Shades of change unwound sequentially as I walked down that path, that familiar path that I had paced up and down with unmistakable precision as an eight year old. New shops, some new houses. But amongst them, stood those houses that have endured the test of time. It is a pleasure to watch things that have been stamped with an archaism that would never be victimized by the forces of modernity.
The 2nd cross street of ThiruVika Nagar, in Thirucharapalli, was more than a street to me. It had nurtured my dreams as a child. It demonstrated a freshness about it that had lasted years and beat the gap of 17 years in between. It felt like just yesterday that I had belonged to this place but I had still missed 'its presence and my presence in it' and the unique charm that came with it.
“New door no. 24, old number 72,” I quickly checked that small bit of crumpled paper that was almost yielding to the moisture of my palm. Appa had insisted that I should go and meet them this time.
“Black gates,” I smiled to myself. “They used to be hmm…green.”
I pushed the gate inward and it creaked open. As I set my foot on the stone pavement that had weathered everything in the years that went by, I looked up to that balcony right above, the thatched roof over it still intact. My entire body shook. God! Sometimes nostalgia can just offset you.
For a moment I just closed my eyes. It was the same balcony where I had stood years ago, waving good bye to my father when he left for office. It was the same balcony where I had stood, hot tears pouring down my cheeks, when they got my baby bro home, for the first time. I was no longer ‘the one’ then.
“And Aditya now..” I smiled to myself.
The veranda at the end of the footpath welcomed me with the same warmth with which it had borne my pranks as a mischievous kid. I would tirelessly climb on it and jump off it, in a loop that would end only with a tight slap from my mother.
I thought I would collapse out of excitement when I rang the doorbell.
“Vandhutten (Coming)”, the familiar lady voice came from behind the door. It hadn’t changed much, the voice, just traces of ageing.
As the door opened, I caught myself staring at this lady, who wore her sari in a ‘madisar kattu’. The vermilion, the glittering nose ring, the traditional hairdo with a string of jasmine encircling it; Lakshmi Amma, there she was and..She had aged so gracefully.
“Yaaru. Yaar venum?” (Who is this? Who do you want?)
“Ahh..Hmm..Lakshmi Amma..” I spoke in between gasps of excitement. “Do you recognize me?”
She stared with confusion written all over her face.
“Lakshmi Amma, Shailaja..,” I placed my right palm on my chest. “Shailu kutty..” I paused. “Enakku Lakshmi Amma rasam thaan venum..” ( I want only Lakshmi Amma’s rasam..)
And her face broke into a smile.
“Shailu Kutty, is this you?” She almost jumped and held my hand immediately. “How grown up you look. I couldn’t even make out,” she exclaimed.
I smiled. I was at loss for words.
“Inga parungo” (see here), she called out to her husband. “Come here, see who has come”
“Come in, come in,” she took me in hurriedly.
“Yaaru?” (Who?) a man in a white dhoti and a white cotton half slack shirt and thick rimmed glasses emerged from one of the inside rooms.
Sambu thatha adjusted his glasses, trying to register the image of a woman who suddenly landed in his abode from nowhere.
“Can you make out who she is?” Lakshmi Amma questioned, impatience marking every word. Sambu thatha just shook a no. I watched his lean frame seeking immense support from the wooden walking stick, an addition to the 84 year old man’s personality.
“Shailu kutty idhu, nenavirukko?” (This is Shailu kutty, remember?) “State Bank Ramachandran who stayed upstairs.. from Coimbatore..his daughter..”
“Oh amaam..adi vaalu..” (Oh yes, you mischievous girl!)
“Va..Va..” (Come, come). The warmth in his voice made me melt. How much I had missed it all these years. Though we had stayed upstairs, Sambu thatha’s house was literally where my existence had been. I would play, run around the house, nobody to question, most of the times eat there and fall asleep in Lakshmi Amma’s lap.
The affection that I had held for that house, for the two was special and unbounded. It was marked by innocence so typical of a child and there was no other reason to it. I loved them because I loved them.
“So, what made Shailu kutty suddenly remember these two old hags?” went on Sambu thatha with his characteristic laugh.
“Oh come on, enough of your silly jokes,” Lakshmi Amma cut him short as I deposited the sweet packets into her hands.
“Are you working?” she asked me.
“Hmm..yes, I am working for a software concern in Delhi,” I replied.
“Ohh..soft..” she stopped halfway. “That thing Raju keeps talking about..”
“Tell me how are amma and appa”
“They are good. They keep talking about you,” I paused. “Oh, Appa has retired.”
“Really? Even Chandru joins the old hag list,” burst out Sambu thatha.
I giggled. I really did. Lakshmi Amma wasn’t bothered. She almost sprang her next question at me.
“How is your brother..ahmm..what is his name?”
“Aditya,” I helped in.
“Ahnn..Adi, how is he?”
“He is studying, 2nd year engineering in Madras. He has been pestering Appa for a bike.”
“Really? Has he grown that big?” Sambu thatha questioned the very essence of mankind - growth.
It is funny the way I addressed them. Sambu thatha was thatha because when I saw him for the first time, he had grey (or as I used to call it, “white”) hair. I used to jump at my mom when she called him maama. “He has white hair. How can you call him maama. Call him thatha,” I would order.
Sambu thatha was 67 then. Lakshmi Amma was Lakshmi Amma because everyone around used to call her that way and somehow she never used to look that old then, that I would have to call her ‘patti’. Moreover, Radha akka, her daughter, used to call her Lakshmi Amma. I had liked it, felt it suited her best and let it stick on.
“So, when are you getting married?” Lakshmi Amma continued with her questions as she handed over steaming filter coffee in a “duvrah tumbler” to me and one to Sambu thatha. I had cosily seated myself on the mat alongside Sambu thatha who was resting in an easy chair. A copy of the day’s newspaper and that old transistor was lying next to him. Lakshmi Amma sat down beside me.
“I actually came to tell you some good news,” I said.
Sambu thatha who was busy tuning into odd stations, desperately in search of the “renu mani kutcheri” (the concert at 2), stopped suddenly.
In a minute, both of them were staring at me with all eagerness. “Marriage fascinates old people beyond any scale,” I thought to myself.
“Ah, well, I am getting married this September,” I concluded abruptly.
Sambu thatha leaned forward.
“Who is the boy?” he asked with brimming eagerness.
“He is my colleague at office, in Delhi.”
Lakshmi Amma’s happy look transformed into a resigned one.
“So, it is not an arranged marriage?” she asked quickly.
“Well, it is..” I paused, “Yes, I did choose him but he is like one of us,” I put it forward politely to her. I didn’t know why I was telling her that but I thought I should and hence I did.
“But..” she shook her head. “There is nothing like your parents seeing somebody for you.”
“Did you match horoscopes?” she shot out.
“Oh.ah..hmm..yes, we did, everything is fine,” I mumbled out owing to lack of preparation.
“Lakshmi, these days kids are very mature. They can handle things very well. I am sure Shailu kutty’s choice must be good,” Sambu thatha spoke reassuringly, patting my head.
“Love marriages are fun in their own way,” he added with a wink.
Lakshmi Amma cast a sharp look that almost silenced him.
“Ennavo ma, pathukko” (Whatever, take care), she said, turning her face towards me. Anxiety was written all over it.
“Lakshmi Amma, everything is fine,” I assured her, gently pressing her hand.
“What is his name?” Sambu thatha’s excitement hadn’t subsided.
“Vasanth, Vasant Chandrashekar”
“So, tell me, how has life been for you all these years?” I asked them.
“just going on. We have only few more years left, all I am praying for is that we should pass away peacefully without troubling anybody,” Lakshmi Amma’s voice was low.
“Enna Lakshmi, you don’t know what to talk,” Sambu thatha intervened.
“Thatha please, let her talk”
“Illai Shailu kut..,” I looked up at Sambu thatha. “Shhh..”
“Lakshmi Amma, what happened?”
Suddenly Lakshmi Amma’s voice mellowed down.
“Nothing. Sometimes it is so tough to live when you grow old,” she looked up and blew her nose.
I took her hand into mine and looked intently at her.”Ennachu?” (what happened?)
“Nothing is particularly wrong Shailu kutty. We have everything that we want. We have this house, we have thatha’s pension as a steady income and we do our pujas and prayers regularly.”
“But..” she paused, “Sometimes there is loneliness, a lack of direction in life when you turn around to see that there is no one around to share your happiness. When we fall ill, we have nobody to fall back on. It is true that we have each other to confide things in but I am missing the joy of living together,” By that time, her first tear had already made its way out.
I let her cry. I didn’t assure her, say things would be fine. Sometimes silence and the mere act of listening could heal wounds much more than words of consolation, so did I believe.
“Sambhu thatha, what about Raju anna and Kumar anna? Where are they?”
“They are both in America, all well settled,” he paused. “Raju has two daughters and Kumar has a son. They come to India with their families once in two years.”
“Radha is in the U.K. Seeing her has become a rarity too,” continued Lakshmi Amma.
“Sambhu thatha, don’t mind me asking, but didn’t you want to stay with your sons?”
“No,” his voice was fierce this time. “No,” he repeated, relaxing a little bit.
“Kumar didn’t even talk about it, Raju just made a mention. He told us that we could come along if we felt like.” His voice choked.
“What is this, a formality? Why should parents suddenly become strangers and be treated this way?” the question shot out from him, with all the heaviness of a deeply pained heart.
“I refused. I really can’t spend my life in a country that I don’t know. I am too rooted to this place, to leave it behind. Probably, I can’t blame them too. Their lives have taken that course and I can’t stop it. Once Raju had a chance to come back to India for good. I asked him, but..” Silence.
“I think I just have to accept this,” he spoke his heart out. I knew it was frustration that made them talk and not the hate for what their children did.
Lakshmi Amma was silent. “I think when things become unmanageable, we would go to an old age home. I am praying ambaal she doesn’t take us that far.”
That moment, I understood what emotional torture the two went through. Two people, whose love meant so much to me, were caught in the clutches of emotional insecurity and my heart swelled with pity. I cried; cried within.
In the meantime, Lakshmi Amma had moved into the kitchen and come back with a plate of rasam saadham. (Rice with rasam).
“Have this,” she handed the plate to me. I couldn’t remember how many times I had smiled but I did, yet again.
The rasam had not lost its taste and its aroma one bit. It was just the same. Have you ever experienced a sense of travelling back in time, that the five senses can give you? It happened to me this time. I was back to have Lakshmi Amma’s rasam.
“You know, my grandchildren are so naughty,” she said, sounding chirpy again.
“Kumar’s son is so mischievous. Last time that they were here, he suddenly disappeared out of the house. We had such a tough task locating him. He was hiding behind the well, in our neighbour’s backyard,” Sambhu thatha added with great excitement. “These kids, naughty, very naughty.”
And then they spoke about Kumar anna’s wife and how Raju anna’s wife could drive a car. “It seems they don’t wash vessels, nor does a servant maid do it. Looks like there is a machine for all that. Times have changed so much,” she sighed.
I burst out laughing and Sambhu thatha was giggling quietly. The innocence was too sweet, and I knew their hearts were lighter. No qualms, except for those momentary ones, their love and concern for their children and grandchildren was unbiased and absolutely selfless.
By the time we had finished talking about my childhood pranks and everything else, the birds were getting back to their nests and the sky had turned a reddish orange, signaling the arrival of twilight. It was time for me to leave.
“I don’t feel like letting you go, it was so nice talking to you. I didn’t feel the time pass” Lakshmi Amma said looking at me earnestly.
I stood silently.
“You won’t forget us no, after you get married?,” she asked with grave concern in her voice.
“Ayyo, enna idhu Lakshmi Amma, how can I do that?”
“Shailu, forget her, she is like that only,” Sambu thatha chipped in his comment, “May God bless you with a happy and peaceful married life,” he said, placing his hand on my head.
“You should bring Vasanth here, after your marriage,” Lakshmi Amma said. Sambu thatha turned around, taken by surprise with that mocking smile on his face.
“You both should definitely come for the wedding,” I urged. “Please, I will be very happy.”
Lakshmi Amma pressed my hand. “We will try our best, but our blessings are always there.”
As I reached the gate, I turned around, took a look at the aged couple for whom the best gift I had left behind was the smiles on their faces, which they seemed to have forgotten for days together. For me, it was a feeling of satisfaction that I had made a very small difference to the lives of two people, at least for a day. But the bigger loss was, the helpless feeling at not being able to lend a hand further. I waved at them, walked away carrying beautiful memories and also an aching heart.