Summer Vacation – 4

The woman whom Muthassi called Bharati mused, ‘Motherhood and moonlight are alike, so comforting, so essential to life. There can be no happiness without either.’

At this point, Muthassi suddenly stood up and straightened her mundu. She said,’You must excuse me. It’s nearly four o’clock. I must go to the kitchen and see if tge coffee is ready. My servent Achutan is a slowcoach; he never does anything on his own. You come with me Ammu. Let’s see what he is up to.’

Achutan was sitting on the kitchen floor, arranging parippu vadas on a plate. The mundu that he was wearing was as black as the kitchen walls. He got up as soon as he saw Muthassi and said,’I could’nt get poovan bananas, so I got the Mysore varaiety.’

‘Hmm,’ said Muthassi, signifying assent. She lifted the lid of the coffee kettle with a kitchen prong to check whether the water was boiling. The fireplace was lit by a small hurrican lamp.

‘Achutan,’ Muthassi said in an exasperated voice,’ Can’t you clean this lamp at least once in  while? Do I always have to remind you of everything?’

‘I did try to clean and polish that lamp,’ Achutan replied.

‘The soot won’t shift though. I think its is time to change the glass.’

‘I don’t think the glass needs to be changed. You are just looking for an excuse to avoid work.’

Then Muthassi bent her head to examine the bananas that Achutan had arranged on a plate. I had often caught Achutan watching me with that knowing look. I turned my face away in distaste.

‘Achutan, bring four plates of bananas and vadas to the Tekkini. Let the child have her snack here.’

I asked,’Can’t I have my snack at the Tekkini too?’

An emphatic ‘No’ was the answer.

‘Why Muthassi?’

No explaination, from Muthassi. Just a curt,’ That’s the way I want it done. That’s all.’

As Muthassi stepped out of the kitchen, she instructed Achutan in a lowered voice, ‘Before you pour milk into our coffee make sure you have set some aside for Ammu to drink at night. You don’t have any discrimination Achutan, and sometimes your excessive gengerosity to outsiders can be trying.’

Achutan looked at me once again with the same sly knowing grin. As soon as Muthassi left the kitchen he leaned on one leg on the wall next to the fireplace, removed a bidi from behind his ear, and said to me in philosophical tone,’Do you know where Achutan drwas his life energy from? It’s from this bidi. Not from tea or cooked rice or rice gruel – Achutan cannot function without smoking at least two budles of bidis every day. Do you know child?’
I did not reply. Achutan  lit a bidi and started to smoke. He then lifted the coffee kettle off the fire, using a folded piece of paper.

‘ I will give you your milk first. Only after that I will serve the others their coffee. Satisfied? Don’t you know that Achutan cares for you more than anyone else in this house?’

I sat on the steps leading to the kitchen verand, e reah. Achutan thought I hadn’t heard what he said. So, biting on his bidi he repeated with a peculiar slure, ‘ Do you know it?’

I laughed scornfully.

At this, Achutan removed his bidi from his mouth and put it away by fireplace. He continued earnestlty, ‘ Not merely in this house. In the entire village, there isn’t a single soul whom Achutan loves as much as he loves you. Are you aware of that child?’

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Summer Vacation-3

‘Muthassi..’

‘Yes, Ammu.’

‘When my school re-opens and I go off to Calcutta, who ill come with you to the pond?’

‘No one, Ammu. No one will come with me.’

She looked up from her washing, and said with a laugh,

‘Why should Muthassi be afraid, Ammu? She is no longer a child. Do you know how old your Muthassi is?’

I shook my head.

‘Sixty-eight I will be sixty-nine this coming Chingam.’

‘When will you die , Muthassi?’

‘How am I to know the time of my death? It’s all in the hands of God. When its time for me to go, he will take me. No one from this Tarawad has lived upto this age. My mother died when she was forty; my uncle at forty-five. And grandmother, if I remember correctly didn’t quite reach fifty. As for Kamamalm ….I am a sinner, that is why I stay alive. I often wonder what further sufferings are in store for me before I die.’

Muthassi wiped the tears that welled up in her eyes with one end of her mundu and noisily cleared her nose.

‘But Muthassi, are you going to die soon?’ I persisted.

She tried hard to laugh, I could see her small teeth, worn down and reddened. Her mouth had the fragrance of the beetle leaves and nuts that she chewed. I put my arms around her neck, my face against her cheek and pleaded, ‘Promise me that you won’t die, Muthassi, promise me.’

Muthassi’s eyes filled up with tears once again. But she smiled and said, ‘ All right, Ammu. I promise I won’t die. Is that enough?’

Some women came to visit Muthassi. Seeing me, they asked, ‘Isn’t  this your daughter’s child?’

Muthassi objeccted to this catechism. ‘Who else could she be?Do you imagine I would keep other people’s child in my house?’

The women laughed in conciliatroy fashion.

‘Of course we recognised her, but we thought we should ask. That’s all. Who brought her home? Has Velayudha Menon come as well?’

‘No. He brought her as far as Trichur. He hasn’t been able to get leave. Sankunni Nayar and I went up to Trichur and brought her home. ‘

‘Why did you have to travel all the way to Trichur, Ammukutty Amma? Sankunni Nayar could have gone by himself and brought her home.’

‘Indeed! What an idea ! Bharati, do you really think Velayudha Menon would have entrusted his child to a mere house steward? As long as I am alive such a thing is not likely. It is not a problem from me to go up to Trichur. I always tell the taxi driver to come and spend the previous night here so that Sankunni Nayar and I can set off before daybreak. We usually reach Trichur railway station at exactly right moment to see the train arrive.’

‘The child has grown since the last time we saw her,’ the fat woman who wore a necklace studded with red stones said. She had a sleeping infant on her lap.

‘ She has grown a wee bit taller,’ Muthassi conceded. ‘But she hasn’t put on any weight. She looks fatter because of the clothes she is wearing.’

At this age, I put in, ‘I am fat.’

The thin woman with protruding   teeth  covered her mouth with one hand and laughed. Then Muthassi lost her temper with me and said ‘ You call yourself fat !  You are just skin and bone. No, you haven’t put on any weight, neither do you look pretty. Just look at your face- so dark and drawn.’

Muthassi made me sit next to her and began to smooth my unruly hair. ‘Ah’ I protested, ‘Ah!’ All of a sudden the bald child lying on the fat woman’s lap began to scream.

‘Stop it,’ the fat woman chided  the child. ‘ He is a rascal ! Screaming like that just when I am having a moment’s rest.’

Muthassi said, ‘ He must be hungry. That’s why he’s crying. Why don’t you feed him?’

‘No,no, he’s just had his feed. The rascal deserves a sound slap. ‘ She tried to frighte the child by rolling her eyes in anger.

‘I’ll kill you,’ she said. ‘ Just you wait. One of these days, I’ll really kill you.’

I moved closer to Muthassi and asked her in a whisper, ‘ Will she really kill the child?’ Meanwhile the child countinued to scream at a higher pitch. I thought that his head looked like a huge rubber ball with a hole in it. Or perhapas it was more like a yellow balloon.

Muthassi couldn’t hear what I said. She asked me,’ What are you saying? I can’t hear you.’

‘Will she kill that child?’ I repeated.

‘ Who are you talking about?’

‘That child’s mother.’

Muthassi burst out laughing and said to the woman, ‘ Bharti, did you hear what Ammu is asking me? She wants to know whether you’ll kill you child. She thinks you really mean to do what you say.’

The fat woman asked me  in a horrified voice, ‘ Ammu, would mothers ever kill their own childern? No one loves a child more than its own mother does. ‘

‘Poor child ! How can she know?’ Commented the dark woman with graying hair, who had been sitting silently chewing betel leaves until then. ‘ Just think of her fate. So very sad.’