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The mother i never knew, p.4
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.4

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Suddenly, the door opened. An attractive and fair-skinned girl walked in, ‘When did you come, Appa? Why are you sitting here all alone?’ she smiled and stood in front of him.

  She was around Gauri’s age, but fairer. She almost looked like Gauri when she smiled. It took her a few seconds to realize her mistake. Venkatesh spoke immediately, ‘I’m not your father. My name is Venkatesh and I am a manager in State Bank of India.’

  ‘Sorry Sir, you looked exactly like my father for a moment.’

  ‘What’s your name?’ he asked her gently.

  ‘Mandakini,’ she said and kept standing.

  ‘So she’s the one Shankar is worried about,’ Venkatesh thought.

  ‘Sir, whom do you want to meet?’ Mandakini asked him. ‘You see, if you’ve come to find out about tuitions, then I’m the one to talk to but if you’ve come to meet my father, you’ll have to wait a bit.’

  ‘I want to talk to you. How much have you studied, child?’

  ‘I have passed my Bachelor of Science with a first class. These days, I go to people’s houses and teach children.’

  ‘Have you applied for any jobs?’

  ‘Yes, I have applied for both private and government jobs. Right now, I am awaiting the results. Unfortunately, fresher recruitment has decreased now, hasn’t it, Sir?’ the girl asked.

  ‘Manda, who are you speaking to?’ a voice came from the kitchen.

  Before she could respond, the main door opened and Shankar Master came in. He saw Venkatesh and stopped in his tracks—shocked at seeing an exact replica of himself. Venkatesh was fascinated too. He stood up. They had the same colour of skin and the same nose, eyes and face. Even their mothers would’ve got confused. But Shankar Master looked a tad older, possibly weighed down by worries.

  ‘I am Venkatesh Rao.’

  Shankar composed himself, ‘What can I do for you, Sir?’

  ‘Nothing, really. Many people in the area thought that I was you. So I came to see you on a whim.’

  ‘Please be seated, Sir.’ Shankar paused. ‘I’m sorry, this is a poor man’s house.’

  Venkatesh sat down quietly.

  ‘Manda, bring two cups of tea.’

  ‘Please don’t bother. I’ve come here only to meet you. Isn’t our situation very rare? Did your parents have siblings or cousins that they lost touch with? Maybe that will explain why we look similar.’

  Shankar also sat down and wiped his sweaty forehead. He said, ‘Sir, my father’s name is Setu Rao and my mother’s name is Bhagavva. I have never seen my father. In fact, I don’t even have a picture of him. He died when I was still in my mother’s womb. But I know that both my parents didn’t have any siblings. I am their only child. What about you, Sir?’

  ‘I’m an only child too,’ said Venkatesh. ‘My father’s name is Madhav Rao and my mother’s name is Indiramma. We’ve never visited this part of Karnataka and we don’t have any relatives here either.’

  Both men fell silent.

  ‘Well, that theory doesn’t explain the mystery then. I am really curious about our resemblance. Tell me, have you ever been to Mysore?’ asked Venkatesh.

  ‘No, Sir, never. Our family is settled around the Ron, Navalgund and Nargund areas. I haven’t crossed the Dharwad district borders even during my service. I’ve been working in Shishunal for ten years now and am tired of asking for a transfer to Hubli, Dharwad or Gadag.’

  Mandakini interrupted their conversation as she brought tea for them in steel tumblers. ‘This is Sudama’s hospitality—a poor man welcoming a rich man,’ Shankar said. ‘Please drink some tea. We are happy that you came to our house.’

  ‘May I meet your mother too?’

  ‘She’s in Shishunal. I work there from Monday to Saturday afternoon and then I visit my family in Hubli till Monday morning. You can visit my mother in Shishunal, or I can bring her here sometime.’

  Venkatesh didn’t want to inconvenience Shankar’s mother. He said, ‘Well, I’m planning to see Sharif’s holy tomb in Shishunal. It’s better that I go and visit your mother during my trip there.’

  Shankar nodded. ‘Where are your parents?’ he asked.

  ‘My parents and grandmother passed away within three years of each other. That was years ago.’

  ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Sir.’ He added, ‘The other day, a friend came home and asked me for a bag that he’d given to me. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Did he give the bag to you?’

  ‘Yes, someone did. In fact, three or four other people also made the same mistake.’ Venkatesh saw Mangalabai peeping into the room and overhearing their conversation. She seemed amazed at the resemblance too.

  ‘OK, Shankar Master. I’ll take your leave now. Goodbye, Manda, all the best to you.’

  Venkatesh waved out to Mandakini and Shankar as he exited their home. He was happy that he had met them; they were such a simple family. As he walked out of the chawl, he saw people watching him. Quickly, he walked to his car and drove away.

  6

  Revelation

  A few weeks later, the Patils were busy organizing a big moonlit dinner in their house. The rainy season had given way to clear skies and the upcoming full moon day was going to be quiet and beautiful.

  ‘Rao ji, the dinner will be on our terrace today,’ Anant Patil told Venkatesh, as they sat down to some evening snacks. ‘You are not going to order home delivery or go to anyone’s house for dinner. It’s going to be a special night.’

  ‘Why? What’s special about tonight?’

  ‘Sunita has a friend named Sarala. She’s conducting a music programme at our house. I’m sure that you’ll like it. We’ve only invited a few close friends.’

  Vijayabai called out to her husband, ‘Look here, all the dinner entrées and desserts must be white in colour tonight; the menu includes curd rice, white pudding, kheer, sweet white chiroti, rice upma, cabbage sabji and . . .’

  By now, Venkatesh was able to understand her Hubli dialect perfectly. He had picked up the local Kannada and learnt the meanings of several colloquial terms used in Hubli.

  ‘Enough, enough,’ Patil yelled back. ‘Don’t dye your hair white to match the food too!’

  Venkatesh laughed. Sometimes, he envied Anant Patil’s life; it was full of joy and enthusiasm. Both husband and wife enjoyed each other’s company and troubled each other like teenagers. It wasn’t that they didn’t have problems—their son was away for work in a mediocre job, they had a bedridden old mother to take care of and they had to find a groom for Sunita. Since the Patils didn’t have any inherited or ancestral property, they had taken a big loan to construct the house they were now living in. But Patil wasn’t anxious about it. He would reassure his wife, ‘Vijaya, don’t worry about it. We will repay it somehow.’

  In spite of all their troubles, they had a straightforward approach to life.

  But things were very different in Venkatesh’s family. It was always about earning more and more money. Shanta would often take loans and then complain to her daughter, ‘Gauri, I’ve taken a bank loan to buy that new estate in Coorg. I can’t relax till it’s repaid.’

  ‘Amma, why did you take the loan if it was going to stress you out?’

  ‘I took it because your father can get bank loans with a minimal interest rate. It’s business, Gauri.’

  Their family had everything, but there was no intimacy between the four of them. They lived, worked and went out together—it was mechanical. During every social event, Shanta would whine, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go. I really don’t like the food they eat or the way they dress, but we have to. Otherwise, our hosts will think that we are rude.’ But when Shanta met the hosts at the event, she would smile brightly and say, ‘Heartiest congratulations on your new home. You have built a palace! And of course, you’re looking stunning today!’

  All their relationships
were social, shallow and artificial.

  Soon, Patil’s guests started arriving and the hosts became busy welcoming them.

  The night was cool and Venkatesh shivered. His mind turned to Shankar, ‘How can we look so similar? Patil says that there are seven lookalikes all over the world. So is it a coincidence? We aren’t twins, for sure. I was born at 10 a.m. in the Railway Hospital in Hyderabad. When was he born? I think I should talk to Shankar’s mother, Bhagavva. Maybe she can throw some light on it.’

  Sarala Bapat made an entrance and the programme began immediately. She started singing and all conversation in the room stopped.

  Patil sat down next to Venkatesh and whispered, ‘If you close your eyes and throw a stone around here, it will hit either a poet or a musician. All good Hindustani musicians are from here—Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur, Basavaraj Rajguru and many others.’

  Venkatesh did not know much about music but he knew that what Patil was telling was the truth. Shanta had learnt Carnatic music before marriage, but had soon given it up without a second thought. Gauri was only interested in rock music.

  A minute later, Sarala was singing Shishunala Sharif’s songs. ‘How do I cross the plantain grove, sister, how? How shall I bring water?’ she cooed. ‘How can we cross the river of life without a boat?’

  Venkatesh was impressed. Sharif dealt with meaningful themes in such simple language; it was his forte.

  *

  The next day, Venkatesh went to office and asked a colleague for directions to Shishunal. That Friday, Venkatesh decided to drive out alone to see Shankar and his mother. Since he was going to meet Bhagavva for the first time, he bought some fruits for her. The roads were dusty and his car was completely covered with grime by the time he reached Shishunal an hour and a half later. The village was next to a large lake and had fertile land with dark soil. The farmers grew sunflowers, jowar and toor dal.

  Venkatesh found that despite Sharif’s huge success, Shishunal remained a quiet and sleepy village. He parked the car in front of the primary school in the centre of the village. Hearing the sound, a man came out and asked him, ‘Master, what are you doing here? I thought that you had taken the day off.’

  ‘I am not Master.’

  The man peered at him, ‘Are you a relative?’

  ‘Yes,’ lied Venkatesh. He wanted to avoid more questions.

  ‘So you’ve come to see the hill, Saheb?’ the man asked.

  ‘What hill?’

  ‘The holy tomb of Sharif. People come from everywhere just to see it.’

  ‘Yes, I want to visit the tomb. But first, can you direct me to Shankar Master’s house?’ In a small village like Shishunal, everybody knew everybody’s business. Venkatesh was hopeful that this man would help him find Shankar’s house.

  ‘Look there,’ the man pointed to a banyan tree. ‘His house is right next to it. You’re in luck; he’s at home today.’

  Venkatesh smiled and thanked him.

  He walked over to Shankar’s house and knocked at the door. There was no response. When he knocked again, a voice from inside said, ‘Master will not take tuitions today.’

  Venkatesh knocked once more. The same voice replied without opening the door, ‘We are performing some rituals at home right now. Please come back in the evening.’

  ‘I am Venkatesh. I’ve come from Hubli,’ he said loudly.

  ‘Which Venkatesh—Salimani Venkatesh or Deshpande Venkya?’

  ‘No, I . . .’ his voice trailed off. He thought, ‘What should I say? That I’m the Venkatesh who resembles Shankar?’ Out loud, he said, ‘I’m from State Bank of India in Hubli . . .’

  ‘Avva, whom are you talking to?’ Venkatesh heard Shankar’s faint voice.

  ‘It’s some person called Venkatesh from a bank in Hubli.’

  ‘Ask him to come inside.’

  ‘On this occasion?’ she sounded surprised.

  ‘Please, Avva, let him in.’

  Finally, the door opened and Venkatesh came face-to-face with an old Brahmin widow. She appeared strong even though she was very thin. She was wearing a torn white sari with the pallu over her clean-shaven head.

  ‘This must be Shankar’s mother,’ Venkatesh thought. He looked at her with mixed feelings; there was surprise and anxiety.

  ‘Please come in and sit,’ she said, and pointed to a broken chair. ‘We were not opening the door because we are performing shraddha today.’

  ‘Bhagavva, where’s the holy grass?’ interrupted the priest performing the rituals. The old woman excused herself and went inside.

  Venkatesh sat down. He thought, ‘Had I known it was Shankar’s father’s death anniversary, I wouldn’t have come today. But how could I have known? Poor Shankar, he’s been performing this ritual almost since he was born. It is improper for an outsider like me to be present on such an occasion.’ He said loudly, ‘Master, please go ahead with the shraddha. Meanwhile, I’ll visit the Holy Hill and come back here.’

  ‘Sir, I can’t go out with you today, but you’ve come all the way from Hubli and we’d like you to eat lunch with us; it’s the prasad of our forefathers. You may go visit the tomb, but please come back soon,’ Shankar told him.

  Venkatesh nodded and set out for his destination, still thinking about the shraddha. He knew how it was done. His father’s shraddha fell on the twelfth day after Dussehra, before the festival of Diwali. On that day, the family was supposed to eat at 6 a.m. and fast thereafter. However, Shanta never performed such rituals at home. Instead, she gave five thousand rupees to the Banashankari Mutt to perform them. On the day of the shraddha, Shanta would go to the mutt, bow down before the pinda or the rice ball representing the dead person’s soul. Then she’d eat two bites reluctantly and come back home, whereas Venkatesh would go alone at 4 a.m. and perform the ritual with sincerity. After that, Shanta wouldn’t remember her father-in-law until the next year.

  Venkatesh remembered his father, Madhav Rao. He hadn’t lived long after his son’s marriage. He had loved Shanta like his own, especially because he didn’t have daughters. Madhav Rao was a gentle man who obeyed his mother while she was alive and then obeyed his daughter-in-law until the day he died. It was such a long time ago. After his paralytic attack, his father had tried to say something to him, but Venkatesh hadn’t been able to understand him. It was the first time he had seen his father become angry and frustrated.

  Soon, Venkatesh reached the Holy Hill. The place symbolized harmony between two communities and had devotees everywhere, irrespective of religion. People firmly believed in Sharif. The tomb was located under the shade of a neem tree. Venkatesh offered a hundred rupees at the dargah and was blessed with a broomstick of peacock feathers by the maulvi.

  A man standing near him remarked, ‘You look like Master, but you can’t be him.’

  ‘You’re right. How did you know?’

  ‘Because the poor Master can’t afford to offer a hundred rupees. Are you related to him?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘You are not from around here. Have you come to visit him?’

  Venkatesh had never experienced this in Bangalore. The people here kept asking questions and dragged the other person into a conversation even if he or she was a stranger. Venkatesh did not answer the man and simply walked away.

  When he came back to Shankar’s house, another acharya had joined in. Mantras of shraddha were being chanted loudly. Venkatesh sat outside in the veranda listening to them. He knew the sequence of the mantras. When his father was transferred to Varanasi, his grandmother had forced Venkatesh to join a Sanskrit school in the evenings. Slowly, he had developed a love for the language and continued to perform puja at home even today.

  Gauri teased him often, ‘Anna, why don’t you take voluntary retirement and start performing pujas for everyone? You know that you’ll love it.’

 
Ravi would also smile and agree, ‘Yes, these days acharyas from India are much more in demand than software engineers. They make a lot more money too.’

  But Shanta wouldn’t have liked to be the wife of an acharya. Venkatesh almost smiled at the thought.

  Suddenly, his attention went back to the chanting, ‘My father, grandfather and great-grandfather are Setu Rao, Shrinivas Rao and Virupaksha Rao. My gotra is Shandilya. For the sake of pleasing the gods, I, Shankar Rao, perform this shraddha every year. May the forefathers come in the form of a cow, Shiva and the sun and accept the prasad I offer.’

  The acharya started coughing. He had to repeat the whole mantra again and Shankar repeated it after him.

  ‘What’s this?’ Venkatesh wondered. ‘I also say the exact same mantra! Only two names are different—my father’s name and my name. I know for certain that my father did not have any brothers. It can’t be a coincidence that the names of our paternal grandfather, great-grandfather and our gotra are the same! But his father’s name is Setu while my father’s name is Madhav. Shankar and I must be related somehow.’

  Like a flash of lightning, it all became suddenly clear to him. The mantras had exposed the truth about Shankar and Venkatesh. So much resemblance between them! His father and Shankar’s father must be the same person. They were brothers—they had to be! It was the only explanation.

  For a moment, Venkatesh was happy at solving the mystery and finding a brother. Then the shock set in. He immediately grasped what this meant. His mother Indiramma’s innocent face flashed before him and tears welled up in his eyes. He sat still for a long, long time.

  After the shraddha, Shankar Master came to the veranda and saw him, ‘Have you been waiting here for a long time, Sir? Please come inside and join us for lunch.’

  ‘So Shankar does not know anything about this. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. It would be improper to say anything right now. I must verify everything thoroughly before I say anything to anyone,’ thought Venkatesh.

 
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