Monday, 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 Longlist, Sudha Narasimhachar

THATHA, UNVEILED

Thatha's body lay on the cement bench in the verandah.  There was a kind of strange silence in the house.  People spoke in whispers, as though any loud sound would awaken dead Thatha. Ajji sat on an armed wooden chair in the hall.  Her face was still and she showed no emotions.  Women of different ages sat or stood along the walls of the hall.  The same hall which would look bright and nice everyday today looked very different, though all the things in the hall were as they were before.  Raju did not feel like entering the hall.  Every spot in the hall seemed to be wailing and it looked like a dungeon.  Raju could today observe every speck of dirt on the walls.  As he had nothing to do, he kept staring at the walls and roof and was astonished to see the cobwebs of various patterns hanging from the tiled roofs.  Spiders were resting here and there.  Did these spiders know that his dear Thatha was dead?

As the priest completed some rituals, suddenly Raju heard loud wails.  Ajji was helped out of the chair and brought to the verandah by her beloved daughter Tara.  Tears rolled down Tara’s cheeks.  But Ajji mechanically walked with her and stood near her husband’s body.  Her mate of seventy years lay still there.  The priest chanted some mantras and asked her to go round the body, put some rice on the shut mouth, offer her regards and leave.  She did as she was ordered to and walked into the house silently.  No emotions!

“Amma, why are you so silent?  Do you realize you can never see Appa any more?  Cry out your heart Amma”, pestered her children – her fourteen children!  Yes.  Ajji had fourteen children and all of them had promptly traveled from far off places to attend their father’s last rites.  She was married at the age of ten to Thatha and at eighty, she could not cry over the body of her husband.  What was wrong?

Raju looked at the majestic figure of his Thatha.  Raju had last spoken to him just three months ago, when he had come over during his summer break.  Thatha was full of life and interest.  He wanted to know every bit about Raju’s course at IIT.  Raju was very proud that his grandfather was a science graduate of yesteryears and respected his knowledge a lot.  It was fun to discuss math and physics with his grandfather.  Thatha was very keen on knowing the latest developments.  He always narrated some interesting anecdotes from his college life or his teaching career, which spanned over four decades.

“Even after I retired from the college, many students used to visit to discuss math and physics with me.  I used to help students with their doubts but never agreed to tutor them for money.  For me teaching was a service and not a business.  It is a shame that teachers these days are minting money by tutoring first class students”, said Thatha.

Raju always spent a lot of time with his Thatha, though he did enjoy his Ajji’s delicious cooking.  Why is Ajji not crying for losing her mate of 70 years?  Is she shocked or has she become senile? The ceremonies were conducted on a grand scale.

“Death of an old man, who has lived a fruitful life is like a festival”, said many of the visitors who came home for expressing their condolence.  Raju spent a nice time with all his uncles, aunts and cousins for 13 days.  The house looked more like a marriage hall, than a house which had lost a senior member!  Ajji mechanically continued with her duties.  The children were discussing about her future.  She could obviously not live alone in that house.  They decided to take her to their houses by turns.  They then went to her and expressed their plan.

“No.  I will not come anywhere.  I want to live here all alone, at least till I am hale and healthy.”
“But, you are old Amma.  We live far away and what if you need help all of a sudden?”
“What could happen at the most now?  I may die.  I am not scared of death.  But I wish to lead an independent life of peace at least for a few years.  And Veda anyway lives in the same city.  I can contact her for emergencies.”

“Amma, what are you saying?  You did lead an independent life all this while.  Who disturbed you?  How can you live here without Appa?  Won’t you miss him?”
“Oh, yes! I will miss him”, said Amma with sarcasm.
“What’s wrong with you Amma?  The whole city adores Appa.  You must have been lucky to have married him”.

“Children, please do not praise that old man in front of me.  You do not even know what I have undergone all these years.  Just because I did not discuss my problems with you or anybody else, don’t think I led a happy life with your Appa.”
There was commotion among the children and grandchildren.  Raju went and sat beside Ajji. 
“Ajji, maybe you are talking this way because of your sorrow.  Calm down.”
“No Raju.  I am talking the truth.  I feel like I have been freed from a jail.  I want to enjoy this life for some time.”

“Amma, please do not talk like this in front of outsiders.  They will misjudge you.”
“Why?  Why should I not talk?  Till now, I had no freedom to open my mouth.  I find no meaning in protecting that old man’s dignity now.  Let the world know what he was in his house.”
“Tell us what happened.  Otherwise, how will we know”.

“Yes, I will tell you.  Listen to me patiently.  At the age of ten when I entered your Appa’s life, I knew nothing.  I was a child.  How do you treat Tarun or Radha now?  They are still ‘children’, though they are 16 and 18 years old.  But I had no real childhood.  My marriage was like a game for me, as they decked me up with a nine-yards saree and loads of jewellery.  The rituals went on for hours.  I was tired and sleepy.  I was very hungry but my mother would not feed me anything because of some religious restriction.

After marriage, I stayed with my parents for a couple of years.  But I was shocked by the way I was treated by my mother.  The first shock was that I was not allowed to go to the school. She forced me to wear the saree everyday and never let me play with my brothers and sisters.  I was to help her and my sisters-in-law in the kitchen.  I had to wake up by four in the morning, bathe and help my grandmother in the God’s room.  Though I would feel hungry, I could not eat my breakfast till all the pujas got over and till all the men in the house had their breakfast.  I little understood why all these changes in my own home.  I almost forgot about my marriage and thought that it was just a ritual that all girls had to undergo.

I matured at thirteen and there was a grand celebration of this event.  I hardly realized that this was like pampering the goat before being butchered!  Suddenly I was transported to my husband’s house with a load of things.  I hugged my mother and cried.  I did not want to go but she pacified and told me that I had no escape, since I was married.  She too was crying along with my grandmother and my sisters.  I was in for a shock after reaching Thatha’s house.

The house was full of people right from the 89-year old grandfather of Thatha till 3-month old niece of Thatha!  There were seventeen members in all, besides the two maids and three men to assist the family in the fields.  80-year old grandmother of Thatha was the chief cook.  Thatha’s mother, two aunts, three sisters-in-law and I were to help her.  Since the family was big and only a firewood stove was used, all of us were kept busy throughout the day.  We just got a few free hours in the afternoon.  Elders would take a nap.  But we were not allowed to do that.  We were asked to peel peas or grind or pound flour or collect vegetables and greens from the garden or attend to some such errands. 
I would get very tired and would want to play with the children at home.  But lo, even if I stood watching them play, my mother-in-law would shout at me and drag me into the kitchen. 
“Aren’t you ashamed to be dreaming and wasting your time like this?  You are married.  Better learn to behave”, she would often say.

Nobody would talk softly to me.  All that they would talk to me was either to instruct me to do something or rebuke me for some faults of mine.  Only your Thatha’s father had a soft corner for me.
“Arre!  She is a kid yet.  Why do you treat her like this?  Teach her with love”, he would say.  He would pacify me whenever I would cry uncontrollably.  I hated that life.  Nights were very scary for me, because your Thatha was a very sex-hungry person and would not spare me even on the days I was very tired.  He would never speak to me during the day and in the night he would get into his act, even without a word of love with me.  If I did not cooperate, he would spank me and force me.
The day I came to know that I was pregnant at the age of fourteen, I cried for hours.  I never knew that it was just the beginning and I had a long way to go.  My parents visited us with a lot of sweets and fruits on hearing the news.  I hugged my mother and cried.  She said, “why do you cry you fool?  You should feel happy.  You are going to be a mother.  Take care of yourself.”

Just imagine delivering a baby at the age of fourteen and spending sleepless nights taking care of it.  I really did not feel proud of becoming a mother or happy for having a cute little son.  Everyday relatives and friends would arrive in batches to see the little one and praise him.  I only cursed myself for having born as a girl and undergo all that pain and misery.  I envied my brothers and brothers-in-law who could still play around in the yard and do nothing but eat and sleep.

At least till I stayed in my mother’s house for confinement, I was pampered and assisted by my mother and sisters.  As soon I returned to my home, life became hell with the added responsibility of taking care of Varada.  And you all will not even believe that your father did not let me rest after hectic days and I got pregnant for the second time within a month of my return.  I cried for days on end and my mother-in-law would keep shouting at me, “You don’t cry like an owl.  Now, what’s so hurting to cry like this?  You had fun with your husband and this is the result.  Did we all not undergo all this?  Such behaviour will bring bad luck to the family.  Children should be welcome happily.”
Your father would get very upset if I showed sorrow and sometimes beat me up in the bed room, for not cooperating with him.  I could not share all this with anybody, including my mother, because they all felt I was leading a very natural life and there was nothing to make me so sad.”

Ajji could not control her tears and she broke out.  “Amma, please! We are sorry to have dug your past.  We never knew you had such pent-up feelings.  Relax.  If you do not want to share all this with us, please do not talk further”, said Janaki.
“No.  Please let me talk.  Today I want to come out with my entire past.  All of you should know the true colours of your father.

It was after my fourth delivery, i.e., after Saroja was born that your Appa stopped talking to me.  Even before that, he hardly spoke to me, except to express his demands or scold me for some mistakes.  I had no say in any family matters or even matters concerning you children.  Names were chosen by your Ajji or aunts, schools were chosen by Appa, clothes were bought by him and everything at home was monitored by your Thatha, Ajji and Appa.  All I had to do was physical labour.  I could not show my feelings to anybody who visited us and had to behave normal.  If at all I kept mum or stayed aloof, that night your Appa would take me to task.

 Ajji would go the temple every evening.  Your aunts would be taken out to cinema or kacheri (music concerts) by your uncles, once in a way.  But I had no outings.  Appa used to return home at seven or eight in the evening and even after that there will be students to discuss their lessons with him.  I had no entertainment whatsoever.

When I picked up a big quarrel after Saroja was born, that I did not want to have any more babies, Appa got very wild and beat me up black and blue.  He said, “you are a bloody woman and my wife and you better stay here as per my rules.  Otherwise, I will throw you out with your four children.  Think of your unmarried sisters and your old parents.  You and your children are well taken care of.  What else do you want?  You better perform your role as a wife.  Otherwise, I would have to seek outside assistance to quench my sexual hunger or get married again.  If you want to avoid all that, better behave yourself.”

That was the ultimate card that your Appa used.  I had no solution.  I could not dare to leave him, because I was not educated.  Neither did I have a pie on me.  My parents would definitely not permit such a decision.  Thus I shut my mouth and started living like a corpse from that day onwards. 
Appa did not speak a word to me after that.  He would touch me only to beat me when something went wrong or have sex with me, whenever he wanted.  Thus were born ten children after that.  Your Thatha and Ajji passed away and your uncles and aunts moved out of the house one by one.  Even when we were just our family, Appa did not speak to me.   Janaki and Varada had asked me several times whether everything was alright, because children did observe that we never interacted in their presence.  But I would never tell them the truth, because I did not want that to affect their lives or breed hatred in my children for their own father.  After all, I was already dead.  Appa was a respectable man outside and you all loved him.  I did not want to kill that joy.  The only joy I had was to see my children lead comfortable and normal lives”, Ajji wiped her tears.

“We always thought that you were shy to talk to Appa in front of anybody.  We thought you were a romantic couple and enjoyed your privacy more than anything, because you would always be smiling and at peace.  This is a shock to us Amma.  Why didn’t you tell all this to us much earlier?” said Varada.
“I told you why I did not discuss all this with you.  Only my sister Rukmini knows all my pain.  Your Appa would not send me to my mother’s place or any where else even for a day, until recently.  Since Rukmini stays nearby, after only our family started living in this house, I would finish all my work and go to her house in the afternoons.  She used to console me.  I would take some rest there and come back before Appa returned.

Anyway, I hope now you all understand why I want to stay alone.  I again do not want to be a slave, living to the tastes of some others, be it my own children or their in-laws.  I want to enjoy this freedom at least for some time, till I am strong enough to be on my own.  Please let me live this way, children”, pleaded Ajji.
All of them were in tears.  Janaki, Saroja and Meena hugged their mother and said, “We understand Amma.  You have suffered a lot.  You definitely need some freedom.  Anyway, Raju is going to do his project here in Mysore and Veda lives here.  If you don’t mind Raju will stay with you.  Veda can visit you often and take care of your needs.  Is that okay?”
“Of course, that’s fine.  Let Raju stay with me.  He is my pet grandson.  Anyway, Boramma and Revanna are with me to take care of the house and garden.  I will be fine.”
Raju was very pleased about the arrangements.  He was yet to recoup from the shock that he had, listening to Ajji’s story about the other side of his dear Thatha.  Now his heart swelled with love for his Ajji and he would make all attempts to keep her happy.

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