Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Chellamal woke up before dawn. It was her routine to get up at 4 a.m and had never needed to see a clock in most of these 80 and odd years of her life. By 5, she would have put the kolam on the front of the house and would then start to pluck flowers for her daily puja. Today she was in the process of finishing the kolam when a shadow fell over her. Looking up she saw her only child Shanmugam standing in the Thinnai (balcony). A glint of surprise crossed Chellamal’s face as she also knew the routine of her son and daughter –in-law, Valli’s life. Shanmugam would get ready to goto work around 8a.m. and Valli usually woke up around 6 to head to the kitchen to start her work. Though Valli and Shanmugam had requested her innumerable times to get up late and not to do so much work around the house , Chellamal had paid no heed to their loving words. She had to do her daily work and it brought her more pleasure than pain.Her reverie was broken when Shanmugam came down the steps towards her holding a white envelope in his hand. As he was about to give it to her the envelope fell down and Shanmugam bent quickly to pick it up. Chellamal felt his hands touch her feet as he picked up the envelope. Standing up closer to her, She could now see his face writhed in worries and a very grim look around his mouth. “Keep this with you amma. If anything happens to me give this to anyone who comes to collect it. You will know what to do then” so saying Shanmugam opened the gate and walked briskly away. Chellamal was speechless holding the envelope in hand. This was very unusual. Sure she knew Shanmugam had lots of troubles at the mill where he worked as a supervisor. The management was a rough lot and constantly pressured Shanmugam to be ruthless to this workers, who worked very hard in poor conditions for their daily wages. One of the constant gripe for the management was to try and cheat the workers of their daily wages. They would have been successful but for Shanmugam. He stood for justice and fought with all his might.Chellamal slowly walked inside the house. She noticed Valli was still not awake. She decided to keep the envelope matter a secret. Her hands went about her routine of cleaning the puja vessels and adorning her Gods with flowers plucked fresh from her yard. But her mind remained very upset and went over and over again what Shanmugam had said to her. She now realized the slipping of the envelope to the floor was not an accident. He had wanted to touch her feet before he left for work that morning. She had no one to turn to for solace but God so she started her prayers. Her mind and heart hoped fervently nothing untoward should happen to her son. She had two grandsons who were married and well settled and lived in the big city. Valli and Shanmugam would visit them once in a while and they came to see Chellamal too. She thought maybe she should call her grandsons and tell them about the envelope. Very soon Valli had started her kitchen duties and brought Chellamal her morning kanji. As they both sat down to take a small break and have their kanji there was a noise near the front door. Valli got up to go and see and came back inside with the Tashildar. He was older than Shanmugam and almost like a son to Chellamal. His face was lined with sorrow and Chellamal could see he had brought bad news. “Will you have some coffee Sir?” asked Valli moving toward the kitchen. The Tashildar took a seat near Chellamal and asked Valli to come and sit too. “I am deeply hurt to bring you this bad news” and broke down crying as he said it. “This morning when Shanmugam was walking to work some miscreants attacked him and robbed him off his gold chain and gold rings and the money of Rs.1000 or so he had on him. But Shanmugam had started to bleed after the attack. By the time he was spotted by the road and then taken to the hospital his life could not be saved.” Barely did he finish his lines Valli started crying and wailing and the Tashildar could not contain his grief either. Valli moved closer to Chellamal who held out her hand to embrace her daughter in law and Valli sobbed into the shoulder of the woman who was like her mother too. Chellamal’s heart had hardened after hearing the news. She knew there was one task yet to do. Her mind thought of her husband who was no more but wished he was there to support her. Shanmugam was very much like his father in his honest ways. But today’s world did not give credence to honesty and principles and made life harder for people not adapting to corruption.Very quickly all the last rites had been completed. She did not step foot out of the house as was her custom. It broke her heart to see Valli as a widow. She still rememebered the day Valli had entered her home as a young bride. Her grandsons’ came to help with the rituals and today they left back to their works and homes. They had insisted for the two ladies to come and spend time with them. Valli had said nothing to this request as she had completely lost her self in grief. If Chellamal had not been around everyone wondered what would have happened to Valli. Inspite of her age Chellamal tended to Valli as if she were a young child. Chellamal knew this grief as she had been through this before. There was no greater sorrow for Chellamal than to see her beloved son pass away and Valli in so much grief and pain. Still Chellamal had not shed a tear after her son’s death. She knew she had to finish her son’s last request though she did not want to.Chellamal looked up from her prayers to see Valli had come and stood nearby. At her glance, Valli said “Amma there is someone here to see you.” Her face registered her bewilderment that she must have felt. In all these years other than very close relative no stranger had come asking to see Chellamal. “Show them in here” said Chellamal. When Valli left to fetch them , Chellamal slowly removed the white envelope from her Bhagavad Gita book and held it in her hands. For a moment she hesitated. If she did not hand over the envelope she could only imagine what would happen to her family. She clearly did not want her grandsons to loose their lives too. Her uneducated mind could clearly make the calculations of the foolishness to fight the power of corruption. One could never win and just for a split second wished her son had no principles and had been as unscrupulous as his management which he had worked for. Then he would certainly be still alive today. At her age she had seen most that life had to offer. But she also knew her soul would never have been in peace if Shanmugam had been any different. His life was very dear to her but his death was dear to his values and principles. As a mother she was proud she had carried a noble person in her womb. That act alone justified her purpose in life. Her mind was made up and her mouth was taut as was her face. She looked upto to see a man , short stout and muscular, whom she would never have invited into her house. His eyes seemed to be fascinated by the white envelope. She placed it on the floor between them which he quickly picked it up. He looked into her eyes again. The fury he saw in those eyes he felt in his body and he shuddered to think of the misfortunes his family would have to suffer for generations to come for the killing of the innocent and the pious. He quickly walked away without a backward glance.Valli was sitting on the swing in the living room. She watched all this through dazed eyes. She did not want to know about the envelope. She had already lost what was most precious to her. As she watched Chellamal approaching her, for the first time she noticed the droop of Chellamal’s shoulders. She had aged more than a hundred just through the last fortnight. Chellamal slowly sat down beside Valli. Now it was Valli who opened her arms to embrace Chellamal who started to cry for the first time since her son’s death. Both knew they would remain like that for a long long time.