Ambuja and Sunandamma the cook who had replaced Chechamma after she had passed cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887on, were in the yard outside the kitchen, stirring spices into a huge cauldron of cut green mangoes. The heat of a summer afternoon combined with the tang of raw mangoes hit Raji as she entered the kitchen, aided by a thick cane. The air was laden with the sharpness of red chilli, mellow turmeric and hing frothing out fragrance from boiling sesame oil. It churned her senses and brought alive a time and age long past. She went into the yard and looked around. She was unnerved and had to hold on to the door when she looked around. Who were all these people? Where was Amma? And Chechamma? Had Amma fought with her again? Why wasn’t she here? She sighed. She would have to placate her and bring her back now. She called out to Hari who rushed to her. Raji seemed agitated, “Hari, I think Chechamma is angry again and has left home. Let’s go and bring her back. But where is Amma? Is she still in her room? Is she unwell?” She began walking towards Pankajam’s room. Hari held her back looking helplessly at Ambuja, wondering how to cope with this new situation. Raji wouldn’t find Pankajam in that room. She and Chechamma had been dead for years. Hari’s son lived there with his wife now. Raji knew that, but today, she was out of step.

Raji’s life had been out of step for long but today she seemed completely off-track. It had all happened so swiftly. In just a few years, her world had shrunk and wrapped itself around her like the web a spider spins to trap an unsuspecting insect. She was mostly secure in the web but occasionally flailed about in anger trying to clear the web, like she was doing today.

Ambuja tried to match her steps but couldn’t keep pace because it was difficult to predict when and which part of Raji would manifest itself. On most days, she sat at the entrance to her room, legs stretched out over the threshold, looking out at a small world of busy people. But this world made no sense to her. Her eyes looked past it as if looking for something or someone, clutching her red pouch tightly to herself.

Her silence was only from the exterior. It covered her like a fragile wax mask. Inside her there were voices and there were people. They were like shadow puppets jumping on strings, all of them shrieking to be seen and to be heard by her. Sometimes the wax cover would split and the bilge of lost moments would tumble out. At others, she would struggle to get her steps in tune with the present, failing more often than not.

On a rare day, the cobwebs in her brain cleared and on those days, she, Harihara and Ambuja sat in the garden on the stone bench and chatted happily. They drank coffee and ate hot murukkus. Ambuja remembered those converations because Raji was so sharp and had so much to say. Ambuja heard stories about Ayya and Mama and her life in the village, living as a little girl in the stone house by the Bhagirathi. When she spoke, Ambuja heard the river, the birdsong and the rustle of leaves in the trees as if she was sittting by it. Raji spoke about Damodar too. She told them about how they began Penn Kural and the very special moments of success they shared when it became well-known. She spoke fondly about meeting the famous people of the time. But a shadow always fell across her face at such times, as if she had more to say but didn’t know how to say it.

On one such day, when just she and Ambuja sat on the bench, she said, “Ambu, one day, when he asks, if he asks, tell Hari I meant no harm to Radha or to Mama. Ambuja was perplexed, “What are you saying Mami? What must I tell my husband? I don’t understand.” Raji sighed and patted Ambuja’s palm. “Never mind. I’m tired. I don’t remember what I wanted to say. It’s very warm here. Shall we go inside? I want to rest.”

Ambuja led her in. Raji slept for the rest of the day. The next morning, and for weeks after that she was out of step. She rambled, she was cranky and she complained she hadn’t been given food for weeks, despite having eaten all her meals. She sounded so burdened. Ambuja wanted to hold her close and tell her that whatever was troubling her could be sorted if she only spoke. She tried asking. Raji raved at her in anger, “What do you want to know? What do you want me to tell you? That I killed Damodar, like Radha suspected? Go on, believe I did! I don’t care!” Ambuja gave up and calmed her as best as she could.

It was years after she died that Ambuja learnt the reason for Raji’s anguish. Harihara did not know and continued to wonder. He had not read the red diary. One day, Ambuja led him to the bench under the tree and read the diary to him. She held back nothing. He had to know about his mother. Little Mani kept running to them asking them to come into the house. Hari sent him away curtly. Mani cried because his grandfather had never been harsh with him. Ambuja held him on her lap and cuddled him. She cajoled him to go back into the house.

They both sat silently for an hour while Hari grappled with what he had just heard from Ambuja. He spoke finally, “Appa loved her. How could she do this to him?” Then, as if he was speaking to himself, “But she was so young, so out of step from when she was born. She was not given choices, ever. Someone always chose for her. Even Radha and Mythili Akka had choices. The first time, the only time she made a choice, she made the wrong one. Can it even be called the wrong choice? It must have just happened. Damodar Athimber probably related to her, he was more in step with her than Appa could ever be. They were friends. They could have conversations. She didn’t get lectures from him. They could have fun, they were closer to each other in age too. Can I blame her?” He was crying now. “I wish she had spoken to me. I could have lessened her guilt. Ambu, I understand how Amma must have felt and I respect all the choices she made. Give me the diary. I want to keep it with me. I want to read it when I am faced with dilemmas and make the same choices she made. I love her more today and I love you for telling me all this. You have brought her closer to me.”

Mani came running out again. His grandparents were sad and he wanted to make them happy. He brought a bunch of oleanders in his little hands and gave it to them. It was like Raji had come back. They held him and walked back into the house. Rajammal was at peace at last. She had laid all her ghosts to rest.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

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