Ponni and Malar had moved into their home a few days ago. The room they had stayed in was being brought back to normalcy. Kuppi and two other cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887women were on the job. The mattress had been removed, the room had been lime-washed and the floor scrubbed clean. To Raji’s shock, a priest had been called in to do the final purification. She asked Pankajam angrily, “Amma, why is this priest here? What is he going to purify? There was a newborn in this room, not something unclean!”

Pankajam, egged on by Chechamma retorted back, equally enraged, “Will you just keep your mouth shut you silly woman? Haven’t you done enough harm already? Let us do what’s required now.” The priest went around the room with his pot of cow urine and herbs and leaves, sprinkling the room, smoking out the impurities and chanting away the negative energy.

Kuppi and the other women heard them arguing and Raji was embarrassed that Pankajam was so insensitive. How did they feel? They didn’t object but the hurt must be piling up in them, Raji knew. She sent them out on a pretext and pleaded with Pankajam to be more kind to them. Pankajam grimaced and left the room. She had no intention of changing her behaviour. Raji was so distressed she picked up her diary and went to the mango tree.

Diary entry No 9

Injustice and discrimination – I see it all around me and am able to do nothing. Mama too doesn’t seem to care. Today nobody at home likes me because I saved two lives they didn’t think were worth saving or were indifferent about. How do I tell them it was the right thing to do? How do I tell them they should have supported instead of shunned me? I need to do something… I need to do something… But what? I’m so tired. I’m tired of questioning, of challenging and of trying to do things differently. Why can’t I be like the others around me? They seem so content, so accepting… Maybe I should give up trying…

The entry stopped there because Damodar joined her. They both sat under the mango tree for an hour after that. Radha hovered possessively in the space around them. She came out once to pick flowers, then to solicitously ask them if they wanted coffee and once to call Damodar inside. When darkness had fallen and the evening had merged into night, they reached a decision. “Let’s meet again tomorrow and then tell Mama,” Raji said. Damodar thought to himself anxiously, “I’ll need to tell Radha too.”

They went inside to meet more hostility. Raji was used to it by now. Everything she did seemed to rouse anger, disapproval or animosity. Dinner was marked by a tense silence. Everybody seemed to be waiting for Raji and Damodar to say something. They had seen them chatting in the garden and Kuppi had overheard them speaking. She had told Chechamma who had repeated snatches of their conversation to Pankajam who was speechless with shock and disbelief. Mama was blithely unaware of the undercurrents. He thought the tension in the house was because of the fight Raji had had with her mother. Radha was in tears, sure that Damodar had been influenced by the witch she thought Raji was. Pankajam spent an hour after dinner with her, placating her.

Two days later, when the family gathered for breakfast, Subramanya was humming. He had just come from the music room where Raji and Damodar were practicing. Radha went about serving idlis and chutney, waiting for him to say something. She was hoping he would chastise Raji and Damodar. He must know something by now.

Subramanya did speak. When he did, it was to make an announcement that stunned the family. Breakfast was forgotten and nobody spoke except Radha. She actually screamed out in anger, “This can’t be! I’ll not allow it! How dare she?” Subramanya silenced her, and asked her to leave the room if she could not behave herself.

Pankajam hesitantly asked, “Have you thought of what this means? Giving permission for something like this can create problems for our family. Raji has become too arrogant and Damodar is easily influenced. Please don’t allow them to do this. I’ll speak to her and convince her to change her mind.”

Subramanya didn’t flinch, “Pankajam, I’ve thought of this carefully. They both have my approval for this. Radha, calm down and speak to me in the evening. I’ll explain my decision to you. I have to go now.”

Manohar who had been silent all along, contributed to the discussion with a long list of questions. “You’re starting a newspaper? What will it be called? Will it be a daily or weekly? Where will it be printed? Will it be in English or Tamil?”

Raji outlined the plans happily, “We are calling it Penn Kural. It will be a Tamil weekly and Damodar and I will run it. We will clean out the room where the gardening tools are kept and use it as our office. That’s all we know for now. Mama has promised to help us. Radha, please don’t object to this.”

Subramanya had left the room by now, leaving pandemonium behind him. Everybody spoke together. Radha’s voice was the loudest. She threatened and cajoled Damodar in turns. “Don’t do this. Appa can get you a job as a clerk in the court. Let’s go away from here and get our own house. This woman will ruin us. What will people say?” Damodar pleaded with her to stay quiet.

Pankajam was furious too. Her fury was an impotent, futile emotion because she knew Raji too well. Combined with Subramanya’s support, this battle was already lost. She held a weeping Radha by the shoulder and led her out of the room. When sanity returned, Radha spoke to her father who reasoned out his decision with her. She came away with a grudging admiration for what her husband was setting out to do. That night, after years, Radha responded to him with warmth. She also asked him whether he would feature some of her recipes in Penn Kural.

The birth pangs over, Penn Kural was born. At least the idea had come alive.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

 

 

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