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The mother i never knew, p.7
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.7

           Sudha Murty
 
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  ‘Weren’t she and her son subjected to a great injustice?’

  ‘Of course they were. This has been going on since the ancient times. It’s always a goat that is victimized and not a tiger. A woman is usually meek and humble and that’s why Bhagavva suffered the way she did. Do you know that if a retarded baby was born in Europe, people would say that the woman had delivered Satan? They’d throw stones at her and eventually kill her. If a fair child were born to dark parents, people suspected the mother of infidelity. Even now, there are people who burn their wives and daughters-in-law alive for bearing a female child. Though it is the man’s chromosomes that decide the baby’s gender, it’s the woman who’s punished.’

  Venkatesh was sad, ‘My father had once told me that he was supposed to travel by a certain train, but he missed it. That train met with an accident later and he considered his life after that to be a rebirth and a second chance for him. But Bhagavva shaved her head and lived like a widow from the age of sixteen until now.’

  Gauri was curious, ‘But Anna, how did their names come in the newspaper?’

  ‘It was a mistake due to all the chaos. Grandma Champakka and my father weren’t even on the train and the railway office got it wrong. Then Father got through the railway department exams and his transfers were in distant places like Delhi and Jammu. It must have been a good reason for both mother and son to get away from this whole episode. Later, Grandma got Father married to my gentle mother from distant Gundlupet, a village near Ooty. My mother must have had a horrible time with her ferocious mother-in-law. And yet, she was luckier than Bhagavva.’

  ‘I agree, Anna,’ Gauri said.

  ‘I’m sure that my mother didn’t know anything about her husband’s first marriage. I think that’s why Grandma Champakka didn’t allow us to get close to any relatives. We all remained unaware of my father’s past.’

  ‘Leave it, Anna. What happened is in the past now. Tell me, how can I help you? What do you want to do?’

  ‘I’ve thought about it. I want to go to my father’s locker in the State Bank of India tomorrow, but your mother keeps all the locker keys and I can’t just ask her. I haven’t opened the locker in years and she’ll ask me a hundred questions.’

  After Madhav Rao’s death, the locker was held in Venkatesh’s and Gauri’s names jointly since it contained Venkatesh’s parents’ jewellery and gold. Shanta had lockers in other banks, and didn’t really care for the contents of this locker. Gauri replied, ‘Relax, Anna. I understand. This is not the time to tell Amma about Bhagavva. I’ll get the key from her.’

  Both mother and daughter often discussed Gauri’s lack of fascination for jewellery. She preferred to wear two thin gold bangles and small stud earrings. Shanta would scold her, ‘You must wear more gold. What will people think about us?’

  Gauri didn’t argue with her mother, nor did she get angry.

  When she asked for the locker key from her mother the next evening, Shanta was very happy thinking that Gauri was finally getting interested in jewellery; but she still inquired, ‘Why do you want to go to the locker? There are enough ornaments at home for you to choose from.’

  ‘Amma, your jewellery is very heavy for my taste. I want to wear something light for Ravi’s engagement. Since I have some time before my exams start, I want to check if there’s something suitable for me in the locker.’

  ‘Well, I don’t think you’ll fancy anything there. Those ornaments belonged to your great-grandmother. You won’t like them—they’re quite old and unfashionable.’

  ‘But I like vintage jewellery,’ insisted Gauri.

  Shanta did not believe her, but just then, she heard Ravi’s and Pinki’s voices coming in through the main door of the house. She quickly gave the key to Gauri.

  Gauri ran to her father, ‘Oh, here’s the key. We can go to the bank tomorrow.’

  Absent-mindedly, Venkatesh took the key from her.

  ‘What do you want from the locker, Anna?’

  ‘Bhagavva’s family gifted Father a ring with the Sanskrit letter “bha”; it’s the only proof of their marriage. I want to see if it’s in the locker.’

  ‘Are you crazy? Don’t you think your grandmother would have thrown it away? Even if it did exist, Amma must have melted it along with other old jewellery and got something else made. I don’t think that the ring will be in the locker.’

  ‘We’ll find out tomorrow, Gauri.’

  That night, neither father nor daughter could sleep well.

  In the morning, Shanta said to Venkatesh, ‘I have to go to a meeting right now but I want to speak to you about something. Let’s talk soon.’

  ‘Yes, there’s something I want to share with you too.’

  An hour later, Venkatesh and Gauri went to the bank in Basavanagudi. When they opened the locker, they found numerous necklaces, anklets, armlets, rings and earrings. It was a wonder that Shanta had never touched them. She had enough money to buy new ones, anyway.

  ‘Why did Mother never use any of this?’ Venkatesh wondered. He remembered his mother wearing only four thin gold bangles and a black-beaded mangalsutra. ‘Perhaps Grandma didn’t allow her to. I’ve never seen these at home.’

  He made a thorough search of the locker’s contents but could not trace the ring. He was disappointed. ‘You were right, Gauri,’ he said, ‘that ring is not here. Let’s close the locker.’

  Gauri stopped him, ‘Wait, Anna!’ She chose a traditional gold necklace and said, ‘I have to take something from the locker, or else Amma will get suspicious.’

  She was right. Gauri said, ‘Let’s go home, Anna. I’m getting late for college.’

  Venkatesh went home in low spirits. He remembered his father and his room in their old house in Basavanagudi. There was a big wooden box in that room. ‘Appa used to keep it locked all the time. Nobody was allowed to touch it. Maybe the ring is in that box. Where’s that box now?’ he wondered.

  After a few minutes, Venkatesh decided to search the attic. He climbed up there and found Ravi’s old cradle, an old brass coffee filter, Champakka’s grinding stone, a brass statue of Lord Shiva—and finally, he saw the brown wooden box tucked away in a corner. He was thrilled. Immediately, he opened the box—and started sneezing. The dust had triggered his allergies. After the bout of sneezing had subsided, he looked into the box again. He found an official-looking document and some religious booklets; the papers had yellowed with age and become brittle. That’s when he saw it—a small brown pouch. Carefully, he opened it and saw the glint of a gold ring. As he pulled the ring out, he saw the letter ‘bha’ engraved on it—exactly like Bhagavva had told him.

  Venkatesh had found his proof—Madhav Rao had concealed his love for his first wife from his mother. Inside the pouch, Venkatesh found a letter and a money order form addressed to ‘Bhagirathi, c/o Gopal Kulkarni, Shurpali, Taluka Jamakhandi, District Bijapur, Karnataka’. The money order had been returned because the addressee was not found. Venkatesh recognized his father’s handwriting in the letter:

  Forgive me, Bhagi. I don’t believe my mother’s accusations. Please have patience. I will come and get you when I find a job. Meanwhile, take care of your health. I am sending you this money that I saved from my scholarship, but don’t tell anyone. When you get this, write to me immediately at my college address. I will write more in detail the next time.

  Yours, Setu

  So his father had tried to contact Bhagavva without his mother’s knowledge. But the money order never reached her because she had already left Shurpali, and they never met again.

  Venkatesh’s eyes fell upon the old document in the wooden box. He opened it and read the contents. It was a legal document confirming a change of name from Setumadhav Rao to Madhav Rao.

  Venkatesh felt sad, ‘Had Appa been able to speak during the last days of his life instead of being paralysed, maybe he would have told me his sec
ret. Now I understand why he changed his name. Setu had died along with Bhagirathi.’

  When Gauri came home from college that evening, she saw her father walking around with an old brown pouch. ‘What is that, Anna?’ she asked.

  He handed the pouch to her and watched her open it. She held the ring in her hand and stared at the evidence in front of her.

  ‘Gauri, I wish my father had talked to me the way I do with you. But those were the old days; it was bad manners to speak freely with your elders.’

  She nodded and smiled. She loved the time they spent together.

  Venkatesh added, ‘I think it’s time for me to meet my grandmother’s stepsister Parimala. I’ve found her address in one of Mother’s old diaries. If she is alive and well, I hope that she’ll be able to tell me more. I’ll go back to Hubli immediately to get this sorted out and then I’ll speak to Shanta about this after my visit to Parimala.’

  Gauri felt sorry, and proud of her father. He was struggling to somehow compensate for the wrong that his father had done decades ago, despite the fact that he was not responsible for Bhagavva’s plight in any way. If it were anyone else in his shoes, they would not have bothered to shoulder the responsibility.

  10

  A Meeting with the Past

  After reaching Hubli, Venkatesh wrote to Parimala at her Asundi chawl address in Mumbai and asked if he could meet her.

  Within a week, he got a reply from her son Neelakantha Rao, ‘My mother and I do not live in Mumbai any more. We got your message from my elder son who stays in Asundi chawl. We reside in Godbole Mala in Bijapur. My mother is too old to travel, but she’ll be happy to meet you if you can come and visit her here. She stays at home all day, so you can come at any time and day convenient for you.’

  That same night, Venkatesh asked Anant Patil about the bus schedule and its timings for Bijapur. Patil responded with enthusiasm, ‘Rao ji, there is an early morning bus to Bijapur. In fact, why don’t you take a week off and go there? My aunt’s younger brother has a big pomegranate farm and he can arrange your stay too. Would you like me to accompany you? I know the city very well and can take you to Gol Gumbaz and other monuments and temples.’

  Venkatesh did not want Patil to go with him since this was a delicate family matter. He replied, ‘I’m sorry, Patil ji. I’m going only for work and will be back in a day.’

  *

  Early morning the next day, Venkatesh caught the bus to Bijapur. The bus ride was on a straight and levelled road. He passed by fields of sugar cane, cotton, wheat and many fruit orchards, but was unmindful of the scenery. After a few hours, the bus reached its destination. Venkatesh got off and suddenly became aware of his aching back. He checked into a local hotel, had a shower and ate breakfast. Then he bought some fruits and flowers and headed to Godbole Mala.

  He found Parimala’s home easily. When the door to her house opened, he found himself facing a grey-haired old man who greeted him, ‘Namaskar, I am Neelakantha Rao. Please come inside. You are welcome to our humble abode.’

  Venkatesh introduced himself.

  Neelakantha wondered, ‘This man is my aunt’s grandson from Bangalore. Whenever Mother asked her stepsister for help, she never bothered to reply. There has been no correspondence with us all these years. Now her son has come to see us, perhaps on a goodwill visit. What’s the use now?’

  Still, he seated Venkatesh on an old sofa and asked, ‘What will you like to drink, Sir? Something cold or hot?’

  ‘Nothing, but thank you.’

  Neelakantha introduced him to a young man, ‘Sir, this is my younger son, Vinayak; he’s in the final year of college in BCom.’ Vinayak touched Venkatesh’s feet.

  Somebody called out from inside one of the rooms. Neelakantha led the way. When Venkatesh walked into the room, he saw a woman in her eighties sitting against a wall. She saw him and immediately said, ‘You are Champakka’s grandson, aren’t you? Then you are my grandson too. Champakka always kept a distance from us, but . . .’

  Neelakantha stopped her, ‘Please don’t dig up the past, Avva.’ Then he turned to Venkatesh, ‘Sir, please sit down. Avva is old now. Don’t take anything she says personally.’

  The old woman was quiet after that initial outburst. Venkatesh asked Neelakantha, ‘Where do you work?’

  ‘I served in the state transport department; I am retired now.’

  Parimala said, ‘Neelakantha has four children—two girls and two boys. The two daughters are married while the eldest boy lives in Mumbai. The rest of us stay here in Bijapur with Vinayak.’

  Neelakantha’s wife Parvatibai called him aside and whispered rather loudly for Venkatesh to hear, ‘We have a marriage to attend and we’re getting late. Are you coming or not? If not, I have to go anyway. If this man is your relative, I’ll give him something to eat before I leave. Just look at him; he’s not brought anything even though he’s visiting us for the first time.’

  Venkatesh understood. He told his hosts, ‘I’d like to stay here for some time. I have eaten my lunch already. Please go ahead with your plans. I will be fine here.’

  Neelakantha replied, ‘We’ve arranged this marriage and that’s why we cannot miss it, but we’ll be back in no time at all. Please feel free to stay as long as you like. In fact, you must have dinner with us tonight.’

  Venkatesh nodded. He was happy to be left alone with Parimala. The moment Neelakantha and his wife left, he took out the fruits and flowers from his bag, kept them in front of the old woman and folded his hands, ‘Grandmother, you are the oldest surviving member of our family. You alone know the past. Please, tell me the truth.’

  Parimala was surprised, ‘What is it?’

  ‘It’s about my father Madhav Rao’s first marriage . . .’

  ‘Oh yes! That was the reason that my sister Champakka and I became distant. Why do you want to bring it up now?’

  ‘Do you remember his first wife’s name?’ Venkatesh asked, without answering her question.

  ‘I think it was Bhagirathi or something like that. I met her just once.’

  ‘Why didn’t you see her again? What happened?’

  Parimala took a long breath, ‘People in her village said that she was pregnant before she married your father. The midwife also said so after seeing her big stomach. I told Champakka about it and she decided to desert the girl and get your father remarried. Your poor father was heartbroken at her decision.’

  ‘Why, Grandma?’

  ‘You must know that your grandmother was an aggressive woman. She made the decision and sent a letter to Bhagirathi’s family without even discussing it with her son. After that, when your father learnt about what she had done and came to me to find out what had happened, I told him what I had heard in the village during my visit there with Champakka. He swore that Bhagirathi was as sacred as the river Ganga. He wrote to her and waited for a few weeks for a response. When there was no news, he went to the village in search of her, but she was nowhere to be found. My husband also went to help your father find his wife. Some people told them that she had committed suicide by drowning in the river Krishna with her child and her family had moved away after that incident.’

  ‘How do you know all this?’ he asked her.

  ‘Your father told me. Perhaps she really did drown herself, but it destroyed my relationship with Champakka.’

  Venkatesh was confused, ‘I don’t understand.’

  ‘Your father became depressed after this incident and it took some time for him to get back to normal. Champakka blamed my husband and me because we had told your father everything. She was so furious at us for helping him that she cut off all communication with us.’

  Venkatesh felt miserable. Fifty years ago, someone in the village gave his father incorrect information. As a result, poor Bhagavva lived like a widow though her husband was alive, and Madhav Rao became a widower while his wife w
as alive too.

  He sighed and glanced at his watch. It was 2 p.m.

  Parimala added, ‘Later, your father agreed to get remarried for the sake of his mother. This was a long time ago. But tell me, why are you so curious?’

  ‘Just like that.’

  ‘Look here, son. I’m going to be direct with you. My husband helped your father a lot when he was searching for his wife. Now, I am old and maybe it’s time for you to repay us. Can you give me ten thousand rupees and get Vinayak a job at your bank in Bangalore?’

  Venkatesh was disillusioned. This old woman with one foot in the grave thought that his indebtedness was worth ten thousand rupees and a job. He thought of Bhagavva who was just a few years younger than Parimala. Despite her suffering and poverty, she hadn’t asked him for anything. Venkatesh did not feel like folding his hands in front of Parimala after her demand. He said, ‘I don’t have much money with me right now. Please take this.’

  He gave her one thousand rupees and walked out of the house. That evening, he caught the bus back to Hubli.

  *

  The next morning, Venkatesh boarded the train to Bangalore. When he reached home, his daughter greeted him. ‘I’m so glad you’re back, Anna. Did you have a successful trip?’

  He nodded. All the pieces of the puzzle were now in place. ‘I’ve verified everything. I’ll tell your mother tonight.’

  ‘Why did your father leave Bhagavva, Anna?’

  ‘Gauri, my father did a great injustice to Shankar and her. Maybe it was because he was helpless, or maybe it was nobody’s fault, but either way, Bhagavva suffered her entire life. Isn’t it my duty to help her in any way that I can?’

  ‘I understand that, but if you offer help out of the blue, Shankar Master will suspect your intentions and question you.’

  ‘I know. I want to tell him the truth.’

 
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