First Persons – Episode 1
Note: All characters and venues are totally fictional; any semblance to real persons is purely coincidental. This is a serial fiction novela in First Person. Each episode will be spoken by one of the characters.
Synopsis: Damayanthi, 17½, completes high school (CBSE) and passes JEE-IIT with a good enough rank to get into IIT-Kanpur. But then, she runs away from Home. Naturally, there are questions.
I was 17½ when I ran away from home. No..no…not what you think, there wasn’t any boyfriend or lover behind that. In fact, all I did during the last several years was to study, study and do more of that. Well…I did read some novels, mostly what I could buy for Rs.10 or less from the roadside vendor near the school. Amma gave me money to buy one book per month; she said it improved my English. In most of the novels, young girls in their teens were not mugging up for exams; instead they were living in big houses, with no money worries, and getting seduced by men who were some twenty years older than themselves. And they apparently liked it. No problems like what the school nurse told us when I was in the 8th class. The heroines went on to live happily ever after, in big castles and had servants. The moral seemed to be that it is good to get a hunk, albeit a little older; and, it is always better to make sure, he, that is… we, had the money for a comfortable life.
Sometimes, I saw rich persons on TV. The rich were usually old, had receding hairlines, fat and nothing like the hunks on the covers of the 10 rupee novels. I also read novels from the library. The school library books were old classics; we had some required readings that were precis versions. Amma was always asking me to read some originals so that I’d get to write better essays than average students. I read “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexander Dumas. It’d been on the CBSE syllabus for a number of years. Amma had it when she was in school in Chennai. I think I liked it because, Edmund Dantés escaped from Jail and then found a big treasure and had an adventurous life getting his revenge. The revenge part was a little too much, he could have simply run away with his girlfriend Mercédès and had a lovely life.
When I ran away from home, I was chaperoned. Amma ran away with me ! We did that just after I passed the Joint Entrance Exam and got into IIT, Kanpur. The day I ran away, amma talked to Appa before he went to office that morning. While serving food, she calmly asked about sending me to engineering college. Appa was against me going off to study anything; he wanted me to study B.A. in a local college. And when he found me a suitable match, stop my college and get me married. He didn’t know that I had taken the IIT-JEE at all; Amma had asked me not to tell him until after the results came out. I was in the kitchen listening to that conversation. Amma talked with a calm voice as if she already knew what appa would say; later, I found out that she had already planned her counter move. And much later, I would realize that she had been planning that for quite some time; may be even, years before I was born.
After appa left for office and anna left the house to hang out with his friends, which was what he did in summer holidays, amma asked me to pack some clothes for travel.
“we are going to Chennai“, she said.
“how long?“, I asked.
“…until after you finish your B.Tech., and even then, we may not come back…“, she said.
She looked really fierce and serious, almost like, posessed by something. I got a little scared. She got things out of the Godrej bureau. I wondered if I was really going away “for ever“. I had to leave behind some of the novels I had not read yet; but we’d surely come back after she cooled down from the talk with appa. However, I wished I was really not coming back until after B.Tech.
Amma was different when I was a kid; she cried a lot at night. During the last few years, I had noticed amma behaving very differently. Well…I had grown up too…and looked at her very differently. At home, I had grandma, my older brother Ramesh and my parents. We lived in a 2BHK flat. Every month, appa gave household money to grandma; and whenever amma needed money, she had to get it from grandma. So whatever extra money that amma had, came from secretly skimping and squirreling away some money from household expenses she got from grandma.
Since amma and I ate sitting on the floor in the kitchen, I had a few special dishes than the others who ate on the dining table, set outside the kitchen. Amma knew all my school subjects. For as long as I remembered, she could ask me questions the day before the exams, for any class, and would know the correct answers without looking up a book. She studied my books after I went to school or at night. She could even solve all the calculus sums in my final year math. If she had taken the IIT-JEE test, she too could have got a very high rank. In the last few years, she seemed to have more money than before. She had bought me some nice clothes, gave me more pocket money for books and things. Made me more special dishes. And paid my IIT-JEE fees.
The only people in Chennai we knew were my uncle and his family. When amma told me “we’re going to Chennai”, it was confusing, because our families were not in friendly terms for us to run away to them. Amma never got along with her older brother; in fact, I knew that the feeling was mutual. Uncle never sent any gifts to his sister or to her children. Amma didn’t go to Chennai when gran’pa died and uncle had phoned. Appa went alone, because he said it was tradition (sampradhayam). We had never gone to Chennai for summer holidays, for any holiday or function, or uncle never sent his two boys to Hyderabad. I thought it was strange that we were running away to Chennai.
Amma came into the room and said,”take only what you absolutely need; we can buy whatever you don’t have after you join college“.
“ ammmA…that is what I am doing“, I said, sneaking a novel I had just started reading, into the suitcase. There was this Baron von Wittenberg, who was old (36 !! yiiieek !!) and German, and Francesca, who was 15and English …..well ….never mind.
When amma and I left with our runaway luggage, amma told grandma the usual,” veLLi vosTanu..(‘be back)..“. We had one old vinyl suitcase, one zipped travel bag and a handbag. Amma also carried the shoulder bag purse that was older than me. After we walked out to the street corner, about 20 meters from our mansion-building door, we took a taxi to the airport.
The airport !! When amma asked the taxi-wallah to go to the airport, that was my first surprise. I had never been to the airport, and on an airplane; I didn’t think we could afford it. At the airport, Amma took me to an ATM, and she withdrew a HUGE lot of money. She didn’t count it. At the airline counter, she paid cash for tickets to Chennai on the 2 PM Deccan flight. We checked in our suitcase. I was more than a little scared; I wondered who this woman was. I had never known her to have much money or an ATM card. As I said before, appa gave money every month to grandma, and amma got money only after she explained to grandma what she wanted the money for. I knew that mother had pinched and saved some rupees; and she mostly spent it on buying food for me, or in the internet cafe. She had never used anna’s computer at home. She said she wrote emails to childhood friends, and learned about careers for me from internet. After the security clearing, we ate lunch. Amma drank the water straight out of the Bisleri bottle, and didnt want to pour it into the metal tumblers they had.
After lunch, I went to the women’s toilet that was at one end of that dining hall. There was a partition screen in front of the door to the toilet. When I came back out of the toilet, I saw amma at the table, talking into a mobile phone !! She had a phone !! I didn’t know that either. I slid behind the partition, stood there peeking at her. She continued with her conversation, with an occasional glance towards the toilets. Then I decided to come out, walk slowly, let her see me and hide the phone if she wanted to. She saw me, turned away and ended her chat. I pretended not to notice what she did. When I joined her, she was not the same woman I had seen that morning. Not fierce looking, like a Mariamman idol, anymore. Her eyes were soft, almost smiling. She wiped her face with her kerchief and asked me,”my pottu, is it still OK ?“. “yes; amma, it is fine….and are you doing OK…do you want to use the toilet before the flight ?“, I asked. “mmmh…in a few more minutes….“, she said.
The taxi to the airport, the ATM card, the money, the mobile phone, talking to someone with such pleasure, were all mysterious. I had read novels; I could imagine and extrapolate. I had not heard anything on TV or read in the newspapers about any recent bank robberies by housewives, or local woman winning a big purse in the state lottery.
I was sure she would soon tell me what all this was about. Although the question “did you just call uncle in Chennai ?”, came up to the tip of my tongue…I caught myself after I had blurted out,” did you just …..”. “What ?“asked amma. “No..no…I wondered if you just took your neck chains and put away for walking through security “. “Yes…that man said …no metal..“, she said. I had noticed that she was not wearing any of her neck chains…including her mangalasutra. I decided not to ever bring that up again. The thought that She could have sold them to get money did cross my mind.
Then it turned out that all of that was no dream; we did get on the plane. I looked out the window, for the rush of policemen, to stop the plane and come in looking for my amma. Nothing like that happened. We taxied out to the end of the runway, and I prayed for the safety of amma. We got off the ground and the plane climbed, circled around and headed to Chennai. Fortunately, I was sitting on the left of the plane, and in the afternoon flight, I could keep the window shades open, look out and enjoy the view when the seashore was visible. I was surprised how wild that airplane ride was. I had never been on roller coasters; but that airplane ride was just like what I had read about. If we had crashed, amma and I would die without telling anyone at home how we managed that. Fortunately, we arrived in Chennai safely, but for a bumpy landing and a lot of rattling from the overhead bins.
Amma spoke Tamil like a native; well..she was a native. She had grown up in the city and went to school there. Her older brother lived in Nanganallur, not too far from the airport. I had not seen my uncle since I was …may be 4 or 5 years old. We had gone to a wedding in Guntur and Uncle, auntie and grandma had also come. Amma did not interact with them much. Grandma talked to me, but then her telugu was hard to understand. She said that I will grow up and marry one of the boys who were sitting next to her. I distinctly remember that both boys had clean shaven heads and teeth missing in the front. If those were the choices, I had decided that I would marry no one, and sit all by myself in a nicely decorated mandap with a good silk saree like that auntie who was getting married there.
After we came out and collected our bags, amma got a prepaid taxi and she asked the driver to go to a subdivision in the city called Besant Nagar. Once we got to a gated community, and the watchman opened the gate and allowed the taxi in, she directed the taxi to the exact house. This was a great surprise to me; because, I had never known her visit Chennai as far back as I can remember, and all these houses and mansion flats seemed very new. The taxi stopped in front of a nice bangalow. The wicket gate was closed; the house looked like it was locked. We got off and the driver unloaded our bags and amma gave him a generous tip. He gave her one of his company cards and asked her to call their company if she needs a taxi again. Amma nodded and then she took her mobile phone and called someone to say that we had arrived, and smiled at me; perhaps her signal to acknowledge that she is now letting me in on her first mysterious secret: that she has a mobile phone.
After a couple of minutes of waiting, a young man in a khaki uniform came running towards us. He came up, stood a respectable distance away from amma, knees a little bent, made a weak salute, panted a bit, and said,”I am security guard madam….neenga just came ? “. Amma took a key out of her bag and gave it to him. He carried the suitcase, and amma’s bag and walked to the door. He opened the door and moved the luggage in. Then he gave amma the house-key back. He then went inside, switched on the main power and the A/C, then he went out to the back of the house to see to some water pump. I walked in and wondered where we were. I had by now given up the bank robbery and lottery winner possibilities; now I imagined that amma was really the child of a rich family and somehow she ended up suffering as a middle class housewife for some twenty years before her family solicitors called her up and asked her to take possession of her inheritance: several crores of money and a big house in the city. While I was standing in the living room and day dreaming, the security man came in and told my mother that he will send someone over for help with immediate shopping. Amma asked him to do that right away gave him a generous tip as well.
Then she went on a tour of the house. I went along. On the ground floor were the foyer, the living room, a bed room, a bathroom with toilet, geyser and a shower stall, a small library or office, Kitchen and a dining room. A side door from the kitchen opened into a garage. Amma opened that door, switched the lights on and found a car parked in there. And then there were some storage shelves. Apparently there had been someone living there already. The house was nicely furnished, but the kitchen did not have many of the usual items that one would find in a place with a family. In the upper floor, the big bedroom had a private bathroom inside. The bedroom had a closet with mens’ clothes hanging in it. The other two bedrooms were furnished with beds and mattresses, but they didnt look lived-in. There was also a smaller bathroom upstairs with just a toilet and a hand-wash sink with an oval mirror on the wall. A large house with no people.
Amma heard the bell at the front door and went down. I plopped down on the bed in one of the rooms and decided that would by “my” room. I heard amma talking to someone in Tamil; from the snippets, it looked like she was giving instructions for shopping. Then I heard her call out to me: “mayaa…come down here“. I got up and ran down the stairs. “don’t run …until you get used to the stairs….we don’t know where the doctor and hospital are in this town yet….“, she admonished. She had already sent away the shopping-help to buy our immediate needs.
I was asked to go and organize what we had in the kitchen and the fridge. The fridge was empty, clean and just started to cool down. I spent the next half hour, looking at the pantry shelves and cleaning off spills and placing open packets in a plastic bag. I salvaged rice, atta, sooji, lots of instant noodles, soup packets, instant dosa mix packets, and microwave subjis …..more signs of a male inmate. I also found tea, coffee, espresso maker, and nice bone china coffee cups. After the shopping help came back, I noticed that it was a young woman who had come to help with the shopping. She brought the shopping bag in and gave to my mother. We now had milk, yoghurt, a bottle of avakaya pickles, ginger, green chilis, tomatos, onions, brinjals and potatos. I put onions and potatos on the kitchen counter and the rest in the fridge.
After the shopper-girl went away, Amma lit a candle, planted it on a saucer, placed it on the kitchen counter. Then she stood in front of it, her palms together in prayer and went quiet for a few minutes. I went and stood next to her and joined her in the quiet prayer. Then I felt her hand on my shoulder. She pulled me around and kissed me. She had never done that in my recent memory !! Then she wiped her eyes with her pallu. She turned her face away, and walked over to the cupboard to get a ceramic mug. She heated some milk in the mug, about a minute and a half in the microwave. She made tea. I looked for sugar; but didnt find any. We sat on the living room sofa and had tea without sugar. I looked at my mother’s face wondering if she’d explain things. She seemed at peace and very relaxed, as if it was her own house. Even I had begun to believe it was her house, forget about the clothes upstairs and all those lived-in signs; you know, the solicitors called about the inheritance and asked her to come out and take possession…etc..
Amma decided to write a shopping list for provisions. I continued to look at her face and sip my tea. I also wondered where the television remote control was. Suddenly amma’s mobile phone rang from the kitchen. Amma asked me to get her bag. When she took the bag and answered the phone, she smiled and went all soft and affectionate to someone she was talking to. She talked in some version of anglicized tamil.
“Yes…we got here on time……no…no.. no trouble at all….just like the photos….was easy to find…”
“….yes….very nice…power is on….we are having tea…..heeheeehee…..yes….I am just writing out a grocery shopping list…”
“…yes…she is right here…..no..not yet…I will….soon..”
“…geyser ? ….yes, we switched it on…we will see how that works …soon…..oh..yes…”
“…..Kumaran ? …..he will come at 10 ?…..OK….we can use that ….and where are the keys ?”
Amma got up and walked to the kitchen, opened a cabinet drawer, saying,”….just opening…“, and then, she pulled out some adhesive tape from the roof of a drawer and found a few keys stuck to it. She said,”….yes…found them..”
“….aiyyoo…let us not discuss that now….we can talk about that later…”
Then amma walked over and into the bedroom in the ground floor. I figured she had things she didnt want me to hear. Although it was mysterious, I guessed that she was talking to that man who slept upstairs in the big bedroom. She had run away to some secret man in Chennai she had not seen for some 20 years ? The notion seemed plausible, although fantastic and unbelievable. Perhaps that was just someone from the solicitor’s; might be some assistant. In the mystery novels, they always had these solicitor’s clerks. I was not sure if that was what they call them in modern Chennai. In any case, amma would soon tell me, won’t she ?
First Persons – Episode 2
Note: All characters and venues are totally fictional; any semblance to real persons is purely coincidental. This is a serial fiction in First Person. Each episode is spoken by a character in the story.
Synopsis: Maya’s mother reveals the identity of the secret man.
I told stories to my child Maya when she was young. Stories of gods, animals, good, bad, clever,and stupid; stories of strength, endurance and failure. After I brought my daughter to Chennai, on both our first airplane travel, and before she went off to college , I told her my own story. My story had some of those very same things: good, bad, clever, stupid, strength, endurance and failures. It also had moments of peace, happiness and even love. It had many of the people she had known in her young life, and some, she had never met. For some of the things I had thought about and done, I didn’t know suitable ways to describe them. In any case, for those things, Maya was just too young at 17.
I will be 40 in December, and my Maya will be 18. She is my second. I asked to be sterilized after she was born. My parents also had only two children. I was the younger of the two. I went to Swathi Vidyalaya in Madras. I was a good student. Our ancestral village was near Guntur in Andhra Pradesh; however, I had heard my father say that his ancestor came south to serve the Nawab even before Robert Clive, and their family had been in the Madras area ever since. We did not have many Telugus in our street in Shenoy Nagar. Many children in the street spoke Tamil at home. My childhood friend Srinivasan lived two houses away and went to the same school. Amma had arranged to have me join the same cycle-rickshaw ride to school. Although I went to the same school, in the same rickshaw, often sitting next to him, we had actually talked to each other only in our back patio. When we were kids, there was this well-known fear that his ears would fall off if he talked to girls much or played with them.
The servant-maids who cleaned the pots and pans worked in the cement patio at the back of houses. I drew my hopscotch pattern on that patio; often I didn’t have anyone else to play with me. Most girls in the neighboring houses were older. Srinivasan came one day and stopped to watch me hopping on the grid by myself. I was singing that Tamil song meant for hopscotching. He asked if he could join. I let him. He was skinny, with knobby knees. I also had knobby knees; but my paavadai covered it. He didn’t have much stamina for hopping. When he took a breather, which he did often, we talked about school, teachers and funny classmates. He had old comic books from his older brother; once in a while he would bring them to read together. Because he had already read them, I would read them aloud, and he would just listen. Sometimes, my mother would watch and listen from inside the house; I could see her smile. One day she told me,”don’t tire him out…ask him to go home when he couldn’t keep up….“. “He is Chinoo….from number 31 house…in my class at school“, I had said. Amma had smiled,”yes…I know his mother…a nice woman…they are brahmins“. Then she continued and explained,”….they do not eat eggs, chicken or fish like us…they are vegetarians “. I spoke Telugu to my parents and Tamil to servant-maid and friends at school. So I already knew the differences between people. And besides, at school, boys and girls ate lunch separately in their own groups. And further, some groups ate fish curry with rice; and some had murunga sambhar, instead. Chinoo belonged to the murunga people.
When Chinoo got tired, amma always sent him home to drink water, while I could just go into our kitchen to drink from the pot. A few years later, when I was in elementary school, and didn’t play hopscotch with Chinoo anymore, I understood how all those segregation schemes worked. Chinoo and I continued to meet, often, if not everyday, on the back patio. We talked about school, exchanged notes on classes and stories about our classmates and teachers. I already knew my mother wouldn’t mind our meetings, especially when one or both servant maids were present on the patio, doing their daily dish denting work. In highschool I learnt the word “chaperon”, and understood that it was very different from when I had to beg my brother to walk with me to go out to the shops or to the temple. I could have easily asked Chinoo to come with me, but even before I started wearing the half-sari, and looked as tall as Chinoo, that was understood to be taboo.
During our high school years, Chinoo came to the back patio almost every evening, to sit on over-turned plastic buckets and talk about things to the background noise of the maid cleaning the pots. Once in a while, the maid would ask us to talk in English and she would watch us like we were a theater show. We recited our text-book’s prose and poetry for her, and laughed. She laughed with us. One day, she got all emotional, cracked her knuckles to ward off the evil eye, and wished us a long and happy marriage together and many English speaking children. I didn’t know what to say; and when I looked at Chinoo, his face had turned red. He could do that, as he was fair skinned than I. I didn’t know if Chinoo had thought about that anymore; but I had thought about that a lot.
We continued to meet on the patio. We studied and competed for high ranks. One day when Chinoo asked me about the entrance exam for IIT, I didn’t know about those. I asked my father about it the next day; he dismissed the idea. My mother secretly gave me some money for the entrance test. I got Chinoo’s help to register for it. Amma was in a fix when I passed. It created problems for her. Appa got angry, yelled and slapped amma; she and I ended up crouching on the kitchen floor crying together into the night.
I went to the local government arts college. Chinoo left for Kanpur; before he went, we met for the last time in our patio. I wished him good luck, and shook his hand. He held my hand much longer than necessary and whispered,”don’t worry; we will meet again, some day“. Then he went away. I didn’t see him for many years after that. I was sent away married even before my first college term was over. Father said that a good family in Hyderabad with a bank employee son is seeking my alliance; such good opportunity cannot be let go. When I asked about college, my father told me to ask my future husband and go to college in the new city. I learnt that he was 26 years old and had worked in a bank for many years after studying B.Com.
I tried to ask my question about college at the first private chance I got with my husband. However, I could not say much when he switched off the light, pulled me onto the bed, and violated me without even saying anything. I gritted my teeth, made fists and closed my eyes. There was a burning sensation across my stomach where the new saree’s jari had cut my skin when he pulled it out. After what seemed like a long torture, I was let go. I slipped out of the bed, gathered my new saree in a clump around myself, sat in a corner and quietly cried for the rest of the night, while my new husband slept. I remembered the documentary I had seen in the British Council Library, when our class went there for an outing, about the slave ships that the portuguese and english used on the atlantic. They transported slaves from west africa to the new continent. In the middle of the night, on the cold north atlantic ocean, the ship’s officer ordered a woman slave in chains be brought to his cabin. They called that woman “a belly warmer“; she was still in chains when he violated her. And after they landed in America, she was set to work for the house or plantation that bought her. I sat awake, waiting for the morning. I went out of the room, when I heard someone unlock the door early in the morning. Two days later I was sent away to Hyderabad with my new owners,….my new family, I was told….a widow and her son.
I was set to work. I cooked meals, washed, swept floors and wiped them with wet towels. At night I was asked to massage the feet of my mother-in-law (MIL). I realized that the other two in the household treated me as a child; well….because I was still one. I walked with MIL to the shops and carried the purchase home. She paid for the purchases. I was not trusted with money or allowed to go out on my own. I cried a lot when I was alone in the kitchen doing my work. I found that massaging the legs of the MIL at night offered me an excuse to drop off to sleep on the floor at her foot. Even with that ploy, sometimes I was roused and made to go to another room. Whenever that happened to me, I prayed and went limp. I became pregnant. I was sent off to Chennai. i could not tell my mother anything about my life in Hyderabad; I did not want to make her life more miserable. Thankfully, Chinoo was away at IIT, and would not see me miserable, fat and ugly.
After I was sent back with a baby boy, my life went back to the hell it was. However, the baby gave me a strange respite. The sleeping arrangements changed; I slept in the room with the child and the MIL. A greater boon came in the form of a job transfer. Thank god for nationalized banks. The husband had been forced to move to Calcutta. MIL didn’t want to go away and live among strange people. I stayed back, and wished he’d never ever come back. But he did, once every three months for a week or so. Although I had managed to avoid him as much as possible, and he was gone for most of two years, I was made pregnant again. I was sent back to Chennai for the birth of my Maya. Although amma was happy to see me again, the others were not so. And besides, they had my brother’s family of four at home as well. Adding my first born to the melee added problems. After the childbirth, when I asked to be sterilized, everyone, except amma were pleased. To me, it was obvious; I was 21, with two children and not much to look forward to. I realized why many girls went for the kerosene fix. I couldn’t tell why, but I didn’t. Eventually I too used the kerosene trick, to different effect.
On one of his visits, when I would normally submit and go limp, I acted differently. The children went to sleep in MIL’s room. I was going to them too when my husband stopped me in the hall and tried to pull me into his room. I twisted my arm free and ran back to the kitchen. He came in behind me. I picked up the kerosene stove we had used as a stand-by, and held it over my head and yelled,”I will break and set fire…and we will all get peace“. He was shocked and backed away from me. I knew that he avoided risks, or would certainly not want any notoriety from accidents and police visits. After that incident, he didn’t come home for the next six months. He sent money to his mother as usual. When he came after six months, he didn’t talk to me. He never touched me after that. I was at peace with the arrangement. It took him 12 years to get transferred back.
When Maya was about 2…or may be 3, and life was quiet in our flat, one afternoon I had a visitor. When I opened the front door, there was Chinoo. I was completely beside myself and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, MIL and Maya were taking naps, and Ramesh was in school. I asked Chinoo to step into the flat, quietly closed the door to the napper’s room, collected my bag and took him to the neighbourhood Coffee shop. I had enough money for coffees. Chinoo looked quite handsome. He had grown taller than me, and much wider in the shoulders. He told me that he got my address from amma. He wanted to tell me in person that he is going away to America for studies. I was happy but couldn’t stop my tears. Although his coming to visit me was the biggest happy event of my miserable life, I couldn’t explain it to him. He tapped my hand that was resting over the table and promised to keep in touch. I told him that he could write me letters. He said he would, and also gave me his college address before he went away.
Three weeks later, I received my first aerogram from Berkeley, California. After that I received many letters, once a month. I wrote many aerograms, saving money from my kitchen provision allowances. Eventually I told Chinoo the reality of my life and how I managed to survive. Chinoo’s responses to my letters were quite formal, in guarded language, as if he wrote letters that a whole family can read together as “news from phoren“. I appreciated that, even though I always waited for the afternoon post and safely put his aerograms within saree folds in the Godrej bureau. Chinoo graduated with a doctorate, then got a job in some airplane company. His parents found him a match in Mumbai, a girl from their sub-caste trained to be a doctor. I wished him well in my letter and asked him to continue writing to me about his welfare. His letters became less frequent after that; but then he did write once every 3 months or so. I was busy with the children’s school and housework as well. However, I continued to write back whenever I received his letters. Chinoo wrote that they had a baby boy and his wife was doing well in her work.
A few years later, when we got the internet cafe next to the chai shop, I got an account there. After that, Chinoo wrote me email notes and I didn’t have to hide them in the bureau. He could write me letters that he knew only I would read. Chinoo wanted to help his parents live in a better house in their old age. He wrote to me about buying a plot in Chennai for building a house. Later I heard that he bought a flat in a mansion building; and started building a house in the plot. Chinoo started visiting India every year, although he never came to see me in Hyderabad. He said he wanted to move to India, help his parents and may be retire in India. His parents had moved to Bangalore to live with his older brother. They had health issues. Before Chinoo’s house was completed, his father passed away.
When Chinoo came to Bangalore for the funeral, he came to Hyderabad after that. I met him again. That was five…might be six years ago. I met him at the hotel he was staying in. We talked for almost three hours. Chinoo was sad. He had very affectionate memories of his father. I felt sad, although I couldn’t simulate any of his feelings. He also had a difficult personal life in the US. His wife’s parents had migrated to America, because she too wanted to be with them in their retirement years. She had found a nice job in a different city and moved. I was so amazed to hear about how much money she earned at the age of 33. She and Chinoo had divorced, amicably, and she had custody of their son, because she had her parents at home to look after the child. Chinoo said that he visited them a few times a year.
Chinoo already knew about my personal life. I told Chinoo about my children and how Maya is very bright and I hoped that she’d get to college and complete her education. Chinoo recalled how I couldn’t go to college with him, and how our lives might have changed if I had. Then he promised me that he’d help my Maya go to college, any college she wanted to go to. I was thankful for the promise, but didn’t know what to say. I had said , “Chinoo…thank you for thinking that…be well and healthy…and I will pray for a good future for all of us…“.
Just six months after that meeting, Chinoo wrote me an email saying that he was coming back again for another funeral, that of his mother. His dream of having his parents in a nice new house in a familiar city was not to be. Then I received that courier delivered envelope with an ATM card from Chinoo. He sent me the passcode in an email. And instructions for using the ATM card in another email. He had asked me to go ahead and test it and let him know how it worked. I withdrew ten thousand rupees from an ATM location. My heart pounded hard, when I took the money, the card and the receipt. I wrote back to him about the test. He wrote me back immediately advising me about the daily maximum amount, and asked me to feel free to withdraw what I needed, anytime I needed. When I asked him why he sent me the ATM card with so much money behind it, he gave me a response that made me cry for several days: He wrote that he had sufficient money in that account for sending both my children to any private engineering or medical college in India and pay generous “donations” if necessary. He wanted to give me control of the finances for the scheme, because of how uncertainties in life had altered all his other well laid plans.
We continued our email exchange. I wrote to Chinoo about everything in my life. About how much I loved my Maya, and how much she looked like me when I was in highschool and talked to Chinoo on the cement patio. He asked if he could meet her if he came to Hyderabad. I had responded that if my life got very miserable, I could run away to him with my Maya. Chinoo had written back that I could do that any time, and come to live in Chennai in the house he had built. I always used the internet cafe near our house. A couple of years ago, Chinoo said that his company was sending him on assignment to Singapore. He said he would work at the Changi Aircraft maintenance. I looked at Changi on the internet. It looked like something from the mythical Indraprestha.
After Chinoo moved to Singapore, it was easy for me to use the ISD phone in the chai-shop to call him on his mobile phone. In our afternoon, it was evening for him. He was at home or in some restaurant. One day I received a courier package with a mobile phone. Chinoo had told me he would send me one so that I can avoid the noisy ISD booths. I didn’t use it much, except to call him. He was the first one to know that Maya passed the JEE and would go to Kanpur. That made him very happy. He mailed me a photo of his face with a big smile.
After Chinoo and I had talked about Maya’s college plan, he made arrangements for my arrival and stay at his house. He sent me a courier envelope with a house-key, google maps of how to go there and pictures of the house, and where he had left things. I had been mulling over these for two weeks, before I asked Maya to run away with me to Chennai. She did that without argument. Perhaps what she had seen of my life had been an object lesson.
On the first day after Maya and I got to Chennai, we had rice, yoghurt and avakkaya for dinner. We slept on the only bed that had sheets. Then I told her about Chinoo, my childhood, marriage, and what Chinoo had done for us. I skipped over some of the details. I thought it best for her to know that our finances for her studies were stable, so that she could focus on her studies and not worry. After some sad and happy tears, she whimpered and slept in my hug for the rest of the night. It almost felt like I had a five year old Maya back in my arms; but then, her long leg over my hip felt a lot heavier and so comforting. I’d miss her terribly after she goes off to college.
First Persons – Episode 3
Note: All characters and venues are totally fictional; any semblance to real persons is purely coincidental. This is a serial fiction in First Person. Each episode will be the point of view of one of the characters in the story.
Synopsis: Chinoo comes to Chennai and meets Damayanthi.
I was about ready to declare mid-life and have as good a crisis I can construe. But my life suddenly got a lot more interesting when Bhanu called me and announced she was moving to Chennai. After that I could feel completely justified about postponing, or perhaps cancelling my mid-life crisis and even moving to my midlife farther into the future.
Bhanu is my childhood friend. We lived in the same row of houses, with connected back-patios. We went to the same school from first class to the end of high school. Then we both passed the IIT entrance exam and I went to Kanpur. Bhanu’s appa didn’t let her go. I thought about her a lot during my college days. She was my only consistent friend from my school years. I was not in any tight knit group at school; you know, boys who got together and played cricket, went to movies and teased girls in the street. I went home after school; and very often, when I saw Bhanu in their back patio, talking to the servant-maid, I just walked over there and spent some time talking to her. Nothing in particular; but just chatting about class, teachers, and funny things that happened at school etc.
When we were in elementary school, I took cartoon books to their patio to read together. I liked listening to her read; she read aloud, very clearly and could read much faster. That was fun. When we were older, we read some of the same novels from the school library, but not in the patio. Then talked about them in the patio sitting on overturned plastic buckets. The servant-maids who washed the dishes were there and they enjoyed our company too. I must have talked to Bhanu almost every evening of my life until I left Chennai and went off to Kanpur.
When IIT-Kanpur had that orientation workshop for dealing with home-sickness during the first year, I thought that I missed Bhanu more than anyone or anything from “home”. Much of the coping mechanisms they taught at the workshop didn’t work for me, because I had no clue where she was. I knew that Bhanu and I would grow up and move on to our separate lives. That was the way it had always been. In any case, I knew that a kind, intelligent and pretty girl like Bhanu would be successful and happy in life. However, much later, I found out that things didn’t work out like that for her. She was married off a couple of months after high school, and got sent away to live in Hyderabad. After B.Tech. I got her address from her mother in Chennai and went to see her before I went away to California. What I saw was deeply disturbing. Bhanu had two children already and, not a pleasant life. The only thing I could do for her was to write her a few letters from America. I was happy she wrote back to me. I looked forward to those Indian Aerograms with her nice handwriting. I had saved every one of them through all my moves and changes in personal life. I had resolved that I would help her once I had a job and got settled in life.
I had lived in America for 16 years and counting. Quite a lot of living, that was. I went out there to graduate school, made many good friends among the locals, knew some of them really really well, got a degree, got a job, got married, got US Citizenship, bought a house, got married, had a baby, got several promotions in job, did very good research and applications work for the company and invested the savings wisely. My parents moved to Bangalore to be with Raju anna(older brother) and his wife. Appa and Amma(father and mother) didn’t quite like it in Bangalore. I decided I’d build a house for them in Chennai and R2I. Applied for and got the OCI-visa. However, my wife Usha planned M*2A for her parents. Appa and amma didn’t even want to visit America, let alone migrate and live there. Usha and I talked about this problem. Obviously she was not quite keen on R2I. What she wanted to do was entirely justified. And besides she also wanted to move away from Seattle to a warmer climate. She did that when she got an excellent job in SanDiego, California. We got divorced, quite amicably. Then we discovered that we had saved plenty in avoiding the marriage penalty tax. Usha didn’t really need any money-support from me. I could visit my son Vasanth in San Diego however much I wanted and had the time for it. Usha’s parents were there and Vasanth was in good hands; so I didn’t visit all that much. And besides, Usha also employed servants, “just like in India”. Apparently, in SanDiego, it was the norm, and plenty of servants were available. Usha’s amma even said that her maid looked “just like indian”.(* M2A = Migrate to America; R2I= Return to India )
I went back to Chennai and got a plot of ground and a flat in a mansion, both in Besant Nagar. I had always liked the Elliot’s Beach nearby. Raju Anna‘s friend Kesavan helped supervise the building of the house. Anna knew that our parents didn’t want to continue to live with him in Bangalore; both he, and especially sister-in-law Nalini, were looking forward to the completion of my house, and moving of parents to Chennai. Nalini was a lawyer, working for a national law-firm; and my brother worked as a manager in a software MNC. Perhaps, for my parents, the busy lives of son and daughter-in-law added to the pain of having to live in a new city in their retirement years. They too looked forward to the completion of the house in Besant Nagar.
Before I could R2I, appa passed away. I went to India for the funeral. Then I went to Hyderabad. I wanted to see Bhanu. We met in the hotel I was staying. Lots of changes all over India: Hyderabad had such nice new hotels. Bhanu already had two teenage children. She looked tired; she was sorry about my loss and the mess of my personal life in USA. I asked about her kids. She was happy about her daughter Maya and how well she was doing in her studies. I remembered the time when Bhanu got a better rank in the IIT entrance exam, but couldn’t go. During our meeting in Hyderabad, I mulled over how my life might have turned out, if she too had gone to college with me. I promised Bhanu that I would help her kids go to college.
After that visit I wrote emails to her almost everyday. I looked forward to her emails, even though I knew that she had a lot of work at home and some days she might not be able to get to that internet cafe she used. Once in a while, I would imagine Bhanu in my Seattle Condo. We would have two overturned plastic buckets on our living room carpet, sit on them and chat or watch TV. In my day-dreams, she still looked like I remembered her, a tall girl in a half-sari, dark round face, dimples, sparkling eyes and a happy laugh. She always looked at me straight in the eye when she talked to me. Growing up together made all the difference: I had sat next to her in a cycle-rickshaw going to primary school and played hopscotch in her back patio. I remembered that Bhanu from the day I left to go to Kanpur, much more than the face of the older woman I had seen twice in the last 20 years. Although I knew her complete life from her emails, Bhanu’s face in my day dreams, mostly happy and finally sad, had always been that of the young girl I had left on that cement patio in Chennai.
After amma passed away, almost like she was in a hurry to get to appa, I went back to Bangalore for the funeral. During that visit, I did not go to Hyderabad to see Bhanu. I was pretty depressed and had decided it was not the time to go visit Bhanu and add my troubles to hers. But then, I decided I would act on my promise about sending her children to college. I wanted to do that before something else went awry in whatever plans and promises I had made. A bit later, I also moved to Singapore on a company assignment with the usual expat benefits of US employees. The best one turned out to be getting to a close timezone with Bhanu. She could call me from a public phone when she went out on her usual chores-outing in the afternoons. Later, I sent a mobile phone to Bhanu so that she could call and talk to me without going to a public ISD booth. It worked out well for me. Her phone calls were quite therapeutic. I often contrasted the spirit of her survival to the relatively easy life I had going for myself. I went to Chennai when the house building was completed and spent a whole month there during the music season. I did my owngraha’pravesham (house warming) ceremony. Even bought a car. A few months after that, Bhanu called me with the news that her daughter Maya had passed JEE with a good enough rank to get to IIT Kanpur. That made me really happy. I just couldn’t describe it in words. It was almost like Bhanu had to wait twenty years to go to IIT-Kanpur, and do it in proxy. I took a picture of my happy face with the mobile’s camera and sent it to Bhanu in an email. Soon after that, Bhanu left home with her daughter Maya and came to Chennai. I had arranged for her to stay in my house. I had decided that it would also be her house from then on. For old time’s sake, we could even buy a few plastic buckets to sit on and chat, if we wanted to. I was just so happy.
After she came to stay in Chennai, I talked to Bhanu everyday on the phone, often three times a day. Kumaran who drove the car for me, said that he could drive for Bhanu during mid day, when she wanted to go and shop to get resettled. Bhanu and her daughter spent a week doing whatever shopping they needed to do. Then I went to Chennai on a holiday.
I flew on a Tiger Airways flight that arrived early evening in Chennai. Bhanu cooked dinner at home on that day. After several years of living away from home and then abroad, I was no longer a vegetarian. Bhanu told me she’d buy fresh fish from Elliot’s Beach fishermen. I took a taxi home from the airport.
♀ *********** ♀
As I opened the wicket gate and took a step towards the door, the house door opened, and Bhanu came out. I had never seen her like that. She was so pretty. She was wearing a light blue kurthi over a pair of slightly faded jeans with embroidery on the hips. And open toe sandals. She had a nice spring in her steps. She was looking straight at me as usual, and smiling as she strode forward. I was pleasantly surprised, …no…amazed…and stopped in my track and stared at her. She hesitated a fleeting moment too, then came forward, put her hand out and said,” hello… I am damayanthi …amma is in the house” and smiled. She had the same face and smile from years ago. She looked straight at me as she had always done. I gave her my hand. She laughed and said, “ no…no…let me take your bag…please“. I came out of my trance and said, “..aengk …huh ..hello…“, and handed her my bag. As she turned around with my bag on her shoulder, the back of her kurthi rode up with the strap of the bag revealing the embroidered rose on her back pocket.
I followed her into the house pulling my roll-away suitcase along. She carried my bag in, calling out,”ammaaa…he’s home…“. Leaving her sandals in the foyer, Maya hurried up the stairs with my bag. I went in, slipped off my shoes, turned and looked in the direction of the kitchen and saw the real Bhanu coming out. She was of course in a saree, and wearing an apron over that. She came toward me, smiling, and wiping her hands in a towel from the apron’s pocket. She stopped short of running into me and said,”…finally !!“. I put both my hands out and touched her shoulders. She came forward and put her head on my shoulder. As I tapped her back, she cried quietly for a few minutes. Then she pulled back, stepped away, wiped her tears with her towel and asked,”….where did Maya go ?“. I smiled and said,”…I think she went upstairs for a while….she is clever….and quite attractive too …“. Bhanu smiled and replied,”….yes…I am afraid so…come and sit down…would you like to drink something ?“. Then she walked back to the kitchen as I said,”let me wash my face and I will be back“. I went to the groundfloor bathroom. The window had a new curtain, the towel racks had new towels and the room smelled clean. The two women had worked in cleaning the house. I washed my face, hands and feet and came back to the dining table and sat down. Bhanu brought a glass of water and sat next to me in another chair and asked, “When did you last eat ?“. “In the morning, before I got on the plane…..but I can wait for another half an hour before eating…let us talk….first you tell me what you had been doing since you came here“, I said.
Bhanu told me about their shopping and getting many things for themselves and the house, about going to the travel agent for airline tickets to Kanpur and applying for passports, and about the visit to the old neighbourhood in Shenoy Nagar, including the school we had attended. She said some of the old houses had been demolished and there were new mansion-flats in their places. The houses that she and I grew up in were all gone. She said that every morning when she woke up, she felt like she was in a dream and it took a while before she realized that she had to walk a flight down to her kitchen. Then Bhanu took me on a tour of the house, saying that she had done some cleaning and wanted to make sure that I saw where all my things were.
The computer and the internet connection at home had worked fine. Maya had been using it a lot more than Bhanu. It looked like Maya had her stuff in the bedroom on the ground floor. Bhanu smiled and explained,” ..she tends to run up and down the stairs …I was a bit nervous about that …heehee …it is better for her to stay close to the computer too..“. Then Bhanu called out,”…mayaa …come down …we can eat dinner..“. I understood what Bhanu meant about the running on the stairs. There was a rustle and then we heard her on the steps. When she got down to us, Bhanu pleaded,” …please …ammaaa …don’t run on the stairs “. Maya smiled shyly at me, and walked gingerly the few more steps to the kitchen. I was still trying to get over how much she looked like the Bhanu of my memories and day dreams.
Maya set the plates and fetched glasses of water for all three of us. As Maya and I sat facing each other, and Bhanu was preparing something in the kitchen, I asked,”…so …have you been looking up information on the campus and such ?“. Maya must have been relieved that I started the small talk so that we both need not just sit there in awkward silence and look at Bhanu in the kitchen.
“ …yes …and I also found some volunteer advisors, mmmhh …senior students who write emails for our enquiries…“, Maya said …and asked,” …do you still have many contacts in Kanpur ?“. I laughed and said,” …I can tell you where to get good butter chicken …some of the professors are still there …but they are in mechanical engineering …“. “Amma can make the best butter chicken,” Maya blurted out and immediately blushed for its connotations …and decided to change the subject. “Mechanical engineering ? …are you a mechanical engineer at Changi ?“, she asked. I said,” …well …sort of …I am a training director …for the maintenance of planes …I can show you some pictures on our website later…“. Then I described how airline companies buy or lease planes and get a certain amount of free training of their service engineers and mechanics in a training centers of the MNC. Maya listened to me with keen interest and asked me questions about airlines and from which countries the trainees for Singapore come from. I was pleased with how she was able to chat and occupy me in conversation. In the meantime, Bhanu came in carrying a couple of serving bowls. Maya got up and went to the kitchen and brought more of them to place on the dining room table. We had phulka, dhal, a few subjis, rice, fish curry, rasam and yoghurt. Bhanu started serving, and then sat down next to Maya.
As Maya asked me more questions about my IIT days, about America, about Singapore and about my work, Bhanu watched us talk. I tried to draw Bhanu into our conversation with questions about her visit to Swathi Vidyalaya. It had been a while since I was eating “at home” with people who mattered. I couldn’t say all that without feeling rather corny, so I worked around to the same point. I asked Maya if she made any of those nice dishes. “No..“, she blushed <perhaps, still thinking about that butter chicken comment>, and added,”…but I cut all the vegetables“. “Nice work…very close tolerances…“, I complimented, while picking up a few evenly cut pieces of okra from the bindi-masala on my plate, and turned to Bhanu and said,”….everything tastes so good….may I take a longer holiday and come to stay here a while ?“. That startled Bhanu, but she recovered nicely. She laughed gently and said,”only if you can cut vegetables as good..“. Then she turned to Maya and added,”that would be nice….won’t it, Maya ?“. It was then Maya’s turn to be startled. Then Maya watched us talk about the old school, the few students we could both recall and our teachers.
After dinner, they both noticed that I was tired. My body clock was running a couple of hours ahead. Bhanu asked me to go and sleep while they cleaned up. After I opened my roll-away suitcase and gave them the gifts from Singapore, I went up stairs. All rooms had new curtains, beds were made with sheets and pillows. One of the smaller rooms seemed occupied, obviously by Bhanu. My room, the largest one, had my bag on the bed. The clothes I had left in the closet, were all laundered, and on hangers. The dresser contents, banians, and underwear were all cleaned, folded and stacked in nice order. I found my pajamas and dothis. I undressed, changed into a dothi, went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth and went to bed.
First Persons – Episode 4
Note: All characters and venues are totally fictional; any semblance to real persons is purely coincidental. This is a serial fiction in First Person. Each episode is spoken by one of the characters in the story.
Synopsis: Bhanumathi’s husband presents his predicament. It has been a month since Bhanu and Maya left home.
Please pardon my intrusion. I had never done something like this, I mean, confessing to the public. I had never ever taken my private life to anyone, anywhere. For that matter, I had not even talked to anyone at home about my opinions on anything. But now, I had just come back after giving the First Information Report (FIR) at the local police station, about my missing wife and daughter. And I had to pay Rs 500 to some lout outside the station so that I can be humiliated by the questioning of some stupid idiot in the station. The idiot thought, among other crude things, that I might have abused my wife and my daughter, that I might have traffiked them and sold them into that unmentionable trade, that I might have forced them to leave and so on. They said they would send someone to my flat to investigate. Obviously a ruse to get more money out of me.
My wife and daughter had been missing for a month. My wife Bhanumathi is close to 40 years of age and our daughter Damayanthi is about 18. The first day they went missing, my mother noticed it when she didn’t ger her usual coffee at 3 PM. Then at 4 PM, my son Ramesh came home and found there’d be no tiffin for him. My mother sent Ramesh to look for them in the shopping street area, where my wife goes in the afternoon. After I heard the news when I came home in the evening, I noticed an old suitcase missing. Also the Godrej bureau was left unlocked and the key was in the lock. Nothing was missing from it; but strangely, my wife’s mangalasutra was in there. Women take that off only when it needs to be repaired, and that too, after wearing a substitute yellow thread in its place, no?
We, my wife and I, are a traditional couple, not like they show in cinema. We had been married for 22 years, and we had settled into our own tracks. She keeps the house and I go to work and earn money. We never fight, like many couples in our mansion whose arguments spill out of the balcony into everybody’s ear. Some are like TV serials with everyday episodes at dinner time. When I thought back to what had happened differently that morning, I recalled the brief exchange we had about engineering college for Damayanthi, and I had said “no” to that idea. I didn’t think such expensive education was necessary for a girl who will go to be a wife to someone and earn money for their family. We had no argument or fight over that. After that exchange, I went to office and my wife went about her business.
Amma said her daughter-in-law left the house around 11, like she always does, to shop for the kitchen. If my wife had gone off to Chennai, she could have taken the afternoon train. She could have also gone off to some friend of Damayanthi’s if there were any school related issues. I asked Ramesh about Damayanthi’s friends and whether he knows any of them. He was useless. I called all the hospitals in the cities and found that there were no road accidents where mother and daughter were victims together. If only one of them was in some emergency, the other one would have called us anyway. So it was very confusing. However, I decided that we’d wait some more time, because it really looked like that they had gone to Chennai, because the old suitcase was gone. Some of the clothes of both of them were missing too. Could have gone by bus too. The mangalasutra in the bureau was confusing; but then, with all the dacoity in trains, may be she did the sensible thing; no? I didn’t want to call my brother-in-law in chennai right away. If she had gone there, let her be there a while. In a week, they will surely call me to come and get her anyway.
The first week went well; few difficulties, nothing serious. Ramesh complained about having to go to get vegetables, and amma anguished about how bad what he brought home was. Amma couldn’t make the coffee the way that her daughter-in-law made; she cursed the filter. Ramesh wanted pocket money to go to Barista Cafe. I told him that there was no need for that and his amma will be back in a few days. The breakfast was not good; but I appreciated amma’s efforts. We didn’t have any maid-servants to clean utensils or wash daily clothes or do any other chores. Amma asked Ramesh to help out in the afternoon. Ramesh said “yes” at breakfast time, but then, went away during the day as usual. Amma had to make do without help. Amma missed the massages she got from Bhanu; she complained that Ramesh stomped on her foot when asked to press it like her daughter-in-law had done. Mid second week, there was no gas for cooking and no kerosene. No one had called for the delivery of the new cylinder. I had to go to the gas agency and pay extra to get quick service. We survived with take-away food from a nearby restaurant, until the gas agency man came and replaced the cylinder. Amma did not like to eat that food, and went hungry most of the time. She got headaches without coffee. I would have lost my temper if my Chennai brother-in-law had called me that day to take his sister and niece back.
After three weeks, amma and Ramesh couldn’t stand each other, and to be honest, I couldn’t stand what I was eating at home. So I decided to call my brother-in-law in Chennai and find out why he hadn’t called me yet. Although he was older, we were informal with each other. Our conversation went like this:
“hello…who is that ?”
“hello Sampath…it is me,..Guna…from Hyderabad….how are you ?”
“oh ..ohho ..oh ..well ..Guna …how are you ?”
“…and Malathi….and the boys …doing well…I hope ? what are they studying ? ”
“yes ..yes ..they are all doing well ..boys are in college ..you know ..what studying ? ..they are watching cricket …and going to the movies all the time ..all I hope is … they are not smoking or.. getting into other troubles… heh heh heh…”
I wanted Sampath to get to the subject of his sister, but he wouldn’t, for some reason. So I gave him some more time…
“how is work ? and… badminton on saturdays ?”
“oh ..work ..is there ..isn’t it ? …I go there ..and there is some paisa at the end of the month …not like you bank people ..rolling in money …nothing exciting about a government office ..badminton ? no…no…one by one everybody dropped out …I am just using the raquet for swatting flies and mosquitos now ..heh heh heh ..one of my boys said ..that they have this new battery operated fly swatter in burmah-bazar now ….just two batteries in the handle, and we can zap the flies dead both forehand and backhand …so how is the mosquito situation in your town ?”
At this point I was getting concerned about wasting call-minutes listening to him go on about flies and mosquitos. So I came right to the point.
“ ..about Bhanu…” I started.
“ I had to get one of those“, he continued and then suddenly,”..my apologies ..here I am going on about raquets and flies….so…. how are your amma and my dear sister doing ?….and my daughter-in-law ..what’s-her-name ..is she still in 10th class ?..can she cook ?”
I didn’t know what moved me to say what I said; I should have lied:” ..Bhanu left home with Damayanthi about 3 weeks ago ..we had searched everywhere ..but we have not found them ..I thought she may have come to Chennai…”
Sampath had always disliked me for having made his father spend money on his sister’s wedding; he also suspected that we had demanded and received a lot of cash as dowry when I got married. By telling him that Bhanu had been missing, I had given him an excuse to harass me.
He yelled on the phone for not going to the police yet. He yelled that I had done something to my own wife and daughter and waited long enough for the evidence to get fuzzy or be untrace’able. I couldn’t hang up the phone on him in that state of anger. I patiently listened to his vent. It went on for a while. Finally he quieted down and when he did that, he changed the subject to something else. He wanted a loan of 1 lakh rupees by the following week. If I didn’t have the cash on hand, he suggested that I get a loan at my bank. He also added that if I wanted, he can come to Hyderabad in about two weeks and go to the police about Bhanu and Damayanthi. I sent him the bank draft before I went to the police to file that FIR. The last thing I wanted was some IPC 498A trouble and my mother dragged to jail.
My mother had already suffered a rough life, before I got a job and purchased the flat and moved there. She was widowed early in life, at 24 or 25. We lived in the village at that time. I was 8 or 9 at that time. I heard that my father died in a farm accident. Even after I grew up, no one talked about the details of that. My mother was sent back, to live with her older brother. My uncle had farmlands in another village, also a house in Secunderabad. My mother and I came to live in Secunderabad. She was in the kitchen for much of her time; amma rarely went out of the house. Although she was not treated badly, like widows in the very old days, she was almost like a servant who lived at home. The real maid servants did their work and went back to the slums they came from. My uncle told me that it was my job to grow up well and support her in her old age.
In my uncle’s house, I had a better life than my mother. My uncle already had two sons and a daughter. They were all older than me. So I got a lot of clothes from my male cousins and got pocket money for running errands for them. I did not go to English Medium school like them or wear uniform to school. I studied in the Telugu medium school and went to Osmania for B.Com. After studies I got a job at a bank as a clerk. After a few years, I passed the exam for officer and moved up. When others at the bank were getting loans to buy mansion-flats, I asked uncle about his opinion. I never did anything without asking my uncle. He said I should go ahead and buy the flat, because real estate was a good thing. So I bought one. First my uncle thought my mother and I should move to the flat and live there. Then Auntie pointed out that amma was too young to live alone with her only grown-up son; I didn’t understand that. However, I knew that she must have good reasons to think that. My uncle agreed with his wife, after she had privately explained her reasons to him. Then my uncle said I should get married right away before moving my mother to the flat, so that there will be someone to take care of her as she got older. Uncle looked for a suitable wife for me. He often said,”love is for the cinema; in real life, we have love-kika“. Initially I was not quite sure what that meant. I had thought it was like love in arranged marriages. Later I heard that word often, from brahmin priests. It really meant something like “doing proper things”. Unlike his elder son, who married someone my uncle didn’t approve, I caused no worries. I was for doing the proper things. And my uncle always gave me good advice.
Auntie knew someone in Guntur district, who knew someone in Chennai with a daughter. Uncle and Auntie arranged everything. They took me to Chennai and we saw the girl. She was tall, not good complexion, and had passed high school. Her parents said she was studying in the local arts college. She was probably not bright enough to study more difficult subjects. Her father said that they would stop college if we agreed to the alliance. Uncle had the opinion that girls who studied well and got high marks did not make good wives. Auntie talked to the girl and her mother and found out that the girl would adjust, because she already spoke Telugu well. And besides, the girl’s side were pleased that I am the only son and there are no sisters for me. I do not remember if my Uncle asked for or received any dowry. My mother later told me that if they received any money, it was only proper, because they raised me for more than fifteen years and paid for my college, helped me find a job, advised me to buy a house and also helped in the marriage. My mother wanted me married quickly, so that she can leave the collective family. When my mother was satisfied about something, I was always convinced that was the right thing.
My marriage happened in Chennai. That was only the second time I had been there. It was so crowded and the local people seemed much louder than people in Hyderabad. My uncle’s boys were both married already, and they kept me company during the wedding. Although I knew a lot about what to look forward to after marriage, my uncle gave me the most useful advice. He reminded me that the girl marrying me was very young and I should not treat her like an equal. I must take charge and train her to be a good wife. He told me that initially she might even cry like a child or have tantrums; when that happens I am to be firm or even punish her if necessary. It made sense. More sense than all the dirty things my two cousins talked to me about. My wife did cry at the beginning. I ignored that. That worked much better than if I had beaten her or said angry things to set her right. After we came to Hyderabad, my mother took charge of everything and life was smooth. Eventually my wife became obedient, just like uncle told me she would. My uncle had told me that a wife was not someone you sit down and discuss politics; she was there to keep the house in order, make food and take care of husband, children and elders. My wife was good at all that; and besides my mother liked her also. That was the most important thing for me. My wife never talked back to me, well…. until I got transferred to Calcutta, and came back home on a visit.
Transfers are nothing new for officers in the nationalised banks. We had problems with people who had “influence”. They got all the good postings and pushed others to poor postings. And then there was the formal training program for officers to work in the various parts of the country. I was asked to go to Calcutta. Mother did not want to go; and she asked me to leave Bhanu behind so that life for her was not disrupted. So I went away by myself. I lived with some bachelors who also worked in the bank. We ate in a mess*, that served really good food. Much better fish curry than Hyderabad. The bachelors were more adventurous than I was. Every week, they claimed that they enjoyed young Nepali women. I usually watched television or went for walks in the evenings. I went back to Hyderabad once every three months. This went on even after Maya was born. On one of those visits, I tried to take my wife to bed. She might have been in bad mood or might have had some woman-problem. She threatened she’d break the kerosene stove and set the house on fire if I touched her. I was very shocked; had never heard of a wife not be willing when her husband came home after a tour. After that, I didn’t go back to Hyderabad on holiday for a long time; may be a year. I often thought about joining my house-mates in their visits to foreign women; but I was afraid.
[* mess= A mess (in Indian English) is a food serving business, that served a set-meal, usually at lunch and dinner for a fixed price.]
My mother wrote me inland letters, to inform me about her welfare. Now and then the letters never got to me; but then, overall, she wrote the same things in every letter. Reports about TV shows and how my wife was helpful and obedient. I was glad that my wife was taking good care of my mother, never mind the fire-to-the-house threat.
It took me almost 12 years to transfer myself back to Hyderabad. I had to go to Bhopal and Indore branches and work three years each, before I could get back to Hyderabad. My son and daughter had grown up without a father at home. My son’s school marks were not at all that good; but my daughter had done well. I was disappointed in that. The daughter would go away to serve someone else’s family; what was the point of her doing good in school ? I couldn’t complain much. All of them were, in general, in good health. If the children were sick, my wife might not have been able to pay attention to the needs of my mother. Talking to some colleagues in the office, I learnt that teenage children tend to behave strangely, almost avoiding contact and conversation with parents, when they were growing up. They blamed the modern times, movies, video-games and less demanding life for middle class children. Looking at my own, I had to agree. Maya helped her mother in the kitchen a bit; but for that, she was always reading something on her own, not talking to anyone. Ramesh was always out, except for meal times; and he gave me one word answers to whatever I asked. When I asked Ramesh to stay at home and read like Maya, he became sullen and glared at the wall; so I decided to let things be.
I just could not understand why my wife left, when things at home were so orderly and peaceful. My mother was even more puzzled, because she had always treated my wife well. Bought her two sarees every year and gave her money for all the household expenses. When my wife threatened to burn the flat down, I thought she might be going mad. But then when I asked my mother about anything unusual she had noticed, my mother went on and on about the best coffee decoction, perfect fish curry, floor always clean without dust, kitchen always clean, all clothes washed, dried, folded everyday, shopping in the afternoon, coffee at 3 PM, dinner at 7 PM, then checking school homework of children until feet massage at 9:30 PM etc.. According to amma, that kind of daughter-in-law can only happen by a divine boon. After that, I could not plant any fear in her by mentioning the kerosene stove incident. And besides, amma may not even believe me. But then, I just simply could not understand why Maya went along, even if her mad mother had suggested leaving the house. I thought Maya might’a been duped into something by the mad woman. I could not imagine even a mad mother would do something harmful to her own daughter. I just could not imagine what they might have been thinking when they left.
I had no hopes for police doing much or finding out anything. I had not been sleeping well due to dark thoughts connected to Husain Sagar Lake, the notorious suicide spot in the city. I had been fearful with thoughts of what could happen to lost or kidnapped women in India. My wife didn’t exactly look like she was 40, or a mother of two children and my daughter …she is just a child… Krishnaaa … Parameshwaraa … please help them !!
First Persons – Episode 5
Note: All characters and venues are totally fictional; any semblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
Synopsis: Damayanthi’s first week in Chennai: cleaning, shopping, browsing the internet and day dreaming. Baron von Wittenberg is clueless. Maya’s heart flutters.
Amma asked me to check if the computer worked. I took the cloth cover off the computer, dusted, and connected the power cord to the surge protector socket and switched it on. It worked. No passwords to get in. We had internet, the browser launched fine and I could get to my email. The printer cartridge had run dry, and I couldn’t find any new ones. I called Amma. She came in and unlocked steel bureau in the room and looked inside. There were many papers, letters and some photo albums. Some photos already on mounts were loosely stacked in there. Amma looked at a few of them: old family photos, some work photos. Then she showed me one: “…look…Maya …this is Chinoo“, she said and pointed to a man in a suit sitting on the front row in a group photo, mostly men and a few women. Most of them looked chinese. I took the photo from amma and looked at the face of Chinoo closer. He didn’t look like he was amma’s age. Amma interrupted me ..”here ..here ..a bigger photo..“. He was in an old Univ. of Washington T-shirt, holding a young boy in his hand. Chinoo looked handsome: No moustache, nice dark hair, no grey, affectionate eyes, and fair skinned compared to amma and I. Amma said,”…must be his son ..Vasanth“; and then she got a little nervous:,”well..we shouldn’t snoop like this…let us close this“. We ? ☺☺ !! She put the pictures back, closed the bureau door and locked it. “we can buy printer ink when we go shopping.. or wrap that old cartridge ..we can send someone to get it“, she said.
After we got sheets, pillow cases and nice curtains, I ended up in the large bedroom on the ground floor. Amma didn’t want me to run on the stairs. She said, being next door to the office room, I can use the computer all I want, and learn more about my college and classes. If we had any of my class books, she’d have asked me to study right away !! And pro’lly ask me questions in them too !! I took her advice and moved my clothes into the closet in the bedroom on the ground floor. Amma had washed all the sheets and all the clothes in Chinoo’s room, dried them in the sun, ironed them and put them back in the closets and drawers upstairs.
We did a lot of work during the first week. We made lists of things needed for each room, went to the shops when the driver Kumaran came in the morning at 10 AM and drove us to shops until 4 PM. Then he went to his regular driving job. He drove a minibus for a company between 6 to 9 AM and then again between 5 and 9 PM. Amma made him eat a good lunch in a nice restaurant in the shopping street and gave him his daily batta. We did that everyday for a few days and worked on cleaning the house in the evenings. We also bought some kitchen items, like mixie and toaster-oven. We bought really fancy wheeled travel suitcases for both of us. Amma also took me to some travel agency. She reserved three tickets for Kanpur and then we both filled out forms to apply for passports. The owner guy at the agency seemed to know “Dr. Srinivasan” well. He said,”… yes ..yes ..saar called already…we’ll do everything ..yes..yes.. and contact you on your mobile when ready” and rotated his head for emphasis. The passport application was a big surprise for me. I asked her about it when we were back in the car; she said,”….he asked us to do that….just in case“. I didn’t press her on what that “just case” could be. Although we talked in Telugu and used a few English words, we didn’t discuss things in the car. However, I imagined we would be going to Singapore, America and may be even see snow and ice.
Amma talked to Chinoo at least a couple of times everyday, once or twice during the day and then again before she went to bed. I had never seen her like that; she was like my school friend Shalini when she had a boyfriend. Shalini called him on her mobile so many times a day…or texted. I couldn’t understand what she could have to go on like that with some boy. Amma and Chinoo seemed to talk about things to get done. Sometimes Amma wrote down things after she finishd her chat: even list of things for me. That nice suitcase purchase came out of that list. And the passport application. The suitcases were also helpful when we shopped for clothes. We had to buy everything: kurthis, jeans, churidar outfits, underwears, toiletries and some make-up items, and amma’s sarees, petticoats, blouses, and underwears. Amma also bought some 1-gram gold jewellery and bangles for both of us and a wrist watch for me. I never asked her about the mangalsutra; her new rope-thread fake gold chain made her look like a married Tamilian woman; but then, she had no silver toe rings.
Is Chinoo amma’s boyfriend ? I asked amma questions about Chinoo and found out that he was divorced and lived by himself in Singapore. One day when I was using the computer, amma came in and said she was going to open the bureau and look at some more photos. I smiled and didn’t say anything. We both looked at some of them. Many of them were work related photos. In one photo Chinoo had his arm around a chinese girl, in another there was an indian girl. “Must be office secretary“, said amma. I thought why girls should always be secretaries, but didn’t say anything. In one of my day-dreams I had wondered if Chinoo would be my step-father. And what would I call him, then ? Appa ? I laughed out loud. Seemed silly to call him appa or uncle or something like that. He looked quite young for that. I thought he looked very handsome in some photos; but I didn’t say that to amma.
Doing all the housework, washing clothes, dishes, wiping floors every day, shopping and walking everywhere for 20 years had kept amma trim. She did not at all look like she had two children, big and old as me. She had a few grey hairs; but only I knew that, because I combed her hair now and then. Chinoo looked very young compared to amma. It seemed very unfair. Guys got away without any suffering and aging because they don’t get pregnant or do any housework. Then amma called me about something. I snapped out of my day dreams and decided just not to call him anything until I knew for sure if he’d marry amma or someone else.
Then the day that Chinoo would come, happened. Amma was very excited. She went to the beach with Kumaran (the driver) and bought fresh fish directly from the fishermen. I cut vegetables for her as she cooked various subjis. It was like a feast. While preparing the dinner, we talked about the various shops we had been to, the things we bought and how crowded places were. It was almost like we were both in the same class at school and gossiped during recess. She was totally hyper. It was a good thing I had the cutting knife.
In late afternoon, after she had finished her cooking, she took a shower in the bathroom downstairs. Amma wore a new cotton sari and a ready-made stretchy blouse. She looked a bit severe, like our headmistress at school; but I didn’t say that. I asked,”why don’t you wear that nice printed silk you bought at Chennai Silks ?“. I was surprised when she quietly went upstairs, and came back down in the silk saree. She looked pretty. She decided to wear an apron over that to protect her saree from accidents. Then I went and washed my face, got out of my nightie, and wore a churidar suit. When I showed to amma, she said,” …makes you look too old…“. Then, I wore my jeans with flowery embroidery on the sides, and wore a hazy blue kurthi over that. When I stood in front of the long mirror in amma’s room upstairs, it seemed like I could see my bra through the kurthi; I went down and asked amma how I looked. She looked and said that I looked just fine, and picked off a loose thread from my shoulder.
As we waited, amma had the pedestal fan on in front of the sofa, to cool off and dry her hair. I sat next to her and read the novel that I had brought from Hyderabad. Then she got the phone call. I got off the sofa, and went away to the computer room. Amma talked very briefly before she came to me and announced, “he is at the airport…will be here in an hour or so“. I said,” ok ..amma..“, smiled, and decided not to add any of the other cool remarks that popped into my head. After all, that fidgety girl is amma, and not any school friend !! She went to the kitchen to make pulkas.
I had the view of the road through the semi opaque curtain of the office room. Once in a while I glanced out to the street. When I saw a taxi come and stop in front of the gate, I knew it was Chinoo. I could either go upstairs and let amma receive him, or I could receive him, say hello and then make myself scarce. I saw him get out of the taxi. Oh ..very nice handsome guy !! He had brown slip-on shoes, off-white slacks, a silver-and-grey suit jacket with some vertical line pattern on it, a black T-shirt tucked into his slacks and no belt. No belt, no bulge !! I couldn’t believe he was amma’s old classmate. He couldn’t be !! For a moment I thought he was someone else… going to some other house, and got the address mixed up. And then, he walked up to the gate and opened it as if he owned the house. He had one small roll-away and another shoulder bag. I decided I would go out and meet him. If I was going to do something really silly, like run into him and hug him, I didn’t want amma watching. Or…he had lived in America long enough and had taken to the local customs, he might hug me, and in that case, I could hug him back all I want, without amma watching.
None of that happened, of course. When I opened the door and went out, Chinoo looked at me, then just stopped and stared at me. “Oh My God !“, I thought,”I was right…he could see through my kurthi…curse that amma…when I asked her …in her fidgety state, she pro’lly didn’t pay any attention !!“. I felt like that school play when the safety pin gave and my dhoti was getting looser around the waist, but I still had to take long manly strides across the stage while saying my lines out loud. I walked up to Chinoo and smiled and put out my hand to take his shoulder bag. He was kind and polite enough to just stare at my face as I got closer. Then he let go his roll-away and put his hand out to shake mine. I was so thrilled, sneakily proud and happy!! What he saw had got him so distracted …sooo totally cute !! I must’a smiled big when I asked for his bag, got it, and carried it in. He followed me, pro’lly looking through the kurthi at my back!! hee☺ hee☺. After I announced his arrival to amma, I went upstairs, put his bag on his bed, went to amma’s room, fell on the bed, muffled my face on the pillow and laughed and laughed and laughed.
Amma called me to come down in less than 20 minutes. I guess if they had already talked and talked everyday, there’d be nothing more to say…hanh? I straightened my hair and went down, in the same kurthi !! I sat across from Chinoo at the dinner table, and had a nice chat. I asked him many questions and I liked it when he answered without talking down to me as if I was a kid. I wondered if he was that nice to everyone he meets ? When I was making eyes at Chinoo, amma and he started talking about some old math teacher who worked in Swathi Vidyalaya. They said they ought to get together and locate all the school people they knew and liked. So boring !! In the book I was reading, the heroine Francesca, who was English, falls in love with Baron von Wittenberg, who was German, and much older; but he went on paying compliments to her mother. A coincidence ? or Omen ? I was glad for amma and Chinoo. They were planning things that are so sweet and normal. In real life, good people like amma just couldn’t become Edmund Dantès, you know, bitter and vengeful.
When Chinoo started yawning, amma said he should go to bed. Before Chinoo went upstairs to sleep, he opened his roll-away and gave us more gifts. A new laptop and a noise cancelling headphone for me and a ebook reader for amma. He also pulled out two bottles of multi-vitamins, one for each of us. We were both very happy and I was sure each of us wished the other was not there so that we could’a thanked Chinoo properly . After he went up to sleep, we cleaned up in the kitchen. I told amma,”I sooo love him …amma” in English. In Telugu, that would’a been quite risqué. Amma touched my cheek with her soapy hand and said,”..yes ..maya, we all do“, in English and laughed. It was so nice to see her really happy. I secretly loved Chinoo even more for that.
After the cleaning, amma went upstairs. I went to the office, collected my novel and went to my room. I took off my kurthi, and held it up to the light. It was somewhat see-thru’ ☺ ..but only if there was some light behind it. I decided to wear it only at home. After I got into my nightie and into bed, I read a few more pages of the book. That baron von Wittenberg seemed clueless about women and their thinking. I resisted going to the last few pages and finding out exactly what happened to Francesca. Then put the book down, switched off the light and closed my eyes. Besides some distant street noise, I couldn’t hear anything. Naturally I said to myself,” Chii!! be a good girl and go to sleep“.
I woke up when I heard some noises outside my room. It was morning; I picked up my new watch from the bedside table and looked at the dial. It was not even 6 AM. Ammmaaa…why should she wake up sooo early ?! I got out of bed, opened the door, stepped out to see the kitchen. I didn’t see anyone. Then I turned around, stretched, yawned and walked to the bathroom.
“splat !!” I had walked right into Chinoo, and stumbled. He held me to him with his arms around me. “Sorry..“, he said,”…you are still not fully awake…“. I pushed and got free….folded my hands across my chest, looked away from his face, and said,”…no no..I should’a been more careful“. Then I got around him and went into the bathroom. I shut the door, and looked in the mirror: ” <.. sooo warm ..that hug was ..did he already go jogging or something ?…aiyoo ..this nightie is only a little better than the kurthi from yesterday ..and besides …no bra ..>”. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, combed and retied the ponytail and wondered how I ought’a dash back into my room. As he had already seen the idiot-me run down the stairs <>, I decided a lady-like walk it would be. He was in the kitchen when I peeked; I slipped back to my room and closed the door. I put on my dark grey leggings, took off my nightie, and wore a bra’ and a long-size dark half sleeve T-shirt over it, and came out to see why amma sent him down on his own.
Chinoo had boiled water in the tea kettle and was soaking a tea-bag in a cup. I asked him why he didn’t use the microwave. He said,”Bhanu is still sleeping…that will beep too loud“. It was the first I heard someone say that amma could sleep late when someone else worked in the kitchen. And he was so matter-of-fact about that !! Even though we had already hugged first thing in the morning, I wanted to hug him again; but resisted, and just smiled. “You want some tea?“, he asked. I decided to join him. I took a cup from the cabinet, and put it down on the counter. He poured some water and put a tea-bag in it. We were quiet as we drank our tea. Then he said he was going for a walk, and asked if I wanted to come along. We put on our canvas shoes and went out. He locked the door behind him.
We went to the Elliot’s Beach nearby. The sun was already up over the ocean’s horizon on the east. We were quiet as we got as far as the wet sand. Then we turned and walked south. Chinoo asked me questions about my school and JEE. He walked between me and the waves, and walked close enough to me so that his shadow was on my face whenever I turned to answer him. Whether it was just happenstance or he did that by design, I didn’t know. Naturally, I assumed the latter. That Baron von Wittenberg could take lessons from Chinoo, I thought.
After a while, we turned back. He was still between me and the sun. I asked him about his company and the research work he did in America. He talked about plane safety, maintaining components and how redundant designs are done. He explained what a “tailstrike” is and how that has been a problem even in modern jet liners, and his research towards solutions to that problem. I was so happy that he talked to me as if I was already an engineer like him. He used a drift-wood stick on the wet sand and drew a diagram of a plane taking off, and showed how a quick lifting of the nose of the plane could hit the tail-end of the plane on the tarmac. He asked me how I would avoid such a problem. I was startled, when he did that. I had to think, fumble and answer. He said,”…that is very clever, Maya”, and went on to describe how my answer was close to how they designed the system that prevented tailstrikes. For someone who had only seen an airplane close-up just a week or so ago, I was getting applause for correctly guessing the inner workings of the thing !!
I was sad when the walk ended, and we were back on the street. Then Chinoo stopped at a street-side eatery called “Murugan idli shop”. It was 7:30 AM by then, and his stomach must be close to 10 AM. He asked for three idlies in Tamil, and paid for it. The man behind the counter asked,”thangachi-kku (for sister) ?“as he took the money from Chinoo. I understood that much Tamil. I didn’t want any. However, after we sat down on the shop bench, I got a taste. Instead of soiling my fingers, Chinoo asked me to say “Aaah”, and fed me a piece of idly with chutney. It was pretty tasty,.. in more ways than one. After the idly stop, on the way back home, Chinoo bought one newspaper each in Tamil and English. After we got home, I made decoction and made coffee for both of us. Chinoo gave me the English paper. We sat at the dining table, drank coffee and read the newspapers. The scene looked like we were a long-married posh couple. I giggled quietly behind my newspaper. So lucky I woke up early and ran into him that morning.
First Persons – Episode 6
Note: All characters and venues are totally fictional; any semblance to real persons is purely coincidental. This is a serial fiction in First Person. Each episode will be the point of view of one of the characters in the story.
Synopsis: Bhanu reflects on Chinoo’s arrival, the dinner, her own handicaps, and taking Maya to Kanpur. She invites Chinoo to come and play and recalls the hopscotch song. She and Chinoo agree to a future plan.
Yesterday was one of the best days of my life. For the first time, I cooked for Chinoo and he enjoyed what I made. I was so nervous about cooking for him, because I had no experience with how spicy he ate; and besides, after having lived in many foreign countries, he might have lost his ability to eat even mildly spicy food. So I made sure I had reduced the “spicyness” in everything. I hoped that I could present the bottle of avakkaya I had bought on the first day of our stay here, if Chinoo wanted something spicier.
I thought Maya talked to him nicely while we ate. My Maya seemed so mature. I didn’t know when she had grown up to be like that. Polite, inquisitive, respectful and engaging, all at the same time. By myself I would’a been completely lost. It was so easy talking on the mobile; but face to face, and not talking about life’s difficulties or things-to-do or buy, I would not be good at that. After being a servant-maid for many years, I just could not do it. I learned many things from the internet, but then, using what I learned in talk was not easy.
When my Maya talked to Chinoo, I noticed that Chinoo was happy and talked back to her with so much interest. Some of the things he described to her were not clear; but it looked like Maya understood everything. And Chinoo seemed to have thought so too. I was so pleased when Chinoo tried to include me in the chat, asking me about the school, teachers and friends. I remembered those things so vividly, because everything that happened in the last twenty years was just a long long nightmare. Although I couldn’t forget the suffering, they were all so repetitive from day to day. In those days, sometimes, I wished I had a new, different kind of torture once in a while.
I remembered very well, the first day I met Chinoo. He came to the patio, and I was showing off my singing and hop-scotching. Yesterday was just like that in some ways; he came, and I was showing off my cooking. Just like long ago, when he asked me if he could join me, yesterday he asked if he could come for a long vacation and stay with me. I really really wanted to say that he could come to my patio and play any time he wanted; but then, I said something silly. Even if Maya were not present, I couldn’t have had the courage to say that. And besides, Chinoo might have had so many experiences in his life to remember the details of our childhood like I did. I had just been a servant-maid for a day and repeated the same day for 20 years, with not many variations. But, yesterday I was really happy. I was glad that Maya asked me to wear the silk saree, instead of the servant-maid saree.
Those bottles of vitamins were a nice gift. I must remember to pack that for Maya and remind her to eat one everyday. When living so far away, she should not get run down or sick. The computer and earphones would be very useful for Maya’s college. Chinoo coming home turned out to be like Santa Claus. Maya said last night that she loved Chinoo. I just made a joke about it when she said that; but then, later, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, I thought more about that. And I was happy. At her age, I was thrown away by my own family; I was glad that Maya could feel such nice things and tell me without feeling nervous or afraid. She would very likely meet a handsome boy in college or when she would work as an engineer, who would be as intelligent as she would be. They would talk to each other about many things and be happy. All I would do in the future would be to agree to anything that makes her happy. She would be happy for both of us.
And Chinoo. No way we could be sufficiently thankful for what he had already done for us. He looked so handsome and young yesterday when he arrived. I was somehow managing my emotions all of yesterday; but then, after I saw him standing in front of me, I had broken down a little. I was wearing my apron, so I couldn’t hug him any closer, although I wanted to. That jacket he was wearing felt like silk. Did I say that I was glad that Maya made me wear a silk saree ? It looked like Chinoo is now at peace with many things in his life. His life had become a pleasant routine in Singapore, it seemed. When he asked me to tell him what I did after I came to Chennai, I went on like an elementary school child reciting all of the going around and shopping. Chinoo must have got very amused at that.
When I went upstairs, I peeped into his room to see if he was asleep. He was; and was outside the covers, wearing just his dothi and lying on his side. <AC not enough ?> I took the AC-remote that was on top of the dresser, and reduced the temperature a few more degrees. I watched his shoulder go up and down for a few moments as he breathed. I could have sat on the floor and just watched him sleep all night. But, I went back to my room. I was very warm. I changed into my nightie and lay on top of my bed and thought about Chinoo. He was just a few feet away from me….two open doors away. I was not a child. No consequences like what Maya’s school nurse told her class, and she came home and told me when she was in her 8th class. At that time, I was so shocked to hear that Maya already learned that. Later I realized that it was a good thing for girls to know such things. I learned many things much later than I should have. What ever had happened in the past, I’d have to forget and go on. What mattered would be, if Chinoo came over and asked that very same question — <can I play with you ?>– from our first meeting in the back patio, I would do exactly the same thing I did when I was five years old. I would let him. We’d stop only when his ears fell off. I had been thinking all these thoughts, and was awake for a long time. Didn’t know when I fell asleep.
I woke up, when I heard water running noises. I am used to waking up early; a practice of 20+ years. I propped up in my bed and looked at the open door. Seemed like Chinoo was in his bathroom. A little later, the sound stopped, and I saw Chinoo. I called out in a whisper,”...chinoo…“. He came into my room, and said,”….sorry….did I wake you up ?“. He was still in his dothi and no shirt. I said,”…come here …closer“. He did. Then I asked him,”why are you up so early…?“. “jet lag“, he said,”already 6:30 in Singapore“. I touched his arm and asked,” stay here a while then…. and talk to me…“. He stayed, but we didn’t need to talk. We were very quiet. A little later, he got up and closed the door to the room and came back to me. I was once again, happy… much happier than I had ever been before. Much later, as I was drifting off to sleep still holding on to Chinoo, I heard his stomach gurgle and grumble, and I smiled at how polite it was. He said,”Bhanu.. you sleep as long as you want…I will go down and eat something…“. I let him go. Then, I remembered the hopscotch song from years ago. I hummed the tune as I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke at 9 AM. I had never slept that late in my entire life. The sun was very bright outside. I decided to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and then go down after getting dressed. When I went downstairs, in a different silk saree, I found Chinoo on the hall sofa reading a newspaper.
He looked up and said,” good morning“, and smiled. I blushed and asked,”..where did you go ?“.
“Maya and I went for a walk in the beach”, he said,”…she made coffee …there is still decoction for you…“.
“…where is maya ?“, I asked.
“She is with the computer ..I think she is setting up her laptop …and trying it out“, Chinoo said, and added,”..I’ll go up and take a shower…“. Then he got up and went upstairs. I was relieved. I went to the kitchen, heated milk in the microwave and made coffee. Maya came to the kitchen when she heard the oven beeps.
“You must have been so tired from all that excitement …“, she said.
For a moment I was stunned.
Then I recovered, and said,”…that churidar …looks very nice on you ..I heard you went for a walk in the beach…“.
“…that was an excuse …I think Chinoo wanted to eat some idly from a street shop …“, Maya smiled.
“<Chinoo?>”, I ignored Maya calling him Chinoo, and asked,”…he ate breakfast already ?“.
“…he had to ..he must’a been so hungry ..for him it was getting to be close to lunch time now…heehee“, she laughed.
That sunday afternoon, we ate lunch at home. Then we relaxed and watched television. There was some cricket match that both Chinoo and Maya watched together. They cheered, boo’ed, complained, criticized and had a good time. It was almost like they had become good friends, all of a sudden. I noticed Maya referring to IIT-Kanpur as “our college” to Chinoo. I thought I ought to do some puja at a local temple to remove any evil eye from my child. In the evening we went out to eat in a restaurant. Then to a bookstore. Chinoo and Maya went wandering in the store; he bought some general reference books that Maya should take for her college first year core classes. I bought a Harry Potter book that I had read so much about in the internet. I had a lot of work to do to catch up at least part way to Maya and Chinoo. I would soon have plenty of free time to do just that.
We went to Kanpur on Monday. From Chennai to Delhi and then to Kanpur. We stayed three nights in a hotel while taking care of the things on the IIT campus. Chinoo knew how to do all the bureaucratic things, so we had an easy time. After Maya got her student ID card and hostel assignment, we moved her suitcase and bag to her room. I met some of the other girls and their parents in that hostel. The bathrooms looked fine. They had good security and medical help. Chinoo talked to some of the fathers who had come. Chinoo looked very odd among that group. Everyone looked older, and Chinoo looked like one of the senior students we met when we took the parents’ walking tour of some of the research lab buildings. Once in a while, I had a little pang to have missed all that when I was young. However, by god’s grace and pure luck, I was there; my Maya would surely come home and tell me all her stories.
On the first day evening, we visited a professor (Tamilian gentleman) that Chinoo knew. They lived within the IIT-campus. The two of us were introduced as long time good friends of Chinoo’s family. The professor’s wife asked Maya to call her when she needed any advice and come to visit, if Maya had time. They also asked Maya to use their home address if she needed any parcels delivered. On the second day, Chinoo and I took Maya mobile phone shopping. Maya said, she could also use the computer to call both of us from her hostel room. We also opened a bank account for Maya in a local branch of the same bank that Chinoo used. We went to that Roadside Dhaba Shop where Chinoo remembered to have eaten good butter chicken 20 years ago; he said the shop had changed and it didn’t taste the same. I decided I would make him the dish at home before he left for Singapore. Maya spent the three nights with me in the hotel room. We were both sad when we went back to the hostel on the morning before Chinoo and I left for Chennai. I hugged my child for a long time and we both cried. Then Maya hugged Chinoo and cried as well. Chinoo was also a bit overcome and comforted Maya with tender words of advice. I was very happy to see that.
I was sad and drowned in my thoughts when we travelled back to Chennai through Delhi. After we came home, we called Maya and talked to her. It was amazing that we were so far away after having hugged and cried only a few hours ago. That night, having Chinoo with me was soothing. I realized that thinking about sending a child off to college in another city was a lot easier than actually doing that. When I looked at Chinoo’s face in the middle of the night, I felt sad that he lived so far away from his own child.
In the remaining days of Chinoo’s vacation, we spent the days and nights together. We were both in need of that therapy. I cooked him breakfast omelettes in the mornings, and made dinners in some of the evenings. Even butter chicken. He said eating Dhaba Butter Chicken was a different experience than eating at home. We went for walks in the beach one morning and ate idlies. Chinoo also took me to a beauty salon; although, I was amazed at the services and the expenses, I got a facial. The experience was new to me; and, having such attention paid to oneself felt very nice. I was already fit and perhaps a bit wiry. He reminded me to eat a vitamin every day and eat well, even though I would loathe to cook for myself.
We also talked about serious matters of life. Chinoo already knew practically everything about me. He knew I was not confident enough yet to attempt to get a divorce. Chinoo said he could find a suitable lawyer to help me. I wanted to be a servant-maid and house-sitter (I learned this word from Internet) for Chinoo and be at peace for some time. I liked my situation, thanks to the kind help of Chinoo. And besides, I am an experienced house-keeper. May be I could get a servant-maid visa to Singapore and go with Chinoo !! When Chinoo suggested he could marry me after my divorce, <he sounded quite unconvinced about it himself tee.. hee.. > I revealed my feelings on the subject. I told him I didn’t want to marry him. He looked younger, quite handsome and emotionally well-suited to have a young wife, and could <perhaps, should ?> have another child or two. He had the capacity for affection to make-over his personal life. Chinoo listened to me somewhat puzzled, perhaps a little surprised, and then laughed. He was probably greatly relieved that one of us was sensible. We both decided we wouldn’t talk about it anymore. Concealed as a little light hearted comment, <of what I really wanted>, I told him about this marriage-pact I had read on the internet: Two good friends, who met as frequently as they both wanted, had made a pact that if both of them were to be unmarried when they reached the age of 60, they would then marry each other, if that is what they both wanted. Chinoo thought that was a good idea. I agreed.