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The mother i never knew, p.11
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.11

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Rupinder was in no mood to refuse. She had other things to worry about.

  That afternoon, Sumati and Krishna took the two children to the city. All of them felt excited when they walked into the studio. Krishna held Munna’s hand and Sumati held Neeru’s. When they inquired, they were told that the photo would cost two rupees. Sumati and Krishna had the children pose for the photograph. After the picture was taken, the four of them went out into the street and ate bhelpuri with the remaining money. It was a big treat for Neeru and Munna.

  When Sumati went back to drop Munna, Rupinder updated her, ‘This time, my husband’s family wants to start a grocery store in a large chowk in Amritsar near the Mata Lal Devi temple. They’ve located a corner site and think that a grocery shop there will be extremely profitable, especially since it is next to a school. We will live upstairs and open the shop downstairs.’

  Within a few months, the site was purchased and everything was finalized. The family was going to leave in a few days. But Rupinder was worried about her son and shared her thoughts with Sumati, ‘How can I leave Munna with my parents? They can’t take care of him and nobody is listening to me. I am ready to give him away to someone who will adopt him and keep him well, instead of sending him to that village. Murder and theft is rampant there and the children can’t study properly because of the bad environment. Munna won’t have a future without a good education.’

  Rupinder wept in despair.

  That night, Sumati talked to Krishna before going to bed, ‘You know that we can’t have another child. What do you think about us adopting Munna?’

  Krishna was surprised at her suggestion, ‘Why will they give their child to us? We are from a different community and culture. Besides, Rupinder may change her mind in a few days. Think about it: what future will Munna have in our house? We aren’t rich like Rupinder’s family.’

  Sumati countered, ‘We can educate him and treat him the way we treat Neeru. I know stitching very well. I am willing to make clothes at home and supplement the family income. But no matter what, we’ll give our best to both the kids. It’s better that he stays with us rather than becoming a coolie in a village far away. If you agree, I’ll talk to Rupinder about it. If she refuses, it’s the end of the matter anyway. But tell me, do you have any objection?’

  Krishna smiled, ‘You know how much I love Munna. I’ve never differentiated between Neeru and him.’

  Both of them had a restless night.

  In the morning, Krishna placed his hand affectionately on his wife’s shoulder, ‘Sumati, I support you wholeheartedly. Don’t ask me about this again. We’ve made the decision together. But I worry that once we have him, I won’t be able to give him up.’

  Sumati felt the tears welling up in her eyes.

  At noon, she went to Rupinder’s house and found her busy packing. Sumati told her directly, ‘I want to talk to you about something important. Come to my house when you can.’

  Without asking, Munna followed Sumati back to her home. When he saw Neeru, he squealed in delight and they started playing.

  Rupinder joined them half an hour later. She told Sumati, ‘We are leaving in two days.’

  ‘What have you decided about Munna?’

  ‘My husband says that if I don’t leave him in my parents’ home, we can leave him in a gurdwara orphanage.’ Rupinder almost broke down.

  ‘If you don’t mind, may I suggest something?’

  ‘Anything. Please tell me. I’m ready to do anything that’ll make Munna’s life better,’ pleaded Rupinder.

  ‘Can we adopt him?’

  Rupinder stared at her.

  Sumati repeated, ‘Can we please adopt him?’

  This time, Rupinder understood. ‘Are you sure? Have you asked your husband?’

  ‘Of course. We’ve taken this decision together. But we have one condition. After a few years have passed and Munna has settled down with us, you can’t take him away. It won’t be good for him and we won’t be able to let him go either.’

  Rupinder thought for a few minutes. ‘No, I won’t ask for him once he’s living with you.’

  ‘You may not ask, but your mother-in-law or husband may come back one day just because he’s a boy. They place a lot of importance on having a male heir.’

  ‘I’m sure that they won’t ask. Munna’s future is with me, not with them,’ she said firmly.

  ‘How can I believe you? Rupinder, please talk to everyone at home and then decide.’

  ‘Believe me, Sumati, they won’t look back at Munna once he is gone. I promise you and swear on Wahe Guru as a witness that we won’t come back for him. Not only that, I guarantee you that I won’t even visit him. It’ll be very hard for me, but I want Munna to have stability in his life. That’s more important.’ Rupinder paused. ‘But what will happen if you have another baby later? I know that you’ll take care of Munna well, but once you have your own boy, then things might change.’

  Sumati sighed, ‘I can’t have another child because I had a hysterectomy right after Neeru was born. Only my husband and I know about it.’

  Rupinder held her hand and sobbed, ‘Give him a good education and raise him to be a good human being. Knowing you, I’m sure that you will do that anyway.’ Though she was crying, Rupinder felt a sense of satisfaction and relief knowing that Munna would have a good future.

  Sumati said, ‘I pray to the Guru to give you strength. Do you want my husband to come and talk to your family about Munna?’

  ‘No, that’s not needed. They just want to be rid of him, you know that.’ She looked at Sumati. ‘But I want to keep Munna with me till the day we leave.’

  Sumati nodded.

  Rupinder took Munna and went home.

  Two days went past in a flash. The day Rupinder was leaving, she came to Sumati’s house carrying Munna in her arms. Her eyes were swollen and it looked like she’d been crying continuously. Munna was wearing new clothes and carrying a candy box and a new toy. He had no idea that this was the last time he was seeing his mother. He saw Neeru and scrambled down from his mother’s arms to play with her.

  ‘Sumati, today may be our last meeting. I don’t know whether I’m doing right or wrong, but I’m giving my dear baby to you. I have a bad mother-in-law, an alcoholic husband and a bickering family. Munna doesn’t have any future with us. It’s better that he stays with you.’

  Her friend nodded.

  Rupinder removed a gold chain from her neck and put it around Munna’s. She said, ‘Sumati, this is the only gift my parents gave me when I was married. I don’t have any money to give, but this must always be with Munna. Don’t ever tell him about me, unless it’s a matter of life and death.’

  Sumati gave her a hug, ‘Before you leave, tell me, what’s his date of birth?’

  ‘I don’t know the date, but he was born on Buddha Purnima a year and a half ago. On his birthday, please donate food to the poor, Sumati. That’s the only way to celebrate.’

  Sobbing, Rupinder turned and left the house.

  6

  A Son’s Right

  By the time the story was over, it was late at night. Sumati was exhausted and stressed. The thirty-year-old secret was finally out. She said, ‘Munna, now you know the whole truth.’

  Mukesh kept his head on her lap. He knew that she would not hide anything from him. The fear of losing her son and the promise that she had given Rupinder had stopped her from telling him. She had kept her promise and loved him like her own. She’d encouraged him to study further and supported him when he wanted to marry Vasanthi. How many parents did that much even for their biological children?

  ‘Amma, Appa and you have done so much for me. Otherwise, God alone knows where I might have been,’ Mukesh said.

  ‘Munna, your father loved you a lot. He used to call you our lucky star.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

/>   Sumati was thrown back into the past again.

  *

  Within a month of Rupinder leaving, Krishna was transferred to Delhi. Munna asked for his mother every day, but once the family relocated to Delhi, he became fascinated with the new surroundings and adjusted quickly. Krishna was not able to get a house in the railway colony since Delhi was a big and crowded city. So the family rented a small house on the outskirts.

  Life was difficult but Sumati was happy. Munna was not as tall as Neeru, so she told everyone that she had two children—a girl and a younger boy. Now, Sumati thought about introducing Munna to her parents-in-law’s family. She told her husband, ‘If we tell your family that we have adopted Munna, then whenever we visit Bangalore, there’s a chance of someone telling him that he’s not from our community or that he was adopted. Or maybe they’ll treat him differently from Neeru and he will figure it out on his own. Please let me do as I think is right.’

  Krishna did not really agree but allowed her to go ahead with her plan.

  Sumati wrote a letter to her parents-in-law and her brother telling them that she was six months pregnant. She knew that neither her sister-in-law nor Krishna’s mother would offer to come and help her in Delhi for the delivery or invite her to come and stay in Bangalore. She was right. After three months, she informed them that she had had a baby boy on 1 January 1980. When her mother-in-law learnt that she had a grandson, she wrote to Sumati blessing her and the child and thanking her for the continuation of the family name. Meanwhile, Sumati decided that she would not visit Bangalore for a few years.

  Unexpectedly, Krishna’s mother passed away in a few months and he had to go to Bangalore to perform her last rites. Krishna told his relatives that Sumati could not come because of their infant child. This is how their last connection with Bangalore was severed.

  Munna and Neeru grew up to be healthy toddlers under the close supervision of their parents.

  Now that Sumati had some time, she decided to buy a sewing machine and stitch clothes. However, they did not have any extra money or even gold jewellery that they could sell. One day, she told Krishna, ‘Please mortgage Munna’s gold chain and buy a sewing machine.’

  Krishna objected, ‘We can’t do that. The chain is Rupinder’s gift to her son and we have no right over it.’

  ‘I didn’t tell you to sell it—only to mortgage it.’

  ‘What will happen if we can’t pay back the mortgage? Then we will lose the chain, Sumati. It’s our responsibility.’

  Sumati was courageous and practical. She said confidently, ‘I’ll work hard to repay the mortgage money and get the chain back. I know how important Rupinder’s gift is.’

  Various moneylenders told Krishna, ‘We are willing to buy your chain for ten thousand rupees. Why don’t you sell it?’

  ‘No, Sir. This chain is given to my son with special blessings. We can’t sell it,’ Krishna said.

  He managed to mortgage the chain and Sumati bought a sewing machine. Munna performed the machine puja before his mother began stitching. Since their neighbourhood was a relatively poor one, Sumati kept her charges minimal—two rupees per blouse, one rupee per skirt, and so on. She herself went from door to door to collect the cloth material. She stitched the clothes on time and returned the remaining cloth. Her honesty and skill made her popular and she was able to get the chain back within a year.

  The next year, she mortgaged the chain again and repeated the process. The orders grew slowly but surely and within three years, she had three sewing machines and two helpers. Munna and Neeru also helped her with the household chores. She truly believed that Munna had brought luck to the family.

  Soon, the two children started going to school. On the first day of school, Sumati performed Saraswati Puja for them and registered their names. Since she did not know Munna’s real name, Krishna and she thought about it and agreed that Mukesh was a wonderful name because they were both fans of the singer Mukesh. Thus Munna was named Mukesh K. Rao and his date of birth became 1 January 1980, while his sister was registered as Neeraja K. Rao, born on 31 December 1977.

  Three years later, Krishna passed a departmental exam and became a commercial goods clerk in the railways. In this role, he met many traders from Delhi and other places. One of them was Keshav Lal, the transport manager of Vibhavari Garments in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market. The store exported garments to other nations and supplied bales of cloth to various parts of the country through the goods trains. Normally, whenever the consignment arrived or reached its destination, Krishna’s boss informed Lal, who immediately sent his employees to take delivery of the shipment. Every Diwali and New Year, Keshav Lal came to the railway goods division to give special gifts to Krishna’s boss and a few other senior people. Krishna usually got just a box of sweets.

  On a rare rainy day during winter, the consignment of Vibhavari Garments landed in Delhi a day earlier than scheduled and was stashed away in an open and unsecured yard. Krishna’s boss was on vacation so nobody made the call to Keshav Lal. Though it was not his responsibility, Krishna covered the goods with plastic sheets and called Lal, who came at once to take delivery. He was happy to see the consignment in perfect condition. With tears in his eyes, he said, ‘Mr Rao, I will never forget your help. If the consignment had been stolen or drenched, my company would have incurred huge losses and I would have lost my job. I am extremely grateful to you.’

  ‘It’s simply my duty,’ said Krishna.

  The next day, Keshav Lal came to Krishna’s house with a big box of mithai. In the veranda, he saw three sewing machines and some people busy stitching. Since he was in the cloth business, he sat down and checked the quality of the garments. When he met the couple, he said to Krishna, ‘Mr Rao, if your wife can supply clothes to us, I can give her some contract work at a decent rate. I’ve checked some of her work and it’s good.’

  Krishna turned to look at Sumati, who smiled and nodded, ‘I’ll try my best.’

  When Mukesh and Neeraja came back from school, they were very happy to see the big box of mithai.

  Slowly, Sumati increased the number of machines to five and the number of helpers to three. Eventually, she became the manager and the rest was history. Sumati’s business grew exponentially with each passing year. Krishna also took an interest in her business and began managing the administrative work and odd jobs. Within a few years, he resigned from his job and started Mukesh Exports.

  Time flew. The family bought a house in the esteemed Defence Colony. Sumati took her children to Bangalore by air and performed Mukesh’s thread ceremony there. She gave her sisters-in-law very expensive gifts.

  Soon, Krishna Rao learnt the tricks of the trade and started exporting heavily. He came to be known as Rao Saheb. The family expanded the business with a new factory in Bangalore and relocated there. Still, Rao Saheb and Sumati retained the Delhi office.

  *

  Listening to his mother, Mukesh finally understood his father’s will. Rao Saheb, being the man that he was, knew that Sumati and he were able to start the garments business because of the gold chain. But the chain was never theirs to begin with; it was always Mukesh’s. That’s why he had left the business to him. Rao Saheb could have willed at least half to Neeraja, but he did not.

  Mukesh recalled an incident when he had gone to his friend’s house for a sleepover many, many years ago. The next morning, he had taken the chain off before having a bath and forgotten it on the bathroom counter beside the sink. When he had come home, his mother had been busy telling somebody to make ten gold mangalsutras to donate for community marriages and had not noticed the missing chain.

  However, her eyes had gone to his neck during lunch that day and her face had instantly turned pale. ‘Munna, where’s the chain?’ she had demanded.

  ‘I think I left it in Rakesh’s house. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.’

  ‘Stop eating! Go and bring the ch
ain right now,’ she had ordered him.

  ‘Relax, Amma. It must be on the bathroom counter. It’s not going anywhere. I’ll call Rakesh and ask him to bring it to our house tomorrow,’ he had said.

  ‘No, call your friend and tell him to keep it ready. Go with the driver and pick it up immediately.’

  ‘You donate so much gold to make mangalsutras for poor women. My chain is worth only thirty thousand rupees. Then why are you so attached to this chain? Attachment is not good, Amma.’

  Sumati had snapped at him, ‘Munna, don’t talk to me about attachment. I am ordering you to go and get the chain right now.’

  Mukesh had been very upset and had left home to bring the chain back. Upon his return, he had given the chain to his mother and said angrily, ‘Rakesh laughed at me when I went there. He said that I was the son of a millionaire and that I came back only for the sake of a measly chain. Amma, I don’t want to wear it. If I lose it, then I’m afraid that you’ll get a heart attack.’

  At the time, Sumati had not said anything. She had simply held the chain in her hands and looked up at the goddess Lakshmi’s picture in their living room.

  Now, Mukesh knew why. The chain was a parting gift from his biological mother. Though she had looked after him for only a year and a half, she had given him life and breastfed him.

  He was disappointed, angry and sad. ‘How could my mother give me away to somebody just like that? Why didn’t she keep me?’

  His mind was not at rest. He felt completely alone and thought, ‘Who am I? Why was I born? My biological parents rejected me and gave me away to this family. Though they have treated me as their son, I am not really a part of them. The house, the cars, my education—they are all an obligation. I am an outsider.’

  Sumati came close and patted his head again and again, as if to reassure him.

  Mukesh remembered Vasanthi and wondered what she would say. ‘She’s a traditional girl. Will she accept me now? I am the son of a sardar. What will she think of me?’

 
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