Chellama was playing with my five-year-old daughter while I entered my home. They heard my footsteps and looked up. My little Kithi came running towards while Chellama got up and headed towards the kitchen. Five minutes later I was served some hot ginger chai and onion pakora. It was a routine that started four years back. I sat down on the little-cemented corridor of my single bedroom house and watched my two beautiful angels play. Tears kissed my eyes as I watched them play, my mind drifting back to that rainy day, four years back
Four years before:
I stood at the bus stop holding my little one close to my bosom. She snuggled up to me as I tried to infuse all the warmth left in me. There was nothing much left. I stood shivering as the cool breeze showered me with an occasional drizzle. Maybe the chillness was within me. I waited at the bus stop with nowhere to go, looking at the buses, trying to figure out my destination; and that’s when I met her. She looked at me with a curious smile. Her unkempt white hair looked sticky and caked with portraying years of abandon. Her skin looked parched, and the wrinkles were pronounced. She wore a dirty striped white shirt that hung about her knees. It had hidden most of the soiled and torn yellow cotton saree. She had an equally dirty little bundle of what I assumed were clothes. There was small hand pouch tied around her waist.
I looked away from her. My daughter kept sneezing now and then, and each time it happened, the old lady’s tuft white eyebrows rose up in concern. I moved a little away from her with apprehension. Her shoulders drooped down a little. My daughter started shivering, and her coughs became incessant. All I had on me was my little girl and a hundred rupees note. Taking my daughter along with me to the pharmacy without an umbrella would be suicidal for my baby. Hot tears trickled down my cheek
“Paapa!” I heard a hoarse old voice near me. I turned around and froze in shock as the old lady stood beside me. My hands tightened around my baby convulsively.
“Am not going to take away your child!” the old woman said. “I bet I can’t run as fast as you” she chuckled. A tentative smile touched my lips. Common decency made me respond.
“Tell me, um… amma “I replied. The old woman’s stance changed when I uttered the last word. She turned away from and wiped a tear.
“Looks like your baby is ill!” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, “I can’t go to the pharmacy now; not carrying her along with me!” I murmured.
“If you don’t mind” she hesitated. “Can I give some medicine to your baby?” she asked
“I …ah… I don’t know” I equivocated. She gently touched my hands.
“Trust me!” she said and gently nudged me forward.
She fumbled with her hand-string pouch and produced a tiny bottle that had a murky looking dark green liquid. She opened the stopper, drank a little from it and looked at me. Had she made some gesture I would have run away. She just kept looking and waited patiently. I gently handed her my baby.
“She shifted my daughter to her lap in a swift yet delicate motion. She started murmured sweet nothings as she gently tipped my daughter’s head down and poured the liquid down her throat.
“There…there,” she said, as miraculously made a spoonful of sugar appear before my daughter. She fed it to the little one while I watched it with ill-concealed fascination.
“First baby?” she enquired.
“Yes” I nodded my head
“I have handled many children in my lifetime,” she said with a small smile.
“You don’t have a place to stay?” she said
“I…ah… How?” I stammered
“Because no woman in her right mind would carry a little child outside without an umbrella in this weather and you were crying” she stated in a matter-of-fact tone. There was no condescending or judgmental octave note in her voice. I told her everything.
“It was a brave decision to walk out of your husband if you can call that bastard that” she spat “He bloody doesn’t have any rights to sell your body!” she said with passion.
I cried as watched my daughter nestle close to the old woman.
“Good riddance I say!” she said. “So what are you going to do now?” she asked
I gave her a hysterical laugh “I have no idea!” I whispered, and tears started flowing afresh.
“shhh…!” she commanded. “Crying isn’t gonna solve anything,” she said.
“Here!” she handed my daughter to me with gentle care and turned around and started rummaging her cloth bundle. A moment later she whirled back with a small green velvet case. She thrust it in my hands.
“What is this?” I questioned.
“Open it” she commanded
There was a thick gold chain of about ten sovereigns and two diamond studs. I looked at her taken aback.
“What is this?” I tried thrusting it back to her hands
“Take it!” she commanded. “They’re of no use to me. It has been sleeping in this bag for the last five years” she pushed it back to me fiercely.
“You could live a pretty decent life if you sell this!” I said, “Why are you living in the streets then?” I asked her in a harsh tone
She didn’t look intimidated. “I’ve lived all the life I could live,” she said in a firm tone.
“This child on the other hand” she gestured towards my daughter, “hasn’t even started her life; you have more need for this than I do!” she said. I was shell shocked; behind the mask of caked mud and carefully constructed negligence, I could see a woman of authority that usually came with money and power.
“Who are you?” I whispered
“Just another old lady!” she said curtly
“Who are you?” I asked again
“Am a woman who has lived her life, and knows when to stay away from other’s life when my need for them is over!” She said with emotion. She revealed so much about her in that one sentence, and it was the just the needed spark that ignited my rock solid decision.
I kept the jewel case safe in my blouse. I bent and picked her cloth bundle.
“What are you doing?” she asked with apprehension
“Come let’s go!” I said in a firm tone.
This time she was intimidated. “Are you doing this because I loaned you some stupid jewels?” she whimpered, her tone betraying her hurt
I turned around and gently took my hand “No!” I said “Am doing this because I need a mother” and I realised my voice ringed bright with sincerity.
The old woman’s skin turned moist with her tears “Will you promise me one thing?” she asked
“Anything!” I replied
“Please don’t ask me anything about my history,” she said.
“Oh, I know who you are,” I stated with a smile of absolute conviction.
“You are my Chellama!”
She sat on the edge of the large mattress, her finger gently tracing the rose trellis pattern of the pale blue lace curtain that covered hung from the ceiling of the large four poster bed. The mild scent of agarbathi nauseated her. The sickly sweet smell of jasmines woven around her long braid made her feel dizzy. She took a deep breath. She looked around without seeing, and her mind dismissed the tray of fruits and milk with dispassion. The door creaked, and she jumped. He stood there in a white Kurta looking uncertain. She curled herself into a fetal position closing her eyes shut as memories of the past began to flood her mind.
Three years back:
She sat in the middle of the master bed, waiting for her husband. The wedding had been a quick one as the groom had just fifteen days before he had to leave to Canada. Her parents had cross verified the social status of the groom’s family, micro-analyzed the horoscopes, cross consulted three astrologers, and everything said he was the perfect match. On her part, she was fascinated about living in a foreign country. One look at his unruly curly hair, straight nose and perfect white teeth, she fell for him like a piece of log. They didn’t have much of conversations in the fifteen days, just occasional greetings and tentative smiles. She thought it didn’t matter. Why would it matter? She had a lifetime to talk with him, didn’t she?
“What would happen tonight?” she murmured
“We would be talking, of course!” she replied to herself “The…uh… thing cannot happen so soon right? We barely know each other!” she voiced out her reasons. Maybe a handshake or a small peck on the cheek she trailed off as the doors opened.
He walked in from the adjacent room wearing only his briefs, with a drink in his hand. She gaped at him in shock. He sauntered over to her, raking her from head to toe with his eyes and a carnal, unsmiling grin spread across his face.
“You are wearing too many clothes” he rasped and dragged her up from the bed; before she could recover from the shock, he had deprived her of her saree. He started unhooking the buttons of her blouse with practised efficiency. His fingers made contact with her skin, and she snapped back to her senses. She stepped back away from him desperately shaking her head in the negative.
“Can’t this wait?” She pleaded as he stepped towards her with purpose.
“Why would I marry you, If all I wanted was to talk with you?” he replied in a mocking tone. Rishitha started stepping away from him, trying to run away. He caught her by the wrist and pulled her to him with brute force. She pushed her face up to his and grabbed her lower lip between his teeth in a vicious bite.
“You are my wife” he murmured in a cold tone as he bit her hard. “And you’ll obey me!” he said, pressing her closer to his length. “Say it back!” he commanded.
“I… I am your wife” she stuttered between her tears “I’ll obey you.”
“Good…” he said with a wolfish grin and captured her mouth in a punishing kiss.
Her clothes flew to the ground in a haphazard manner, and he pushed her down to the bed. His mouth grabbed her nipple in a cruel bite, and she yelped in pain; before she could recover from the agony, he spread her legs and pushed his arousal to her dry, unyielding warmth. The sharp pain she experienced nearly pushed her to the brink of death.
“Oooh! A Virgin” he echoed. He started a harsh and punishing rhythm and poured himself into her with a satisfying grunt. He rolled away from her and smirked.
“You are such a good wench in bed Rekha!” he said.
“My name is Rishitha” she murmured with affliction
“Whatever” he murmured and slept.
The red dot on the white bedsheet was appreciated greatly by her grandmother. Her nights became a painful routine. When he flew to Canada, she wept with joy. Three months later came the shocking news that he was already happily married in Canada. Three years since all that happened. She had married again thinking she had moved on, but the subtle hint of the night that lay ahead had brought back all the memories with crushing force.
“Rishitha?” she heard Gautham’s uncertain voice.
“Can I come in?” he asked
“It’s your bedroom” she shrugged.
“Our bedroom” he replied as he came and sat near her on the bed.
“Anyways am just here to borrow my pillow,” he said pointing to a fluffy blue pillow. “I can’t sleep without it. Am a creature of habit.”
She understood the opening he gave and grabbed it “What other habits do you have?” she asked.
“I always brush my teeth before having coffee in the morning “he grinned as his stance relaxed.
“Interesting “she smirked
“And I always snore when I sleep,” he said. She feigned a look of horror; he laughed. The night progressed peacefully expect for that one room that glowed brightly with her laughter
She stood frowning at her reflection in the mirror shaking her head in disapproval. I took a deep, exasperated breath. The red sheath gown looked stunning on her. The collar just dipped off her shoulders revealing a wheat-gold complexion and ended as long sleeves that ended near her wrist. The full-length gown gently hugged her curves and glided down her legs. She was simply ravishing; so much in contrast to the demure suits and the stiff cotton sarees that she usually chose. Her hands went automatically went to the pastel pink lipstick tube. I shook my head negative. She sighed with resignation.
“Let me dress you up today” I rubbed my hands together getting down to business; I was stunned by my result.
A dash of red lipstick, a filigree earring of sterling silver, a chic messy chignon, and a sexy pair of brown eyes that sparkled with wisdom and intelligence; I have seen her walk down to a conference in a demure grey suit and win arguments with calm, sophisticated nonchalance. This woman looking back at me in the mirror was the stark opposite of everything I’ve seen and known. She was a siren in bold red, a piece of crackling fire, a drop from the fiery red glow of the sun.
“Liking what you’re seeing?” she asked me with a smirk
“Loving it!” I breathed back.
I gave her a pair of matching stilettos to wear which she held it gingerly as if it was an infected animal.
“These things don’t look comfortable!” She whined
“Wear it!” I ordered.
She pursed her lips like a petulant teenager and wore the shoes. I handed her a red clutch. She gave me a nervous smile and walked towards the door.
She turned back, grabbed the nearest chair, put her head in her hands and started crying. I rushed towards her.
“You know I don’t want this!” she murmured as I held her.
“I have you and Rishi” she whimpered “I have Raghav and his wife” she gasped. “I’ll buy a cat!” she whispered through her tears.
“shhh…” I cooed, “Relax now!” I murmured in her hair.
I gently lifted her face to me and wiped the tears that trickled down her lovely cheeks.
“You have lived for my brother and me for twenty years,” I said “We have families of our own and brats to take care for the next few years. It’s time to go out and make a life for yourself.”
“Besides” I continued, “You hate cats!”
She let out a guffaw and gave me a tight hug. She did a little touch-up and walked towards the door.
“Mom” I called. She turned back
“All the best!” I grinned.
The fifty-year-old woman smiled back and stepped out for what was her first date in twenty years.
Velachery is an astounding amalgamation of people, culture, mosquitoes and concrete. Ten years ago we prided ourselves with the extraordinary amounts of trees and deer that inhabited the Checkpost area, today we boast about the marble marvel called Phoenix market city, sipping a cuppa from the Starbucks. One such prominent chrome and glass structures that dominate the Velachery area is the “Saravana Stores ” building (formerly a nameless, forgotten data centre that housed some poor IT folks)
“Saravana Stores ” is your go-to place when you have: 1) a mid-month bra crisis 2) your mother’s shopaholic alibi rears her head up with a vengeance 3) a dreary day and desperately in need some entertainment 4) All the above. I chose option 4.
The shop is everything you imagine it to be. From the vendors who milk your money with flashy pink teddy bear balloons to the cheap tasting popcorns.
I walked past the Golden fake archway that threatens to fall any time on you, the unsmiling woman with a faded white silk saree, the humongous crowd, the malfunctioning ACs that work surprisingly well only near the doors fascinated by the sheer amount of people
I dragged my fascinated mum through the crowd and paved my way towards the elevator. After ten futile minutes waiting for the elevator, we huffed and puffed through the stairs to reach the fifth floor. Ah! Our lingerie destination! Now, finding a decent bra in the huge silver trays among fellow female folks is a skill and right up my mother’s alley. She launched herself into the search with frenzy and came out with an array of black, blue, fluorescent, pale pink and God-knows-what colour bras. I chose the black one and resolutely shook my head in negative to the rest. As she went back to rummaging the bra tubs, I turned towards the panties tub, and my world tilted.
I howled with laughter. I howled like a lunatic werewolf on a full moon day. I never knew that women could wear panties of such variety, whether it was to humour the men who get to see it or to arouse them I would never know. There were Mauves, opalines, Cerulean, Crimsons and Canaries. There were laces, patterns, zig-zags and lions. I caught the eyes of one of the sales girl, and she started giggling along with me, It passed on to the kind looking lady nearby her, the stern looking aunty adjacent to her and together we rummaged the whole tub for thirty long minutes- laughing, smirking and of course, buying. It was a mind-boggling community event.
What am I trying to say by all this? I don’t know. Just take your mum to Saravana Stores
I slammed my alarm shut and rolled about in bed. I gave a punch to his pillow and settled comfortably. Outside I could hear the familiar sounds of water poured into the big cement tub. The familiar pungent scent of cow dung hit my nostrils; I glanced at my alarm clock whose neon coated dial flashed 5.10AM. I sighed. Time to get up; He grabbed his toothbrush, squirted some toothpaste and walked outside. I had about ten minutes before he had to collect the fresh cow dung and take it to Valli akka next door. I leant against the back door and looked at his grandfather.
Kannaiah bustled around carrying a stack of hay to feed the cows. His dark skin glistened in the early light, the rays reflecting through the drops of sweat that moistened his skin, creating a faint aura about him. At sixty-five, his body held the scars of a lifetime of hard work and battles toned down by the delicate web of wrinkles that covered him all over. His tuft of white silvery grey hair was barely visible through the red bandana that covered his head. He turned around to look at his grandson and his eyes crinkled with a smile.
“Hurry up, lad! “He mused with enthusiasm. “Tomorrow is a big day.”
I tried to hide my resignation behind a small frown. Tomorrow was Maatu Pongal. My grandfather will be spending his whole day today with our Mookkan. He would give him a thorough bath with his ash powder and Lifebuoy soap. He would paint the stud bull’s sharp horns with a bright blue paint and adorn it with yellow ribbons. He would spend the whole evening bugging our vet and preparing a jasmine garland for our Bos indicus. And just like the last couple of years, he would sit staring at the wall all day tomorrow, hoping against hope for an announcement.
We couldn’t talk him out of it. It was a routine of twenty odd years of him, and it was the 200-year-old heritage of my family lineage. Generations after generations we have been proud owners of the Zebu stud bulls that won a record number of bull taming competitions. They were our proud brothers who resembled the epitome of virility and sheer strength. And every one of them left behind a herd of male off-springs that upheld the whole economic stability of our village, and every one of them was named Mookkan honouring our forefather who lived two hundred odd years ago.
I tagged along with my grandfather to the separate shed were Mookkan tied. The black humped animal shuffled its legs restlessly and stamped his hoofs. All the rage of being confined into the small shed glowered in his bloodshot eyes. With the Jallikattu ban, the farmers of the surrounding villages were slowly training their bulls to take up domestic chores. Our grandfather was hell bent against the idea.
“Mookkan is a Sallikattu kaalai, and he would be that till he dies” he had said.
He walked up to the bull and started murmuring gentle coaxing words to it. He went about the routine of decorating Mookkan, knowing that this usual habit gave my grandfather solace. He finished tying the yellow ribbon and took the kum kum box from him. His fingers trembled as he placed a big dot of bhindi of the stud’s forehead. He took back a step and viewed his handy work, he touched the animal’s forehead in a soft caress; and he fell.
“Grandpa! Wake up!” I shook him gently. He was trying his level best to fight the void that was threatening to engulf him. The doctor advised us not to have any high hopes. After two days of unconsciousness my grandfather resurfaced to reality, he absorbed the concerned faces around with a sad smile. He motioned me to sit beside him. He looked at my father and signalled towards the rickety wooden cupboard. “Salli mootai” he murmured. My dad rushed to the closet and came back with a large pouch made of a mouldy yellow cloth. I recognised it at once. It was my grandfather’s possession. It was the pile of silver coins that he won in his last ever Jallikattu match. He thrust the pouch in my hands. “Take care of Chinna Mookkan,” he said, “And uphold the tradition” he breathed. He looked one last time all around as if trying to memorise all the faces, he closed his eyes one last, and he was gone.
I brought in the unruly little calf where its father was tied just two days back. Mookkan had passed away within two days of my grandfather’s death. Maybe he sensed the loss of his beloved owner.I let out a deep breath and caressed the calf. My phone vibrated in my pocket. There was a WhatsApp message.
“Protest against Jallikattu ban at Alanganallur machan! Come and join!” the message read. I straightened my shoulders with a sense of purpose and gave one last pat to Chinna Mookkan. “We are going to play” I murmured and strode back to my home
I walked into my home with my mother at about ten thirty after sending off my cousin to the Trump country. My tenant Mohini akka was out in the biting cold with a maroon scarf covering her silky hair. Her dark face had a smear of white running across from cheek to her chin. She held a small cup of White chalk powder in her hand. I forgot about it completely. It was New Year’s Eve.It was Rangoli time.
“Help Mohini with the Rangoli!” my mom staged a loud whisper and walked into the house.
I sighed. I knew it was going to happen. I went inside and changed into my nightie and came back outside. Mohini akka had finished the skeleton layout by then. The beautiful floral pattern started with a six petal flower and bloomed into an elaborate pattern of concentric circles. It was mesmerising. We discussed the colour combinations and started mixing the glitter to the many colour powders, and that’s when I saw the earthworm.
It was slowly dragging its way from the petal pattern towards the first circle. I asked Mohini akka to remove it with a stick and cast it aside. She cringed.
“It gives me the creep, can you throw it away!” she mumbled.
“I don’t want to disturb it. Let it crawl through” I said. “Let’s continue with the colouring.” We made short work of the petals and came around to colouring the area where the earthworm was slowly crawling its way out. I started putting the colour powder on top of the worm assuming it wouldn’t hurt the thing that lived all the time in the muddy soil. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. It gave a sudden jerk, shuddered and curled itself into a protective ball. It remained that way for a minute or two, slowly unfurled and continued its journey. Unfortunately, it happened to pass my way again, and I threw little more colour powder on it because, hey I wanted to finish this Rangoli and get back home. The same thing happened to the worm. I stood staring at it with fascination. That’s when I heard them walk by.
They were a group of rough looking boys, probably aged between 17 and 21. They shuffled unsteadily walking hand in hand. One of them did a wolf whistle. Mohini akka and I proceeded with our task, ignoring them. They started getting bolder.
“I like ripe mangoes” he slurred. He tapped at the stocky looking guy beside him.
“You can peel it machan! I’ll keep sucking at it all day long.” Both Mohini akka and I exchanged nervous glances. A chill crept through my spine, but I chose to ignore it and continue my work. I watched the earthworm again. I had accidentally put colour on it the third time. It shrivelled back to its protective posture. I kept staring at it. I heard another voice behind. This one was explicit and ten times more skin-crawly in nature.
“There are certain derriere’s in the world that are broad enough for five long sticks” the stocky one purred. The most comfortable position is when two of you can hold the legs and hands. The men leered. I looked down at the earthworm again. It was slowly unfurling from its fetal position and tried to move forward. Its movements were sluggish, thanks to my constant throw of colour powder. It dragged itself along trying its level best to escape from another possible assault. I knew it would die if it had one more round of hell circle to cross. I took a deep breath. I picked up a stick and placed it near the earthworm. It went back to its protective mode thinking it was another assault. It realised the help a few moments later. It slowly crawled up on the stick. I picked the stick up gingerly and placed it near a Neem tree; far away from the threats of danger. I took the black stone that lay nearby. I turned and hurled it straight at the group of men.
There was initial shock from the crowd. I started throwing stone after stone on them, and Mohini akka seized the chance to call the people from our home. As they rushed in the guys started retreating. The women folk gave us some free advice regarding the danger of instigating such men. Our Rangoli still had two more circles to go. I turned to Mohini akka‘s husband with pleading eyes. He took up a small colour bowl and started colouring. My dad followed cue. While the men folk did the colours we completed all the motifs that went inside the circles we finished it up in comfortable silence and the men started wrapping up the leftovers. We agreed to do it together for the next event. I added the words “Wish you a very happy new year 2017” warped around the Rangoli in a circular pattern. I brought out my mobile and clicked a photo of our handiwork. I turned towards the Neem tree and spotted the earthworm slowly crawling towards a dead yellow Neem leaf. “Happy new year” I murmured to it. I think it turned back and gave me a smile.
Akka: Tamizh term for sister.