Shantha Athai said almost everything thrice. Thirty years of marriage to a clerk in the Waste Management Department of the local Corporation had obviously affected her; for whether she was asking a question, praising an intricate kolam or asking for directions, she did everything in triplicate.
“Your coffee is almost as good as Vanaja Mami’s.”
“The coffee is excellent. Just like Vanaja Mami’s.”
“Wonderful coffee. Did I tell you my gas has been giving me trouble again?”
The funny thing, Dakshayini realised was that she was the only one in the family who noticed her Athai’s peculiar trait. When Dakshayini mentioned it to her father – Shantha Athai’s cousin on the maternal side – he admonished her for making fun of a harmless old woman. Dakshayini’s husband hadn’t noticed it either. But then what did the man notice unless it was related to cricket statistics?
Shantha Athai’s husband had passed away a few years ago (‘The only man in the family struck by lightening’ Shantha Athai often sighed), and now divided her time between her home in Cochin and her daughter’s in Chicago. Tending to a growing tribe of grandchildren and presiding over what Dakshayini liked to call the Mami’s of Middle America Association. Her latest six month stint completed, Shantha Athai was to break her journey at Dakshayini’s home enroute to Cochin. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Dakshayini’s Mother-in-law’s sister Kamala Mami and her son Harish had arrived at home over a month ago and showed no signs of moving.
Kamala Mami and Harish had arrived unannounced, in a noxious cloud of auto fumes and threats. The shouting was what brought Dakshayini and half the neighbourhood outside. The auto driver was robbing her blind screeched Kamala Mami and she would not pay one paise over Rs.45. When police action was threatened after Kamala Mami attempt to palm off a box of home made sweets in lieu of money, Dakshayini intervened, paid the automan and hustled Kamala Mami and her four bags inside.
At 54, Kamala Mami’s diminutive stature had all the bearings of one born to a family of great means. And indeed she was. Her grandfather once owned nearly all the land in Tanjore and would have no doubt extended his empire of paddy fields if not for the gurgling waters of the Cauvery and his children’s fondness for gambling. But the prosperity that had once seen Kamala Mami ride in the district’s first Rolls Royce began to ebb away after marriage. Her wrists were bare but for a blessed cord that came from the feet of Lord Balaji himself. Her neck adorned with precious little other than sacred ash and a yellow rope – a symbolic taali replaced ever so often on an auspicious day with a fresh, identical twin. Her ears were weighed down not with the eight stone diamond earrings made for her wedding but with simple gold studs.
“It’s not safe anymore. Why Sarala’s chain was snatched the other day when she was waiting for the 13B home” Kamala Mami would say when malicious eyes lingered on her unadorned throat and wrists. But everyone knew the truth.
Kamala Mami’s marriage was not a propitious one for her husband systematically invested her jewellery and dowry on business ventures that never quite took off. In thirty years of marriage he had never kept a paying job down for more than a month, and preferred to remain at homel waited on by his wife and dream up his ill-fated business ventures.
“A man must rule over himself. I cannot be lorded over some half-baked half caste. No no. I will work for myself or for no one” he had once told Dakshayini’s husband before following it by up with the outline of his next sure fire scheme.
“Simple” he said as he scratched himself “All we need to do is mix two parts oxygen with one part hydrogen. Adho! Water. This is such elementary Physics really. I don’t know why all these Nobel scientists haven’t thought of it yet. My good fortune though. They’ll get a rude shock when my invention snatches the prize right from under their noses.”
Though Harish had inherited none of his father’s business acumen, Dakshayini noticed both shared an inordinate fondness for spending other people’s money. Harish had run though a considerable amount of Kamala Mami’s dwindling monetary resources on daily matinees at the Gajapriya Cineplex, devoting considerably less time to his CA exams. After failing the latter for a fourth year in a row, it was decided he would be sent to Madras to stay with Dakshayini and Ram and find a job. So Kamala Mami AND Harish arrived in Madras, having packed the husband off to Haridwar in the hope that the Lord would bless him with good sense.
Dakshayini’s husband was unperturbed by the sudden arrival of his aunt and cousin.
“Harish will be busy looking for jobs and Kamala Mami will be good company for your Shantha Athai when she gets here. And anyway, at the most they’ll be here for a month.” Ram murmured his eye’s not once leaving the India-West Indies match highlights.
Well it had been more than a month – thirty six days and nine hours to be exact, and having settled in to a comfortable routine they showed no signs of moving. Harish woke up everyday at 9am and sipped his way through two rounds of filter coffee and the morning newspaper. Though he claimed to be looking for jobs Dakshayini knew it was the cinema listing he read religiously. An elaborate breakfast had become a must as Kamala Mami refused to let her precious son eat cornflakes and bread, always adding
‘How poor Ram manages till lunch on those dried flakes I don’t know. Anyway let him enjoy good food while I am here.’
Well fed, best shirt and trousers ironed, shoes polished and hair oiled Harish would set off, resume and certificates in hand. He would leave at 11:00am only to return in the evening; smelling of cigarettes and stale popcorn. He did not do a very good job of hiding the evidence of his afternoon celluloid trysts, for Kamala Mami would always find the telltale ticket stubs and receipts. Dakshayini had initially enjoyed the ensuing drama, but after a week of angry recriminations followed by sullen silence, suicide threats and a wailing apology (all from Kamala Mami) she was tired of it. Miraculously all altercations would end just in time for Ram’s arrival home. Then there was Kamala Mami’s not so subtle daily interrogations.
“Are you on family planning? All these tablets will ruin you inside”
“Your periods are regular aren’t they?”
“How many sovereigns gold is your Mother putting for your sister’s marriage? What does the boy do? How much does he make?”
“Did your Mother teach you to make Aviyal like that?”
Dakshayini gingerly picked up the sodden pile of unwashed clothes Harish had left in a corner of the bathroom. Couldn’t he put them in the washing machine? Or at least leave them in a bucket. It was midmorning and so far Dakshayini had made breakfast for five (Kamala Mami ate for her absent husband too), ten cups of coffee, supervised the maid, prepared Ram’s lunch and then cooked the afternoon meal for the rest of them. Dakshayini thought of her own mother who spent her entire life housing, feeding and tending to the needs of ‘the family’. Amma would often joke about putting up a board that read ‘Sachu’s Lodge’ outside their home. ‘At least I’ll receive something in return that way.’ Poor thing, not once had she been the guest – free to come and go as she pleased. Waking up to hot coffee and fresh idlis soft as jasmine buds served with fat dollops of chutney. No. Instead Amma spent her life cooking, cleaning and running a glorified mess for scores of catty Aunts and Uncles who hugged too tight and too long. Dakshayini had been a mute witness to her mother’s daily toil, resenting her relatives and their ‘as-we-please’ arrivals and departures. And resenting her mother’s weakness evey more. Yet here she was, loading some man’s underwear in to a washing machine, smile firmly plastered on her face. Dakshayini looked up as the door bell rang. It rang again. And after a short pause rang once more. Shantha Athai had arrived.
“So, your son Harish is looking for a job you say?”
Dakshayini tried to suppress a smile as she saw Kamala Mami bristle with indignation at the question. It was the third time Shantha Athai had posed the question and Dakshayini could see the effort it required Kamala Mami to compose her features and answer calmly.
“No. As I mentioned twice before, Harish is overqualified for all these jobs. He’s waiting for one fit for him with good prospects.”
Dakshayini went back to reading her book. Perhaps her husband was right. Shantha Athai and Kamala Mami would keep each other perfect company.
Kamala watched Shantha Athai as she shifted her large body about until the gas lodged in some deep mysterious recess of her body escaped with a tearing noise so loud and vicious it gave Kamala cause to jump.
“Vile woman. No manners.” muttered Kamala, bringing the pallu of her sari up to her nose in pointed protest. But the offender continued reading her magazine as though nothing had happened. In fact, it was almost as though she hadn’t even noticed. But Kamala had better things to worry about other than the woman’s complete lack of grace.
It was almost 9pm and Harish wasn’t home yet. He had never been out this late before. She had to speak to him about finding a job soon. If for no other reason than to get this Shantha woman off her back. Every morning, like some wretched suprabatham Kamala was asked why Harish hadn’t found a job yet. It was humiliating. Didn’t the woman know that it was no way for her to talk? Kamala was after all like Dakshayini’s mother-in-law. Girl’s families had no fear these days. Why girl’s had no fear themselves. Look at Dakshayini. Sleeping in the afternoon. Following Ram in to the bedroom when he came home from work. Carrying tales no doubt. She even locked the bedroom door at night. As though the others were going to just open their door like that. She would have plenty to tell her sister about her daughter-in-law. Kamala felt a little better at the thought. Her sister had always been smug about her qualified son and beautiful, qualified daughter-in-law. In fact it was her sister who had suggested that Kamala and Harish stay with Ram.
‘Probably just wanted to rub her son’s success in my face’ muttered Kamala.
“Kamala Mami. Why the worried look?”
Kamala cringed. The woman’s drawling accent made everything she said ten times more irritating.
“Oh it’s nothing”
“Why so worried? Are you worried about your son?”
“No I’m not worried. And not in the least about him”
“You seem so worried these days…”
Was the woman deaf, evil or just plain stupid Kamala seethed as she ignored her prattling and went to stand by the window. The street was empty. Everyone had settled down in their living rooms to watch the ‘Chastity’ the latest mega serial. Most of the street lights were fused, and the only illumination came from the naked bulbs hanging over porches and the tiny barred boxes that served of apartment windows. Two shadowy figures lurking under a dead street lamp caught her attention. She peered intently at them as they melded together and separated.
‘Probably that boy from two doors down’ gloated Kamala. ‘I’ll have something to tell his mother the next time we meet at the temple.’
Kamala gasped as she saw the figure that emerged from behind the lamp post a few moments later.
It was Harish.
Dakshayini pried open her left eye.
‘You’re dreaming’ she hazily thought ‘Shantha Athai is not sitting on the edge of your bed scratching herself.’
But she was. In fact Shantha Athai was looking down at her and smiling.
“Athai? Is everything alright?” Dakshayini croaked. What on earth was she doing here watching her sleep?
‘Everything is fine. I was putting back the magazine. And then I saw you sleeping. You looked so sweet.’
“I guess I should be getting up anyway. Time for tiffin. Kamala Mami will be wanting her coffee.” Dakshayini sat up.
“Yes, yes. I came to put away the magazine. And you looked so sweet. Just like when you were a baby. I’m so glad to be here. Not that I didn’t had a wonderful time in Chicago with Meera and the children. Arvind is such a nice boy – even though he’s a Naidoo he’s vegetarian you know. But it was so lonely. Meera and Arvind would leave for work so early and come home so late. Their daughter Amaya speaks American and Vishnu is too young to talk. But at least he listened to me”
Dakshayini tugged at the edge of her kameez, trapped under her Athai’s more than ample behind. Shantha Athai oblivious to this continue talking.
“Meera has changed. So American. She doesn’t listen to her Amma anymore. Do you know she’s cut her hair? It’s shorter than a man’s and it’s turned so brown. But even men have such long hair these days. I spent two days making her my special oil. But when I gave it to her she laughed and said she wanted her hair to be brown. Brown. Then she tipped it all down the sink. Just like that. Look at your hair. Still nice and long. A little thin though. Shall I make you my oil?”
Dakshayini smiled, still tugging and not wanting to commit. The last thing she needed was the house smelling like an Ayurvedic pharmacy. Shantha Athai, belched before continuing.
“Even their food habits have changed. I made Meera’s favourite sweets and snacks. Jangiri and sonpapdi. Murukku and home made potato chips coated in asafoetida. But she had one piece of each and then gave everything away to their friends. ‘Too much cholesterol’ Arvind said.”
“It’s good to be healthy Athai. They lead such busy lives” Dakshayini muttered, before giving one final yank that freed her and her dress.
“But I really missed people to talk to. Not that I didn’t have people there. But it’s so nice to be here with you. You’re such a good girl – so fond of me. And Kamala Mami is such a kind lady. She’s also very fond of me no? If only she didn’t worry about her son so much. Why do you think she worries so much?”
Dakshayini scrambled out of bed and rushed to the bathroom, slamming the door shut as the third and final instalment slipped out of her Athai’s mouth and bounced off the peeling wooden door.
“You know when your father was six years old…”
As the muffled words slid beneath the gap at the bottom of the bathroom door Dakshayini groaned. It was going to be a long wait inside.
Harish studied his reflection in the mirror as he carefully combed his moustache. Perfect. He and his life looked perfect. He’d met the girl he was going to marry, a director wanted to take test photographs of him for his next film and his mother for some reason had stopped nagging him. In fact she hadn’t said anything since the previous night. Which had been perfect too. He had taken Nandini to the drive-in for coffee and bajjis. Then they had gone to Devi theatre for an evening show and shared a Vanilla softie. Perfect. Now if only he could find the Rs.5000 the director needed for the photo shoot. There was no way he could ask his mother for it. Even in her new mellowed state. It would probably bring out her old self. Ram was ruled out. He was so tight fisted. Wouldn’t even lend him Rs.30 the other day for tiffin at Karpagam Mess. Dakshayini didn’t have any of her own. Harish mulled over the other options as he stepped out of the bedroom and made his way to the hall past Shantha Athai’s room. The door was wide open and she was sitting on her bed rubbing Overon in to her grotesquely bulging knees. Next to her, her handbag lay open, its contents bursting out of its rayon belly. Packets of sacred ash, old crumpled receipts, a dog eared copy of the Vishnu Sahasranamam, and a heavy gold chain coiled like a serpent.
Dakshayini slammed Ram’s dinner plate down before him, feeling a tiny surge of satisfaction when she saw his shoulder’s jerk in reaction.
‘Good’ she thought to herself ‘he’s not become completely oblivious to the world around him’.
Dakshayini had figured out Ram’s master plan almost immediately. After all, a man who came home at 6:30 every evening for two years couldn’t suddenly have that much work. A man who watched every pitch report, pre-match analysis, live match (including commercials), post match analysis, highlights and man of the match ceremony for every cricket match telecast didn’t suddenly start making do with highlights. If she hadn’t known any better, Dakshayini would have suspected another woman. But no. This was classic male behaviour – when guests arrive stay away from the house as much as you can. Why her father had perfected it to an art form after all. Every time ‘the family’ would descend on their home, his case load would mysteriously treble. Suddenly he would be locked in the judge’s chambers for hours on end – pleading on behalf of innocent thieves and embezzlers. There was research to be done. Reports to be written. Work so important it couldn’t be put off. Put off until the last guest had been waved good bye to that is. After that her father would be home at 3pm every afternoon, asking for fresh coffee and hot pakodas. Dakshayini’s poor, stupid mother knew exactly what was going on. But she never said a word. Well Dakshayini wasn’t her mother. She was taking matters in to her own hands. Dakshayini let go of the pot of sambhar a good inch above the table surface and watched as drops of the pungent, brown liquid spattered on Ram’s shirt. She glared at the faces gathered around the table daring them to comment, but none of them seemed to have noticed. Kamala Mami had been quiet since last night, so lost in her own world she hadn’t even noticed that the afternoon’s rasam had too much salt in it. Shantha Athai was far too busy tunnelling into the mound of steaming rice on her plate to notice. Harish was staring at Shantha Athai and Ram was staring at the television
“You know my mother used to grind all her spices with a proper stone mortar and pestle. You don’t get the same taste with an electric machine” Shantha Athai began.
“I’ve booked us tickets to Coimbatore for tomorrow morning” Kamala told Harish.
It was past 9pm and they were lying on the straw mats they spread out on the floor each night. Kamala had decided not to bring up the fact that she had seen him with that girl. It might prompt him to do something stupid. It was better that she inform him at the very last minute so he didn’t have time to think of anything.
“What? Why? But I haven’t even found a job yet Amma” Harish stammered.
“That’s alright. When we go back I’ll ask Nadar to find you something to do in his office. We’ve wasted enough time here. We’ll wake up early and pack our bags.”
Dakshayini hummed as she boiled the milk. She couldn’t believe her luck! Kamala Mami and Harish were leaving the next day. It was a little sudden, but didn’t want to ask what had prompted the decision – it might make them change their minds. Shantha Athai hadn’t taken the news too well though. She had gotten teary eyed and become even more garrulous than usual. Dakshayini had sent her to lie down, promising to bring her some hot milk to soothe her nerves. As the milk frothed and bubbled, Dakshayini fished about in the kitchen drawers for some saffron and cardamom to add to it. As she took out the tiny box, her eyes fell on half used strip of tablets. They were the sleeping tablets Amma took when she got her migraines. She must have left them behind after her last trip. Dakshayini took them out and studied them. Maybe just one. It would help calm the poor thing down.
Harish lay on his back listening to his mother’s breathing gradually settle in to the deep rhythm of sleep, and waited for the first twittering snores to emit from her half open mouth before slipping out of the room. It was 11:30pm and every one had gone to sleep. Harish stood still in the corridor waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. As the edges and shadows of objects became clearer to him he walked quietly passed Ram’s bedroom and the bathroom to Shantha Athai’s room. He was surprised at himself. His heart wasn’t pounding, his hands weren’t sweating. He felt calm and relaxed. He knew it was because he wasn’t doing anything wrong. What did Shantha Athai need a gold necklace for anyway? And once he was the famous star he was destined to be, Harish would buy her an even better one. With matching bangles even. Comforted by his generosity Harish opened the door to the bedroom with renewed enthusiasm. He stood at the doorway and surveyed the room. The curtains hadn’t been drawn, so the room was somewhat illuminated from the meagre light that filtered in from the street outside. Shantha Athai’s monstrous frame jutted like some mythical mountain, shuddering with every breath she took. Maybe he should buy her a treadmill instead of a gold chain, Harish thought, covering his mouth when a giggle threatened to spill out. Harish closed the door, got down on all fours and began crawling towards the bed. He knew Shantha Athai kept her bag underneath the single cot she slept on. Harish reached the edge of the bed and began to feel about for the maroon bag. Harish froze as the bed groaned and creaked. Shantha Athai was moving. Why was she moving? Harish watched as she turned her behemoth frame around 180 degrees to face him. Her eyes half open. Harish felt the bag and his composure slip right through his fingers.
Shantha Athai wasn’t sure if she was half awake or half asleep. Either way she felt wonderful. Dakshayini was right. The hot milk and saffron and calmed her down so much. She was upset to see Kamala Mami go. She had become so fond of her. Shantha felt a familiar ache in her knee. Perhaps some Overon would help. There was a little left in the tube in her bag. She turned around slowly, not wanting to disturb the happy equilibrium she was feeling. Was there someone in her room? Why, it was Harish. What a sweet boy. Shantha smiled at him. But why was he holding a pillow in his hands?
Dakshayini watched as Harish grabbed their suitcases and rushed to the door.
‘Why hasn’t the auto come yet?’ he called out to no one in particular.
Dakshayini was a little surprised that he was so eager to leave. Especially if there was any truth to the stories about him and Nandini. Even though the girl had a slightly hooked nose, she was far too good for Harish. Dakshayini had peeped in to Shantha Athai’s bedroom that morning and was glad to see that she was still flat out. Kamala Mami had been a little put off by the fact that Shantha Athai hadn’t bothered to wake up to come and see them off.
“It’s probably for the best. She’s already so upset that you’re leaving. She really should lie in for some time” Dakshayini had replied defensively.
“And tell Ram too. I hope the office crisis gets sorted out.” Kamala Mami instructed Dakshayini as the sound of the auto juttering down the road was heard.
‘Oh, don’t worry everything will be sorted out today.’ Dakshayini smiled and nodded as she herded Kamala Mami to the front door. Harish was already sitting inside the auto mopping his sweating forehead with a large chequered handkerchief.
“Hurry Amma, we don’t want to be late for the bus”
“I’m coming. Ok Dakshayini. Take care. And remember, the next time I come to see you I want there to be a new addition to the family? Understand?”
Dakshayini dragged what she hoped was a bashful smile to her lips and nodded, silently urging Kamala Mami to get in to the auto. As the auto grunted to life, Kamala Mami bent down and waved goodbye. Dakshayini stood by the front gate waving When the auto had finally disappeared around the corner, Dakshayini turned around and went back inside the house. She stood in the living room and savoured the silence.