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The mother i never knew, p.10
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.10

           Sudha Murty
 
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  ‘What’s the approximate value of the remaining assets?’

  Mr Joshi was a seasoned lawyer. He answered tactfully, ‘You used to help him with the business, Satish. You should have a better idea.’

  Mukesh wondered out loud, ‘Why did Appa leave so much for me?’

  Mr Joshi realized that it was time to give the family some space. He stood up, ‘Money matters are always complex. It is better to resolve them calmly. The four of you need to sit down and discuss this as a family.’ He turned to Mukesh and said, ‘Munna, I need the power of attorney document from your Dad’s files to settle some of these matters. Call me after you have located it.’

  ‘Okay, Uncle.’

  After he had left, Mukesh asked his sister, ‘Neeru, do you know where we should look? I don’t know where Appa kept his legal papers.’

  Sumati replied absent-mindedly, ‘All his important papers are inside the old safe in the study upstairs.’

  When Rao Saheb was alive, nobody was allowed to touch the old-fashioned safe that was originally purchased in Delhi. It was his first purchase when he was branching out on his own. He had remained attached to it and considered it lucky for business.

  Neeraja went to her father’s study on the second floor and Mukesh headed to his bedroom wondering why Appa had been partial to him. Was it because he was a boy? He shrugged off the thought instantly, knowing very well that that was not the case. Maybe if he gave some of his assets to Neeraja, it would appease Satish and things could go back to normal.

  Mukesh dozed off.

  He awoke with a start to the sound of sobbing coming from his mother’s room. He ran there and found Neeraja and Amma crying on the bed. Satish was standing and looking upset while holding a picture in his hand. Mukesh knew why his brother-in-law was hurt—Satish thought that Appa had divided the assets unfairly. Gently, Mukesh told him, ‘Neeru and I are family and it doesn’t matter who gets more. I’ll give half of whatever Appa gave me to Neeru. Let’s not inconvenience Amma in any way.’

  Satish retorted, ‘Actually, these assets don’t even belong to you. You’re not a part of this family.’

  ‘How can you say such a thing?’

  ‘You are not Neeru’s real brother,’ Satish said slowly. ‘You were adopted by this family.’

  Mukesh was annoyed, ‘This isn’t the time to joke around.’

  ‘I’m not joking, Munna. Here, look at this.’

  Satish shoved the photograph he was holding into Mukesh’s hand. It was an old black-and-white picture of Neeraja and Mukesh sitting on two stools. There was a vase on the left and a curtain painted with waterfalls in the background. Mukesh said, ‘I admit that I haven’t seen this picture before, but what’s so special about it?’

  His brother-in-law observed, ‘Neeru is wearing a new skirt and blouse and you are wearing a very, very old T-shirt and shorts.’

  ‘So? What’s wrong with that?’

  ‘Look behind the picture.’

  Mukesh turned the picture around and saw a handwritten date at the back—‘2 February 1980, Picture Palace, Jalna, Maharashtra’.

  Immediately, Satish started asking him questions like the lawyer that he was. ‘Munna, Neeru’s birthday is on 31 December. Can you tell me the year of her birth?’

  ‘1977.’

  ‘And yours?’

  ‘I am two years younger than her,’ replied Mukesh.

  ‘Give me the exact date, please.’

  ‘1 January 1980. I remember because Appa and Amma celebrated Neeru’s birthday and mine together at midnight on New Year’s Eve. But Amma also celebrated my birthday on Buddha Purnima. Why are you bringing this up now?’ Mukesh asked sadly.

  ‘Munna, if you were born in the same year that this picture was taken, you should have been one month old in this photograph. Tell me, do you look like a newborn here?’ Satish’s voice was victorious.

  Mukesh stared at the picture. Satish was right. Both Neeraja and he appeared to be two years old—almost the same age.

  Satish continued, ‘If we consider this picture to be factually correct, then the two of you must be twins. But you aren’t, are you? Neeru has a birth certificate that says that she was born in Vani Vilas Hospital in Bangalore. What about you?’

  ‘Amma told me that I was born at home. She knows my date of birth.’ Mukesh turned to Neeraja and asked, ‘Akka, where did you find this photograph that’s threatening to ruin our relationship?’

  Satish smiled. He had made his point.

  4

  The Shattering Secret

  When Neeraja had entered her father’s second-floor study earlier, she had opened the safe but had not found the power of attorney document inside. She had thought of calling out to Mukesh to come and help her look in the cupboards, but then had decided against it. She felt sorry for her brother because he was going to have to travel soon and take a long flight back to London. After a twenty-minute search with no luck, she had gone back and looked at the safe again. She had stretched out her hand inside and to her surprise, had found the document and a small box at the back of the safe.

  Neeraja had kept the document aside and had curiously opened the box to find a small envelope that had turned yellow with age. She had peeked inside and pulled out a picture—a picture of Mukesh and herself. It was a rare childhood photograph that she had never seen before. Without even closing the safe, she had run down to show the picture to her mother. She had met her husband on the staircase and cried out in excitement, ‘Satish, look what I found inside the safe! It’s Munna and me. Don’t we look cute together? Amma and Appa must have forgotten about it.’

  Suddenly, she had remembered that she had left the safe open upstairs. She had told her husband, ‘Here, take this picture down and show it to Amma. I’ll close the safe and join the two of you in a minute.’

  Satish had nodded as Neeraja walked back upstairs. He had started climbing down the stairs while looking at the picture. In a flash, he had noticed that his wife and her brother looked like they were of the same age in the picture. Something was wrong. He had thought, ‘Neeru looks just like her mother—the curly hair and the straight nose are definitely from her. Munna is also tall like Rao Saheb but his features are very different. He has dark, soft and straight hair but Rao Saheb was completely bald. Still, it is difficult to tell from anyone’s external appearance. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.’

  Satish was a smart man and had realized that his mother-in-law would know the truth. He had gone to Sumati’s bedroom and stood near the door. Absent-mindedly, he had noticed the photos on her dressing table—one of Mukesh’s marriage and the other of Neeraja’s and his.

  Sumati was formal with her son-in-law and had been surprised to see him at her door. She had stood up.

  He had come inside and asked her, ‘When was Munna born?’

  Neeraja had also come in a few seconds behind him.

  ‘You have been my son-in-law for the last five years now. You know when we celebrate Munna’s birthday,’ Sumati had said.

  ‘That’s why I’m asking you.’ Satish had held out the photograph. ‘You took this in Jalna.’

  Sumati had looked at the picture and felt the blood drain right out of her. She had turned pale and asked him, ‘Where did you find this?’

  Neeraja had replied, ‘It was tucked away at the back of Appa’s safe in an old envelope.’

  Satish had interrupted, ‘Amma, Neeru’s future depends on this. Is Munna not your son? Or is Neeru really not your biological daughter?’

  Sumati had not responded.

  Neeraja, taken aback, had started crying, ‘Am I not your daughter? Tell me, Amma!’

  Sumati had still not answered the question. She had also begun sobbing. Their cries had woken up Mukesh, who had then walked into the bedroom and found his mother and sister crying on the bed.

  *
<
br />   Sumati felt exhausted. After a few deep breaths, she said, ‘Neeru is my daughter and Munna is my adopted son. I love him more than my life itself.’

  Satish smirked. Neeraja could not believe her ears while Mukesh felt like the earth had just opened up and swallowed him whole.

  A few minutes passed and the world seemed to be at a standstill.

  Satish left the room. Mukesh stared at the cowshed outside the window. A calf was drinking its mother’s milk. Amma was crying. Slowly, he went near her and sat in front of her on the floor. ‘Amma, tell me that this is a lie and that you’re playing a prank,’ he said.

  Sumati did not reply but placed a hand on his head.

  ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ Mukesh asked.

  ‘Munna, we both loved you like you were our own. So there was no reason for us to tell you.’

  ‘But Appa shared almost everything with me. He was one of my best friends. Why did he hide this from me?’

  ‘Munna, Appa wanted to tell you many times but I stopped him from doing so. Before he went into a coma, he called out your name. He must have felt that you should know what had happened.’

  Mukesh was a little upset, ‘Why didn’t you let him tell me the truth?’

  ‘Because of fear. I was scared, Munna. I’d heard from many people that once a child learns that he is adopted, he goes in search of his biological parents and forgets about everyone else. I was scared that you’d leave and forget about me, too. What would I do then?’

  ‘Amma, where did you find me—in an orphanage or in a dustbin?’

  Sumati shook her head, ‘No, not from an orphanage, beta. Neither did we find you in a dustbin. Your mother gave you to me.’

  ‘Who is she? And where is she?’

  ‘Her name is Rupinder Kaur and she lives in Amritsar.’

  ‘Amma, why did she give me away? Am I a sardar?’

  She sighed, ‘It’s a long story.’

  *

  Sumati recounted that Rao Saheb’s family was from a village near Kunigal, which was close to Bangalore. Krishna Rao had completed his tenth grade, but due to financial reasons, he could not study further and found a job as an ordinary clerk in the goods division in the railways. He had taken care of getting his seven sisters married since his father had passed away when he was very young. By the time it was his turn, nobody had wanted to give their daughter to a man who had nothing to offer his wife. Then someone had suggested Sumati’s name. She was an orphan who was living with her brother and his family and they were even poorer than Krishna Rao.

  Soon, they were married in a temple and lived happily in Bangalore. After fifteen months of marriage, Sumati became pregnant. At the time of delivery, she was rushed to the government hospital in Bangalore, where she gave birth to Neeru. Due to complications during the delivery, the doctor decided to do an emergency hysterectomy and remove her uterus. The couple felt very sad that they could not have more children, but they decided to not tell any of their relatives about the operation and to give their daughter the best life that they could. Later, when Krishna’s mother learnt that the newborn was a girl, she did not even come to see her grandchild despite being in the same city. Instead, she sent a message to Krishna and Sumati that they should have a baby boy the following year.

  After a few months, Krishna was transferred to Jalna, a railway junction in Maharashtra. The couple was very happy to leave Bangalore because of Krishna’s mother’s constant taunting. When they reached Jalna, Krishna was allotted a single-roomed house in the railway colony in front of the station.

  Sumati adjusted easily since she had learnt Hindi in school and settled into a routine very quickly.

  The only problem she had was that of procuring drinking water. The water came just for an hour very early in the morning and sometimes, she could not get up in time to fill the buckets. One day, her neighbour told her, ‘If you need water urgently, cross the road and go to the Sardarji’s big bungalow. The old lady in the house is a tough woman, but her daughter-in-law is nice and she will let you take some water from their well.’

  One day, Sumati had no water at home. Hesitantly, she approached the Sardarji’s house for the first time with Neeru in tow. She found a young woman cleaning the vessels at the back of the house. Sumati asked her timidly, ‘May I take a bucket of water from your well?’

  ‘Why are you feeling shy? Please come and take it,’ said the woman and pointed to the well which was a few feet away.

  Suddenly, Sumati heard an authoritative voice from the balcony, ‘Who is it, Rupinder?’

  ‘A woman from the railway colony has come with her child. She wants a bucket of water.’

  The old lady said in Punjabi, ‘Okay, give her water. You should never refuse someone asking for water. But tell her not to make it an everyday habit.’

  Sumati did not understand what was being said.

  Rupinder smiled and said in Hindi, ‘Please feel free to take water whenever you want.’

  While she was pulling the bucket of water out from the well, Neeru stood behind her mother holding the pallu of her sari.

  Rupinder asked, ‘Is she your daughter?’

  ‘Yes. Do you have children too?’

  ‘One son.’

  Just then, a young boy a little shorter than Neeru came out from the bushes with a piece of chapatti in his hand. Rupinder smiled, ‘He’s my son.’

  The boy felt awkward in front of the unexpected visitors and ran to his mother’s side. Neeru was holding a laddu in her hand and immediately went to him and gave him half of it. At first, the boy was hesitant to take it. Sumati encouraged him, ‘Take it, beta. She’s your akka.’

  ‘What does “akka” mean?’

  ‘In our language, it means elder sister,’ said Sumati. ‘What’s your name, beta?’

  ‘I am Munna,’ the boy said.

  Neeru repeated, ‘Munna.’

  *

  ‘Amma, I am that boy, am I not?’

  Mukesh’s voice brought Sumati back to the present, ‘Yes, Munna.’

  ‘Isn’t that why I call you Amma and Neeru Akka?’

  With tears in their eyes, Neeraja and Mukesh looked at each other. Satish would never understand the feelings of being together for a lifetime or the fond memories of their first meeting. Neeraja had shared her laddu with Munna and Munna had shared his chapatti with her.

  With a trembling hand and tears flowing down her cheeks, Neeraja went to her brother, held his hand and simply said, ‘Munna.’

  5

  For a Better Life

  In a short time, Neeru and Munna became inseparable.

  Rupinder and Munna came to Sumati’s house every afternoon, but Neeru never went to Munna’s house to play. Sometimes, Rupinder would leave Munna in Sumati’s house from morning till night. Frequently, he’d even sleep over and not go back to his house at all. He quickly learnt Kannada and started calling Sumati ‘Amma’ and Krishna ‘Appa’. Sumati’s obvious love and Krishna’s affection for Munna made Rupinder very happy and sad at the same time.

  Slowly, Sumati found out more about Rupinder. She was a hard-working girl from a poor family that lived in a village on the border of Haryana and Punjab. When she was very young, she was married to Surinder—a school dropout and a short-tempered man who was completely controlled by his mother. She made Rupinder work like a servant all day. Surinder’s family was a big and rich joint family in Jalna. Everybody stayed together in a huge house and worked in the family business.

  Within a year of her marriage, the joint family opted to separate and Surinder decided to start a car workshop along with his brother. A few months later, Munna was born, just before the opening of the shop. He had a dark patch on his right foot and Surinder’s mother was convinced that it was a bad omen. As if to prove her correct, the workshop did not do well. The mother-in-law started ignoring Munn
a completely and only paid attention to Surinder’s brother’s children. Even as a child, Munna felt the rejection and preferred to stay in Sumati’s house.

  Months passed. The family decided to sell the bungalow and go to Amritsar to try their luck there. Rupinder started crying as she told Sumati about the family’s plans. Sumati consoled her, ‘Rupinder, please don’t cry. We too are transferred every two or three years due to my husband’s job in the railways. You will find good friends everywhere because you are a nice lady. At the very least, you will be closer to your maternal home and can visit your parents often.’

  Rupinder replied, ‘That’s not the problem. My problem is that my mother-in-law doesn’t want Munna to come with us to Amritsar. She says that he’ll bring bad luck to the family over there too. She wants me to send him to my parents’ house in the village. My parents are old and poor and if Munna lives there, he won’t get a good education and will end up becoming a labourer or something like that when he grows up. My husband doesn’t listen to me either. I don’t know what to do.’

  Sumati did not have an answer, but she could understand the mindset of the older generation. Her own mother-in-law had refused to come to Jalna to meet Neeru though they had requested her several times and even sent her a railway pass. Sumati sympathized with Rupinder. The poor woman had no support from her maternal home, no money, no power, and a useless husband. The only positive thing in her life was her love for her son.

  Rupinder stood up to go home but Munna was sleeping next to Neeru under an old bedsheet. She was about to lift him and carry him home when Sumati said, ‘Let him sleep here tonight. God knows how much longer you’ll be here. Let them enjoy each other’s company till then.’

  The next day, Sumati found three rupees while she was cleaning the house. She was very happy to find some extra cash. She thought about taking Munna and Neeru’s picture in the reasonably priced and popular photo studio called Picture Palace, before Rupinder departed from Jalna. Enthusiastically, she shared her plan with Rupinder and asked for her permission: ‘I want to take the kids to the city for a photograph. They can keep it as a souvenir of the time they’ve spent together.’

 
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