House of Cards: A Novel, p.1Sudha Murty
HOUSE OF CARDS
About the Author
Also by the Same Author
1. The Village
2. Young Dreams
3. The Beautiful Thief
6. A Second Chance
7. Generation Gap
8. The Strings of Love
10. The In-Laws
12. Different Values
13. The Fall of Idealism
14. Family Visits
16. The Decision
17. The Beginning of the End
18. Money Brings Changes
19. A Silver Spoon
20. The Ways of the World
21. Shades of Grey
22. Sweet Revenge
23. A House of Cards
24. The Silent Cry
26. Learning to Survive
27. Things Fall Apart
28. Growing Pains
HOUSE OF CARDS
Sudha Murty was born in 1950 in Shiggaon in north Karnataka. She did her MTech in computer science, and is now the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. A prolific writer in English and Kannada, she has written novels, technical books, travelogues, collections of short stories and non-fiction pieces, and four books for children. Her books have been translated into all the major Indian languages.
Sudha Murty was the recipient of the R.K. Narayan Award for Literature and the Padma Shri in 2006, and the Attimabbe Award from the government of Karnataka for excellence in Kannada literature in 2011.
ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Gently Falls the Bakula
Wise and Otherwise
The Old Man and His God
The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk
How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories
The Magic Drum and Other Favourite Stories
The Bird with Golden Wings: Stories of Wit and Magic
Grandma’s Bag of Stories
To all the Mridulas who suffer silently
There was a small village in north Karnataka with a population of five to eight thousand. It boasted of a beautiful lake with a temple of Lord Hanuman on its shore. The area was dotted with banyan trees. In Kannada, a banyan tree is called ‘aladamara’ and ‘halli’ means village, so the village was named Aladahalli.
Aladahalli had only one main road, with houses on either side, and a bus stand right in the middle of the village. Most people who were from here preferred to stay on and commute for work to the cities nearby: Hubli and Dharwad. The advantages of staying in Aladahalli were a laid-back life, less noise and almost no pollution. The greatest attraction though was the school, which was on a par with any city school, and where the medium of instruction was both English and Kannada. Just like in city schools, the students got a rank based on their merit. Bheemanna’s daughter, Mridula, was among the top students in her class and was known for her intelligence.
Bheemanna’s family was rich and owned a lot of fertile land. His ancestral house was very old and large. The green backyard was filled with varieties of plants and vegetables. There were jasmine creepers in the backyard; Mridula had long, dark hair and would not step out of the house without a string of flowers in it.
Bheemanna’s wife, Rukuma Bai or Rukmini, was from a neighbouring village. She was quite different from Bheemanna and talked less than her husband. They had two children, Krishna and Mridula.
When Krishna was born, Bheemanna had wanted to name his son Hanuman but Rukuma Bai had insisted on calling him Krishna. After a while, Bheemanna had lost to his wife’s iron will and started calling him Krishna too. But when Mridula came along three years later, he put his foot down. He had once read a novel in which the name of the main character was Mridula. He liked the name since it was uncommon in this part of Karnataka. So, Bheemanna insisted that his daughter be called by that name.
Little Mridula was a bright student. Rukuma Bai frequently told people that Mridula had inherited the smart genes from her side of the family. At such times, talkative Bheemanna usually stayed silent.
Young Mridula was sitting on the swing under the big banyan tree opposite the Hanuman temple. It was Ugadi time—the New Year festival for the Kannada people, celebrated in the month of February or March. Summer had just arrived. The mango trees sported soft reddish-green leaves and the cuckoos were making lovely coo-coo sounds. Everyone in the village was busy preparing for the festival. Yet, there was a pin-drop silence near the temple.
But for Mridula, nothing mattered. She was swinging without any bondage and with a free mind. From the swing, she could see her house. She was happy.
Mridula was not like everybody, she was different. She had enormous enthusiasm for life and unlimited energy for reading, cooking and sketching. She wanted to spend every minute of the day fruitfully. It seemed that the sun rose for her and the rainbow colours were meant only for her. Every day was to be lived to its fullest and every beautiful minute to be enjoyed.
Years passed. The family was content and happy. Bheemanna had added some basic modern amenities to his home.
Meanwhile, little Mridula had grown up and was excelling in school. She scored a rank in the tenth class. Her teachers insisted that she must study either medicine or engineering. But Mridula did not agree. Bheemanna did not take any decision just for the sake of status in society. He left the decision to Mridula and she insisted on becoming a teacher. But Rukuma Bai was hesitant. Her brother Satyabodha was a bank officer in Hubli. His daughter, Sarla, was six months older than Mridula and not as intelligent. But even Sarla preferred to study engineering in Hubli. Bheemanna advised Rukuma, ‘Times have changed. We can’t tell children that you should become a lawyer or a doctor or marry a person of our choice. Education and marriage should be according to our children’s wishes because these are for ever. After all, it is their life and they have the right to follow their heart and make decisions by themselves.’
Bheemanna always bent the rules when it came to Mridula. She was his life. When people asked Mridula whether she was her mother’s or father’s favourite, she said, ‘I am Amma’s girl—and Appa’s world.’
Mridula remembered a conversation she had had with her father when she was a child. When an animal in the village fell sick, her father immediately took medicine made from the plants in his garden and treated the animal, without waiting for the animal’s owner to call him. After the treatment, Bheemanna was given a bowl of rice and jaggery and five one-rupee coins as his fee. He never kept the fee from treating animals for himself. He would offer the coins to Lord Hanuman and say, ‘Mridula, grind all the rice, jaggery and coconut together. Then, add some ghee and give it to the cows. It is good for them.’
As she went about her task, her father would ask her, ‘Do you know why God has given the power of speech to humans and not to animals?’
Mridula would childishly reply, ‘To talk.’
‘No, child. Not just to talk. It is also to share. So, whenever you face difficulty or you receive joy, you must share it with others. But think of all the animals—those poor things can’t even share their difficulty with anyone. They have to bear it alone. Mridula, remember—you must always be open. Don’t hide. Hiding is a sin.’
She grew up in such a friendly and honest atmosphere that she became outgoing and helpful—just like her father.
With her parents’ support, Mridula travelled every day to teacher-training classes in Hubli and graduated with a top rank. She quickly got a government job in the village high school. Unlike Mridula, Krishna took a long time to finish his degree. Then he decided to look after the family farms instead of getting a job.
Bheemanna was happy about this decision because it gave him more time for social work. As a result, these days he was seen consulting with others in matters like marriage alliances, in mourning houses and even panchayat talks.
Soon, Rukuma started worrying about Mridula’s marriage. One day, she said, ‘Mridula is twenty-two years old. My brother is already trying to find a boy for Sarla. The good thing is that they live in a big town. Many good grooms come to Hubli in search for suitable brides. But nobody knows that our girl is here in Aladahalli. Please stop being lazy and find someone suitable.’
Bheemanna laughed at her. ‘Your niece Sarla has many hurdles to cross. She isn’t pretty and only wants to marry a boy who lives abroad. But there aren’t any such conditions for Mridula. Our daughter is beautiful. Arjun Sa predicted that the groom will come to our house seeking her hand in marriage.’
Arjun Sa Badni was a famous astrologer in Hubli. On hearing Bheemanna’s response, Rukuma took the vessel that was in her hand and smashed it down on the floor in anger. ‘What else has your friend predicted?’
Bheemanna tried to console his angry wife: ‘Don’t bash the vessels. My grandmother had given us that one. Leave your work and listen to me, Rukuma. Badni says that her husband will become a prosperous man after marriage. You needn’t worry at all.’
‘How can you believe such predictions, and do nothing? It is our duty to search for someone nice for her. Will you marry her off to a beggar just because of his forecasts?’
‘Even if he is a beggar, she will fetch him all the riches.’ Bheemanna stood up and walked away to their neighbour’s house, knowing that that would end the dispute.
As expected, Rukuma forgot the disagreement a few minutes later and went to the garden to work.
Their neighbour, Champa Bai Kamitkar, was a seventy-year-old woman who stayed opposite Bheemanna’s house. She had a huge garden in her backyard with lots of flowers. Each plant was as precious as a child to her. Watering the plants and plucking the flowers took her three to four hours every day. Even though she grew so many flowers, she did not use even one for herself. She sent all of them to the other houses on the street.
Champa Bai’s husband had died long ago and they never had any children. So, she had adopted one of her nephews—Chandrakant. He studied in Aladahalli and then went to Dharwad to complete his high school. After that, he studied medicine in Bombay and went abroad. He returned after a few years and married a Bombay girl. Eventually, he started his own hospital and settled there.
Every now and then, Chandrakant asked his aunt to come and stay with him in Bombay but she refused consistently. ‘Chandru, Aladahalli is heaven to me. People here are easygoing. Our Bheemanna is like a son to me. I can’t stand the crowd in Bombay at this age.’
Champa Bai was fond of her sisters who lived in different cities. She travelled often to visit them. During these outings, Mridula took excellent care of her garden for her and, as a gesture of thanks, Champa Bai gave her the lion’s share of the flowers.
When Dr Sanjay heard the 6 p.m. bell in KEM Hospital in Bombay, he was rudely brought back to the real world. He remembered that he had to travel by train that evening. An introvert by nature, Sanjay was passionate about his work. It was his salvation; when he worked, he forgot everything else. He had missed lunch and dinner on many occasions as a result. But today, he was about to catch a train and couldn’t afford to miss it. He had requested his outpatient department’s Sister Indumati to remind him. And she had. Yet, he had forgotten. He immediately started scrubbing his hands so that he could finish up and leave.
Sister Indumati was the person closest to Dr Sanjay in Bombay. She was an elderly lady with grey hair. She smiled at Sanjay and showed her motherly anger: ‘Sanjay, at this rate, you won’t get to your own wedding at the right time and I will ensure that your bride marries someone else!’
In a lighter tone, she added, ‘I know you. So I sent your luggage with Dr Alex to the railway station. He said that the compartment number is A17. And now, you better run.’ Sanjay smiled back in gratitude and left quickly.
Dr Alexander was Sanjay’s colleague at the same hospital. He was dark, dynamic, popular, a smart dresser and an excellent speaker. Alex was from Goa and was taking the same train till Londa station to meet his aunt, and then he was going to Panaji.
Sanjay rushed to Bombay’s VT station. The platform was crowded. The people on the platform who had come to see others off were double the number of the actual passengers. Everybody was busy either waiting to get into the train or saying goodbye to their loved ones. With the train just about to leave, Sanjay ran faster than P.T. Usha to board a coach. He made it into the train just in time.
Breathlessly, he made his way into the right compartment and sat down in front of Alex. Sanjay looked around and was surprised to see only a few people. He realized that the reduced rush was because the schools had reopened after the summer vacation. As he was catching his breath, he thought about how people dealt with anxiety. They lived with it and tried their best to learn how to control it. He got busy with his own thoughts—like a snail encircling itself.
Alex lit a cigarette and asked, ‘Sanjay, why are you going to Hubli? You don’t usually travel much.’
A lady passenger sitting close to them did not like the cigarette smoke and covered her nose with a handkerchief. But Alex didn’t care; he continued smoking and talking to Sanjay.
Shyly, Sanjay replied, ‘My friend Santosh is getting married there.’
‘I don’t think you are going only for the purpose of attending a wedding, especially when you have a lot of work this week. Are you going to be the best man? Or do you have an appointment with a beautiful girl there?’ Alex joked.
‘Alex, we don’t have the concept of best man in our weddings. Santosh is my good friend but I haven’t met him in years because he is now settled in the Middle East.’
‘For how long will you be in Hubli? Why don’t you come to Goa? We’ll have fun.’
‘No, I can’t. I’ll only be in Hubli for a few days. Professor Jog has given me a package to deliver to someone who stays around the area.’
Dr Chandrakant Jog was a professor of gynaecology at GS Medical College and Sanjay was his assistant. Sanjay did not usually like to go to weddings but Santosh had helped him in his tough times.
The train picked up speed. The cool breeze hit Sanjay’s face. He was tired and leant against the backrest. He asked Alex, ‘Is there a special reason for you to go to Goa?’
‘Yes, I want to meet my parents and my girlfriend, Anita. I am going to the Middle East next month. I am not a sannyasi like you. Anita visits me even in my dreams.’
Sanjay was quiet. Then he said, ‘You have a good job here. Next year, you can get a postgraduate seat. What’s the point in going to the Middle East? Goa is a small state and has two medical colleges. After your post-graduation, you can get a job in either of them.’
‘Come on, Sanjay, who wants to be a professor? I want to earn a lot of money. If you want to earn money in a government job in India, then you have to be corrupt. But if I work hard for four years in the Middle East, come back and open a hospital here, I can mint money.’
Sanjay asked curiously, ‘Do you think that Anita will wait for you till your return?’
Alex smiled and turned his head towards the window.
The train had reached Karjat station. Alex called out to a vendor selling batata vadas. The young boy claimed that the vad
‘In that case, take my employer’s head. It’s always hot. But for now, give me five rupees.’
Alex laughed and gave the young boy money; but Sanjay became serious. He was thinking about the poor boy’s helplessness. The train started moving again and the smell of batata vadas was all over the compartment.
Soon, it was time for dinner. Two railway canteen boys took their order. Alex ordered a non-vegetarian thali for himself and a vegetarian thali for Sanjay. Sanjay felt ignored. Alex had not replied to his question about Anita. Maybe he should not have asked him such a personal question. Suddenly, Alex said, ‘Anita will wait for a maximum of one year. I have told her not to wait for me more than that. We should be practical. If we become too emotional, it is difficult to lead a happy life.’
‘Where did you meet Anita?’
‘I met her at the Mapusa Church. I was the best man in my friend Marx’s wedding and Anita was the maid of honour. That was the first time I saw her. Then I met her again at a New Year’s ball. Thanks to the Goan Catholic society, there were many occasions for us to meet and we became good friends very quickly.’
‘Is she from Goa, too?’
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