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The mother i never knew, p.5
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.5

           Sudha Murty
 
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  He stood up and went inside the house. Banana leaves were spread out on the floor, serving their purpose as temporary plates for lunch. The menu featured thick rice, rava laddu and urad vada, among other entrées.

  Bhagavva was sitting in a corner, wearing a white sari that had been mended too many times. She looked at Venkatesh and said, ‘Sir, we are poor, but today’s ritual demands these preparations. I hope you like them.’

  Venkatesh felt awkward when she called him ‘Sir’. He wanted to ask her many questions, but didn’t know where to begin.

  So he looked at Shankar instead and asked him, ‘How many years have you been performing shraddha?’

  ‘Since my thread ceremony when I was eight years old, Sir. It’s been forty-seven years now,’ said Shankar, between mouthfuls of food.

  Venkatesh’s mind raced to make sense of this information, ‘Father died twenty-five years ago. That means father’s shraddha was being performed even when he was alive!’ He asked Shankar, ‘What are your children’s names, Master?’

  ‘My mother’s name is Bhagirathi, which is a name of the Ganga. So I named my daughters after rivers related to the Ganga—Mandakini, Alakananda and Sarayu. Manda is desperately searching for a job these days. Now even engineers have to be willing to work in bigger cities like Pune and Mumbai. But how can we send her alone?’

  Bhagavva interrupted him, ‘I’ve told Shankar to get her married.’

  ‘I know it, Avva, but where will I find a suitable groom? Manda was born in mulanakshatra, Sir. I don’t really believe in nakshatras and horoscopes, but a lot of other people do. In fact, according to my horoscope, my father should have been a very prosperous man, but he died before I was born. So how can I believe in all these things? Similarly, Manda’s mulanakshatra is supposed to be inauspicious for the father. But I’m absolutely fine. Nothing bad has happened to me.’

  ‘Isn’t it possible to find a boy whose father has died already?’ asked Venkatesh.

  ‘Of course it is, but I also have to think about the dowry. My daughter is prepared to marry a less educated boy. But even they ask for at least twenty thousand rupees.’

  ‘What about your other daughters?’

  ‘My second daughter, Alakananda, is very intelligent. She obtained a top rank and easily got admission into the best engineering colleges of the state. However, I couldn’t afford the fees and I enrolled her into a diploma course. She feels bad, but she doesn’t say anything.’

  ‘What about Sarayu?’

  ‘Sarayu is in the tenth class. She’s intelligent too and wants to become a doctor. Her teachers expect her to do very well.’

  ‘Will you allow her to enter the medical field?’

  ‘Sir, such things are possible only for people like you. We can’t afford it. But Manda told me that she has decided not to get married. She will earn money by taking tuitions and then she can help Sarayu become a doctor.’

  By now, lunch was almost over. Venkatesh had barely touched his food. He thought sadly, ‘The three girls are good, but thanks to their father’s poverty, they can neither be educated well nor can they be married.’

  He wanted to talk to Bhagavva. He thought, ‘How do I manage to talk to her without Shankar around?’

  There was a sudden knock at the door. It was the school peon. He had come from the school to tell Shankar that he was needed there immediately because the headmaster was indisposed. Shankar got ready to leave—the holy sandal paste from the ceremony was still smeared on his forehead.

  Venkatesh breathed a sigh of relief. He’d be able to talk to Bhagavva after all.

  Shankar apologized, ‘Sir, I’m sorry to leave you like this. But the headmaster will get upset if I don’t go. Please relax and have some tea. I’ll be back soon.’

  ‘Don’t worry, Shankar. Please take care of your responsibilities. I’ll wait for you right here.’

  Shankar left and Venkatesh went to the next room in search of Bhagavva. There was a faint smell of cow dung in the air. A ray of sunshine entered the room through a hole in the roof. His eyes fell upon Bhagavva who was lying on a mat; but she was not sleeping. She sat up when she saw him and offered him a mat to sit on.

  He sat down and stared at her, as if he was looking at her for the very first time. ‘She must have been beautiful in her youth. But now she looks burdened with poverty, widowhood and a tough life,’ he thought. He asked her, ‘Amma, had my mother lived, she would have been of your age today. What does Shankar call you?’

  ‘He calls me Avva,’ she said softly.

  ‘Then I will also call you Avva. I have a question. Is Shankar related to me? Why do we look so similar?’ Venkatesh asked her directly.

  ‘I don’t know. When you both sat down to eat lunch, I felt like I was looking at Shankar’s brother, if he had one.’

  ‘Tell me more, Avva. How did Shankar’s father die? Maybe that will explain the mystery. As far as I know, my father didn’t have any relatives in this area. Only you can help me with the story. Please, tell me what happened.’

  ‘What do you want to know?’ Bhagavva asked him gently. ‘Shankar is my only child. He was born when I was sixteen years old and his father died before he could even see him. No relatives from his father’s side stayed in touch or helped us. I came here and decided to make this place our home. There was nothing else that I could have done.’

  ‘Hasn’t anyone from your husband’s family come to visit you? Why didn’t you try to go and meet them?’

  She sighed, ‘It’s a long story. Fifty-five years have passed. I think I’ve almost forgotten what happened. I haven’t told Shankar about it either. What’s the use? It wouldn’t have changed anything.’

  ‘But you must tell me, Avva. Maybe it’ll bring me peace. Think of me as your son.’

  Bhagavva’s eyes seemed to focus on something far away. He heard the clock ticking silently as she got lost in the memories of the days past. Slowly, she started narrating her story.

  7

  A New Life

  Shurpali was a small village in Karnataka that had a temple of Narasimha and his wife Laxmi on the banks of the river Krishna. Thousands of people attended the annual fair held here.

  Bhagirathi was born in another village nearby. Her parents drowned in a flood when she was a toddler and her maternal uncle Gopal Kulkarni offered to take responsibility of the orphaned girl. He was the village postman in Shurpali. Gopal’s wife, Kaveramma, scolded her frequently, ‘Your parents have given you an apt name—Bhagirathi. You keep playing in the river all day!’

  Gopal had a son, Hanuma, who was five years older than Bhagirathi and studied in Jamakhandi, a nearby town. Meanwhile, Bhagirathi studied up to the fourth grade. She was not allowed to study further because there was no middle or high school in the village. She didn’t ask to study more either—higher education for girls was unheard of in those days and she had to help at home.

  As the years passed, Bhagirathi grew up to be a very beautiful young woman. She was fair and attractive and had long, black hair. Many women were jealous of her. Kaveramma did not send her out alone often because she was afraid that someone might try to take advantage of her. Bhagirathi’s only companion at home was Hanuma who was now studying in high school. Her uncle and aunt started searching for a suitable groom for her.

  People asked Gopal and Kaveramma, ‘Why are you searching for a groom? Your son can marry her. That’ll be perfect.’

  ‘No, Hanuma and Bhagirathi have been raised like brother and sister. It will not be a good match,’ said Kaveramma.

  Hanuma, Bhagirathi and Gopal also agreed with her.

  The truth was that Kaveramma had completely different reasons for rejecting the match. She believed that there was no use of marrying her son to Bhagirathi because that way Hanuma would not get any dowry at all. But if he married someone else, he would get dowry and maybe other possessions
too. She knew that Bhagirathi would somehow manage to get a groom.

  Eventually, Kaveramma’s prediction came true.

  In those days, people who came to Shurpali for the annual fair stayed with their relatives because there were no hotels in the area. That year, Champakka and her son Setu Rao came to live in Gopal’s neighbour’s house for a few days. The neighbour Bhima Rao had known Champakka’s family from his days in Mumbai.

  Champakka was also from this area, but her husband had worked in Mumbai for many years and, eventually, he had passed away there too. After that, Champakka decided to continue staying in Mumbai. She supported herself and her son Setu by working as a cook in a mutt in Matunga. Setu was now twenty-two years old and he was studying in Mumbai.

  The moment Champakka laid eyes on the beautiful Bhagirathi, she wanted her son to marry her.

  Kaveramma thought, ‘This is the best possible match for Bhagirathi, especially since there’s no demand for dowry. Moreover, this family has no close relatives or a father-in-law who will trouble her or pass sarcastic comments.’

  Gopal agreed with her too.

  Both the parties approved the alliance and the negotiations began. After a few days, the wedding date was set for six months later.

  During this time, Setu never said anything to Bhagirathi, nor did she expect him to. He never wrote her any letters either. Every day, she sat on the banks of the river Krishna and dreamt about her future and the unfamiliar life in Mumbai. Meanwhile, Hanuma’s exams were near so he sat by her side and studied while she daydreamed.

  Six months passed in the blink of an eye and the marriage ceremony took place in the auspicious presence of God Narasimha. Since both the families were poor, only a few people were invited to the wedding.

  After the ceremony, Setu stayed in Gopal’s house for fifteen days while Champakka went to visit her relatives in other towns and villages nearby. Bhagirathi discovered that Setu was young, intelligent and very handsome. She liked him. And in turn, he loved her youth, beauty and vivacity. The two weeks passed by in a flash.

  It was the end of Bhagirathi’s marital bliss.

  *

  Tears started flowing down Bhagavva’s cheeks. Venkatesh stared at her, dumbstruck.

  Time stood still at a memory that was more than fifty-five years old.

  *

  At the end of that fortnight, Champakka laid down one condition—her son’s education must be completed that year as scheduled. His studies would be disturbed if Bhagirathi came to Mumbai with him now; she must stay back. After Setu’s final exams, he would find a job. Bhagirathi should join him only after that. Gopal and Kaveramma agreed to her condition but nobody asked the newly-weds for their opinion.

  The next month, Bhagirathi missed her periods. Soon after, the vomiting and the nausea started. It was confirmed; she was pregnant. The news was sent to Mumbai. There was no reply for a few weeks, but then one day Gopal received a letter at home. Champakka expressed her joy but she added that this could have waited till her son was employed.

  When Bhagirathi was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, Champakka came to the village to conduct the seemantham, a traditional baby shower. This was usually performed in the in-laws’ house. But since it wasn’t possible to accommodate guests in Champakka’s one-room house in Mumbai, she and her stepsister Parimala came to Gopal’s house for one week.

  Two days after they had arrived, Parimala went to fetch water and overheard some women gossiping. One of the women said, ‘Bhagirathi is always sitting with Hanuma on the banks of the river. Kaveramma should keep an eye on her.’

  ‘Who knows what’s really going on?’ added another woman who was extremely jealous of Bhagirathi and her handsome husband. ‘Clever Gopal has married Bhagirathi to a boy who stays far away from here.’

  ‘The girl is so lucky. She was so intimate with Hanuma and yet, she’s managed to find another nice boy,’ the first woman commented.

  ‘These people from Mumbai must have fallen for Bhagirathi’s good looks. They didn’t even bother to find out more details about her. Did you know that she pretended to get pregnant right after her marriage? Even the midwife Hakinabi says that she’s seven months pregnant now. I think that she must already have been one month along at the time of her marriage.’

  Parimala could not restrain herself after listening to this. She went and met Hakinabi immediately. Parimala asked her, ‘I have heard so many good things about your expertise. Tell me, how is the health of our dear Bhagirathi? When do you think she’ll deliver?’

  Without batting an eyelid, Hakinabi answered, ‘Bhagirathi is doing very well. Her foetus is big—it may be six or seven months old. By the grace of Allah, she’ll give birth to a boy. I’ll take care of her with all my heart. Then you must give me a good Ilkal sari.’

  ‘Of course, why not?’

  Parimala was now sure that Bhagirathi was seven months pregnant and with someone else’s child. She thought that she should wait till the seemantham was over, and then she would tell her sister about her finding on their way back to Mumbai.

  The seemantham went off as planned. Champakka gifted Bhagirathi a pair of her old gold earrings, a green blouse and some fruits. She blessed Bhagirathi and said, ‘I pray for a safe delivery. I will come back for your son’s naming ceremony.’

  *

  ‘Then she said goodbye,’ whispered Bhagavva as she wiped her tears. ‘We never met after that.’

  ‘It’s almost like a movie,’ Venkatesh thought. He waited for her to continue.

  *

  As planned, Parimala accompanied Champakka on her return journey and said, ‘Sister, you’re so innocent. You didn’t find out about Bhagirathi’s character before getting your son married to her. The girl’s cousin—that boy Hanuma—is very intimate with her. You had already asked the couple to wait until Setu completed his education and found a job. Have you ever thought about how she became pregnant despite your instruction? Look at her belly—it’s so big and so soon! The midwife Hakinabi and the other women in the village can’t stop talking about it.’

  At first, Champakka didn’t quite believe her, but Parimala kept poisoning her mind. Champakka was already unhappy because she was sensing that Setu was distancing himself from her after his marriage. Suddenly, this became a good explanation for the drift. By the end of the journey, Parimala had completely convinced Champakka that Bhagirathi was already pregnant when she married her son.

  At home, Champakka tried to tell her son ‘the truth’, ‘Look here, Bala, something’s definitely fishy. Think, why didn’t anybody in the village marry her despite her beauty? Unfortunately, you’ve become the unsuspecting victim of her charm. Promise me that you will leave her.’

  ‘But Avva . . .’

  ‘Don’t. Just don’t say a word. I know how the world works. She’s a fallen woman and she’ll deliver in the eighth month. Think about it; you’ll become a father within eight months of marriage. Even you were born after the tenth month. I’m your mother and I want the best for you. I can’t stay with a loose woman like her. You can stay if you want to. Parimala must have already spread the word among our relatives. I shouldn’t have taken her with me.’

  No matter what Setu said or did, Champakka did not change her mind. She sat down and wrote a letter to Bhagirathi’s uncle.

  After a few weeks, Gopal received the life-changing letter. It was a bolt from the blue. Champakka simply wrote, ‘We don’t want your niece. You can keep her. The baby is Hanuma’s and not my son’s. We will not take her back.’

  Hanuma was furious, ‘How can she say such things? I am willing to swear on anyone—Bhagi is like my sister. As it is, I was worried about how she would live with that devilish mother-in-law. What is Setu doing to correct this? Can’t he convince his mother that she’s wrong?’

  Young and pregnant Bhagirathi collapsed in grief. At last, she told Hanuma th
rough her tears, ‘Please go to Mumbai and meet my mother-in-law and husband. Fall at their feet and beg them for mercy. Tell them Bhagirathi is as pure as Sita. There’s no agnipariksha in this Kalyug, otherwise I would’ve jumped into the fire and proved my chastity. Tell my husband that he’s the only man I’ve ever been with. I want to go myself, but I can’t travel in this condition and Uncle won’t be able to travel to Mumbai alone because he doesn’t know the local language or English.’

  Hanuma put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry; I’ll go to Mumbai and bring your husband back.’

  He had never been to Mumbai before, but his friend Chintamani Kale had gone there a few years ago to visit his aunt. Hanuma told Chintamani about the situation and the two of them travelled together to Mumbai.

  When young Hanuma got off the train in Mumbai early in the morning, he was confused upon seeing the big city; it was much larger than Jamakhandi and Bijapur. In addition, he didn’t know Hindi or Marathi. Troubled, he turned to Chintamani, ‘Here’s the address, but how will I find my brother-in-law in such a large city? Maybe we should go back.’

  Then Hanuma remembered Bhagi’s tearful face. He said, ‘No, I can’t go back yet. I must find Setu first.’

  It took a few hours for the two boys to locate the chawl in Matunga. When they reached Champakka’s house, they found it locked.

  In Marathi, a neighbour asked them whom they were looking for.

  ‘Setu Rao or his mother, Champakka,’ said Chintamani.

  ‘Setu has a job interview in Pune. So both mother and son have gone there by train just this morning.’

  ‘When are they back?’

  The neighbour shrugged, ‘I don’t know. Maybe three or four days. Who are you? Why don’t you leave a message for them?’

  Hanuma shook his head. The message he was carrying had to be communicated in person. Disappointed, the boys went to Chintamani’s aunt’s house.

 
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