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.