Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chapter 8 - Christmas at Rani’s

Christmas 2002 was, to use her cousin Davy’s favourite expression, an adipoli affair. There were more than a hundred people at the dinner hosted by Rani’s parents, and it was an occasion for Shikha to catch up with her mother’s siblings and their families and papa’s and mama’s common and close relatives.

Shikha and her parents had come down to Kuttiparambil house on 23rd, and had had a quiet Christmas lunch there. Alice ammai and papa’s youngest sister Roshini ammai were already there with their families when they arrived. Alice Ammai’s children were both employed. Trupthi, the elder one was a software engineer with Wipro. The younger girl Meera was working in GE’s call center in Hyderabad. She had graduated in Physics with astounding marks and shocked the entire family by taking a break from studies to work in a call center. Michael was the one who protested most vehemently. He was so persistent in his protests that Rani had to tell him that children are ultimately the responsibility of the parents, and so he should stop being a pest before Alice was driven to tell him that.

“OK, OK”, he said. “But a call center! Surely there’s something better she can do”

“What else will she get so easily papa?” butted in Shikha.

“What’s the hurry? She doesn’t have to work to earn her bread, does she? To take up a night job”

“You make it sound like she’s going - - - “. Shikha’s words trailed off into silence at seeing the forbidding look on her mother’s face.

So Michael was a little reserved with Alice when they met at Kuttiparambil house, but she, in her typical style, won him over with her charming, open manner. She plonked herself into the sofa where Michael was reading the Manorama, grabbed his face and turned it towards her saying. “Chettai, punnara chettai”, she teased, “why don’t you look at me? Have I become unpresentable since we last met?”

Despite himself, Michael burst out laughing and the temperature in the Kuttiparambil house came down to normal. However, with Meera, he could not slip into the easy repartee that he usually enjoyed with Alice’s affectionate daughters. He was stiff and formal, and kept conversation to the minimum. At the grand dining table on Christmas Eve, Michael suggested that she come to Chennai where he could fix her a job. “That sounds like a good idea”, said Meera, smiling brightly. Super diplomat, thought Shikha, to whom Meera had justified, just an hour before, her decision to break free from the traditional mould of being a hanger-on on the family resources till the completion of education. “The economic independence and the space I get away from home and relatives, it’s a beautiful feeling, Shikha. Does a lot for my feeling of self worth”, she had said. And now she says it’s a brilliant idea, coming to Chennai and staying under the protective wing of her conservative uncle, thought Shikha wryly. “Amma had asked me not to get into arguements with Michaelachayan”, Meera explained with a grin when Shikha confronted her with her recent evolution into a “soapy” niece.

The preparation to go to Rani’s place for the Christmas dinner was elaborate. The formalities of visiting the daughter-in-law’s house was observed to the last detail. More than twenty kilos of fruitcake generously laced with brandy had been baked and kept ready by velliammachi four months before Christmas. It was packed in aluminium foil and then placed individually in new Tupperware containers bought specially for this purpose. Velliammachy’s fruitcake was legendary, and the Kuttiparambil household threw all health caution to the winds and helped themselves to the cake the day they arrived. Twenty bottles of wine – again made by Velliammachi- bottled in dark brown beer bottles, were packed in a carton. Other goodies included achappam, suhkiyan, halwa, avalose unda and kuzhalappam – all in huge quantities. Michael had brought ten kilos of Sohan pappadi from Chennai. There was enough to fill the trunk of the Appachan’s Honda City.

The Kuttiparambil turnout was also very elegant. Shikha looked stunning in a smart printed peacock blue raw silk Salwar set which she and Rani had selected from Fabindia. It gave a rich hue to her light complexion. Much as she would have liked to go in her usual jeans and a well-cut top, Rani insisted that she wear something, which showed her to an advantage.

“We want you to look your best”.

“I know”, said Shikha resignedly. “After all I’m in the marriage market”. Rani looked askance at her, not missing the not too pleased tone of her daughter, but said nothing.

Meera’s outfit caused a small storm in the Kuttiparambil teacup. Michael disapproved of the knee length skirt suit she wore. Shikha thought she looked smart and trendy in it. “Ask Alice to prevail upon her to get into something more conventional”, said Michael to Rani.

“Oh, come on papa, she looks lovely in it”, said Shikha.

“We are going to Kandanaad, not to Hyderabd or to Chennai”, replied Michael irritably.

Rani, who seemed to be in an assertive mood, reminded him it was none of his business.

“Besides, you wait and see the type of outfits that’ll greet you at my place”. Michael kept a poker face, but relaxed after sometime and Shikha found the ride to Kandanaad with him at the wheels, with Rani beside him and Trupthi and Meera in the back seat with her, a very pleasant one. Michael’s parents and his sisters and Roshini’s two school going children followed in the Inova taxi which was owned by Appachan.

Rani was right. The outfits men and women, both young and middle aged, turned out in would have put a Bollywood party to shame. Diamonds sparkled, mirrors and Zardosi work flashed from lehengas and sarees. From full length skirts to micro minis, smart well cut tops to body huggers, knitwear party clothes with heavy work to light loose silky dresses that draped seductively, formal suits to jeans, boys with ear rings and pierced eyebrows – it was all too much for Kandanaad. The local relatives invited to the party were staring shamelessly. Shikha heard Rani’s father’s cousin’s wife – in her late sixties – asking the girl who sat next to her whether some one whom she pointed out discreetly was a boy or a girl.

Liqour was served generously. Some of the ladies too helped themselves to it. Minors were directed to the table where coke and soft drinks were served. But all coke drinkers added a dash of hard liquor to the dark brown liquid in their Luminarc glasses, and many got foolishly drunk.

Shikha moved about relaxed and comfortable, meeting and talking to her relatives. She knew most of them for she used to visit them during her visits to Kerala. Besides, most of them came to Chennai once in a way and spent a day or two in her home. Her relatives were as diverse as diverse could be but she enjoyed an easy and affectionate relationship with each of them. “She takes after your mother in that aspect”, Rani had observed one day at the dining table in their Chennai home when Michael mentioned how Shikha had become a topic of discussion when he was home at Kuttiparambil house a week earlier. He had gone to attend the death anniversary function of his paternal uncle. When the immediate relatives had gathered at Michael’s house, Theramma ammai, the oldest member in the Kuttiparambil family - a nonagenarian - asked for Shikha. With senility just beginning to set in, she didn’t think it improper to grade her grand nieces and nephews in terms of preference. Shikha topped the list.

“How come you like your pardesi niece when you have so many others around you here who visit you often?” teased a relative.

“Shikha is a class apart. Others bring me the things I like to eat, say hello and then go away to those of their own age group in the house. Shikha spends time with me. She asks me about my childhood and youthful days, how life was in my village in Pulinkunnu before electricity and water connection came, and listens with great interest. She is a very affectionate and considerate girl”.

“I felt proud, Shikha”, Michael had said to his daughter after he related this incident. “It’s remarkable the way you hit off with people of all age groups and all class and caste”.

Embarrassed, Shikha refused to take the full credit. The old man has evolved, Shikha thought remembering the fuss he used to make about her mingling with the servants.

“Velliammachi tells me that people are different and we must accept them as they are. If you listen to them, you’ll find all of them are good and interesting”.

Sometimes she found it difficult to agree with velliammachi, especially when Accamma velliamma, appachan’s youngest sister started talking nonstop. She would go on and on about her four sons and three daughters, their spouses and children. Though Shikha tried to smile and nod and look interested, her mind would wander. How different velliammachy is, she’d think each time she spoke to Accamma velliamma. Velliammachy never bragged about her children though they were all extremely well placed and got the best marriage alliances one could hope for in the community. Michael himself belonged to the elite IAS fraternity and was the Chief Secretary to the Government of Tamil Nadu. His younger brother Antony uppappan, the last in the family, was the CEO of a mulit national Pharmaceutical company in Mumbai and his wife Shiny ammai who was from an “ancient, aristocratic family” from Trichur, had a boutique in Bandra, and she supplied diomonds to the rich ladies back home in Kerala. Their children went to Bishop Connan School in Mumbai and craved for pizzas and Mac only. Velliammachy had to take care that there was cereal and bread and butter and cheese for breakfast because they didn’t enjoy the “stupid things like appams and idlis”.

Both Alice ammai and Roshini ammai were probationary officers in nationalised banks and their husbands, who again were from ancient, aristocratic families, held enviable position in public sector companies. When Roshini ammai’s husband Roy uncle migrated to the US, she resigned and joined him in the USA with her children. They were there for a half a dozen years now and were doing extremely well. Strangely enough, her children loved appams and idli and all the naadan food.

But Velliammachi never ever bragged about her children or volunteered information about them unless asked. How different she was from Accamma ammai whom people avoided like plague during that Christmas dinner, in order to escape the harangue on her children - daughters and sons-in-law and grand children and their degrees and the prizes they won in the school and the Merc they owned and the size of their houses in the US and and and - - - . Shikha pretended that she was called to serve short eats and fled.

Rani and Shika’s aunts from both sides were sitting in one corner of the veranda, well furnished with a couple of coffee table sets, bean bags, modas and upholstered comfortable cane chairs. Shikha loved them because they loved her. She liked the attention she got from them. They were talking about the latest diamond counter opened by a leading jeweler in Kochin.

“I had a look at the place”, said Shiny ammai. “They charge eight thousand rupees more per carat that I do.


Desire has opened a counter in Trivandrum. I think their rates are the same as yours”, said Leela aunty, mama’s cousin, not to be outdone in the diamond centric conversation.

Shiny ammai looked skeptical but decided against countering the point.

“It’s an elegant dress you are wearing, Shikha. From where did you pick it up?” asked Shiny ammai.

“From Fabindia”

“Oh really, I went to Fabindia in Bombay just a week back but didn’ find anything half as classy as this. I think Chennai outlets have better stuff”. The conversation then hinged around clothes and boutiques. Slightly bored by the trend of the conversation, Shikha’s mind had begun to wander when she heard something that caught her interest from the two aunts sitting next to her. Thankammaunty and Jaymol aunty who were sitting in the two seater couch next to the bean bag in which Shikha had settled down comfortably, were dicussing something in real earnest. Paadathil Johnny’s name was mentioned and Shikha butted in to find out how things were with him and his wife. He had taken to drinking so heavily that Laila his wife had walked out on him and refused to go back unless he gave up alchahol. Laila was the only child of Rajan, Mchael’s cousin.

“That’s what I was telling Jaymol”, said Thankammaunty. “Johnny has become a teetotaler now”

“What?” asked an astounded Shikha rather loudly, and suddenly everyone was listening. Laila had come to Chennai a month back with her two-year-old son on Michael’s invitation. He thought he could drill some sense into her head. The day before she arrived, Rani warned Michael at the dining table not to be too pushy with Laila.

“If she’s decided to go and stay with her parents, she has good reasons”, she said earnestly. “Don’t interfere too much with other people’s personal life”.

“I’m not willing to be politically correct and be a mere spectator”, said Michael raising his voice. “Laila is young and can do with some advice”.

“There are enough of her own people to do that”, insisted Rani.

“I’m her uncle, for goodness sake”, snapped Michael. “I have the right to guide her when she behaves so impulsively in so serious a matter”.

“What do you mean, papa? Impulsive? The last time I saw Johnny at Kandanaad, he was on four wheels, and behaving like a sick animal. I see no reason why anyone should put up with such behaviour”. Said Shikha, annoyed at her father’s attitude.

“Shikha, Johnny is her husband - - - “, began Michael in a dangerously quiet voice, but shikha cut him short rather agitatedly.

“Papa, I agree with you about the sanctity of marriage. But it isn’t enough if the woman alone tries to maintain the sanctity. Tell me, suppose my husband does what he does – throw up all over the place at a small family gathering, abuse me when I try to control him and push me down with the entire world gaping at the drama. Tell me papa, will you ask me to put up with such bullshit?”

Michael seemed at a loss to know what to say. In fact he looked at Shikha in consternation, and then looked at Rani as if to be shown a way out. Apparently, the thought of his daughter having to live with what Laila had been putting up with for so long rattled him.

“What’s not good for your daughter is not good for anybody else’s daughter”, said Shikha pushing the point. “Mama is right. Don’t try to send her back to Johnny till that fellow reforms himself. We’ll see that she has a good time when she comes here”

Laila had seemed very calm when she came to Chennai but would break down whenever she spoke of Johnny. What broke her ultimately was the fact that Johnny had begun to slap her even when he was sober. “Alchahol seems to have affected his brain”, she said dejectedly. Michael and his family could only listen. But Shikha drove her to the church where the Novena to our Lady of Perpetual Succour was conducted every Wednesday, and told her that prayers sent up from that Church never went unanswered.

So Shikha was more than delighted to hear that Johnny had given up drinking.

“But we didn’t know about it. Papa is in touch with Rajan uncle”, Shikha said.

“I too just heard about it”, said Thankamma aunty. “The Saturday before last, he went to Muringoor, to the Divine Retreat Center to attend a one week retreat. He’s a totally different man now”

“Oh, his reformation is only a week old”, said Shiny aunty wryly.

“No Shiny, I’ve heard of a lot of cases of people coming out of alcoholism at Muringoor. I think the greatest miracle that happens there is that. You know what’s the rate of success even at the rehabilitation centres”, said Thankamma aunty.

Shikha was delighted. It did not matter to her what brought Johnny to his senses. She knew that he was a good guy when not drunk. And she was happy for Laila. Please God, let him not regress, she prayed silently, and as she went to look for her father to inform him of this good news, she said a silent prayer thanking Our lady of Perpetual Succour for hearing her prayers.

The younger lot were in the far end of the room and Shikha joined them. Someone put a glass in her hand and poured out diet coke. Arun, her cousin, asked her if she wanted a dash of scotch in her coke. “Heavens, no. Liqour gives me migraine”, replied Shikha. Arun was Rani’s brother Varkey’s son. Born and brought up in the U K, he spoke English with a heavy British accent, which made it difficult for others to follow him. So he always spoke in Malayalam. He liked to show off his impeccable Malayalam which was much better than the Manglish spoken by some of her other cousins.

She helped herself to the cutlets and fried prawn starters that were being gorged by the group comprising youngsters between sixteen and thirty. Trupthi was talking with a couple of Shikha’s cousins who were working in the IT industry. They were discussing the housing and car loans being offered by banks. They seemed so engrossed in the conversation that Shikha moved on to the next clump of youngsters. Meera was the cynosure of attraction and all the young men seemed vying with each other to engage her in a repartee. Some of them were saving Meera’s phone number and email ID in the cell phones. Shikha made superficial conversation with those youngsters and moved on.

Shikha looked at the card table around which sat about half a dozen cousins and friends and smiled to herself. Thank god papa is in the other room, she thought. He’d be shocked at the drunken state of these boys who were cracking sleazy jokes and generously lacing the conversation with the F word in English and four letter words in Malayalam. She liked these cousins who always flocked together during these family gatherings. She stood behind one of them and announced her presence.

“Just so you will mind your language while I am around”, she said.

“Run away Saint Shikha”, said Georgekutty, good-humouredly. “We are not in a condition to control our tongues”, he said grinning.

“Papa was looking for you, Georgekutty”, lied Shikha. “I’ll just run across and tell him where to find you”.

“Spare me Shikha, please”, pleaded Georgekutty, genuinely scared at the thought of his uncle Michael seeing him in his present inebriated state. Shikha laughed and moved away, shouting to him over her shoulders “Was joking. Go ahead and get more drunk”.

Georgekutty who had just graduated from IIT Chennai, used to drop in at her house at least once in a month to have home grub. Michael liked him because he was an extremely well groomed and chivalrous young man. “He’ll stick out his neck for the family”, was what Michael used to say about him. Shikha could say that of almost all who sat round the card table, laughing uproariously and cracking obscene jokes. She appreciated the fact that they respected her discomfort with foul words and were perfect gentlemen when they conversed with her. Blood is a strange thing, she thought. The loyalty it generates is a great but beautiful mystery. She remembered how this gang of cousins took turns to be at mama’s uncle’s house when uncle was in the terminal stage of bone cancer. Lukose uncle had no children but in those difficult days, his wife Sosamma aunty was never left to deal with the situation alone. Sitting in Chennai, it is Georgekutty who organized his cousins to take turns to be at Lukose uncle’s place.

The blood bond never ceased to be a marvel for Shikha. How meaningful it made one’s life, she reflected.

Shikha, however, did not realize then this very same blood bond would one day jerk the carpet from under her!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Chapter 7 - The Princess and the Pauper

The first thought that came to Shikha’s mind at the thought of her mother’s house in Kandanad in the outskirts of Kochin was Rosa cheduthy, who inhabited her earliest memories of the place. She seemed to be the only factor about the house that did not change. During each of her visits there, she would see changes in the house. The house changed its shape several times. During one of her visits, she saw that the lovely colonial style slope roofed house had developed arms on both sides with the addition of new structures with RC roofing. Shikha felt sad because she had loved the original appearance of the house which reminded her of the castles in the fairy tales that she had read as a child. During the next visit, she noticed that the beautiful terracotta floor tiles were replaced with marble. Five years later, the marble gave way to granite. The in between space between the granite slabs were pointed with brass.

The people who lived there also changed, all except Rosa cheduthy. The thin emaciated, dark lady with buck huge buck teeth and salt and pepper frizzy hair weirdly framing the forehead looked the same as she did when Shikha, as a little girl, first met her when she went to attend her centenarian great grand father’s funeral. The last time Shikha saw her was almost a year ago for the 20th death anniversary of great grandfather. She looked as she always did. She wore the same type of chatta and mundu - the three quarter sleeved chatta which was not seen anymore and mundu wrapped around her thin 5’3” body, reaching not quite up to the ankles.

Her mother’s grandfather whom Shikha did not remember having seen when alive, had died of a massive heart attack. In fact, Shikha’s earliest memory of her visit to her mother’s house was to attend his funeral. She remembered the day when his body lay in state in the massive living room of the house. People who streamed into the house went around the body in an organised row. But Shikha became fascinated by an elderly man who would come in at regular intervals, sit on the floor beside the body and start wailing loudly saying “Whom will I pull the panka for again?”

“What is Panka? Who is that man?” Shikha asked Rosa cheduthy when the gate closed on the last row of the funeral procession. Shikha was left behind with the other children.

“I’ll show you. Come”

Rosa cheduthy took her to a room, which once was in the front portion of the house but was now relegated to the back after the umpteen renovations and extensions overtaking it; but it still afforded view of the front gate. It was a beautifully furnished room with heavy ornamental furniture, a huge easy chair made of cane and rosewood. There was a spittoon under the easy chair, which shone like burnished gold. The floor was covered with terracotta tiles with designs.

“Look”, said Rosa Cheduthy pointing to the ceiling. Suspended from the ceiling and stretched across it were three rows of frilled cream coloured satin cloth. Thick cords hung down from it.

“Pull it”, said Rosa cheduthy. Shikha pulled it and the satin frills moved. She kept pulling it and letting it go and felt gentle warm breeze come down from the ceiling.

“The man you asked me about? He is Velu, the pulaya who used to pull this panka for your great grandfather. He came into the house when he was eight years old and spent the rest of his life with your mother’s grandfather who owned Velu’s family. His job was to pull the panka for him, hand over the spittoon to him, keep it clean and do little odd jobs and run errands”, explained Rosa cheduthy.

Appalled and outraged, Shikha asked, “ But he must have stopped pulling the panka after the fans were fitted?’

“You are a smart child – just like your grandfather”, said Rosacheduthy. “But no. Valia muthalali, that is your great grand father, did not like fans. So he did not allow the panka to be removed. Like he had always done, after his breakfast, he used to come into this room where he spent the whole day and sit in the great armchair under the panka and velu would start pulling it nonstop – from sunrise to sunset. He did it till he died yesterday. It’s Velu who first noticed that he’d died. Velu had poured out tender coconut water in the glass and taken it to him. When he did not respond, he shook him and he fell sideways”.

Shikha was almost five years old then. She felt utterly miserable and heartbroken at the thought of a poor little boy who grew old pulling the panka for his boss, not going to school, not having any fun in life. She felt an intense hatred for her great grandfather at that moment. With moist eyes she asked Rosa cheduthy, “Did he ever beat him?”

“Once in a way, when he was angry”.

And then Rosa cheduthy said something, which Shikha would never forget. “My dear child, do you know that Jesus has said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven?”

“So, great grandfather will not go to heaven?” Shikha asked, not quite unhappy.

“Let us pray for his soul”, said Rosa cheduthy and abruptly fell to her knees and started reciting the Our father, Hail Mary and Glory be followed by Eternal rest grant unto him Oh Lord etc etc..

Shikha did not want to pray for his soul. Let him burn in purgatory for sometimes she thought. But she kept her thoughts to herself.

Rosa cheduthy asked her not to repeat her stories to her parents. “If you do that, I will lose my job and my children will starve”.

But Shikha could not get Velu out of her mind. She tried to imagine herself pulling the panka from morning to night, and watching other children play. She cringed at the caning she got from her great grandfather when she dozed off while pulling the panka.

“Promise”, she said to her velliammachi later, holding out her hand palm upwards. “Promise you won’t tell anyone”

“What is this big bad secret, Shikhakutty?” asked velliammachy smiling indulgently.

“First promise”, insisted Shikha her hand still held out.

Velliammachi placed her hand on Shika’s and promised.

“God promise?”

“Oh oh, that I won’t do. God has said that we should not use his name lightly. My simple promise is good enough. Now tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Shikha poured out Velu’s story, her narration punctuated by sobs. Velliammachi looked at her five old grand daughter in surprise, as though she was being afforded a revelation.

“I won’t pray for great grandfather. He must pay for his cruelty to poor Velu. But I don’t want him to go to hell. Will he go to hell like Dives, velliammachi?’

“No, my dear. He was a good man”

“But he was cruel. He used to even beat Velu with a cane”

“He was not cruel. He loved Velu. That’s why he punished him, just like parents cane their children because they love them. But he was a very kind man. He made a house for Velu, got him married, and sent his children to school. Both the sons had government jobs”.

“So Velu won’t starve and die because great grandfather is dead?”

“Most certainly not. His children will look after him. And great grandfather would have left some money for him”.

Shikha looked more at peace with herself.

“Rosa cheduthy said that it is more difficult for a rich man to go to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Is it true?”

“This Rosa cheduthy has destroyed your peace of mind, I see”, said velliammachy laughing. “No, my dear. It is not that way. In Jesus’ days rich men were cruel to the poor and did not take care of them. That is why he said it. If you are rich and kind to the poor, you’ll go to heaven”.

“Is papa rich and kind?”

“Yes, my little girl. Your papa is a very kind and generous man.”

Shikha looked relieved but she went on. “Then why did he look annoyed when I told him the stories Baby cheduthy told me about ST. Antony. He told mama to see that I didn’t spend too much time with the servants when I came here”.

“That’s because the servants here have not studied beyond three or four classes. So sometimes they use bad language, which your papa doesn’t want you to pick up from them. He takes good care of all the servants here.”

Shikha looked visibly relieved and was about to run off to play with her cousins when velliammachy asked her about the St. Antony’s story.

“St. Antony performed lots of miracles”, said Shkika. “One day, when he was a little boy, he was walking by the river side when he saw a pregnant woman bathing. He thought she was suffering from swelling of her stomach and chest. So he prayed to Infant Jesus to cure her. Immediately her chest and stomach became flat. When she went home, her people got scared. They asked her what had happened. She didn’t know. But she said she’d seen a boy looking at her while she bathed. They found out it was little St. Antony who was known to have supernatural powers. So they asked him to pray to God to reverse the miracle. He did and she became all right”.

Tears streamed down velliammachy’s face as she laughed helplessly. “No wonder papa was furious”, she said between paroxysms of laughter. “OK, run along a play with your cousins”, she said, wiping her face, and went to find Baby to tell her to be selective about the stories she told her precocious and sensitive grandchild.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chapter 6 - The House in Order

She had been given a rousing send off from Rosary College when she secured admission in London School Economics, which was one of the reasons she didn’t want to return to Rosary College for her Masters.

“You are being silly”, her mother told her, but Shikha was insistent. Her father’s illness was the other reason. She somehow did not feel up to facing her old college with the secret of this terrible reality haunting her.

Ever since she returned from London, a burning feeling in the pit of her stomach was her constant companion. The thought of her father having a fatal disease obsessed her in her waking and sleeping hours. She always kept an eye on him for any sign of discomfort and was ever alert to attend to his comforts and requirements. Realising that her father was rather uncomfortable with the attention he was getting from her, Shikha tried to keep her concern as little conspicuous as possible.

Her mother seemed calm and brave but did not wish to talk about papa’s illness. Was she in a denial mode, Shikha wondered.

On Wednesdays, Shikha took part in the Novena to Our lady of Perpetual Succour in the nearby church. She drew great strength from prayers. During the family prayers in the evenings, Shikha sometimes found it difficult to control her tears. She would look at Michael covertly, not wanting to think of the day when he won’t be sitting there with them praying.

She remembered the song velliammachi taught her and sang it silently every night before going to bed.

Akkarakyu yaatra chuyyum zion sanchari

Olangal kandu nee bhayapedenda.

Kaatineyuym, kadalineyum

Niyanthrikkan kazhivullavan kadavilundu

(You sojourners in this world, don’t be afraid of the surging waves. He who can control the sea is with you).

Those first six months after she returned from England were traumatic. The burden of living in the company of impending death was weighing her down. Yet she had to act normal, for her parent’s sake. She yearned to tell velliammachi who, she knew, despite her sadness about her son being afflicted by a deadly disease, would have something consoling to tell her. But both papa and mama were adamant about not informing her paternal or maternal grandparents. Shikha found her mother’s silence on the issue oppressive. Her parents turned down her offer to accompany them during Michael’s visits to the doctor. The appointments usually were during college hours. Shikha, in a way, was relieved she was spared that ordeal. The thought of the three of them waiting to see the doctor with the death warrant hovering over them silently, was painful. She did not insist on accompanying them after the first time.

The new college and new friends did not help matters. Shikha lost her appetite and began to lose weight. Michael and Rani tried to maintain an atmosphere of normalcy in the house. They tried to make the usual light conversation at the dining table. But Shikha could not involve herself in the discussions as before. It didn’t seem to matter to her anymore if A.K. Antony’s Chief Ministerial chair was shaking or whether BJP would come back to power in the next general election with the India Shining campaign or if there was a vertical split in the Indian cricket team. Her father and his impending death seemed to fill her mind all the time.

It was on the 18th of October that Rani texted her asking her to call. Shikha was in the University library when she got the message. As she rushed out of the library to call Rani, she could feel something like an icy hand clutch her heart while that burning sensation in the stomach surged upwards.

“Shikha, great news!” her mother sounded almost hysterical. “Dr. Dutta says papa’s condition is not motor neuron. It’s a manageable version of SLE”.

Shikha broke into a sob. “Are you sure Ma?”

“Yes. Dr. Dutta himself spoke to me. Guess you know that papa knows him from his Delhi days”.

“Oh Thank God Thank God Thank God! ”, sobbed Shikha into the cell phone. She packed up her books immediately and headed for the church where she attended the weekly novena . The church was locked but she went down on her knees on the steps of the Church and thanked Our Lady of Perpetual Succor profusely, tearfully.

Then she went home. Papa had dropped mama at home and had gone back to the office. Shikha was greeted by her mama smiling from ear to ear. Remembering a line from the Sudden novels, she said, “If not for your ears, your smile would go right round your ears, Ma!”

“Yours too Shikha”, replied Rani.

It was celebrations when Michael came home. Shikha threw herself at him and was crying and laughing at the same time. The dinner was a real spread, which reflected the culinary skills of the mother and daughter. Michael’s favourite dishes were all there. Prawn and mango curry, prawn olath sautéed in the forbidden coconut oil were the special dishes for the occasion. Shika made his favourite desert – tender coconut soufflé.

That was an unforgettable dinner for Shikha. After ages, she felt normal. She laughed and joked her heart out. They made plans for the Christmas vacation. Christmas was to be in Rani’s house this time because a get- together was being arranged by Shikha’s maternal grand parents. Rani’s brother Varkey was coming down from UK with his family. Grandpa Kuttiparambil and velliammachy would also be there. The world suddenly looked different to Shikha. Life is beautiful. No cliché, that, she thought.

But she couldn’t help that odd gut feeling that either something was on her father’s mind or he was not comfortable with himself. Impatiently, she shoved the thought out of her mind. Papa was not going to die. Nothing else mattered.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Chapter 5 - The Calm After The Storm

Shikha joined Rosary College to do her Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics. She was blissfully happy there. She loved everything about the college. The teaching methods suited her temperament. She was a favourite with the teachers. Though an extremely intelligent student, she had learnt early in life never to act over smart in the classroom during lectures. “The teacher is akin to God”, velliammachi had told her when she related the prank she and her friends played on the Social Science teacher who wore her sari in a strange way and sported a big flower on her hair to match the sari. Velliammachy was not amused to hear that Shikha was among the students who sprayed the chair with red ink causing the class to dissolve into laughter every time the teacher turned to write on the board or point out something on the map,. Ever since velliammachy’s admonition, Shkiha had refrained from talking ill of the teachers while discussing them with her friends, which earned her the nickname killjoy.

She had like-minded friends in the new college, with whom she could be herself. They didn’t think she was a freak because she fell asleep in the theatre watching Hindi movies. They didn’t think her a snob on account of her preference for English films over Hindi. She was not considered a laid back Mallu because her heroes were Mammooty, Mohanlal and Jayaram, and not Shah Rukh Khan or Saif Ali Khan or Amir Khan. Her small circle of friends didn’t think her weird when she told them that one Hindi actor she loved to watch was Govinda. He made her want to laugh, she said. And she could tell them of her newfound love for classics and Indian English novels without being labeled a pretentious intellectual snob. Her range of interests was wide and there was some one or other in her group of friends with whom she could discuss philosophy, music, books, cooking, religion, films or sports. There was an easy camaraderie that made her look forward to college everyday.

And she loved the field of study she had chosen. She was so earnest about her work that she won the attention of her teachers within a week of joining. It also helped that she had excellent skills in public speaking.

But what gave her a sense of belonging in the college was the emphasis the college laid on the things she believed were really important in life. “Many teachers there talk and think like you, velliammachy”, she told her grandmother. “You’ll fit in there perfectly”.

Things had eased pretty much at home too. At the dining table at night, after the first day at college, Michael inquired about her college. During the entire process of sending out the application forms to Colleges, Shikha had dutifully taken care to keep him informed about all the developments regarding the submission of application form and the follow up. He had listened expressionless, occasionally asking questions or offering advice. He had accompanied her to the college for the interview, and had quietly gone about remitting the fees, and completing the formalities regarding admission. On the way back home after that, he told her he had arranged for her to take driving lessons and asked her what car she wanted for herself. 'I leave it to you, papa. You know best", Shikha had replied.

But Michael had become subdued. Shikha hadn’t realized that a professional degree for her was so important to him. Or is it that he thought that she was always defying him? Was everything fine between him and mama? She got no answers but the uneasiness persisted. She wished she had appeared for the entrance exam and made herself eligible for some stupid professional course. The heavy atmosphere in the house in the early days of her graduate days was too much for her.

But somehow, things began to ease eventually, and the laughter and light conversation slowly returned to the dining table. Shikha was careful not to be defiant, or say anything to provoke her father. Michael too was anxious to avoid flashpoints. Life limped back to normalcy. “Please god, let it remain this way”, prayed Shikha.

Then one day, she saw a flash of her father’s old self. Rani had decided to make the bread pudding that her mother-in-law had made legendry. She called up Kochin and got the recipe from her. “Delicious mama”, said Shikha “but has not come out as good as velliammachi’s”.

Rani’s face became hard. “Ask her to come and make it for you. This is the best I can do”, she said unpleasantly.

Surprised at her mother’s sudden flare up, Shikha looked at Michael and was pleasantly surprised to see him smile discreetly at her. Happy, Shikha smiled back and this little exchange annoyed Rani so much that she pushed back her chair and started to leave.

“Sit down, Rani’, said Michael, sounding like his old self.

“You father and daughter can keep each other company and sing halleluiah to your mother and grand mother. I have better things to do”. And she started to walk away.

“Don’t walk away in the midst of a meal. Sit down and finish your food”, said Michael.

Rani hesitated, and Michael looked sternly at her. She shrugged with poor grace and sat down, and the dining table felt silent.

The old man is back to normal, thought Shikha happily.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chapter 4 - Now What?

The days that followed the publication of the results were a nightmare for the small branch of the Kuttiparambil family in Chennai. It was certain that Shikha wouldn’t make it to BITS Pilani as she did not have the required total for the integrated Masters programme there. Michael was at a loss to know what to do with his daughter next. She had topped the school and had an excellent total. It was her marks in English -88%- that caused her to miss BITS by the skin of her teeth.

“I’d asked you to appear for the entrance exams. You could have gone for a professional course at least here in Chennai”

“But I don’t want to, papa”, said Shkha who was at the tether end of her patience by the end of the first week after the announcement of results.

“You don’t want to, you don’t want to. What the hell do you want to do then? “. One of the rarest of occasions when expletives crept into his language. Rani knew it was time to step in. She touched his arm and told him to leave the issue for the moment.

“Some decision has to be taken, right?” exploded Michael. “What in God’s name is she going to do now? If she were a little older, I could have sent her to US or UK . Tell me Rani, what have you in mind for her?”

“I told you, papa. I want to do B. SC in Maths. All the colleges here have it. So I just don’t understand what the problem is”.

“Oh, you won’t understand. What can you understand? All you are interested in is having an easy time, gallivanting round the town with your silly friends, reading silly novels and watching movies. An easy life, that’s what you want. An easy life. You have no ambition. Look at – - -

“Please papa” cut in Shkha in a voice bordering on a scream. “I’ve told you to stop comparing me with my cousins. I don’t care a shit what they are doing. And don’t talk like a semi literate. Maths main is not a cakewalk. You could never handle maths. Isn’t that why you went in for humanities?”

Rani stepped in firmly.

”That’s enough Shikha. Go to you room”

“Gladly”, screamed her daughter who then stormed into her room, banging the door after her so hard that the cutlery on the dining table rattled. Michael, who hated any door being banged anywhere, made to follow her but Rani restrained him. He tried to shake her off.

”I said NO”, said Rani quietly. That was a Rani he saw very rarely, and who made him feel uncomfortable. He cooled down instantly and walked into his study and banged the door after him – louder than Shikha did.

Such scenes were a daily fare in the Kuttiparambil family in Chennai. Then one day Michael ceased getting excited over the issue. He fell silent. He took no interest in whatShikha was doing. He didn’t ask her how many colleges she was applying to. The B.Sc programme never figured at the dining table, or after family prayers when all issues were discussed pleasantly or unpleasantly in normal conditions.

Michael did not seem to care if Shikha lived or died, swam or sunk.

That hurt Shikha more than his angry words. She asked Rani about it.

“I gave him an ultimatum”, said Rani.

“ What did you tell him”, Shikha asked, curious.

“That’s not important, Shikha”, said Rani gently. “You just go ahead and apply in Rosary College. You’ll be happy there.”

“Shall I tell him I’ll prepare for the Civil Service exam? It’ll make him happy”, askedShikha looking worried.

“So you have decided to get yourself spat upon by ministers to please your father”, said Rani sharply, referring to Shikha’s pronouncements in the usual argument between the father and daughter on a career in Civil Service. “Don’t make any commitments to do things you dislike. You go ahead with maths. We’ll take things as they come after that”.

Shikha thought Rani sounded a little disgusted. She felt a little uneasy. Mama wasn’t the same ever since the fracas between her and papa began after her ineligibility for BITS was confirmed. She and papa didn’t seem to be on talking terms. Except for the bareessesntials, they didn’t have anything to say to each other. The light hearted conversation appeared to have vanished from the Kuttiparambil family.

What troubled her most was the change in her father. The fight seemed to have gone out of him. He seemed to be avoiding both her and her mother.

A sense of guilt began to take possession of Shikha. It was not a pleasant feeling.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chapter 3 - Velliammachi

The long vacation after the twelfth grade was spent in Kochin where her paternal grandparents lived. Those were the most unforgettable days in her life. Shikha hit off famously with her grandmother - whom she called velliammachi - who was never scandalized at the things Shikha said or did, or did not do or did not want to do. Velliammachy was the only one in the family who told her that if she didn’t want to do engineering or medicine, it was her choice. “Mathematics B.SC is not a foul word”, she had reassured Shikha. When Shikha quoted velliammachi during an argument with her father back in Chennai, Michael picked up the phone and lambasted his mother. When she called her grandmother the next day to apologise for putting her in a fix, Shikha was sobbing with remorse and fury. She had heard papa asking velliammachy to leave his daughter alone.

“Doesn’t matter, my dear”, said her velliammachi, cool as a cucumber. “Now that the drama is over, you can do what you wish, my little Bertrand Russell”. Velliammachi was a post- graduate in history. “Make sure you get the Nobel Prize. Don’t worry about papa. He’s my son after all. He'd called up sometime back to apologize”. She didn’t add that this had been his regular strategy for years. To say exactly what he wants to communicate, without mincing words and then be the good boy later and apologise. She remembered another occasion she got a similar dressing down from her first born. It was during the summer vacation after Shikha's Seventh Standard. The young domestic help Sudha, whom Shikha followed around while the former went about her work, asked if Shikha could be taken to her house to show her the karthika diyaas. Velliammachi readily agreed. So Shikha went with her grandmother to Sudha's house, with gifts for Sudha’s younger siblings and plenty of good things to eat. They were received royally in Sudha’s humble home, a small unplastered, tiled two-room abode with plenty of fun, laughter and hope. Velliammachi sat on the wobbly wooden bench on the small narrow veranda, picking at the snacks spread out on the stool in front of her while Shikha, who was twelve, hopped from box to box drawn on the sand, playing her favourite game with Sudha’s siblings in the little space between the veranda and the make- shift gate. The sounds, screams and laughter of children, they sounded the same everywhere, thought velliammachi. Happiness sounded no different in this home with its hand- to- mouth existence.

That evening, when Michael called, Shikha related her wonderful adventure in high excitement. Michael then spoke to his mother. He wanted Shikha to be flown back to Chennai immediately. He didn’t want his daughter moving in and out of a chetta kudil. Velliammachi told him calmly that if he so wished, he could make arrangements to have Shikha flown back. She didn’t want to be troubled with such stuff. He then insisted that Shikha not be taken anywhere without his prior permission, an order which velliammachi regretted cannot be obeyed. “Since when are our helpers untouchables to you?” she asked. Michael was silent, knowing fully well the implications of that question. His mother never let go an opportunity to remind him that his status as the son- in- law of a once director of ADB should not blind him to the finer things of life.

A week after that episode, Shikha went to spend a week in Michael’s sister Alice’s house. Michael was not particularly ecstatic with the decision but he held his peace. The day after Shikha left, Michael called his mother to tell her that when he called to speak to Shikha, she was sweeping the compound. He suggested that his mother sent Sudha to Alice’s house so that Shikha can have a comfortable time there. His mother flatly and calmly refused.

“Then bring her back immediately”

“Sorry, son. I’ve sent her for a week”

“I’ll arrange to have her brought back”.

“As your wish”.

But Michael did not arrange anything. However, after Shikha returned to Chennai, Michael called his mother to tell her unpleasantly that he wanted to keep his daughter away from Alice's influence.

“She puts strange ideas into the child’s head”, he said. “Does she want to turn Shikha into a feminist activist? Shikha was asking me why I don’t take care of myself like Davy does. I believe Alice told her that taking care of his own wardrobe and helping Alice in the kitchen do not make a woman out of her husband”.

“Well, she’s right, isn’t she?”, asked his mother. Michael thought he heard a chuckle from the other end and slammed the phone down.

Grandpa Kuttiparambil was a formidable man despite his eighty plus years. But he had a heart of gold. The whole family and the staff in the house were terrified of this planter turned industrialist who was worth millions. Except velliammachi. She had a way of twisting him round her little finger, without making him feel that he was being twisted out of shape. She always made him feel he couldn’t have been more right, and what he did was the best thing to do or say under the circumstances. Though what he said was always the wrong things, what he did was invariably right because his decisions were made hanging out from his wife's little finger on which he was twisted nice and proper, but with the comfort of sitting relaxed in a well-made firm sofa.

And velliammachi was a specialist in damage control.

The post Twelfth Standard vacation with her paternal grandparents in Kochin was a dream holiday for Shikha. Unlike her other cousins who could not come as they were busy with the Kerala, Karnataka, All India, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, CUSAT, IIT entrance exams, Shikha spent her time going to church with velliammachi when she felt like it, reading books from the local library, watching Malayalam movies with grandparents and the live-in servants, talking to the Karmali chedathy who came daily to clean the house and who was regularly beaten up by her alchaholic husband.

“Can’t you do anything about Karmali chedathy?” asked a disturbed Shikha after listening to the latest episode of domestic violence. Xavier, Karmali’s husband took a pot of rice Karmali had cooked for her family consisting of her good for nothing husband and three children, the eldest in the tenth standard, and threw it out into the backyard in a fit of anger. He was provoked when Kamrali reminded him that his daughter’s tuition fee was long overdue.

“Pray that he dies”, said Karmali who was listening. “There are a lot of coconut trees in the area where we live. Pray that one or two fall on his head and he dies”.

“Don’t talk like that”, said velliammachi sternly. Shikha looked at Karmali. She had paused from the swabbing for a moment to wipe her eyes.

Shikha couldn’t get Karmali out of her mind for a long time. She asked her father later if he could finance a rehabilitating programme for Xavier to cure him of his dipsomania. “Velliammachi keeps telling him to go to Muringur for retreat but he refuses. Says that the Divine Retreat Center is a big fraud”.

Michael listened to his daughter but said nothing.

“I honestly don’t know why amma allows her to talk to these people,” confided Michael to Rani, his wife.

“They are not sub human, eh? ”, she ventured, in a rare show of dissent. He glowered at her and she looked away, a smile hovering around her lips.

Shikha felt sad when she had to return to Chennai when her results were published. She had topped her school for the Board exams, and soon admission process would begin.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chapter 2 - The Bus Ride

Her parents had always been over protective and she hated it. She did not know what it was like to travel by public transport. Till she got her driving license, she was dropped off at the school or college either by her parents or the chauffeur. One Saturday , while she was in the 12th Standard, she asked her parents if she could go to School the following Monday by bus with her friend who lived in the house down the road. Saturday was usually a holiday for educational institutions. They were at the dining table, having breakfast.

“Take her in the car”, said her father.

“Papa, I want to go by bus”, she said. “I’ve never traveled by bus. My friends have such fun coming by bus. They tell me such stories”

“What stories?” said Michael unpleasantly.

“Such fun stuff”, she said, ignoring her mother’s signals that she was entering dangerous grounds.

“Fun stuff? What’s that? Why don’t you concentrate on your studies”?

“I’m doing good in my studies. I got the proficiency last year. So far, I’m topping this year too. How is a bus journey going to affect my studies”?

“You are very stubborn, Shikha. You refuse to do the entrance exams to professional colleges. I’ve permitted you to pursue you degree in mathematics. But I’d like you to go to a premier institution. You know BITS Pilani is only for the best?”

“Will you come to Pilani each time to pick me up and drop me back, papa?”

“Shikha”, thundered her mother. “That’s enough”

“Tell me papa, will you come or will you arrange a helicopter to have me picked me up and dropped back?”

Shika’s mother got up, came around the table, gripped her above the elbow and pulled her up.

“That’s enough. Go to your room”

“Don’t treat me like a kid”, screamed Shika, shaking her hand free.

“Quiet, the servants are listening”

“Let them. Who cares? I’m sick and tired of this military rule. How am I different from the other girls in my class?”

By now, her mother was dragging her away from the dining table. Shikha shook herself free again and stormed into her room, locked the door, threw herself on the cot and started sobbing.

Ten minutes later, there was a soft knock on the door. “Shikha, open the door”. It was her mother.

Shikha lay in the bed, without moving. The door handle turned. “Shikha, please open the door”, pleaded her mother, a touch of hysteria in her voice. Let them suffer a while, thought Shikha.

There was silence for a moment. Then another knock. She instantly knew it was her father. There was an overpowering authority even in a small act like that. But his voice was a little less confident when he called her. “I have to go to office, Shikha. I want to tell you something before I go”.

She got up and opened the door to see her father looking a little drawn. She was instantly repentant though she continued to look at him defiantly. He ruffled her hair and said in a laboured bantering tone. “Go by bus with your friend if you want. Maria chedathy can also accompany you”

Shikha was furious and felt humiliated, but held her peace. She did not want to spoil her father’s day. Much as she resented his over protectiveness, she didn’t really want to hurt him, if she could avoid it.

“It’s ok”, she said. “ I don’t want to go by bus”

But she did travel by bus. The following Saturday, she bluffed to her parents that she had a full day practice for the youth festival and was dropped off at school. After an hour’s practice, she went with her friends to their hostel in Vepri, then returned by bus to school and was picked up by her chauffeur. She had half a mind to tell her parents that she had gone ‘gallivanting’ in a bus and was back home, her virginity still in tact.