Saturday, March 5, 2011

Chapter 13 - What God Has Joined - - -

A year later, Shikha got married to Philip Kottayil. He was over six feet, handsome, well groomed, suave and chivalrous. He spoke English with a slight British accent. He was not comfortable speaking Malayalam, a fact which made Shikha feel a little uneasy. She remembered how comfortable she used to be with Siddharth, how they moved in and out of both the languages to communicate with each other. Shikha pushed these thoughts out of her mind while talking to Philip when he came to Chennai for the first time for the pennukanal. Nothing to grumble about, thought Shikha, looking at him and sizing him up, much to the consternation of Rani.

“He’s hardly stayed at home”, explained Theramma Varkey, his mother in reply to Shikha’s observation about the indifferent quality of his skills in his mother tongue. Shikha had ignored the warning that Rani was trying to send across to her by blinking her eyes rapidly, frowning and shaking her head ever so imperceptibly.

“If they think I am brash and unladylike, they can go to hell for all I care. It’s enough for me I try to fulfill papa’s wishes”, Shikha told her mother after they left.

“Did you like the boy?” asked Rani. Shikha shrugged and said nothing. Rani repeated the question. “How much can you know of a person at the first meeting, mama, that too when he is at his best behaviour”, retorted Shikha.

“A marriage is what the woman makes of it, my dear”, said Rani.

“Oh, and a man has no role in making a marriage a success?” Shkha bristled.

“Shikha, now that you have decided to put yourself through the formalities of a arranged marriage, stop rebelling”, said a worried Rani.

“Don’t worry, mama. All my rebellion died with papa. I agreed to this proposal only because papa wanted it so badly”,she said with a catch in her voice. Shikha and Rani were quiet for a moment and then the daughter continued, “You know how I hurt him before he left. I just can’t get that hurt look out of my mind”, she confessed to her mother for the first time, and felt better for doing it. “That’s the only reason I agreed to this proposal and go through this tamasha. The Kottayils and their massive wealth mean nothing to me. In fact, it makes me a little jittery. They seem to be so different from us”.

“Yes. They are a little different. That’s because Varkey’s mother is a non-catholic”.

Despite the sense of unreal that had encompassed her on that day when she put herself through that ‘sick’ practice of the boy and the family ‘coming to see’ her, appraise her in order to decide if she is good enough to be a wife, daughter-in-law and what else, she smiled hearing her mama talk about this catholic/non-catholic cultural divide in the Syrian community.

“Their women are street smart”, Kunjamma velliamma, mama’s maternal aunt had said during that Christmas dinner at Rani’s. Strangely enough, on this occasion, Shikha’s mind wandered to the occasion of that happy get together when her father was alive. Shikha had moved from the group comprising her mother’s generation to that of her grand mother’s generation. She felt much more at home in that company than with the previous one of her mother’s generation with its obsession with diamond and gold, textile shops and fashion, fairness creams – and the new found religious fanaticism.

“What do you mean?” Shikha had asked Kunjamma velliamma.

“Oh, these hotwater types - they can fool around with any number of boys, come out unscathed, and then settle for the most eligible bachelor – and lead a happy life , become excellent social butterflies, bake the best cakes’.

“How can you stereotype people like this?” asked Shikha, indignant.

“My child”, said the all knowing Kunjamma velliamma. “I”ve lived fifty plus years more than you. Allow me to complete. Our girls, the Catholic girls, they are quick to fall in love but don’t know how to get out of it, and end up messing up their lives”.

“Don’t generalize like this, velliamma. Anyway,what’s this hotwater business?’ Shikha wanted to know.

Velliammachi laughed and explained that during the baptism, the non-Catholics immersed the infant in water unlike the Catholics who only sprinkled water on its head. Because of the immersion, the water used was warmed so that the child wouldn’t fall sick. So people like Kunjamma who have something against the non-catholics call them “chooduvellam”.

“You know why I have this problem, nathuney”, explained Kunjamma velliammaWhere ever you meet these non Catholics – be it Jacobite or Mar Thoma – the first thing they ask is “which Church do you go to?’”

“That’s true”, agreed Shikha. “The Malayalee Syrian Christians in my school - that’s the first thing they ask me too when they realize that I am a Syrian Christian from Kerala. What is it supposed to mean?”

“They want to know if you are a Jacobite or Mar Thomite or a Catholic. When they realize you are a Catholic, just watch their facial expression. Oh, they are such a clannish group”

“Kunjamma, you are brainwashing my grandchild”, said velliammachi laughing.

“She had better know the world she lives in ”.

“They have their points too”, said velliammachi. “They are much more disciplined than us Catholics. Our men should take a leaf out of their book. They are excellent businessmen. If they make a thousand rupees, they look ahead and see a day when the thousand might get reduced to a hundred and they’ll spend only ten rupees. We Catholics make ten rupees, look forward to a day we’ll make a hundred and spend a thousand.”

The conversation was getting more and more interesting.

“And they train their sons so well’, put in another velliamma whom Shikha did not know. “Even these big industrialists among them, once the sons complete their education, they are made to look for a job and work like anybody else so that they know the value of money and learn to empathise with the employees.”

“That’s very true”, said velliammachy”. That’s why they are such excellent employers.”

This conversation had fascinated Shikha who since then tried to substantiate the knowledge she got from her elders whenever she interacted with her Syrian Christian non-Catholic friends.


Varkey Kottayil called within two hours after they left her home and said that the “boy liked the girl. We are ready to proceed”.

Rani looked happy when she passed on the approval message to Shikha. “Now we can move on to the next formality. The orappeeru will be in Bangalore”.

The engagement was fixed for the 30th of November, and the wedding, for the 26th December, after the Advent Lent.

During the four weeks after the engagement, Philip took her out to dinner twice. They went for a film and to watch horse race.

Philip’s perfect table manners, super refined social graces and the overkill of chivalry irritated Shikha slightly. She found herself thinking of Siddharth and his easy ways, how he licked the sauce or gravy off the tip of his fingers while he joked about the tamasha in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, or explained the latest Apple gadget in the market or got enthusiastic about a recent book he had read.

“A penny for your thoughts”, said Philip.

Shikha gave a start but said quickly “They are worth less than that”.

They were at Taj Coromandel. She looked at him sitting across her, impeccably dressed, eating noodles expertly with chopsticks which he had asked for, touching the edge of his lips with the immaculate white napkin.

“Don’t you know it’s bad manners to stare?” he asked with a smile that made her a little uneasy. It was not a friendly smile. It seemed to be a smile which reflected an absence of self-confidence, she thought.

“Sorry”, she said smiling apologetically. “I was thinking how perfect your table manners are”.

“Oh, Schooling with Gabriel brothers, and then University in UK”, he said shrugging. I think my remark has pleased him, thought Shikha amused. A childish guy, looks like. Siddharth oozed confidence. He seemed to have a perfect grip over himself. Too much grip, she thought ruefully.

The marriage function was not what it would have been had Michael been around. Shikha missed her father intensely, and could never think of him without a deep sense of guilt at having hurt him time and again. Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’d understand. He loved me and was a good man, my father, thought Shikha in those terrible moments when she felt overwhelmed by a terrible feeling of loss aggravated by that nagging sense of remorse.

Shikha made an effort to forgive appachan, because he was her papa’s father. But the easy relationship which she had once enjoyed with him went missing. She was reserved and politically correct. But the change that came over velliammachy after papa’s death was something Shikha found so difficult to accept. Her joie de vivre vanished. She spoke and laughed much less, though she had sat like a rock during the funeral. Appachan simply fell apart and had to be given medical help before the funeral. The crowd that attended the funeral was mind-boggling and Shikha tried to distract herself watching the wreaths piling on the glass case of the mobile mortuary, and being removed over and over again as they kept piling up. Who are all these people, she wondered. What do they know of her dear papa? She kept breaking down. Her mama looked as though she was too bewildered to understand what had happened.

For Rani, the reality of Michael’s death sank in only after she and Shikha returned to Chennai after two weeks. Roshini, Michael’s sister, who had come down from the USA to attend the funeral, accompanied them and stayed in Chennai for two weeks. After she left, Alice and Davy came down and stayed on for a week. Eventually, Rani and Shikha were left to themselves to deal with Michael's absence which was so oppressively tangible.The vacuum he left behind sometimes consumed them. Emotions ran haywire at the dining table where his empty chair seemed to deliberately shout out his absence. During the night prayers after dinner, Rani and Shikha would break down. The reality that he'd never be with them again would come crashing down on them, particularly when the Bible was read. Ever since Shikha remembered, it was her father who read the Bible when he was at home.

Maria cheduthy hovered around them during the meals, and during prayers she brought her low stool and sat with them in the living room. Shikha was grateful to her for her sensitivity.

Papa’s death gradually rectified the equations between Shikha and her mother.

The engagement was in Kochin at the Kuttiparambil House. It was a low key affair with 500 guests. The marriage was in Bangalore where Varkey Kottayil had a mansion in a prime location. The reception was in a five star hotel. More than 1500 people attended. Shikha missed her father terribly, and that dampened her mood throughout the Church ceremony and the reception, though she made an effort to put on a cheerful front. Besides, there was no great excitement about Philip.

“Love will follow, Shikha”, Lavanya had assured her when she came to visit Shikha before marriage.

A heavy silence had followed. Shikha was looking unseeingly at the wine red brocade sari –the Manthrakodi - which she had taken out of the wardrobe to show Lavanya. Then Shikha raised her eyes slowly to look at Lavanya who had been studying her friend’s face closely.

“Any news of Siddharth?” Shikha asked quietly.

“No. Just vanished from my list of friends. He must be completing his MBA”

“Yes” said Shikha looking into the distance. “He’ll go places”