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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

  • Meandering the Mirage

    Mythreyi dabbed the rose water dipped cotton wool delicately on her cheeks and then splashed moisturizer on her face. The phone rang; she ignored as she slowly applied the primer with her fingers. The soft music from her living room music system was wafting towards her.

    The phone rang again. She looked at it with mild irritation. It was Prakash, he would not stop until she responded. So, she picked the call, swallowing her exasperation. ‘Hellooo dear what’s up?’ she asked as she focused on the brush and applied nude foundation over her face, deftly blending it onto the neck. He invited her to come to the hotel for a dinner and a little bit of flirting after that. He was married and was known in his circles as the doting ideal husband, as if such a creature exists?! For her this worked fine as he had no guts to go beyond flirting; even if it pinched him. She rolled the concealer below her eyes, picked up the lip-liner to draw a line on her full lips, while pondering what to do. She has promised Ranjeet she will spend some time with him. He was the deep intellectual thinker, heavy on philosophy with a lazy accent. He was ok, but stupid enough in wanting to convert his boring wife into some cerebral creature.

    All these married men are a good bet, they won’t bug her about marriage, coming home, staying over or cooking.  She picked a delicate rose blush lip colour and applied it on her lips. They looked moist and full, she was happy. Over the years, she had mastered the art of applying makeup in a jiffy. The art was in making it look natural.

    She nudged Prakash to move their rendezvous to the next day. ‘Helps to make it difficult for them’, she thought sagely. There are cheap thrills of faking, teasing and playing, but beyond that is the deep joy of controlling the men and their cluelessness. As she slipped into her dress, she felt a faint ache. She quickly killed it with a gulp of wine. As she slipped into her gold toned shimmery pointed-toe pumps, she applied single spritz of her favorite perfume. Quickly she pull her car out, and was on her way to meet Rajesh.

    The evening was breezy, interluding with intellectual sound bites. As the evening rolled into night, she felt the familiar ache in her stomach, somewhere deep in. After all the wine and dine, there was no completeness. But, does another human complete us?  The makeup slowly started to fell heavy and tardy. She kissed him on the cheek, closer to his lips and took her leave. She wanted to reach home before the dryness settled in. Once in her room, she removed her make-up swiftly. A haunting ache started wallowing her, a feeling of drowning in the now familiar black pit, dull and empty.

    As her tired eyes started to sink into a disturbed sleep, her mind was wandering beyond sleep………can you lose in a game even when you control the play and outcomes? Can you? is it possible? can you fail while you win?

    Illustration – Priyanka Patil

  • Dotting the Blemish

    I was standing in front of the dark wooden door. It was heavy; the silence in the room and the nervous glances from women in the room were making the door swollen and sullen. We were in the long hallway connecting the dining area and the drawing room. A few chairs and cots were strewn around. The women were sitting on them and the floor, occasionally throwing a glance at the door. They were anticipating exploding wails or muffled cries coming from the room behind the door, but there was no noise. Just stillness. Outside, the heat was smouldering, the dry desert winds were blowing. Somewhere far off, I could hear the chatter of the Plum Headed Parakeet.

    With a jerk the door opened, and she stepped out in a white saree. Round and big on her forehead like a drop of blood, dried and hardened, was the dark red bindi for everyone’s shock and disbelief. The thirty odd women sitting and gossiping in the crowded hallway were stunned. She lost her husband and today was his funeral. She was taken into the room to discard the marriage markers like sindoor and bindi (vermillion) on the forehead, mangalsutra (black beaded necklace), bichia (toe ring) and chooda (glass bangles).

    The removal of the marriage markers is done in a harsh way, as if to scar the psyche. After that, she is given a white saree to wear. This is the ritual in many parts of India for a woman who loses her husband. As far as I know, no such event marks a man’s life if he were to lose his wife. Once this event is over, the woman is officially moving into the state of widowhood; white saree symbolising the vacant emptiness – a ghost going over life as dead. In some parts of India, they even shave the widow’s head. For some reason that has been spared in this dry land.

    As for her, for the last ten years she worked hard, taking care of her ailing husband. In the pink of health, he was a pain in the wrong place, grumpy and complaining. Illness ensured he became more of it and it also legitimised his demands for attention. Nothing was enough nor anything good. Everything was bad and never to his liking. Whatever she cooked, was not to his taste. He had the illness to fall back on for his nastiness.

    Every move of her was scrutinized. She hardly spoke to anyone, but she was never allowed to read a book or watch a movie on that old television. It was never mentioned, but the moment she sat down and started sipping tea from the glass tumbler or started talking to someone, he used to call or spill something and the next one hour was sheer physical work. Intuitively knowing his thought, she never ventured into anything other than taking care of him. Those of us who visited him felt pity for her. She used to get up early in the morning to prepare his food, massage his body with warm oil, give him a bath, prepare his meals, administer medicines, call the doctor when things went south. She hardly thought of anything except his health.

    While everyone looked at his heartless behaviour as sadistic pleasures, I felt that there was something more which was eating his soul. Behind all the sadistic pleasure of troubling her, was his anger that she will outlive him. Despite the psychological pain he was inflicting, she was going to last and breathe longer, in a way survive his torture. At times he talked about being cheated by life and how some people had it all, giving her a sly look. As the days moved and he became closer to death, his anger escalated to a rage, burning and scalding her. She used to conceal the searing pain by routines like washing and cleaning that kept her occupied.

    Often, I wondered, “How deep is she scared from all the taunts?”

    All her relatives, neighbours and folks around her home on the outskirts of Bikaner used to talk about her care-giving and selflessness. She was referred to in awe and equated to Sati Savitri for her sense of duty to her husband.

    But now with that Bindi on her forehead, she was risking, throwing all that recognition to the winds. Why was she throwing everything out of the window ‘now’ with that burning red-hot dot on her forehead, the marker that was loud and obvious?

    The murmurs brought me back to the present. I looked at her as she walked out and sat on a chair with grace and a trace of indifference. A tiny smile played around her lustrous lips, so tiny that I could have missed. Behind the fleeting smile I could sense a woman claiming her space and declaring her freedom. The dot on her forehead was screaming out her intentions and desires loudly, scaring the populace. The silence in the room was screeching along with the prattle from the Parakeet on some far-off tower. Slowly the worried folks walked home with loads of agitated gossip. The one question on everyone’s mind was whether she was going to stop with the ‘Bindi’, a dot on her forehead, or there was something else playing on her mind. Where was her mind taking her to? No one knew the answer, and that was terrifying them…..

     

  • The Awakening at an Avalanche

    Slowly she climbed up the steps of the Mandap to clean the old lamp; Mandap, the temple porch with pillars holding an engraved roof, appeared tranquil, a place that held stillness. The mandap was attached to the temple of Lord Chenna Kesavulu, who is all smiles. The intricately carved pillars depicted the story of Rama; should it be called story of Sita?

    Lamp at the mandap was burning, almost as if it held someone’s breath – long, steady and bright, with little twists and turns. Is it possible for one to breathe through a lamp? how stupid can one get, she winced, as she pulled the cotton saree’s thick pallu around her shoulders.

    The December winds were gaining strength and the village was waking up to a chilly morning. But she was already in the mandap to fill the lamp, the fear that the oil would run out and would leave the lamp breathless made her shiver.

    In her slow walk is a long story of karma and its cosmic dance. She drew the water from the temple’s well, washed her legs, carried the water and went in to say her prayers to the Lord and master. The temple was quiet except for the priest who was getting the Lord ready for the long day. She sat, her tired eyes looked at the beautiful Lord and wondered, how long??

    In the tiny hamlet of the lush green village, on the banks of back waters of Krishna river, tucked under layers of devotion and surrender, is the story of Seshamma.

    Married into the village some seven decades ago, Seshamma, then Seshu, was beautiful and benevolent; she grew up in a family full of piousness. She walked into this village, married to a learned and taller man, Kesavaiah, who was known even then for his deep sense of devotion and a thirst to know what lay beyond the mundane. Many days and nights he explored his devotion to Lord Chenna Kesavulu, for He being the only guiding force.

    The village was awed by the devotion of Keshaviah, why they called him that instead of just Keshav, was not understood by Seshu at the beginning. Born into a farmer’s family, he already was well-read by fourteen. His faith to scriptures and God seemed a bit strange, but his mother was proud of him. Seshu gradually unraveled the bundle called Keshaviah and realized he was too wise and too devoted to Lord Chenna Kesavulu. His surrender to the Lord deep, something she struggled to comprehend, but was willing to be with it.

    Slowly she got used to the routine of being Keshavaiah’s wife. Everyday, he woke up at 3 am, finished his bath at the well, and lit the lamp in the puja room in his wet clothes. At the break of dawn, he started his journey into the village through the mud lanes. After he completed the rounds in his own village, he went to four more villages on foot. Some of these villages were just two streets, but they have to be walked – around lakes, across streams, and in between fields. Singing the glory of the Lord and inviting his blessings, these journeys became everyday pilgrimage for him. In his own way, he spread the message of the Lord and the glory of devotion. While everyone came to visit Lord Chenna Kesavulu in the village, he used to be on the mission of seeing Lord in others out there. Years rolled by and Seshu slowly settled into her role and inched into being Seshamma.

    But her life turned upside down when he shared his ‘plan’ with her; she felt shattered and lifeless as he detailed what he wanted to do. His explanation was not even worth being heard; she felt numb, confused and afraid  all at the same time.

    When did the thought come to him, she had no idea. Do such startling thoughts come to you in a flash or grow on you over time? She wondered. One evening, he shared his decision with her in a casual way. She was sitting in the courtyard binding Jasmine flowers with a banana fibre thread. The thread, made from the banana tree stem, is soft and does not hurt the soft stem of the jasmine flower. A cotton thread can cut into the stem and snap the flower if one is careless. Why am I rambling off about the thread when the most shocking news was given as an afterthought, she mused,  the news snapping the life force out of her.

    In his soft persuasive way, Keshaviah told her his decision to embrace Lord Chenna Kesavulu in absoluteness and go for ‘Jeeva samadhi’; it took her many moments to realize what he is saying and more importantly what he was going to do. She was shattered and did not understand how one can be so cruel to oneself and his loved ones, while embracing almighty? Can life force be muffled to reach a divine force? What happens to our son? What happens to me? Countless questions swirled in her head.

    Jeeva Samadhi means at a decided day and time the saint or devotee sit in meditation and enter a state of stillness called ‘nirvana’ or ‘samadhi’. At that point they become one with the universal consciousness and the body comes to absolute rest. Then around the physical body people construct temple or mandap. The belief being that the body of the saint will remain undeteriorated for hundreds and thousands of years.

    It is painful when death comes and snatches away your dear one, but how do we deal with it when the dear one chooses to part. It is not unhappiness, not loneliness, but a chasm so deep and so painful.

    What happens to me at the site of the act? she thought, a ghastly act celebrated and revered. She can’t cry for it is a divine journey, a macabre act of self-realization. Keshaviah needed her permission before he began his pilgrimage to moksha. As she released him from the bondage of love and shared life, she got entrapped in lighting the lamp thinking it will continue to hold his breadth;

    Then God smiled,

    And the light broke,

    And the darkness rolled up on one side,

    And the light stood shining on the other,

    And God said: That’s good!

    -James Weldon Johnson 1871 – 1938

    Illustration – Priyanka Patil

  • Drought and the Dry Harvest

    I looked around the hall filled with relatives and friends. Everyone had come to celebrate the event. The scream from within was rising, but I quickly quelled the urge. At ninety, I did not wish to make a fool of myself. Adjusting the Gadwal saree, I wondered whether the person who bought the saree liked the colour. Why else would anyone buy a bright pink border saree for a ninety-year-old? In the buying spree for the event, my saree purchase could have been an afterthought anyway. I shouldn’t be so mean, lest I become a bemoaning witch in my old age!

    Slowly, I walked into the large hall and saw the doorway decorated with the festoon of mango leaves and marigold strings. A huge stage, the mandap, was arranged in the hall and adorned with exotic flowers. I could imagine a small fortune spent on the flowers. The mandap, with the weight of all the exotic flowers, seemed a bit like me; all decked out, standing, and searching for its identity! Trays of flowers and fruits were scattered around; so were the children, scurrying and screaming in their fantasy world.

    The family was running around, chatting, and laughing. Someone, not sure who, asked whether I would like to rest. Like my foot, why would I? It sure took a hell lot of time to tie this garish pink border saree around me. I might as well sit for some time and see the event, my great granddaughter’s wedding.

    I was married at fifteen, to a man who was then forty. He came to my house with his son, who was twenty, for ‘bride-seeing’ for his son. But as soon as he saw me, in a pale pink saree that matched the blush in my cheeks, he felt the longing for a wife. A deep red desire ate his soul. He dumped the son and married me.

    His first wife died a few years back and the family was big, loud, and rich. He had three daughters and three sons with his first wife. The dead wife’s family was always in touch, hovering and tethered to this house through events and threads of memories, dipped in love and laced with watchfulness. Her brothers, their children, grandchildren, their weddings, their functions, their festivals, the laughter, and the sorrow; through every situation either good or bad, the network stayed connected and continued to spread.

    As for me, something died a premature death the day they told me that the father-in-law to-be wanted to marry me instead of the son. I could sense the sinking feeling. But even before I could readjust to this new scenario, the plates with green beetle leaves, yellow bananas and fine silks were exchanged. I was even gifted with a long gold chain with a pendant of goddess Lakshmi, with pearls dangling at the edge.

    This was my great granddaughter’s wedding, who happened to be the granddaughter of the man I was supposed to marry. He was no more. He died a few years back. Did I feel sad? There were some dry feelings, like heat waves on a summer day, which had no name, no face, just dryness. I was not sure what did I feel, but over the years I got used to such waves of dryness.

    Dryness, when did it start? The rasping feeling. Did it start from my issueless state? The day I became a mother in a household at fifteen, something clogged. Nothing could flower in me after that. Dressed in silks, smelling sandalwood paste, jarringly beautiful and jaded inside, childless, I never blossomed to yield a fruit.

    Dryness became life and manifested in many ways; when I had to marry off my eldest daughter and found the son-in-law glancing too often at me, or when the elder uncle of my husband tried to touch my cheeks to pat. I started draping myself in sarees that were thick, checked and bold. With a big bindi on my forehead, long, thick, ruffled hair coiled in a bun, I became aged by a decade and more decades for every year that passed by.

    I married off each of the daughters and then the sons. Daughter-in-laws puzzled over me. They did not know why I was not able to sleep for more than two hours or why I roam around restlessly in the night or why I never cry.

    The garden behind the bungalow where I grew the herbs and vegetables took a lot of my time. The house ran on the vegetables from my vegetable garden. I also had a cactus in a corner. They said that it was not lucky to have a cactus at home. I heard the gossip in the dark corners of the house, whispered in raspy voices, about how I was cursed and how I walked like a ghost all day. How I had not shed a tear when my husband died or when the stepson died, and how I stood there staring, dry eyed. The drought for sleep and tears made me look gaunt.

    The sudden sound of noise brought me back to the present and I glanced at the entrance. The music was playing an old Hindi song and a few were dancing as if there were no tomorrow. The laughter was loud and a few women and men were trying hard to speak above the music and laughter. As everyone was speaking at the same time, hardly anyone heard anything or seemed interested.

    Just then my great granddaughter walked in. I blinked at the saree she wore. For months they were all on a shopping binge and I expected her to wear one of the finest, expensively tagged silk saree, costing a small fortune. But she walked in wearing, wait a minute, my wedding saree!! With pride and dreams in the eyes, she looked up at me and told how she loved to wear ‘that saree’ as she felt that I lived a great life, filled with all its implications and joy.

    A scarlet red saree, from my past, after all these years.

    “Was the unconscious playing its hand to indicate the inner flame that was consuming me, when I choose the saree?”

    Red meant power, the power I could not show or muster. The saree had a heavy ultramarine deep blue border, blue so deep that it could sink your heart. To ensure the blue did not overflow, the border had golden zari rudraksham beads that locked the blue. The border also had intricately designed golden swans. The birds were beautiful and lonely. They are said to be the mystical birds that lived in heaven and were known for their purity. There were thousands of zari-bottis strewn across the saree, glittering in the shape of raindrops, mirroring my tears, locked and shinning.

    Looking at her and the saree, something snapped in me – the dryness, the curse, the rush of betrayal. The weary self-inside me welled and overflowed into a long screeching noise, a scream that pierced every ear in the big bungalow.

    I screamed, screeched, and then suddenly the dam broke. I sat, cried, sobbed and howled, for all those children I could not bear, the love that was never understood, the misery of being smothered in the yards of silk, and the work, the drudgery, and the pain. Slowly I drifted off into the nothingness, white, blissful, soft, floating and misty. Finally, my eyes closed to the long, blissful, dreamless sleep, closer to God.

    Illustration – Priyanka Patil

     

  • Retribution, Revenge and Relevance

    Woke up with a jerk, “What is that screeching noise? Who has come now, at this time of the night?”

    I opened the old heavy teak door to peep into the house. Servants had rolled off from their quarters in the dead dark, cold night, for they were rushing to light the lanterns; ceaseless flickers, licking the darkness. Looked like my daughter-in-law was already up. The old, precious and well-oiled standing clock struck two, loud and clear, leaving behind silence, so deep; it felt as if an eerie finality was slowly engulfing us.

    Tall and strong, my son was walking agitated on the long, broad veranda; the high ceiling veranda went around the house with rough granite blocks for the floor and massive wooden pillars supporting the tiled roof. A thick vein of Rangoon creeper kept the roof cool and colourful. Their thick fragrance was filling the silence of the night. A waist high parapet wall built around the veranda that was also doubled up as a seating wall, gave the veranda its privacy and at the same time a feel of restiveness.

    My son was actually my sister’s son, she died some twenty years back, leaving him behind, when he was only five. I was ten at that time. The large family, immediate and extended, in their wisdom, decided and married me off to my brother-in-law who was thirty then. A way of ensuring that the wealth stayed within the family. To the world out there, the story spun was more around the son needing a mother. Wealth was very important, and everything revolved around keeping it safe, neat and tied. I called him my son, and he used to go around as if I were his mother. With just five years separating us, I was not sure whether I was more his sister or mother. I never wondered on this topic as it was too weird. My son grew up fast, in some corners aloof, always in command.

    “Do sons grow fast when fathers wander off too far from home?”

    My son married his cousin from his father’s side. My daughter-in-law was younger than me by eight years, an intelligent and efficient woman. We both were friends most of the times and at varying levels, but sometimes I treated her little crass, say like a typical mother-in-law. Well, each has to let off steam in one way or another. She was very practical or was it pragmatism, for in many ways my son showed more emotions than her.

    My son was moving from being agitated to loudly calling and cursing. He was screaming at the driver asking him to hurry up; in the dead of the night his voice boomeranged in the air. Slowly, I walked up to him in the large veranda and asked, “What happened?”

    “Father has fallen sick and is rushed to the hospital”, he said. His father was not home and had not come home, like many nights.

    “Where did he fall sick?”, I asked.

    He mocked, “Where do you think?”

    “Who was with him?”, I asked again.

    He hissed “Who else? That lady.”

    For the first time the bitter, sour truth got spilled and acknowledged in this majestic house, a recognition of my vacant life.

    After our marriage, my husband could not wait for me to attain puberty to satisfy his urges. The man he was, he looked for a partnership and he lived that life; and after I matured, it just continued; a relationship never mentioned in this grand house. The underlying pain was brushed like the dry leaves from the massive Citron tree in the backyard – dry, fallen and withered. Living on the side-lines, waiting and watching him spend his every night outside of the village in her house, while the entire village aware of it, was self-loathing. The motor car (his was the only one in the surrounding ten villages) pulling out shining from a devotional labour of his trusted servant, dark, sharp, as the sun starts setting. It used to tear down the red mud roads, mean and black; the household used to be busy, as if nothing out of ordinary was happening, servants lightening the lanterns, fresh vegetables from the field being stacked in the wooden almirah with mesh for breathing, so that they were not suffocated and scared.

    In the morning, as the villagers moved out of their houses, some decorating the front yard of their houses with white doted and elegantly designed rangoli, men with a neem stick in their mouth, chewing, spitting, brushing their teeth, children in the pond jumping for a quick bath, households waking up for the new day; my husband’s motor car used to come into the village screeching and screaming, announcing his arrival. I never looked up or out, the pity in the village folks’ eyes was too hot and piercing, or was it shaming for not being able to keep my man in the house for even a night? In the massive household, a thick curtain of silence engulfed as everyone was busy with morning pooja and a tasty breakfast. If you are rich, powerful, added few good deeds to the society and handsome, you are right.

    Before I got into the car, I quickly packed his and my clothes, not sure how long we got to stay there, so packed for a week. He loved his bed sheets and towels very clean, so I picked them, he might not like the hospital stuff. Everyone was mumbling that it might be long. The person who brought the news was shaken, so might be bad.

    “What will I do in that room with him for days?”, I blinked trying to wade off sudden rush of tears as apprehension tightly coiled my soul.

    My efficient daughter-in-law packed a basket with milk, water and fruits with some plates, and assured me that once what to eat was reported, she would ensure all was cooked and sent.

    “Oh! No, is it food I am worried about? I am going to be in a room with him, draw from the same air, look out of the same window, what will we do? Will he be conscious to realize that?”

    We rushed in the dark, moonless night, on the mud road hardened with travel. The village heard the rattling of our motor vehicle leaving anxious fumes as we speeded to the hospital. Jostling in the car, in the sturdy silence was I, confused, and edgy; neither sure about what I was doing rushing to him, nor about what I was expected to do there.

    We entered the hospital room, and there he was, lying supine on the bed. I walked in slowly, trying to remain calm. In the corner, she was standing; the woman who held sway on my husband, a mirror to my vacant life. All these years of not knowing who she was, I looked at her. To my astonishment, she was pale, trembling, an average, older female with no magic, nor awe.

    “Is this the choice he made?” I was stunned and seethed.

    I walked to him, power oozing out of my eyes, lips, nose. He was there pitiful, hungry, in pain, not knowing what, he looked at me. Trace of recognition? Or was it guilt? Whatever it was, flickered and burnt out. I looked down at the man who was my husband in absence, the father of my son, and then suddenly, something snapped. I felt nauseated and cold, blinding pain shot through my body, I turned away. Nothing, there was nothing in me to reach out to him.

    I nodded at her, the other woman, and said, “Stay with him, and once he can walk, send him home”.

    And, with a swift measured turn, to the utter astonishment of everyone, I started leaving, followed by my tight-lipped son, servant running with our bags, driver tagging along clumsily leaving the fruit basket behind.

    I walked out of the room and the hospital, and into the car resting in the corner of the building under a large neem tree. The sky was opening up in the yonder, fresh, orange, a wasp of mystery, something to be born, something to be felt.

    The car bumped up and down on the mud road as we reached home, leaving behind a trail of red fumes. My son did not speak a word. The village was waking up to the news of a tiny woman, who thrashed a man with nothing but a glance of disdain; they would all judge after the initial shock in the many mornings to come, that got to wait, let me savour today!

    First time after many years, I started feeling the air in my body. I started feeling the life flowing. I felt myself, not the white ghost on the shelves of a rich act, like a rancid butter!

     

  • And One More Chance to Live

    Mythology, history, religion, folklore, belief, faith: do not know where they come from, but from the day I was born, have heard them as stories, examples. When I heard them first I do not know, but I know they are there somewhere in the cosmos, universe around me, in semiconscious brain, in shadowing thoughts; awed, admired, worshiped and revered; but, but if they were ever given that one more chance to live again, will they choose the same destinies ?!

    A variance stitched

    Gandhari: Eyes open, not blinded to the faults of the 100 odd men as sons and a husband who swamped her life; clear in thought and vision, would she have slapped Dhuryodhana when the fist slip happened, reprimanded Dhritarashtra for being weak and blind to his son’s faults and shortcomings, unleashed her caustic tongue, thrown Shakuni out of the house and her hair, laughed at Bishma for pussyfooting on a shaky excuse called ‘word given’? Would she have risen to be the force behind Mahabharata, reengineered?

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