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.
“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!