My dad worked as a teacher in Town high school Kumbakonam. He had let his lands in the nearby village for tilling to the farmers who gave him a portion of the proceeds. We lived in a house in a street that ran parallel to one side of the school. That was my school too and my memory is still vivid of my scaling the short wall opposite my house instead of walking to the gate.
My maternal uncle’s house was next to ours. He lived with my grandmother(patti), his wife and a daughter three years younger to me. I do not remember what my mama(uncle) did for living except that he went early to the big bazaar street daily to work in a shop and came home late doing some additional work in some other place. He had no landed property to fall back. They led a frugal life but never looked to us for any support. My dad sent them a few sacks of rice after harvest, but I suspect my mom ordered extra provisions each month and gave them to my aunt when mama was not there. She did not give the entire provisions at one time but in installments lest she refused in embarrassment. My dad knew it, I believe, though no word was spoken about it.
My mother went daily to see her mom in the afternoon while mama came occasionally to our place. Even on Sundays, he would be doing some errands for extra income.Bhooma, my mama’s daughter, who studied two classes lower to mine was a school topper and well known in the school for distinguishing herself in varied activities like sports, essay writing, debate and music competitions. I used to be jealous of her when she repeatedly appeared on the stage to receive cups and medals from the President of the school while I rarely went up the stage. She was popular among her friends and tended to dominate the group with her loud laughter and banter.
I was an introvert seeking comfort in the company of story books and mostly my patti (grandmother). She was very fond of me and relished telling me about various temples, lives of alwars and their hymns.
I still remember the day when Bhooma in my presence told my grandma, “Patti, you are making Sarangan a useless guy telling him, as if he is a child of five years, mythological stories and slokams. He can as well read them in Chanda Mama. He is not doing very well in studies. He is also shy walking with his head bent and rarely talks to me in the school, let alone my friends.”
“Keep quiet, you silly girl. He is not loud mouthed like you but is quite intelligent. He can recite easily from memory entire Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam without faltering and knows many hymns of alwars. Be respectful to him as he is older to you by three years. He is a good boy and is naturally unwilling to talk to unknown girls. “Bhooma left in a huff jabbing her shoulder on her jaw in contempt.
”Ignore that brat, Saranga.I will tell her father to reprimand her. It is not good for a girl to be so egoistic and proud” consoled my patti as if I was hurt by her remark.
“It is Okay, patti.She told the truth only as I am shy by nature and also not a topper like her. She means good” I replied
“May be. When she gets married, she must learn to be respectful. Anyway I leave it in the hands of Lord Oppiliappan” I could surmise even at my young age patti’s secret desire that I should marry her and relieve mama of much expense towards marriage.(In our parts marrying maternal uncle’s daughter was very much in vogue)
I have never spoken to patti about Bhooma or what I thought of her. Though tall with lustrous hair falling up to hip, she had a bulbous nose with a shrill voice. Dominating and outspoken by nature, she did not endear herself to me though I held her in good esteem for her attainments in many fields. We often argued on petty matters and she ascribed this to my jealousy of her.
Years flew by and I had finished engineering and was working in a leading IT company at Pune.Bhooma had finished her graduation on scholarships and topped the university. She was selected in the campus by a reputed bank and was waiting for the offer letter. I had not visited home for nearly three years. Meanwhile there was a family function which my mom insisted that I should attend mainly for seeing my patti who was keeping indifferent health. She had grown old, very weak and was falling sick often. It seemed she expressed a keen desire to see me at the earliest.
The day I reached my home, my mom took me aside to the kitchen after the initial pleasantries, and told me”Saranga,I wish to share with you the piquant situation I am in before you meet your patti.She is not keeping well and doctor says that she may not live for long. She has been insisting that I promise her to have Bhooma married to you. I told her that this is a matter concerning you and that I cannot assure her anything without discussing with you. It is not that I have anything against Bhooma but feel both of you should warm up to the suggestion. Now that you are here, she may ask me again or even talk to you directly. I mentioned to your dad and he said this is something to be decided by you. What is in your mind?”
“Amma, frankly I have not thought about marriage at all and I am certain that Bhooma is not someone whom I would like to marry. Do not make any promise to patti. You can tell her the truth in plain words. If mama wants financial support for Bhooma’s marriage, I can pitch in some amount along with appa.I will certainly not marry her” I said
“I understand but remember patti is my mother and I cannot be as blunt as you are. Again you have not seen Bhooma recently in the last two years. She has changed a lot into a beautiful maiden and has turned very soft in speech. She has been selected for a nice job..You may even change your mind, if you see her. I am not trying to influence you. Anyway be prepared for patti’s query on this. I would not accompany you when you go to meet her” she replied.
When I went next morning to meet patti, the front door was ajar and she was alone. Mama as usual, had gone out and mami to a nearby temple.Bhooma was not to be seen. Patti sat up with difficulty and hugged me with affection and said ”Saranga, I am extremely happy to see you and was really worried whether I would be alive to see you again. I have only one desire to be fulfilled before I shed this coil. I spoke to your mom but she is dodgy. I rely only on Lord Oppiliappan to open His eyes and your willingness to carry out my last wish.”
I grabbed the short pause as she was catching her breath and told her”Patti, I know your wish and I am sorry to tell you that I cannot fulfill it. If it is Bhooma’s marriage with me, let us not talk about it. If mama needs financial help, I can offer it to him. Sorry for being blunt. Please do not mistake me. I love you very much”
Her eyes became red with anger and she shouted “Who needs your financial help? Your mama is not a beggar to take it from you. Bhooma would earn enough for her marriage. I had lot of affection for and hope in you but never knew you were disrespectful to elders. I would not like to see your face again till my last breath. Please go away immediately from here.”
As I lingered and said “Patti, please listen. You cannot impose”, she cut me short with a scream “Get lost now” and fell down on her side with her face turned away from me.
It was then I saw a shadow fall upon me and I found Bhooma entering the room from the hall. I could see her eyes moist.”Please leave her alone, Saranga.She is really sick and tension is the last thing she can have” she said softly. I knew she must have heard our conversation.
I could not believe my eyes how beautiful she had transformed in the last two or three years even as I stood transfixed before her.
”Saranga, please go away immediately. We cannot afford another hospital trip” she pleaded.
It was barely 30 minutes after I reached my home, we heard the front door being knocked repeatedly and loudly. It was Bhooma crying aloud that patti had breathed her last and her mom is yet to return from temple and that someone should send word to her dad. With utter disbelief and shock, we rushed to her house. Patti’s face looked as if she was under some pain and I knew who had caused it.
“Patti, please open your eyes for one last time. I wish to say that I would carry out your wish wholeheartedly. My disinclination to marry Bhooma stemmed from my inferiority complex as she always excelled me and my fear she may want a better person. I am sorry I displeased you at the fag end of your life.Please, will you open your eyes oce?”I pleaded
Meanwhile a doctor was fetched by someone and after examination, he said “She had only fainted, may be due to weakness. Who said she had breathed her last? I have given her an injection. She should be okay soon. Please give her some warm beverage. There is nothing to worry”
From the corner of my eyes, I could trace a mischievous grin on Bhooma’s face and a much relieved amma. The tightness in Patti’s face seemed to have vanished. I could not resist the wicked thought whether Bhooma, patti and amma had in unison enacted this drama.