She Spoke in Tongues - 11

Glory Sasikala

Serialized novel, by Glory Sasikala

through thunder and lightning
through Sunshine and rain
through all that’s frightening
the Moon does still reign...

The days following Sushanth’s death were difficult ones, especially because it was a suicide. Queries, police station visits, some more queries, reports to be went on and on...
Between working and coping with this onslaught, the women had little time to assess how they felt. Dinner table talk helped a lot. It was the only time of the day that they spent together. Tharani had made that a rule.
“Pass me the chapattis," said Sheila.
“Sitara, please serve everyone,” said Tharani, sitting down comfortably.
Sitara served them all and sat down. They ate in silence for a while.
“When will it all be over? I'm fed up!” she said.
“Me too!” said Sheila. “Papers, papers, and more papers! Ah bah!”
“It’s not just that. I don't know what to think about Daddy’s death,” said Sitara.
“You have to feel sad,” Yamini pointed out.
“I cry a lot,” said Sheila, “I cry in my bed. I cry all over my pillow.”
“That's good,” said Tharani, “You should cry. He was your father. He wasn’t all a husband, mostly. But he was a good father. We had some good times.”
“I will always remember him for the sacrifices he made to take care of us, especially when we came to Madras. He took care of us all the way. He carried you Sheila. And you too, Sitara,” Yamini said.
“Yes, yes, he did!” said Sheila, her voice trembling. “We’re so much a family despite everything. We are one unit. I think that’s what hurts the most. One of us is gone!”
Tharani nodded, and there were tears in her eyes, “Yes, that’s the hardest part. He left me....but he was always a part of me. We understood each other.”
“I feel....” said Sheila, hesitantly, “I feel that we could have stopped him… I feel guilty.”
They grew silent, each lost in her own thoughts.
“I'm not sure we could have,” said Tharani, firmly, “Our reactions were normal. He did and said wrong things and we reacted to it as any normal right-thinking person would. He should not have said or done those things. And he should have had the courage to rectify his mistakes and live. It wasn’t all that difficult a thing to do considering he had a roof over his head, a job, food to eat, and people who forgave him easily and loved him. He had a lot going for him and he knew it. He was an immigrant who had seen and dealt with worse situations, and he would surely have known this was not the way out.”
Yamini nodded, “Yes, he was rich both in love and money. This was not a right decision. I think it was guilt. Guilt that he had failed as father and husband. I think he felt he was a burden now, not a contributing member.”
“And I guess he felt that his dying would reduce that and maybe set things right in some way. I think he thought he was doing us a favour,” said Sitara.
“He wasn't!” said Sheila, now wailing loudly, “I wish he hadn’t died. Oh, Mamma!” and she turned to her mother and put her arms around her and buried her face in her shoulder and cried.
Sitara and Yamini were crying too. No one left the table. “I wish that too!" said Sitara.
They understood each other’s sorrow. No one wanted to leave the table. They just sat there, crying. Somehow it seemed okay to do that.
Life will go on for sure. They had managed without him and they will manage very well without him, but for was his physical presence that they missed so deeply. It was love in its purest form.
Days passed by… Seasons changed. Autumn gave way to winter and winter to spring.
Tharani stood at the foot of the long flight of steps and looked up at the temple right at the top. She could see the unrelenting blue sky above, with the Sun beating down. Could she do it? Did she have the strength? Did she have what it took to get to the top?
This was her penance. Tharani, the extremely religious woman, believed in penances and prayers. So what was she praying for this time? She was praying for the well-being of her girls—that they live a happy life, that they get married and have children. She was praying for her dream of having grandchildren to come true. Love is a powerful motivating force and so is posterity.
She took the first step, then the next, and soon she was on her way. She sat down and rested for a while at the landings of each flight of steps before moving on. There was no hurry. She had practiced climbing up and down stairs at home just to be able to do this, and it helped her now. Soon she was almost at the top. She could see the trees clearly now, the people moving in and out of the temple, circling the temple and ringing the bell. She could hear the chants.
She took a deep breath and climbed up the last flight of steps. And then, she was at the top! She had done it!
Tharani's heart was racing. She moved to the railing. The steps were cut out from a rock on the hillside itself. It was amazing how well it was done considering how old the temple was. It had been built centuries ago when there were no machines. It had all been manually chiselled out. The railings on either side were made out of the rock too and were broad. They doubled up as seats for weary travellers to rest on before moving on. There were monkeys everywhere. You could hear their screams as they moved around. Most of them were tame and harmless except for the fact that they could take off with the belongings if one wasn’t careful. The best way to treat them was to leave some bananas and snacks on the railings for them to pick up. But never feed them by hand because, then, they followed you around expecting some more where that came from.
Tharani sat there till her heartbeat normalized. She then looked down the steps. Had she really climbed up all those? Wow!! She felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. “I still have strength,” she thought, “And while I am strong....” she turned the other way and looked at the temple, "while I am strong, you, my God, must help me settle my girls.”
She got up and climbed up the short distance to the temple. This part, although a very short distance indeed, was somehow harder. There were no steps, just a gradual slope that led to the temple.
She was breathless again when she reached the temple and had to stand there for a while.  She could hear the ringing of the bell as the priest did the puja. She could see the worshippers outside, standing with folded hands. The chants...some more ringing. The priest came out with a plate in which camphor had been lit. He waved the fire in the direction of the worshippers on all sides of the railing, and then he went in. Some more ringing...
Tharani waited for the puja to finish, then she went into the cool interior of the temple. The moment her feet touched the cool marble, she felt a sense of peace descend on her. It was always like this. She was closer to her God; she was home.
She went up to the railing. The priest came out and she gave him her offerings of flowers, fruits, coconuts, etc., and said, “For the well-being of my daughters.” But the priest did not take her offerings. She looked at him, confused and repeated, “Please take the offerings. It is for the well-being of my daughters.”
He smiled and gave it back to her and went in. She turned. Yamini and Sitara were standing there and smiling at her. “What are you doing here?” asked Tharani, “And how did you come up?”
“By bus,” grinned Sitara, “We can't climb steps and all. We’re too old and I have arthritis.”
Yamini was smiling at her mother, “We saw you leaving and followed you.”
“Where is Sheila?”
Yamini pointed to a place further down where a few steps had been cut from the rock. It was surrounded by trees and very cool and shady. Sheila was there. She had placed some food for the monkeys and was talking to them.
Tharani sighed. She smiled at her elder daughters, “What do you want?”
“We want you to sit and talk to us before you say all these prayers.”
“There's nothing to say. I’m just praying for your well-being.”
“You’re praying for us to get married you blackguard!” said Sitara, dramatically, “You should be shot dead.”
“So what? I'm just praying.”
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Sitara, even more dramatically, putting a hand to her forehead, “Just praying!! Where is your faith woman?”
Yamini burst out laughing, and even Tharani was smiling. “Get out of my way girls. Go back home. I left home to escape from you all and you’ve come here too. The monkeys are better than you.”
“I can see that,” said Sitara, pointing to a couple of monkeys. They were sitting on the railing and one monkey was taking out tics from the other monkey’s fur, “You can take them home.”
“What do you want?” Tharani demanded.
Yamini went up to her mother, “Come,” she said, leading her towards the shady place, “We will sit and talk.”
“Okay,” said Tharani, docilely, allowing herself to be led.
Yamini led her there, then let go of her arm. Tharani sat down on the landing, her feet on the steps below.
Yamini and Sitara sat down to the left of her, on the railing. Sheila, who had turned to see them come, now abandoned the monkeys and sat down at her mother’s feet.
“Well?” said Tharani.
Yamini took her hand and placed it between hers, “We understand that you want what’s best for us. But there are somethings that we want too...our wishes. We want you to respect these wishes.”
She saw that Tharani was listening to her intently, and she continued, “ know that we girls...especially Sitara and I....we are different from the girls our age. You know that. We have seen things, experienced some things, and now, we’re in a place in our lives where we have always wanted to be. We are happy, we are at peace. Nobody has bombed our house, no one know. We earn well, the right way! We enjoy life. We love coming home, to see your face, thinking, “What did she cook for us today?” Thinking how was Sitara’s day? Did Sheila pass her exams? I rush home feeling happy. For the first time in my life…and in Sitara’s life...Let it be this way. Please allow it to be this way. This...this climbing up the ladder all the time! Getting married, facing discrimination, having our past hauled up against us, having to prove that we are good women. Enough Mamma! We just want to be with you. We don't want all these things.  Please let us be!”
Tharani's eyes filled with tears, but she kept quiet. She took the pallo of her sari and cried into that. Sitara placed an arm on Yamini's shoulder, but Yamini was firm. She sat there waiting for her mother to come to.
Eventually, she looked up and at Sitara. “Do you also feel the same way?”
“Oh yes!” said Sitara, promptly. "You’re just finding ways to get rid of me. If I go, who will wipe their hands on your sari pullo? Who will give you sudden hugs? Who will share all your very personal stuff with you? Who will eat from your plate? Ah? Tell me!”
There was complete silence after this speech as Tharani stared at her daughter, wide-eyed. Then she asked slowly, Am I to say ‘thank you’?”
“I think so! The least you can be is grateful.”
Yamini’s lips quivered and her eyes were full of merriment.
Tharani said doubtfully, “Thank you?”
“You can do better than that!! It will do for now. Keep practising.”
Tharani looked at Yamini and they both burst out laughing. Sitara grinned, then started to giggle, which turned to full-blown laughter. Sheila was laughing too.
They all laughed and laughed. Finally, Tharani wiped the tears from her face and blew her nose.
“Well, if that's the way you girls feel, I have nothing left to say. I can't force you into marriage.”
“Yey!” Yamini and Sitara did a hi-five.
“I will never have grandkids.”
“Oooohh!! So that was your plan all along. We’re just some sacrificial goats so that you can have grandkids.”
“I’m not saying...”
“You just did!”
“Ah, well, everyone dreams of holding their grandkids and buying them toys and spoiling them rotten.”
“Sheila will do the needful.”
“What!” said Sheila, shocked, “What did you just say?”
“Well,” explained Sitara, “It’s the right thing to do. Step up girl! Be a hero. Have three kids, one for each of us, and dump them all on Mummy and get going.”
“Do I look like a baby making machine to you?”
Sitara reached out and patted Sheila’s stomach. “Nice stomach. Big....accommodative…”
Sheila squealed and moved away from her hands. “Stop it! Mummy, stop her!”
Tharani reached out and spanked Sitara on the arm.
'Ouch!” said Sitara, “That hurt!”
“It was meant to.”
“You're mean!”
But she reached out and flung herself on her mother. The hug sent them both spiralling backwards on the landing.
Tharani screamed, “Sitara! Get off me! Please! Yamini, don’t just sit there! Do something! Help!”
Passers-by and smiled at the scene.
Sitara got off her mother and sat down. Tharani got up too and glared at her. “You do that once more, I’ll....”
“I’m hungry,” Sitara said, changing the topic abruptly, the way only she could.
“Me too!”
“Me too!”
Tharani sighed, “Then let’s go have breakfast in some hotel.”
“Malli Idli Shop, said Yamini, “They have the best idlis.”
They all nodded.
“And their idli podi is just yum!” said Sitara.
“You girls are sure you don’t want to get married?”

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