By Sreedevi K
Feb 4 : Finally booked return tickets for S and the baby. She pointed out last night that it has been over 12 months since she went home with the baby. I guess that kind of explains why we seem to have nothing in common these days, not even the weather. Its still cold here in Delhi, but she insists that the baby can take it, that all they need is a heater and me. We’ll see.
Feb 5 : Just remembered that Valentine’s day is looming up. Actually, the reminder she set on my phone just went off. Sigh.
Feb 6 : Of late I catch myself tuning her out more often. S complains (increasingly more to herself) about how she misses me and her own home, while I watch ESPN on mute. Honestly, I really don’t know what more I can say or do. It’s been over a year of “YesImissyoutoobaby”s and the awkward silences that follows those words. Maybe she’s right, maybe time and space have come between us, “breathing damply down my neck every time I call you” as she puts it rather dramatically. I don’t like it any more than she does, but I get the feeling that she expects ME to do something about this. Ah well…
Feb 7 : Another day another reminder, this time to wish my grandmother on her birthday. But for some reason Ammumma’s line remained busy for about an hour. I put it off long enough to forget about it.
S called up later at night, sounding rather thoughtful and strangely contrite. She said that she had had a very strange conversation with my Ammumma.
“I’m not sure what I said, but she got the idea that I am very unhappy at the way things are between us now. We spoke for a while but she wasn’t really listening to anything I was saying. She went quiet after a while, and as I was about to hang up she said:
“Have I ever told you that I was married off at seventeen? Arjun’s Achachan was all of twenty three at the time. We were far too young to know what we were doing or what to expect from each other, but I suppose it was understood that we would learn and grow together. I went from a palatial colonial bungalow in Madurai to a rambling, poverty stricken tharavadu in Calicut. Well I can tell you this…my girlhood dreams of wedded bliss had never featured three generations of cantankerous in-laws and a painfully shy, tongue-tied husband!
That was an age when the daughter in law was not expected to raise her eyes off the ground, or speak to anybody unless spoken to. In any case, nobody had any reason or chance to talk to me after my mother in law gave me my chores for the day… I would draw water, cook, do the laundry, go to the market, clean the house and do whatever else needed to be done. All the while missing my family and wondering about a husband who was a complete stranger to me.
Did you know that we did not have a room to ourselves for the longest time? He would sleep with his brothers in the veranda while I slept with the rest of the women. It didn’t occur to anybody to give us a room, and I don’t suppose he knew how to ask. I would look for opportunities to catch a glimpse of him…sometimes walking with a towel and soap to the pond, or sipping a tumbler of buttermilk on the veranda. I would imagine that he hung around the well rather longer than necessary while brushing his teeth, and wonder whether he was waiting for me to step out the backdoor to meet him. I never did go, though.
And then one day we realized that things had gone from bad to worse.
Achachan was the sole bread winner of a family of seventeen. He was a Microbiology Research Officer, and his salary of Rs 450 proved woefully inadequate to feed and provide for all of us. I came up with innovative ways of making meals out of nothing. A single glass of curd could be turned into excellent spiced buttermilk if I had a bunch of curry leaves, ginger and a bucket of cold water straight from the well. I cooked rice with the husk of areca nuts so that a ladle full could satiate anybody. I learnt to pass off banana peels (generously handed over the wall from the chips store next door) as tasty vegetables of dubious origins. And I watched my husband grow from a pimply young boy to a quietly confident young man. My mother in law used to grumble that I was no longer the pretty girl her son had married: I was a sullen, dark, unkempt woman whose bones stuck out disgracefully. Well…I didn’t know whether to still wish for my husband’s attention or be thankful I didn’t have it!
And then one evening he came home drenched with the October rain. It was about 7 in the evening and the rest of the family had gathered near the flickering hurricane lamp in the veranda. Peeking from the kitchen, I saw my mother in law shriek and scold her son for getting soaked to the bone… god knew we couldn’t afford to have anybody fall ill. I rushed outside with a tattered towel and a glass of hot rice water. And stopped short.
He was grinning at me out of the half darkness. Then he took the towel and glass from me and pressed a dripping parcel into my hand, loosely done up in banana leaves. “This is for you, Shantha,” he said, and rushed off indoors while I gaped at the muzham of jasmine flowers that tumbled out of my parcel.
There was a stunned silence as the heavy fragrance of the tiny flowers soaked the darkness. And then his grandmother started screaming from her corner about extravagance, and strumpets and selfishness.
I didn’t hear any of it, I was lost in tucking the flowers into my hair. The fragrance enveloped me, and I realized it was the shield that I had longed for all along. I bounced to the kitchen on the balls of my feet, smiling through the tears that were pooling in my eyes.
We soon got our room,” Ammumma chuckled.
Both of us were laughing, but I was shaken by the story I’d just heard. I mean…your Achachan looks like such a dour, gruff tough cookie! And there he was making such a statement in front of his family. Did he know how precious this moment was for your Ammumma?
Three years of living in the same house and not even talking to each other! And here I am thinking I no longer know my husband after spending a few months away from him.”
We spoke a while longer before the baby screamed for attention. And I stared into the darkness outside my window, feeling my Achachan’s nervousness and excitement of all those years ago.
Maybe I really could do something here.
Maybe I could begin by getting her a string of jasmine flowers on a starry night.
Ammumma : Grandmother
Achachan : Grandfather
Tharavadu : Traditional Nair house
Muzham : Conventional unit used to measure flower garlands. One muzham is the length from your finger tips to your elbow.