Mama’s chess board adorned Raji’s table now. Made of ebony, the board had elaborate ivory inlay and the pawns were of ivory too. She often likened herself to the pawns – always moved by another’s hand, to solve a problem or to suit a situation. Pankajam had done her bit of calculated problem solving when she had used Raji to erase their problems with one move. Ayya had made a move because he wanted his son’s lonely life to be filled again.Thereafter Mama had made his moves with a gentle and more just hand. He had taken her to victory and yet, she had been unable to shake off the feeling of being pushed around. After Mama went, the game seemed to have paused. She didn’t feel a pull or a push anymore because no one wanted anything of her. There were no problems that needed her to solve them. Inertia had set in and one day followed another. One issue of Penn Kural after another. One school day followed another. Stability brought ennui with it. She reached out and took a pawn in her hand. It was the most beautiful one and she liked it the best. It was obviously a queen but she didn’t know where to put it. It seemed so out of place everywhere. She moved it here and there and then gave up in exasperation. She was lost.
A year had already gone by since Mama had left her. Flouting all convention, leaving mourners aghast, she had accompanied the men to his cremation, only because she did not want Harihara to be traumatized while putting the flaming torch to his father’s body. She had watched him being consumed by flames amidst the chanting of mantras. When the flames leapt up and claimed her husband, the heat hit her where she was standing. She had pushed back, despite her wish to douse it and take him away and breathe life back into him.
Damodar walked in, asking, “Do you want to play chess Raji?” He was being kind she knew. He had been constantly around her, giving her comfort, speaking to her, helping her to overcome her grief. She loved him for that. But she also felt a great sense of unease. Was he now trying to move her too?
“No Damodar, I don’t know how to play.”
“Oh! I can teach you. I played often with Mama and won too. Shall we try?” He picked up a pawn and began explaining the game to her. He hadn’t said a word out of place, hadn’t made one false step but there was a tightening in the air, a sudden airlessness and difficulty in breathing.
In that moment, she cautioned herself. She was on the verge of becoming a pawn again and this time it would be her own hand moving the pawn. A situation was building around her and she was tempted to succumb. There was pain ahead of her. She had to move away, she could. The chess board was hers this time, the pawns would move as she wished. She pushed her chair back and moved to the far end of the room.
“Damodar, we should stop meeting.”
He seemed unnerved. He hadn’t expected this and hedged, unwilling to say anything that could close doors. “How will we work together if we don’t meet?” he asked.
“Let’s stop working together then.”
“Why Raji? I thought we had agreed to be friends. Have you forgotten?”
“Yes we had. But is that possible? We have never lied to each other. How long do you think it will be before we forget our promise? Isn’t it obvious it won’t be long?”
“Raji, trust me. We will be alright. Let’s not disturb anything. ”
“I need time to think Damodar. Please leave me alone for a few days.”
Raji walked out of the cottage and went to her room. That night she didn’t sleep well. The sound of the Bhagirathi River rushing past her childhood home was in her ears as if she was somewhere close to it. She woke up several times trying to shut it out. But the calling was too strong. She knew what she had to do. She wanted to go home.
Grainy eyed and tired the next morning, she went to the kitchen in search of Pankajam. The fragrance of coffee was comforting. Thin rays of the morning sun entered the kitchen through the high windows. Pankajam saw Raji enter and held out her hand, calling her close.
“Amma, let’s go home,” Raji said softly.
“What? What did you say Raji?” Pankajam asked.
“I want to go home for a few months. Harihara is grown up now. He can manage here. Come with me. Let’s go and stay in our house.”
Pankajam’s lined face lit up with joy. She held Raji close and they both excitedly made plans. At breakfast, over idlis and coffee, Raji announced her plans. She told Harihara he had to manage in her absence. He nodded. He seemed to sense her need to go away for some time.
Later, when they were in the cottage, Damodar asked about her decision. “Damodar, this is the best way I know. I also have to ask something of you. I haven’t told Radha yet. I don’t want to tell her. But I would like you all to move out and go to your own home before I return. Can you please do this for me?”
Damodar’s face darkened with anger. “Do you realize you are manipulating me? What if I refuse?”
Raji was moving the pawns now. She felt in control. “If you don’t move out, I won’t come back Damodar. Would you like my son to lose his mother as well?”
Damodar knew he had lost her for good. He left the room. Raji had her palm firmly around the queen on the chessboard.
A month later, Raji and Pankajam reached Theevupatti. She had sent a messenger earlier, asking for the little stone house to be repaired, lime-washed and made ready for them. The ground around the house was clean, the oleander bushes were bursting with blossoms and the temple was busier than ever with a steady flow of pilgrims. The Bhagirathi was ever flowing, ever rushing noisily past. The stone steps were still intact, just a little smoother from the footfalls of pilgrims. The night they reached, they had a spartan meal, and Raji lit a lamp in the niche on the wall. She spread out a mat on the floor. Pankajam and she slept beside each other, feeling each other’s warmth. Pankajam slept soundly because debts didn’t loom large in her head. She hadn’t any worries anymore. Raji slept too. Just like they did in the old days.
The next morning, she took her mother to the river and they sat on the steps. “Amma, are you happy?” she asked. “Yes Raji, I’m happy. I want to stay here for the rest of my life. May I?” Raji smiled in acceptance. There was peace in the air.
Six months passed. It was time for Raji to go back. Pankajam took her to the river for one last time. She seemed agitated, as if something was weighing her down. “Raji, before you leave I have something to tell you. It is about Rajagopal Mama.”
Raji held her mother’s hand and stopped her. “Don’t say anything Amma. I know what you want to tell me. I saw you both together that afternoon. I was too young to understand but when I grew up I knew what had happened. My little brother who died before he could take his first breath, I know about him too. And I understand. Don’t kill yourself with guilt. You must have been so unhappy after Appa died, so alone, so burdened. I don’t blame you for what happened. I don’t even blame Rajagopal Mama.”
Pankajam was weeping bitterly now. Raji held her close and rocked her gently. Then she said something that Pankajam did not comprehend. “Amma, you didn’t know how to play chess. You didn’t even have control over the pawns. Don’t cry now. It’s too late. Put it behind you and live happily. You are home now.”
She left for Madras the next day. The house was the same. Harihara had managed it very well. Radha, Damodar and their family no longer lived there. They had moved to their own house, Harihara told her. He was puzzled and said so. “I asked them to wait till you returned. Radha Akka cried so much. But nothing worked. Damodar Athimber (brother-in-law) wanted to leave. Now that you are back you can call them back. The house is so empty now that Pati also has left.”
“Harihara, they will not come back. You can’t bring back what is gone. I’m hungry. What has Chechamma cooked?”
Raji’s skills at chess were improving everyday.
To be continued…