Her uncle died three months ago. It took him six months to die – so while it wasn’t sudden, they hadn’t expected it would be so soon either. He had fallen on a cleaver six months ago and torn something in his liver. Varalakshmi took him to the doctor she usually visited, a general physician who charged less for the less well-off. The doctor treated the external injuries before recommending an x-ray to check for internal bleeding. After much prodding from Varalakshmi, her uncle assented to getting an x-ray done. It took her nearly a month to get him to agree, and when they saw the x-ray’s results, Varalakshmi didn’t even have the heart to tell him – “Damn you, didn’t I tell you to get it checked immediately.”
That’s when we got to know about it though we didn’t know till much later that it was an injury and a serious one at that. All she told us was that he had to get his liver operated on. Her uncle drank a lot, she had told my wife that in the past – so we assumed it was a consequence of all that liquor. We lent her an advance on her salary and many of our neighbors did likewise. It wasn’t an expensive surgery – all our advances together barely amounted to the medical bills for assorted flus that my own daughter was subject to through the year. I suppose Varalakshmi had a bit more saved up in addition to what she borrowed, but it couldn’t have been much. She had married off her daughter just a year and half earlier and that event had used up most of her savings. Her daughter duly gave birth to a baby boy in ten months time, and Varalakshmi had borrowed again and rummaged into what remained of her savings, or more likely, her inherited gold – to please her daughter’s in-laws with nice gifts for the new child in the family and a bit on the side for the boy’s parents. So that’s why it must have been an inexpensive surgery.
When an operation isn’t an expensive one, people don’t die. They suffer, they feel like they are dying, at times some of them moan and crib so much their long suffering family almost has to physically resist a mental urge to wish death upon them. But usually they get better and, but for a scar here and a scar there, life moves on. At least that’s how I thought things worked till Varalakshmi’s uncle died. There is probably a longer medical explanation of why he died – cirrhosis something or the other, but Varalakshmi didn’t know it. She tried explaining it to me in Tamil, but I didn’t quite understand what she said, and it didn’t seem right to ask someone in mourning to elaborate on the exact cause of the death.
However, I did ask her if her uncle was old, which was pretty stupid given I did know how old he was – not his exact age that is, but thereabouts. Thing is I hadn’t really known what to say to someone who’s lost her uncle and I have never been very good with condolences. So I had just asked the first thing that came to my mind. But what struck me and has stayed with me since was Varalakshmi’s response – “Oh, he was quite old”, she had told me. He had been only fifty five when he died.
She seems to have taken it quite well though. I imagine it’s the consequence of her unique relationship with her uncle that drew its sustenance more from a sense of shared duty and responsibility and less out of love. But that’s not for me to say – love is a complex thing and duty and responsibility are probably as much constituents of love as are chemistry, affection and lust.
Varalakshmi’s husband had been a drunkard, a considerably more mean-spirited one than her uncle. His single biggest achievement was to get her pregnant twice. First there was a son, and then a daughter. Then one day, he just disappeared. She hadn’t bothered searching for him. He had treated her badly when he was drunk, and when he wasn’t and felt like it. His mother had watched it all and asked her to put up with it. So she simply packed her bags and her children, and walked out of his mother’s life herself. She once told my wife that she remembered three incidents of genuine affection with her husband in their five years together. With her mother-in-law, she didn’t remember any.
With a young son and daughter, and alone in a slum, it wasn’t too long before other amoral men found themselves drawn to her frailty. That’s when her uncle broached the idea of her moving in with him. Or maybe it was she who came up with that proposition. I am not really sure, but it matters not so much whose idea it was as the fact that she had felt compelled to consider it. Her uncle had lost his wife some time ago too – he didn’t have any children to complicate things, and was just a lonely man who longed for someone to take care of him. And the kitchen.
Varalakshmi thought about it and after having extracted a promise that he would never raise his hand on her, she moved in with him. He was older than her by fifteen years or so – quite a difference in age and perspectives, but not so much as to be considered too unseemly. She knew even then that he drank too, but she had done her homework and so she also knew that he wasn’t someone who lost it completely either. Besides, it wasn’t like she had much of a choice. She wasn’t beautiful, she wasn’t fair, she didn’t check any other boxes that men sought for in a wife, and then there were the children of course.
Her young son abandoned her about five years ago. He had dropped out of school when he turned eleven. That wasn’t such a big deal – she had half expected him to be thrown out anyway and so she made her peace with that soon enough. Sadly for her, he had inherited his father’s temperament as well. He got into the habit of baiting her and taking pleasure in her consequent tears. When he was twelve, he got into a violent argument with her uncle and ended up with welts on his thighs . When he turned fourteen, he hit her uncle back after returning home drunker than she had seen anyone else. Then one day, he just left. She didn’t bother searching for him. He was fifteen and he knew how to take care of himself. She just went to the temple and prayed that he wouldn’t die in a fight or kill someone and die in jail.
Her daughter, Saroja turned out much better. She studied reasonably well, at least till the time she was in school. When she was eleven or twelve she dropped out too, to help with the household. Varalakshmi’s uncle lost his job that year and to compound matters developed a permanent limp after an accident. They could barely make ends meet with Varalakshmi’s earnings and though she took up work at a couple of more households, it wasn’t enough to keep her daughter in school. We knew all this because Varalakshmi told my wife one day that she had named her daughter Saroja after a yesteryear Tamil actress. My wife had said “aah, how lovely” and asked to know more about her daughter. Later when she asked me who Saroja was, I told her it probably was the actress Saroja Devi – I pointed her to the wikipedia page and told her that she could read all about her there. I hadn’t known she was a Kannadiga till I did read the Wikipedia entry. Sometimes I wonder if there are any Tamil heroines who are Tamil.
So Saroja had dropped out of school and helped her mom by taking up a part-time job at a local supermarket. Sometimes she also helped Varalakshmi with her work – cleaning the rooms, usually. Varalakshmi never allowed Saroja to wash the dishes in her employer’s house nor would she let her wash their clothes. She had some religious explanation to that though I like to think it was just her own little way of caring for her daughter. I met Saroja on a couple of occasions that she had come to our house to clean the rooms when Varalakshmi was unwell, and she had struck me as someone who missed her studies.
When her daughter turned sixteen, Varalakshmi took a few days off to go to her native village – to attend a function is what she told my wife. She came back with sweets and smiling so broadly I felt compelled to pull her leg – “Enna Varalakshmi, lottery adichadha?” She blushed before letting us in on the good news – her daughter’s engagement had been fixed to someone from the village – good family, good government job, she told us. I remember us being shocked though we really shouldn’t have been, come to think of it – so many girls do get married at sixteen after all. I suppose it’s just that we had known Saroja, albeit rather briefly and it was hard to imagine her being anything more than a school girl who unfortunately couldn’t go to school. When my wife asked her if it wasn’t too soon, Varalakshmi just said, “If I were to wait another two years, some local goon will chase her and she will lose her heart and body to a worthless scoundrel”. She added a crude Tamil phrase for emphasis which left me feeling all squeamish. But her point about the worthless scoundrel was no doubt quite true. So we congratulated her and didn’t question her further her on the why of it.
After her daughter left her, for the first time in her life, she was finally alone with the man in her life. For a brief while, she had been happier than any person I know has ever been. She coerced her uncle into taking her to Mysore – besides her annual trips to her native village, this was her first vacation she told us, though there was some vague memory of something like a vacation when she was eight years old that made her confess, “no, it’s probably my second one”. They stayed three nights at Mysore and she came back with many memories that she recounted to my wife every other day for three months. After three months, things fell back into a pattern. She was still happy, but it wasn’t the happiness of those three months anymore. Varalakshmi lived alone with her uncle for a full year before his injury.
Her uncle was a fair man, she often said in those happy days. She would tell my wife, “Yes, he had asked me to move in with him for the cooking and the you know what. But he kept his word – in all those years, he only hit me three times. Maybe five.”
Two months ago, she told us that she was considering going back to her village to live with her daughter’s family. We thought that was best for her. Last week, she told us she wasn’t going to. Her daughter’s family had asked her to come there for vacations whenever she wanted to.
I sometimes think about what she told me when I had asked about her uncle’s age – “Oh, he was quite old”. She must be barely forty, but she is now an abandoned grandmother.
Age isn’t a number.
Short story I submitted to Deccan Herald more than a month ago. I had originally written this as the final assignment for the writing course I took, but it so happened the day I finished it was the last day for DH’s short story contest. So, I added a little more detail (DH had a word limit that was twice that of my assignment) and sent it across to DH. No idea if they received it as I never got a response. The contest results aren’t out in any case.
Little Diya startled us awake at some ungodly hour; it was pitch black outside, but the dim glow of the light in the corridor, sneaking in through the barely open bathroom door, moderated the darkness in the room. We blinked once, then twice, but it was a full minute before we were able to orient ourselves. In any case, it was not the momentary blindness that had us worried. It was Little Diya’s frightened voice – “the dogs, the dogs – go away, go away!” she had screamed. That was what had startled me awake. Naina was probably awake anyway – if I knew my wife, she must have felt the nightmare even before she heard the scream. It was the most natural thing for Naina to gently feel Diya every hour or so – checking if she was on the bed, was she sweating, was she still under the blanket or if the blanket had fallen away down to the floor. My friends have told me their wives are the same – a maternal instinct that we men, fortunately, do not encounter, and therefore sleep soundly; some of us, loudly as well.
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