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  • Seconded to Serve

    Mobile rang and I woke up with a jerk. In the fuzzy state between waking and sleeping, I fumbled for my mobile.

    “Suresh uncle had a heart attack in the night. He passed away” my sister Latha from Hyderabad rasped, swallowing a sob.

    I stumbled, almost falling off the bed searching for my response and glasses at the same time. Switched on the bed light.

    “How is aunty? Where is she? Is she in the hospital?”

    Aunty was Latha’s neighbour and over time had become a very close friend of our families. Relationship of two decades had made the boundary between family and friend fuzzy. I first met her when we visited Latha’s family in Hyderabad two decades ago.

    Once my glasses were on my nose, I felt slightly more in control and started comprehending a little better.

    “No, his body is still in the hospital. Aunty is in shock. She froze when they announced that he was dead. She wasn’t even believing them. She was mumbling again and again, “They are lying Latha. Suresh will be fine. He is very strong. They are lying Latha, they are lying” and I was unable to handle her. I can’t see her shattered like this” Latha told me, crying.

    “She was the one who rushed him to the hospital, but now they have sent her home.”

    Fair with a round face and even rounder bindi, aunty looked stunning. With deep, wide and calm eyes, long curly hair in a neat braid reaching her hip, at forty when I first met her, I instantly liked her. She always had a soothing effect on everyone. She wore cotton sarees neatly draped with an amazing warm smile.

    Over the years, all our visits to Hyderabad had her as a part of our lives. Latha’s children and my children adored her. She was the most loved aunty for all. Graceful, with loads of affection to share. She took us to the cotton saree shops, the museums, the jewellery shops, the nice biriyani corners. But she always rushed back home by seven, stating that uncle would come home.

    “Who sent her home? Doctors? Why?” I was confused and unable to understand.

    “They don’t want her to be around when the press comes. Slowly the news is spreading” Latha was stuttering.

    “Who are they Latha? What are you talking? For heaven’s sake are you with Aunty?”

    “Who else? The other family!” she screamed in frustration.

    Uncle was a cinema producer. He met her at a wedding many years back, and there was no turning around. He asked her for her hand, and she agreed knowing he was already married with three children. The most conservative society of Andhra never blinked or frowned on polygamy in the film fraternity. It was almost as if they had sanction from society and were exempted from the bind of monogamy.

    “I was with her when she drove uncle to the hospital. Minutes after we admitted him, he took a turn to the worst and they pronounced him dead.

    Aunty called his secretary. He informed the other family.”

    Aunty lived in the upper middle-class neighbourhood with her stunningly beautiful and academically brilliant daughter Priya. In many ways, she single handily raised Priya. Priya was a surgeon and was married. She was now living in Delhi with her husband. Uncle’s first wife’s children were well known in Andhra and in India. One son was a producer, the other was an actor and the daughter was a fashion designer.

    Aunty, with a big smile always on her face had always been cooking, serving the family, mainly Uncle. In her free time, she used to tend to her beautiful small terrace garden. From Thursday to Monday Uncle spent time at her place, if he was in Hyderabad. He was diabetic. Aunty was always preparing various podis (powders) to mix in rice and eat, for his problem. She used to read books to understand how she could control his diabetes through diet. From selecting his clothes to medical check-ups to taking care of him during his sickness, aunty was always there. When he was sick or not happy or troubled, Uncle would always come home to her.

    “Once the wife, sons and daughter came in, they took over. The entire hospital was talking to them only. The administration, doctors, nurses, no one was even looking at us.” She stated, crying almost chocking.

    “The other family didn’t even bother to talk to aunty. No questions about what happened or how she was” she wept. “It was almost like we were  discarded.”

    Except for her small group of close-knit friends and family no one visited her. Her parents had died in an accident a long time ago and she was their single child.  Her only companions were Latha and a childhood friend. Uncle’s doctor of course, knew her well. But to the larger society, the press, the crowds of which uncle was part of, she never existed. No one talked about her. Uncle was a doting father and loving husband. But that was within the four walls. In all these years I had known her, she never talked about how invisible she was.

    I called Priya to check on her. She cried as soon as she heard my voice.

    “Akka, What will happen to Amma”? She sobbed. I had no answer.

    She told me that she was on her way to the airport to fly home to be with her mother.

    “I will bring her back with me” she cried. I was not sure. Will Aunty go? But that was too far off from where we were.

    I was by then in the airport on my way to Hyderabad. As I looked at all the people crowding, shoving, it felt surreal. I was not sure whether people were coming or going.

    I was feeling cold and detached.

    Priya called “Akka I’ve reached the airport. I am so grateful you are rushing to Amma’s side. She has no one” she sobbed.

    I told her that Aunty was special to all of us, what she was couldn’t be named as friend, sister, ally, but she meant a lot for all of us.

    Priya was talking about how drained she was feeling. I told her to hang in there and be brave for her mother.

    I called Latha to know what was happening. She told that she and Aunty were sitting on the cold floor of the living room feeling shattered and spent. They were watching the television trying to know from various Telugu channels when and where the cremation was. Aunty was simply staring at the screen, ashen faced with a dull empty look in her eyes.

    We all felt weary, cold, detached and spent. We were there with her in the side-lines of an act, feeling lost, depleted…….holding on to each other, grieving for her. For others, as always, she was invisible like yesterday, today and probably tomorrow – in life and death, cheated of existence.

    Illustration – Priyanka Patil

  • Lord Shiva and his honey bath

    As I got down from the bus, I covered my head with my old cotton dupatta. More than modesty I got to protect my head, I grimaced. That Friday afternoon, two decades back, was hot and humid. The sun was beating down relentlessly. I was between jobs and was looking out for good opportunities. Dry desperation was building in the pit of my stomach as I was hunting for a job in a huge faceless city. It was like a poker game, all betting rules favourable for the companies.

    On that day, I had to visit an old family friend to collect a few documents. I slowly walked the two kilometres inside the colony feeling tired and sweaty. Knocked at the grand-looking peaceful house.

    “Looks like no one in this house has any problem with their careers.”, I muttered under my breath.

    Charming lady of the house opened the door and invited me in. She was wearing soft Tussar silk saree with ruby studs and gleaming gold Mangalsutra. She informed me that I need to wait as her husband was preparing the documents at his office and would be sending them home through the office boy in an hour. She saw me in my worn-out cotton chudidhar, sweating from the long walk and offered water to drink. I gulped and spilled a few drops on my face. I quickly mopped the droplets with my handkerchief as I returned the glass to her.

    Felt uncomfortable and edgy, as I had a very important telephone call to make in an hour regarding my job. Those were the days when mobiles were weighing heavy as a brick, looking like a pig and always black as evil. These ghastly instruments belonged to filthy or obnoxiously rich. As I sat waiting, trying not to show my discomfort, smiling and doing the small talk on weather and cinemas, suddenly happened to glance at four identical-looking long bottles with some brown liquid, standing on the dining table. Even before I could stop myself, I blurted out,

    “Hey, what are those bottles?”

    “Can’t be alcohol, petrol is lighter in shade and anyway you don’t keep petrol on the dining table.”, I thought.

    The pious, charming lady explained, “You see, we are great devotees of Lord Shiva, and every Friday we donate four bottles of honey to the temple for his abhishekam (bath).”

    Good for Shiva having a honey bath. With all that honey, he must be having a glowing skin.

    As it was getting late, I informed her of my dilemma of the urgent phone call and asked her where I could make a call from. She told me that the public telephone booth was near the bus stop where I had gotten down. So, pulling my dupatta over my head, I went up the dusty roads again. The white heat of the summer was taking my breath away. Dogs were scurrying for shade, not a single soul was on the streets. At the bus stop, I made the call and trekked back. I was tired and on the verge of collapse.

    Looking out for jobs and shrouded with uncertainty, the two kilometre trek in hot sun felt like a trip to hell and the colony started looking like the abode of the God of Death. Just then, I realized that the God of death was Lord Shiva, so muttered some choicest of words to all the Gods in the vicinity and reached the house again.

    The lady was as usual charming, invited me in and handed me my documents, saying the office boy had just delivered them. Being the perfect efficient wife, she called her husband from the red fat phone to inform him that I had collected the documents. I thanked her and turned to move on; just then, my eyes fell on the honey bottles.

    A fleeting thought crossed my mind, “Would Lord Shiva have appreciated her more if she had allowed me to make that phone call from her home or does he want to have the honey all for himself, compelling his devotees to not look beyond him?”

    “Well, God is complex and private,” I supposed, “you can always pamper God the way you want – with a smile, a flower, a bottle of honey, with small acts of kindness, the choices are unlimited!”

    சித்தி னியல்பு மதன்பெருஞ் சக்தியின்

    செய்கையுந் தேர்ந்துவிட்டால்,-மனமே!

    எத்தனை கோடி இடர்வந்து சூழினும்

    எண்ணஞ் சிறிது முண்டோ?

    • Thelivu, Mahakavi Subramania Bharathiyar

    Illustration – Priyanka Patil

  • Lathi, Lungi and the Loincloth

    In the small broken mirror, Selvi looked and powdered her face with a soft pink puff. She yanked the maroon bindi sticker from the mirror and stuck it in between her slanting eyebrows. In the Police khaki uniform, she was looking sweet and slender. The village was happy to see their girl, running around with thick, oily braids, now had become a police constable. Everyone in the village knew her and she knew everyone. She studied in the village school and then went to college in the town nearby.

    She pulled her bicycle and started riding to the police station. Her mother washing clothes in the backyard on a slanted granite stone, yelled at her to come home for lunch as she was planning to cook fish curry.

    Selvi was in no mood to listen. Today the new Sub Inspector was joining. She was worried, curious and rushing. News travels and rumours from his earlier posting had already come in about Velan, the new Sub Inspector. He was tough and demanding, they said. The previous boss was like family, he used to treat her like his daughter.

    As she was crossing the temple street, the flower vendor called,

    “Selvi take the Jasmine string for your police bun.”

    She shouted back, “Not now Akka, will stop by in the evening.”

    As she cycled into the police station compound, Murugasan, the orderly, was dusting the benches. Every day she had to nudge him to do the cleaning. He sometimes acted as if he outranked her. But today with the new boss coming, everyone was alert.

    As she went in to sign the register, Armugam brought hot tea. Armugam had a tea stall near the station. Every morning and afternoon, he brought tea for the station. Something nice about him, but today was not the time to think any further. The glass was hot. She picked up the old newspaper, tore a piece and wrapped it around the glass to hold.  As she was sipping tea from the glass, the motorbike zipped into the compound in a cloud of dust and fumes. Tall, dark with oily textured skin, thick brows and big moustache, the new Sub Inspector Velan walked in. He felt large for this station. Everyone introduced themselves, he acknowledged with a nod and some shadow of a smile. He talked about discipline and ownership. Some understood, many swallowed responses, nodded vaguely and everyone sighed in relief as he went into his room.

    Just then with loud laughter and boisterous talking, Raju accompanied by all his strong men, drove the tractor and parked it in front of the station. He was accused in an assault case and was out on bail. He had to visit the police station daily to sign the roster, part of his bail condition. White dothi, not so white thoughts, he walked stiff with snare on the lips. He had beaten his relative black and blue for not giving his daughter to his son in marriage. The relative was yet to get discharged from the hospital. There was also suspicion that he had killed his neighbour’s cattle mixing Sadathari (Cuscutaceae) in their fodder. No way to prove, no witness, no noise, just crime.

    As Raju walked in, Selvi wanted to run into the SI’s room, which was empty till yesterday and free to hide. But now with Velan taking charge and sitting there, she couldn’t go in without a reason. With nowhere to go, she braced herself. Standing up, she tightened her legs like lead rods. Upright, face turned, veins popping out of her neck, she clenched her fists. Raju was howling as he entered the police station, his men swarming the station. He slapped the head constable on the shoulders. Hearing the commotion, the SI stepped out exactly when on his way in, Raju slapped on Selvi’s buttock giving it a squeeze.

    “how are you girl?” he smirked.

    She blinked hard trying not to cry, bit her lower lip. In the room full of policemen, everyone pretended as if they didn’t see what happened or was happening every day. Today it was even more humiliating as the new Sub Inspector witnessed what happened from his room’s entrance.

    “Selvi” Sub Inspector barked. Startled, she looked up.

    He yelled, “What are you standing there for? Where is your lathi? Take it and beat him. How can he molest a woman?”

    “Molest?” She was perplexed. She never thought of it like that. “Isn’t that too strong an idea?” But the fear of the new boss, shame bottled up for days and something more powerful, all that charged through her. She jumped, pulled the lathi for the first time & with all her energy, hit Raju hard. The lathi fell in between his lungi folds. Instead of hitting him hard, the lathi ripped off his lungi. Raju was left standing with his langota (loincloth) looking funny, fat and fuming.

    He screamed in shame. His men banged the tables, jumping on them to beat the constables. They forgot that they were in a police station. Mayhem followed. It was a slugfest with police and Raju’s men, aiming to choke each other. Police took the lathis and beat Raju and his men. Selvi found her strength in all this, and she practiced using her lathi with anger, force and glee. They booked all of them for assault and pushed them into the holding cell. They were going to stay locked up in the station for the night.

    In the late evening as she pulled her bicycle out to go home, Armugam came running to her with tea kadai kajada (deep fried cake) wrapped in an old newspaper.

    “Take it home, eat. You were amazing today.”

    She blushed and rode the cycle, for the first time feeling proud in her uniform. As she rode past the village bazar, temple street, thatched roofs, tiled houses, the villagers watched the police-woman floating on her vehicle as she cycled past them.

    Illustration – Priyanka Patil

  • Waiting for the Dance of the Dawn

    Rooster crowing wearily rolled to my right to get up. Hope Subudu has come into the cowshed. Gingerly slipped from the majestic rosewood bed my father gifted for our wedding, winced as my feet touched the handmade tile floor. Must remind myself to ask Venkamma, the dhobi, to come in the evening to rub some oil into my weary feet.

    As I made my way to the kitchen-side of the house, heard Subudu coming in to collect milk cans, with the five cows and ten buffalos. A large part of my life is tied to milk, buttermilk, butter, ghee along with the animals’ health and deliveries. Prarabdha I suppose.

    ‘Get Sita’s milk in for the house; need another 2 liters extra’, I informed him; ‘Amma, Janaki is not well, Ayya asked me to inform you’. ‘OK, come after milking, you can light the stove; will get the medicinal kashayam ready. See to it that she is tied in the corner today, she needs rest’. All our cows and buffalos have names, Sita, Janaki, Lakshmi, all Goddess names, all giving…..

    As I brush my teeth, quickly changed the date in the calendar: 10th of January 1940. Milk-can with Sita’s milk arrived, went in to make two cups of frothing filter coffee with thick decoction using the fresh milk. The house was filled with the wafting aroma of freshly brewed coffee infusing energy and hope. A new dawn, many possibilities. He sipped and nodded, looking like he was happy; should I broach the topic?

    Sky is just opening up, warm orange hues spreading ever so gently, fresh breeze carrying the smell of lingering jasmines and sampangis from yesterday’s blooms, birds flapping their wings; clock struck five times, another day has just begun.

    ‘Yesterday the crow was cawing continuously, am sure some relative will come visiting. Cousin Nagesghwarao is discussing a marriage proposal for his granddaughter, it might have been finalized. He might come, so have asked for some extra milk’, I informed him, knowing he would realize extra milk had come into the house.

    ‘Your cousin is one useless fellow, took money for his daughter’s wedding, never returned; don’t tell me he is coming with his granddaughter’s invite! Do what you want, with extra milk for home. With Janaki sick, less milk is going to cooperative society’;

    Can there ever be a day when he agrees to something without a snide remark about my side of the family or my relatives?! A pinch of salt more in a curry or cows falling sick or clothes not folded or oil lamps not being lit at the right time – all will invariably trigger a scathing attack or a rant about my relatives or my lineage. Deep seeded assumption that we are not equals. As if I come from a lower breed. The hidden hierarchy of marriage!

    Am I thinking too much? He always says that all my imagination comes from my reading of novels. Maybe, but wondered many times through the chores of the day – are men and women equal in a marriage?

    Illustration – Priyanka Patil

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