Ashley stared at the glowing seat-belt sign, without looking at it. In her hand was a beautiful boy. He had a round face, tiny eyes and cheeks that made them look smaller. His name was Krishna and he was one year old. Ashley was woken up from her reverie by the sudden crackle of a microphone and as she slowly regained full awareness, a heavily accented voice of a woman surrounded the place.
Few seconds later, an air-hostess came towards Ashley with the seating for Krishna. This was the first time she was flying with him and she was nervous. Her voice concealed her anxiety as she asked the air-hostess, “Is this safe for him?” The lady smiled back at her and patted her arm reassuringly. Ashley knew she was being too nervous but she could not avoid it, even when the lady said, “There is nothing to worry, dear. He is going to be just fine. Babies travel on flights all the time. He will be alright.”
An hour later, Ashley was watching as the same lady played with Krishna, with a smile on her face that she did not know was there. He had not even cried as the flight took off. His eyes had bulged a little bit, probably from the shock of the moment but he was alright in a few seconds. It was as if he was used to flying. She watched him, now, as he tugged at the hair of the air-hostess who matted his bushy black hair, again.
Sometime later, she glanced at the monitor in front of her and the flight was already flying over the Atlantic. Time was not flying as fast, as she returned back to her book. The book was not as interesting as she thought it would be but she had to keep reading it, to avoid worrying about what was in store for her when she reached India.
Next to her, Krishna was asleep, his tiny eyes closed and his hairy head leaning on her arm. Just like his father.
“Namma Shree poi rendu varusham aapordhu. Ipo en varaa?”
Alamelu was thinking aloud, completely conscious of the fact. She had been shocked beyond her wits after the phone call she had received the day before. It was a shock to her not because of the suddenness off the call but because her daughter-in-law had the courage to talk to her, and worse, to say she was coming to their home in a couple of days. She went on, knowing full well that her aambadayan will listen.
“En pullaya enterundhu pirichadhu poradhu nu? Konjam manasula bayam irundha enkitta pesuvaala ipdi?” Her voice was starting to quiver, and the next words came in between sobs, “En kozhandha mugatha kooda paakala na naan.”
Parthasarathy got up from his easy chair and sat down next to his wife. He looked at her admiring her looks. She was looking beautiful in her blue nine-yard saree and maroon blouse that complemented her fair skin. The diamond mookuthi was glittering but not much as the tear drop now clinging to her cheek. He wiped the tears from her eyes and laid her head on his shoulder. He knew that was the easiest way to comfort her.
“Inga paaru. Ava modhalla inga varatum. Enna irundhalum nammaathu maatuponn ava. Porumaya irundhu papom. Dhideernu inga varaanna edhavdhu reason irukum (“Neengalum en avalukku…”) Pch. Avaa culture la idhellam thappu kidayadhu. Nee kovapatta Shreeram mela dhan padanum. Avan virumbi dhane pannindan. Ipo adha nenachu kozhapikadhe. Varatum. Kepom.”
Just like every other time in the last thirty years of their married life, Alamelu felt comforted by her husband’s words and his assuring touch. He was now smiling at her, his thirunaamam accenting his wonderfully calm face. She smiled at him through her tears.
“Nanna iruku po. Ithana vayasaagi kozhandha maari…”
“Yei, inna kozhandha pullaingala ittunu vandhu scene podre? Onnu uttenna avlodhan!”
Muthu had not even flinched at the sight of the four guys standing in front of him. The numbers game was clearly not working on him. His dark skin was more accentuated by the hot summer shine bouncing of his white and crumpled shirt and dhoti. He meant every single word of what he had said, without an ounce of fear and Selvam knew it.
Selvam was new in the set of people who had been trying year after year to stop Muthu from leading the temple fundraising committee, to put in local terms, aatha ku koozh uthardhuku kaasu vangra sangam. Muthu was a well-off individual with political backing and for years, he had been controlling the temple function funds and just like so many others before him, Selvam did not like Muthu. He had decided to, literally, beat Muthu out of the race but he had chosen the wrong people.
“Dho paarunne! Nee dhan varusa varusam saaptella. Ipo naanga pathukrom nee kelambu. Vayasaana kalathla ..” Selvam stopped midway because Muthu had gotten up suddenly, at the mention of his age. The three guys, along with Selvam, took a step back.
The two ladies who were chattering meaninglessly near the water pump, now slapped their heads and murmured “Aramichutanungala? Dhardhram dhenaikum sanda.” They took their kodam, placed them on their exceptionally large hips that showed despite the pots they were carrying, and walked away. One of the three men turned and looked at the two women till they reached the corner and did not hear any more of the argument.
“Dai Selvam. Ungaathava enuku theryum, adhan ivlo neram ninnu pesikinurken. Poiru. Prachna venan poiru”, said Muthu and Selvam noticed how the kungumam on Muthu’s head gave him a menacing look, complementing his voice that had, without Selvam’s intentions, convinced him to turn and leave.
Selvam walked away with two of the men. The third guy was still staring at the street corner. Muthu raised his voice to an “Aaaei” and that was enough for the guy to start running. His thalaivan had left and he had not business staying there anymore.
But Selvam was not leaving forever.
“We are now boarding passengers travelling with infants, passengers who require special assistance and business class passengers”, came the voice over from the loudspeaker. Ashley got up and walked towards the gate. Krishna lay in her arms, asleep. In the last half hour of the first flight, he had cried a lot. Apparently, the descent was not something he enjoyed.
Ashley did not smile back at the gate attendant, who gestured her towards the bridge. Ashley’s mind was set upon her destination, her thoughts constantly wavering between the different possibilities that beckoned her there as she unintentionally balanced herself as she walked in that suspended bridge. At the door, the two men in suits allowed her to go forward. In five minutes, she was settled in her seat and Krishna was safely tucked away in the seat next to her.
It was only then that the gravity of the moment completely hit her. Memories flooded black in a hurry and her eyes welled up. The ascent began and she slowly fell into the hurtling flow of emotions. Her eyes were clouded and she could not see the monitor in front of her clearly. Her tears veiled what was in front of her eyes but they did not conceal the memory of Shreeram’s face.
Shree and Ashley had met in graduate school when they worked on a project together. What started as going out for dinner when working, slowly grew into an indispensable relationship for both of them. Three months into their official relationship, Ashley had introduced him to her parents and they had warmed up to him very easily and Ashley knew it was because of Shree’s impish charm. They had continued to go out till the end of school and decided to part ways as school ended. For the next three months, they had lived in different countries and that was when it hit them.
The day Shree landed in the USA, he had driven up to Ashley’s and proposed marriage to her. She had agreed and six months later, they were married. Shree’s parents had refused to come because his mother was not happy with her son’s choice. Ashley had never understood why Shreeram did not worry too much. He had been able to call his parents every week and talk to them without anger, or sorrow, or even guilt of disappointing them. But suddenly one night, he had hung up on his parents in anger and cried. Ashley had not questioned him when he said, “It’s over between them and me.”
Nine, months later, he had spoken about his mother.
Muthu fell prostrate in front of the goddess. A minute later, he got up and saw two women approaching him. One was old, her hair graying and her teeth stained red from tobacco. She was dragging the other one by her arm. The second one was a young lady in her 20s. She looked worried and had tears in her eyes. Muthu felt it had something to do with the one holding her.
“Muthe, nee innum evlo naaliku ipdiye senjunu iruke pore? Chinna pullainga dhan pantu potume. Inathuku sanda valichukinu?” asked Kumari.
Muthu looked at her with a sarcastic smile and replied, “Enna ka? Un pulla unnanda vandhu azhuvuraana? Aathakari vandhu pullaiku vakkalathu vangre? Seri idhu yaar pudhusa?”
“Idhu en modha pethi. Selvathuku moraponnu. Adhan Muthu, en ponnu Dhanam illa?”
“Dhanathoda ponna idhu? Aama, dhathnoonda irukasollo pathadhu? En ponne kattaayam panni kalyanam panrangala? Poyum poyum andha loosa poi kattikapore?” laughed Muthu and stopped when Selvam’s mother slapped his arm.
“Niruthura. Inga paaru en pullaya indha oru varusam panna udu. Appaala avane uttu poiruvan. Ipo enna perusa kettu povapodhu?”
“Akka, unage theryum aatha ku thiruvizha na naan dhan munnadi nu. Un pulla kalyanathuku vera innnaa vena kelu. Seiren. Aana idhu mudyadhu”, he shook his head at the fake plead of Kumari and added, “Mansa sangada paduthadheka. Kelambu. Vela iruku enaku” and walked away.
Kumari dragged her to-be-daughter-in-law once again and walked towards a telephone booth outside the temple. She dropped a coin and dialed her son’s mobile.
“Dei Selvam. Avan seri vara maatan. Nee maama va aal anupa solliru. Lachumi ingutu dhan iruku. Apram pesikalam..aaan…vechurren. seri.”
“Uncle Sam needs me badly, Ashley. I have to go to DC today. I will call you as soon as the meeting’s over,darling. Ok? I will be back tomorrow evening. Bye. Love you two.”
Shreeram’s voice had sounded pleased but Ashley had known he did not like it one bit to stay away from her. He had tried everything to keep away from travel since she had become pregnant. She had been in her third month of pregnancy, then and that was the first time Shree had left her since they heard the news.
Ashley knew now, as she sat in the Lufthansa flight to Chennai that she would never ever forget that night and that call in her life. This time, the memory of the call did not bring her sorrow. It merely took away from her mind, all worries of the impending. She knew that nothing she was going to face in the next few hours was going to be nearly as close to what she experienced that night, alone in her room, locked away from the rest of the world. She would have killed herself when she heard of the bomb blast but she was responsible for her yet-to-be born child. She was glad that she did not do anything stupid. Shree would not have liked it and she would not have Krishna.
The seatbelt light came on and the voice on the mic crackled, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have now arrived at the Madras International Airport. The temperature in Chennai is 35 degrees and the local time is 5 PM. We hope you enjoyed the flight and we wish you a very good stay in Chennai. Thank you.”
As the plane came to a stop, and all passengers got out, Ashley knew it was time. She took Krishna in her arms and walked to the city that Shree had spoken so much about, the city that he called, the best in the world.
“Na, ondra varusham munnadi indha maari oru sanikizhama dhan ava phone panna.”
“Hmmm…” Parthasarathy replied automatically.
“Yeno therila na? Shreeram ponadhu enaku appo azhave thonala. TV news la ellam kaamichale appo kuda azhuga varla. Neenga azhudapodhu kooda varla. Aana dhukkam thondaya adachudhu. Apdi ipdi nu avan nenaipe varapdadhu nu irundhen ipo ava aambdaya vandhu nikka porale?”
“Yen di Alamelu, un maattupon varalame Americalendhu? Solalvella pathiyo?” Jeyam maami questioned her from the window next door.
“Neenga summa irungo maami. Naane enna seiyardhu nu theryama muzhichundruken. Yen na, eppo flight nu sonna?”
“Adhellam enga di sonna? Innaiku varen nu sonna. Avlo dhan theryum. Engayavadhu velila hotel la room eduthu rest eduthutu varuvaa. En avasara padre?” Parthasarathy, too, was starting to get anxious.
“Naa onnum avasarapadale. Sadharnama keten avlodhan.”
After an awkward silence, Alamelu spoke again, “Na, avaa oorla marukalyanam ellam pannipaale? Andha maari evanayavadhu izhuthunda vandhanna?”
The airport staff member dragged her suitcase in front of her, as she followed him with the pram. It was, just like she had expected. Freakishly hot. The man walked towards a taxi hire office as she waited outside, looking around at the hustle and bustle of loads of people at the departure gate.
“Madam. You please wait near that railing. Taxi will come in five minutes. The driver will help you with the luggage. Number is 4343.”
“Thanks a lot, sir”, Ashley said gratefully and waited for her cab.
Few minutes later, a black and yellow and cab pulled up next to her. A smiling, face looked out the window and noticed the luggage. The driver got out in a hurry and ran towards her, the smile still on his face.
“Good evening madam. First time India? Your baby madam. Very beautiful.”
“Yes. Thank you. Can you help me with this…”
“Don’t worry madam. You sit. I will manage”, said the cab-driver and started loading her luggage into the back of the car.
Few minutes later, they were on their way to Triplicane. As Ashley looked outside at the mess of the roads, she wondered what could have made Shree tell her that this was the best city in the world. As if he had read her mind, the driver said, “In Madras, roads always like this madam. All politics. One party putting road. Other party digging road.”
“This is called Kathipara fly-over. Very costly bridge madam. In weekday, lot of traffic. Today Saturday, so less”, said the driver and Ashley noticed a sense of relief in his tone, but she could not understand what he meant for, even as he spoke, there were at least twenty vehicles around them. The fly-over looked fairly well designed. Several roads were merging in now.
Once again, the driver seemed to have read her mind because he said, “In Madras, this is only light traffic madam. Here…Waatha…Paathu po maate”.
The sudden change of language and loss of temper in the driver was a result of a yellow three-wheeler which had more people cramped in than it seemed it could hold. The vehicle had cut across them in a flash and Ashley knew it was more dangerous than she thought, for the driver was still fuming aloud.
“What was that?”, Ashley asked him.
“Auto drivers only main reason for accidents, madam. In Madras.”
The auto sped down the Kathepara fly-over. Selvam was on the phone.
“Mama, pullaingallam sethachu. Ipo kovilaanda dhan poitruken. Inga orey traffica iruku. Innum paanju nimisathla poirlam. Ennada poirlanla? Aaan aan Maama. Nee onnum kavala padadhe. Indha vaati kaandi avan othukala. Angaye podhachura vendi dhan. Pause. Onnu panna maten mama. Somma naalu thattu dhan. Bayapdadhe. Aan vechurren”
The heavily built guy sitting right next to Selvam enquired, “Thambi, enna prechana? Annan edho prechana pongada nu sonnaru. Naangalum kelambi vantom.”
“Adhelam anga ponadhukappala pathuklam. Ipo pothikitu vaa. Oruthana thatnum avlo dhan.”
“Adhan pa, yaara thatnum? Edhuku?”
“Sonna summa vara mudyadha, adhan..”, Selvam changed his tone as he saw the expression on the man’s face become harder, “periya matter ellam onnum illa. Oruthan enta wrong pantan. Adhan oru thattu thati vekalam nu.”
“Yaaro kadhava thatra! Alamelu, kadhava yaaro thatra. Yaarunu paaru.”
Alamelu opened the door. She knew who was on the other side before even opening it but she had expected one person less. At her doorstep stood a foreign lady who had married her son and she was holding in her hand, what was without doubt, her grandchild. Any and all thoughts she had against her daughter-in-law disappeared that very instant.
“Hi, I am Ashley.”
“Hi hi.. Ulla vaa ma…I..Come inside”, said Alamelu and offered to take her luggage. She started walking in and beckoned Ashley to follow her. She was beaming positively as she entered the hall and Parthasarathy got up to welcome his daughter in law. In a matter of few seconds, his expressions changed from a smile to a puzzled look to tears and he spoke.
“This is my grandson?”
“Hi uncle. This is Krishna. Yes, he is your grandson.” He and his wife, instantly, sobbed. Tears flowed and he moved to take the baby from her. Ashley hesitated for an instant before handing Krishna to her father-in-law and simply stood there as her husband’s parents took turns with her son. She was happy to see them happy. It was much better than anything else she might have expected.
“Kozhandha porandhadha kooda sollalaye ma engakitta? Oru vaartha sollirukalame. Unna enthana dharava kovathla thitirupen. Perumale.”
Ashley did not understand a word of what Alamelu had said. She did not care what it meant.
“Idho paarra, nee enna sonnalum kekka mudyadhu. Avalo kenjinenla, kudthiya? Otha ipo vaangu”
Muthu was crawling on the floor, blood staining his white shirt. His lips were torn and his face marked with scars now dripping blood. He spoke, in a faint hoarse voice.
“Selvam. Thappura. Saami vishayathla idhelam paanakoodadhura”
“Yeei adi vangiyum kekka maatiya neeyi? Innum aaru maasthuku yendhrika mudyadhu. Ennatha panre nu pathurlam? Maaple, indha varusam contractu endhu dhan di. Varusa varusam nee kaasadichella? Ipo moodtu orama paduthu keda. Aathaku oothra koozha naanga saapadrom indha mora”
He kicked Muthu’s face one last time and walked away from him. Selvam had beaten his rival and the powerful Muthu. This time, Aatha and the koozh belonged to him.
“Saathamadhu oothudi”, Parthasarathy directed his wife, and turning to Ashley added, “This is less spicy. You should like it.”
“Shree n I ate Indian food every day, Uncle. I like your food. I even cook Indian dishes.” Ashley could not resist her smile as she saw the pleasantly surprised look on her in-laws’ faces. They were, by the second, getting a better impression of Ashley.
Parthasarathy suddenly gestured his wife something with his eyes. She responded with a glare that had refusal written all over it. Her husband would not give in and narrowed his brows, egging her on. Eventually, Alamelu gave in and cleared her throat. Hesitation and doubts writ all over her, she asked Ashley.
“Please do not mistake me. Why did you come here after all this time?” and quickly added, “We are happy to have you but we do not know what to think.”
Ashley looked at them for a few seconds. Her mind reeled back to the day Shreeram had mentioned his family months after hanging up on them and refusing to talk to them anymore. She remembered the earnestness in his voice as he had spoken about it. He had said that it would be the perfect way to reconcile with his parents and that, like them, he believed it was important too.
Before Ashley could answer, Alamelu said, “You forget that questi..” and she stopped midway. Her mouth was agape. Her husband’s had stopped half way across the table, with the appalam in his hand. They had wondered why, had imagined all sorts of reasons for the sudden visit of their daughter-in-law but this, this was not something they could have even dreamt of.
“Shree wanted Krishna’s head to be tonsured in…Ti-rru-peati. You know, mottai?”