The Mother I Never Knew, p.6Sudha Murty
When they were resting in the afternoon, there was breaking news on the radio from the Dadar railway station. The Deccan Queen, which had left Mumbai that morning, had met with an accident in the ghats on its way to Pune. Several bogies had turned upside down. The listeners were advised to contact the railway police for more details.
Hanuma and Chintamani rushed to the railway station. There were so many people there—some were in shock while others were confused and weepy.
Hanuma was dumbstruck and sat down on the floor. Chintamani ran to make inquiries and came back with a sad face just minutes later. He told Hanuma that Setu and Champakka’s names were on the list of the deceased.
Hanuma started crying bitterly, ‘What am I going to tell Bhagi?’
Chintamani said, ‘Don’t give up, Hanuma. The railway staff is taking the passengers’ relatives to the scene of the accident. Let’s go there and confirm their identity before we think further.’
When they reached the spot, they saw that the bogies had rolled down right into the valley. Body parts were scattered everywhere. It was a ghastly sight. There was no way anyone could identify all the dead bodies. In the end, the railway department informed everyone that they were going to conduct a common cremation before the unclaimed bodies started stinking. Disheartened, the two boys returned to Jamakhandi the same night, along with a newspaper that contained the names of those who had died in the accident.
Meanwhile, Bhagirathi was waiting at home, desperately believing that Hanuma would somehow convince Setu. She had not eaten properly since the letter had come from Mumbai. Sometimes, she would get angry with the unborn baby and think, ‘Isn’t it because of this baby that people are talking ill of me? Maybe I should starve myself so that it will die inside my womb. But what do I do? It’s a part of me and a part of Setu too. The baby is my reason to live. Had I not been pregnant, I would have drowned myself in the river Krishna days ago.’
When Hanuma returned from Mumbai, Bhagirathi was waiting for him all dressed in red like a married woman. When she heard that she had become a widow, she couldn’t take it any more and fell to the floor in a faint before anyone could catch her. A short while later, she went into labour. Instantly, Hakinabi was called for. She was surprised to find that Bhagirathi had a lot of fluid in the womb, which explained the big stomach. After eighteen hours, Bhagirathi gave birth to a tiny premature baby boy.
And that’s how Shankar was born. No one rejoiced or celebrated his birth—he was an unwanted child.
Uncovering the Past
In the old days, the Brahmins in Shurpali were very orthodox, and Bhagirathi—a teenage mother and a widow—was bound by customs and traditions. It was mandatory for her to shave her head to be considered purified, thus clearing her husband’s path to heaven. Her long, shining black hair was cut and her head shaved. Bhagirathi was barely aware of what was happening to her. For a few weeks, she lived her life a day at a time.
Unfortunately, Chintamani spread the news in the entire village that Bhagirathi’s husband had deserted her. It was a matter of great disgrace not only for her, but also for Hanuma and his parents. The family could not step out of their house without somebody passing comments or turning up their nose at them.
Kaveramma would openly curse her and talk about her to everybody who came home, ‘This girl has been an endless burden and a curse to our family. She killed her parents as soon as she was born, and then she killed her husband as soon as she was married.’
Bhagirathi was just beginning to accept the cruel hand that fate had dealt her, but then came the month of Shravana—the festive time of the year. It was a month of great joy for married women, who would wear new clothes and jewellery, worship Mangla Gauri and pray for their husbands’ long life. It was an ill omen to see a widow on such an occasion and the entire village shunned Bhagirathi. Everybody avoided her like the plague.
One night, after she had rocked her son to sleep, she looked out of the window. At a distance, she could see the villagers celebrating with their friends and families. She thought about her future, ‘I had my dreams too, just like every girl. But destiny has shattered them. There’s nothing that life can offer me now. Who cares about my child or me? Nobody. Why should we live? I don’t have the strength to face this harsh world day after day. Yes, it’s better to put an end to such a life.’
Later that night, after the festivities were over and everyone had gone home, she held her son close and walked to the river. It was the night of the new moon. The sky was dark and her surroundings were deathly quiet. The river Krishna was full. She smiled. It was perfect. Her life flashed before her eyes. Setu had come into her life like a ray of sunshine, but he had left her alone in darkness and an unending ocean of misery.
Suddenly, Bhagirathi was not afraid. She had no desire to live, so there was nothing to fear. With the baby clinging to her bosom, she walked into the icy waters. She prayed to the river, ‘I am an unfortunate orphan. Krishna, you are my mother and I’m coming to be with you forever. You know the truth about me—I am pure. Take me into your arms and rid my baby and me of this disgraceful life.’
She stepped further into the water until it came up to her waist. Just then, baby Shankar started crying. Out of nowhere, a fisherman, Chouda, came running towards the noise. He was a strong man and his eyes were red from drinking too much. As he reached the shore, he grasped the situation at once. Without a moment’s delay, he jumped into the river and dragged Bhagirathi out of the water. He scolded her, ‘Find a way to live with Mother Krishna’s help. Don’t be a fool. Why do you want to die and go against all that she stands for?’
Bhagirathi looked at her saviour and wept.
Chouda consoled her as he walked her to his hut, ‘Be brave, sister, joys and sorrows are a part of life. Look, even Satya Harishchandra suffered in his life. You have a beautiful son; live for his sake. It’s your duty to raise him to be a good man. God will be with you every step of the way.’
Bhagirathi decided not to stay in the village where her life and that of her son’s would be worse than a dog’s. The best way was to leave the village forever and make a fresh start somewhere else.
The next morning, Gopal Kulkarni found Bhagirathi and her baby missing. They searched for her everywhere but she was nowhere to be found. After a few days, the villagers came to the conclusion that she had committed suicide.
Gopal and Hanuma were extremely upset and couldn’t bear to live in the same house any more. They cursed Setu for ruining Bhagirathi’s life. Gopal asked for a transfer and the whole family left to live in another village far away.
Meanwhile, Bhagirathi found her way to distant Dharwad. To make both ends meet, she started working in people’s houses as a cooking maid, earning meagre wages.
Time passed and Shankar grew up in poverty and without a father to protect him. Bhagirathi registered the boy’s name in school as Shankar Setu Rao Joshi. She kept her tragic history a secret from her son because she wanted Shankar to respect and love his dead father. Since Setu was thought to be dead, she dutifully performed his shraddha on his death anniversary every year. At times, Shankar asked her many questions about his father and where he was from. Since Bhagirathi herself didn’t know for sure, she couldn’t answer his questions and usually stayed silent or distracted him by asking him something else.
So the mother and the son struggled to manage by themselves, and in the process, learnt to be independent. Bhagirathi worked hard; she bathed newborns, took care of their mothers and cooked for people. In time, her hands became rough and she toughened up. A long time ago, she had been a beautiful girl. But not any more.
As Shankar grew into a young man, he felt sad to see his mother toiling in others’ homes. After his school-leaving exams, he decided to discontinue his studies. As luck would have it, he found a job as a primary schoolteacher. Still, Bhagirathi continued to work to
Shankar was later transferred to different places in his job and, in due course of time, married a nice girl and had children of his own.
‘That’s how I raised Shankar,’ said old Bhagavva.
Venkatesh sat there, listening in horror. He stared at her. It seemed unbelievable that she had been subjected to so much injustice, but she was living proof that this was not a story. It was her reality. He couldn’t imagine the agony that lay inside her heart. Still, he wondered out loud, ‘Are you certain that your husband died in the accident?’
‘Son, no Indian woman would ever say that her husband had died if he hadn’t. The news of his death appeared in the papers too. I have preserved the extract. Wait here, I’ll show you.’
Bhagavva stood up and went into the next room. She brought back an old torn piece of cloth, which she unwrapped, and then uncovered a newspaper cutting. The paper was yellow and discoloured with age; her husband’s name had been underlined. She showed him a small envelope and took out a stamp-sized photograph of her husband.
There was no doubt—it was his father. But Venkatesh didn’t understand; why did people call him Setu here?
‘These are the only physical remnants of my past. When we were married, there were no photographs to capture the moment. It was expensive to do that in those days and both our families were poor. But when my husband left to go to college, he gave me this picture. Sometimes, when I can’t recollect his face, I take it out and look at it. My Shankar looked exactly like him at that age.’
Venkatesh hardly heard her. He was still pondering over why his father was known by a different name. He asked Bhagavva, ‘What was your husband’s name?’
‘Setu—that’s what everybody called him. I also used that name during our marriage rituals.’
Venkatesh noticed that she didn’t blame the man who had left her pregnant and alone. He probed further, ‘What did Champakka call her son at home?’
Venkatesh still hoped to discover that maybe this man was not his father after all.
‘Bala,’ she said simply.
Yes, it was him. Venkatesh had no doubt any more.
Tears were flowing down Bhagavva’s cheeks.
Knowing his father, Venkatesh was sure that he must have kept some souvenir of his old life. He asked, ‘Avva, what did your family give Setu during the wedding?’
‘We were really poor back then. I think Uncle Gopal gave him one hundred rupees as dowry and a ring.’
‘What kind of ring?’
‘A gold ring with the letter “bha” written in Sanskrit.’
‘What happened to the property and your husband’s other belongings after the railway accident?’ asked Venkatesh.
‘Who knows? My husband had deserted me. Why would my family go to Mumbai to inquire further? Maybe Parimala took away everything. We were too upset to think about it.’
She paused. Then she folded her thin bony hands, ‘Son, I swear in the name of God Shiva, I have never disclosed this tale to anyone before. You were so concerned . . . maybe it was time for me to tell someone. Shankar knows that he was born after his father’s death, but he doesn’t know anything else. He should never find out that his father had humiliated and left me. Please, promise me that you’ll never tell anyone about this.’
Venkatesh looked at her hands. These were no ordinary hands; they had toiled for a lifetime to raise a son. These hands belonged to the mother who had quietly bowed down and accepted the injustices heaped upon her by men and fate. Now she was requesting him to keep them a secret so that Shankar didn’t think less of his father. How could he tell anyone? Venkatesh came forward, took Bhagavva’s hands into his and touched her feet. He could feel the tears in his eyes. Silently, he apologized to her without saying the words out loud, ‘Please forgive my father, if possible.’
When Shankar returned from school, Venkatesh was ready to leave and didn’t wait for teatime. He drove back to Hubli with a heavy heart, ‘Will Bhagavva ever forgive my father once she learns the truth?’ he wondered. ‘Should I even tell them what actually happened? Right now, Bhagavva and Shankar are least bothered about why we look alike. They have more important things on their minds.’
When Venkatesh reached Hubli, he found that the Patils were busy preparing for a trip to Gokarna, Murdeshwar and Karwar. They tried to persuade Venkatesh to accompany them, but he refused, ‘I have to make an urgent trip to Bangalore. I will be back in a few days.’
‘Why, Sir, you are talking as if it is a matter of life and death.’
‘Yes, it is,’ thought Venkatesh. ‘It is someone’s life and death. I have to set things right before it’s too late.’
Seeking the Truth
Back in Bangalore, Shanta and Ravi were too busy to notice that Venkatesh was preoccupied. Shanta was busy acquiring a cardamom plantation near Coorg and with her plans for the new software company. What percentage of the shares should be given to Gauri and Ravi? Should Gauri get fewer shares because she would go away after she got married? Shanta was troubled by such thoughts. Meanwhile, Ravi was also engaged with his new company and the unfortunate downturn of the share market.
But the most important item on their list was the earnest search for suitable girls.
Earlier, Ravi had wanted to marry a computer engineer or an MBA, but after returning from America, he told his mother over dinner, ‘Amma, I’ve realized that life is only about business. Think about it—parents raise their children so that they will look after them when they get old. That’s emotional business. Marriage is like that too. My partner and I should know what to expect from each other, or else it will be a discordant match like that of Appa and you.’
Shanta smiled in agreement, ‘Yes, Ravi. I’m glad that you have given this some consideration. What are you looking for in a girl?’
‘My wife must have good social contacts and her parents should be affluent and well-known publicly.’ Then he thought of Gauri and added, ‘I don’t want a girl who is idealistic. In today’s world, it’ll be hard to live with a girl like that.’
‘Look, we already have a dozen proposals in hand. My father has sent the details of some IAS officers’ daughters too. I have shortlisted three girls—Pinki, Ramya and Divya. Talk to each of them individually over a meal or coffee in a five-star hotel and make your decision. However, don’t give any of them a commitment yet, okay?’
‘Of course, Amma,’ said Ravi.
Shanta was inclined towards Pinki, but she didn’t tell her son that. ‘It’s not the right time,’ she thought. ‘Let me get his feedback first, but I hope he likes Pinki too. Her family is very well connected. Her father is close to the chief minister and will definitely become a partner in Ravi’s company. Then we can easily get capital and ensure publicity. Her uncle also has a software company in New York, and with his direction, Ravi’s business can take off quickly.’
While the mother and son were busy planning their next course of action, Venkatesh was in the bedroom thinking about Bhagavva. Almost all the characters in her story were dead—his father Madhav Rao, grandmother Champakka, uncle Gopal Kulkarni and his wife Kaveramma. Hakinabi was probably dead too. Though Venkatesh knew that the man in both the cases was his father, he couldn’t understand the mystery of Setu and Madhav. He fell into a troubled sleep.
That night, something woke him up at 1 a.m. and he sat bolt upright. He recalled that Champakka had once told him that Parimala and his father were of the same age, but that she barely met Parimala because she persistently asked for money. The first and the last time that Venkatesh had met Parimala was during his thread ceremony in Tirupathi when he was eight years old. ‘Maybe she’s still alive!’ He was excited at the thought.
He stood up and went to the kitchen to drink some water. He wondered, ‘Should I try and meet Parimala? Will she tell me the truth?’
Gauri saw him and asked, ‘Anna, why are you awake? I can’t sleep because I have exams. You’re so lucky that you don’t have to study.’ She grinned.
When he didn’t smile back, she probed, ‘What happened? Why do you look so worried?’
When he didn’t respond, she asked, ‘Are you worried about Ravi’s wedding? Please don’t. Ravi and Amma think that marriage is a way of enhancing their status in society to bring in more business and money. Let them do what they want, Anna. Don’t even bother.’
Venkatesh nodded and went back to his room. Gauri was left speculating what serious problem was eating her father, but she knew that he would tell her sooner or later.
The next day, after Gauri returned from college, her father asked her, ‘When do your exams start?’
‘They are fifteen days away.’
He paused, ‘I thought I’d wait until your exams are over before talking to you, but I can’t wait any more, Gauri.’
‘What is it, Anna? Come, let’s sit down and talk. You know you can tell me anything.’
Venkatesh told his daughter everything—from the day he had visited the jeweller’s shop in Shiggaon to the day Bhagavva had folded her hands in front of him. Gauri saw the shock and confusion in her father’s eyes. Unconsciously, she held his hand. He continued, ‘Child, I can’t stop thinking about my father. He was a puppet in the hands of his stubborn mother. She had struggled hard to raise him, but she monopolized his life and his feelings. Poor Bhagavva! Champakka ruined her life and her son’s life too. Gauri, you’re going to be a doctor. Tell me this—how can a really big pregnant woman deliver after eight months of marriage? Would you say that she became pregnant before her wedding?’
Gauri sighed, ‘No, Anna, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. A pregnant woman’s stomach may be big for a variety of reasons such as too much water and a small baby, or a large baby, a tumour, or something else. Now, we can scan and explain everything. Bhagavva could have delivered early because of the shock too.’
The Mother I Never Knew by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes