Harihara stood outside his father’s office. It was a large room, a little removed from the cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887main house and had two entrances, one from within the house, and one from outside, a tiled verandah and large windows. He was at the entrance to the room from within the house. Made of dark veined rosewood, the door had a solid, shiny brass latch. The room hadn’t been opened for two months. It was that long since Appa had left them. Even when the lawyer had come to read his will to the family, they had all gathered in the central hall.

Radha and Mythili his step-sisters had wailed intermittently. But he had been dry-eyed throughout. He only knew at the end of the session that he was now a wealthy man, his mother was even more and no one, not even the gardener had been left without a bit of his wealth. Everybody was crying when the lawyer got up to leave, except his mother who sat like she had been etched out of stone. Appa had given Malar a house and she was not even fifteen yet. He wanted her to be secure.

Harihara had good memories of his father. Rides in the buggy, walks around the grounds, toys to play with, help with mathematics and lots of joy when he came home from the ashram every year. And yet, he knew so little of him. He and his mother had chatted about him on several nights when he had been unable to sleep and had sought her out, to find her awake too. He lay with his head in her lap and listened while she told him about the father he had just lost. And at the end of it, he was still hungry for more. His uncle Rajagopal had come from Theevupatti and was staying with them since his brother had died. They had spoken too. He learnt about his father’s childhood from Rajagopal.

And now he was at the door to the office. He put out his hand, which was trembling and pulled the latch back. Rama had said he must never open the office without asking Rajammal. “I’m his son, I have a right,” Harihara said to himself. The latch slid back easily. He pushed the heavy door open and it groaned. Startled, he looked around. No one had seen him. He went in on tiptoes almost. He knew he was intruding into a space that few had entered. Red flooring, white curtains, large book shelves, and the scent of leather bound books, rosewood and paper welcomed him in. The curtains had allowed thin rays of sunshine to enter and the room was cool and somewhat dark.

A big, smoothly polished rosewood table occupied much of the room. It had green baize covering most of the top. The table had drawers on both sides. Little ones on top and a large one at the bottom. A swivel chair, also made of rosewood was placed precisely in the gap under the table. Pens, paperweights, half-written briefs, open law books and other reference manuals were strewn around the table as if he had been in the midst of something important and had been suddenly called away, never to come back. Next to his table, in a stand was his collection of canes. They were of every shape and size. Silver headed, topped by ivory, sandalwood and carved and even one of metal with a leather seat that opened up. He could dig the cane into the ground, open the seat and rest on it briefly while on a walk.

He gingerly sat on the swivel and opened the top right drawer of the table and saw something there which hit him like a physical blow. Right on top, staring at him was a rich cream envelope with his name written on it in his father’s spidery handwriting. Amma had similar handwriting too, Harihara marvelled. To Harihara my son, it said on the cover. Harihara hastily banged the drawer shut and sat back dazed. What did the envelope contain? He had to know. After 15 minutes, he opened the drawer again and gently drew the envelope out. He broke open the seal and looked inside. There was a bulky set of papers inside, folded neatly in two. He unfolded them. It was a letter, obviously not written over one day. As he riffled through the sheets he saw they were actually many letters, one for each year of his life. There were 20 sheets.

An hour later, he knew more of his father than he had known being a part of his life and within touching distance. They were not letters, they were essays on life. Each had been crafted with love and held advice cleverly couched in simple anecdotes of wisdom, stories from the epics and other incidents that had inspired him. There were humorous pieces too and the best among those were his descriptions of Radha and Rajammal’s squabbles when they were children. Harihara spent over three hours in the room. No one knew he was in there. The entire household was searching for him. It was lunchtime and he was nowhere to be seen. Raji finally found him. His eyes were moist, but he looked happy at having found his Appa.

Subramanya’s room became Harihara’s after that. Assertiveness seemed to come into him like a silent force before he could even leave the room. The trick lay in the final letter Mama had written asking Harihara to take charge and protect his mother. Rajagopal had gone back to Theevupatti, after making Raji promise she would go there and stay for a year at least. Raji had less to do after that. The school, the paper, property matters, taxes, accounts and even administering the staff became Harihara’s to take charge of. Raji saw new shades to her son everyday. She was proud, she was relieved, her shoulders didn’t ache anymore and she spent more time attending to her beloved oleander bushes. Malar and Sivu’s daughter Padma saw much more of her. She enjoyed calling jewelers home and designing jewellery for them. The leading saree shops in Madras sent their collections home for her to build the girl’s wardrobes. And a year later they held Dasara at home again.

Raji and Pankajam had got closer and this meant that the invisible line that had divided this and that part of the house got blurred. Harihara wasn’t afraid anymore to go and demand idlis from his grandmother or badger her to make murukkus. The fragrance of love pervaded the house. Harihara was the happiest.

Damodar and Raji worked together frequently. She was after all writing for Penn Kural. Harihara was part of the meetings where they discussed content. He didn’t detect anything but each time they met, they both came away pained and sad. Another year rolled by. Subramanya’s household was uneventful after a long time.

Mama had done it again. Even in death, he had made life easy for his beloved Raji by bringing Harihara into the centre and deflecting attention and bitterness away from her. Harihara was loved by all. He could keep the family together and he did.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

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