Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Adhu Ellaam Oru Kaalam - Part 2

Rajam circled the tip of her finger over the fading scar that was now donned by her little daughter's arm. A scar caused in a moment of utter desperation ...
A warm tear welled up in her eye and streamed down her face, wetting the split oval on the sleeping child's arm. "Kozhi midhichu kunju shaagaadu"  her father would try to console her aching heart.

She hadn't much of an option at the time. Both her sons clutching onto her arms, her little girl perched around her waist with her tiny arms around her mother's neck, pressing deeper into Rajam's flesh, the cloth strap of a bag that hung from one shoulder. She had barely made it onto the ship when her daughter had broken out into a tantrum. "I want to walk with Anna, let me down , let me down" she had wailed, kicking her legs, trying to jump off Rajam's waist, forcing her to do what she never in her worst nightmare imagined she would. She sank her teeth into that tender arm that trustingly garlanded her neck. Her little one had whimpered with her mouth shut. In shock. In pain.

She ran her fingers through the boys' hair, wiping beads of glistening sweat off of their foreheads. "Will they ever see their father again?" The dark question hooded out of the deepest corner of her heart, where she had always tried so hard to bury it. She had to be hopeful in order to live on. She couldn't afford the luxury of hopelessness. Not now, not ever...
She had exhausted the one resource that gave her some solace every time she worried about how she would make it through the month. She had pawned her Thanga Oddiyanam, her close to last resort, and had hardly anything left of the proceeds . If only her trunks of silver had made it across the sea, at least the rest of the year would've been taken care of.

Rajam, along with her children, her father and little brother who was just  barely older than her elder son, were among the last to board the lofty ship - Jala Durga. The the vessel of hope, that promised to sail the children, women and the elderly to a safe haven, far from the then war ridden British colony of Burma; leaving in its wake a myriad broken hearts. After what seemed like a painfully long period of hiding underground in mud trenches at the sound of the siren, hoping they wouldn't be bitten by a poisonous reptile, putting out all the lights and spending night after night in pitch darkness, like the rest of the city, they (Rajam and her husband) were to move to a far off land that had been, at one time, home to their parents and now to them - India.
Her father had suggested  that she wear all her gold during their voyage for ease of safeguarding it. She had stood there, bedecked in all her gold like a bride, seeing her husband wave out what they both knew in their hearts was likely to be their last adieu. The irony ate into her being. Tears streamed down her face, her gut knotting up at the thought of the battle that lay ahead, a battle that she would have to face all alone, without her husband by her side. She glanced through the corner of her eye to see her trunks of silver on the boarding plank, and was relieved that they had made it onboard. Just then, the ship had sounded it's deafening horn as if marking the beginning of a battle. The boarding plank was hauled back into position sending her trunks of silver slithering off into the sea with a huge splash. She had looked on, helpless.
She had stood her ground on the deck, weighed down by her children, her luggage and a heavy heart, in spite of angry officials ordering her otherwise, till she had lost complete sight of her husband's face...taking in as much of it as possible. For she was sure she'd have to hold on to that image for the rest of her life.
"Abashagunamaa pesaadhe! Didn't Thangam's husband make it back to Kerala?" her father would say with fake optimism, trying to create hope for all to cling on to. But they all knew better...
It was known to be a ruthless journey from Burma to India by foot. Passing through unforgiving forests, a treacherous terrain, without food or drink for sustenance. The occasional bottle of Horlicks that the army helicopters dropped from above was fought over uncouthly by groups of otherwise united fellow travelers. Quick sands were known to have swallowed, without a warning, droves of unsuspecting men that took on the treacherous journey. The ground had to be dug up by sore hands for a glimpse of muddy water to quench their thirst... the sight and stench of death engulfing their senses.

It had been close to six months now with no sign or news of her husband. The thought of the obvious would choke her as she bit back tears every night, fearing they would give her secret hopelessness away. Her sons would have to grow up before their time, she thought recognizing the familiar pain of a forced adulthood that would be brought upon them.

She had half of the month ahead of her and the proceeds from the sale of her Oddiyanam would just about suffice. She touched her ear lobe as if reminding herself of her last resort- her Blue Jager diamond earrings. Her father had them specially made to order and had traveled all the way to India to pick them up for his Rajam's wedding. They had been tested for their Rashi- the luck they brought upon the family that owned them, as all diamonds were. For a quick second there she felt they had failed her. Growing up, her mother would narrate to her a fable of the diamonds that adorned the Goddess Kanyakumari's nose stud. They were known to emanate a beacon of light that brought lost sailors back home. Rajam found herself wondering for a moment if her Blue Jagers, in all their resplendence, would guide her long lost love back to her... and at once smirked at her child like optimism. Her head was beginning to hurt from her endless stream of thoughts. She turned the dull glow of her lantern out and forced her eyes shut as if shutting out her thoughts, drifting off to sleep.

At the break of dawn, Rajam dragged her exhausted being up from the jamakkaalam on the floor, and went about her morning chores with a melancholy that now had become her default state of being. She scrubbed the turmeric root onto the pumice and smeared some of the paste onto her taut legs. She felt her gut tighten. How different they had felt under his touch! She quickly snapped out of her reverie with a pang of guilt followed by intense grief. It had been a while since she had felt anything at all with this intensity. She poured a whole kodam of water on her head as if to wash away the intensity of her feelings. She managed to slip right back into her self created cocoon of numbness that had kept her sane all this while. Her bony index finger carefully shaping the kungumam into a neat circle onto her broad yellow forehead with the same melancholy she had begun her day with...

By afternoon, she had fed the family and  emptied all of the leftovers from lunch into a small bowl, while her father stretched himself out on the thinnai for a siesta. As much as she tried to cook just the right quantity given their penury at the time, she always ended up with some leftovers, even though it hardly compared to how much she was used to cooking back home. This was something that came to her naturally from seeing her mother do the same for years. They were used to cooking for the entire household including its servants and an uninvited guest or two who almost always showed up without a warning. "Periya kai di Rajam onakku" her friends would remark tinged with envy, a trait she was proud of and owed to her luxurious upbringing.

Her father called out to her to bring some leftovers for a beggar standing at the entrance. Thankful that she had something to give away in alms, she picked up the bowl of food and walked with slow deliberate steps toward the gate, numb even to the scorching ground under the soles of her feet. She stared blankly at her toes that peeped out from underneath her saree pleats like naughty children, with every step she took . At the gate, she stretched out her hand towards the beggar and was surprised to find that he he wasn't carrying a begging bowl. Mildly annoyed that she would now have to go back inside to find him a coconut shell to empty all the contents into, she slowly turned around... and froze. How could that be?  Had she really seen what she thought she had? Her heart pounded against her chest as she slowly turned around to see those pair of eyes again... her pair of eyes.... that she never ever imagined she'd see again. Now, the only part of his body that remained recognizable.
Her being frozen with shock...she let her knees buckle...dropping in front of him..... and finally broke down into a soft deep cry...of disbelief...of  joy...of pain ...of untold fears...of sheer relief...

PS: I am  putting this picture up for posterity: This was taken in Rangoon, just before the war broke out.
Anti clockwise  from top right: Rajam (Rajalakshmi), her husband (seated), her brother, her father, the older son, the little girl and the younger son (my maternal grandfather).

Friday, May 7, 2010

Adhu Ellaam Oru Kaalam - Part 1

The phone rings its monotonous, rather irritating ring at an untimely hour . My hand reaches for the receiver and brings it toward my face.The familiar, naturally loud voice that woke me up from my myriad slumbers  through college life, blares into my ear yet another time. Somewhat soothed by the fact that the voice isn't panic ridden, I ask my grandmother how she is doing, trying hard to mask the grogginess in my voice. After a hurried exchange of pleasantries like, "Were you asleep? Oho! I thought you'd be up by now", she blurts out the reason for her call:
"Today she tried to jump off the balcony!" I sit up startled and bark into the mouth piece, "What? Who?"
"Kollu Pati, who else?" she says.
Sensing that things were now under control and that she was simply relating to me the happenings of the day, I patiently wait for the rest of the story.

"She seems to have lost it these days!" she says.
"Amma, (I call my grandmother that too), its just that she's aging, I'm sure she doesn't realize what she's doing" I try to reason with her.
"Yes, but what will everyone think when they see her in the balcony screaming and wailing? The other day it was the gas incident, and today this? I am an old woman too you know, and what if no one is around when she acts up, it could endanger her life!"
Just as I open my mouth to say something, she exclaims "Aiyyo! I hear her in the kitchen,I hope she isn't up to anything new. I'll call you later". The line goes dead.
"Time and yage spare no one!" a heavily accented, prototypical tam brahm voice exclaims in my head, in an abnoxiously melodramatic tone...

"Rajalakshmi - the Goddess of all wealth....that's what my father named me and that's exactly how my childhood was - like that of a Goddess!
Basket fulls of rare fruits like the mangusteen, sweet apples like no one in India would ever have tasted...and the sour star fruit! (clicks her tongue as if tasting it). A big house filled with servants, one for each chore. I never so much as lifted a finger to do anything when I was young... I grew up like a princess!" she would say, pausing to noisily suck off some more of the cool dripping malai from her stick of elaichi kulfi.
"And then,....what else paati?" One of us in the audience would ask her, breaking her reverie. "Kulpi!" she would say, due to the inability of her toothless mouth to utter the consonant "fi" . "What you get here in this wretched country is not even close to the ones the kulpi wala used to bring us back home....those used to have so much more malai in them and I did not have to wait for anyone to bring me one as an after thought. Hmmmmmm! Adhu ellaam oru kaalam! (those were the days!).
All my friends used to envy me for my luck, and lucky I had to be, for after all, I was born with so many moles over my body" she would point out at all the tiny red and black warts/moles over her wrinkled skin. "My father married me off in much grandeur, I was given in marriage to your thatha clad in 300 souverins of gold (a number that increased every time she narrated her story and had by now doubled), three trunk fulls of silver vessels and a pair off blue jager studded vaira thodu (diamond earings) and ettu kal besari (8 diamond nose stud)" she would shout out pompously, focusing her earlobe toward the light to let her gleaming diamonds shine in all their resplendence, much like her eyes at the moment.
"Your Kollu thatha was much older than I and I was all of thirteen years old. I hadn't even come of age! At your age," she would say randomly pointing at one of us in our early teens, "I had borne Mani"..."Everything is gone now....all that gold and trunk fulls of silver..... our home and property. If only there hadn't been a war!" she would sigh with a longing, masked unsuccessfully by her resignation to fate.

Kozhikode Subramania Iyer had chosen the hard way out years ago, when he could've without protest settled for a life of mediocrity handed to him on a platter. He had insisted on making it on his own, had left to serve in the far off land of Burma that on acquest by its self proclaimed masters, had been merged with its neighbor, as part of the British colony of India. Very much like most men that belonged to his community of  educated Iyers, he had prospered under the British rule. Had created a place for himself among the Indian society of Rangoon. His parents had found him a bride, and a wise one at that. He had been blessed with everything a man could ask for, except a Varisu (offspring). A few that were born hadn't made it through. After much yearning and prayer they had been blessed with a baby girl. He had, in keeping with tradition, named her after his mother - Rajalakshmi. His little girl had brought upon the family much joy and luck. Subramania Iyer was now the owner of Street 52, Rangoon flanked on either sides with  rows of two storeyed houses. She grew up being the apple of his eye. And when she had barely turned twelve he decided to give her away in marriage. He had a boy in mind, a rather ambitious, smart lad but with a bit of a temper. Nothing my Rajam can't handle he had coaxed himself. He found the boy a job under the Raj and gave them one of his myriad homes to live in. He took immense satisfaction in the fact that they would after all live within the range of his vision. Rangoon had given him in abundance. This was him home now. He sold off all his ancestral inheritance but for the humble home he grew up in and returned to Rangoon, only to discover in a matter of months the natural course of fate bequeathed upon a colony.

"Where Pati? Where did all your gold go?", a voice would urge her to go on with her story and she invariably would oblige. We were, after all, the only set of ears that allowed her the indulgence of reliving her golden past, one of the few things that still gave her pleasure apart from her mid morning Sun TV soaps and her plastic cover collection.
Noisily smoothing out the creases off a stiff plastic cover and folding it into a neat little square, she would carefully arrange it with myriad others in her imported airbag that held what's left of her long cumbersome life - her chungdi sarees, a few silk, her white translucent hakkoba cotton blouses that she knotted up at the ends, her plastic cover collection, a tin dabba in which she kept some of her pension and her most priced possession of the lot- her tiger balm in their jewel like hexagonal glass containers. The one thing all her grandchildren conveniently brought her while visiting from abroad. "Rangoon used to be beautiful back then" she would continue...