstairs but I think Sheila needs you” she said quietly as she closed the door of the car. He had thought about this line all the way home and many times later attributing different meanings to it- until one day he was really disgusted with himself for the way he was behaving – like some love sick teenager! The question however was whether this was LOVE?  Or was it just a feeling of emotional instability that was taking control over him.. After all, he had been in love and was married to the love of  his life – the very beautiful Sheila! So why these thoughts? All he needed to complicate it at this point was an extra marital relationship with a girl almost a decade younger than him! Yes,  his relationship with his wife was not what it should be but that was no excuse to run into the arms of another woman- hell girl! So what if she was good with Anand and the boy liked her? She was young and deserved somebody better- not the married father of a child with cerebral palsy!

And with that he had tried to close what he thought was a chapter of  weakness in his life..  He hired a driver to take Anand to school and limited his interactions with Aradhana to general group meetings with other facilitators being present. She on her part seemed to sense the barriers that he was building around himself. So she just restricted herself to these professional interactions for the rest of the year. And then one day when he went for the meeting, there were just the physiotherapist, occupational therapist and the neurologist. No sign of her! He wanted to ask what happened to her. But he was just too embarrassed …

( to be continued)