In the 1980’s, when Tamizh Cinema was at its peak and Tamizh Nadu politics was all pervasive,
The house was two blocks away from the beach, and every morning, Karthik Mama, my mother’s brother, went there to jog and flirt with the pretty, modern Indian girls. Mama had a strict code of clothes for different occasions, inspired by Tamizh-movie heroes mostly, with a dash here and there of Amitabh Bachan and Clint Eastwood. 1980’s were the days when Madrasis were transforming into a Western-Indian blend, and it was perceived that the way one dressed showed the degree of their modern bent of mind! Mama was a serious advocate of that, refusing to wear any Tamizhian clothes. Jogging time was shorts and T-shirt, sometimes with a tennis-band around his head and another band around his wrist, mind you, it was to impress the girls, and had nothing what-so-ever to do with sports. He hardly played anything physically challenging. His best sport was Chess, but he couldn’t carry around a chess-board, so he chose the tennis-look. Evenings were bell-bottomed pants and tight shirts with first three buttons open, coupled with sun-glasses and gold-watches.
Karthik Mama had sworn on his soul that he would not marry a South Indian, as according to him, most South Indian women were extremely narrow minded and did not care about their physical appearance once they got married. He was inspired by the many love stories he watched in the Tamizh movies, and vowed to marry a girl he would fall in love with.
Ironically, on the same day that the ravishing beauty, Payal, had finally spoken to him, who he had been pursuing for weeks, that `bloody scoundrel' entered the house about the same time as my Uncle. The ‘bloody scoundrel' refers to the marriage broker, Venkatachalam, a man of fifty, with a rudraksh chain around his neck, thick rimmed spectacles, and a huge amount of ash and kumkum on his forehead, three stripes of ash parellel to each other horizontaly across the forehead, and a huge dot of kumkum to finish. Completely bald. He was a small made man in white dothi and shirt and always, just always seemed as though he was staring agape at something. When he spoke, it was with difficulty trying to keep the red betel juice inside his mouth from spilling.
My Thatha was sitting on his easy chair in the outside verandah reading his news paper, and drinking his coffee from the duvra-set next to him on the bamboo tea-poy. My Patti was busy running between the kitchen and the pooja room. She considered it 'theetu', to do anything in the morning without completing pooja first. For that, she had to be pure. She also had to cook. It's true that she had two servants, very docile ones at that, but true to her Brahminism, she would not eat food that was cooked or touched by the servants. She wanted to cook everything by herself. She wanted to do all the poojas herself. So, that left her with no choice but to wake up at four in the morning and brood throughout the day on her strict, busy, self created schedule. It was quite a boon to work for Patti, one didn't have to do much cooking if one was a cook; the only criteria was that one should have the mental will-power to assimilate her incessant complaints and harsh words.
Mummy was then a trainee under my Patti's meticulous supervision. She helped in both cooking and pooja-work. My mother’s younger sister, Shrini Chitti, was considered incontinent, and Patti often sighed thinking how much work she had to do to change that girl and make her fit into tradition; but Patti was a fore-bearing woman willing to wait till time was right. For Patti, time was important. Her life and its doings were strictly according to the astrological time-table.
“Vanakum! Maami engai?!” Venkatachalam asked with an obvious effort to keep the beetle juice in his mouth from spilling out.
“Vanakam, why won't you tell me what the good news is first?” asked Thatha.
“You are going to be very happy, call Maami first!”
“Sarojini, inga vaa.” Thatha screamed.
Karthik Mama, my Uncle, says that this was the doomed moment of his life. He had been on a reverie where he was dancing with Payal to a Rajikanth song amidst all the paraphernalia of a Tamizh movie song, complete with the white-gowned angels dancing around them, when that scoundrel asked him,
“You would say OK to anything your Appa says, won’t you?” It seemed a very vague question, and my Uncle did not think before answering.
“Yes...” Karthik Mama had spent the rest of the morning in his room practicing in front of the mirror what to say to Payal the next afternoon. He could see the sea breeze make her soft silky hair flutter about her face, her fingers pushing them aside and behind her ears. He could see them walking by the sea holding hands...but that would come later.
What he did not know, was that Maami came to the verandah, and Venkatachalam showed them the jatakam of a very rich girl, from a respectable family.
“She has a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics!” Venkatachalam swanked.
“Do you have a photo of her?” asked Patti.
“No, but Mahalaksmi mari erupal,” Venkatachalam used the ever so popular Tamizh term to describe her, that she looked liked Goddess Mahalakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty and such. Now the word has lost its charm!
The next day, my Mama was literally kidnapped to the girl's house and my Patti threatened suicide by hanging herself to convince my Mama to marry Aunt Yamini. My Patti wouldn't hear of my Mama liking a North Indian girl. Poor Mama hadn't even proposed yet to Payal. They were just flirting, and he had only managed the day before to ask her to lunch, they were to go to Woodlands, and now this. That scoundrel Venkatachalam, he made ten thousand rupees from that marriage. He had five daughters to marry off and who would think that he, a marriage-broker, would have trouble finding bridegrooms for his daughters, and yet he had!
Mama never went to the beach again, until after I was six and forced him to take me, and rather disastrous events occurred, which included the presence of Payal. Details will come later, I'm not even born yet. Ironical to the word ‘Goddess Mahalakshmi’, Yamini was an angry faced, short woman and I always thought her features were like mathematics. Two sixty degree angles for eyebrows, two ellipsoids for eyes, one conical nose, a pair of quadrilateral lips, a pentagonal faced Yamini Aunty, and poor Karthik Mama. That's what the sea did to my Mama, the sea breeze always reminded him of Payal, and he consciously saw to it that he never went there again.
As for the sun, it was ten in the morning, and the sun was shining bright. Shrini Chitti woke up with a hangover. She had been out late, partying. And what a disgrace to our family that she drank and what audacity that she got drunk! My mother could not compound her emotions, which at these times ran very high, and she did not know what to do to keep the secret. What a horrible thing my Chitti had done, as a man who drank was considered indecent, a woman who drank, unutterable. My mother was so worn out trying to keep the secret that she called her two brothers and told them about my Aunt's abominable behaviour. If only my Thatha had heard about it, he would have had a heart attack.
To make matters worse, my Chitti was not yet married, and who would marry a woman with infernal characteristics. Internet marriage brokering was not available then. The family marriage broker, Venkatachalam, who had arranged for my mother's and my Mama's marriages, was having quite some trouble locating a suitable bachelor for Shrini Chitti. The problem was not her looks. Shrini looked like a photocopy of those attractive models who wore two-piece swim suits and bathed in exotic waterfalls as endorsement for bath soaps.
Chitti's problem, however, was her horoscope. It had read that when she married, her mother-in-law would die within a year. My Patti had my Chitti's jathakam re-written many times and finally got one to her liking, which stated that her in-law's will have many surprises awaiting them once their son married my Chitti. Still, not many offers came about. The previous offer of marriage came from the family of a balding man, and my Chitti refused him.
“Shri, wake up!” my Mummy was screaming into my Chitti's ear.
“No Akka, not so early...mm...” she rolled over and snuck into the sheets.
“Wake up or I'll pour hot water on your face.” Mummy was very angry. She had made that face she used when I did something hopelessly wrong beyond pardon. Like when I poured a glass of milk into the fish tank. Mummy gnarled her eye-brows, and they became very sinuous. I often wondered if they would come back to their original position.
Chitti tried one last time to curl up under her sheet, but this time, my mum pulled the sheet off of her. Chitti groused and yawned and finally opened her eyes.
“Have Appa and Amma come home yet?” she asked in her husky voice, as she finally remembered the dangers that lurked around the corner.
“No, not yet. You get up first, and tell me what on earth you thought you were doing.”
“It was only with all the other girls. Maya threw a party before she left to the
“So, you'll just go and drink? Does it occur to you that we come from a good family?” Well, that dialogue, if asked to be repeated now, Mummy would think twice.
After a lot of thought, they decided not to tell my grandparents about this incident. They made a pact that Chitti wouldn't drink again. Of course, it seems irrelevant now…
Shrini Chitti was twenty two, and a graduate in zoology from one the most popular women's colleges in
“You know age difference doesn’t matter to me!” Thata said, and went on to relate his criteria for potential son-in-laws, “He should be rich, or be in an extremely well paid position. The order of priority, Venkatachalam, is most important! First, I prefer Government Servants, if not that, secondly come the well paid private sector workers. And when I say Private sector workers, I inherently mean that he should hold an MBA degree, from
Chitti, however, wanted so much more. An avid reader of Victorian novels, she was waiting for a man with broad shoulders and a charm about him that would lure her to him. She expected romantic escapades, a potential Mr.Darcy or Mr.Knightly. But this wasn’t included in Thata’s priority list.
“Sir, I know your priority list! You see, this boy not only satisfies the criteria you mentioned, but also, Surya, the sun God, has blessed this union. You see their natchatras match so well they would prosper; wealth, children, no trouble,” babbled the scoundrel, amidst dirty glances from Karthik Mama.
Chitti refused. “No, No, he's not what I want!” she cried her perfect tears from those ineluctable eyes, while her model like face frowned.
“He is an Income Tax officer Shri, you can make so much money, just imagine, and you’ll have power, a big house and many cars, all you would ever want. Just say yes,” said Thatha, with his calculative advice.
“Amam Shri, you won't get a chance like this again, think about it! You will never find a man inclusive of all that you want, how long will you wait? This is life, this is reality, face it.” Patti...Oh, what a sham! You say such things when you did not believe in them in the first place. You got what you wanted didn't you?
Poor Chitti, considering that all her friends were already married, after pondering over the harsh realities of life at twenty two, accepted to marry Subbu Chitappa. Luckily, his mother had already passed away, so the jatakam was not a problem. Subramaniyam, a funny man who oiled his hair, always wore formal clothes with a black belt to push in his paunch, who we all loved, except Chitti. Little did she know that she would find her broad shouldered man; much later.
Chapter Nine---The three questions
3:00 A.M. Saturday
Insomniac Kadhambini, in white shorts and loose, brown sleeveless cotton top, switches on the television. This event occurred recently.
It was a documentary about
Diane: What does this chanting do?
Mahan: People think Hinduism answers all of life’s questions…
Mahan: Hinduism leads you in the path to find your Salvation…Hinduism is a guiding light, it’s all between you and the Ultimate being, nobody else, but you. There are three basic questions that one is asked. If one can answer these, he can attain Moksha. You have to search the answers to these questions in life…
1. Who am I?
2. Where do I come from?
3. Where am I going?
Diane: Well, I can’t say I know the answers. I still have a lot of
I smiled to myself. In one part of my head, I was proud of my culture (so exotic?), and how meaningful metaphysics is. I mean, who knows?! It’s all Maya (so stay in your room and rot? Nothing matters anyway) No! YOU should work out your salvation. Imagine if there is no Vishnu smiling at you from Dyusthana and you are all alone on this planet. It’s better to believe He is testing you, and that He will reward you in the end. Otherwise, you will end up like Kadhambini Ramalingam. Neither can she believe in dimple-faced Gods and cosmic-to-Prithvi flying Maruts, nor can she disbelieve in Maya and the concept of working out her Salvation—Nirvana. What’s the best way to escape this self-torment? Be Agnostic. Or better yet, be a novelist!
Chapter Twenty-One---Satya and Anrita
Satyameva jayathe! (Truth alone triumphs and not untruth)
Satya is the truth, Anrita is the un-truth, and there is also an enormous gray area in between. The kaleidoscope called life lets the eclectic patterns shimmer. The colored-glass and light contrive to flirt with your mind, it accommodates all your whims, and ultimately, you don’t know what is ‘Satya’ and what is ‘Anrita!’
Vyas, the long words boy, and Raghav, were arguing again in college. This time, it was about the American war on terror. Vyas was saying that the war was based on a bogus cause. The two fought over the Satya and Anrita of the war, and eventually ended up questioning war itself. Vyas had to add at the end,
“It’s not just the
Satya and Anrita stared us in the eye, as we realized that the world lives in the gray areas.