Short Story

The mother smiled

Print edition : September 14, 2018

Often identified as an early feminist, Chudamani Raghavan (1931-2010) quietly made a place for herself in Tamil fiction. Almost radical in her approach to institutions, class divides and poverty, she was neither strident nor proclamatory as she challenged the way society slots and constructs identities and destinies.

Prabha Sridevan is a former judge of the Madras High Court and the former chairman of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board. She writes regularly in English and Tamil on issues of law and life.

Echoes of the Veena and Other Stories by R. Chudamani, translated from Tamil by Prabha Sridevan, Ratna Books, p. 230, Rs 349.

THE JOSS STICK WITH ITS TINY orange flame glowed like a solitary kanakambaram flower. Gayathri inhaled the fragrance deeply with a put-on sadness.

“The stick will fade away slowly after exhaling its fragrance in smoke, and so too my life,” she said with a smile.

Though bedridden and weak with illness, the artifice of her speech—a facet of her personality—had not diminished.

“Amma, you are going to live for many more years. Why are you getting so agitated? Sleep for a while. You rarely sleep after midnight,” said Mani.

“Why do you say sleep for a while? I’m going to sleep for a long time...in fact, forever.”

Mani said nothing.

“Do you think I’m young? This October I will be sixty...waiting to welcome death with open arms.”

Mani looked at his mother thoughtfully. Had his mother fashioned her whole life as a stage on which she mouthed dialogues for the benefit of others? Even her appearance seemed to be made up. No one would believe that she was sixty. No wrinkles on her face; her body was firm and her skin was radiant. If she bit a stone, the stone would break and not her teeth. Even after she turned forty, her eyesight had not deteriorated and she did not have to wear glasses. It was only in the last four or five years that a few strands of grey had appeared among the black ones, as though her age had suddenly remembered itself. She was young when fate dealt her an unjust blow, and it seemed as if that young person decided to remain a stubborn witness, visible to all, to that injustice. Why else would a person crushed by tragedy forever wear that youthful look?

“Even Yama, the god of death, won’t know you are sixty, so he will go past you.”

Gayathri stared at her son for a while.

The face on the pillow was without a ripple, like water in a tank. How fair and beautiful she looked! Even the bare forehead, without kumkum, shone with an inherent purity and looked as if the sculptor had felt that any extra detail would detract from the simplicity of the perfection.

Gayathri stretched out her hand to her son, who was sitting close to her.

“But you have become old, my dear one.”

“Amma, I’m only forty-two.”

“But I haven’t got you married, cursed that I am!” She heaved a sigh.

“I am fo...rty-two, Amma,” Mani laughed.

“I don’t know about that, you are still my child. If you were married, with a wife and child, if I had seen you as a garlanded groom, would I not have jumped with joy, completely cured, as though I had drunk nectar?”

Gayathri did not realise that she was lying.

“Was that her greatest tragedy?” This was the question that Mani often asked himself.

“Don’t think like that, Amma. I am extremely happy just being your son.”

The flash in her unwrinkled young eyes was a flash of triumph!

“Are you speaking the truth, dear? Do you never ever regret that you haven’t got married or that you do not have a life of your own?”

“No.” A calm reply.

Wasn’t she satisfied? Why did her face not shine fully?

“When I have a mother like you, how can I miss anyone else? It is enough that I have you.”

How many times must he have repeated this to her!

He was rewarded for his words by the intense joy that spread over her face. What else did he need? And, indeed, what else did she have? But, forcing her radiant face to droop at once, she picked up his hand and stroked it.

“Hmm, you are a good child. That’s why you say that. But as long as I fail in my duty as a parent, am I not culpable? Tomorrow, if god asks me why my son did not have a spouse beside him when he performed the last rites for me...what answer will I have?”

Did this anxiety, too, lurk in the corner of her heart?

“God won’t ask such questions. Won’t He know?”

“Even now...even now...if you wish it, why don’t you get married?”

Mani’s fingers touched his grey hair, spectacles and his sunken eyes, and he laughed.

“Amma, if you are old, I am three-fourths there. A marriage for me...now? I do not have any such desire.”

“Sure?”

“Sure.”

“You have never had such a desire?”

“I am yours and yours alone. I do not have any desire beyond being your son.”

Again the triumphant gleam on the beautiful face.

“Whatever you say. If that is your wish, what can I say?” Gayathri smiled at him again.

This exchange was a daily ritual. Neither did she tire of asking her son these things, nor did he tire of responding to his mother.

Ranganathan, the cook, came in with a glass of milk.

“Have you finished all your work?” Gayathri asked him.

“Over, Amma.”

“I’ll get the milk for you.” Mani got up.

She reluctantly released her grip over his hand.

Mani took the glass from Ranganathan with his left hand. This was not out of disrespect, but his nature. He was left-handed, that was all. He raised his mother’s head with his right hand and with his left, put the glass to her lips. This was something he did for his mother every day. Gayathri sipped it slowly, looking at him all the while.

“They say it is lucky to be left-handed. But you are an exception. That’s why you were born to me.”

“I haven’t lost anything by being your son.”

He placed the empty glass on the table, wiped her lips with the cloth in his left hand and gently laid her back on the bed.

“Shall I take leave then?” It was the cook.

“Mmm.”

Ranganathan came to work at six in the morning and returned at night after finishing his work. This had been his routine for the last fifteen years. His house was close by, just two streets away. But due to age, he could not see properly in the dark anymore, so Mani had been escorting him home for five years now.

“Shall I go with him, Amma?” Mani got up.

“Okay, dear. But come soon. I feel so lost without you.”

He was his mother’s focus, life and achievement.

Gayathri was not even eighteen when her husband died. Two months later, she turned eighteen and her son was born.

Some pitied him for being a posthumous baby, some cursed him for “finishing off” his father even before his birth. Amidst all the people who made various comments in those days, Gayathri sat like a stone for hours, staring at him.

“What would that eighteen-year-old girl have thought?” Mani often wondered.

Would she have thought, “Why this additional burden when life has come to an end?” or “This is the sole comfort, being proof of the fact that even in a short life, I lived fully”?

When one is at an age at which one is throbbing with the desire to live, when even the limits of one’s dreams are unclear, and a menacing fate puts an end to life even before it has begun, is it possible to deceive oneself into thinking that this is the symbol or the proof of the fullness of one’s life? His mother was, after all, a person made of flesh and blood.

It would not have been surprising if she had hated his father for cruelly dying so suddenly. The sweetness that she had tasted had now been taken away from her forever, and the deprivation was that much more unbearable. The child was a gentle reminder of that sweetness and the loss, and so it would not be surprising if she had hated the child too.

When that young woman, who was forcibly imprisoned in an unnatural barrenness, sat staring at her child, slowly, unbeknownst to her, a bond of hatred might have been forged in her heart. That, too, would not be surprising. Her love must have been three-fourths hatred.

When she had lost everything, the only thing that justified her existence was her child. If she lost him too, the only testimony to her horrendous fate would have gone. It was only by binding him to herself that she could spit triumphantly into the face of fate, which had been cruel to her.

Mani also understood that she would not be aware of the logic of all that she thought. She was certainly not conscious that her every thought and deed arose involuntarily from her, a prisoner of her tragedy and devastation. She must have thought she was an independent being. She must have thought she had nothing but love for the child whom she had carried and hugged in her arms.

His grandfather—father’s father—had taken care of them. He had made a will with the intention of securing his daughter-in-law’s future after his death. Mani turned twenty-four. Thaatha found a good bride for his grandson.

When he told Gayathri that the alliance was a good one and that the family would be supportive of her, she accepted it respectfully, with her head bent. She appeared to be happy with the arrangement. But her eyes were restless. When Mani looked at her by chance, he saw a crazed confusion in her expression. She was always talking to herself, as though in a delirium, hiding her thoughts in her words.

“Just two weeks more. My daughter-in law will be here. I will then be free of care. I will derive total bliss from watching the pair.”

“Just ten days more. My daughter-in-law will be here.”

“Just eight days more. My daughter-in-law will be here.”

Whenever he woke up in the night, he saw his mother wide awake in her bed, or staring at the sky in the terrace, or walking ceaselessly in the room.

“Amma, not able to sleep?”

“No. I’m just overflowing with joy. Just five days more. My daughter-in-law will be here. You will be her husband.” Then she would stare at his face and without a warning, a question would be unsheathed like a penknife.

“But you will still be my son, right?”

“Why do you doubt that, Amma?”

Did he comprehend her then? Otherwise, why was he now flooded with a gush of pity and sorrow for her? Otherwise, why did he feel a kind of relief along with the sense of loss when his Thaatha died of a heart attack three days before the wedding, and his mother called off the wedding, citing that as a reason and saying that the girl had brought misfortune?

For the next two years, no one raised the topic of his marriage. Then there were murmurs and comments from the neighbours.

“Why are you postponing what you should do for your son?”

“He is earning well and he is young. If you don’t get him married, he will go astray.”

“Just because you look so young, does it mean you should not get a daughter-in-law?”

Unable to bear this, one day she said, “I have no objection. Please suggest a good girl.”

A suitable girl was found when he was twenty-seven. Gayathri had rejected many girls for one reason or the other. Finally, there came a proposal which even she could not object to and she fell silent.

Again the restlessness and the palpitations and the sleepless nights...and the exaggerated liveliness and also the counting of days in a state of agitation.

“Just twenty-six days more, just twenty-five days more.”

The girl died in an accident twelve days before the wedding, as if nothing else could have stopped the marriage.

“Every time your wedding is fixed, something like this happens. Why?” What was there on her wrinkle-free, young face—surprise, sorrow, a stirring or relief? Was it just a feeling of comfort that she didn’t have to lose her son? Or was it also a release from anxiety for a person who had been condemned to loneliness from youth, who could not bear to see the togetherness of another?

Did she herself understand it?

Mani looked at her deeply, and felt a tenderness which made him want to hug and comfort something that was throbbing with hurt.

“Maybe I am not destined to marry?” he had said.

For a moment, her eyes had shone radiantly. But the next moment, she had hastened to say, “Don’t be silly. Shouldn’t you also settle down? Shouldn’t I see that and rejoice?”

Was it her eyes that spoke the truth, or her tongue? Both were true.

She slept peacefully that night.

After that, Gayathri did not seriously look out for an alliance for her son. Once in a while, a proposal would come their way, but nothing would come of it. It was difficult to say who was responsible for letting go of the opportunity—the mother or the son. The mother played her part, moved by a nameless emotion; the son completed it by fully understanding her. That was all.

“I keep looking out for good girls, Mani.”

“I know, Amma.”

“Nothing really clicks.”

“So what is the hurry?”

“That’s true. Nowadays, people marry even in their thirties. Somewhere, your bride would already have been born.”

“Don’t worry, Amma.”

“I don’t know. If the girl who should grace this house comes, I will hand you and all my responsibilities over to her and set out without a care for a tour of the temples.”

He would look with compassion at the faultless face, which was a perverse hotchpotch of the nine emotions; at the pathetic face, on which youth and beauty lingered obstinately.

“Mahakali, goddess of sacrifice! I have only one life to offer at your feet and pacify you!” He felt like crying with love and pain.

The years rolled by.

The mother would mechanically ask if he did not feel alone since he was unmarried and the son would reply that he did not. That was the end of it.

“Dear, are you happy?” she would sometimes ask anxiously, stroking his head.

“Of course I am.”

“There is no regret that you are not married?”

“No. I am not interested.”

A smile would spread over her face. It would vanish in a moment.

“I am a sinner. I have failed in my duty. You have gone grey.”

“Let it be.”

“It is just two of us here at home.”

“Yes.” Mani would say softly, patting her with his left hand.

“But you said that that is what you like, right?”

“Yes, Amma.”

“Am I a wicked person, dear?” A deep anxiety bubbled in the inner chambers of her eyes.

“No, Amma. You are good. There is no one as good as you in the whole world.”

He lent meaning to her life.

With his left hand, Mani moved back the few grey strands that had strayed by mistake into her youthful appearance.

The darkness was giving way to dawn.

He had taken the milk that had been stored within water overnight, and heated it on the stove. Adding the coffee powder, he made coffee for his mother and himself. This was his morning routine.

“You’re doing all this for me like a daughter.”

“So what?”

“Your wife should be doing this for you. Instead, you are doing this for this old woman.”

He was silent.

“Even now it is not too late. You’re only forty-two, not too old for a man. Marry someone if you want to.”

Did it occur to her that at forty-two, she had to look out for a bride for her son...What was the meaning of that glimmer in her eyes?

“No such wish, Amma.”

“No regret?”

“No.”

“Really?”

The clock sounded in the hall, and one could hear the sound of slippers at the door. Ranganathan entered.

“I am very sorry. It got late. My grandson fell down and there was a huge ruckus.” He was out of breath. He had just one daughter and this was her son.

“Did he get hurt or something?” asked Gayathri.

“Thank god not much, it was just a scratch. But the child got scared.”

“Poor thing! He is just a small child. How old is he?”

“Three.” Just as Ranganathan was answering her, the little one came running in.

“Thaatha!”

Mani stood up abruptly.

“Why did you bring the child to work?” He had instructed Ranganathan not to bring the child home.

“Don’t be angry, sir. When he stopped crying, he held on to me adamantly and insisted that he would come with me. I had no option but to bring him. I will start the cooking and drop him back and return.” Ranganathan hurriedly picked up the child.

“Have you ever brought the child here before?” Gayathri asked him.

“Never, Amma. I wouldn’t take such liberties. This is the first time and that, too, because of what happened...”

“It’s not that. The child looks familiar, that is why I asked.”

“No, I have not brought him earlier.”

“He has lively good looks. Your daughter must also be like this. How is she?”

“She is fine, your blessings.” He started to leave the room with the child.

“Go leave him at home and then start your cooking,” Mani said.

“Why do you chase the child away? Let him be here,” Gayathri chided her son and asked Ranganathan to wait a minute.

The cook stayed on. Gayathri took a banana from the two lying on her bedside table.

“Come, little one. You like bananas, right?”

Ranganathan had no option but to go close. Mani realised that he had to step in now.

“I will give it, Amma.”

He took the fruit from his mother.

Then he gave it to the child, standing between his mother and the child.

She could not see the child nor that the child took the fruit with his left hand.

Ranganathan hurried out with the child.

Mani came back and sat on the chair next to his mother.

“You didn’t answer, dear.” She looked at him eagerly.

“Answer what, Amma?”

“Do you really not have any regret about not marrying, having a life of your own, a family? Really?”

“I have no such regret...no such wish.”

“Maybe after I die...”

“Even after you die, I belong to you alone, Amma. I am satisfied with being your son. Haven’t I told you this many times? You are my everything.” Mani looked at her tenderly.

The summit of her triumph burned like burnished gold with his total surrender. With throbbing emotion, she picked up his hand and held it to her cheek, and that tremor ran through her whole frame.

“You are such a good child. I can be born a million times to have you as my son.” These artificial words came from the genuine fullness of her heart. The mother smiled.

Her eyes lit up.

He lived for this.

He rejoiced in this.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

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