Malar had just returned to Madras from London where she had been studying for two years. A car was waiting for her and they drove straight to the mansion from the airport. Harihara, Ambuja, Ponni and Malar’s husband were waiting for her in the central hall. It was a sweltering Madras afternoon and a well-oiled fan fixed to the end of a long tube dangled from the high ceiling. Its blades were whirring noiselessly keeping the room cool. The flowered curtains were drawn to keep out the afternoon glare.
The furniture had not changed a bit since Malar’s childhood; only the upholstery was new. White lace tablecloths that Raji had crocheted and Ambuja had preserved carefully still covered the tables. As Malar sipped the thick creamy buttermilk Ponni had brought to her, the tangy mix of ginger, lime, herbs and green chilli brought her taste buds alive and Raji’s voice rang in her ears, “Malar, it’s a hot afternoon and you still have a lot to study before your exams. Don’t fall asleep! I’ll get you some spiced buttermilk. It’ll make you alert.” She wasn’t here to say it now. It was a year since she had left them and the atmosphere in the room was sombre, even grief-laden.
Malar recalled the day news about Raji’s death had reached her. Louise, the housekeeper in her lodging house had called her to the telephone. Harihara was at the other end and she couldn’t believe that he was saying, “Malar, Amma is no more. She left us last night. She died in her sleep.” To Malar, all alone on a bleak, rainy day in London, his voice seemed cruel and heartless. Why was he doing this to her? He had always been the teasing elder brother who loved tormenting her. She had yelled at him and slammed the phone down. The phone rang again in some time, and Harihara had repeated himself compelling her to believe him.
She was sunk in grief for weeks after that. How could Amma die? Yes, she had become forgetful but she had been physically well when Malar left. It was one of her rare coherent days and she had held Malar close and kissed her. “Malar, promise me you will come back and continue to work in our school. I want our girls to have the best.” Not waiting for a reply, she had lapsed back and begun to shout at Ambuja, asking to be given food though she had just eaten. Malar had come to London on Raji’s insistence. It was her wish that Malar go and bring back the latest methods of teaching to their school in Madras.
It was actually Malar’s school – begun the day Raji had approached an elite school in Madras for her admission into it. The school had denied her admission, she did not have the required lineage they said. Raji stormed out in anger and Subramanya was her sounding board as always. “Start a school for girls like Malar, Raji. We have so much space around the house,” he had said to her. And the school was born – named Penn Kural Girl’s school. With one student. Malar was the only student in the school for a year and she often wondered how Raji had found time between the house and the newspaper and her other interests to teach her. The school had 500 girl children now and offered the best education for girls in Madras and the elite sought admission for their children in the school. They didn’t seem to care that Malar was the Head Mistress and she still couldn’t claim lineage.
Harihara had just finished telling her about Raji’s last days. They were holding each other and tears were coursing down their cheeks. Ponni and Ambuja were inconsolable too. Malar quietened down after a while. She turned to Harihara and asked, Anna, can we visit the cottage?” He nodded, despite knowing how painful it would be to relive the memories locked away in it. Penn Kural had moved to a bigger place in town and this cottage had become Raji’s private space, especially after Mama and Damodar had passed on. The cottage had not been opened for years, not even to be cleaned after Raji had lost her memory.
Harihara pulled a large key off the key-stand on the wall. He scraped the rust off it with his fingernails and they walked out towards the mango tree in the distance. Ponni refused but Ambuja went with them. They battled with the rusted lock and the door made a creaking sound as they opened it. As if in deference to the memories that lingered in the cottage, Malar whispered, “Nothing’s changed. It’s not even too dusty in here.” She walked in as if mesmerized. Her baby hammock that was still suspended from the ceiling was limp and empty obviously but Malar still remembered the gentle hand that had rocked it, even while writing with the other.
Two writing desks, one at each end of the room, were still in place. There was a smaller desk by one of them. The paper and pen on Raji’s desk appeared to be waiting for her to come in and take her place and begin writing. Ambuja, who hadn’t been here too often, except to bring coffee for her mother-in-law or call her for lunch, tried to open the drawer of the desk. It was stiff. She had to tug hard and it gave way. The scent of rosewood wafted out of it when the drawer opened. Inside was a fat red diary with a black string tied around it. Next to it lay a golden pen with inlay work on it. Ambuja instantly recognized it. Raji had spoken enough about the pen, a gift from Mama she had said. A copy of the first issue of Penn Kural was framed and hung on the wall. It was still there. On the wall, there was also a picture of Damodar and Raji meeting Mahatma Gandhi on one of his visits to Madras before Independence.
Harihara called for one of the servants to come in and sweep the place clean. In an hour it was sparkling again. Malar decided to come here more often and before they locked up, Ambuja asked to take the diary with her. A shadow crossed Harihara’s face. He didn’t know what she would find in there. Even in death, Raji could spring surprises, he knew. But Ambuja and Raji had been so close. She had a right to inherit the diary and its contents. He nodded and she clutched it close to herself. They locked up and left the room.
To be continued…