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The mother i never knew, p.2
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.2

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Venkatesh’s musings came to a halt as the car reached Lalbagh and Gauri remarked, ‘Anna, see how crowded it has become these days.’

  Yes, Lalbagh was very crowded. Many people came to exercise there. It was no longer meant just for young lovers and old people. Venkatesh replied, ‘Isn’t it natural? I used to come alone before, and now, you’re with me. That makes two of us. The population has definitely grown.’

  The road near the west gate was convenient for a stroll and quiet too. Venkatesh and Gauri walked along the cement footpath in the cool and pleasant evening breeze. ‘Anna, you have travelled quite a lot. What made you settle down in Bangalore?’ Gauri asked.

  ‘Well, I’ve been told that the letter J in Father’s name stands for Joshi and that we are from some village in the Mysore state. But I really don’t know much else and I don’t think that Father did either. So we adopted any place that we stayed in and we happened to like this city.’

  ‘But why do we have so few relatives from your side of the family? Everybody I know is from Amma’s side. Where are your cousins, uncles and aunts?’

  ‘You see, Grandma struggled to raise my father and none of her relatives helped or visited her during that time. So when we became wealthy, Grandma didn’t want us to go see our cousins or their families.’

  ‘Okay, I can understand that.’ Gauri paused. ‘But what about your mother’s relatives?’

  ‘You must understand, child; my mother was innocent and meek, but she was also very intelligent. Often, you remind me of her. The only difference is that you speak your mind, but she couldn’t. Those days were like that. In the end, Grandma reigned supreme in the family and Mother spent all her time knitting, embroidering, painting and indulging in other such creative activities.’

  ‘Anna, why didn’t you ever argue with your Grandma?’

  Venkatesh said sadly, ‘For the same reason that you don’t argue with your mother. It’s because some people are approachable and some are not. My Grandma and your mother belong to the latter category. It’s no use talking to them; it’s like breaking our heads against a wall. Their decision is final—whether right or wrong. We simply choose to stay quiet to keep the peace.’

  Engrossed in conversation, the father–daughter duo realized that they had already completed one round along the pond. Avoiding the crowded road in front of the Glass House, they turned back on the same path.

  ‘Anna, maybe things would have been different had Amma stayed at home,’ Gauri said, thinking of her busy mother.

  ‘Perhaps, but the truth is that we’ll never know. Initially, Shanta was a homemaker. When Amma and Appa passed away, I had to take responsibility for my family and the inheritance I received.’

  ‘Grandfather came to your help then, didn’t he?’

  ‘Yes, he did.’ Venkatesh recalled. ‘Your grandfather Suryanarayana is a smart man. He made me take a loan from the bank I worked in and helped us to construct two commercial buildings—Ganga–Tunga—on the Basavanagudi site. Your mother sold our home in the area and we shifted to Jayanagar. Though the land and the money were mine, your grandfather was the mastermind behind the plan. He advised us to rent out both the buildings to private companies. Even in those days, we immediately started earning a profit of three lakh rupees per month after the loan instalment payments. Within fifteen years, the loan was easily cleared. Now, a software start-up has taken the buildings on lease and we get twenty lakhs every month.’

  Gauri interrupted, ‘That is a lot of money.’

  ‘Yes, but your grandfather didn’t just stop there. After the buildings had been rented out, he assisted us with our investments in the beginning, and I was surprised to see your Amma take to the business of investing like a duck to water. Over the years, her investments have returned more than ten times the original money and she’s bought new properties.’ Venkatesh didn’t tell Gauri that except for the Ganga–Tunga buildings, none of the new properties were in his name; they were in the names of Ravi, Gauri and Shanta.

  ‘If we have so many good investments, then why doesn’t Amma take it easy?’ asked Gauri.

  ‘Why don’t I give up my job at the bank too? At first, earning money was a necessity, but now working has become a habit. It’s not that your mother needs the money; her work really seems to give her immense satisfaction. That’s why she does what she does.’

  For years now, Shanta had never asked Venkatesh about his salary. She didn’t care; she had much more money coming in. But the truth was that Shanta had never really worked hard in her life. Her strengths were her common sense and her sound knowledge of business, both perhaps inherited from her father. It wasn’t child’s play to amass wealth by investing in the stock market. While some became rich, others were completely ruined.

  ‘Anna, what do you think of Veena and Purushottam? They may become our relatives some day.’

  ‘What can I say, Gauri? I barely know them. From what I’ve seen, their social work is restricted to the city—they distribute food to children in the slums or give speeches about children’s welfare while ensuring media coverage in newspapers and television. All their activities seem publicity-oriented. I’m not sure if they are genuinely concerned about social issues or helping people in other cities or villages.’

  ‘But even social work has become commercial these days,’ Gauri remarked.

  ‘Yes, I know. I worry that a girl from such a family may not have integrity or dedication towards her work.’

  ‘That’s what you think, Anna. I’m quite sure that Amma and Ravi think differently.’

  They walked in silence for a few minutes. The sky was getting dark when they reached the car and started on their way home. Venkatesh’s thoughts returned to his transfer. He could quit his job. But what would he do at home anyway?

  *

  A few hours later, the pleasant evening had turned into a warm night. Shanta turned on the air conditioning and thought about the meeting at the club that evening. She had praised Veena very carefully while introducing her. Veena had looked pleased after that. Their meeting was so professional; it was like one businessman meeting another. One daughter. One son. Shanta knew that Veena was thinking along the same lines, but they were both too clever to say anything directly.

  Shanta lay down on the bed and thought of her potential daughter-in-law. Was she beautiful? What would Veena and her husband give their daughter Pinki for the wedding? Shanta had heard that Pinki had studied fashion designing—a modern discipline. ‘Will she be able to find a job easily, or will she have to start something of her own? It’s important for us to know. How will it help Ravi’s start-up?’ she thought.

  She tried to sleep but couldn’t. She turned to her side and saw Venkatesh sleeping blissfully. By this time, she knew about his transfer to Hubli. ‘It’s no use telling him anything,’ she said to herself. ‘He will hate it if I tell him to quit his job, the job that barely pays him. I’ll never understand why—is it wrong to want to earn money? Or is he jealous that his wife earns more than he does? Maybe all Indian men think that the wife should work, but her income should not exceed her husband’s. She must be educated, but less than her husband. The wife may be an equal, but not higher than that.’

  Disturbed, sleep drifted further away from her. When Shanta had married Venkatesh, the house in Basavanagudi was already very old. The family lived a simple life on a tight budget under Champakka’s watchful eye. ‘There’s such a big difference between those days and today,’ Shanta thought.

  But a glance at her husband made her feel sad. He’d never understood her or helped with the business. When his father died he had not left a will, but Venkatesh had inherited everything since he was the only heir. Unfortunately, he had no idea of his father’s finances. When they opened the bank locker after JMR’s death, both Suryanarayana and Shanta were shocked. The locker was filled with gold which had a thin layer of fungus on top since i
t had been lying unused for years. The gold itself was worth lakhs of rupees even in those times, and yet the family had lived a miserly life.

  ‘But even then, our status in society and the changes in our lives weren’t achieved overnight; I have toiled day and night to achieve all this single-handedly,’ she thought proudly.

  For a moment, Shanta envied Pinki, ‘Everything that I have struggled to earn will go to my daughter-in-law one day. My darling son Ravi will also belong to that girl. Maybe I should share my concerns with Venkatesh. Or maybe I shouldn’t. He won’t understand anyway.’

  There was still no sign of sleep despite the cool air conditioning. So she tried to think of solutions, ‘If the girl is obedient, she can be controlled. But that’s so difficult these days. Also, I’m sure that Veena’s daughter won’t be submissive. Let’s see what happens when the time comes.’

  The cuckoo clock chimed 3 a.m. Ravi had gifted her the clock last year when she was in Switzerland for her birthday. Her heart filled with love and pride as she thought of him and, finally, she fell asleep.

  The next morning Shanta slept in later than usual. When she came out from the shower, both Venkatesh and Gauri were ready to leave for the day—her husband for the office, and her daughter for college. Shanta sat down at the dining table and sipped her tea. She waited for them to mention the transfer as she stared at the headlines in the newspaper.

  Venkatesh said, ‘I’ll be leaving for Hubli this week. The head office said that I should be back in Bangalore after six months.’

  He didn’t ask her to come. She didn’t offer to go either.

  ‘Where will you stay?’

  Gauri interrupted, ‘My friend Sunita Patil’s parents live in Hubli. I contacted them and they’ve promised to make some arrangement for six months.’

  ‘So that’s it. Father and daughter have already sorted things out,’ thought Shanta.

  Just then, the household help Nanjappa called out, ‘Amma, there’s a phone call from Ravi Sir.’

  Shanta forgot about everything and ran to the telephone.

  3

  A New City

  A few days later, Gauri accompanied her father to the railway station to say goodbye. Shanta had already bid him farewell at home; she had a meeting with the auditors. ‘See you soon,’ she told him. ‘Call me later. Remember—I can always arrange for your transfer back to Bangalore.’

  Venkatesh was booked in a first-class compartment in Kittur Express. He was carrying a duffel bag with only three changes of clothes since he was planning to return to Bangalore that same weekend.

  When they reached the station, Gauri was happy to see that many of her father’s friends and co-workers had also come to say goodbye. They seemed to have genuine affection and regard for her father.

  Venkatesh was very friendly and helpful at work. He actively participated in celebrations such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussehra, Kannada Rajyotsava and Ugadi. Once, a clerk called Geeta had been on maternity leave. When she came back to work after four months, she tearfully confided in him, ‘Sir, I have to go and be with the baby after 1 p.m. because there’s no one at home after that time.’ Venkatesh told her that she could take short-term leave without pay, but Geeta was not ready to do that because she had to make loan payments. So Venkatesh accommodated her request. He told her, ‘You may leave early and I’ll manage the counter in your absence.’

  During another incident, Mahesh was handling the cash counter and found that somebody had erroneously paid a thousand rupees in excess. Everybody wanted to celebrate and have a party with the money, but Venkatesh disagreed, ‘No, that’s not right. Let’s keep it aside. We’ll return it if the owner comes looking for it.’ When nobody came to claim the money, it was given away to the office watchman Karim for his wife’s C-section operation.

  Thus, Venkatesh had become quite popular in the office. Most people were sad to see him go. The few colleagues who envied him would talk behind his back and say that any man could be generous if his wife made so much money. But to his face, they’d praise him. Venkatesh was aware of the criticism, but he always let it go.

  At the station, Mahesh told Venkatesh, ‘Sir, once you go to Hubli, people there may not let you come back here quickly. Please don’t stay on there, Sir.’

  Venkatesh settled down at the window seat of the compartment and replied, ‘No, I won’t. I can’t. My Gauri is in the final year of her studies. I don’t know where she’ll go after that. It’s not difficult to stay away from Bangalore, but it’s almost impossible to stay away from her.’

  He looked fondly at Gauri. Her tears, suppressed till now, flowed freely down her cheeks. Her father was her true friend. He had been transferred frequently in the past, but it was always to nearby places so that he could come back home at night. This was the first time he was going to be away for this long.

  ‘Anna, take care of your health. Sunita’s father will come to the station to pick you up . . .’ The train started moving as Gauri was speaking to her father; everyone waved goodbye.

  After the platform vanished from Venkatesh’s sight, he looked around his compartment and thought, ‘I should be back in six months. I don’t think I’ll use this train more than half a dozen times.’

  He had no idea that his life’s foundation would be thoroughly shaken in six months.

  When the train arrived in Hubli at five o’clock the next morning, the sky was still dark. The passengers were grumbling, ‘The train has arrived before schedule and now it’s going to be hard to find an autorickshaw.’

  The ticket collector opened the door and asked all the passengers to disembark.

  As soon as Venkatesh alighted from the train, his Hubli colleagues came forward with garlands and bouquets to welcome him. They introduced themselves almost in unison.

  ‘Sir, I’m Chimmanakatti, the cashier.’

  ‘I am Kamalakkanavar, the office assistant.’

  ‘Sir, I’m Rotti, the clerk.’

  Venkatesh was taken aback. What strange names!

  Suddenly he heard a hoarse voice, ‘Sir, I am Anant Patil, Sunita’s father. My daughter called me last night and told me your train timings. Please come with me.’

  Then he turned to the others and announced, ‘Your saheb is coming to my house in Vishweshwar Nagar. He will freshen up there and then I’ll bring him to the office at 10 a.m.’

  Quickly, he dispersed the crowd and asked Venkatesh to follow him with a wave of his hand.

  Anant Patil was a fat, charming and friendly man. On the way to his house, Venkatesh was fascinated by Hubli’s narrow and heavily crowded lanes. Soon, Anant started talking about his family. ‘Sir, I work in the Public Works Department of the government and I am close to my retirement. I have a son, Naveen, and a daughter, Sunita, who is Gauri’s classmate in Bangalore Medical College.’

  Venkatesh could barely understand what he was saying. Though Patil was speaking Kannada, the north Karnataka dialect sounded quite unfamiliar.

  A short while later, they reached Patil’s two-bedroom house in Vishweshwar Nagar. The adjoining single-bedroom home also belonged to him. There was a grove in front of the house with tulsi, champak and coconut trees. Patil’s wife, Vijayabai, invited them in with a smile, ‘Please come in and have some tea.’ She looked at Venkatesh and added, ‘Then you can take a short nap. You’ve probably not slept well in the train.’

  Venkatesh was hesitant, ‘No, I don’t need to sleep. I’ll drink tea and then go to the office guest house.’

  ‘Oh, please don’t stay in the guest house. Think of our home as your own. Sunita tells us so much about yours.’

  ‘What has she told you?’

  Patil immediately said, ‘She says that she meets you for lunch almost every week when she visits Gauri. Sometimes, when there’s no water in the hostel, she goes to your house for her shower too. Gauri is extremely generous and brings her
a lot of home-made food and snacks. So how can we let you stay in the guest house? It wouldn’t be right.’

  His outburst reminded Venkatesh of the roaring Jog Falls and he smiled.

  Patil’s wife scolded her husband, ‘Please lower your volume. Mother-in-law is asleep in the next room.’

  At 9.30 a.m. they ate breakfast, and then Patil dropped Venkatesh at his office and told him firmly, ‘You must come home right after office hours. Here’s my address.’

  The State Bank of India office was in Keshwapur close to the railway station. Venkatesh learnt the workings of the bank and had lunch with some of his office colleagues. He tasted Dharwad food for the first time. His palate was accustomed to Mysore cuisine thanks to his mother Indiramma. In the afternoon, he went to the office guest house. He didn’t like it at all. He thought, ‘It’s going to be hard to stay here for six months. Also, the work in the office is less than half of what I had in Bangalore and I’ll have plenty of free time. What will I do? How will I spend the whole day in the office here?’

  That night, he dined with the Patils. Vijayabai had made ranjaka, sambar, stuffed baingan bhaji and chapattis. She asked him, ‘How do you like the food here?’

  ‘It’s good.’

  Anant Patil laughed, ‘You will say it’s good even if it’s not. Tell me the truth, do you really like it?’

  Venkatesh repeated his answer.

  Patil told him, ‘Sir, the one-bedroom house adjacent to ours is vacant right now. My son, Naveen, and his wife, Rekha, were staying there. I preferred that they lived separately so that they could have their privacy and still be close to us. Unfortunately, many factories in Hubli are shutting down. Despite being a mechanical engineer, Naveen did a course in computers and now works in Pune. Even though I wish he were here, what can I do? He’s my only son. I want him to be happy wherever he is.’

  Venkatesh, too, felt sad at the thought of people being forced to migrate to other cities with the closing down of industries.

 
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