Of oleanders and temple bells…

Rajammal – a serialized novel…

Read the first five sections here:Oleanders

1. Rajammal

2. Her Two Worlds

3. Ambuja Comes Home

4. Rajammal’s Letter

5. Pain, passion, blood

Ambuja learns about Rajammal

In the years that followed, Rajammal anchored Ambuja’s life as friend, mother, companion and advisor. She could be sensitive, tolerant, arrogant, dismissive or defiant with  equal ease. Through long conversations, Ambuja learnt about Rajammal. They found time to talk on leisurely afternoons, rainy days or during the long hours they spent in the kitchen.  It all began with Rajammal’s birth…

Rajammal – 1890

Dawn was just breaking and a dense blanket of mist hung over the Bhagirathi River. All it would take was a quick, hot embrace from the rising sun to melt it down. Then the water would ripple and sparkle brilliantly once more.

The river split up and encircled Theevupatti, the island village before coming together after the village was past. Pankajam and Shankara Shastry her husband lived in the little stone house behind the ancient Shiva temple on the fringes of the village. It would have been just another nondescript village but for the temple which attracted devotees through the year.

The temple was built on the banks of the river and uneven stone steps from the river led up to it. The river was home to floats of crocodiles that sometimes lay completely still on the temple steps sunning themselves. Their stealthy black forms looked deceptively like the black steps they lay on. Stories were rife of devotees who had stepped on them unknowingly and been dragged away, never to be seen again.

The temple belonged to Annaswami Shastri’s family. Anna as he was more popularly known, owned most of the land around Theevupatti and had leased it all out to the farmers in the village. In return he got more food grains than his family could consume. He fed devotees who thronged the temple everyday with this surplus. They reciprocated with gratitude and revered him as much as the Lord Shiva they came to worship.

Shankara Shastry was the only son of the older priest Shivakumar Shastry. Anna had three sons and referred to Shankara as his fourth son. Shankara had married Pankajam while his father was still alive. She was the daughter of an equally impoverished priest from the neighbouring village.

Pankajam came out of the  little stone house and walked towards the oleander bush to pick flowers for the day’s puja.  The branches of the oleander bush were weighed down by fat, waxy pink blossoms and dark as it was, she began to choose the best ones by feel alone.  Heavy with child, she had felt unwell all night. A dull ache in her back had troubled her; it got more severe as she walked towards the bush. Maybe it was time. The temple was far from the village and it would take time for help to reach her. She called out to the woman who was sweeping the temple yard and sent her to fetch Chechamma the village midwife.

The lines of fatigue and the despair on her face signaled that it was not just the pain that was troubling her. There was so much to worry about, other than the coming baby. Shankara’s life which had been restricted to the temple had recently expanded to include some friends from the village, who had introduced him to the pleasures of gambling.  The occasional winnings that came his way were enough for him to seek them out every evening. He sometimes played with his own, but more often with borrowed money.

Anna had called for her yesterday. He had warned her that Shankara was deeply in debt, not only to him, but to some others in the village as well. “I am going to pay off his creditors this time, but advice your husband Pankajam,” he had said. “He is going to be a father soon and has to be more responsible.”

“Yes Anna, I will speak to him,” Pankajam had assured him. She kept her eyes to the ground and her cheeks felt hot and flushed. She was a proud woman and it distressed her that Anna spoke to her in this manner.

Pankajam looked up startled as she heard the loud peal of the temple bells and the shlokas being chanted by her husband in his reverberating voice, and hurried to him with the flowers…

As Pankajam neared the temple, she doubled with pain and sat on the temple steps. Calling out to her husband, she said to him, “Take me into the house. I think the baby is coming.”

The baby, a girl, had come after Pankajam had suffered long hours of pain. Shankara looked proudly at his new-born daughter. “I’m going to call her Rajammal,” he said, smiling. Pankajam smiled back tired, but happy. She held Rajammal and recalled the night she was conceived her. It was a very stormy night. Storm clouds had let loose torrents of rain that fell noisily to the ground. The Bhagirathi  was in spate. Pankajam had scarcely noticed the turbulence. She had been waiting for this night.

Some holy men had passed by some months ago and Pankajam who had  lost four children soon after birth, had prayed to them tearfully for a healthy child.  They had prescribed three weeks of abstinence and given her a date to ‘become one’ with her husband.

Freshly bathed, wearing her best saree and flowers in her hair, Pankajam had gone to him that night. She swore till her last day on earth that she had sensed his seed entering her that night. That seed grew into Rajammal. Dark skinned, she had a long straight nose, narrow forehead and high cheek bones. Her loud cries could drown the roar of the river and she was stubborn even as a weeks-old infant. She was born into a debt-laden family. She didn’t know it then, but her life was to be rife with struggle and deprivation. The love of her parents would be small compensation.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Pain, passion, blood

Rajammal – a serialized novel…Oleanders

Read the first four sections of Rajammal here:

1. Rajammal

2. Her Two Worlds

3. Ambuja Comes Home

4. Rajammal’s Letter

Ambuja entered the room to find Harihara already there, clad in a white silk dhoti and cream silk shirt. He smiled  and spoke to her, quite unlike the nervous and pensive  person he had seemed while traveling and at the reception at home. Some more confusion.  Would wonders never cease in this house?

Harihara knew Ambuja had been with Rajammal.  “What has my mother been telling you?” he asked.  A deep flush rose in her, staining her cheeks a hot pink.  What could she tell him?  About the letter his mother had given her? Or the book of paintings?  She couldn’t begin their first private conversation telling him what she and Rajammal had discussed.  She mutely held out the letter and book.

Harihara read the letter. He didn’t react or make an effort to come close to her. They sat like this for so long it became awkward.  Her lids were drooping, and Ambuja leaned back wanting to rest a bit, but fell asleep before her head touched the pillow.

It must have been around 3 a.m; the night air was cool. Ambuja woke up to find Harihara standing by her. “Can I bring you some water to drink?” he asked. Declining, she sat up and stretched. As he moved closer, Ambuja stiffened ever so slightly. He persisted, gently stroking her arm. She was beginning to feel a little short of breath, her heart seemed to beat a lot faster. She felt his fingers, firm and warm against her skin as they moved lower and he battled with the clasp of her waist belt.   She wanted to press them closer against her waist but modesty held her back.  Where had she learnt all this?  She had never been near any man except her father in her life.

Harihara was kissing her now, ever so softly over her lids, on her cheeks, neck and shoulders. She heard her breath coming in gasps, a throb somewhere in the lower half of her body and sensed the same happening to him. She held her husband, wanting more.

Just then, faint, broken  images of her mother lying in utter supplication below her father became stronger in her head. Amma’s face appeared before Ambuja, her stern warning ringing in her ears, “Women are merely recipients, they must never enjoy what men do to them.” She pushed her husband away and sat up. No! This was wrong. She shouldn’t be feeling this way!  And what of the pain? What of the blood? She was afraid now.

She walked away from the bed to the chair by the writing desk, perspiration streaming down her face and neck. She was also crying by now. Harihara looked at her perplexed, asking “What’s the matter? Do you have a stomach ache? Has the food upset you?” He brought her gently back to bed and soothed her till her sobs subsided. “I’m tired,” she sobbed, “I want to sleep.” He pushed her back on the bed and gently pulled the cover over her. “Don’t worry. We’ll talk in the morning.” He walked over to the other side of the bed and slept.

…Ambuja braced herself for what lay ahead.  Harihara had not woken up.  She would have to leave the room alone.  The thought of facing her mother-in-law and the others in the house terrified her. The sheets were still clean. There was no evidence that her marriage had begun. What answers would she give?

As she walked towards the bathhouse outside the main house, she saw a figure in white silk by the oleander bush, picking flowers and putting them in a basket.  She was humming softly and looked up as Ambuja approached her.  It was Rajammal.  She smiled and held out her hand.  “But I haven’t bathed as yet,” Ambuja stammered.  Rajammal came closer to her and asked, “So, was my son good to you?” Ambuja looked down and remained silent for so long, Rajammal laughed and remarked, “Sorry, I am tactless sometimes.”  “Go and bathe, I’ll meet you in the pooja room later.”

Postscript:

The pain came, but a full ten days later. It was a tearing, stretching pain that left soreness in its wake, and the much-awaited blood behind. Ambuja bore it stoically; she was ready. Harihara and she had spoken about it. He was careful. Harihara’s touch made her come alive in ways she had not known she could. This time without guilt and fear.

Later felt emboldened enough to tell Harihara what the women had told her before she entered his room on that first night. There was genuine concern in his voice, “Did I cause you a lot of pain?” She answered by burying her head into his chest, and quite boldly demanding to be held closer. Rajammal was right. Her son was a sensitive man.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

 

Rajammal’s letter

Rajammal – a serialized novel…Oleanders

Read the first three sections of Rajammal here:

1. Rajammal

2. Her Two Worlds

3. Ambuja Comes Home

Radha and Amma had entered the room with a group of women. They bustled around, urging Ambuja to wear the new saree they had brought with them.  “It was nearing bedtime. Why dress up now?” wondered Ambuja. She tried asking Radha. “We are taking you to Harihara,” was the curt reply she received.

A while later, swathed in gold bordered silk, hair braided and fresh flowers woven into it, she was declared ready. Her head hurt with the weight of the flowers in her hair and Amma didn’t help. “Keep your head down,” she warned more than once.  Ambuja’s anxiety had peaked by now.

Rolling a betel leaf into a tight ball, and placing it in a far corner of her mouth, Radha sidled up to her saying, “It’s your duty to please your husband. Remember, if you don’t look after his needs, others will..” On their way out of the room, Amma warned, “All men are insensitive. There’s a lot of pain ahead!” She reminded Ambuja not to wash the bedclothes if she found blood on them.  “Blood?” Ambuja was almost crying by now, “What was her husband going to do to her?  Flog her? Why didn’t somebody tell her something?”

Harihara’s room, which she was to share soon, was at the other end of the house.  As they neared it, Rajammal appeared, “I’ll take Ambuja to her room mami.  You can leave her in my care.”  Amma reluctantly left, looking back again and again till she reached the end of the corridor.

Rajammal did not take her to Harihara.  Instead she led Ambuja into her own room and gently sat her on the huge four-poster. Clad again in white, she looked more like the woman Ambuja had first met in the village. Ambuja’s  heart was thumping in her and her sweaty palms were uncomfortable. She wiped them on her saree. Could she ask to leave? When would she get to sleep?

“What did those women tell you? Do you know what’s going to happen tonight?” Rajammal asked. She didn’t answer and fidgeted with the ring on her finger. How could she say she had been warned that Harihara would hurt her and draw blood from her?

Rajammal didn’t seem to expect a reply. “They must have warned this will be the most scary night of your life and a night of submission! They were partly right. This will be a night like no other you have known.  It will bewilder and scare you because you know so little of it.”

She pressed a note folded in four and a little book of miniature paintings into her palm. “I’ve written something for you. Read it before you go to your husband. It might help. The book will help you understand tonight better.”

Rajammal left the room leaving her alone.  With trembling fingers Ambuja unfolded the note and held it closer to the light by the bedside. Rajammal’s spidery Tamil  handwriting covered the sheet.

Dear Ambu,

Welcome to your new home. Much of what I say here might not make sense to you till tomorrow, or till the time you and your husband have ‘consummated’ your marriage. Young and innocent as you are., you probably thought a marriage was all about the ceremonies, the exchange of gifts, new clothes, the food and the festivities.  You thought wrong. Without this act of consummation, marriage would have no meaning and you could well have lived with your brother or father.

Our world is a strange one. You grew up being told your body is something you cannot show to anyone, not even to your parents. You were careful never to step out of your room without being fully dressed, without every hair on your head being in place. And yet, one day, an utter stranger came along, tied a thread around your neck and this gave him the right to touch you and take liberties with your body. You hadn’t even  seen him till ten days ago!

Tonight, your husband who has been taught this is how it is, will undress and touch you. He might force himself into you, because that is expected of him. He is being judged for his manhood and he can’t fail. But you? How will you cope? Submit, accept, keep silent, bear pain?

You also heard from childhood that getting close to men is shameful and that marriage serves only to produce children.  Hate a man and produce his children? And then consider him God and worship him? So much confusion.

To add to it, your body has a will of its own; it might want to give in! You might actually like your husband’s touch! There is no rule that says a woman has to deny herself the pleasures that her husband’s touch can give.  She feels beautiful when she is wanted. So I say, express your desires. Demand that my son fulfills them. He is sensitive and will understand.

People call me a witch; a wicked woman. I’m not liked by too many. But you know what I really am? I’m a woman who understands how you’re feeling tonight. Because I felt this way once, very long ago, and taught myself how to feel differently. I want you to enjoy your womanhood as much as I have.

I am leaving a picture book with you. Mama gifted it to me. Keep it, learn from it and tell me tomorrow whether it helped.

Love

Rajammal

Ambuja was blushing by now. Rajammal was right. No one had prepared her for this. In one night, she had received two conflicting messages.  Which was she to believe?  She read the letter again. She opened the book of paintings and gasped. They were so unabashedly sexual. She looked around the room to make sure she was alone.

So this is what physical union was, she thought, looking at a couple locked in embrace in one of the paintings. The woman was full breasted and beautiful. Her hair was open and spread out in abandon on her pillow.  The man lay over her; her legs were wrapped around him and they both appeared in a state of ecstasy.

An uneasy image came to her mind. Once, long ago, when she was about 10, she had woken up one night, wanting a drink of water. As she came awake, she heard muffled grunts from the far end of the room where her parents slept. A very thin sliver of moonlight entered the room through the window. She saw her father perched over her mother, thrusting himself in and out, moving in small jerks over her. She lay noiselessly, almost like a log below him, her saree ruched up around her waist. After a few minutes, he let out a long sigh and got off her. Ambuja felt rather than heard her mother pulling her saree down and turning away. Her father too pulled his dhoti back in place and went back to sleep. They hadn’t exchanged a word. Sleep however eluded Ambuja. She was repulsed by what she had seen and fascinated too. She hadn’t taken her eyes off her parents. What were they doing?Why was her mother so non-reactive when she was so obviously part of what was happening? Ambuja had chosen to sleep in the kitchen after that night. She was very disturbed.

Now, with the open book in her hand, those memories came unleashed. Should it have been like this for them? Had her mother submitted all along? Is this what it meant to be a wife? Is this what Rajammal had challenged through her letter?  She remembered a boy from her village, dragging her when she was twelve to a secluded place behind their village temple  and kissing her right on her lips. Such a tingling, pleasant feeling had coursed through her. Would it be different for her because she had already experienced pleasure, minute though it was?

A soft footfall made her look up.  Rajammal stood before her smiling.  Not mentioning the letter, not asking if she had read it, she held out her hand for Ambuja.  “Shall we go? Do you want to go?” she asked.  Ambuja nodded.  Together they walked to Harihara’s room.  Rajammal opened the door, gently pushed Ambuja inside and closed the door behind her.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Next: Pain, Passion, Blood

 

Ambuja comes home

Read the first two sections here and here

Madras – December 1940Oleanders

Ambuja’s first day…

Early daylight entered the room through the open window, bringing with it a slight chill laden with the sticky sweet fragrance of the oleanders that grew outside. Shivering mildly, Ambuja found the sheet that had slipped off her during the night and pulled it back over herself. She looked around the unfamiliar room, which was only dimly lit when she entered it last night.  Had she seen the floridly painted picture of Yashoda and Krishna opposite the bed? What of the carved dresser below it?

The sound of a gentle snore reached her ears, startling her mildly. It came from Harihara, her husband of ten days, asleep beside her. “What now?” she wondered, sitting up. She stretched, unlocking limbs that had stiffened from sleeping on a hard, new, made-for-the-first-night mattress. Yesterday had been such a long day…

…Ambuja and Harihara had arrived in Madras, accompanied by her parents who had come with her to settle her into her new home.  It had taken them two long and tiring days from Ambuja’s village 100 kms away, part by bullock cart and the rest by train.

They reached Madras, unwashed and sagging with fatigue, faces streaked with soot from the bellows of smoke the rail engine had let out. Harihara’s driver waited on the platform, head lowered in deference.  He led them out of the station to where a shiny black Buick stood, waiting to take them home.

The 20 minute drive home was covered mostly in silence.  Ambuja’s mother spoke only once even then in a whisper. “Beware of your mother-in-law Rajammal, she is a wicked woman,” she said to Ambuja who hastily looked at Harihara, fearing he might have heard.  But he sat nervously chewing on his fingernails, oblivious to what was happening in the car.  Ambuja thought, “He was so happy during the wedding ceremonies.  What’s the matter?”

Despite the pride with which her parents had proclaimed to the entire village that their daughter was to wed Late Justice Subramanya Shastri’s son, Ambuja’s mother was vocal about her dislike for Rajammal.  Jealousy or insecurity? Or both?

Rajammal had come to the village to see Ambuja and given her nod to the alliance after the first meeting. “I like your eyes. They are so alive,” she had told Ambuja. When she left there was a huge marital spat between Ambuja’s parents.  “There was no need to speak to her like she is your lover,” Ambuja’s mother had screamed at her husband.

Harihara and she had been married two months later, without ever having met. Rajammal had been at the wedding, in the background, clad in soft white sarees, happy to direct her relatives on the rituals. She and her relatives left for Madras the day after the wedding. Harihara had stayed behind to take Ambuja back with him. “Don’t stay here, stay with my cousin,” Rajammal had told him strictly before leaving.

They had arrived home…

…Home was actually a mansion. A huge, slatted metal gate stood open and the car entered a long driveway lined with mango and jackfruit trees. When the trees ended, a wide empty space telescoped into view.  Bright sunshine flooded the car.  A house simultaneously became visible.

Ambuja looked at the house and gasped.  It was a sprawling, freshly painted colonial giant that screamed a gaudy welcome. The colours! They were everywhere! Green awnings above windows with vivid stained glass panes.  A pink and blue painted fountain that spouted water over a statue of Radha and Krishna locked in divine embrace.  An emerald green lawn around the fountain.  White painted brick borders on either side of flowerbeds bursting with blossoms .

The car stopped and Harihara stepped out hurriedly.  His eyes were nervously fixed on the entrance to the house and he did not attempt to help Ambuja as she fumbled with the door handle.  The driver opened the door and Ambuja got out diffidently, wondering whether to enter the house, or wait for someone to come and welcome them.  Her parents waited with her.  The driver bustled around lifting their luggage out of the car.

The sounds of nadaswaram music mingled with happy voices emanated from somewhere deep inside, indicating the house was full of people.  Suddenly the voices and the music ceased; all sound and excitement died down.  It was as if someone had physically snuffed out all the noise and bustle. The reason soon became evident.

Rajammal appeared from inside the house and she was nothing like the white-clad lady Ambuja knew. She had looked so plain when she had come to the village.  Bereft of jewellery or any other embellishments, she had covered her head and very little of her face would be visible.

Today, she was clad in a shimmering ruby red silk saree and held an aarti plate in hand. A solid gold belt hugged her slim waist. A little red velvet pouch with the string tucked into her saree dangled below the belt. Diamonds flashed in her ears, and on the right nostril of her long, sharp nose. Her inky black, wavy hair was severely disciplined with oil and drawn into a tight bun.  Gold headed pins held it in place, and fragrant white jasmine strands were woven into it.  A few wayward strands of hair framed her face in wispy curls, casting soft shadows on it.  Her forehead was narrow; she had high cheek bones and a strong chin.  Her skin, the colour of a ripe almond pod was clear and unlined. She walked towards Ambuja slowly, almost like a full, languidly flowing river.

Horrified whispers moved through the guests who were aghast that a widow was welcoming a bride.  “She shouldn’t even be out of her room.  And look how she is dressed!” one of the guests remarked. She walked unconcerned towards Ambuja and Harihara and held out her hand for Ambuja. Harihara who was standing next to her shuffled uncomfortably.  He muttered under his breath, “She didn’t listen to me after all.”  The cause for his unease in the car was clear now.

Ambuja’s mother had to be steadied by her father, even as his eyes were fixed on Rajammal, mouth agape.  The nadaswaram players, not quite sure what to do, had begun playing again. Rajammal imperiously gestured to Radha her step-daughter and they performed the aarti  before leading Ambuja and Harihara into the house.

A big brass measure of rice stood on the threshold at the entrance to the house.  Ambuja had to kick the measure hard before entering.  She hesitated for a few seconds, right leg poised over the measure.  She had learnt as a child that all food-grains were sacred.  How could she kick it now? She felt a nudge from Harihara and gingerly touched the brass measure with her toes. It keeled over and the grains spilled out, dotting the red floor with little specks of white.  Rajammal held Ambuja’s hand and led her into the house, squeezing it reassuringly as if to say ‘welcome’.

The hours had flown by after that. Radha had helped her bathe and drape herself in the heavy parrot green Kanjeevaram saree with a brilliant pink border. She also steadily shared gossip with her about everybody in the house.  The family jewellery was heaped on to Ambuja’s neck, face, hands, feet, waist, hair and upper arms.  The flowers in her hair were so heavy they pulled her head back till she could hardly move it.

The entire city seemed to have descended on the house for the lunch that Rajammal had hosted.  After lunch was the scrutiny, where the women, one by one, on the pretext of giving her gifts had filed past, curiously asking her questions.  The older women had sized her up.  Many of them were ambitious mothers whose daughters had been spurned by Rajammal.

During this time, when she needed them the most, neither her parents, nor Harihara were visible.  The last she had seen him was during lunch when they had been seated together, plantain leaves spread out before them.   He had not looked up once during lunch.

When the guests had finally left, Ambuja had gone to the room she had used on arrival, wanting nothing more than a bed, or even a bare floor and undisturbed time to drop off to sleep. She saw a mat rolled up and leaning against the far wall.  She pulled it towards herself and spread it on the floor.  Then she lay down on the bare mat; she had no pillow and no sooner had her head hit the mat, she fell into deep sleep.  She must have slept for an hour, or a minute, she didn’t know as she felt someone shaking her awake.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Read the next section here

Rajammal’s Letter

Her two worlds

Read the first section of Rajammal here

Madras-1969Oleanders

Rajammal sat on a cane chair that straddled the threshold of her room. Mani, her eight-year old great grandson peered at her from a safe distance, poised to run if he needed to.  It seemed to him she had been sitting there forever, and he wondered whether she was nailed to it.  Ambuja pati said Rajammal was his great grandmother, but Mani preferred to believe his friend Ramu’s theory that she was actually a witch who had been sent to earth to watch over naughty children.  He feared she would eat him up if he annoyed her too much.

Rajammal was a bit strange. She rambled and muttered under her breath very often.  Mani worried for her. He had seen her eat; her hand haltingly found its way to her mouth and pushed food into it.  In the process some of it always dribbled on to her saree. She nodded off on her chair occasionally but didn’t she ever really sleep properly? On a bed that is?  What about bathing and dressing? She wore fresh clothes everyday.  How did she do that?  He had never seen her move.  He wanted to know but asking an adult about her always meant trouble for him. He was given a knock on the head and curtly told to go out and play.

What Mani did not know was that Muthu and Lakshmi, her attendants lifted her out of bed every morning.  They bathed, dressed, and carried her to her chair hours before Mani woke up, and took her to bed only well after he had slept.  On the days she could communicate, she was taken to the little dark room adjoining her bedroom where a pot had been placed.  At other times, it was left to Lakshmi to wash her clean, which she did with ill-concealed distaste.

Age had claimed Rajammal like a relentless warrior. Her skin was now a dry, brittle expanse, almost like autumn leaves that can be crushed into powder. Blue veins visibly criss-crossed their way below the surface. The oversized white cotton blouses she wore under soft silk sarees carelessly draped around her, often slipped off her spiky shoulders. Sparse strands of silver hair on her head were gathered into a little knot.  Mani was sometimes seized by the impulse to tug at the wispy tail that was wrung out of the knot. Her feet, usually crossed and stretched across the threshold, were shiny from the swelling in them.

Mani inched his way closer to her and nudged her, just enough to make her react. He wrinkled his nose in distaste at the stench of urine that always came off her.  He had challenged Ramu that he would determine today whether she was nailed to her chair or not. Just then, Rajammal turned her head towards Mani and looked right into him, as if she knew just what he wanted to do.  Terror added speed to his little legs as he screamed and ran towards the kitchen where Ambuja’s household was getting ready for another scorching hot day and he never did determine – woman or witch.

The day’s first mellow rays of sunshine entered the kitchen through a little window set high in its soot-blackened wall.  They weakly pierced the heavy swirls of acrid smoke rising from the firewood stove.  The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the pungent smell of wood smoke hung thickly in the air. Ambuja was hurriedly pouring coffee into a silver tumbler for Rajammal before she could call for it. Her wrath if her coffee was delayed could fill a whole day.

But Rajammal was not going to call her today.  She seemed to be in a troubled welter of thoughts and was talking to herself, as she often did.  There were days when a host of people, none of them alive, seemed to descend on her at once. Within her head she heard a confused medley of voices. There were some voices she liked; there were others that annoyed her.  Radha, her long-dead stepdaughter for instance, tormented Rajammal the most.  She constantly hurled accusations at her.  “You killed me,” she would scream at Rajammal one day.  “Wicked woman,” she would go on, on another day, “was it not enough you took away my father?  Why couldn’t you leave my husband alone?”

Only Ambuja could help when Rajammal came unhinged like she had today. She, much like Sanjaya the charioteer of the blind king Dhritarashtra, could see what was unravelling in Rajammal’s disturbed world. She knew Radha; she knew Rajammal’s mother Pankajam; and most of all she knew Subramanya, Rajammal’s husband, from the long chats she and her mother-in-law had had in the past.

Rajammal lived in two distinct worlds.  One was her present world; completely desolate.  Her brain, which was once remarkable for its sharpness was now effete. She was unable to recognize even her only son Harihara, Ambuja’s husband.

Her other world, surreal and illusory, was the one she actually connected with.  She believed in its reality even though the others in the house dismissed her condition as hallucinatory.  Rajammal had lived with dead people and a dead world for years now and she either loved or despised them; both with equal ferocity.

As she approached Rajammal with a steaming tumbler of coffee in her hand, Ambuja saw her gesticulating.  “Go away Radha,” she was screaming, “don’t come near me!” Ambuja sighed.  It was going to be one of those days.  “Mami,” she gently said to Rajammal, “there’s no one there.”

“Tell her to go away,” Rajammal pleaded with Ambuja. “Tell Mama to come to me.  He knows I am not bad.  Or ask Damodar.  He knows the truth.”

Ambuja set the coffee aside and held Rajammal close, rocking her gently as she would a baby.  “Shh! Shh! Mami, look there’s no one there! Listen, there’s only the Bhagirathi flowing.” Ambuja knew that the mention of the Bhagirathi River worked like a magic unguent on Rajammal’s nerves so she deliberately misled her into thinking the river flowed close by.

“Is that the Bhagirathi?” Rajammal asked eagerly and leaned forward.  “Yes I can hear it now,” she whispered with awe.  Ambuja sighed thankfully.  It had worked again. She handed the coffee tumbler to Rajammal.

Rajammal had not always been like this.  Ambuja remembered her first day in this house…

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Read on here…

 

Rajammal

PrologueOleanders

Madras 1971

Rajammal lay dead on a rosewood four-poster that was too big for her crumpled body. An oil lamp glowed dimly yellow on a table by her head. Incense sticks were stuck into a tumbler of raw rice next to the lamp, and thin swirls of smoke rose out of them. They gave off a strong fragrance. It was strange. The same fragrance that uplifted when lit for worship now seemed bitter and laden with grief.

Death had claimed her but a few hours ago, but her skin already felt cold, like marble.  Her face, though pale and drained of blood, did not betray any of the pain she had suffered in her last hours and her arms lay easily on the cot to either side of her. But her right fist was tightly closed, as if she was holding on to some memory or possession which she was unwilling to let go of even in death.

Ambuja her daughter-in-law felt an acute sadness come over her as she bent forward and stroked Rajammal’s cold forehead.  She held Rajammal’s stiffening fist and gently prised it open.  A small, oddly shaped brilliant blue turquoise fell out of it and she caught the stone before it fell to the floor. She had often seen Rajammal holding the stone close, stroking or sometimes just gazing at it. It was as if she drew energy from it.  The turquoise was almost like an irregular triangle, each facet different from the other.  Scarred and aberrated with black lines cutting deeply into its surface on one side, the other was blanched completely white.  Thin black veins snaked in and out across the white surface to make a five-pointed star.  The third facet of the stone was almost perfect in its beauty, flawlessly blue and smooth to the touch.

Ambuja pressed it hard against her palm trying to hold back the tears that were welling up in her.  What was she to do with it?  To even touch the stone she knew was to violate some very private space.  She reached under Rajammal’s pillow and found the little red velvet pouch in which she kept the stone when she was not possessively clutching it.  Carefully putting the turquoise inside, Ambuja drew the pouch shut and placed it back under Rajammal’s head. She was sure Rajammal would want the stone to go with her. The turquoise had been connected to a very vital part of Rajammal’s life.

She sighed and turned away…

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Read part two here – Her two worlds

To be continued…

Ubuntu – because we all are!

Ubuntu is defined as “I am because we are,” and also “humanity towards others”. My interpretation also allows for more. It tells me Ubuntu can also allow for sharing, caring, and anything else we feel, which can add to someone’s feel good factor.

I’m hoping to collect some Ubuntu here by sharing a project which has been years in the making. It’s a story I have been writing and hoping to complete before I begin to push daisies. The compulsion to begin sharing it is strong; it’s been long enough in gestation and it’s taken twists and turns and rewriting and agonising over its quality. I feel confident enough to begin sharing it now because I believe in Ubuntu and that my readers will go with me where I take them. I will upload one section every week, and hope that you wait for the next when you’re done with one. Without further ado, let me share the first glimpse with a request. Read, critique, guess, travel with me, and the day you get tired of the journey, don’t worry, just step off because – Ubuntu allows you to do that.

Meet Rajammal…

Prologue

Madras 1971

Rajammal was dead.  The rosewood four-poster on which she lay was too big for her crumpled body. An oil lamp glowed dimly yellow on the table by her head. Incense sticks were stuck into a tumbler of raw rice next to the lamp, and thin swirls of smoke rose out of them. They gave off a strong fragrance. It was strange. The same fragrance that uplifted when lit for worship now seemed bitter and laden with grief.

Death had claimed her but a few hours ago, but her skin already felt cold, like marble.  Her face, though pale and drained of blood, did not betray any of the pain she had suffered in her last hours and her arms lay easily on the cot to either side of her. But her right fist was tightly closed, as if she was holding on to some memory or possession which she was unwilling to let go of even in death.

Ambuja felt an acute sadness come over her as she bent forward and stroked Rajammal’s cold forehead.  She held Rajammal’s stiffening fist and gently prised it open.  A small, oddly shaped brilliant blue turquoise fell out of it and she caught the stone before it fell to the floor. She had often seen Rajammal holding the stone close, stroking or sometimes just gazing at it. It was as if she drew energy from it.  The turquoise was almost like an irregular triangle, each facet different from the other.  Scarred and aberrated with black lines cutting deeply into its surface on one side, the other was blanched completely white.  Thin black veins snaked in and out across the white surface to make a five-pointed star.  The third facet of the stone was almost perfect in its beauty, flawlessly blue and smooth to the touch.

Ambuja pressed it hard against her palm trying to hold back the tears that were welling up in her.  What was she to do with it?  To even touch the stone she knew was to violate some very private space.  She reached under Rajammal’s pillow and found the little red velvet pouch in which she kept the stone when she was not possessively clutching it.  Carefully putting the turquoise inside, Ambuja drew the pouch shut and placed it back under Rajammal’s head. She was sure Rajammal would want the stone to go with her. The turquoise had been connected to a very vital part of Rajammal’s life.

She sighed and turned away…

To be continued…

Bharathi Ghanashyam

The story of a stone

This is a true story

This is a true story and therefore all names, locations, dates and other details will be withheld. It is to be read and enjoyed for the content it provides!

The occasion: The foundation stone laying ceremony of an important structure.

The place: A prominent state of India, which has corruption built into its DNA.

The players: The top leadership of the state (no less than the Chief Minister) and all the way down to the 4th division clerk and peon of the various departments involved. Various suppliers, vendors, workmen, florists, decorators, caterers etc etc.

The task at hand: Getting a marble slab inscribed with the Chief Minister’s name as the person who laid the foundation stone for the structure.

The story

For days there had been excitement and anticipation about the function at hand. The site had been prepared, the ground levelled and a makeshift road hastily paved for the Chief Minister to be able to drive smoothly without his delicate back muscles and bones getting damaged.

Vendors had been identified to procure the best marble and a creative agency had submitted a beautifully designed template which the carvers and inscribers could use for working on the marble slab. When the order was about to go out, we got a call from the CM’s office, expressing security concerns and telling us that he would do the foundation stone laying ceremony from his home office!

It worked like this – a platform was erected on stage and the stone was mounted on it. A beautiful satin curtain covered it. From where the CM was seated, a few feet away, he would press a button on a remote and lo! The curtains would draw back signalling that the foundation stone was laid.

There was also a catch to this. We were instructed to procure the entire contraption from ‘approved’ vendors who knew how it worked (all the way through). Here, more things are better left unsaid, than said, because it clearly meant the exchange of money at various levels, like it did for the flowers, the food, and even the paper towels used for the buffet lunch!

The vendor approached us with a quotation double the expected cost, and looked down when asked for reasons. He then sheepishly explained he would get only a fraction of what he was charging. We knew silence was a better option at this late stage.

The day of the function dawned. The contraption worked flawlessly. The CM delicately touched a button with his sanitized fingers and the curtains a few feet away slid apart with greased ease and the hall broke into thunderous applause.

The CM then walked away with an imperious air, surrounded by his coterie. People then made a beeline for the food. There was mayhem with each person grabbing four to five portions. We sat and watched tired out by all the shenanigans of the political gurus and divas and the tantrums they had thrown, beginning with which sofa they would sit on and how close they would be to the CM so he would catch their eye and wave to them from the dais.

Then came the moment of reckoning. The vendor approached us with a bill, demanding cash. We said we could not pay cash because the amount was higher than permissible limits for cash transactions. He looked at us, he looked away, he looked for the master of ceremonies who held all the decision making powers in that hallowed space. He was nowhere to be seen.

So he walked to the stage, dismantled the contraption and took away the slab, promising to give it to us when we paid. Months later, we were still haggling because he had overcharged us and we could not pay him that amount when we had lower quotations in writing. Transparency in accounting meant something after all!

This story would have been forgotten had it not been for a team member who happened to pass by the vendor’s place months later and found the stone lying there abandoned. Losing hope of getting it from him, because both of us could not budge on the price, we had got a new stone installed. The stone, which had been unveiled with such fan fare was lying unclaimed and unwanted in his yard. I don’t know what happened to the stone but it certainly didn’t get the respect it had got on the day of the ‘remote-controlled foundation laying” ceremony.

I still don’t know who gained and who lost in this deal! But it certainly gave me insights into how government functions ‘functioned’!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

 

And then I reached home…

Working to live vs living to work…

During the years that I was learning to live on little and juggling meagre budgets and coaxing them to do more for me, I was also seeing shades of life that enriched me immensely. Through this period, I consider myself fortunate that I ‘worked at jobs’ before I got work that helped me live. Through this work, I saw the world exploding before me in all its richness. I feel blessed to have met the people I have, seen the colours of life I have, and to have done the kind of work that I didn’t know I was capable of.

The kind of job that was ludicrous in its expectations…

First, my experience with ‘working at jobs’. There were the offices, there were the colleagues, there were the bosses and there were the clients. Uniformly monotonous, consistently demanding and unequivocally unappreciative. I have read somewhere that using too many big words in one sentence is characteristic of bad writing. But how do I describe jobs that systematically killed my soul and robbed me of my creative instincts? How do I describe a job that turned me into a person who didn’t think of quality of work? How do I describe a job where I was more worried about reaching office on time so I could press an impersonal computer button that would determine whether it was 9.41 am or 9.41.02 am? That lifeless computer would then compute the number of times when I was one minute or 30 seconds later than the grace time allotted to me. How do I count the times I lost salary worth 4 hours of working time, for the sin of arriving late for 3 cumulative minutes to office over a whole month? How do I describe a job where I was asked by the office odd-jobs person why I should feel hungry at 3 pm when I reached office hungry and tired after a client meeting, and ordered in for a late lunch? I have no qualms about being described as a bad writer describing this kind of job in clumsy, badly crafted sentences. The irony was that it was a respected ad agency – a place that was supposed to nurture creativity!

The job that gave me life

The office where I got a second chance to live my life was actually a big room above a welding shop. It was tucked away in a side alley of a posh locality and verged on a slum. Sparsely furnished with surplus furniture from the Director’s home, spartan was another word for it. It overlooked a tiny laundry owned by a young man who stood for eight hours behind an ironing table and had first hand information on everything, be it HIV/AIDS (which he believed affected only ‘second-hand’ women), or which bus took one from A to B anywhere in Bangalore where I live. He was my morning conversation person when I reached office too early and had to wait for it to be opened.

That office became my home in the five years that I spent there. It had soul; it held life and it held warmth. The kind of warmth that enveloped you as soon as you walked in.  As long as I was there, nothing, not even adversities of the kind I was facing fazed me. Was it because it was an all-woman office, barring two males? I can’t say for sure because it would mean being somewhat unfair to the male species. I’ll just say I got lucky, or maybe this was God’s way of making up with me.

Meeting life in all its colours

My colleagues…

Shangon, Founder and Director

How do I describe her? More friend than boss. She knew when to speak, when to leave people alone and she knew just when I was at my lowest. Those were the evenings, when after office, she laid out the comfort foods like hot vadas from the cart downstairs and the tea – and we spoke. We bared our souls to each other because we knew that each of us could keep confidences. And that the next day we had the maturity to again slip back into our roles of boss (she) and employee (me). If there is one person who put me on the road to recovery without a fractured mind, it is Shangon. She forced me to look into myself and find a person who I didn’t know lived in me.

Ujjwala – my most loved colleague

The day I first saw her is so vivid in my memory. She is fair, very fair and the little black and gold beads of her mangalsutra sparkled like little dots against her fair skin. A feminist to the core, she flaunted this symbol of marriage like a badge of honour. Oxymoronic I thought, but that is Ujjwala. Fiercely, militantly strong about what she believes in – in this case her symbol of matrimony. I sat in the workstation next to her for all the time I was there and drew strength from the very positive vibes she emanated even when she was quiet. We travelled the length and breadth of India together. We could walk into a village living in abject poverty and speak with the women like they were our buddies, or walk into a saree store in Odisha and feast our eyes on the most gorgeous sarees, knowing fully well that between us we didn’t have the money to own even one. We could come out sated after a biriyani meal in a roadside dhaba without worrying about the bacteria I’m sure we were putting in. It was with her I felt safe in little hotels of small towns of India (where we had to stay while on field trips) even when we heard drunks weaving their way around outside in the corridors.

Then there were the little ones – because they were far younger than ‘us three’ – Hema, Vini, Shyamala, Shobha. Edwin and Mahesh the two men, knew how to fade away when we were in our ‘most women’ avatars. It was in that office that we held baby showers, understood that women had pre-menstrual mood swings that made them demons, spoke women things and revelled in femininity, and did some good work. When we were not in the mood to work, it was perfectly alright to gather around the ‘scarred dining table’ in the centre, call a halt to work and gossip.  We had our problems – we sulked over perceived slights and did all the human things, But we overcame and moved on.

Before I knew it, I was living a fuller, rich life and my troubles were seeming smaller and smaller because I was traveling and working with communities who had even less than us. I was meeting battered women who were bravely battling alcoholic husbands, educating their children, bringing in household incomes, learning to deal with micro-credit and walking miles for a mere pot of water and smiling through all of it. Each time I met them, I cringed, for all the times I had grumbled about my own life of perceived poverty.

I didn’t, have not become an angel. I am still human, still capable of being small and greedy and judgmental and am still full of faults. But I do know that I’m richer because I have met people who have given me a new kind of bank balance – knowledge and the ability to understand and feel empathy.

Finally one day, it was time to move on. Like all good things, this too was coming to an end. One day, I had to gather my weapons, which were infinitely stronger by now, and move on to fresh, wider horizons and chart newer, maybe more exciting paths. I didn’t know then, which way providence was taking me. Yet again, decisions were being made by an unknown hand, who was leading me into uncharted territories. I was wise enough by now not to be scared. I set out…

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Our Marie Antoinette moments

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the French Revolution is famously believed to have said, “Let them eat cake,” when she was told that the peasants of her land did not have bread to eat. Whether she really said it or whether the story began as a rumour and gained credence down the years is immaterial to this little story of mine. My story is true and hugely ironical as I look back and remember the circumstances that led to our Marie Antoinette moments.

The slide was swift, painful and endless

Several years into our ordeals, it seemed the slide would never end. Each time we lulled ourselves into thinking the worst had happened, something happened to tell us how wrong our thoughts were. By this time, in a reversal of convention, my husband had taken on the mantle of home-maker and I had stepped out to earn. With my income alone, there was little we could do, save eat decent meals and have a roof over our heads. Everyday brought with it a new crisis and every crisis brought with it further deprivations and struggles. But we still managed to have our little treats. Biriyani made of basmati rice, fresh milk cream (which our daughter could not eat a meal without), and ghee were some of the treats that we never lost sight of! When we had the money, we stocked up on the rice and ghee and zealously guarded and reserved them for special evenings.

But come end of the month, and these very hoarded stocks would provide for our Marie Antoinette moments. On evenings when fragrance of basmati rice cooking hit my nostrils as I returned home from work, an unspoken message came with it, telling me that stocks of the normal rice we ate everyday were finished. Or when my husband lit our pooja lamps with ghee instead of oil, or we had to season our food with ghee instead of oil, it was time to hit the panic button! There were also the moments I had to take an auto to work instead of a bus because the kind auto driver trusted me enough to wait for a day or two for me to pay him.

Maybe life has a way of handing out some sort of natural anesthesia as a package deal with shocks. Because down the years, these moments ceased to scare us. It was like our senses were benumbed and every new situation became ‘just another thing to deal with’. My husband and I, and even our daughter learned to joke about them. Reverse luxury is the term we gave to these moments, because in extreme conditions we were actually indulging in luxury!

I still associate the fragrance of basmati rice with those difficult days. Even today, I pull back from seasoning food with ghee.  I don’t want to live those days again, but I don’t regret them for a moment because I learned to live during those days. Yes, there are easier ways to learn how to live, but we were chosen for this way of life and that must make us special and chosen!

Bharathi Ghanashyam