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.