Monday, August 10, 2009

Mothers and daughters


Her tears make their way out. Jhanavi doesn’t bother to hold herself. She is watching that movie for the hundredth time and still the tears during the interval are as fresh as the first time.
“Jhanavi, come on, you are such a cry baby!” sniggers Chacko.
“Oh Chacko, you idiot, just get lost!” Jhanavi retorts, sniffing into a tissue she pulls off from the holder on the center table.
“ok, ok, fine,” Chacko ruffles her hair and hangs on for a second longer. Jhanavi flushes, visibly. She is seated on the carpet, her left leg tucked in and right leg stretched out. He is sitting by her side.

Abhimanyu sits in the bean bag, nibbling a bowl of microwaved popcorn. He has been sitting there since half way through the movie, only to watch the songs and dance sequences. The story has never held his interest.

The bell rings. Chacko quickly takes his hand off Jhanavi’s head. Jhanavi gestures to Abhimanyu. Go, open the door. Abhimanyu struggles to get out of the pit he has worked himself into and drags himself to the door.

“Ma,” he cries joyously, as he opens the door and hugs the woman in a crisply starched lavender Bengal Cotton saree. Leela is on the mobile phone and as she speaks, pats Abhimanyu on his head. He walks on with her into the living room.
“That’s good news, Rajiv, the food retailer’s contract is a big win for us.” She smiles a half smile, speaking over the phone. “I think you should be flying to the U.K. in a month’s time to discuss the details.”

She cuts the call and looks Jhanavi and Chacko’s way. Jhanavi smiles. Chacko is up on his feet.
“Ma, Chacko; I mean Goutam Chakraborthy, I have told you about him,”
Chacko bows and waves, quite theatrically. Leela smiles. “Nice to meet you,” she says, “carry on with the movie” and walks in, her fourteen year old boy tagging along.

She heads to the dining room and as she does, looks into the bedroom to the left. Vaidehi is busy looking through rows of audio tapes. The ten year old two-in-one is playing something – to the best that it can for its age. Vaidehi quickly turns and finding Leela there, flashes a smile.
“Abhi, come here,” Vaidehi says looking at Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu runs into his granny’s room.

“Subadhra,” Leela calls out. “Is everything ready?”
“Almost done, Memsaab,” Subadhra emerges from the kitchen wiping her hands in her apron.
“Saab has not come still?” Leela asks.
“No memsaab.”
“hmm..ok, get me a cup of coffee,” she says, seating herself on one of the chairs in the dining room. Subadhra disappears into the kitchen again.
It is a quiet Sunday. Although Leela would have preferred to spend the evening alone, reading a book, especially after visiting office, there is a small get-together planned for the evening.

Fourteen years ago, this very day, her son had come into their world. But, instead of smiles and laughter and looking forward to happy times, there had been uncertainty, anxiety and gloom. The baby hadn’t cried when he was born. A month later Leela and her husband, Subramaniam, had learnt the bitter truth that they had been destined to bring up a Down’s syndrome child.

Abhimanyu hardly asked for anything. The birthday party scheduled for the day had been one of his rare requests. It had come up when the family was having dinner the previous Sunday.
“Abhi, you know it’s your birthday next Sunday, What do you want?” Jhanavi had asked him.
Abhimanyu had dropped his spoon and looked at his mom and dad.
“Appa, I want cake,” he had spoken one of his rare sentences.
“Amma, Bablu, Rahul, Ammu, Archu, …” he had recollected all his friends at the special school and said, “will come.”
“Akka, I want red pen.”

Leela sips her coffee and looks at her watch. It shows half past three. She calls Subramaniam and puts the phone on speaker mode.
“Mani,” she says after a while, “still at the academy?”
“Yes. I will be back in half an hour,” he says.
“We won the U.K. contract,” she smiles tiredly as she says.
“Oh, good news. I will be back soon.”

She hangs up. The dining table is a good vantage point. She can partly see her mother’s bedroom. Vaidehi is playing yet another tape. Abhimanyu is still in the room, leafing through his grandma’s bound long size notebook into which she often wrote something. Leela had always thought that Vaidehi was writing swarams for the keerthanais she listened to from the tapes.

In the living room, she catches Jhanavi and Chacko continuing with the movie. She finishes her coffee and walks towards them.
“Jhanu,” she calls, “have you folks had something to eat?”
Jhanavi turns, startled a bit, in being stirred out of the dream world she had slipped into.
“Yes ma, we finished lunch.”
“Hmm, so you are here for the party, aren’t you?” Leela asks Chacko politely.
“Ah well, am sorry aunty, I have promised my friends I will go out with them for a movie at 6. Am sorry I can’t join in.”

As Chacko talks, Leela doesn’t quite like his insouciance, not to mention those curls that rest carelessly on his shoulders. She sees her daughter’s eyes gleam with admiration and perhaps, what the twenty-year old thought as love. Whenever Jhanavi spoke of Chacko, one of the five finalists along with her in the extremely popular music talent hunt show on Q TV, Leela had, much to her distaste, always sensed a palpable attraction. In fact, the so-called chemistry between the two had been exploited enough by the TV channel to lift the TRP ratings of the show. It was all over the channel’s website too.

Leela suddenly realizes that she has been staring at Chacko for a while. She quickly touches her forehead and says, “Doesn’t matter, get some coffee, the two of you.”
“No, thanks, aunty, I am leaving right away,” says Chacko. “I gotta get going.”
“And Jhanu, you need to get ready fast. The guests will start coming in by 5.30.”
Leela then enters her mother’s room. As she had imagined, Abhimanyu is seated on his grandmother’s bed, looking into Vaidehi’s notebook.
“Amma,” Leela says, “I think we all need to get ready. Why don’t you wear that dark blue silk saree?”
Vaidehi nods.
“Abhi, come over, we need to hurry up!”
Vaidehi pats the boy and Abhimanyu obliges, walks out of the room with his mother.


Vaidehi observes that the living room has been decorated, not overly, but cheerful enough for a birthday party. Her granddaughter, Jhanavi, had taken care to do that in the morning with some help from the security. There are colorful balloons, color papers and a happy birthday banner with Abhimanyu’s favourite cartoons in the background.

Vaidehi opens her cupboard, trying to look for that dark blue silk saree. That’s what she had worn on her last ever professional concert. That had been seven years back. Ever since her husband passed away, she had stopped giving concerts in public.

She locates the dark blue silk saree. She grasps it in her hands and sits down at the edge of her bed. She closes her eyes and for a moment, she hears the thunderous applause. She can see the standing ovation she had received on one of her December season concerts right in front of her eyes.

She clearly remembers that the crowd had stood up for her rendition of Govardhana Giridhara in Darbaari Kaanada. She smiles at the thought of even the toughest of critics praising her as the queen of Darbaari Kaanada and Dwijavanthi.

Vaidehi Raman. Fifty three years back, as a girl of sixteen, when she had given her first public Carnatic recital at the local temple in Trichy, she had hardly known what path her musical journey would take. Vaidehi had never failed to thank the Gods and her stars – for giving her a gifted voice and of course, a very supportive husband. Raman, who hailed from Thiruvayaru, had love for music stamped in every cell of his body. After all, he belonged to the place where Saint Thyagaraja, who forms the Trinity of Carnatic music along with Syama Shastry and Muthuswami Dikshithar, composed some of his best compositions.

Surprisingly, Raman had not taken to music as was expected of him. He had been happier with his textile business that he ran in Madras and happiest supporting his wife’s musical career. What more did Vaidehi need? With Raman by her side and lady luck smiling down on her, fame had come rushing to her and opportunities had embraced her like their twin sister. Vaidehi’s hands had always stayed full. She had had enough concerts and music classes to attend to.

As she recalls the good old days - her golden period, Vaidehi also thinks of Leela. Her only daughter, who in colorful silk skirts and long plaits used to run about their house, had given her enough reason to worry. The girl, Vaidehi sighs, as she thinks of how much she had worried back then about her daughter not showing feasible interest in Carnatic music.

Those days, even as she had every reason to smile, Vaidehi had often been troubled by one question - didn’t Leela inherit at least a fraction of her genes? The girl had been a rebel, truly, for she had flatly refused to learn the art that the world praised her mother for. After two years of futile training, Vaidehi had given up mentoring her daughter. The little girl, on the other hand, was happiest pulling out books from her father’s library. She had decided her path would be different. And it hadn’t stopped with that. Vaidehi recalls how Leela went without food to win her parents’ approval for studying in the U.K.

But Raman had not been for it. Vaidehi, obviously, had not been for it as well. Marriage had been the best option they could think of. And that’s when destiny had sent them a wonderful solution. Subramaniam, as a young, charming man of 27, had come down from Bombay to play the violin for Vaidehi for some of her December season concerts that year. The fellow had everything Leela’s parents had wanted in their prospective son-in-law. What’s more, Subramaniam had liked Leela too. As for Vaidehi, she had been only too happy to bring music into her family through her son-in-law if not her daughter. The young man had just begun but he was full of promise.

A totally frustrated Leela had married Subramaniam in a grand wedding with business magnets and eminent Carnatic musicians attending the event. Then, she had left for Bombay, feeling bitter and angry.


The clock shows it is exactly half past four. Leela is looking through her wardrobe deciding on what to wear for the evening. She chooses a peach color chicken work saree.

“Nice saree, that. I have always liked it,” Leela turns to see Subramaniam standing near the entrance to their bedroom. He is leaning against the door, hands folded.

Leela smiles and says, “And sir, I am sure you have decided on that cream kurta, haven’t you?”
“Smart,” says Subramaniam nodding, “not surprising coming from a successful businesswoman like you.” He winks. Leela pinches him gently as he settles down on the bed.

“So, is Rajiv going over to the U.K. for finalizing the project details?” he asks.
“Hmm, yes..” Leela mutters as she combs her hair.

Leela had hardly any clue on what her life would be when she had landed in Bombay as a newly-wed wife, even as her head was brimming with ideas on what all she wanted to do. Subramaniam’s mother had passed away two years before their marriage and she had joined her husband and father-in-law as the third member of the family. She had felt so angry towards her mother for she thought Vaidehi had achieved what she had wanted to through her daughter. She had felt so furious that she had vowed she would not travel to Madras again. The fury so typical of the young; it had raged in her like a fire that could never be doused. Add to that, an orthodox father-in-law, she hardly had any idea where her future was going.

And yet, she had remained a dutiful wife and daughter-in-law, cooking and serving food religiously, performing pujas regularly, and running the household dutifully, all the while, writing, erasing, and re-writing career plans within her head. She was not the one to give up that easily. Subramaniam had quite a few things to do – concerts now and then, violin classes, and a job at a nationalized bank.

One night, a year into their marriage, she had told Subramaniam, “You know I came into this city with lot of dreams. And, I don’t want them to go down the drain.”
The next day, Subramaniam had spoken to his father and Leela had followed it up, explaining very politely to her father-in-law that she did not want her talents to go waste.

Soon, she was teaching history and geography at a school in Matunga, where they lived. Two years later, Jhanavi had arrived into their world. Leela was no doubt, overjoyed. She had felt that Jhanavi was the most beautiful living being in the entire planet. She had vowed she would do anything for her. Raman and Vaidehi had come down too to see their little one’s little one.

Leela had not been sure of how to react to her parents’ arrival, particularly her mother. Although Subramaniam had gone to Madras twice in the last three years, Leela had refused to accompany him. Her parents, busy with their own chores, had not come to Bombay either. Leela had only been too happy to be at Bombay – away from all the limelight of being Vaidehi’s daughter, away from irritating questions like, why haven’t you pursued music as a career. The thought of managers (some balding) from various sabhas who bothered her with meaningless questions when coming down to their home for dates, had irked her beyond description. She had somehow always felt that her mother had not been there for her, when she had needed her most – a thought that Vaidehi had never really thought for Leela- a thought that had left her feeling extremely melancholic. In Bombay, she had a life, how much ever insignificant, a life that she had carved for herself.

After Jhanavi’s birth, Leela had readily quit her job. She had wanted to give her child the attention she needed. All the same, she had worked out a plan to keep her career going. She had begun taking tuitions at home. To begin with, she had only two students from the neighbourhood. The number hadn’t deterred her. Leela had spent her spare time writing notes for her two students. Much to her delight, the notes had become hugely popular a few months later and soon she was busy, circulating copies of those and of course making money out of it.

And somewhere in between, a little after her father-in-law’s death, the year Jhanavi had turned four, Subramaniam had come back from work one day and told Leela about his bank’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The bank had planned to announce various deposit and lending schemes and not to mention, lucky dips, and was contemplating on popularizing the same. Leela had quietly managed to work out a handmade brochure for the same out of sheer interest, and one fine morning, had shown it to her husband.

Subramaniam had been pleasantly surprised. He had taken it with him to office the next day and had shown it to his immediate boss. How true it is that life flows. Sometimes, things that seem most insignificant at a particular point in time, lead one to the most significant changes in one’s life. The same way, what had appeared very significant some time, may by all means turn out to be very trivial at a later point. For Leela, the brochure had been one such insignificant point in her life that turned out to draw out the businesswoman in her. Call it luck or destiny, or both, the brochure had made its way to the boards of all branches of the bank and Leela had even earned a commission for the job.

Six years after Jhanavi’s birth, Leela had set up a small office in their house, with five people to assist her. She had done brochure assignments for another bank and a local departmental store. Not just that, she had also involved herself in publicizing campaigns for two non-profit organizations. Those were perhaps the most crucial years of her business building exercise. She had taken seriously to building contacts, spreading the word about the things her small company could do. She had decided to go slow but steady. After all, she had to juggle the work at hand, the family, and also devise new strategies. The same time, Subramaniam was busy drawing up his plans to set up an academy dedicated to conducting violin classes, workshops, and discussion forums. The couple had saved money religiously, least hesitating to be frugal and being very sure that they would not take monetary help from any relatives or friends.

From then on, they had walked closer to their individual dreams, faltering occasionally, but never giving up. It is the kind of story that would read as a fairy tale on paper – the “and they lived happily ever after” sorts. Subramaniam’s academy and Leela’s firm did come up. But, hard work and persistence were the virtues that had seen them through. For Leela, Abhimanyu’s birth had particularly been a challenge. Dealing with a mentally challenged child had been a true test to her both physically and mentally. Her business plans had taken a backseat for the initial two years after his birth, when the couple had been trying to come to terms with what they had to do about their son. Yet, she had persevered and bounced back, never wasting a moment. She had stayed at home, doing an MBA in marketing through distance learning and had also attended computer classes. Much against her own wishes, she had hired a full-time caretaker to take care of her children, while she tried to find her feet.

The rest as they say, had been history. Leela had grown to become the founder and director of The Right Word Content Providers, employing about eighty people with two offices – one in Bombay and the other in Bangalore. Her team of MBAs, software engineers, literature graduates and web designers designed brochures, websites, corporate newsletters, annual reports and email-based marketing appeals to a diverse client base including non-profit organizations.
After all, Leela had carefully chosen the tagline “Tell us your dreams. We will give them wings with our words.” to promote her company.


It is about 8 by the time the last of the guests move out. The family is exhausted. Subadhra is busy cleaning up the post-party mess. Leela calls out to Jhanavi to help the maid. Jhanavi obliges. Abhimanyu seems extremely happy. Leela tells him to run up to his room.
“We will open the gifts tomorrow. You should change and sleep now,” she tells him. The boy hesitates, nevertheless walks slowly to his room. Jhanavi is on the phone even as she is cleaning up the dining room.
“Yeah, it all went fine,” Leela hears her speaking. Must be that Chacko fellow, she thinks.
“Leela,” it is Vaidehi, who calls her, from the entrance to her room. “Can you come over for a few minutes?”
Leela is surprised. Such requests from her mother were rare. She walks into the room.
“Come here, sit down,” Vaidehi says.
“What happened Amma?”
“Nothing, I just felt like talking to you today,” she says. “You know you look very nice today. This saree suits you so well,” she continues to Leela who is sitting next to her on her bed.
“I am glad you wore the dark blue saree I told you to.”
Vaidehi smiles and nods.
“You are worried, aren’t you?” she asks Leela. Leela is surprised. A puzzled look crosses her face.
“Worried, why should I be? I am fine Amma.”
“Dear, I am your mother and I know.”
Leela falls silent.
“Don’t worry about the children. They will be fine,” she says.
Leela sits quietly.
“I saw you when the special children sang Happy Birthday to Abhimanyu. I saw your tears.”
Leela looks up. Her eyes are moist. Vaidehi presses her hand gently.

"I understand Leela. It is a mother’s fear. I will also tell you this. I know you are old enough to know how life works. But sometimes, we become immature beings in that we fail to see our lives in practical light. We worry unnecessarily about things that we have absolutely no control of. I do know Abhi worries you beyond words. But, Leela, you need to face his future as it is. Don’t worry. Life will offer its own solutions at every stage.”
Leela smiles. “Thanks Amma, I feel so much better.”
“Amma, can I ask you something?”
“Have you been angry with me that Mani and I had not even bothered to ask you and appa to come and stay with us? I mean, we got you here only after appa’s death.”
Vaidehi presses Leela’s hand a little more.
“Not at all. We had our own things to attend to in Madras. You know it didn’t even occur to us that we should perhaps come and stay with you. We were happier off coming and seeing you now and then. In fact, I agreed to come and stay with you after your father’s death only because you insisted.”
Leela nods. "You couldn’t have managed alone, Amma. I knew it.”
“Can I ask you something?” Vaidehi asks.
“Did you hate me for what I did to you when you wanted to go to the U.K.?”
Leela looks at her mother.
“I don’t know if I would call it hate. But, I felt bitter towards you and I am ashamed now that I thought like that back then. What a rebel, I had been.”
Vaidehi continues looking at Leela and speaks again.
“You know sometimes, especially in the years that I have come to stay with you, I have often thought that I had perhaps been quite imposing when you were young. Trying to get you to agree to my ways. Got you married when you didn’t want it at all. I am not sure if I had been selfish. I left you with your grandmother when you were small, while I was busy with concerts.”
Leela is surprised at this dialogue with her mother. Why were they suddenly talking these things? Maybe the most wonderful, satisfying, and revealing of conversations are those that are unplanned - those that happen just like that.

“Amma,” she says, “Much of what you had done did not seem too correct to me at that time. But, when I became a mother, life gently lifted the veil. I saw what it meant to be a mother and how our perceptions change once one becomes a mother. I remember I used to long for some moments with you, but I landed up hiring a caretaker for my children to attend to my career. I wouldn’t be surprised if my daughter thought I had been selfish. But, I was desperate to not let go of the chances I had and what I was capable of. I did my best to be with my children, just as you did. It is just that for children what parents think as enough may actually not be enough.”

“The other thing I have learnt is that,” she continues, “knowingly or unknowingly mothers do things that end up as being good for their children. Here’s something I had wanted to tell you all these years. You asked me whether I was angry that you got me married off. Yes, I was fuming, to say the least. But by doing what you did, you gave me a new lease of life. The new place did so much good to me that it has led me to where I am today. So much so that worries such as whether you had been selfish or I had been angry mean very little now.”

Leela then gets off the bed and rests her head on her mother’s lap. Vaidehi pats her.
“Amma, I know you still wish I had taken to Carnatic music. I am sorry I didn’t live up to your dreams.”
“Silly girl,” Vaidehi says, “I thought you just said these things didn’t matter anymore. I have seen you grow to what you are now, dear, and it fills me with pride. I am proud that I am a mother of a self-made businesswoman. You have taken after your father. And don’t worry, my granddaughter has my genes,” she laughs gently, “Jhanu is a wonderful singer and it doesn’t matter she lost in the finals of that show. She will go places. I can see it.”

Leela laughs. “Oh, she has some of my genes as well. That girl, what plans she has! She works part time in a bookstore, just to read up books. She wants to become a singer, wants to open her own bookstore, and also plans to write novels!”
Vaidehi laughs. “I suppose all of us carry a part of our mothers within us. Don’t we?” she asks.
“Yes, maybe. I think my hard work and perseverance that people often praise me for are what I have taken from you. But, I am also worried that Jhanavi has the rebel side of me in her. I mean..”she stops.
“Hmm..” Vaidehi pauses, “don’t worry about her Leela. The girl will come out of what she is into. She will learn things soon. She is a good girl. This is just a passing phase.”
Leela smiles and lifts her head. Her face looks relaxed. “I think you need to sleep. It’s late. Have you had your medicines?”
“Oh yes, I will now,” Vaidehi says, “tomorrow I need to rearrange these cassettes.” She waves her hand in the air, pointing towards the rows and rows of cassettes.
“Goodnight,” Leela says as she leaves the room.
“Goodnight. Sleep well.”


Leela switches on the bed lamp as she enters her bedroom.
“Long conversation with mama, eh?” asks Subramaniam.
“Mani,” Leela almost jumps, “you are still awake?”
“Yes, I was waiting for you to come over.”
“Hmm..yes, a fulfilling conversation with her,” she says and turns off the light.

The next morning Leela wakes up to realize that her mother never woke up after she went to sleep in the night. She is startled at the triviality of life. Just last night, her mother had spoken so well. Leela feels giddy. Yet, thinking about it, she feels her mother had a good death. She strongly believes that it is the bhakthi that Vaidehi had unfailingly fused into her music that had blessed her with a good end. The newspapers down south carry tributes for the renowned Vaidehi Raman. Two national news channels feature a one minute documentary on her. Leela decides that their own house in Madras where she and her parents had lived should be converted to a memorial for her parents.


April 18, 2008, 11:30 PM. It is a month since Vaidhehi’s death and it is one of those days when life has slowly begun to resume its usual pace in the Subramaniam household.

Leela sits in the living room and has a worried expression on her face. Subramaniam is telling her to calm down.
“Mani, I am really worried. The girl’s phone is switched off. I have tried speaking to three of her friends. She isn’t there in any of their places. She usually leaves the bookstore by seven. Should we call the police?”
“No, Leela. Let’s not hurry this up. We will invite unnecessary attention if we go to the police. Let’s keep trying her number.”
Leela starts walking up and down the living room. She stops mid-way once.
God, Mani. Has someone kidnapped her? I am really tensed.”
Subramaniam tries to stay calm even as his insides are churning because of tension. He doesn’t answer Leela and keeps looking at the telephone. What if some crook calls to tell them about their daughter.

Subhadra is standing by the kitchen door looking worried. “Memsaab, can I ask my husband to go around and see if he can spot her somewhere?”
Leela considers the maid’s suggestion. Mani intervenes. “Let’s give it another twenty minutes.”

About ten minutes later, the door bell rings. Leela rushes to the door and opens it.

Jhanavi walks in, looking tired but resolute. There are beads of sweat on her forehead. Even before Leela can say anything, Jhanavi dumps her bag on the sofa and walks straight to her room and shuts the door.

Leela and Subramaniam exchange glances. Leela slumps into the bean bag.


Jhanavi leans against the shut door of her bedroom, slides and sits down hugging her knees. Tears begin streaming down her face. She examines her perfectly manicured fingers – those ten fingers that Chacko had kissed incessantly at his flat just two hours ago. Jhanavi had felt giddy with fear and excitement when he had taken each of them to his lips. He had run his long fingers through her hair as they sat on the sofa looking through a magazine.

And that’s when he had reached down to her pink shirt, trying to unbutton it. And it was precisely that moment Jhanavi had felt that she was really standing at the edge of a cliff. She had felt a sudden shiver. Suddenly, she had thought of her mother and the fight they had about Chacko a week back. In a totally unexpected move, she had pushed aside Chacko’s hand and slapped him on his face. Being the man that he was, Chacko had quickly and firmly grabbed Jhanavi by her hands and pinned her down to the sofa. The fellow had drunk quite heavily and Jhanavi had kicked him on his stomach. As he fell, she had jumped off the sofa, opened the main door and run out, not stopping till she reached the taxi stand outside.

Jhanavi looks down on the bruises in her hands. She walks up to the rest room, washes her face and combs her hair. Then, she opens her bedroom door and looks out. Leela and Subramaniam are still in the living room – both appearing frantically worried. Jhanavi walks up to Leela.
“Amma,” she says, sitting down next to her near the bean bag, “don’t worry, everything is fine. I am not going to see that fellow again.” She rests her head on her mother’s lap.

Leela sighs and pats her daughter’s head and looks at Subramaniam. Subramaniam nods and smiles. Leela knows what her husband means.
“Don’t worry. Everything is going to be just fine.”
"Yes," she thinks, "everything is going to be fine."