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The mother i never knew, p.3
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.3

           Sudha Murty
 
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  ‘So you are welcome to stay in our house next door. It’s independent and has a telephone. You can have your meals with us too, or we can arrange to get you breakfast and dinner from outside if you prefer. Please choose whatever you are comfortable with. We have no problems at all,’ Patil was direct and straightforward.

  ‘I’ll think about it,’ replied Venkatesh.

  A few days later, he became Patil’s tenant.

  *

  A month went by and Venkatesh settled into a routine.

  Patil’s house was always crowded with friends and relatives. Venkatesh often wondered how the couple managed to entertain everybody.

  It was a typical patriarchal family and the women were busy cooking and making jowar rotis the whole day. They barely emerged from the kitchen. There was plenty of avalakki or puffed rice kept in tins for snack-time.

  Venkatesh couldn’t help thinking about Shanta. Had she been placed in such circumstances, she would have rebelled. Her mind was on things beyond the home—which property is for sale, which of the equities will be more profitable? Ever since her first successful stint in the stock market, she had not entered the kitchen, nor did anyone expect her to. Ravi would often tell his mother, ‘Amma, don’t waste your time with household chores. Hire somebody to take care of them. Your time is precious.’

  Venkatesh wondered, ‘Does anyone ever say that to Vijayabai?’

  Soon, Venkatesh became an intimate member of their family. Patil and he would sit in the courtyard every evening and chat.

  One Monday evening, Patil said, ‘Rao ji, I have a younger brother, Dinesh. When we sit and talk, we lose track of time. The tired women would leave tea and milk powder out for us and go to bed. We would make our own tea and continue chatting.’

  ‘Where is he now?’

  Patil took a deep breath, ‘He’s in Mumbai and I really miss him. I was raised in a joint family. We are the Patils of Kallapur. It is a village close to Hubli and our house always had at least twenty people living in it at any time. But that’s enough about me. What about your family, Sir?’

  ‘Ours is a very small family,’ Venkatesh said. ‘I am an only son. My father was transferred frequently and I really don’t remember meeting any relatives. My parents never talked about them either. Sometimes, I wish that I also had affectionate brothers like you. Where do all your other relatives stay?’

  ‘Our relatives are spread everywhere. That reminds me—the thread ceremony of my Aunt’s grandson is on Sunday, in Shiggaon. I want you to see the customs and traditions of our region. Let’s go together next weekend.’

  ‘But I don’t know them,’ said Venkatesh.

  ‘Rao ji, it’s different here. You don’t have to wait for a personal invitation. Simply come with me. Just like Bangalore has many neighbouring places that are worth visiting—such as Belur, Halebidu and Mysore—we also have nice places around Hubli. There’s Gadag, Koliwada, Savanur and Shishunal. We must go visit all of them. After all, you are only going to be here for six months.’

  Venkatesh nodded. That sounded nice. He had already been to Bangalore three times. Everyone was busy there. Ravi was back from America and the search for a suitable girl was duly in progress. Gauri was preoccupied with studying for her exams. Still, she called up her father often and told him repeatedly, ‘Anna, you must take a break from work and be here with me during my exams. If I get a few holidays for preparatory leave, I will also come to Hubli.’

  4

  A Case of Mistaken Identity

  The summer had ended and it was the month of Shravana. The rain had washed the muddy roads of Hubli when Venkatesh set out for Shiggaon with Anant Patil. It was an hour’s journey from Hubli. When they reached Shiggaon, the pond outside the village was filled with water and there was greenery all around. The thread ceremony was in Deshpande Galli, thus named because all the residents in the lane were Deshpandes.

  When Venkatesh stepped through the gates of the big ancestral house called wade, he noticed that the walls were at least eighteen inches thick and made of clay. There was a huge courtyard inside the house. The teakwood pillars and the ceilings had delicate carvings in the wood. ‘This is so different from our Jayanagar bungalow back home,’ he thought.

  In Bangalore, it was almost mandatory to hire a big hall for such celebrations. But here, the ceremony was in the family home.

  Finally, Venkatesh spotted the boy or vatu, whose thread ceremony was taking place. He was eight years old. His head was shaved except for a little pigtail in the centre of his head.

  Anant Patil said, ‘Since the ceremony was in the family house, we didn’t even print invitation cards, Rao ji. We went from home to home and personally invited people. Tell me, what do you think of my ancestral home?’

  ‘It’s really nice,’ replied Venkatesh, looking around. He noticed that Patil’s relatives were still coming in. It seemed like he knew everyone in north Karnataka.

  ‘There should be around two hundred people here today,’ Patil said modestly.

  ‘Please go ahead and meet your friends and relatives.’ Venkatesh felt like an outsider, despite the warmth of the people around. He added, ‘Meanwhile, I’ll take a look around and see the market.’

  Patil laughed, ‘Our whole Shiggaon is just about one round. Please eat some chakkali and drink some tea. I will accompany you too.’

  While they were talking, banana leaves had been spread in a line on the floor. People sat down and were served chakkali, avalakki and besan laddu. Sensing his opportunity, Venkatesh slipped out of the house and went into the streets. He had not had a chance to buy a gift for the boy. So he asked an old man on the road, ‘Sir, is there a jewellery store nearby?’

  ‘Yes, there is. It’s in the centre of Shiggaon and is located near the old hospital. Bannabhatta’s house is also close to it. The shop belongs to Krishnachari.’

  Venkatesh was confused. The landmarks didn’t make any sense to him at all. He walked further and that’s when he realized that all the shops were located on one long street—just like Brigade Road in Bangalore. Everything was available on this road.

  Within a few minutes, he found the shop. It was tiny and had a handwritten board displayed outside: ‘Shri Vishwakarma Namah, Sneha Jewellers, Proprietor Krishnachari’. He knocked at the door. An elderly man opened it and said, ‘Come in, Master, why are you standing outside?’

  ‘Why is he calling me Master?’ Venkatesh wondered. For a second, he thought that the man was talking to someone standing behind him. But when he turned around, there was nobody there.

  The man repeated, ‘Master, please come in and sit down. I’ll be back in two minutes.’

  Venkatesh entered the shop. There was an old desk in a corner, an old carpet on the floor and a weighing scale in a glass box standing on the counter. The words ‘Shubha Labha’ and a swastika mark were displayed on the wall and a framed cross-stitched picture of Balakrishna was hanging next to it. The whole place appeared ancient, especially compared to Krishniah Chetty’s stylish shop on Bangalore’s busy Commercial Street.

  Soon, the man came out of a room. He looked like he was around seventy years old. He took his time rearranging his dhoti and glasses. Then he looked at Venkatesh and said, ‘Master, have you fixed your daughter’s marriage?’

  ‘What? Whose daughter?’ asked Venkatesh.

  The man adjusted his glasses and peered at him, ‘Your daughter Mandakini. I don’t understand. Why are you looking at me like that? Haven’t you seen me before?’

  ‘I think you are mistaken. I am not Master and my daughter’s name is not Mandakini.’

  Immediately, Krishnachari corrected himself, ‘I’m sorry, Sir, I mistook you for Shankar Master. I haven’t seen him for a long time. So I think I got confused. But . . . is he related to you?’

  ‘I don’t have any relatives in this area,’ said Venkatesh firmly. He changed th
e subject, ‘I’ve come to your shop to buy a silver glass. Do you have any?’

  ‘Yes, yes, of course. What’s your budget?’

  ‘Around five hundred rupees.’

  ‘All right, let me show you what I have.’

  Krishnachari opened an antique wooden box and took out three silver glasses wrapped in an old cloth. There really weren’t many options. While Venkatesh was trying to make his choice, Krishnachari observed him keenly. After Venkatesh had picked one and paid for it, the shop owner asked him again, ‘May I ask where you’ve come from? There’s an uncanny resemblance between Master and you.’

  ‘I’m from Bangalore.’ Venkatesh didn’t want to answer any more questions and swiftly exited the shop.

  Krishnachari kept looking at him as he walked away.

  When Venkatesh returned to the Deshpande mansion, banana leaves were already laid out for lunch. Anant Patil caught him the moment he saw him, ‘Where have you been? Everyone is waiting for you. Come, let’s eat and leave. It looks like it’s about to rain heavily.’

  Venkatesh nodded and went to meet the vatu. The boy was sweating profusely and was surrounded by a lot of guests. Venkatesh waited his turn and presented the boy with the silver glass. After that, he joined Patil for lunch.

  As they were walking out of the gate after their meal, someone patted Venkatesh on the back and said, ‘Shankar, let’s go to Kundagola together this year.’

  Venkatesh turned around to see a stranger in a white kurta and dhoti. The man’s lips were red because of the paan in his mouth.

  ‘I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong man. I have never been to Kundagola.’

  Before he could even complete his sentence, the man retorted, ‘Shankar, don’t give me any excuses. Don’t come if you don’t want to—or are you still angry with me?’

  ‘You don’t understand. I am not Shankar.’

  Anant Patil also tried to correct him, ‘Parappa, do you know who he is? This gentleman is the new manager of State Bank of India in Hubli. He’s staying with us. I think you’ve had too much tobacco this morning and it has gone to your head.’

  Then Patil turned to Venkatesh and said, ‘Rao ji, please don’t misunderstand him. He must be intoxicated. This man is very fond of Hindustani music, especially if it’s the Kirana gharana. He visits Kundagola every year for the music festival.’

  Parappa was still staring at Venkatesh in disbelief. Finally, he said, ‘I swear that he looks exactly like Shankar Master. Now that I see him closely, I find that Shankar Master looks a little older. Still, both of them are so alike that they could almost be twins. Rao ji, please forgive me.’

  Venkatesh nodded. Distracted, he walked towards Patil’s car and soon they were on their way back to Hubli. Venkatesh felt uneasy. He asked Patil, ‘The people in Shiggaon mistook me for Shankar Master not once, but twice. Who is this man?’

  Patil laughed, ‘Who knows? My mother says that everyone in this world has six lookalikes. I believe that mine are in other countries, because I haven’t met anybody here who looks like me. Maybe your lookalike is right here in this district.’

  Days passed and Venkatesh forgot about the incident. A short while later, it was time for the annual Ganesh festival. He was surprised to notice that the celebrations in Hubli surpassed even those in Bangalore. Every street had a Ganesh. Each Ganesh wore different clothes from diverse backgrounds—there was a Ganesh from Kargil, a military Ganesh, a computer-operating Ganesh and a guitar-playing Ganesh.

  Patil insisted, ‘Rao ji, please don’t go to Bangalore for the Ganesh festival. It is worth seeing it here in Hubli. I’d love to take you to Idagunji and Sonda. You may never get such an opportunity again.’

  Gauri also thought that it was a good idea and encouraged him to go. Her exams were near and she rarely called him now. However, Shanta phoned him and said, ‘You should come back soon. We have to choose a girl for Ravi and we can’t do it until you come home.’

  Venkatesh knew that that was not true. He replied, ‘Perhaps the girl has already been chosen?’

  ‘No, of course not. How can we choose a girl without you? Besides, Ravi is busy these days. He’s travelling to Singapore next week. Can you please buy two Dharwad saris and bring them whenever you come to Bangalore? I’d like a black or blue sari with a red border and a light green sari with a dark green border.’

  The colour combinations confused Venkatesh. He rarely went shopping, so he asked a lady colleague for guidance. She told him, ‘Sir, you can go to Babu’s shop in Broadway or to Gangavati’s shop in Dajibanpet. You’ll definitely get these combinations there.’

  Venkatesh thanked her and went straight to Babu’s shop in Broadway. A stranger came up to him and said, ‘Master, please keep my bag with you for a few minutes while you are here. I’m going to the shop next door and will be back shortly.’

  The man left without waiting for an answer.

  Venkatesh was puzzled. He had never met the man before. Who knew what the bag contained? Maybe it was a bomb, or even stolen goods. Was somebody playing games with him? He became tense and worried. Unable to contain himself any longer, he opened the bag and browsed through it. To his surprise, he found green chillies and a bar of butter. Relieved, he kept the bag aside and continued shopping. At the cash counter, he told the salesman, ‘Please give this bag to the man who comes looking for Shankar Master.’

  One thing was certain—there was a ‘Shankar Master’ around who resembled him. One person may have made a mistake, but three? Venkatesh was curious.

  5

  The Meeting

  A few weeks after the visit to Shiggaon, Vijayabai insisted on taking Venkatesh to the mutt in Sonda. The Sonda Vadiraja Mutt is one of the eight mutts of Udupi. It is the only mutt located close to Hubli and is revered as the sacred place where the great saint Vadiraja entered his tomb alive.

  Anant Patil happily agreed to his wife’s request and the three of them started for Sonda on a Saturday. The car ride was simply wonderful. There was lush green everywhere and they stopped to see the bakula flowers and elaichi bananas in Yellapura, and the Marikamba Temple in Sirsi. They reached their destination around lunchtime.

  Venkatesh, Anant Patil and Vijayabai took a room in the mutt. They washed and changed and then seated themselves in the large hall, where there was already a long queue for lunch. Patil and Vijayabai met some family friends and Venkatesh found himself alone. He went and sat down. There was an old woman next to him who asked, ‘When did you come here, Shankar?’

  Venkatesh wasn’t surprised by the mistaken identity any more. Now, he was determined to find more information about his lookalike. He calmly replied, ‘I’m not Shankar, but I’ve heard that I look like him. If I may ask, who are you?’

  ‘I am Manda Aunty from Hulgur. Shankar, I know that we are meeting after a long time. Stop teasing me.’

  ‘Amma, I’m telling you the truth. I am not Shankar.’

  She stared at him, ‘But you look just like him. His mother Bhagavva and I are good friends.’

  ‘Tell me more. What does Shankar do?’

  ‘He is a primary school teacher and works in Shishunal. He has three daughters—Mandakini, Alakananda and Sarayu.’

  ‘And where does he live?’ Venkatesh asked politely.

  The old woman was happy to talk to him. She replied, ‘Well, he lives in Divate chawl near the Ganesh Talkies movie theatre in Hubli. Shankar also has a house in Shishunal.’

  ‘I don’t understand, Amma. Does he live in both places?’

  ‘How do I explain this?’ she paused. ‘Shankar’s mother, Bhagavva, is old and lives in Shishunal with her son while Mangalabai—Shankar’s wife—lives in Hubli with the children. The second and third daughters are in college while the oldest daughter Mandakini stays at home and takes tuitions at people’s houses.’

  The old woman took a long breath and cont
inued, ‘That makes Shankar the only earning member of the family. They have no land and barely any money. He’s had a tough life. His daughter Mandakini was born in mulanakshatra. Her horoscope advises that she should be wedded into a house without a father-in-law. Unfortunately, Shankar is finding it difficult to find a suitable match since he can’t afford to pay dowry either. That’s why I thought that Shankar had come here to pray for Mandakini.’

  Just then, Anant and Vijayabai came back and joined them for lunch, which was served a few minutes later. Venkatesh pondered, ‘Shankar has a home in Hubli. I can easily go and meet him. Should I take Patil with me? No, it wouldn’t be right. I think I’ll go alone.’

  *

  A few days later, Venkatesh made his way to Divate chawl in Hubli. He located the chawl easily; it was home to at least a dozen families. The mud walls were discoloured and it was obvious that they hadn’t been whitewashed for years. Venkatesh found it difficult to enter the chawl because the lane was very narrow. So he parked his car and walked inside. On the way, he passed a water tap and four public toilets.

  ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have come,’ Venkatesh thought. ‘But now that I’m here, I’ll finish what I have begun. First, I have to find Shankar’s home.’

  Luckily for him, he walked a few steps further and saw a door with something scribbled on it. He went closer and saw what was written: ‘Shankar Master, Primary School Teacher’.

  This was it.

  Venkatesh knocked firmly. ‘Who is it?’ asked a woman’s voice.

  ‘Is Master at home?’

  ‘No, he’s out. Who are you?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m Venkatesh.’

  ‘Well, I’m here. The door is not locked. Please open it and come in. You can sit down and wait. Master should be back soon.’

  ‘Perhaps that’s Mangalabai,’ Venkatesh thought. He pushed the door open and walked through a small veranda leading to a main hall. Venkatesh sat down and looked around. The only other room was a kitchen. There were unmistakable signs of poverty everywhere—minimal cheap furniture and faded photographs of children were displayed in broken photo-frames. His eyes wandered to Shankar Master’s wedding picture; his own photo at that age was identical.

 
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