STRANGER (Part 4)

Anusha adjusted her seat belt as she waited for the plane to take off!   It was nearly two weeks since that fateful morning when Amma had “flown” out of her life!! She could not help wondering about what she might have done when she was onboard. Had she spoken to her co passengers? Did she have a window seat or an aisle seat?

It was probably during the time they were serving breakfast that the fuel tank trouble had been diagnosed. Had they announced it ? Had the crew tried to calm people?

But most importantly, what had been Amma’s thoughts? Had she thought of her dear Anu? What about Appa or her younger sister? Did they figure in her last thoughts? Or … had it been Amin?

Amin…..!! The mystery man from her mother’s past…!

Anusha had called Saleha Aunty late last night and asked about him.

All  she had said was “So you know!” and Anusha’s response had been “Does he know?”

“Yes” said Saleha.

She had let the question about why had not contacted her with at least a condolence message hang unasked in the air.

Perceiving the question Saleha said “ Anu, he had wanted to call or email you with a condolence message but given the way, Amby had broken links with her past I advised him not to. But now that you know…” she said trailing off.

His email had come this morning. He had introduced himself as one of her mother’s “close friends” from college. He had written about how shocked he was to hear that she was no more. But as he explained to her, he had come to terms with her absence in his life nearly thirty years ago. He was living in Canada now. He had been married but was now divorced. He had a teenaged son who lived with his wife and visited him during vacations. He had enquired about what she was doing and ended the mail with an invitation to visit him if she ever came to Vancouver. He had signed off as “ Uncle Amin”!

She had wanted to respond to his mail but was unable to compose anything coherent! There were so many questions that only he could answer! She had wanted to know if he had bought her the bead chain and the glass bangles she had found inside her mother’s “memory” box. What were the stories behind the peacock feather and the withered flowers? Why were they so special to find a place there?

How many years had it taken for him to forget her mother and marry another woman? Did Ambika still find a place in his heart or was she just a distant memory in a far away land?

But she knew she could not ask him any of those questions because they were just too personal!! He was also probably very badly hurt with the broken relationship- twice unfortunately in his case!!!

She tried to imagine his life living all alone without his wife or child. She wondered why he had divorced? Was he unable to love another woman as much as his first love or was it something else? Well, if it was the former then it was unfair to his wife… After all, hadn’t her mother given her all to her marriage and ensured that it worked? She had never once complained about her husband or her mother in law to Anusha!! Instead, Anusha  had always been scolded whenever her mother felt she was disrespectful towards them or was disobeying them. But she also remembered how her mother supported her silently on important matters. The time when Appa had been against her taking up a course in communication. He had wanted her to pursue law like him and keep the family practice going. But Amma had been firm about letting her follow her own dreams.

“But what about this practice? This law firm” her father had asked angrily!!

“That is not her problem. We cannot impose our expectations on her” her mother had said quietly.

Her father had grumbled and sulked but finally allowed her to join the course.

Anusha smiled when he thought of her father. He  was like a child!

She thought of him now, all alone in that huge house at Luz. She had asked him to come with her to Mumbai for sometime as the change might do him good. But he had refused saying that the cases were piling up and he could not afford to leave them to his juniors.

Her father’s cousin had recommended a housekeeper cum cook. An elderly lady who was distantly related to Appa.  Anusha just hoped that this lady would be able to manage things the way her father wanted. Though not  yet sixty, he was set in his ways and quite inflexible. She wondered how a sixty plus lady would react to someone nearly ten years younger ordering her around….

“ He will have to learn to adjust. He cannot expect another Ambika” she thought with a sigh!

The landing announcement was being made. Anusha checked her seat belt and  opened her window shutter. The flight was circling over the Arabian sea.  Her eyes filled with tears as she saw the wide blue expanse below. This was where her mother was resting…!

She foolishly searched the water to see if she could find her mother. But what  she saw were many different people !  There was Ambika Sivaraman, the bright and intelligent older daughter of the  late Dr. Sivaraman , there was the beautiful girl who was Amin’s beloved, then there was Mrs Ambika Venkateshwaran, dutiful wife and daughter in law. Which one of them was her mother?

All of them, yet none of them!

She had had  her mother’s complete love all for her herself – every moment of her twenty eight years on this planet. She had experienced her mother in a way that no one else had. That love was special and she carried it close in her heart. She just knew that she was the person who mattered most to her mother among all those she knew in the world that she had recently left.

She could almost feel Amma next to her. She was running her hand over head and whispering into her ears “ Stop crying now you silly girl”.

Anusha looked for a tissue in her bag. The flight had landed and people were scrambling to collect their baggage from the overhead lockers.

She switched on her phone and as the signal came on called Appa to tell him she had landed. She knew he would be worried. It was just that he  had no idea of how express to  his feelings!

She walked down the aisle and into the terminal outside. Life had taken over….!!!

(concluded)

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STRANGER Part 3

Anusha looked up at the clock outside the bank’s safe hold! The person before her was taking her own sweet time inside!!! She tapped her feet in impatience. This visit to the bank was rather sudden. Her mother’s boss, the branch manager of the bank where she had worked had called her in the morning saying that her mother  possessed a locker there and had named her as the nominee. He wanted her to come and complete the formalities around the transfer of the locker.

She was rather surprised to hear about this. She did not know her mother  had a locker in the branch where she worked. The only locker that she knew of was the one she and her mother operated jointly.

Well, obviously she had rented it during the time when it was difficult to get possession of one. Her ever practical mother must have thought that when her daughter grew up she might need an additional strong hold.

She could hear some movement inside as the lady who had gone in came out with a bulging plastic bag. Hah!! Must have cleaned out her locker! She must tell Malli Chitti about this. Both of them shared a private joke among themselves about how women wearing a lot of jewellery looked like elephants decked up for a temple festival!!

She  presented her key, signed her name and made her way inside, all the while thanking God for her aunt- atleast she still had her..!! Well, she now had three more aunts which was another blessing she thought to herself with a smile. Though she had felt very bereft when they left yesterday, the fact that they were just a phone call away  gave her a lot of comfort ..!!

“ I must  stay in touch with them” she thought to herself fitting her key into the locker.  It took a bit of effort to open it. She peered inside to examine the contents.

Surprisingly, there was nothing much- just a sandalwood box! She pulled it out slowly. It was a beautiful box with delicate carving. She felt around the locker and found a key-must be for the box..! She put them both into her hand bag and swiftly closed the locker shut. She was not going to keep others waiting outside for her.

She made her way home wondering what was inside.. Hopefully nothing too valuable. She did not want anyone to snatch her bag she thought clutching it close. Maybe she should have opened it inside the locker room… but then she always felt uneasy inside a bank strong hold. She quickened her pace and walked the ten minute distance home in five minutes!!

“ Where have you been? I have brought you lunch” said Malli chitti standing outside in the verandah.

“What about Appa?” asked Anusha.

“ I have fed Athimber. He is resting.   Please come in and eat. It is nearly two o clock” scolded her aunt

“Chitti, I have brought something from Amma’s locker in  the bank” said Anusha as she sat down at the table.

“Which bank” asked Mallika

“The one where she worked” said Anusha

“Ambu had a locker there ”? asked Mallika looking surprised.

“Apparently” said Anusha tucking in.

They were both itching to discuss this but something prevented them from doing it at the dining table. They decided to wait until Anusha had finished lunch.

“Chitti look here it is” said Anusha wiping her hands on a towel before taking out the box from her hand bag.

Her aunt closed the door behind her before sitting down on the bed with the box.

“ Look  here’s the key” said Anusha taking it out.

“Anu you open it! “ said her aunt.

So she fitted the key inside the opening and turned it feeling for a moment like Alice in wonderland.

The contents were unfortunately nothing that could be termed as exciting. There was an envelope, a peacock feather, a few glass bangles, some dried flowers, a bead chain and a ring made of shell.

Anusha looked at them puzzled. She opened the envelope and took out the contents. There were two photographs. One was that of a young woman with her hair loose, wearing a hat and trousers with a closely fitted top. She was balanced on a ledge and smiling into the camera.

The years that had gone by could not mask the fact that this was her mother –Ambika Venkateshwaran or Ambika Sivaraman as she was called those days! Behind it was written in an unfamiliar hand “ She walks in beauty”.

Anusha stared at the picture in disbelief? Was this indeed her mother? Her mother who never wore anything but a sari was here in trousers!!! She looked very happy- her eyes smiled more than her lips did! Again, something strange because her mother rarely smiled in photographs!

She handed the photograph to her aunt as she took out the second one. Her eyes seemed to freeze when she looked at the Polaroid shot. Her mother  was wearing a flowing skirt and a bright top with mirrorwork. On her head was the same hat ! But she was not alone in this snap. Standing next to her was a thin young man with longish hair and over grown side burns. He had his arms around her and there was the Taj Mahal in the background. Both of them looked immensely happy. As she turned the photograph around she found two sets of writing. One was clearly her mother’s sloping cursive hand which had signed “Ambika Amin Merchant” and the other was the same hand that had inscribed Shelly behind the other photograph. The name signed was “Amin Ambika Sivaraman “

“Who is this Amin?” she asked her aunt in a whisper.

“Saleha’s cousin” she said quietly.

“What?” asked Anusha trying to fight the multitude of feelings that seemed to be taking hold of her.

“Ambu and Amin were classmates. They loved each other immensely” said her aunt with tears glistening in her eyes.

“Then”? asked Anusha

“Well, Appa got wind of it, confronted her one day and she confessed. Amin came home the next day to formally ask for her hand in marriage but Appa threw him out of the house. You see, the daughter of Dr. Sivarama Iyer could not marry a Muslim” said Mallika in a dry voice.

“But couldn’t you have done anything?” she asked her aunt

“ Anu, you should remember that I am six years younger than your mother! I don’t know the details about this as our parents kept me away from it. May be they did not want me to know for fear that I would talk about it to others. All I knew was that Ambu was put under house arrest and sent off to Thanjavur the moment her last exam got over. Soon, they found a  Tamil Brahmin boy for her, a highly qualified  lawyer who came from a great pedigree and got her married to him” said Mallika bitterly!

“But she had an international scholarship didn’t she? And if I remember what Saleha Aunty said so did he. Why did they not run away and get married”? asked Anusha.

“Sweetheart, those were different times..! Girls had very little freedom. They had to toe the line. Besides, I now think it was also because she was concerned about how her actions might affect me. Appa may not allow me any freedom, might get me married as soon as I completed college” said her aunt tears rolling down her cheeks.

Her heart went out to her mother! At twenty one, she had been made to give up her dreams and marry someone she could not relate to! She recalled how as a teenager when she had once shared her dream of travelling the world her mother had just said “Lets see. There are still many years to go” She had felt very angry and  said “Oh, what do you know about dreams! You are just a clerk in a bank working from ten to five like a machine for a few thousand rupees!” She remembered the hurt look in her mother’s eyes and felt like a cad for her behavior. She had not recognized what her mother had – a strength of character and a strong sense of duty!

She admired this woman who had quietly taken on whatever was her fate and destiny without a complaint – Whether it was managing her  husband’s home, listening to her mother in law’s complaints and later attending to her as she became bedridden.

She looked again at the girl who “walked in beauty” and compared her to the thin woman with large eyes and worry lines creasing her brow! She had always appeared older than her age. It was difficult to believe that she had only been fifty when she had died!

A lot of things now fell into place.. Why she never spoke about her childhood, why there were no photographs other than her marriage album and Anusha’s childhood snaps at home. Not only had she left behind her past life and everything that was part of it, she had also tried to erase her presence as a person in this house. And they – her grandmother, father and she herself had also treated her like that –a piece of furniture that served a purpose!

“ Is this what is called breaking a person’s spirit” asked Anusha

“No Anu, Ambu was not entirely broken. She rebelled in her own way. You often asked me why she had that clerical job in a bank when she could stay at home and enjoy being a rich lawyer’s wife. It was her way of getting freedom within her limited circumstances! Every moment away from home gave her the opportunity to be herself-maybe she could not use all the talents that defined her complete self, but the eight hours of work  retained in her at least a bit of the confidence that staying at home would have destroyed completely” said Mallika.

Her thoughts went to her father sleeping in the adjoining room. Did he ever guess? Probably not. He was an extremely unimaginative person given only to seeing what was in front of him and not what might be in the shadows..! She saw him now for what he actually was- a man who was used to having things done for him, arranging his world according to his needs. He had been lucky that he had first had his mother and then his wife to attend to his needs.

She wondered how he would manage now that Amma was no longer around..! He was already dropping hints about her quitting her job or getting a transfer to Chennai.

Anusha shook her head slowly. She was not her mother. He should accept that fact. Afterall, did she also not share his selfish genes?

“ Chitti, I will have to start packing now. You know I am leaving tomorrow” she told her aunt.

“Yes, Anu. You take care. I will come tomorrow afternoon and drive you to the airport” said Mallika giving her niece a hug!

“Bye Chitti” said Anusha letting her aunt out of the house.

( to be concluded in part 4)

STRANGER –Part 2

When Anusha  checked her mail she found  twenty two emails in her inbox – from people she never knew were part of her mother’s life. Eighteen of them were from women and four from men. She wondered why her mother had never spoken to her about their existence?

Malli chitti had already informed her that at least three of Amma’s friends were coming for the memorial service. Anusha,  waited  in the verandah for them to arrive. They trooped in slowly one after the other in a matter of a couple of hours!

First there was a very chic and smart lady from Pune who introduced herself as  Saleha Merchant. Then there was Anita Kurup a serious looking professor from Ahmedabad wearing thick bifocals. And finally a plump and brightly dressed lady, Parminder Kaur from Delhi!

Malli chitti was seeing to their accommodation. She had booked them at a guest house nearby but Parminder ( who enveloped Anusha in a comforting hug telling her “Call me Pammi aunty”) said that they would rather stay with Anusha and her father.

Anusha was not sure about her father’s reaction to this. He did not welcome visitors , treating them often with suspicion. Besides, he came with a lot of prejudices about people from cultures that he was not familiar with. She was not sure how he would react to these ladies. But Pammi aunty was already making herself at home. Appa, was not in any condition to protest. So Anusha let it pass.

As the evening drew people started coming in for the memorial service. There were some neighbors, a few of her mother’s colleagues, some relatives and her mother’s friends. In all there were thirty of them.

The evening began with a prayer. Anusha  was hearing it for the very first time. It was in Hindi, a language that she was not very familiar with. Her mother’s friends sang as Malli chitti also joined in.

“It was our school prayer song” said Anita. “Ambi used to play the piano when we sang during morning assembly” she said.

Anusha was surprised! She did not know her mother could play a musical instrument. She had never ever seen a piano at her grand parents’ house in Thanjavur.

“Appa had to sell the piano we owned after he retired and moved to his ancestral home. It was too expensive to transport” said Mallika by way of explanation!

“She was a better singer than a pianist” said Pammi. “She used to win all the music competitions that she participated in”

Anusha could not believe this. She had never in her twenty eight years of life with her mother ever heard her even hum a line..!

The event continued through the evening.

There were some speeches, mainly from her mother’s office colleagues.

“She was a conscientious worker and sincere person” said her boss.

“ A very quiet person who always minded her own business” said a colleague.

“ A serious lady with a strong sense of duty. I admire the way she looked after her bed ridden mother in law for ten years” said a neighbor.

Anusha, nodded. Yes, she was familiar with these descriptions. They were more like the mother she had known and lost.

Slowly the visitors started leaving and finally it was just Saleha, Pammi, Anita and Mallika who were left behind. Anusha felt very lonely. She hoped they would not depart and leave her alone.

Saleha seemed to sense her fears. “Don’t worry Anu, we  are here until tomorrow evening” she said

Night had set in. Dinner was over nearly an hour ago. Anusha could not sleep. Appa had taken a sedative and was in deep sleep. She closed his bedroom door and slowly made her way into her room where the three ladies had been accommodated.

“Come on Anu, come here and join us” said Pammi beckoning her inside. She had an envelope with her filled with photographs.

“ Tell me can you recognize your mother?” asked Saleha with  smile. Anusha looked closely at the black and white snaps. They  were pictures of school girls in two plaits playing basket ball. Then there was a picture of a girl with a wide smile holding aloft a shield! “Is that Amma?” she asked tentatively as Saleha nodded.

“She was our house captain.  The very best that we had had in years!! We won all the shields under her leadership” said Anita.

“And what a brat she was!” said Pammi with a giggle. “Remember how she lead that boy from St. Paul’s on during the sports meet, before she complained to the principal that he was troubling her”.

“Yes and remember how hell broke loose as the Princi took it up with their school principal” added Saleha!

“ I remember all of you giggling together in Ambu’s room with the door closed whenever you came home. You never allowed me inside” said Malli chitti in a complaining tone.

“Oh, you were the kid sister who was all ears. Ambu was scared that you would tell her mother about our exploits” said Anita with a smile.

“Well I did manage to unearth your plan about bunking classes and going for a movie” said Malli chitti with a laugh!!

“You were a pest!! If it hadn’t been for you, we could have easily managed to scale the wall and jump out of the school premises. As it is the watchman had very poor eye sight” said Pammi.

“And remember how she used to imitate our Hindi sir” ? asked Saleha with a giggle

Anusha listened open mouthed!! Was this her mother they were talking about?

She remembered an occasion way back in time when she had wanted to go for a movie with her friends but Amma had forbidden her. The reason she had given had been that Anusha had not studied enough for the Xth midterm exams. But Anu had been very bitter about it. She thought about how she had shouted at Amma saying” You just don’t want me to have a good time because you don’t have any friends and you don’t know how to have fun”

“Tell me more” said Anusha.

“ She was a crazy girl!! Absolutely besotted with Rajesh Khanna. For a while she was thinking of running away to Bombay and pleading with him to marry her” said Pammi with a laugh.

“ And remember those crank calls she used to get from a guy who called himself Rajesh” asked Malli chitti joining in the laughter.

“ Hey how do you know that? “ asked Saleha

“Well, I used to listen on the extension” said Mallika with a grin!

“ You really were a pest!! It was so difficult to shake you off! No wonder people called you Ambi’s tail” said Saleha throwing a pillow at Malli Chitti as she ducked!

Anusha watched in amazement. She could not imagine Malli Chitti as a child. To her, Malli chitti was her foster mother, the busy and capable doctor who still found time to spend for her niece taking her for outings that her mother had no time for.

“ I can’t imagine you are a doctor! I still remember how the ayahs in the kindergarten used to complain to Ambi whenever you used to wet your pants” said Anita with a smile.

“ Oh pleeese don’t embarrass me” said Malli chitti turning red!

“Remember how angry Ambi was when the Maths teacher called her in to complain that you were failing in all the tests..!” said Pammi with a grin.

“Yes, that is the problem of being the younger sister of someone as brilliant as Ambu. You could never live up to her brilliant reputation” she said with a sigh!

Anusha stared at her aunt in surprise! She had always thought that it was her aunt who was the brilliant one. Wasn’t her mother just a graduate and a clerk in a public sector bank? She had always felt embarrassed about this whenever she compared her mother to the highly educated mothers of her friends. She had discouraged her mother from visiting her school because she came by an auto rickshaw and not driven by a chauffeur in a car ! She had been proud of her father who was a leading lawyer and had often wondered why Amma had to have that stupid job in the bank when she could stay at home like some of the socialite mothers of her friends, dropping and picking her up from school.

“But if she was so brilliant why did she stop with graduation? She could have done her masters or even a Phd” asked Anusha

“Well..she did have plans Anu. But it is just that it did not materialize” said Pammi with a sigh.

Anusha felt that there was something that they were holding back.

“Weren’t you people together at college?” she persisted.

“Yes sweetheart, we were all together at college. Your mother was the cultural secretary of the students union. One of the best all rounder that I know of” said Anita with a smile.

“Hey didn’t she win that Indo Canadian scholarship? ” asked Pammi

“Yes, I remember that year, two students from the college had won it. Rare moment !! Yeah, Amby and Amin” said Saleha  suddenly looking guilty as though she had said something she should not have.

There  was a silence after that. A sort of impalpable tension seemed to fill the air. Anusha looked at the four faces around her. They were trying not to meet her eye.

She wondered what was it that was the matter.

“She should have gone to McGill University” said Malli Chitti softly. “It would have changed her life. She should not have allowed herself to be bullied by Appa”.

“ Tata bullied her?” asked Anusha in amazement. Her gentle grandfather who used to play with her and buy her goodies?

“ Yes Anu.. “ said Malli with a sigh “ Even Amma could not do anything about it”. Anusha watched the tears rolling down her aunt’s cheek!

Yes, there was definitely something that they were not telling her!

(to be continued)

STRANGER – Part 1

Anusha  had been  devastated when she heard the news! She could not believe it had happened. And the sad thing was that it had happened so quickly and so suddenly!

It had been 4 .00 AM when she and Amma had driven out from her flat at Andheri. The flight was at 6 AM  and Amma was worried that they may not make it in time for her to check in. Anusha had been quite rude to her mother at having been woken up at 3.30 AM to get ready! She was sure that leaving at 4.30 AM would have been okay. But her mother was what she and her father called “paranoid” about everything! If they had to catch a train, she wanted them to be there half an hour early and if it was a flight then ninety minutes early!

Amma had already had her coffee and since Anusha was to leave for work straight from the airport, she was insistent that she bathe and have her coffee too. Left to herself, Amma would have also made breakfast and packed her lunch for her.

 She was still worried about Anusha’s health. Anusha had just recovered from a bout of viral fever! Amma had come down from Chennai to take care of her.  She had wanted her mother to stay back a few days longer but she was guilty that she had left her husband behind all alone!!

“Appa does not know how to manage by himself. I need to be there. Besides, I cannot extend my leave like this suddenly. There is an audit due and I have to get all the papers ready” had been her explanation!! Anusha had been rather sarcastic in her reply saying “ As if  your bank and Appa would fall apart if you are not there for a few days”!!

It was ironical that she had said that because now the world was actually falling apart!!!

She had reached office by 7.30 AM. There was no one around so she decided to have a leisurely breakfast at the cafeteria before starting work for the day.

The television was on and the anchor was excitedly screaming and saying something. Anusha looked at the screen in irritation wondering if she could find a remote to mute the sound! But what she saw on the screen chilled her blood. AI 521 flight from Mumbai to Chennai had developed a sudden fault just after take off. The pilot had tried to head back to Mumbai but in the  meanwhile the fuel tank had caught fire and the entire flight had exploded !! She looked up her email on the phone which had her mother’s ticket attached just to check if that was indeed her flight number. Unfortunately, it was ..!!

She became numb. Her body seemed rooted to the spot for a long time until her friend and colleague Siddharth walked  up to her table.

“ Hey Anu, how are you? Missed you yaar” he said depositing himself on the chair in front of her. She could hold back no longer.. she burst into tears pointing at the TV screen and sobbing!!

She did not how she managed the rest of the day. But Sid was a brick!! He called her father and came with her to the airport to find out what could be done!

Anusha, went through the next couple of days like a zombie. There had been no body to claim as everything was scattered around in the Arabian sea.  She took the next flight to Chennai to be with her father. Just as she was boarding the flight she thought about how her mother may have reacted if it had been Appa who had been lost mid air. She would not have allowed Anusha to come to Chennai fearing that something might happen to the flight that she was on. She would have come instead to Mumbai.

Malli Chitti, her mother’s younger sister had received her at the Chennai airport. Anusha had felt spooked when she saw her aunt. A younger version of her sister dressed in western clothes, Mallika was almost like Ambika’s twin. Anusha threw herself into her arms and started sobbing.

“Come on, hold yourself together Anu, we have things to do” said the ever practical Mallika!

She had driven her niece back to her late sister’s house at Luz. Her brother in law , was behaving as though nothing had happened. He told Anusha, the moment she entered the house that the fuse had blown off and the  plumber had not come to fix the motor despite being called a number of times. Anu looked at her father bewildered!!

“ He has still come to terms with it. Give him some time” said Mallika told her niece.

Anusha looked around the disarray inside her childhood home. Her mother’s absence was acutely visible! The living room had not been dusted, books were piled around here, sink filled with dirty dishes  and there were empty water bottles dotting the dining table! She remembeedr the spick and span house that was her mother’s pride!! Thiers’s was not a fancy house with too many decorations and artifacts but  it was what could be considered a very tidy house. Her mother had been obsessive about it, getting up at dawn on days when the maid was not there to clean everything up before she left for work. Every little detail was always attended to. Whenever Anusha returned from school, she had found the table set for her evening meal and the food inside the fridge ready to be put into the  micro wave! Amma was not much of a cook but whatever she churned out was clean and edible!

Mallika poured out some coffee from a flask and handed it to Anusha. “Drink this first.  Then we will start making plans for Ambu’s funeral” she told her niece.

Anusha looked at her aunt in gratitude! She did not know what she would have done without her. An only child she had no siblings who could help her at this time.

Organizing a funeral itself was a challenge, considering that there was no corpse! Ultimately, they decided to hold a prayer service inviting all their friends and acquaintances.

“But we have to first insert an obituary in the newspaper” said Anusha thankful for the coffee clearing her mind!

“Yes, but that would not suffice. Ambu had few friends in this town. Most of her friends were from Delhi and Pune where we had grown up and studied” said her aunt. After that, it was like a “ghost to ghost hook up” with phone lines buzzing across the world. Mallika had called a few common friends who had called others and others!  Anusha had to constantly keep her phone charged as people started calling in. She was exhausted by the end of the day and dropped off to sleep after feeding her father some dosa bought from Saravana Bhavan!!

Her last thoughts were about how her mother was rushing back to ensure that her father did not have to eat out any longer… “ I will have to get him a cook..” she murmured to herself.

A corner of her mind was also surprised at the number of calls she and Chitti had received! “ I always thought she was an introvert. Never realized that she had so many friends” she thought before sleep over took her!

(to be continued)

IMPRESSIONS

Kalpana stared at Shyna in wonder! No matter how many times she looked at her, she always felt as though she was gazing at a masterpiece. Shyna ma’m was probably one of the  most beautiful among the clients who came to the beauty salon where she worked. A peaches and cream complexion, with huge limpid dark eyes fringed with thick lashes. Kalpana often wondered why she bothered  coming to a beauty parlour in the first place. Nature had endowed her with so much beauty that it was not necessary for her to seek assistance from human beings.

And it was not just beauty that made Shyna attractive. There was about her a quality that could only be called “glamour”. She looked like a film star and probably lived a life like one. She wore the top brands in clothing and  expensive jewellery in the most casual of manners. Her bags and shoes were obviously the best that money could buy! She drove a Mercedes and all those boys who worked downstairs at the valet parking service fought with each other not just to park it but have those few moments with her when she handed them the keys.

Kalpana, who had joined the beauty parlour as a trainee six months ago often longed to be given an opportunity to attend to her. But Lakshmi who was Shyna’s regular beautician jealously guarded her prized client. The closest that Kalpana had come to attending on Shyna was to give her a pedicure.

As she had scrubbed those lovely toes, she had wondered how anyone could be so beautiful! People at the parlour said that Shyna ma’m was almost fifty four years old. But it was difficult to believe it. One could not  imagine that she was a day older than thirty!

Kalpana sometimes thought about the kind of man that Shyna must be married to – handsome like the heroes of the movies that she was sure of. He must be worshiping the ground those lovely feet landed on. If she was driving a Mercedes, he  must be flying around on  a plane was her belief!

When she had told this to her boyfriend Ravi, he had laughed his head off…!!!  She had been most hurt – the way Ravi laughed at anything she said. “As if I am some sort of an idiot” she grumbled. “May be I should just dump him and marry someone else. Someone with more money than a plumber” she thought angrily! But as a girl brought up in an orphanage she knew she was lucky that she had atleast someone who cared for her. So what if he was a plumber? He did not drink, earned decently and had even taken her home and introduced her to his parents as the girl he wanted to marry. Now how many boys would do something like that?

“Kalpana.. Do you think you can manage a facial for Shyna? Lakshmi had to go out suddenly”  asked Lavanya the manager of the beauty parlour in a whisper.

Kalpana could hardly believe her luck! She would get Shyna ma’m completely to herself !!! She was happy, nervous and excited all at once as she started getting the things ready for the facial. She was impatient to feel that silky skin under her hands. She would tell Ravi today about how a fairy’s skin felt!

She wiped the cushioned table on which Shyna would be lying down during the treatment. She opened brand new jars of cream and lit the aroma candles as she waited for Shyna to enter the cubicle.

Kalpana watched awestruck as Shyna walked in and sat down on the couch in the cubicle. She was so close that Kalpana was afraid to breathe. Shyna’s  mobile was ringing. She rummaged through her bag for her phone with one hand as she took off her sandals with the other. Kalpana gingerly took those sandals and put them on the shoe rack. She was afraid that her stubby work worn fingers might damage those delicate straps.

Shyna was now taking off her clothes and trying to get into the robe that was laid out for her. Kalpana fussed around picking up the clothes and putting them on the hanger. She unfolded the robe and went round to help Shyna wear it. It was just as Shyna turned around to slip her arm into one of the sleeves that Kalpana saw them..!!! She froze in action staring at them transfixed!

Red welts – they criss crossed that beautiful bare back..!! There was only one way those marks could have found their way there !! Kalpana knew that very well. She had spent her entire childhood cuddled next to a mother whose back had turned like that every night until the day she had decided to end her life. She remembered the sound of the leather belt swishing through the  air and her mother screaming in pain until her father fell down exhausted in a drunken stupor.

Shyna was now lying down on the table. As she wiped the lovely alabaster skin with cleanser Kalpana remembered another face she had wiped similarly ten years ago with Eau de cologne . A tiered face with eyes that had closed on a life of violence. She looked at the face under her hands now. It felt as cold as her mother’s. What was the difference she wondered?

Yes, there was a difference – the face she had held in her hands on that day had been that of a dead woman while this was a face of a woman who was only pretending to be alive!

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.)

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

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