This is a story that I wrote some years ago. It seems to fit both the topics for Friday LBG Broken Relationships and Finality.
This is a typical Tamil Brahmin story. If you have any doubts please ask me.
Sheila opened the paper that hot, summer Sunday morning. It was a real luxury to read a fresh paper without others having read it and folded the sheets any which way ahead of her. She quickly scanned the headlines and saw that the chess champion had won another global competition. She was an eager chess player herself and was the champion in her bank. She opened the sports page and read about the tournament and absorbed all the moves that the champion had made.
Suddenly her attention was taken up by the obituary column and she saw the insert, “Kamakshi Ammal, 85, in Shanthi Senior Citizens Home on 6-4-2008 at 5 AM. Cremated on the same day by Superintendent of the Home”. Sheila closed her eyes for a brief moment and got up agitatedly. The paper fell to the floor, but she ignored it and went to the dining table, poured a glass of water from the jug and drank it in one gulp. She pulled out a chair and sat with her palms supporting her chin and looked vacantly at the wall.
“She still has the power to disturb me”, she said loudly. “It is years since I escaped her clutches, but…….”. She poured another glass of water and sipped it slowly trying to calm her agitated body and mind. “It is as if Lord Rama has finally finished off a Thataka. Appapppaa…what a woman. She was cursed by so many…. I wonder whether it had any effect on her at all…….To die in an old age home…that itself must have been bitter gall to her. I wonder why Appa or Vichu did not do the last rites? Maybe they are so far away and could not come in time….”
K. MEENA and K.VISWANATHAN
The phone rang with its long burr, Meena wiped her hands with the tea towel and picked up the cordless and said “Hi”.
The excited voice rang across the miles. “Meena Akka! This is Paru. I have some news for you. Finally, finally, that old lady kicked the bucket yesterday. Her last rites were performed by the Home’s Superintendent. There is an insert in the obituary column”.
Meena took a deep breath. “She must have been eighty plus”, she said in a soft voice.
“Eighty-five. My God what a woman! How many lives has she laid waste in those 85 years. I wonder how Athimber would have taken the news? Why did he not perform the last rites?” Paru asked Meena.
“Paru, I have to call Vichu. I will talk to you later okay” and Meena put disconnected and quickly pressed the rapid dial button one.
“Vish here” was the answer from her son at the other end.
“Vichu! Amma daan. Paru just called….That old lady passed away yesterday…it was in the papers. The Superintendent gave the agni it seems”.
“Amma’ he growled. “Why the devil are you bothered about that Rakshasi. Who cares if she is alive or dead? I give a damn as to who cremated her….Very important news that you have to call me at work…For Heaven’s sake! Forget it…and Amma…I am warning you I don’t want you to immerse yourself in stupid rituals…She means nothing to us.”
Meena quietly put the phone down. She made herself a cup of tea and sat in the couch. Just as she was going to take a sip, she stopped and looked at the tea swirling in the mug. She carefully put the mug down and got up and went to her bedroom. In the en suite bathroom she opened the shower, let loose her long pepper and salt hair and still dressed in her sari, stood under the stream of water. She came out of the shower and slowly changed her clothes and brought her wet clothes downstairs and put it into the washing machine and started the wash cycle.
She made a fresh cup of tea in the microwave, sat down on the couch and then took a sip. As she swallowed the tea a great sob came roaring from the pit of her stomach and Meena broke down crying, whimpering and gulping with grief. It took her a few minutes to dredge out her sorrow. She snivelled and gradually the sobs quietened. Meena closed her eyes and thought, “Why am I breaking down like this? Why should I grieve for her? Am I grieving at all? …..No, it is as if a great weight has been taken off my shoulders…..Siva, Siva! What a life?…. And after eighty five years no one to mourn her, no one to bother about what happened to her, where she was or who was looking after her?…I wonder whether he knows…if he has been informed?”
The time flashed by and the kids started coming back from school. Meena got up to give the two children, Reena and Shankar something to eat. It was after six when Jeet with a cheerful “Hi Mom!” walked in. The evening passed by in a blur and Vichu walked in after eight. He noticed that his mother’s hair was let loose and started to shout at her, “You had a ritual bath didn’t you? I told you not to do all this nonsense”.
Jeet was bewildered, “Why are you yelling at her. Why can’t she wash her hair when she wants? What is this ritual you are talking about?”
“She has had a shower because she heard that the old lady is dead. That is the custom in our society. But we do it for people who are kith and kin. I really cannot understand how she could be in any way connected to Amma or me after all that she put us through”.
“Oh! Is that why you have been out of sorts Mom?” she asked Meena. “Anyway, Vish, you must allow her the right to say closure in the way she wants to. It may be her way of finally putting aside and forgetting all her trauma”.
Jeet continued to watch over Meena. She quietly told her, “Mom anytime you want to talk about this we can do so” and left it at that.
Next weekend Paru called again. “Meena Akka, please tell Vichu that I have sent him an email. Ask him to read it and print a copy for you as well. It is addressed to you as well”.
“What is it about?” asked Meena.
“Read it and then you will know” said Paru.
Meena told Vichu about Paru’s call. “Hmmmm….I read it. I have a copy for you but I am not sure whether you need to read it”, he murmured.
“What is it all about”, she asked.
“It is from that woman’s son” said Vichu and opened his backpack and took out a sheet of printed paper.
Meena took the email printout with trembling hands. She put on her reading glasses and sat down to read the mail.
Dear Meena, Vichu and Sheila
This letter has been a long time in the writing. I can now send it to you as my mother is no more.
First of all I would like to say that I am fully aware of whatever you have suffered because of her attitudes, treatment and behaviour. I too am a silent partner as I kept quiet and did not in any way mitigate or set right her actions and their impact on all your lives. I am not making any excuses but am just putting things in perspective from my side.
Meena—you came into my life and my home expecting to be cherished, cared for and loved firstly by me, your husband and then my mother. You did not get any love or affection from her as she made you the target of all her frustrations. She was a widow at an early age and I was born after my father’s death. She brought me up single-handedly and I was taught that every human being owes ‘rini’, this huge indebtedness to the mother who carried and nurtured you with her own body and blood. So, I always took her side or no sides in every matter. Today because of this attitude I am alone having sacrificed every other relationship to repay this ‘rini’.
You are now with our son and even though he was not brought up to be aware of this relationship as merely a monumental debt, he cares and cherishes you and has been able to give you some happiness and peace of mind that I could never ever give you. I am really proud of him and I too cherish the years that we spent together even though it was always fraught with tension, guilt and suffering because of my mother’s possessiveness and hatred for any other person in my life. In a way I am proud and a little bit envious of the mother/son relationship that you share. I think, that this is the right and healthy one that is mutually beneficial.
Vichu—you have managed to come out of failure and created a safe home and family with your wife and your mother living under the same roof in a convivial atmosphere—something that I was unable to do. In fact when you were going through all that trauma of a dysfunctional marriage with Sheila, I despaired that your life was mirroring mine with the only difference being that it was your grandmother who created the friction between you two because of her strong desire to control people and their lives. Maybe you did the correct thing by going far away after your divorce to a new country, a new job, a new life where you met Jeet. I am also very happy that you took Meena away as well.
Sheila—what happened because of my mother’s intractable and inflexible behaviour to Meena and Vichu was unforgivable. What she did to you, your marriage and the tragic death of your twin daughters was totally unpardonable. I am also party to that crime because of my inaction. I cannot in any way make amends to you—I cannot even justify what happened. I was bound by my own feelings of loyalty and gratitude, the social conditioning to my mother that taught me, ‘Matru devo bhava’. You too were a mother but that relationship was truncated because of my mother’s mental and physical cruelty to you during your pregnancy. That relationship cannot be resurrected in any natural way. Maybe, you should adopt a child and give her/him all the love and good values that you have in abundance. Please do not get offended—this is just a thought that came to my mind.
For the past few years I have been running the Shanthi Senior Citizens Home as its Superintendent. After a hectic corporate life, I have used my education and managerial skills to look after and bring comfort and succour to many abandoned and lonely lives. I have given the sacred Agni to many souls including the final one to my late mother. She had a very bad time in the last couple of years having become senile, bedridden, plagued by multiple illnesses and organ failure. Her end was a boon to her and all who lived with her. Now my responsibilities are over and I have decided to leave everything and make my way towards the North as was the custom for Vanaprasthas in the olden days.
I have divided all the money that I have earned and the wealth that I inherited from my parents into four portions. One each has been deeded to Meena and Sheila and the other two to Jeet who will hold the moneys in Trust for Vichu’s and her two children, Reena and Shankar. What Meena does with her share is entirely up to her.
I do not think that I will contact you in the future. I am going away with a bag containing a change of clothes and no other identifying papers or addresses.
I do not ask for your understanding or acceptance for my inaction and silence in all these years. I did what I had to do—no excuses, no justification.
God bless you all.
Kamakshi Ammal— Mrs.Kamakshi—ammal is used as a term of respect for a woman—from the word Amma meaning mother
Thataka Demoness from the epic story Ramayana
Appapppaa Exclamation of horror
Akka Older sister
Athimber Older sister’s husband addressed with respect (elders were not addressed by first names)
Amma daan Mom only (literally) meaning ‘Mom speaking here)
Agni Fire—the ritual torching of the dead body
Rakshasi Demoness from the word Rakshasa
ritual bath When the news of somebody’s death is received, a ritual bath from top to toe is performed with a prayer for the departed soul to signify an end to the lifelong relationship—water is purifying in Hindu way of life
rini ‘rin’ means a debt with interest
Matru devo Bhava A mother is on par with God
Vanaprasthas In old age people left their homes and families and went away to ‘vanas’ or forests to lead an austere life of prayer and meditation