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The mother i never knew, p.12
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.12

           Sudha Murty
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  He wanted to call her and tell her everything. When he phoned her some time later, she asked him how things were going and advised him, ‘You’re the favourite child of the house. So you must take care of your mother and sister. Don’t worry about me. I am managing very well here. Come back after things are settled there.’

  ‘What mother? What sister?’ he wanted to say. They did not mean anything to him today, but he could not explain all this to her over the phone. He said goodbye and disconnected the call.

  A few days later, it was time for the eleventh-day ceremony. Mukesh was still disturbed by his newly revealed past. He did not know what he was going to do about it. The family pandit came for the rituals and said, ‘Munna, get ready. We need to complete the rituals on time because I have two other appointments today.’

  Satish ignored Mukesh and went to Sumati, who was standing next to her son. He asked her, ‘Tell me, Amma, what rituals should I do?’

  Satish was sending a clear message to Mukesh—he did not belong to this family. So what right did he have to do anything for Rao Saheb? Mukesh felt terrible. He wanted to perform his father’s rites, not because of the inheritance, but because he still felt like his parents’ son, even though the attachment was not biological. He cursed the moment when Neeraja had found the picture. Had that picture remained locked away, life would have gone on as usual.

  Mukesh told Sumati firmly, ‘Amma, I don’t want any money from Appa or you. At least, I know where I come from now. Akka and you can keep my share of the inheritance, but I want to perform Appa’s final rituals. It is my right and I will do it for Appa.’

  His mother smiled, ‘Who said that you aren’t going to perform them? Come, sit down. Let’s start the ceremony.’


  Be Careful What YouWish For

  After the rituals were completed, the pandit left and the house became quiet.

  Two days passed and things remained at a standstill. Sumati wanted Mukesh to move back to India and take charge of the property and the business. She did not trust Satish completely. But she also knew that her son’s heart was in the arts and history and he may not be able to handle a business. ‘Maybe he can appoint somebody else,’ she thought. But she was unable to talk to Mukesh about it because she knew that he was still reeling from the shock of finding out that he was adopted.

  However, her son’s thoughts were elsewhere. He planned to give his inheritance to Sumati and go back to London. She could decide what she wanted to do with it. It may be a little difficult for him to live with his limited salary, he thought, but he had been given a good education and that asset was the greatest of them all.

  But before returning to London, he wanted to find his biological mother. He was angry. Why had she abandoned him? The question troubled him over and over. Yes, it was very important for him to meet Rupinder. He started packing for Amritsar.

  Sumati entered his bedroom and saw that he was planning to leave. Tears glistened in her eyes, ‘Beta, where are you going? Don’t listen to anyone. Satish doesn’t know anything. We have built this company with love and hard work, and we did our best for Neeru and you even when there was no money. We love both of you. Appa’s will should be executed the way it is written. I am in agreement with his decision.’

  ‘That’s not what I care about, Amma. You are important to me but, right now, I must go to Amritsar and find Rupinder. I want to meet her.’

  Sumati was silent for a few minutes. Then she cried out, ‘Do you mean to say that you want to go to your real mother? Are you abandoning me, Munna?’

  ‘No, Amma, I’m not. I am just curious about her. Isn’t it natural? I promise you that I’ll meet her only once.’

  Sumati did not reply.

  ‘I need her address, Amma.’

  ‘I haven’t had any contact with her over the years but I remember what she had told me. Her family had opened a corner grocery store in a large chowk near the Mata temple. Her husband’s name was Surinder and his brother was Parminder.’ With a shaky voice she added, ‘Rupinder kept you for nine months inside of her. I know that I haven’t done that, but I love you as much as she did. She’s a fine lady, Munna. Don’t get upset with her. She was simply a victim of her unfortunate circumstances. I hope you will forgive her.’

  ‘I will,’ said Mukesh.

  Early next morning, he flew to Amritsar via Delhi. For the first time since he could remember, he was travelling in economy class. He’d always thought of Delhi as India’s capital but now it carried much more significance for him. It was the place where his father had started his business.

  It was Mukesh’s first visit to Amritsar and he checked in at a reasonably priced hotel. Usually, his father’s office took care of his itinerary but he wanted to take care of things on his own this time. Just before noon, he went to the Golden Temple and prayed there, ‘Please Wahe Guru, let me find peace during my journey here.’

  It was the beginning of summer and the weather was nice, but Mukesh did not even notice. He was wondering where he should start his search. Decades had passed since Sumati and Rupinder had parted. He took an autorickshaw and got off near the Mata Lal Devi temple. After he had walked around for a few minutes, he saw a chowk with a liquor shop at one corner, but there was no grocery store in sight. He entered the shop and found a middle-aged man sitting inside. As soon as he entered, the man stood up and asked, ‘What do you want—rum, gin, whisky or beer?’

  ‘No, I don’t want anything. I don’t eat meat or drink alcohol.’ He added, ‘Actually, I need information. Two brothers, Parminder and Surinder from Jalna, Maharashtra, opened a grocery store around this area. Have you heard of them? Or are they the owners of this shop?’

  ‘No, beta, the owner of this shop is Harpreet Singh—a young, intelligent, college-educated sardar from Delhi. I’m the store manager here. If you really want more details about this area, I have an uncle who lives nearby. He’s been here forever. I can phone him and you can go and talk to him, or I can ask him to come here.’

  ‘No, please don’t inconvenience him. I will go to his house.’

  The man shouted out to his errand boy and said, ‘Take Babuji to Uncle’s house and tell him that I have sent this young man.’

  Mukesh followed the boy to a house five lanes away. An old sardar was sitting on a green charpoy in the veranda and watching a serial on television. As soon as the errand boy told the old man about the unexpected guest, the sardar called out to his daughter-in-law, ‘Bring us something to eat.’

  Mukesh was polite, ‘Thank you, Sir, but I’ve had my breakfast already.’

  ‘You have come to a sardar’s home. How can you leave without eating anything? It’ll be a disgrace on us.’

  ‘Okay, Sir.’ Mukesh sat down on a chair near the charpoy and asked him, ‘Sir, may I ask how long you’ve lived around here?’

  ‘Fifty-one years,’ he said proudly.

  ‘Have you ever heard of two brothers, Surinder and Parminder, who came from Jalna, Maharashtra? They ran a grocery store here.’

  ‘Yes, I remember them, but for all the wrong reasons. Both of them frequently drank and fought among with each other. That’s why they lost their shop within a few years. The location of the store was so excellent that anyone with half a brain would have made tons of money, but these two buddhu and short-tempered men ruined their livelihood themselves.’

  ‘What happened to their family?’ Mukesh asked.

  ‘First, their old mother died of a heart attack right after the shop was sold. Then Surinder died of cirrhosis, and Parminder and his wife decided to settle down in the wife’s village somewhere.’

  ‘What about Surinder? Did he have a family of his own?’ Mukesh only wanted to know about Rupinder.

  ‘Yes, yes, he had a wife. But what was her name?’ The old man paused, ‘Well, I can’t recollect right now. Let me ask my wife. She was one of her good fr

  He called out to his wife, ‘Suniye ji, what was Surinder’s wife’s name?’

  The old woman came out limping and carrying breakfast for the two men, ‘Why are you talking about that man? The rascal ruined Rupinder’s life.’

  Mukesh’s heart stopped.

  She came and sat next to her husband on the charpoy. She asked Mukesh sharply, ‘Who are you? Why do you want to know about that family?’

  ‘I’m a journalist from London but my hometown is Bangalore. My mother was Rupinder’s friend when they were younger. I came to Amritsar for some work and she asked me to pay my respects to her.’

  ‘Poor Rupinder,’ said the old lady and sighed.

  ‘Why do you say that?’ Mukesh was alarmed. ‘What happened?’

  ‘Rupinder was treated like a servant in that family. Her mother-in-law was horrible and her husband ill-treated her till the day he died. When their shop closed, Parminder’s smart wife took her husband and the money from the sale to her parents’ village. Nothing remained with Rupinder. She had no money and no husband. But despite her unhappy life, I was amazed at her unshakeable faith in the divine. She went to Harmandir Sahib without fail, and each year, she fed two orphans on Buddha Purnima.’

  ‘How do you know all this?’

  ‘Because I am her friend. I’ve been with her to the mandir many times. Last year, she came back here on Buddha Purnima.’

  ‘Where is she now?’ Mukesh asked.

  ‘I told her that she could live with us and help us in the kitchen, but she didn’t agree. She said that it would affect our friendship. So I got her a job as a cook in my cousin Gurpreet’s house. He’s a nice man and stays around forty kilometres from here. Since I’ve told him about her background, he looks after her well and is kind to her, but she also works sincerely in his house.’

  Mukesh fell silent. He was sad that his mother worked as a cook in someone’s home. The old lady said, ‘Beta, you haven’t touched your food at all! Please eat something.’

  ‘May I have Gurpreet’s address?’ he asked instead.

  ‘Sure, beta. I’ll even tell him that you are going to visit him.’

  Mukesh quickly gulped down the lassi and gobbled up a paratha before heading out to Gurpreet’s home in a taxi. He was disillusioned. He thought that his parents would have done well in Punjab and had more children after he was gone. After all, he was the one who was thought to bring bad luck to the family. He was incredibly dejected about the state of his mother.

  Mukesh looked out through the window. Dhabas, chicken shops, liquor stores, healthy crops and stout sardars joking around passed by in a haze. He saw trucks standing at every corner and women working in the fields. His mind barely recorded anything. In any other situation, he would have wanted to see more of Punjab’s culture and learn about its agricultural industry. But he was in no mood today. The sun was bright and the world seemed to go on as usual.

  He had no problem finding Gurpreet’s address in the small village. The man was rich and everybody knew where he lived. The villagers pointed him to a house located between acres of fields, where he saw cows grazing. He stopped the taxi and walked to the house. He could hear the water flowing through the canals. As he approached the building, he realized that there were, in fact, two separate houses that shared an open kitchen in the centre. A tractor, a car, a motorcycle and a bicycle were parked on one side of the house and a Punjabi TV channel was playing at a high volume. The courtyard had charpoys laid out under the cool shade of a neem tree.

  When he entered, a middle-aged man met him with a warm smile, ‘I am Gurpreet. Chachi told me that you would be coming here today. Beta, Rupinder is like a masi to me. Please feel comfortable and think of this house as your own.’

  Mukesh smiled back and nodded.

  The man directed him to sit down and a young boy abruptly appeared with a big glass of lassi for the guest. Mukesh noticed that Gurpreet was dressed in his finest clothes, as if he were going to a wedding.

  ‘Beta, I’m really sorry but I have to attend an important function,’ said Gurpreet. ‘My family has already left for the venue and I must leave immediately too, but we’ll

  be back in the evening. Please stay with us for at least a week and relax here. I’ll take you to the gurdwara tomorrow.’

  Mukesh felt awkward. He was used to his parents’ generosity, but this was too much. He stood up to say goodbye to his host, then sat down on the charpoy again after Gurpreet had left.

  As the minutes ticked by, he felt anxious. It was time to meet his biological mother. What should he call her? Amma, Maaji or Rupinder? Suddenly, he heard footsteps and turned around. He saw a thin, old lady walking slowly towards him. She was wearing an ordinary salwar-kameez and her head was covered. She said softly, ‘I heard that you want to see me, but I don’t know who you are. What should I cook for you, beta?’

  For a few seconds, Mukesh did not know what to say. He held back his tears and said to her, ‘Please, sit down.’

  She sat on the other end of the charpoy and asked, ‘What’s your name? And where do you come from?’

  Mukesh was familiar with Hindi because of his flair for languages. He said, ‘I heard that you lived in Jalna a long, long time ago. And you had a south Indian friend called Sumati. Do you remember her?’

  Rupinder was taken aback. ‘I can never forget her,’ she replied.

  ‘I’m her son.’ He paused. ‘Munna.’

  She stared at him incredulously.

  ‘I’ve come to see you.’

  ‘I can’t believe it.’

  ‘My father died two weeks ago. That’s when I learnt that I was not my parents’ biological son. My mother never told me, maybe because she had promised you.’

  Rupinder looked at him. Her little Munna was tall and healthy now. She was happy but did not say anything.

  Mukesh said, ‘I want to ask you something.’

  ‘What is it, beta?’

  ‘Parents usually don’t give their children away unless it is a question of life and death. Even the poorest of the poor such as beggars want to keep their children. Then why did you give me away so easily? Didn’t my father resist your decision? How could you be so hard-hearted that you never came to see me?’

  ‘What did Sumati tell you?’ Rupinder barely got the words out.

  ‘Amma said that you were in a very difficult situation and that you really didn’t have a choice. Your options were to leave me in a village with your parents or in an orphanage run by a gurdwara.’

  She changed the subject, ‘What does Sumati call you?’

  ‘Munna. Everybody at home calls me Munna.’

  Rupinder closed her eyes and took a deep breath, ‘Even I used to call you Munna.’

  Mukesh could not control himself, ‘Just because I had a dark patch on my foot and your mother-in-law felt that it was a bad omen, how could you reject me without a second thought? Didn’t my father ever want to see his child again?’

  ‘Beta, for several years, I remembered you every single day. I wanted to leave everything and come to see you. And yet, I couldn’t do anything.’

  ‘Why? Why didn’t you convince my father?’

  Rupinder bowed her head and refused to answer him. Mukesh repeated the question. Finally, she lifted her head and said, ‘Munna, you are my son. You are a part of my heart, even today. That’s the truth. But your father didn’t feel the same way and so it became easy for him to leave you.’

  Suddenly, Mukesh grasped what she was saying. He collapsed on the charpoy.

  ‘Then who is my father?’


  The Innocence of Love

  Rupinder was a young and strong girl from a very poor family. Her parents and brother were labourers in a zamindar’s house. Whenever there was a wedding or langar in the village, she was always invited because she was helpful and f
riendly. Many suitors wanted to marry her, but when Surinder’s family came from Jalna and proposed marriage to her, it was a matter of great celebration for her family. Surinder was handsome and his family appeared to be very rich. Immediately, her father agreed to the match and the wedding was conducted in Jalna. Rupinder felt sad about leaving her beautiful village in Punjab and cried bitterly.

  When she reached Jalna, she realized in a few days that her life there was no different from the one she had left behind. In reality, her husband’s family was not rich at all and she had to work all the time in their home—almost like an unpaid maid. Her mother-in-law dominated her and Surinder just watched from the sidelines. Soon, she became very lonely. At least she had had freedom in her village back home. Here, she had lost even that. She missed the fresh air, her she-buffalo, and her relatives and friends. Her attempts to become pregnant over two years failed miserably and her mother-in-law taunted her often. She held her responsible for not producing her son’s heir. Then, unexpectedly, Rupinder became pregnant and started falling sick very often. Instead of helping out around the house, she became a burden to the family. One day, her mother-in-law said firmly, ‘We can’t look after you over here. You’re only giving us more headaches. Go to your parents’ village and come back after your delivery.’

  Rupinder went happily but she did not stay at her parents’ home. Her family was doing a little better financially and her brother had rented out a farm. The family stayed there and worked together in the fields, which were next to a mango grove managed by a watchman. The owner of the grove lived in Bombay and visited his property only once a year. One day, Rupinder’s pink dupatta that had been left to dry in the fields flew with the wind and into the mango grove. When she went there to look for it, she realized that there was a small guest house inside the walls of the grove. She asked the watchman, ‘Is someone living here?’

  The watchman nodded, ‘There is a young girl called Nirmala Kumari who’s staying here temporarily because of her sickness. She has tuberculosis and has come here with her attendant Dulari.’

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