Thangachi looked out of the window from the ill-lit dining room that late summer morning. The huge hibiscus bush by the window had grown out of control and darkened one half of the dining room while the massive jackfruit tree on the other side darkened the rest of it. Sometimes Thangachi turned on the light and often forgot to turn it off way past mid-day. Kamalam would then say with a frown on her kumkum marked forehead, ‘Thangachi, you forgot to turn off the light again. Electricity costs money. Turn it on only in the evening.’
Thangachi had moved to Perundarai to become a family member of Ramesan and Kamalam’s household last year on their son Mahesh’s third birthday. A child widow at fifteen, Thangachi had lived in the village almost all her life with her brother, who was Ramesan’s grandfather. When the brother died at eighty-nine, Thangachi at eighty-five moved in with Ramesan who was a school teacher and lived in the small town of Perundarai on a street that had, besides small houses, a Hanuman temple, a tailor shop and a vegetable store that she sometimes visited accompanied by Kamalam.
Thangachi put the last touches on the meal she had cooked and looked at the clock. She turned off the dining room light and went to see what Kamalam was doing. She peeked into the bedroom adjoining the verandah and called out, ‘It is almost one o’clock. Are you not coming to eat lunch?’
‘I will sit by the child a while longer. You go ahead and eat your lunch,’ Kamalam answered in a tired voice.
Ramesan had seen Thangachi as someone who would help in his household, and she had not disappointed him. She helped Kamalam in the kitchen and kept Mahesh entertained with stories of Rama and Krishna. She was allotted a corner of the dining room with the adjoining enclosed passage as her living quarters. At the other corners were the entrances to the kitchen and the puja room respectively. Thangachi kept her rolled bed inside the passage and just outside of it was her straw mat where she spent most of the day.
Thangachi got ready to eat her single meal. She placed the plate, filled with rice, vegetable and dal on the red cement floor along with the water tumbler and sat down on the edge of the mat. She chewed the soft food as best as she could with her gums. A little hot rice with vegetables and ghee tasted so good.
Kamalam rushed by to enter the puja room. Kneeling down, she folded her hands, and began uttering Sanskrit sthothras to the array of gods’ pictures on the wall.
Thangachi stopped eating and stared at Kamalam’s back. She knew that in times of dire trouble or intense joy, Kamalam was in the habit of doing this kind of inspired puja.
Thangachi called out finally. ‘Has the child’s temperature come down at least a little? The poor child was burning up when I felt his forehead this morning. Should we get the doctor?’
Without answering, Kamalam went swiftly back to the front bedroom where Mahesh was sleeping. Mahesh had been sick for more than a week. Exhausting all home remedies, Ramesan had brought the doctor who had diagnosed the illness as typhoid. ‘Solid food will kill him. Only liquids.’ The doctor prescribed.
Slowly getting up, Thangachi was straightening her back when she heard a scream from the front room. ‘Thangachi, Thangachi, come quick,’ Kamalam screamed.
Dropping the plate, Thangachi hobbled to the child’s bedside. She recognised death like an old friend. She left the room, picked up her plate and went through the back door to the tap outside, to wash it.
As a gloom hung over the house, only Thangachi seemed to have her feet anchored on the ground. She cooked and cleaned and consoled Kamalam the only way she knew how: by forcing her to eat at least a little for lunch or dinner. She would describe her own losses and griefs to an un-listening Kamalam.
Almost a month later Kamalam slowly got back to the routine of making the morning coffee. Ramesan decided to approach the subject of her father’s letter that was still in his coat pocket. Her sister Chellam would be coming to Erode for delivering her baby. They should all go to Erode for a family gathering.
Kamalam shook her head, ‘No need. We are not going anywhere,’ she said. The subject was dropped right there. Ramesan resumed his teaching and Thangachi her chores in the kitchen. Kamalam talked no more of her sister or of her baby that was due any day now.
The rainy season had broken loose like a freed force. Kamalam sat in the verandah on a wicker chair watching the rain fall steadily. The broken gutter on the side of the house was making a loud splashing sound. She watched till the rain stopped, and there was a sudden silence. She hoped the sun would come out.
The postman was early and handed her a letter. Kamalam tore it open and began to read: It is a baby girl. We are shocked and sad. The doctor could save the baby but not our beloved daughter. Chellam died with child birth complications and excessive bleeding. Our prayers went unanswered. Gods closed their eyes on us. We have named the baby Deepa.’
As Kamalam threw the letter on the table by the chair and walked in, Thangachi eagerly asked, ‘What is the news from Erode? Is it a boy or girl?’
Kamalam looked at Thangachi as if she were seeing her for the first time in her life. This old lady with her bent back and toothless gums was full of questions? All these young lives were being snuffed out right and left, but this old flame burnt unwaveringly. Was this some kind of miracle or a joke? Or was it the jinx that was being cast like a net of death by this little old woman?
A little frightened by Kamalam’s strange expression, Thangachi changed the subject.
‘I don’t know why, but my head is itching since morning. I put coconut oil and combed my hair but it still feels scratchy?’
Kamalam just stared and kept on nodding her head slowly. She was still nodding as she watched Thangachi squat on the floor and scratch the back of her head with both hands.
Kamalam felt a dull throb at her temples that got stronger till it seemed to consume her. She gives nothing, takes nothing, receives neither love nor attention and gives neither. She makes but one statement with her existence, and that is her existence. Kamalam caught this truth as if it were a burning ball and held on to it tightly, testing its ability to burn her. Was it Thangachi’s love of life? The dust, the dirt, the mud, the clay that is life? She clings to it and it clings to her. God, how she holds on to it! And how it holds on to her!’ The words beat like the hammer strokes of a sthothra in Kamalam’s mind.
Thangachi scratched her head vigorously.
Kamalam asked in a level voice. ‘When was it that you had your last oil bath, Thangachi?’
‘Oil bath? Did you say oil bath? For the three plus one hairs on my head? Oil baths are for young people.’
‘Thangachi, you should take an oil bath today. I will give you an oil bath.’
‘All right, if that makes you happy. I used to love oil baths a long time ago. I don’t even remember when I took the last oil bath. Since you insist, I will take one now.’
Kamlam got busy. She got a bowl of castor oil and heated it on the firewood under the big copper pot of hot bath water. Next she got the soap-nut paste ready to wash off the oil. She would give Thangachi an oil bath the way it should be given. Finally she brought two dry towels, one for the hair the other for the body and hung them on the single wooden rack on the side wall.
When the first bowlful of hot water came cascading down her head, Thangachi was startled and protested weakly, ‘It may be a little too hot.’ But Kamalam did not stop. ‘The second and third bowlfuls will make it feel just right you will see.’ After pouring a few more bowlfuls, Kamalam asked, ‘Now tell me, Thangachi, and is it too hot?’
‘No, no, this is just right. I like it; it feels so good,’ Thangachi answered closing her eyes. When she was rubbing herself dry, Thangachi said. ‘The sun has come out. Ah, that bath was good but it has made me so sleepy. I don’t know how I will cook the meal now.’
‘Don’t you worry about cooking. Today I will do all the cooking. You rest on your mat.’ Thangachi sat on the mat wearing her crisp white sari and began humming one of the many religious songs she knew by heart.
Kamalam had finished cooking the rice, curry, rasam and sambar with the dal. She went into the backyard to pick some curry leaves for the rasam from the plant by the tap. As she stood on tiptoe and pulled down the branch, she slipped and looked at her muddy foot. As she stepped back to wash both feet under the tap she bent and scooped a lump of the wet clay, closed her fist on it and came in. The rasam was boiling on the stove; she dropped the lump of clay in along with the curry leaves in it, and turned off the stove.
‘Lunch is ready’, she shouted. ‘Thangachi, get your plate and tumbler ready. Time to eat.’
After the lunch, Thangachi washed her hand and went to her corner. She would have a nice nap; she took out her bed roll and spread it out. She lay down, and fell into a deep sleep.
It was late afternoon and almost coffee time. Kamalam woke up from her own nap and went to wake up Thangachi. She called out to her. Getting no response, she went and shook her gently. Thangachi offered no sound or resistance.
Kamalam ran out of the house into the street and began screaming for help. People poured out from all houses on both sides of the narrow street. They went in to see Thangachi’s body folded up like a heap of sticks. They came in, came out, wheeled around; Kamalam, however, stood like a statue at the gate, her gaze fixed in the direction from which Ramesan might make his appearance now.
Indu Suryanarayan is a writer and a poet and divides her time between Bangalore, India and Kingston, Rhode Island USA. She worked as a professor and a university librarian in Providence, Rhode Island, and is now retired. Her articles and stories have been published in The Deccan Herald. Her husband Suryanarayan, a Math professor, gave her America not on a platter but on an aerogramme, she likes to say.