Living in an ‘appsclusive’ world

We’re familiar with an inclusive and exclusive world. Welcome to the appsclusive world. It’s a complex, tyrannical world where apps rule and if you don’t own a smart phone and don’t know how to sign up, log in, swipe up, add to basket, and pay online, you might as well give up living.

In the past year, several people have exited my life. The friendly milk delivery boy, the newspaper man, the neighbourhood grocer, and even the flower lady who brought us flowers for our daily pooja have all disappeared and apps have replaced them.

Living in an apartment complex means complying with all the rules that the committee formulates, in this case a rule which demanded that we residents get all our daily supplies through an online supply system.  It began with our daily milk supply. The doorbell rang one day and four men stood outside demanding that my husband hand over his smart phone to them so they could configure it for our daily milk needs. My husband hesitantly told them he doesn’t own a smart phone. They sniggered first, looked at each other and then broke into guffaws. “You don’t own a smart phone?” they demanded, “then we’re sorry that we can’t supply milk to you till you get one.” My husband was red with anger. He protested and threatened to no avail. Eventually I had to use my phone to ensure we get our daily milk.

The same followed with our paper, flowers and groceries. We are now grappling with our television programming. The cable guy has just deserted us and we are at the mercy of the dish operators who have told us that we have to visit their app and choose our own package. We don’t anymore have the luxury of picking up an ordinary phone and requesting the cable operator to add or remove a channel. He would come home, exchange small talk, share a cup of tea with us and give us the programming of our choice. Now all I have is a smart phone and a conversation with indeciperable tech terms.

My mother at 84, and others like her are probably the worst challenged by the tyranny of apps. She called me in panic the other day and said that strange messages were appearing on her television screen, announcing packages she did not understand. “All cricket tournaments are not telecast by the same channel. How do I choose? I watch Crime Patrol. How do I choose that channel? I wish we had only Doordarsshan,” she wailed. To add insult to injury, her cable operator had told her to visit the app and build her own package. She feared her screen would blank out soon if she didn’t choose the packages she wanted. It took me a while to calm her fears, and we’ve finally got her choice of channels going after several visits to a television showroom that is entrusted with the task of handling the apps-challenged misfits of society.

Our neighbour has her own set of woes. “We don’t have our milk delivered anymore. My husband buys milk on his return from his morning walk because we don’t know how to operate a smart phone. It’s too complicated,” she says worrying about what she’ll do on days he can’t go for a walk.

Our cook who owns a smart phone demands recipe videos are sent to her on WhatsApp so she can have them for easy reference. Our old newspaper man doesn’t go around calling out anymore. He needs a phone call before he can come and pick up old newspapers.

One day, craving for a hot ‘nati koli’ (desi chicken) biriyani, I call up the little biriyani cafe in our neighbourhood. He’s become a friend now and sometimes comes himself to give us hot biriyani straight from the pot. This time, he sheepishly says he has signed up with an online food delivery company and requests me to place the order through their app. I give up! I live in an appsclusive world and can’t keep up!

Bharathi Ghanashyam


Out of step

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

Rajammal’s diary knows better

The mango tree was the same. The shade under it was just as cool. The oleander bushes cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887around it were in bloom as always. The birds on the branches sang just as full-throated. Everything was as normal as it should be. And yet, nothing was the same. Damodar was dead and Raji, sitting on the bench below the tree was distraught. She was writing furiously in her red diary, even as tears flowed unchecked down her cheeks.

She wrote…

That day, when we returned from Damodar’s funeral, the family was speaking the way people usually do after someone dies. They were wondering about his last moments. Radha had told us he had died in his sleep, healthy as he seemed when he went to bed. Harihara too had been surprised because they worked together and Damodar had seemed well. He just seemed to have quietened over the years. Was he depressed? Ambuja pitied him and even spoke with a little humor on how difficult living with Radha must have been on him.

Their talk grated on my nerves. I was getting a headache. Nobody knew how I was really feeling. They didn’t even suspect. It hit me with force when we came past the cottage that I would never see him or speak to him again. He would never visit the cottage again. I wanted to be left alone so I went into my room and locked myself in. That night was probably the most difficult one of my life. I didn’t sleep at all. I just sat and relived our non-relationship.

Two men… I had lived with one, been intimate with him, borne him a child and shared everything I had with him. That made him the most important person in my life. The other lived on the periphery. He was merely a business partner, a friend and relative, and someone who didn’t have a place in my life beyond that and certainly not in my thoughts. In reality, it was the other way round. Mama was the husband chosen for me for reasons that did not have me in it. Damodar had been my soul. I had just lost a partner who wasn’t really one and yet was the only partner I had ever wanted.

The next morning I went out in whites. The family thought I had suffered another memory lapse and was reliving Mama’s death. But I wasn’t. I was fully aware of what I was doing. I knew within myself that I had been widowed for the second time in my life. I allowed them to think what they wanted. It gave me the space to give expression to my grief.

Society is such a tyrant. It prescribes rules for everything, even the way your heart beats. I’ve always wondered why I did not declare my love for Damodar to the world. It was love after all, not an intent to murder or something more horrible. If I was expected to love my husband’s daughters born out of his intimacy with another woman, why couldn’t I, out of my own free will, love another man? Why was love always confused with intimacy? And intimacy itself was such a strong corollary to love. So why did so much stigma go with it? Why so much denial? I stayed away from Damodar not because I feared society but because my heart didn’t seem to need the intimacy. In the process, I was so selfish. I didn’t think about his needs and desires at all.

What would Hari say if he knew about the storm in my heart now? I had seen Amma with Rajagopal Mama. I was shocked then but when I grew up, I understood her need for a male touch when she was at her lowest ebb in life. It probably comforted her to feel physically wanted. How much do we know about the intimate desires of our families? Do we know each other at all? I hope that one day if Hari reads this diary, he understands his mother and her need for emotional comfort. And the difficult decision she and Damodar took to move away from each other.

Radha came home a month after Damodar’s death. After her usual spell of hysterical ranting, she spoke to Hari about the paper and her future. She wanted to sell her share to us. Now that Damodar was not alive, she had no interest in it and had no knowledge of how to run it either. Hari sought my opinion. I dispassionately told him he could do as he wanted. I had no interest in running it anymore, or even writing for it. He was shocked. He knew how much I loved Penn Kural. It was also so successful. I don’t remember now what was decided that day. I think Hari decided to employ writers and run it by himself. I’m a little confused now. I’m tired. My head hurts. I need to rest.

Raji entered the cottage and put the diary away carefully in the drawer of her desk. She locked the drawer and clasped the keys on to her waist. As she turned away, the red pouch on the desk caught her eye. Reaching out for it, she opened it and drew out the turquoise stone. It felt smooth and cool and comforting to the touch. She held it to her cheek. She stroked it, feeling a lump in her throat. Putting it back carefully in the pouch, she drew it close and tucked it into her saree. The pouch never left her after that day.

Penn Kural continued to run successfully. Only Raji’s voice was missing from it. People stopped asking after a while. They too moved on to other writers. But Raji got busy with the school. The children who came to the school loved her. She didn’t run classes with textbooks in her hand. She relied on stories instead. She relied on conversations. She encouraged her students to speak, and she spoke too. She never tired of telling them that freedom, independence and honesty were foundations for strong relationships. Strangely, she did not suffer a single episode of memory loss while in school. All those happened only when she was home. The most severe happened the day the family spoke about Damodar.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

Salted badam milk

Raji’s family was growing. Hari and Ambuja were expecting their second child; Padmacropped-oleanders-e1525883936887 had just delivered a son and Malar, who had married a year ago, had just announced she was going to be a mother.

Raji got busy. There were baby clothes to be stitched. She went to the market and bought the softest fabrics in pale pink, white and cream. The tailor was summoned home and Raji supervised his work with fanatic zeal. Every stitch, every ribbon, and every button had to be just so. He needed a break from her every few days and didn’t turn up for work. On those days, she sat at the machine herself. Sometimes, he had to redo the work she had done, but Raji was the grandmother-in-waiting and nothing could stop her. The house was strewn with pattern books and she crocheted the most delicate laces worked in fine, silken threads and sewed them on to the baby clothes. Some of the clothes had little rosebuds embroidered on them. Her enthusiasm was infectious and soon the girls too learned embroidery from her and the house was buzzing with activity.

Their diets too were important and Chechamma who was bent and old by now was kept busy supervising the new cook who had come in to help her. She had to prepare a special diet for the new mothers and a different diet for the mother-to-be. Harihara felt quite neglected and often grumbled about it. “You don’t care about me anymore,” he said albeit in a good-natured way. Raji comforted him and promised to make his favorite badam milk one day. She called for freshly milked cow’s milk and boiled it to perfection. It had to thicken just enough. Grinding a handful of badams, she gently stirred the paste into the milk and added powdered cardamom and slivers of saffron into it. It was smelling quite delicious, had just the right consistency, and there was just one ingredient remaining. It needed sugar, which had to be added in when the milk cooled down, lest it curdled. At just the right time, she reached for the jar and spooned it in.

Raji was completely satisfied. Hari was going to love the badam milk. It was his favourite drink. After lunch, she poured the milk into tumblers and served them herself to Hari, Ambuja Malar, Padma and their husbands. She kept a tumbler for herself too. They were all sitting in the central hall and chatting. Hari took a sip of the milk and grimaced. It tasted salty. He looked at Raji who was sipping from her tumbler. She too found it odd. She was sure she had put sugar and not salt in it. Then why was it salty? She called for Chechamma. “Chechamma, why is this milk salty?” she asked. Chechamma shuffled awkwardly and mumbled under her breath. “Chechamma will you speak louder? I can’t hear you,” Raji said, still puzzled. “You added salt into the milk instead of sugar,” Chechamma stammered, a little fearful of what Raji would say. “Oh no! Why didn’t you tell me?” Raji asked angrily. Chechamma retorted, a little offended now, “I told you, I even tried to give you the sugar jar. But you asked me to move away. You said you knew what you were doing.”

Hari laughed and teased his mother, “Amma, you’re growing old. You can’t tell the difference between salt and sugar.” He didn’t know how close he was to the truth. Raji had just suffered her first memory lapse. She didn’t even remember the incident in the kitchen. They all laughed it off and she made a fresh batch of badam milk, this time with sugar. An hour later, they drank the fresh milk and the incident was forgotten.

A month later, Raji woke up in the middle of the night and went into the cow-shed to milk the cows. She wondered why the sun was so late in rising that day, little realizing it was still 2 am. After 10 minutes or so, she looked around, puzzled why she was in the cow-shed so late at night. She hurried back into the house and went to bed again. The family didn’t know about the incident because she remembered nothing of it the next day.

It was a year before she had her next memory lapse and this time, the entire family knew about it. She bathed three times on the same day, insisting she hadn’t bathed. They worried for her. But she seemed so normal otherwise, they did nothing about it.

Life went on. Malar  had delivered a healthy girl. Raji was busy tending to her grandchildren. Small incidents continued. She occasionally had trouble buttoning her blouse, or dressing the babies. She sometimes forgot names and addressed Hari as Mama. But otherwise, she was her usual sharp self. The doctor examined her and found her healthy. “You need to relax,” he told her.

She came unhinged the day Damodar died. News came to them early one day. They all went to be with Radha. They returned home after the funeral and Raji didn’t come out of her room all of the next day. When she did emerge, She was dressed in white. Hari rushed to her and held her. She looked so stricken. “Amma what happened?” he asked with alarm in his voice. “My husband is dead, and you ask what has happened?” She was livid with rage. Ambuja held her and took her into her room. She sat with Raji for over an hour till she calmed down. The next morning she was normal, as if nothing had happened.

Ambuja, who was now privy to her diary knew exactly what had happened to Raji that day.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…



Notes from Rajammal’s diary

Deepavali this year was so joyful. The entire family had gathered in our house. The cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887women wore new silks that rustled when they moved and the men wore stiffly starched new silk dhotis. The aroma of festival food was in the air. I had called in a cook to help Chechamma because there was so much to do. I was walking towards the kitchen to check on lunch when Damodar approached me. He wanted us to go to the cottage.  I hesitated for a moment and then agreed. The urge was too strong. It was so long since I had spoken to him. But we were discreet, even sneaky. “I’ll go first and open the cottage,” I told him. “You follow after some time. People are busy, they won’t know where we are. I don’t want Radha creating trouble for us on a festival day. But I’ll be with you only for a short while Damodar.”

I unlocked the cottage and went in. I was apprehensive. I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t. A niggling voice in me was urging me on. What harm could happen in 10 minutes? We were just going to speak, weren’t we? I had missed him so much. I waited, wringing my hands nervously.  He came in after a while, gently shutting the door behind him. I was perspiring mildly by then. But he seemed so calm. He went straight to his desk and sat on his chair. 5 out of the 10 minutes we had given ourselves passed in silence. Nothing. We said nothing to each other. He sat in his chair and me in mine. It was so awkward. Where had that easy friendship gone? I finally spoke. I asked him how he was. “I’m fine Raji. And you?” “I’m fine too,” I said. The silence was getting out of hand. I didn’t like it. I didn’t trust myself. I needed to get out of there fast. I said in a rush, “Why did you call me Damodar? Is there something you wanted to say to me?”

I remember that moment so well. He replied “No, I have nothing to say. I just have something to give you.” He reached into his jubba pocket and drew out a red velvet box. “This is a small gift for you. For your courage and for keeping me in place. I hope you like it.” The box had a beautiful gold bangle in it. It was a simple, solid band of gold, completely unembellished. “It reminded me of you,” he said, as I was turning it in my hand, wondering about its simplicity and its austere design.

At that moment I was so filled with love for him, if he had asked me to reconsider my decision, I would have. But he didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything more. It was as if the meeting was over. I wore the bangle. It fitted me perfectly. We both looked towards the door, knowing it was time to leave. Maybe we would never get a moment like this again. We were both reluctant to leave, but it was nearing lunch and people would begin to look for us.

I walked towards the door and saw it opening. Daylight entered and with it, Radha, looking like the thundercloud that always cloaks daylight when it appears. She was heaving in anger. “I knew it,” she said. “You witch! How long has this been going on? My father had warned me. He had sent my husband to a new office because he was scared of what you would do!” Damodar rushed to her side. He shut the cottage door behind her, not wanting the household to witness the quarrel he anticipated. “Radha, it’s nothing. We were just catching up on some work with the paper. Come, let’s go to lunch,” He began to guide her out. She shook him off and continued her tirade.

After ranting for a long time, when she was spent and tired, she said her final words. “You know what, you wicked woman? You will never get control of my husband’s newspaper. It is his! He has worked for it. Now that it is so famous, don’t ever think you’ll get it back. Your son is a part of it. Isn’t that enough for you?” She dragged Damodar with her and left the room, leaving me gaping. Was she stupid or complacent? Hadn’t she seen the truth?

I locked the cottage and went into the house a lot later than them. Chechamma was serving lunch by then. Hari was searching for me. I joined them. Suddenly, as if nothing had happened, Radha looked at my arm and asked about my bangle. “Did you get this for Deepavali? It’s nice.” Damodar looked at me. Neither of us said anything. I just nodded.

I wear the bangle everyday. I draw strength from it. Hari too asked me about it. I told him I had bought it for myself. It’s just a bangle but it’s so much more. It’s a part of me….

…Ambuja was sitting on the bench under the mango tree and reading the red diary. It revealed a new facet to her mother-in-law every time she did. She looked at her own arm. The bangle snugly fitted it. Raji had given it to her one day a few months before she died. It was one of her good days. She slid it off herself and slipped it on around Ambija’ss wrist. “Take this Ambu. It is a part of myself. Look after it.” And then she began looking towards the cottage. “Take me there. Damodar must be waiting for me,” she had said. Ambuja did not understand then. She did now.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…


The purple saree with gold checks

It was three years. To the day. Three years ago, on this day, Mama had gone away nevercropped-oleanders-e1525883936887 to return. Raji stood before her open wardrobe staring at the stacks of sarees inside. She hadn’t worn many of them since he had gone. Tonight she was looking for a soft cotton saree to wear to bed. She inhaled the faint aroma of sandalwood that wafted across from the pouches of sandal powder she had placed inside the wardrobe. Reaching into the cupboard she gently pulled out a saree which she knew had been Mama’s favourite. She felt a mild sense of dread as she held it close to herself, fearing the memories it carried with it, fearing the flood of emotions it might open up in her. Made of rich purple silk, with a narrow saffron border, the saree had very tiny shimmery gold checks woven into it. She had a strong urge to wear it, even though it was time to sleep, almost as if Mama was urging her. She slipped on the gold threaded loose, shirt-sleeved blouse that went with it and opened out the saree and wrapped it around herself slowly and gently. She stood before the mirror and looked at herself, liking what she saw in the dim light of the lamp by the mirror. Soft tendrils of hair framed her face, mild beads of perspiration added a sheen to her skin and her eyes held a glow.

The windows were open, and the fragrance of oleanders mingling with the heady scent of the night queen flowers which bloomed only after nightfall entered the room. It was a night made for love and the feel of silk on her body, the aroma of sandalwood and the falling darkness outside made her breath come shorter, her heart beat faster. She didn’t want to feel any of this. So she hurried away from the window and tried reading in the dim lamplight, tried distracting herself with other thoughts, but to no avail. Her body was crying for attention. And there was no one to give it that attention. She was throbbing, wet with desire by now. She lay down on the snow white sheets and felt herself yielding to the urge; she was touching herself, almost out of control, and a confusing, confounding medley was playing in her head. It was Mama’s touch she was feeling through her fingers but the touch had Damodar’s face on it. She tried to push him away. He had no business invading her thoughts. It was Mama, her husband who must be in them. And yet, Damodar’s eyes seemed to traverse over her body, his touch seemed to find all the pleasure spots on her body and before long she was sighing with the pleasure of release. Much later, sated and spent, she slept, clad in the same saree. She was alone on her cot, but she felt the presence of two men occupying the empty space next to her. Her dreams that night were tortuous. Both men called out to her. She loved both and couldn’t have either.

She woke up the next morning, heavy-eyed because the night had been so restless. But her body felt strangely light. And there was no guilt in her that two men lived in her heart. No one knew. No one need know. This was her own secret to hold and cherish. Raji dressed up that day. She wore flowers in her hair, which she asked Ponni to fetch. Her diamonds made a reappearance on her nostrils, around her neck and on her hands. She wore a bright red silk saree and stepped out of her room. Malar was in the central hall, reading. Padma sat by her doing some school work. They both sat up with pleasure when they saw her. Malar came and hugged her tightly. “Amma, you look so beautiful today!” she squealed. Harihara walked in just then and he smiled too, happy to see his mother all dressed up. “Is it some special day?” he asked.

“Yes Hari, it is a special day,” Raji replied, “I just made a new move on the chess board.” He gaped, not comprehending what she had just said. “But what will people say Amma? Are you allowed to wear all this?”

“Who are these people you refer to Hari? Can you name them and tell me what place they have in my life? If I’m convinced they matter, I’ll go back to my whites.” Before he could reply, Raji hustled them all off for breakfast. He knew better than to argue with his mother.

Ponni had to fetch her flowers everyday after that and all her silk sarees made a reappearance. Visitors to the house went back with stories of the change in her. They felt the late Judge’s wife was losing her mind with grief but Raji was having the last laugh. They didn’t know she had just crossed another threshold and had learnt to listen to her own body and give in to its demands. What would they say if they knew?

A month later, they had an early morning visitor. It was Sivakami, Padma’s mother. She had aged, looked tired and sad. Maybe she was tired from the long journey. Raji brought her a glass of hot coffee and waited for her to speak. When she did, it was through sobs that made her story incomprehensible. “My daughter’s life is over now,” she repeated again and again. Slowly the story revealed itself. Padma’s husband had been ailing for a while with tuberculosis and had died a week ago. Sivakami had come to take her daughter back. “She’s a widow now. I need to take her back. She can’t be roaming free here. What will people say?”

Raji exploded with anger. “Who are these people you all keep talking about Sivu? My son said the same too when he saw me in coloured clothes the other day. Who are these people? Tell me! Are they the same people who jeered at your daughter because her husband deserted her and married another? Are they the same people who wanted to condemn her and shame her that she couldn’t retain her husband when they knew he was the one to blame? Padma hasn’t set eyes on him for so many years now. Did he once come to check on how she was living? What does it matter to her if he is dead or alive? Who must she grieve for? Why must she grieve?”

Sivakami bristled with anger. “He was her husband Raji. So what if he didn’t live with her? She was his wife. And he’s dead now. That makes her his widow.”

Raji retorted, “It’s good she is her widow now. She can move on. Make a new life for herself. I know how lonely she had been. I know she loves Seshadri who works with her in the school. She hasn’t told me about it but I know. And they both have been responsible and held themselves back, knowing she had a husband somewhere who didn’t want her. Now they can marry and live happily.”

Padma had surprise writ on her face. How did Raji know? It was true. Seshadri and she loved each other. They wanted to be married. But they had almost given up hope. Now, a glimmer had appeared on the horizon. But her mother was hysterical by now. She was cursing, abusing and yelling at Raji. Raji let her go on and when she was spent, there was silence in the room.

Raji spoke finally. “Alright Sivu, take your daughter back, but only if she willingly wants to go back with you. If she refuses, I will not allow it. Ask her. Does she want to return?”

Sivu went up to Padma. She dragged her by the hand and said, “Come on, pack your bags, let’s leave.”

Padma pushed her away. “No Amma, I’ll not go with you. I don’t want the life you are offering me. I don’t have to do what you’re asking of me.”

Sivakami stepped back, stunned. She was convinced her daughter had come under Raji’s spell. She called Raji a witch, an enchantress and an evil woman. Padma and Raji let her go on. Eventually, when nothing worked, Sivakami decided to leave. “I never want to see you both again. You both are evil.” She asked to be taken back to the railway station.

Padma held on to Raji for a long time after her mother left, weeping. But when she calmed down, she knew she had done the right thing. A week later, she and Seshadri were married. Raji had taught her to play chess too. She was becoming quite adept at it.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…





Inertia and siestas

She hadn’t gone into the cottage for weeks except to get it cleaned and aired. She wentcropped-oleanders-e1525883936887 there every morning, opened the windows to let in some fresh air and dusted her table and Damodar’s, while Ponni cleaned the floor. Then she locked the cottage and returned home. Her golden pen was silent, the sheets of paper on her desk were silent witnesses to her state of inertia. Raji didn’t seem to have anything more to say. She felt empty from inside but it was not the emptiness of despair; it was one that came out of contentment.

She wondered about it, and often felt guilty about feeling content. So much had happened in the span of her lifetime. Barely 40, she had experienced everything. Poverty, grief, exploitation, joy, motherhood, widowhood, success, love, alienation and rejection. She should he grieving for her husband, she should be regretful for having lost Damodar, the only man she had loved, she should even be missing her mother who was away from her for the first time in her life. And yet, she didn’t feel any of that. She just felt an emptiness in herself. There were no more battles she wanted to fight, no more feelings she wanted to feel. She often looked at water and wondered why it worked so hard at being wet. Worked so hard at being itself. Wouldn’t it just be easier to allow each person and being feel it differently? If someone thought water felt fiery, if someone else felt water was actually hard and unyielding, wouldn’t it be easier to let them feel that way? Was it contentment or inertia that came after having fought too hard for too long that made her feel this way? She didn’t even want to dwell on the reasons. She was happy just being.

The central hall in the house was her refuge now. She had done it up. It had new furniture. She had got in deep and comfortable chairs she could lounge in. She had ordered in books she could read. She had chosen books on philosophy, history and even fiction. There were books everywhere she looked. She particularly liked the books she didn’t need to read as a continuum, and could read as individual chapters as she willed. Was that also part of her state of mind? The sudden sense of release and freedom seemed to reflect in her reading as well.

Harihara was a source of comfort in the way he ran the school, the paper with Damodar, and the house itself. There were no claims on her time now. She went to the market with Malar and Padma and bought herself threads of different colours, crochet hooks and pattern books. The house was full of beautifully worked table cloths and all the curtains had hand-made borders stitched on to them. She called weavers home and had them design silk sarees for the girls.

This afternoon too, she was in the central hall. She had just eaten lunch with Damodar and the girls and was working on a length of lace she planned to stitch on to Malar’s new red silk blouse. Deepavali was approaching and she wanted the girls to look their best. The big clock on the wall was ticking away and when it struck two loudly, she looked up startled. Harihara was standing before her and she hadn’t even heard him coming in.

He smiled at her. “My lazy Amma,” he said and sat beside her. She ruffled his hair and asked, “Why do you call me lazy? I’ve been so busy all day. I got the garden cleaned, I milked the cows myself, and even cooked lunch. Didn’t you like the vadais? I made them.”

“I did Amma. I loved them and ate six. But I’m wondering where the mother I knew has disappeared. She seemed to have an opinion on everything. The woman I see today is so different. We are getting letters asking why you have gone silent. I wonder too. Where is that fiery woman?”

“Maybe that woman is dead Hari. Maybe she doesn’t want to come alive again.”

“But the woman I know as my mother, the woman I was born to can never die so easily Amma. The world needs her. Don’t you think?” He held the long strip of lace she had been working on and marveled at it.It was so intricately worked, so gorgeously woven. There was nothing she did in a halfhearted way. His mother was truly remarkable. He hugged her close. “I’m going back to office now. Isn’t it time for your afternoon nap?”

“Yes it is Hari.” She got up and walked into her room. After the door shut behind her, Hari sat in the hall thinking about her. Would he ever understand her completely?

In her room, Raji lay down on her bed and pulled the sheet over herself. The room was cool and dark. The place next to her was empty, never to be filled again. But she felt Mama’s comforting presence, strengthening her, calming her. No, it wasn’t grief. There were no rules to grief. Grief did not come with a framework or a timeline. It could even heal and complete a person. She was feeling whole and content and empty. She was asleep before long. It was a deep peaceful sleep that lasted over two hours. She had her chessboard in her control and would never again let another control it. And for now, she wanted this state of inertia.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…



Raji and the chess board

Mama’s chess board adorned Raji’s table now. Made of ebony, the board had elaborate cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887ivory 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.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…





Getting to know Appa

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…

The noise of silence

So many people in the room, and such silence. Could she hear them breathing? No she cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887couldn’t. She was willing herself to hear their breath, because she knew it had stopped in him. Mama wasn’t breathing anymore. He hadn’t breathed for hours now. Even through her grief Raji mused about the way people changed around a dead person. They feigned grief they did not feel; wept unreal tears and uttered untruths. And they whispered, even those who were otherwise loud and vocal. Small hearts expanded and very transient warmth emanated from them. She had done it too, at other funerals. Death and hypocrisy – did one bring on the other? It was all on display here. Mama lay dead before her, looking peaceful, as if he had gone willingly. Did anyone go willingly? Then what was this peaceful look that death had infused into his face?

He had been so alive, so happy and now this. It began a week ago when he came from his walk complaining of headache. She brought him hot coffee and felt his forehead. It was hot. She sent for the doctor who said it was the ‘flu which was doing the rounds. “Give him fluids, keep him warm and let him rest.” Raji sat by him for four days watching him getting more ill and weaker every day. The fever never left him. When she sponged him with a wet cloth, she felt the heat of his body coming into the cloth. He was delirious very often. The best doctors had seen him. All of them said the same thing. “Unless the fever leaves him, we don’t have much hope.” Finally on the fifth night, even with the doctor sitting by him helplessly trying to save him with the few options he had with him, he took his last breath. All their riches had been unable to save him.

After the doctor left, the men took over. There was so much to do. Radha and Mythili were wailing. Chechamma was already discussing rituals with Pankajam. Raji left the room and went to the cottage. Harihara, a young man now, was back home. Distraught that his Appa was dead, he followed her. She sent him back. She wanted to be alone. Strange thoughts assailed her mind and she visualized Mama in all forms except the one in which he lay now. Memories flowed unchecked through her. She heard him laughing when she had been just married, just eleven, and had extracted from him, a promise to tell her a story every night at bedtime. She thought of the afternoon of festivities, when she and he had become man and wife while the household was busy with the pregnancy rituals for Radha. Why did she think of that now? Was it proper to think all these thoughts now?

The wailing of a mourner reached her ears. “Why is she weeping? What did she feel for my husband?  I should be weeping and not her.” A wry smile came to her face as she remembered the contempt her husband had held for the hypocrisy he saw at funerals.  “See it doesn’t happen at my funeral Raji,” he had often said to her, “I want a quiet funeral among my very own, and above all, I want silence.” She had been choking on the painful lump that sat in her throat and this woman was defying his wish. She walked into the house and asked the woman to leave, even as everyone gaped.

A few hours later, Mama had been cremated. The mourners had returned to bathe in the backyard from the huge cauldrons of water that had been readied for them.  The house had been washed out the instant the body had moved out as if to erase even the memories that were left of a person who had been full of breath till yesterday. After years of incessant activity, the kitchen was idle, and not even coffee had been made in it today. Rajammal was still wearing the same clothes she had worn when her husband drew his last breath. She had refused to bathe or even shed those clothes. She had nursed him in these clothes, some of his life must still be on them. She and Harihara had been speaking in her room and he had dropped asleep even as he was speaking, too tired to go to his room.

But she lay awake. An oil lamp burned in the niche on the wall. She walked to it and scooped it up in her palms. Walking through the still, dark house she went to her mother’s room. Placing the lamp in a corner, where it wouldn’t go off, Raji went and lay beside her mother and put her arm around her. Pankajam sat up startled. Rajammal reached out to her and Pankajam pulled back for a very brief moment, before drawing her close. For what seemed like forever, mother and daughter clung to each other, weeping over lost time and their bereavement. Pankajam cradled Rajammal in her arms and rocked her gently to sleep. When Harihara woke up in the morning, he ran around the house looking for his mother. He didn’t even venture into Pankajam’s room sure she wouldn’t be there. Pankajam heard him and called him into her room where Raji was asleep. His eyes widened in surprise. They left the room quietly allowing her to sleep. She hadn’t slept for a week when Subramanya had been ill.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…