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Her pale face beamed in a pink hue, her worn out teeth bursting into a broad smile, her adrenalin
mounting as she climbed the platform of the compound wall to reach my face and share the news of the wedding of her granddaughter slated to take place in scenic Kottayam
HYDERABAD: My neighbour Mrs Chacko has gone on a holiday to Kottayam. In the last few years I have hardly seen her stirring out of the house. The only time she did was when she left for her granddaughter’s wedding. That day is still etched in my memory: for the first time I saw her reasonably presentable, her tiny frame dressed in a crisp cotton saree and a matching blouse! It is something very rare, to see her so elegantly attired.
There she was, supervising the locking of the house: this serious operation was conducted by the able and very efficient maid Pankajam, her confidante, companion, and soul mate. Just the previous day she handed me the precious wedding invitation, which obviously came from the printers a bit late: just on the eve of her departure – anyway she doesn’t have that many people to distribute the wedding cards to. She gave me elaborate details of the wedding venue, and the venue of the reception that would follow. We both knew that I was not going to attend that wedding in Kottayam (though I loved to, Kottayam is one of my favourite places, and it is very close to the place where Arundhati Roy had set her famous Booker story, “God of Small Things”).
During my periodic trips to Chennai, where we had a house in Harrington Road with a lovely garden, my interactions with Mrs Chacko grew over the short compound wall. We would exchange greetings, as she and Pankajam would be busy in the kitchen cooking enormous amounts of food. Wonder what they did with all the food – she lived alone with Pankajam coming in to help during the day. Her son lived in the same city, but elsewhere. In the evenings she had a sixty-watt bulb giving feeble light and a regional channel on the TV with a faint volume for company.
The news of the wedding she broke to me one afternoon with so much excitement and happiness! Her pale face beamed in a pink hue, her worn out teeth bursting into a broad smile, her adrenalin mounting as she climbed the platform of the compound wall to reach my face. As I told you earlier, she is a very small made woman, frail with old age and unkempt hair. She is dressed most of the time in a nightie. She reminded me of Hepzibah in “The House Of Seven Gables”.
Once I read somewhere that Nathaniel Hawthorne set his book in a house in Salem near Boston and there was a photograph too of the house, though it did not have any gables, leave alone seven. Anyway, I have a soft corner for this character and saw Hepzibah coming into life next door through Mrs Chacko.
Pankajam always greets me properly with a ‘namaskaaram’, dropping the broom abruptly on the ground and raising both her hands. I enquire after her health and she comes out with a short list of ailments.
Sometime back I saw that she lost a lot of weight (but I have not noticed any reduction in the cooking operations in Mrs Chacko’s kitchen), and suddenly started looking very trim and smart and I asked her the reason for the weight loss, putting in a little worry and sympathy in my voice for her sake, but she beamed saying her doctor is in fact, happy that she lost weight and has fewer ailments now. I smiled and agreed with her, amused at her new-found confidence and continued my walks in my garden.
So Mrs Chacko has gone on a holiday and the house looks deserted except for periodic visits by Pankajam to clean the courtyard: there is no watering required for her huge coconut and mango trees.
Now that Mrs Chacko is out of the station the cat is no more on the wall waiting for the remnants of fish: instead, I see three crows. Crows are a rarity in Hyderabad, especially in Banjara Hills where I live. Whenever I see a crow I look at it intensely, study its every movement and enjoy its crowing for a change. I started loving crows after I was introduced to them by R K Laxman. Thanks to him, the humble crow has earned much respect and dignity after he magnified its beauty in his sketches.
Robert Frost’s “The Raven” has earned only a bit of my curiosity but the “Kaaki” (kaaki is a crow in Telugu) has endeared itself to me through Laxman. As a child, I was never in touch with animals or pets and the only time we had a pet was for a brief period. It was a brown cocker spaniel with many virtues attributed to it. Looking back, now I know why Tikki (that was his name) never ate on Saturdays: though my people attributed his fasting on Saturdays to his deep religious faith and devotion to the family, it must have been for the simple reason that there was no non-veg in the household on sacred Saturdays. No devout Andhra household will ever utter the name of non-veg leave alone smell of it on Saturdays.
So the dog too didn’t touch the food, not out of reverence, but only as a silent protest. I didn’t realize this as a child and so I used to buy all such stories like how Tikki mourned my grandfather’s death by going around his body thrice. My grandfather passed away on Shiva Rathri and a lot of punyam was attributed to him on this account. Has that earned him Tikki’s symbolic homage? Or is it the unconditional love the dog gives its master? Don’t know which, but the act was always talked about.
(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer; she blogs at vijayaprataptravelandbeyond.com)