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Authors: Anita Nair

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BOOK: Ladies Coupe
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‘Be careful. Don’t go any further,’ Amma would say.
They would buy peanuts in paper cones and ice cream in
little tubs. Appa would feel the sea breeze ruffle his hair and lift his worries away.
‘We must come back again next week,’ he would say with a smile.
The children would smile back happily. At least the younger ones would. Akhila and Narayan knew that, by the time they reached home, Appa would have a headache. And that for the rest of the holidays he would grumble about the idiocy of wandering through the streets of the city in the midday heat buying things they didn’t need and eating food that was made with rancid oil and filled with a million germs.
Once Appa availed of his Leave Travel Allowance and took them to a few pilgrim centres. That was how Akhila went to Rameswaram, Madurai and Palani. There never was enough money for them to go to any tourist spot. Appa’s office paid for travel to any part of the country once every four years; but all the other expenses had to be paid for. If you had a family home to go to, nothing would have to be paid for. You stayed with your relatives, and they took care of everything. So one year Narayan and Akhila hit upon the idea of asking their father to take them to the village he was born in.
‘There is nothing left there in the village for us,’ Appa said, when Narayan and Akhila approached him.
‘But couldn’t we go there just once? Only to see where you grew up,’ Narayan persisted.
‘Leave your father alone. Can’t you see he is tired?’ Amma yelled at them. And sure enough Appa was already wrinkling his forehead and rubbing his temples.
But Appa’s death had brought into their home relatives they didn’t know of even by name. And with them came the professional criers. Who had sent for them? And how had they come so quickly?
Narayan and Akhila watched as the family and the criers congregated around Appa’s body and lamented. What did
they know of Appa to grieve for him? And yet, their grief seemed so real …
Amma who had been too spent by emotion and had subsided into silence began weeping again. Subramani Iyer came towards them. ‘Pattabhi Iyer’s relatives. They are all from Poonamallee. Go to your mother,’ he said to the two of them. ‘You two have to be responsible now.’
Amma stared at Akhila’s dry eyes in disbelief. ‘How can you not cry? Cry, cry, damn you. Shed a few tears for that man lying there. You’ll never weep for him again. Weep, at least for decency’s sake!’
And so, Akhila cried. For the next ten days as they went through the rituals of death and mourning, Akhila shed all the tears that she had been allocated for a lifetime. She cried when she watched her brothers perform the funeral rites. They looked so young and frail. How could she burden them with any kind of responsibility?
Akhila cried every night when she cooked a bowl of rice and placed it with a jug of water so that Appa’s soul still hovering in their house wouldn’t be hungry or thirsty. Appa, Akhila cried, as I provide for you tonight, I will have to provide for the family you abandoned so callously. How am I to do it?
When Amma was dressed as a bride before dawn broke on the tenth day and the other widows gathered around her and stripped her of her marks of marriage, Akhila cried because she knew that this was what it meant to be a woman.
And then, she never cried again.
The train ground to a halt. The station was veiled in darkness. Akhila looked at her watch. It was almost midnight. She craned her neck and tried to read the station’s name but the letters were barely visible. It was a small station; the train would halt there for barely a minute and a half.
Akhila heard the compartment door clang open. She
peered through the window to catch a glimpse of who it was. The trains were not as safe as they used to be. All sorts of people got in and committed all kinds of crimes. This was a safe sector, but even then one had to be careful.
A girl stood by the door of the coupé. She must be the passenger Janaki had mentioned, Akhila thought. The girl came inside and stowed her bag under the seat. She looked around the coupé and then at Akhila.
On one side, all the berths were occupied. The girl’s was the middle berth.
‘Do you want to go to sleep?’ Akhila asked. ‘You can pull up the berth if you want to.’
‘No, no,’ the girl said. ‘I’m fine. I’m not sleepy.’
Akhila waited for her to bring out a Walkman or a romance novel. But she sat there hugging a bag to her chest, staring at the floor.
She must have been about fourteen or fifteen. A child, in fact. Something about the way she sat reminded Akhila of her brother Narayan, on the day their father died. The same clenching within. The same urge not to give way to tears and disgrace herself The same dignity. Neither a child, nor a woman. In blue jeans and a red-and-white striped top.
‘Are you alright?’ Akhila asked softly.
She looked at Akhila, startled. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘Thank you for asking.’
Akhila sensed something was wrong.
‘What is your name?’ she asked.
‘Sheela,’ the girl said.
‘Which class are you in?’ Akhila asked, surprised by her own garrulousness. She seldom made small talk and never began conversations with strangers. But this evening, she had behaved so unlike herself Eager to spill her secrets. Anxious to probe into lives. Willing to talk.
‘I’m in ninth grade at the Holy Angels Convent,’ the girl said.
‘Are you travelling alone?’ Akhila asked.
The girl shook her head. ‘My father is in the next compartment.’
‘What about your mother?’
She looked at her feet and scuffed the sneaker-shod toes of her right foot. ‘My mother left early this afternoon with …’ her voice cracked, ‘ … my grandmother.’
‘My grandmother …’ she said, fumbling for words to explain, ‘my grandmother was very ill. She was dying. She died on the way to her home.’
Akhila touched the girl’s elbow. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘She was very ill and I’m glad she died. I think she would have been glad to die, too. She was just a living corpse anyway,’ Sheela said.
Go, Grandmother, Go
Exactly four months after Sheela turned fourteen, her grandmother wrote a letter saying that she intended to pay them a visit. For as long as Sheela could remember, her grandmother had never come to visit them. They always had to go to her, loyal subjects bearing gifts of fragrant chewing tobacco and packets of Marie biscuits. She would greet them regally, demanding total homage. Nothing less would satisfy her.
When Sheela was born and it was time to name her, her grandmother decided on the name. She had chanced upon it in a magazine. ‘I like the sound of it,’ she said. ‘Besides, it is my right to choose a name for my grandchild.’
So Sheela was named Sheela and not Mini or Girija or Nita or Sharmila or Asha or Vidya as per the list Sheela’s parents had drawn up when she was born.
Sheela had no memories of cuddling up in her grandmother’s lap or of going to sleep in the crook of her arm. Though her mother insisted that when Sheela was a baby, her grandmother carried her everywhere. Affection for her grandmother meant a squeeze of the arm, a hundred-rupee note slipped into Sheela’s hand at the end of the holidays
and a meal at the best restaurant in town. But then, she was unlike most grandmothers.
Sheela had another grandmother. Achamma. Her father’s mother. She visited them every few months and stayed for many weeks each time. Achamma was small and thin; a little grey sparrow with a tiny mouth and hair she coiled into a little bun at the nape of her neck. When she came to stay, there was no need for extra preparations. Achamma asked for little. She pecked at her food and lay curled under a blanket reading most of the time. In the evenings, she said her prayers and retreated early to bed. Sometimes the only sign of her presence were her dentures that she kept in a little plastic jar by the washbasin in the bathroom.
Achamma blended in with their lives. Sheela thought she blended in so well that she forgot Achamma even existed. She could never do that with her mother’s mother.
Sheela called her Ammumma rather than ammama. Her grandmother preferred it so, for she hated any kind of reminders that she was getting old. Ammumma was ambiguous whereas ammama meant only one thing — Grandmother. The logic eluded everyone else but Sheela knew that replacing the vowel made all the difference to her grandmother.
Ammumma was sixty-nine years old, owned several houses in Alwaye, an acre of teak trees and several paddy fields. She also had six grey strands growing on her chin that she meticulously plucked out every few days.
Sheela’s home was a flat in a block of four. It had two bedrooms and a squarish balcony in the front that overlooked a park dense with mango trees. Ammumma liked to stand on the balcony lined with pots of crotons, begonias, and a gnarled jasmine bush. She would stare at the trees silently moving this way and that, the blue-grey cylindrical pieces of wood wedged between the parapet and the balustrade. Sometimes she would sniff the air longingly and say, ‘The smell of home, mmm …’
Sheela’s parents would look at each other in delight and agree. They thought it a sort of triumph that she was beginning to feel at home in the flat. But Sheela knew that the only thing Ammumma found bearable about their home was the profusion of mango blossoms around it.
Sheela knew this as she knew everything. Sheela knew her grandmother was there because she was dying. Not that Ammumma knew she was dying. After all, a growth in her womb was not a new occurrence. Seven times her womb had flowered and spat out the fruit when it was time. Why would this one be any different? But this time the baby in her womb was an evil gnome intent on malice. Its angry red face and grasping tentacle hands reached greedily within her, feeding on her life for its sustenance. A parasite child that would never leave the sanctuary of her body until death did them part.
Sheela knew why Ammumma was in their flat and not in the mammoth house Ammumma owned. Sheela knew why Ammumma insisted that the doctors at the hospital near their home were better qualified than anywhere else. Ammumma wanted her sons to know that they had driven her away from her own house. She wanted them to squirm in guilt when they thought of her. She was angry with them for preferring their wives to her. For letting those soft-faced, hard-hearted women addle their minds and blemish their love for her.
Sheela knew Ammumma realized that Mummy, after being ignored for most of her adult life, would be grateful for any crumbs of affection Ammumma threw her way. For being the chosen one among her siblings. Sheela knew Ammumma was playing on Mummy’s insecurity. She knew how delighted Mummy would be to be back in Ammumma’s favour after a year of estrangement. The previous summer, they had had a bitter disagreement about the writing of Ammumma’s will. And for the rest of the year, they had been distant with each other. Eyes didn’t meet,
hands didn’t clasp, and hearts didn’t merge. Letters when written were cold and polite. For the first time ever Mummy stayed away from Ammumma’s home during the school holidays.
Sheela knew why Ammumma was reluctant to write her will, to divide her property and bequeath it to her various children. It must seem so tinged with teachery and betrayal to her. Her children waiting and wanting to go on with their lives even after her death. This desire to build their future on her ashes. How dare they even contemplate happiness when she was not around? How could they dispense with her so easily? And anyway, once she wrote her will, what was left for her to do, except die?
And so Sheela knew why Ammumma waited for a moment when her parents were in the room before she drew out a gold necklace and clasped it around Sheela’s throat. She was just ensuring that Mummy’s loyalty, unlike that of her brothers, didn’t shift.
For a week, Ammumma ruled and reigned. She insisted that Sheela be asked to stay at home after she came back from school. ‘She’s a grown-up girl. You shouldn’t let her wander around. And who are all these men she plays badminton with? She may call them “Uncle” but they are not her uncles and how dare that man Naazar put his arm around her? She’s not a little girl. And I saw the look in his eyes … If you don’t take care, you’ll regret it one day.’
‘Amma,’ Mummy said, ‘they are her father’s friends. She is like a daughter to them.’
‘I have heard that one before. Don’t you remember what happened to the girl who was your neighbour? That tall creature called Celine.’
Mummy coughed to prevent Ammumma from talking any further. She had spotted Sheela listening.
But Sheela knew all about the Celine incident even though it had happened about the time Sheela was five years old. Everyone in the housing colony knew about
Celine. Of how she’d go to play in her friend’s house and of how the friend’s father did things to her that friends’ fathers are not supposed to do. So Celine became pregnant and both the families left the colony and the town in disgrace. Celine and her parents moved to a place where no one would know about her abortion. And the friend’s father went to a far-away town where he would find plenty of young girls to ruin, everyone said.
Sheela knew how easy it would be to be another Celine. To succumb to an older man’s attentions. Naazar was her friend’s father and her father’s friend. His daughter Hasina was her classmate. One Sunday afternoon when Sheela went to their house, rushing in from the heat with a line of sweat beading her upper lip, Naazar had reached forward and wiped it with his forefinger. The touch of his finger tingled on her skin for a long time. Thereafter, Sheela mopped her face with a hanky each time she entered Hasina’s home. Another time, the bows on the sleeves of her blouse had come undone and as Hasina and her mother watched, Naazar knotted the bows. Slowly, meticulously. Sheela felt her breath lodge in her throat and when she saw the hurt in Hasina and her mother’s eyes, shame wrapped itself around her. Sheela never wore that blouse again.
Sheela knew why Ammumma said what she did about Daddy’s friends. Mummy she thought was too trusting, too naive. But Ammumma knew better and Sheela decided that she would never go to Hasina’s house again.
Then came the day before Ammumma was to be admitted to the hospital. Ammumma couldn’t stop eating. It began right after breakfast with a basket of jade-green grapes. She ate them one by one, spitting the pips into the palm of her hand. When they were nearly over, she went onto the balcony and hailed a fruit vendor on the road. She bought most of the fruit he had with him. Sapodillas so lusciously plump that you could smell the ripeness on her breath. She scooped the flesh out with a teaspoon and wolfed it down.
By lunchtime, there was just a heap of languid skins and glistening black seeds. Then she ate everything that had been cooked for lunch for all four of them. A mountain of rice, a whole chicken chopped and fried with onions and spices, a tin of papad, a whole bowl of thick creamy yoghurt, all of the vegetable dish and the prawn curry Sheela had waited for all morning. When she finished what was on the table, she went into the kitchen looking for the pots and pans the food had been cooked in. She tore chunks off a loaf of bread, mopped up the leftovers and crammed the bread into her mouth. She continued to eat until all the food in the house was gone. Mummy looked at her plundered kitchen and sobbed a sigh. Daddy slunk out quietly to buy some lunch and Ammumma fell asleep. All afternoon, through the evening and till the night fell, she continued to snore while Mummy kept shaking her head and mumbling, ‘Why? Why is she behaving so strangely? What’s wrong with her?’
Sheela could have told her mother but she knew that she wouldn’t be taken seriously. That day was Ammumma’s last day as a whole woman and this was her way of forgetting what lay ahead. The next day they would take away a part of Ammumma and she knew she would never be the same again.
Ammumma was a great one for manifestations of femininity. She appraised carefully every new woman she saw and most of them were found wanting. ‘You call that a woman! A proper woman has a good head of hair and a chest full of breasts.’ And a womb that blossomed readily. Tomorrow Ammumma’s femininity would be at stake.
Ammumma hated imperfections of any kind. In her home there was no room for a cracked plate, a blotched towel or a faded cushion. And now she was going into a hospital that would in all probability decree that a part of her be removed and thus condemn her to be flawed for life.
Sheela knew that Ammumma felt repulsed by her own body.
Late in the night she wanted Sheela to pluck the straggly strands on the underside of her chin. Mummy laughed, ‘Who do you think is going to look at you?’
Ammumma gave her a cold look and said, ‘That’s not the point.’
As Sheela sat there on the balcony with the tweezers and a small hand mirror Ammumma could examine herself in, Ammumma said, ‘You mustn’t become one of those women who groom themselves to please others. The only person you need to please is yourself. When you look into a mirror, your reflection should make you feel happy. I tried to teach this to your mother and aunt. But they are silly women. They don’t understand what I have been trying to tell them. You … you, I hope, won’t be such a fool.’
When Sheela nodded, Ammumma stroked Sheela’s hair and said, ‘You remind me of myself when I was your age. Except that I was more buxom and womanly. You don’t eat enough. You are so skinny. No man will want you for a wife. Men don’t like bones in bed. Men like curves.’
But you told Mummy that you didn’t like the look in Naazar Uncle’s eyes. And if I was skinny and ugly, why would he look at me like that? Sheila wanted to ask. Except that Mummy got there ahead of her.
‘Don’t fill her head with nonsense,’ Mummy said from the doorway.
‘You call this nonsense. You forget I am her grandmother and am entitled to tell her whatever I choose to,’ Ammumma snapped.
Mummy hovered around for a minute and then went away and Sheela resumed searching Ammumma’s chin for any stray hair that had escaped the tweezers.
Sheela knew Ammumma wanted to feel perfect this one last night. Every night before Ammumma went to bed, she stood by the mirror in her room and splashed her face and neck with calamine lotion. Then she dusted her still smooth
face, her lined throat, her plump shoulders and her huge pendulous breasts with talc that smelt of lavender. Finally she opened her jewellery box, caressed the gold and gleaming gems, put on her favourite piece and went to sleep with the weight of her jewellery on her naked skin; a warm surrogate fist nestling between her breasts that covered most of her chest. Sheela knew Ammumma did it so that even if she were to die in her sleep, she would do so looking her best. Her children, of course, dismissed it as a sign of age and its concurrent eccentricity.
Daddy came back from the hospital two weeks later and said, ‘The cancer’s inoperable. They want to try radiation.’
Mummy’s sister and brothers descended on them. A swarm of locusts who devastated the smooth fabric of their lives.
Mummy, Sheela’s capable Mummy, became a little vague. The family GP said it was stress taking its toll. He said it was depression caused by the illness of a loved one. He said it was nothing that time, rest and a course of antidepressants wouldn’t cure.
Only Sheela knew different. Mummy depended on Ammumma to provide a sense of continuity in her life. Mummy wanted to bask in the secure knowledge that there was someone who could tell her what to do and never be wrong. Someone who had all the answers for the one million doubts that swam into her mind from the farthest corner of her troubled soul. And suddenly it seemed that someone would no longer be around. Sheela knew Mummy felt lost and helpless. Sheela knew that for the first time Mummy felt the burden of the responsibility that would come to rest with her now that Ammumma was dying. Her sister and brothers would seek in her the wisdom and strength Ammumma had. While all she wished to do was to continue in a state of forever daughterhood. Petted, cosseted, and absolved of all motherly virtues for the rest of her life.
BOOK: Ladies Coupe
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