The London born Chitra didn’t quite appreciate the women wishers touching her face and crackling their finger joints against their head as a blessing and to ward off any evil eye. “What stupid custom ! Why can’t they shake hands with me?” she griped
Then Chitra recalled that she was in India and had become an Indian wife, a few hours back when Prabhu, Srinivasan tied a wedlock chain round her neck.
Every activity in the Marriage hall looked strange to her. Earlier, her mother, Janaki, had given full details of a wedding proceedings and Chitra herself had watched a couple of videos in her London home. Yet, when she underwent the routines herself, she found them all funny.
The Reception hall had over a thousand guests. Of them, the bride could recognise only five faces – her parents, her in laws and Mona Sudarshan, her college friend who had flown to Chennai to witness her wedding.
Although she belonged to Tamilian parents and have been using Tamil at her London home, here she was unable to decode the Tamil language. People spoke Tamil in Chennai so fast that she needed at least ten seconds to decode the sentences. She was at a loss understanding what her well wishers were saying at the dais. Everyone spoke only in Tamil. So she said, “yes”, “no” for all the queries. Whenever she had to answer in full sentences, she would consult Prabhu and ask if she had used the right Tamil words.
Then she sighted the face of her mother-in-law, the last guest to come on to the dais. When Mrs. Anjali Srinivasan, collected her face and kissed it all over, Chitra nearly revolted. She detested Anjali’s physical touch over her body.
Even before her marriage, Chitra had turned into a mother-in-law hater. She was at war with all these old haggards. This aversion had been transferred to her by her own mother, Janaki, who had to live in her mother-in-law’s house during the first five years after her marriage with Dr. Ranjan. It was an unhappy joint living with no freedom for the young couple. She didn’t want such a fate to dog her own daughter. So, she was determined to let Chitra and Prabhu live on their own from day one. “Joint family living, be damned.”
The reception cum dinner gave over around 1030 p.m.and before they left the dining hall, Dr Ranjan announced a special wedding gift to his son-in-law – Villa de London, located at the western end of Adyar. “This house is yours. From tomorrow you may occupy it, Dr. Prabhu,” he had said. Janaki felt absolutely pleased.
Dr. Ranjan had built this two story building in Adyar a few years back in the hope that one day he would have to return to his mother land to live here for ever. It had been rented out to a tenant who happily vacated the premises well before Chitra’s marriage.
Chitra knew very little about her husband, Dr. Prabhu Srinivasan. She had met him in her London home only briefly with a ‘Hi’, “Hi’ kind of greeting. Later that evening after dinner, her father Dr. T. Ranjan, FRCS and mother Janaki told her frankly that they had chosen Dr. Prabhu Srinivasan, MBBS, MS as her future husband. Did she like him who was on a 3-month practical training on Kidney transplant under her father?
Chitra rounded her mouth and made a whistling sound. “Y-e-sss” said the Arts graduate from Bedford new college, London.
The parents had been drilling into her that her future lay in India and not in England and only a South Indian Brahmin wouldmake a good husband for her. And Chitra, in her heart, had come to accept that India would be her permanent
home along with an Indian husband. She had personal knowledge of many Indian girls marrying Englishmen. Their married life had remained most unhappy or had ended in divorce. Therefore, Chitra decided to make a success ofher life with Prabhu..
That Wednesday morning, the day after their wedding, Prabhu and Chitra moved into villa de London.
It was a quiet entry into a new house. There were no other onlookers. Normally, the groom’s parents should have been present but Prabhu told his mother obliquely not to come to the house warming occasion.
“Well, our own house. You have to convert it into a home. You know how to do it, I suppose?” Prabhu appried her.
“Of course, I will and I shall. I know how to keep a house spick and span. Haven’t I done that back in London?”
Unfortunately Prabhu had to join duty that very day at the Appollo hospital. He was their ‘kidney transplant’ specialist and wouldn’t give him more than three days leave. He left for work sharp at 0800 after a quick breakfast, ordered from a nearby restaurant. He had told the restaurant to supply the midday meal for Chitra. As regards dinner that day he would decide after he returned from work.
Chitra got down to sweeping and swabbing all rooms. The ground floor had three bedrooms, a spacious living room and so on, measuring about 1000 square feet. “ Too large for two,” she told herself. At 1230 hours, the calling bell rang. “Who could it be?” Chitra was a careful woman; she wouldn’t allow any stranger inside her home. She opened the front door a crack yet keeping the chain hooked. She saw a small boy with a tiffin carrier. “What’s this?” she asked.
“Oh, Dr. Prabhu had ordered this? How nice of him? Do bring the thing inside, young man.”
By the time Prabhu returned home the time was nearly 6.30 p.m. He noticed that the house had had a terrific get up and it was looking well done too. After a wash and evening coffee he announced that they were going to his house at Anna nagar for dinner with his parents.
Chitra didn’t look happy at all. She didn’t even acknowledge the statement. But go, she had to.
“Welcome, welcome,” Srinivasan greeted the young couple.
“Settling down process going on well?” “Oh, she had done it all, Pappa. Everything in place. I couldn’t believe it myself.” Srinivasan leaned over and complimented his daughter- in- law.
When Anjali Srinivasan asked if the restaurant food was nice for lunch, Chitra said, “Yes, Missus Srinivasan. Nice.” Anjali got a shock. “Missus Srinivasan? Couldn’t she have addressed me aunty if not athai (mother-in- law in Tamil) she whined silently.
But she wasn’t put off. Prabhu had already warned her about Chitra’s animosity for MILs in general. “All right, all right, my girl. I shall make you my daughter one day.”
Two days later Prabhu asked his wife, “Won’t you like to keep a servant maid? You can’t be maintaining such a huge house all by yourself?”
“Oohh. Are maids available here?”
“Of course, for around Rs.2500 a month.”.
“ 2500? How much is that in British pounds?”
“About 35 to 36 pounds.”
“So cheap? Yes, let’s have one.”
On the following morning, Alamelu, 35, reported for work. Anjali had briefed Alamelu how to go about the job.
Chitra welcomed her. “Oh Hi, Alamelu. You can do all work, you said? Sweeping, swabbing, dusting.. and .. and ….”
Alamelu completed the sentence with “Cooking.”
“And how long will you be in the house?”
“Whole day, madam. You have to give me lunch, that’s all. I shall be here sharp at 7 a.m.”
“Oh, that’s fine Alamelu.”
Days and weeks passed by. Prabhu and Chitra had well settled down in their home and got used to their own routine except that Chitra didn’t make any friends. Nor did she feel like having any. She was a housebound little bird with her TV and computer and telephone.
“That’s not the way to live in the world. It may be so in England but in India……,” Prabhu was going to say but restrained himself. He would leave the reforming process to his mother.
Exactly six months after marriage, Chitra found herself pregnant. Six weeks into it, she had gone in for morning sickness. Vomiting, vomiting and vomiting. Chitra wished her mother were in Chennai to hold her head tight whenever she brought out the digested stuff. But no. She couldn’t ask Alamelu to do that. So, she had to go through the ordeal with great will power. “Should the damned vomiting occur only after Prabhu leaves for work….?”
That Monday evening, Alamelu threw a bomb shell. She wanted a week’s leave. Some wedding in the family, which she couldn’t miss.
Chitra was wild. Couldn’t Alamelu see that she was unwell?. Was this the time to abandon her? Chitra felt helpless. Alamelu was adamant. She wouldn’t be coming for work from the following morning.. “All right. Go. Don’t forget to come back next Tuesday, understand?”
Little did Chitra know that all these have been engineered by Anjali Srinivasan. Though Alamelu protested, she was compelled to take a week’s leave with full pay.
While Chitra got up and wondered how she would prepare the breakfast for Prabhu and do all the house work with a palpitating stomach, the call bell whirred. “Has Alamelu changed her mind..?” Chitra opened the front door and faced a smiling mother-in-law. “Oh, Missus. Srinivasan? Do come in. Do come in.”.
Even before Chitra explained her predicament, Anjali said, “Prabhu told me about Alamedlu’s leave. Stupid woman. Anyway , doesn’t matter, Chitra. I will stand in for her. OK?”
“What an angel?” Chitra felt.
The breakfast was delicious But then… then …. It threatened to come out and it did. Immediately, Anjali cupped her palms and collected the spew and towed Chitra to the water basin and held her head tight as she vomited more
Chitra felt very relieved. “Thank you, Missus. Srinivasan. I am feeling hungry again now…”
“Wait, wait, I shall bring some iddli and chutney.”
“Should I eat it only to bring it out a little later?” “Yes, yet you must eat, my child. Can’t leave your stomach empty ever…”
Anjali laid Chitra in bed and started feeding her with her own fingers like Chitra was a small baby. Chitra somehow loved being fed. The food tasted better too. “Liking it?” Chitra nodded.
“Now, relax, Chitra. I shall take care of everything. By lunch time, Chitra was free from the vomiting nausea. Anjali insisted on feeding her herself Chitra didn’t protest.
Anjali prepared the dinner also and was ready to leave after her son came home. As Anjali was on her way out, Chitra asked, “Missus Srinivasan, thank you. Er.. er…will you be.. er …will you be…. coming tomorrow?”
“Do you want me to ?”
“If you don’t mind …”
“Sure, my child. See you at seven. OK?”
”Thank you, thank you indeed.”
The mother- in- law took charge of Villa de London for the whole week.
Chitra enjoyed this break and the fuss of Missus Srinivasan feeding her. She never used a spoon but her own fingers. Chitra relished every morsel.
Came Monday . Alamaelu was expected to come for work from next day.
Anjali left the lunch plate at the side table and went over to complete the rest of the work for the day. When she came back, she found the lunch plate lying untouched. “Haven’t you eaten your lunch, my child ?”
“Aren’t you going to feed me amma?” Chitra said most legibly.
“Amma, did you say magale ? (daughter).” Anjali felt two little mountains choking her throat. She couldn’t speak. Totally moved, Anjali enveloped Chitra with her arms, hugged her fondly and sobbed like a child.
Two streams of warm tears rolled down Chitra’s cheeks. She too cried chanting, “Amma, my Amma. Don’t leave me. Stay here ……”
As Anjali felt stunned at the invitation, she heard Chitra say, “Why don’t you move here, Amma? You and Appa? (father). Let’s all live together. This is too big a house just for the two of us?”.