The Mother I Never Knew, p.1Sudha Murty
The Mother I Never Knew
About the Author
Also by the same author
A Difference of Opinion
A New City
A Case of Mistaken Identity
A New Life
Uncovering the Past
Seeking the Truth
A Meeting with the Past
A Father’s Debt
The Shattering Secret
For a Better Life
A Son’s Right
Be Careful What You Wish For
The Innocence of Love
A Journey Continued
The Final Stop
What Matters in the End
THE MOTHER I NEVER KNEW
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-fictional 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
House of Cards
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 my friend Lakshmi
for always giving me the right perspective through our
Venkatesh was terribly upset when he found out that he had been transferred to Hubli. He didn’t know what he was going to do about it. Absent-mindedly, he started driving towards his house in Jayanagar.
He had known that his transfer was due at the bank, and he would not have minded going to a place nearby like Kanakapura, Kolar or Mysore. But Hubli? It seemed so unfamiliar and distant. The end of summer was pleasantly warm in Bangalore. Who knew how it was in Hubli?
‘Maybe I should listen to my colleagues,’ he thought. Venkatesh knew that he did not really need a job. His family was healthy and financially sound. His co-workers often remarked that had they been in his shoes, they would have opted for voluntary retirement, but Venkatesh did not like to be idle. His wife, Shanta, ran the house very efficiently and handled the family finances better than an investment banker. So there was nothing for him to do at home either. He was just ‘Madam’s husband’ to the household help who knew that he had no say in any matter.
When he reached home, Shanta was on her way out. He guessed from the fancy clothes that she had a programme at the Ladies’ Club. She was proud to be president there. Besides that, she was a member of the college committee and vice president of the school committee while being an active investor in the stock market. She was scarcely at home, and when she was, she was permanently on the phone or the laptop.
Their daughter, Gauri, would often chide her mother, ‘Amma, please take your business outside. Your unending telephone calls disturb my study time.’
It always made Shanta angry.
When Venkatesh saw his wife today, he noticed that she had coloured her hair, got a facial and applied make-up. Yet, the lines of age showed distinctly on her face and hands. She was an unabashed show-off and was particularly conscious of her appearance; she was wearing a new white sari with diamond earrings, along with diamond bangles and a diamond necklace. It must be a special occasion to call forth the services of so many diamonds at once, he thought.
Shanta’s sharp voice cut through his thoughts, ‘I have to see Appa on my way back from the event. Amma isn’t feeling very well either. So I’m going to be late. Don’t wait for me at dinner.’
She left without waiting for a reply.
Shanta’s parents lived nearby in Jayanagar. Though she had asked them to come and live with her, they had not agreed and were adamant about staying at their own place. Her mother had said, ‘It is not proper to stay with the son-in-law. If we continue staying in our house, we can keep a distance and be close to you at the same time.’
Shanta had relented but visited them at least once every day despite her busy schedule.
Venkatesh lay down on the sofa. When Gauri came downstairs a few minutes later, she found him deep in thought. She was immediately concerned, ‘What’s wrong, Anna? Are you feeling unwell?’
He looked at his daughter. Gauri was tall, thin, dusky and attractive. She was a quiet and intelligent girl and Venkatesh loved her with all his heart. ‘Gauri, I have been transferred to Hubli,’ he said, his voice full of despair.
‘So what? Why are you upset? Hubli is not far. If you leave at night, you’ll be there by morning. Cheer up, Anna, cheer up.’ Gauri was an eternal optimist; she could make anyone feel better.
‘You don’t understand. I may have to set up house there. The place is new to me and I don’t know when I’ll be transferred back here . . .’
‘Anna, there are two solutions to your problem,’ Gauri interrupted. ‘You can ask Amma to use her connections and get the transfer cancelled; or you can go there, stay for a year and try to come back after that.’
Venkatesh did not want to cancel the transfer through unofficial channels. Besides, he knew what his business-minded wife would say: ‘Why do you work for such a meagre salary? My manager is paid more than you. Ask for voluntary retirement and relax at home.’
Shanta spoke little, and was always to the point. Sometimes it seemed that she was devoid of all feeling. Her lack of emotion may have been of great help in her business, but how could anyone live life like that?
Venkatesh was feeling hot and decided to shower for the second time in the day. His house was fully equipped with modern amenities—thanks to Shanta and their older child, Ravi. Though Ravi had been young during the construction of the house, he had sat down and discussed everything with his mother.
Ravi was now in America. He had foreseen the business possibilities in computers and majored in computer science. After his engineering studies, he had immediately found a software job and the company had sent him to the USA. He called his mother often to talk to her. ‘Times have changed, Amma. Who wants to stay in America permanently? I’ll work here for two years and then I’ll start my own company in India,’ he would say.
‘Yes, you must. Don’t be foolish like your father and accept an inconsequential job offer and stick to it. Fortune doesn’t tap on everyone’s door, you know. Only the courageous and aggressive win Lakshmi over,’ Shanta would advise her son.
While showering, Venkatesh hea
Shanta had tried hard to convince Gauri after her MBBS, ‘Gauri, babies are delivered twenty-four hours a day. You’ll never find the time to relax or do anything else. You have studied hard, and invested money and energy. But there is barely any return for the amount of work doctors must do. Listen to me and pursue a business course. If you understand the share business, you can earn many crores within a year with careful investments in the stock market . . .’
‘Amma, should I buy a cow just because I have a rope? I don’t understand or like the investment business at all. I want to continue studying medicine right now. I really like it,’ Gauri had said.
Shanta had turned to Ravi and grumbled, ‘This girl is downright idealistic; it’s because she’s got everything so easily. She doesn’t think about her future or how she will earn money. Instead, she misunderstands whatever I say. If I were also a dreamer like the father and the daughter, both Gauri and you would have been on the streets. Does she realize the effort and sacrifice behind all my achievements? She simply says whatever comes to her mind.’
‘Amma, you still don’t know what a problem she can be—just wait until she is married,’ Ravi had said, provoking his mother further.
‘Maybe. Or perhaps her father is supporting her secretly. Otherwise, how can she be so bold?’ Shanta had got furious at the thought. But she never expressed her wrath. Business had taught her a big lesson: she should never reveal her true feelings to anyone—not even to her daughter.
Unlike Shanta, Venkatesh was open with Gauri and they often had frank discussions. People frequently commented that in their family, the son took after the mother and the daughter after the father.
Venkatesh stepped out of the bathroom after his shower and donned a thin pyjama and kurta. He entered the dining room and found Gauri pouring watermelon juice into two glasses.
She looked up when he walked in, ‘Anna, you look tired. Do you want to eat something?’
Venkatesh smiled and shook his head.
‘Do you know why Amma was dressed up today?’ she asked.
‘I got the impression that there’s an event at the Ladies’ Club.’
‘Yes, there is an important meeting at the club this evening. But the interesting news is that Mrs Veena Purushottam is going to preside over it. You must have heard of her, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, I have. She’s one of the richest socialite Kannadigas in Bangalore and usually makes an appearance in high-profile meetings, functions and parties. But I don’t understand why it’s interesting news . . .’
‘Oh Anna, you’re such a simple person! Veena has a daughter of marriageable age. Her name is Priyanka—but most people call her Pinki. Amma is looking for a suitable match for Ravi and she thinks that Pinki is perfect. So she is trying to impress Veena.’
Venkatesh fell silent. He thought, ‘When it comes to Ravi, Shanta never thinks of asking for my opinion. It is better to discuss these things together as a family. While love marriage is a different matter, much forethought and conversation are necessary in arranged marriages. It is better to select the daughter-in-law from a stratum lower than the groom’s. If the girl is from a family richer than ours, then perhaps Ravi’s life may also turn out to be like mine.’
Venkatesh felt sad and for a few minutes, he was worried about his son. But almost instantly, he knew that Ravi could handle things better than he had.
Gauri read her father’s mind. ‘Anna, what are you thinking about? Is it Ravi? Please don’t worry about him. I promise you that whenever I get married, it’ll be according to your wish. I’m not saying that I’ll marry the boy you choose, but I’ll discuss it with you and I’ll obtain your consent. Ravi is different. Let Amma and Ravi decide about his marriage. Forget about it,’ she said.
She changed the subject, ‘Anna, you really don’t seem to be yourself today. Come, let’s go to Lalbagh for a walk. It’s not healthy for you to mope around at home and do nothing, especially in the evenings.’
Ever since he could remember, Venkatesh had taken Gauri for walks in Lalbagh. Today, she was the one taking him. Without giving him a chance to refuse, she brought the car keys and dragged him to the garage.
While reversing the car, Venkatesh looked at the family home. It was a beautiful house with a beautiful name—‘Anandita’. Built on almost ten thousand square feet of land, the house had a garden in the front with a long driveway that would allow at least three or four cars at a time. The flooring of the house was in marble. There were four bedrooms with attached toilets, teakwood doors,
ultra-modern facilities, and separate quarters for the domestic help; the Gurkha watchman took care of the garden, and Nanjappa and Chikkavva handled the household chores. Besides free accommodation and food, they were paid a monthly salary of seven thousand rupees each. They were content and went about their work happily, leaving nothing for Shanta to do.
Venkatesh knew that to any observer, their family would appear perfect. And yet, there was heaviness in his heart—something was definitely amiss.
A Difference of Opinion
As he drove to Lalbagh with Gauri sitting by his side, Venkatesh was drawn into the past and his marriage to Shanta.
His wife was the only child of her parents born after many, many years. Her parents, Suryanarayana Rao and Savitramma, had made special offerings to Lord Manjunatha of Dharmasthala and performed Naga Puja at Vidurashwatha before her mother finally conceived. Savitramma had wanted to name her daughter Nagalakshmi, but Rao decided to call her Shanta after his mother.
Suryanarayana’s employment in the government revenue department had several perks that surpassed his regular salary. Cereals, vegetables, oils and butter—everything was abundant and free. Government peons worked at his home and took care of the family’s needs. So Shanta grew up like a princess with her parents fulfilling all her demands. Her studies progressed and the family was transferred to bigger towns and cities until they finally ended up in Bangalore, where Shanta graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Maharani’s College.
In the old days, most government employees in Bangalore resided in areas like Basavanagudi, Gandhi Bazaar, NR Colony, Malleshwaram, Sriramapura and Rajajinagar. However, Suryanarayana had decided to rent a house in Chamrajpet and buy a site in Jayanagar, which was a developing suburb that was still largely a forested area. People told him that it was absolute foolishness to buy anything there, but Suryanarayana did not care and bought the site anyway.
Meanwhile, he also became a member of the Basavanagudi Club. It was there that he met J.M. Rao or JMR—a Class 1 officer in the Indian Railways. During his tenure in pre-Partition India, JMR had been transferred to different places in the country—along with the relocations came the freebies of being a Class 1 officer: free housing, multiple servants and free railway passes—before buying a home in Basavanagudi and settling down in Bangalore.
Shrewd Suryanarayana took an instant liking to JMR and his small family—an aged mother, a wife and a son, Venkatesh, of marriageable age. JMR’s mother Champakka was a loud-mouthed old woman who had become a widow when she was twenty. From that day on, she had lived solely for the sake of her son and he had become the centre of her life. A tough life had ensured that she was no less than a tigress protecting her cubs. Unlike her, JMR’s wife Indiramma was so quiet and submissive that
Suryanarayana thought, ‘Venkatesh has a good job at the State Bank of India here in Bangalore. If Shanta gets married to him, she will stay in the same city and we can see her frequently. Besides, Venkatesh is an only child and we won’t have to worry about sharing JMR’s inheritance later. Old Champakka is stubborn, I know, but she is already past eighty. How much longer can she live? Indiramma is quite dumb and Shanta can easily handle her. Yes, Venkatesh is a good match for my daughter.’
Suryanarayana developed a close friendship with JMR very quickly and broached the subject of marriage within a few months. Old Champakka immediately approved of Shanta because she too was the only child of rich parents. A grand wedding was held; nobody cared to ask Venkatesh or Indiramma for an opinion.
Suryanarayana was right about Champakka. Within a year of her grandson’s marriage, she breathed her last in her sleep. The captain of the ship was no more.
A few months later, Venkatesh was transferred to Mysore. That’s where Ravi was born. When the family returned to Bangalore a year later, Indiramma suddenly died of a heart attack. Soon after, JMR had a stroke that left him bedridden, paralysed and unable to speak. However, Shanta did not have to attend to him for more than a few months. Just as Suryanarayana had started to worry about Shanta’s fate in case the old man lived long in that condition, JMR too passed away. Thus, Shanta became the sole mistress of the house within three years of her marriage and Suryanarayana became the most senior member of the family.
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