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Voicing Silence 7

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tide - 27

Part - 27


The woman Padmaja spots in the far corner of the music hall looks familiar. The hair is the same as she remembers, only it has grown wispier and more threadbare in the intervening years. The woman wears a saree that seems to have been hastily draped like a giftwrapper that's too big for a small parcel - bunched up here, crumpled there. But did someone just refer to her as Dr. Gulati? Padmaja hears the woman's throaty laugh and that clears the last of her doubts about her identity. As if on cue, the woman too recognises Padmaja and quickly peels away to get closer.

“Padmaja! How are you dee?”, Sudha demands hugging her.

“Sudha, how are you? You're now Dr. Gulati?”

“Yes, Punjabi husband. Kept the name, lost the man. You look the same.”

Sudha is a professor of Anthropology at a University in Delhi and she is in town for a conference with her American friend Brad.

“Come visit me in Delhi, Padmaja. My project will be over soon and once Brad goes back...”

Seeing Padmaja's raised eyebrows, Sudha elaborates.

“It's not how you think it is, with me and Brad. I can't handle anything permanent, you know.” Her voice softens, her mind easing from the frenetic present to a distant past. “Padmaja, you are one of the few people who remember the old days, how things used to be. As I grow older, I find myself missing that. Come stay with me.”

There is a pleading earnestness in her eyes as she grips Padmaja with both hands. The screeching microphone signals the beginning of the concert. The friends exchange contact details, promise to stay in touch and settle into their places.

Padmaja sinks into the comfort of her seat and closes her eyes to the strains of the thambura.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”

Reluctantly, Padmaja opens her eyes to see a man - bright white cotton shirt, veshti crisply fresh, horn-rimmed glasses that subtly scream wealth - standing beside her.

“No, it's free.”

On stage, Sanjay Subramaniam begins his alaapanai in Kalyani. For once, everthing in that mercilessly shrill city is still.

-@-
(concluded)

Tide - 26

Part - 26


“When I was little, my mother used to talk about someone called Ammani athai”, Padmaja begins while attempting to reduce the volume on the car stereo. Saktivel deftly twists the dial to zero and in the hum of the car's airconditioner, Padmaja continues.

“Ammani athai was my mother's aunt who never married and lived with her brother - my mother's father and his family - until the day she died. Amma would bring up Ammani athai's name whenever she would tell us about the perils of not marrying young and the dangers of growing old lonely. My mother used to say that we all need to get married so we can grow old with someone.”

“We all fear that.”

Padmaja shook her head.

“You see, loneliness has nothing to do with being around people or not. My mother was wrong about Ammani athai. She was old but she was far from lonely.”

Padmaja turns the volume dial so car is filled with sounds from the radio.

“Doctor, if you can drop me off at the next bus stop, I should be able to reach home before it gets too dark. I hope you find the right saree for your daughter-in-law.”

(to be concluded)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tide - 25

Part - 25


“Let me do that”, he says taking the light bulb forcibly from her hands.

The light has blown a fuse that evening when Dr. Saktivel has dropped by at Padmaja's flat on his way back from a late meeting at the hospital where he is a consultant.

Padmaja drags a step ladder but Dr. Saktivel (“please call me Sakti, like everyone does”) insists that he is too tall for it and instead just raises himself on his tiptoes while trying to screw the bulb into the groove. The bulb slips out of his hands, landing on the floor into a thousand scatterings.

“Sorry, sorry, I'm much more trouble than help.”

Padmaja does her best to reassure him but he wouldn't be pacified. And in an attempt to redeem himself, he offers to fix the light bulb properly this time. He gingerly climbs on top of a dining chair (“Please listen, I don't need a step ladder. I'm too tall for it, really.”), holds its back to steady himself, stretches to his full height and inspects the job he has on hand. Padmaja passes him the light bulb from below which he now attempts to rotate into place.

“Can you turn the switch on?”

When the light glows, she can see his face glistening with satisfaction from a job well done. He lowers his tall frame gradually, bending his knees and feeling for the floor as steps down.

“How's that?”, he demands dusting his hands and pushing the chair back into place. The mobile phone rings. Seems his driver is back after filling up petrol in the car, he must leave now. Dr. Saktivel apologises again for the mess he has caused while Padmaja tells him to think nothing of it. He picks his way of the flat still littered with shards of broken glass bulb. 

Padmaja brings out the broom and dustpan and begins sweeping out the metallic crumbs from the floor. With her guest now gone, her shoulders slump, her jaw relaxes, her fists unclench, her lungs expand as she begins to breathe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tide - 24

Part - 24


They are sitting in an auditorium as it begins to fill up, soon it will be swarming. Good thing they were able to get in early and settle into the best seats.

“That there is Samyuktha's mother”, says Sanjana pointing out to a someone a couple of rows in front of them, adding quickly, “don't look, don't look, Amma. I don't want to be asking her how she is and then have to listen to all the details of her father-in-law's hernia operation.”.

“Remind me once again what's Tara's role in the play?”, asks Padmaja looking away as directed by her daughter.

“She's playing Soorpanakai. Guess who's got the prized role of Seethai? Yes, Samyuktha, of course.”

“I'd rather she was a feisty Soorpanakai than a placid Seethai, any day.”

Soon the bustle dims, the lights mute, the curtains heave and the musical commences. Tara has transformed herself as Ravana's fabled younger sister. With her hair unbound, her face tear streaked, Tara conveys the rage of one who had been mistreated. How could she know what it's like to have been insulted and undermined by a man? Has she been mining anger from another life? Her wound is raw and her pain real for all to see. She collapses on stage, her anger spent, her small body limp. The audience, still rooted in the moment remains frozen until a discreet cough from the headmistress breaks the spell to a huge clatter of applause.

Sanjana observes her mother joyous, her eyes shining with tears threatening to spill over.

“Amma, Tara has been telling me about someone called Dr. Vel-something. Would you like to invite him for dinner one day so I can meet him as well?”

Still clapping, Padmaja turns to look at her daughter. The tears are no longer restrained.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Tide - 23

Part- 23


Out of nowhere, a memory comes unbidden. Padmaja is newly-married and she is visiting a temple along with a clamour of uncles and aunts and their children. They were to travel eight hours in a dusty bus to reach a far out temple in a distant village where the ancestors once lived. All through the journey, Padmaja sits next to Sudha, a 16-year old girl from her husband's family. Sudha is a thin girl with clothes that seem to float around her. Her wiry, windblown hair defies any attempt to be subdued into a plait. Her face bears a scowl throughout the bus ride and when she smiles, her frown remains frozen while the lower half of her face thaws into mobility.

“I don't care for this trip, I just want to go home”, Sudha mutters as they ease out of the bus for a toilet break. The men stand with their backs to the bus, urinating luxuriously on a dilapidated wall as the women shuffle out quickly, looking for a semi-private space so they may squat quickly and discreetly.

“You think I want to be here? She dragged me along”, she says pointing to her mother emerging from a thicket not far from where they were crouching.

Not sure how to react to this confession, Padmaja laughs, “You're probably just feeling tired. I'm sure you don't mean that.”

“Of course, I mean it. I don't give a shit about this temple or that.”

The girl had sworn. Until then Padmaja had never heard anyone swear while in conversation with her. Hearing it spat out of a young girl's mouth like that seems odd and yet, honest, affirmative.

“What?”, asks Padmaja as if seeking clarification but wanting to hear the illicit thrill of a swear word again.

“I care a damn about this lot”, says Sudha pointing in the direction of the huddle heading for the bus. “Soon, I'll leave this godforsaken country, go abroad and do whatever the heck I want to.”

As they rise to their feet, stepping aside from their own puddles, smoothing their skirt and saree, Sudha nudges Padmaja with her elbow, “I bet half of them hate this bloody trip as well. They just don't dare admit to it.”

Emboldened by having been admitted into Sudha's circle of accomplices, Padmaja permits herself a singular thought: I don't either. But I have no choice.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Tide - 22

Part - 22

“How old were you when this photo was taken, paati?”

The school had been flooded and Tara was there to spend the day with her grandmother before being collected by her mother on her way back home.

“Let me see, it was taken a week after we got married...I was very young at that time.”

“You look so different then”

“It was a long, long time ago”

“Was yours an arranged marriage or a love marriage, paati?”

“We did not have anything called love marriage back then. It was only invented after people started watching movies.”

A long time ago, when Padmaja was a young girl but not quite a woman, an aunt had once remarked, “poor thing, at this rate he will have to be very blind to marry her” and her mother had laughed along with everyone else. Later that night, lying next to Padmaja, her mother had held her hand tight and whispered that she did not want to offend her aunt and not laugh at her jokes, especially since she had been so kind in lending them some money to tide over tough times. Some day, her mother promised, a wonderful prince with a moustache would come to marry her and then they will both laugh at her aunt.

Padmaja did not share her conviction. In the mirror she saw reflected a square jaw and eyebrows that knitted too closely together, even though she tried hard to maintain that look of surprise that kept them apart. At fifteen, she was the shortest of her friends and had still not grown breasts. She feigned indifference when her classmates talked of boys who had written love letters to them. She really did not need them, especially since they only served to distract her from what she was good at. And what she was good at was studies. Love and marriage was for those who did not have much else to do. Sometimes though, she wished that her mother would disagree with her and repeat the story about the prince with a moustache, but she never did.

“Let's be honest, Paddu”, Amma began one day some years later, and even before she had finished speaking, Padmaja instinctively knew what was going to be asked of her. Talking to her mother was like climbing a familiar flight of stairs in the dark, Padmaja could tell where the next step was going to be well before she got there. “This boy is from a good family and he does not seem very particular about how his wife should look. If he agrees to this match, I don't think you should protest too much. Remember, it may not happen again.”

So when it was announced that she was to marry, it surprised everyone, including Padmaja. It seemed like the story starring herself had already been written and now the pages were turning. So it must be, she reasoned. So it must be.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Tide - 21

Part - 21


“I was going to tell you that my car brokedown nearby. Then I thought that sounded feeble as an excuse, even to my own ears. Then I thought I'd tell you that I was just passing by and thought I'd drop in to see how you were. We are both well past that age of pretending, aren't we? Truth is, I have nothing to do today, so I just decided to knock on your door. Are you okay, Padmaja? I'm sorry if I disturbed you or something. I could always come back another time, you know.”

“No, no, not at all. Please do come in. That's my grand-daughter Tara. Say hello to Dr. Saktivel, Tara. Would you like some coffee, Dr.?”

Friday, December 07, 2012

Tide - 20

Part - 20

“Padma, you know the doctor you told me about? Dr. Velmurgan or something”

“You know very well what his name is, Kamakshi”

“I mean, Dr. Saktivel”

“Yes, what about him?”

“You know the knee pain I have been telling you about? It seems to have worsened this last week. Look, I can barely get to the door without wincing”

“You were absolutely fine till last night when we went walking around the block”

“It has gotten worse overnight, Padma, really. Why would I lie to you?”

“Yes, why would you lie to me?”

“So, will you take me to meet this Dr. Saktivel tomorrow? Before 9 am or after 11 am, preferably. It is Amavasai, auspicious day”

“He is a peadiatrician, Kamakshi”

“Oh, that's okay. He's still a doctor. Shall we go then?”

“No”


“Hello, Padma? It's only me, Kamakshi. Do you remember Jayalakshmi from D block, ground floor? Yes, the fat one with glasses. Yes, the same one whose daughter eloped with her tuition master. You know her, don't you? It seems her grandson has had persistent cough and cold for more than a month now. I told her that I know one of the best peadiatricians in the country. Do you think you can give me Dr. Saktivel's number so I can pass it on to her? No? Why not? No, no, you cannot give it to her yourself. Jaya is...Jaya is...sort of not in the country at the moment. She's gone to America to visit her son. Yes, she called me from America this morning and asked me for a paediatrician...hello? Padma? Padma? Can you hear me? Che! These telephone lines can't withstand even a tiny bit of rain. Wait, let me come around and knock on your door.”

--

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Tide - 19


Part - 19

Saktivel had married Srivalli, a girl chosen by his parents. They had had two sons who were now 32 and 30 respectively. When the children were just 9 and 7, their mother had met with an accident that took away her life instantly. The next two decades, Saktivel juggled his work with bringing up his boys – it helped that his parents were with him but the pain of losing his wife never really went away. It was only a couple of years ago, now that both his sons had families of their own, that he has started to look at his own life.

“I was surprised you asked me in for coffee”, he says, gathering crumbs with his finger tip from the small plate that had not long ago, held some biscuits.

Padmaja does not know what to say and instead bites into a large chunk of biscuit, nibbling which she wonders how to respond to the statement.

The conversation had progressed naturally up until that point. They had each in turn updated the other on their lives and those of their family members. Saktivel knew her brother Nandu had passed away in '91 and he seemed to have heard about her marriage, subsequent widowhood (what a god awful word!) and Sanjana too.

“I was pretty certain you had mistaken me for someone else, because if you had recognised me you would have turned around and walked away the minute you spotted me”, Saktivel continues unaware that that had precisely been Padmaja's intentions.

“I'm surprised Padmaja, that you agreed to meet me after what happened all those years ago.”

“Hmm? What? What happened all those years ago?”

“You know”, says Saktivel, “with the marriage proposal and everything.”

“Whose marriage proposal?”

“Mine.”

“And?”

“Yours.”

“Yours and mine? Marriage? To each other?”

“Why? Don't you remember? When I asked your mother if I could marry you. And she said that you were not interested.”

Seeing the look of utter incomprehension on Padmaja's face, Saktivel decides to elaborate. It turns out he had asked Padmaja's mother for her daughter's hand in marriage and after some days, the mother had conveyed to him that Padamaja did not see Saktivel as a husband but as a brother and had to politely decline his proposal.

“I never knew of your proposal, I'm so sorry”, says Padmaja when she can finally bring herself to speak. “Amma never told me anything about it.”

“But she insisted that...”

“It is possible that Amma didn't think we were a good match. You know our families...”

“I know, but your mother said that you couldn't see me as your husband.”

“I wouldn't have said that.”

“Did you think I would have been a good husband for you?”

Padmaja didn't seem to hear the question.

“Do you mean, all these years you've been thinking that I turned down your marriage proposal?”

For a while the only sound you could hear is the too-loud ticking of the clock. Eventually, Saktivel rises from the sofa scattering biscuit crumbs as he stands up.

“I'd better go now. Thank you for the coffee, Padmaja”

It's only when the door shuts behind Saktivel that Padmaja realises that she still doesn't have the pressure cooker valve. She would have to speak to Kamakshi now.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Tide - 18


Part - 18
When she is by herself, Padmaja does not bother cooking elaborate meals. Often it is just some rice and vegetable. But when Tara comes over, Padmaja brings out her big pressure cooker and the last time she cooked with it, the steam had escaped and it had burnt the bottom of the pan. She had needed a pressure cooker valve and she had gone down to the store to get a new one.

It was her idea of hell. Shopping for a pressure cooker valve in a shop like this one. She wants to stop each and every single one of them and ask them if they really, really needed what they had just bought. Like that slick young man in tight trousers and purple t-shirt. 'Thambi, do you have a big enough kitchen for that vaanali? What will you use it for? Who is it for? Can you cook?'. Or that elderly couple looking at the different models of mixies. Most likely on their way to America to help with their daughter's pregnancy and shopping for a mixie suitable for the American electrical system.

For a while she just stands there watching the crowds. This was a game Padmaja used to play as a kid. If she thought about something long enough, it would come true. And for that to happen, she would have to concentrate real hard and block everything else out of her mind. It has worked before, like when she was 11 and focussed all her efforts on her right big toe so it would hurt enough for her to develop a natural limp so she should skip school that day and miss the exams she dreaded. It worked briefly and her mother had almost been convinced of it until the pain wore off and Padmaja forgot to limp. Perhaps she should just turn around and go back home and not bother buying today. The cooker wasn't half bad as it is and she could always borrow Kamakshi's cooker, if she needed it.
But for that she would have to start talking normally again to Kamakshi and god knows what new troubles that might lead to.

Can Padmaja wish for a pressure valve to magic its way to her without her having to go through the whole tiresome shopping experience? And why is the strange looking man smiling at her from the far corner of the room? Could it be one of the fathers from the school from a long time ago? Good god, he is actually approaching Padmaja. Why is she still standing there instead of making a quick getaway which will save her the embarrassment of small talk?

"Padmaja?", he asks before she can bolt.

"Yes. And you are..."

"Sakthivel. I was your brother Nandu's classmate at medical college."

"Of course! Dr. Sakthivel. How are you?"

She remembered him as the tall one with a droopy moustache with a head full of springy hair. He had lost most of his hair and the few stray strands had been shaven clean. Luckily his teeth had held and in fact, they were in remarkable condition. What was wrong with her? Why can't she just say hello and good bye instead of wondering whether a long-lost acquaintance had had dental implants or if his teeth were his own.

Padmaja cannot explain what happens in the next few minutes. However hard she tries, she comes away looking weak and feeble and desperate. So she will state the mere facts to anyone who wants to know and leave it to them to draw their own conclusions.

Dr. Saktivel asks her if she is going home and she replies yes.
Dr. Saktivel asks her if she wants a lift home and she accepts.
Padmaja invites Dr. Saktivel to come inside for a cup of coffee and he accepts.