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The mother i never knew, p.9
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       The Mother I Never Knew, p.9

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Mukesh had interjected, ‘She doesn’t even know that I like her! I’m ready to get married to her but that doesn’t mean that she wants the same thing.’

  Rao Saheb had declared, ‘Let’s go with the proposal to the girl’s parents and then we’ll see what happens.’

  Accordingly, Vasanthi’s family had been informed. As it turned out, they happened to be from the same community as Mukesh’s family. When her father had asked for Mukesh’s horoscope, Rao Saheb had said, ‘We don’t believe in horoscopes at all. My daughter got married without any sort of horoscope-matching. If you think that the boy and our family is good, we can proceed with the wedding.’

  The poor pandit had not been able to say anything more. He had known that it was the best thing that could have happened to his daughter. Mukesh was from a wealthy and respectable family that owned a huge bungalow in Sadashivnagar. The family also had a big farmhouse and a business. But more than anything else, the pandit knew that Mukesh was madly in love with his daughter.

  A few months later, Vasanthi and Mukesh had been married in Bangalore; Rao Saheb had taken care of all the expenses. Sumati’s happiness had known no bounds. The day after the wedding, she had told Vasanthi, ‘My child, you are just like Neeraja to me. This is your house now.’ Sumati considered Vasanthi to be her daughter and Neeraja treated her like a real sister.

  Soon after the wedding, the couple had moved to London and had enjoyed exploring the city together. Within a few months, Vasanthi had learnt swimming and driving. At first, she had been scared of the water and the London traffic but Mukesh had encouraged her to persist and try something new. Vasanthi had begun appreciating the differences in culture and had even cut her long hair, sporting a bob instead. The Kanjeevaram saris had been discarded and she had started wearing jeans. She had started experimenting with microwave-cooking and had begun Western classical music lessons.

  Despite all these changes, Vasanthi always spoke in Kannada at home. Her love for the language and the religious rituals was never in question. She had converted their storeroom into a puja room and prayed every day, just like she used to do in Mysore. Dutifully, she wore a traditional sari and sincerely performed Gauri Puja, Ganesh Puja and Lakshmi Puja every year.

  Vasanthi’s voice startled him, ‘Whom are you dreaming of?’

  Mukesh turned to her and said naughtily, ‘When you’re in front of me, how can I dream of anyone else? Tell me, are you ready to leave?’

  ‘Ten more minutes, and then we’ll go, all right? This is the last of the season and we won’t be back until next year.’

  Mukesh nodded reluctantly as she skied away from him. His eyes followed her to the top of the nearest hill and hit the blue sky. Blue was his favourite colour. His first gift to Vasanthi had been a blue sari. Unfortunately, Vasanthi hated blue and could not tell him that since it was his first gift to her. Subsequently, when he started giving her blue saris every time, she had told him, ‘Mukesh, I don’t like blue. It reminds me of my school uniform and the discipline and strict regime that came with it. But I love pink. It is so soft and light and full of love.’ Mukesh was an artist. He had quickly understood the feelings behind the request and moved to pink saris.

  From a distance, Mukesh saw Vasanthi coming down the hill. He could see her more and more clearly now. For a moment, he suddenly felt that she was skiing at a very high speed and might trip over. He forgot where he was and screamed in Kannada, ‘Vasanthi, be careful! Slow down!’

  People stared at him, but he did not care. His eyes were locked on his wife’s figure.

  He was right. Vasanthi crashed against a pine tree and fell. She screamed with pain. Two ski instructors immediately rushed to her and brought her down the rest of the hill. Mukesh ran to be by her side. Her face was red and her beautiful eyes were filled with tears—like hot water had just been splashed on a pink rose. The manager of the ski resort came at once and advised him, ‘We’ll give first aid but please go to the hospital right after that.’

  Mukesh concurred and phoned a cab to take them to the nearest hospital. At first, he thought that the injury may be a simple muscle pull or a sprain, but Vasanthi was unable to stand or walk on her own. At the hospital, the doctor ran a few tests and finally told Vasanthi, ‘I’m sorry but you have a fracture that needs immediate surgery.’

  Vasanthi started sobbing. If it had been London, things would have been easier for them as they knew the doctors there and had friends who could help them. They did not know anyone here. Still, Mukesh did not want to delay his wife’s medical treatment. He said, ‘Let’s go ahead with the surgery, Doc.’

  Then he turned to Vasanthi and took her hands into his, ‘Come on, let’s get the operation over with and rest here for a few days. The hospital is opposite the Alps and at least you can enjoy the view as you recover. We’ll fly back to London once you feel better.’

  Vasanthi agreed reluctantly.

  While being wheeled into the operation theatre, she said, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this in Bangalore or Mysore, especially your mother. She’ll worry about her Munna and may run here to help you look after me. I’m sure I’ll be all right soon.’

  She smiled and Mukesh nervously watched her disappear into the operation area.

  2

  Phone Calls

  Mukesh’s cell phone rang. It was John, his colleague. He said, ‘Mack, our next project is delayed. I thought that I’d let you know so that you don’t have to hurry back to London. Let’s meet whenever you get here.’

  ‘Okay, thanks.’

  Just after he hung up, he got another call. It was Neeraja. ‘Munna, Appa has had a heart attack and he’s in the ICU. Come home quickly.’

  For a minute, Mukesh was taken aback. How could this happen to his father? And how could he leave Vasanthi alone? Neeraja said, ‘Munna, can you hear me?’

  ‘Akka, I can hear you clearly. I’m in Lausanne, not London. Vasanthi and I came here to ski and, unfortunately, she met with an accident just a few hours ago. Right now, she’s in the operation theatre. I’ll check the flight times and leave as quickly as I can. How’s Appa? What does the doctor say?’

  Neeraja replied, ‘Wait, I’ll call you back in two minutes.’

  She disconnected the call.

  Mukesh immediately decided on his plan of action. After the operation, he would catch the first flight to Bangalore the next day. He knew that Vasanthi would understand why he had to see his father, but he wanted somebody to be with her till he came back. He was not sure if her sisters already had the required visa for travel. His friends in London may not be able to come at such short notice either. Suddenly, he thought of John and phoned him, ‘John, I have to travel to India unexpectedly to see my sick father. Do you think that you can come and help Vasanthi out for a few days till the doctors allow her to go back to London? Once she’s at home, she’ll manage things on her own.’

  John replied, ‘That’s not a problem, Mack! I’ll reach Lausanne tonight or tomorrow morning.’

  ‘Thank you so much, John!’

  Now that that was settled, Mukesh’s thoughts turned towards his father, ‘Neeraja wouldn’t have asked me to come if it wasn’t serious. Will I be able to see Appa one last time? What if something happens to him before I reach Bangalore?’

  The phone rang again. It was not Neeraja this time, it was his mother. Sumati said, ‘Munna, the doctor informed us that he can’t say anything right now. It’ll give me confidence if you can come here. Bring Vasanthi also.’

  ‘She’s met with a small accident and won’t be able to make the trip, but I’m coming. Don’t worry. Please wait for me, Amma. Please.’

  He heard Sumati sobbing as he ended the call.

  An hour later, Vasanthi was wheeled out of surgery and brought to her room. She was conscious and able to talk despite the medications. Mukesh went near her and put a hand on her shoulder, ‘I just got a ca
ll from India. Appa is not well.’

  ‘What happened?’ she asked, immediately concerned.

  He told her about his father. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, ‘Leave for Bangalore immediately, Mukesh. Don’t worry about me. I’m sure that your mother will be feeling helpless without you. You should be with her at this time.’

  Her words gave him encouragement and reassurance. He went back to the hotel and started packing his bags.

  *

  When Mukesh entered the first-class cabin of the airplane, he hardly noticed anyone. He was busy remembering when he had last seen Appa.

  It had been the first day of the new year and his father had given him ten thousand pounds as a gift. Mukesh had felt awkward and said, ‘Appa, I’m an adult now. You don’t have to celebrate my birthday like I’m a child.’

  Rao Saheb, being a man of few words, had simply said, ‘You’ll always be a child to me, Munna.’

  His parents celebrated two dates as his birthday every year—one was New Year’s Day and the other was Buddha Purnima. When Mukesh was still a child, he often asked his mother, ‘Why do I have two birthdays, Amma?’

  She would affectionately hug him and say, ‘When you were very small, we were buying some vegetables on the road. Suddenly, you pulled your hand away from mine and ran across the road. Before I could grab you, a truck hit you. Luckily, you rolled away and fell on the other side of the road, away from the truck. Munna, you could have died that day! But it was Buddha Purnima, and you survived. That was God’s gift to me and a rebirth for you.’

  Since that day, Sumati had fed orphans and children in a blind school and also performed a puja for Mukesh every year on Buddha Purnima.

  For a second, Mukesh was terrified thinking of a world without his father. Unconsciously, his hand went to his sacred thread or janeu. After his thread ceremony, when he was eight years old, Sumati had told him, ‘Whenever you are scared, touch the thread and recite the Gayatri mantra. You will get the strength to face all your problems. And remember, never ever remove the janeu or the chain around your neck.’

  ‘Amma, why can’t I remove the chain?’ he had asked.

  ‘Because I say so. I believe the chain protects you from harm and negativity.’

  Suddenly, his eyes filled with tears thinking about his parents and their unconditional love. He was unable to sleep even as he leaned back and closed his eyes.

  3

  The Outsider

  When Mukesh reached Bangalore and turned his cell phone back on, he found an email from Vasanthi. She was going back to London the next day.

  He walked out of the airport and ran into his parents’ driver Shafi, who was waiting for him near the exit. Mukesh saw Shafi’s face and knew at once that his Appa was no more. His voice dropped to a whisper, ‘When did it happen?’

  ‘Early this morning.’

  By the time they reached home, the house was filled with people and Mukesh barely managed to squeeze through the doorway. When he saw his father’s lifeless body on the floor covered in white, he broke down and could not hold back his tears. He held his father’s feet and sobbed uncontrollably. Slowly, he became aware of a gentle hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see Sumati through his tears. For the first time in his life, he saw his mother losing control too. He grabbed her hand and hugged her tightly as if nothing could separate them. Their sorrow was inconsolable.

  Neeraja came into the room and hugged her mother and brother. Mukesh felt like he had lost the roof over his head and that he’d become an orphan. Nobody could ever replace Appa. Time would pass and he’d get used to living without his father’s presence, but the irreparable loss was going to stay with him forever. His family would always be incomplete now.

  After a few minutes, the pandit came to him and said, ‘You must shave your head and perform your father’s final rites.’

  Mukesh nodded. Though he did not believe in all the rituals or the need to shave his head, he knew it would bring a sense of peace to his mother and he was ready to do anything to make her happy.

  Some time later, people started asking the family, ‘Where’s Vasanthi? Why hasn’t she come?’

  Neither Mukesh nor Sumati bothered to respond.

  A few hours later, the six-foot Rao Saheb was consigned to the flames and soon, he turned into three handfuls of ashes. The next day, Mukesh immersed the ashes in the river Kaveri and prayed for his father’s departed soul.

  Soon, all their relatives and friends left and Neeraja, Mukesh and Sumati remained at home. Neeraja’s husband, Satish, went to the grocery store nearby. The house seemed quiet and listless.

  Mukesh brought out a large picture of Rao Saheb and garlanded it with flowers. The man who was alive just a week ago had become a static two-dimensional picture.

  Sumati came and stood next to him. She said gently, ‘Munna, now that all the ceremonies are over, go back and take care of Vasanthi. You can come back on the eleventh day for the remaining rituals.’

  But Mukesh wanted to be with his mother at this time. He phoned Vasanthi who was back in London. She insisted that he stay back in India and told her mother-in-law, ‘Amma, you need him more. I’m doing fine here.’ Mukesh thanked God for the two amazing and understanding women that he had been blessed with.

  Mukesh was looking online for a return ticket to London for two weeks later when his brother-in-law, Satish, returned and asked him unexpectedly, ‘Do you know if your father has left a will?’

  Mukesh turned to Sumati, ‘Do you know, Amma?’

  Her eyes welled up with tears and she replied, ‘Yes, Munna. Your father made a will and kept it with our family advocate, Mr Joshi. They’ve known each other forever and your Appa trusted him.’

  He nodded. Yes, he remembered Uncle Joshi and Appa spending a lot of time together.

  ‘Can we call him?’ asked Satish curiously.

  Mukesh and Neeraja did not really care and went back to whatever they were doing.

  Sumati looked at Satish. He was a good-looking, tall and shrewd man. He had met Neeraja during her MBA at the university campus during his visit there for an inter-college debate. A mutual friend had introduced them and within a year, Satish had proposed marriage to Neeraja. She had first broken the news to Mukesh and he, in turn, had conveyed it to their parents.

  A few days after that, Rao Saheb and Sumati had gone to Satish’s house. Appa had not liked the boy’s parents. Satish’s father was an ordinary clerk in an office and the family was not financially sound. They just about managed to get by. Rao Saheb had felt uneasy when Satish’s father had asked for a big fat wedding and flight tickets for almost sixty of his relatives. The entire meeting had been about money, gold and property.

  When Rao Saheb had mentioned his reluctance to Mukesh, he had tried to pacify his father, ‘Appa, we must understand. Satish’s family comes from a deprived background. It matters a lot to them to get an educated daughter-in-law from a wealthy background.’

  ‘No, beta, that’s not true,’ his father had said. ‘I don’t come from a rich family either, but for me, the individual is more important than money.’

  ‘Everyone’s different, Appa. Besides, Neeru loves Satish. He seems to be an intelligent boy; maybe he can understand and take care of such frivolous demands in the future. Let’s go ahead with it for her sake.’

  A few months later, Neeraja had been married with pomp and fanfare. Rao Saheb had gifted her a bungalow, gold ornaments and money, so that she would not have to depend on anyone.

  Sumati sighed at the memory. Her husband had taken care of everything!

  ‘So, when can we call him?’ repeated Satish.

  ‘If you think that it’s necessary, please go ahead and do so,’ replied Sumati, feeling slightly uncomfortable at his eagerness to see the will.

  Satish picked up his cell phone and requested Mr Joshi to come to
their house.

  The next day, in the afternoon, Mr Joshi asked the entire family to join him in the living room and closed the door so that they could discuss things freely. Satish said, ‘I think I’ll wait outside. This is the family’s personal business.’

  Mukesh stopped him, ‘You are a part of the family too. Please stay.’

  Satish sat down without a word.

  Mr Joshi opened the will and began reading. After a few minutes, Mukesh interrupted him, ‘Uncle, I’m afraid that I don’t understand much of the legalese. I’m sure that Appa would have done everything properly. Please tell us just the main points.’

  Mr Joshi replied, ‘Okay, Munna. I’ll tell you everything in brief. The fixed deposits in the bank have been divided into equal halves to be shared between your mother and Neeru. Sumati gets all the gold in the locker as well as this house. It is her prerogative to write a will and split her share as she sees fit.’

  ‘What’s the total amount of money in the bank?’ asked Satish.

  ‘Around two crores.’

  ‘What about the remaining assets?’ probed Satish.

  ‘The coffee plantation in Coorg, the house in Delhi, the other residence in Bangalore and the business goes to Munna. The driver Shafi and the helper Ramlal get ten lakh rupees each. The cook Radha gets five lakhs and the gardener Mahadev gets two lakhs. Your father wants to give twenty-five lakhs to the orphanage in Jayanagar and another ten to the Raghavendra Swami temple. Neeru gets to keep all the gifts, including the bungalow, that were given to her during her wedding.’

  There was silence in the room.

  Satish complained, ‘This is unfair. I never imagined that Rao Saheb would do such a thing.’

  ‘It’s what he wanted,’ said Mr Joshi. ‘Besides, Sumati can decide what she wants to do with her share at a later date.’

 
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