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Charumathi, who was roasting the ingredients for dhal powder, switched off the stove and turned around to see her son standing with a very worried face.
"Shall I extend my leave?"
"There is absolutely no need for that, Kanna. Do not worry about me." Although she put up a brave front, she could feel her heart beat racing up. She hid her shivering hands behind the pallu of her saree.
Could anything hide the condition of the mother from her son? What a blow it had been! Exactly fifty three days before, Charumathi's husband, Sivarathinam who had gone to Rathina Travels, which was just two streets away, for arranging a spiritual trip to North India, returned home only as a lifeless body. What kind of a demon is this condition called heart attack, visiting the victim silently and snatching away the soul of existence? Sixty seven years may not be a young age, but it takes a lot more to face the fact that someone who had been part of one's life for decades, through all its ups and downs, is gone for ever, never to return back. Charumathi , a strong woman by nature, stood brave. Even when she overheard someone commenting that she was stone hearted, she remained silent. What was the need for her to display her pain?
Sivarathinam's body was kept in the hospital mortuary until their three children, Dharani settled in USA, Sivaganesh, an Engineer working in an oil rig near Bahrain and Harini, a medical student at Manipal Medical College joined Charumathi. Her grief, which had gradually subdued during the fifteen days of rituals, followed by weeks of running around for work involving name transfer in bank accounts, property, gas connection, electricity connection and soon, was ready to burst out in full flow looking at her son's face, but she calmed herself silently.
"Amma, Dharani has already left for the US, Harini is back in college. What will you do when I am also gone?" as he held his mother's hand, Sivaganesh's eyes swelled with tears.
"Ganesh, will you father like anybody crying in this house? You should stop worrying about me. Anyway you have ten days off every two months. Sivaguru is nearby. Srini anna is also there. I also have the company of our pet, Rocky."
"Yes Ganesh. Anni is right. We will take care of her", Sivarathinam's younger brother, Sivaguru promised. His daughter, Deepika hugged Charu, "I shall give company to periamma during the nights." Sivaganesh patted his cousin sister's head affectionately.
It is said time and tide never wait for anyone. To fight her loneliness, Charu enrolled herself in French lessons and painting classes. She would spend the evenings in temples and then later take Rocky for the daily stroll. Deepika would come around 8 in the night and leave only after her morning drink. She would spend the time entertaining Charu with stories from her school. Some nights they would watch movies on television. Deepika ensured Charu ate properly. Things were moving fine until Charu found that Deepika's studies were getting affected by this arrangement.
As she gave Deepika her cup of morning milk, Charu said softly, "Deepu, this entire month, you have been feeding me not only food but also lots and lots of courage. My body cannot take anymore than this."
"Periamma'" , Deepika was concerned.
"No kanna, I cannot let your studies be disturbed. It will be convenient for you to attend extra classes only if you stay in your house. But promise me that you will come here during the weekends."
"Definitely", Deepika was relieved.
That was the first night Charumathi felt loneliness hit her like a forceful storm battering a tender plant. Music or movies could not give her any comfort. With her throat going dry, she went to the fridge for a cup of cold water. Rocky moaned seeing her, as if it could feel her loss. As she rubbed her dog with words of comfort, she was not sure if sleep was possible for her. She rummaged through her husband's book shelf. As she was mechanically turning the pages of a newspaper bound book, a picture fell on to her lap. With a jolt, she looked at the picture. It was a pencil portrait of Sivarathinam. She remembered having sketched it herself and gifted it to her husband along with a copy of Rajaji's book, 'Chakravathi Thirumagan', for their fifth or sixth wedding anniversary. She was surprised he had kept them intact even after so many years. She carried them both back to her bed. As she immersed herself in the book, she didn't know when she fell asleep. From that day onwards, the picture and the book became her bedtime companions.
In the mean time, Sivaganesh came home for his usual days off. Life seemed a little easier with her doting son around. When he returned to work, she once again surrendered herself to Rama and Seetha. Alas, if Lakshmi of the world, Herself had to suffer so much, what could be said for Charumathi, a mere mortal? Her heart cried for Hanuman, "If you could unite Ram and Sita, why can't you do the same to me?" Rocky could sense her mental state, whose moans and cries increased day after day. Charumathi dreaded the nights. Her self- morale plummeted down. As sleep evaded her during the nights, she felt exhausted during the day. After Deepika stopped coming, Charu was never regular with her dinner and this condition spilled over her to day time cooking, with the result she had constant dizziness and black-outs. Her hobbies, art classes, temple visits, everything went for a toss. All this happened despite the constant attention and care given to her by both Sivaguru's and her brother Srinivasan's family. Actually their concern was fueling the fire, Charu felt their compassion too much to bear, was her life being over dependant on others? What was the purpose in a life filled with pity from others? With constant headaches and dizzy spells, she had to be given intravenous fluids twice.
When Sivaganesh came home for his next break, he was shocked to the see the condition of his mother. She had aged a decade in two month's time. Despite Charumathi's protests, Ganesh left Rocky in a pet care centre. He was firm, "Rocky will come back only after you regain your normal health." He advertised for a paying guest accommodation in his house, but had no takers while he was off duty. All the same, he left Charumathi in her brother's house and left for work. Contradictory to Ganesh's opinion, a change of place had no effect on Charumathi. Srinivasan and his wife, Geetha felt helpless.
"Charu, why can't we all spend sometime in Pondichery Aurobind Ashram?" Srinivasan's heart bled for his younger sister.
"Ok anna, I will go to my house and bring appropriate clothes." Geetha also accompanied Charumathi to her house. As Charumathi reached the upper shelf in her cupboard, she could feel a packet under the sarees. As her gaze fixed on its contents, Geetha touched her sister-in-law's shoulder comfortingly.
"I can understand how you must be feeling Charu. I can't imagine seeing something which had been around your neck for decades' every single minute, is now inside a wrap. Why don't you get this mangal sutra made into a black bead or some other type of chain? You can atleast have the comfort of wearing the mangal sutra tied by anna in some form?"
Charumathi looked up at Geetha in surprise, "Anni, Dharani also suggested the same, but I was not so sure."
"We will get it done after we come back from Podichery", Geetha assured Charumathi.
While Srinivasan planned two weeks stay at the Ashram, fate had other plans for them as they reached Pondichery. Rocky's death forced them to take the next available return bus to Chennai. As she stared at her husband's picture, her heart cried, "While you were around I lived like a Queen, with not a single worry in life. Now every single passing moment feels like hell. Why are you being silent? Can't you see my suffering? How are you going to get me out of this?" She sighed deeply as she put the book with the picture inside her bag and zipped it close.
The driver slammed the brakes hard suddenly, jolting the passengers off their seats. A foreign woman climbed the bus in a fearful state. Her dress was torn and she had bruises on her face and hands. A rowdy climbed in after her and tried to pull her down from the bus. In a fit of the moment, Charumathi, who was sitting in the front seat, went to the woman's rescue. As Charumathi struggled, other passengers joined her. The irritated rowdy left the foreign woman, instead caught hold of Charumathi, dragging her along with him as he got off the bus. He pushed her down and fled. Charumathi fainted as her head hit a rock. As both the women needed immediate medical attention, the driver immediately started the bus and left them at Rajiv Gandhi hospital.
When Charumathi regained consciousness, she was totally shattered to find that her bag with the book and picture gone with the drunkard. All her bottled up emotions, grief, helplessness, fear, pain, anger erupted like a volcano. Srinivasan broke down too. Geetha struggled trying to calm down the brother ' sister duo.
They returned to Chennai next day. Harini and Sivaganesh also came back to be with their mother. Under their strict care, her physical health improved slightly, but there was no cure for her mental health. All her thoughts and words converged on one point, her death. Unable to take this anymore, Geetha burst out one day, "Charu, are you the same woman whose courage and strength we have always admired? Can't you see how your negative thoughts and feelings are reverberating around this house? Won't they affect your children and their future offspring? Look at them.. have they not suffered enough? First let go off this 'death' business. We cannot understand the calculations of God. But every of His action has a hidden meaning which may be beyond our grasp. What has happened has happened. There is no way we can change that. Please try to learn to accept that, at least for the sake of your children." Sivaganesh and Harini looked at their aunt gratefully.
"Sir", someone was at the front door. Sivaganesh moved towards the entrance.
"I have come seeing the paying guest advertisement. Sir, are you Sivaganesh from Kalamandir school, Mudichur?"
"Yes", Ganesh was surprised. "You are..?"
"Karthikraj. I was five years your junior in the same school. I used to be your fan when you played for the school basket ball team." Ganesh smiled happily and took Karthikraj inside the house.
After the introductions were over, Karthik spoke, "I drive a tourist cab. I am looking for accommodation for a woman relative. She has no mother and her father is a hopeless fit for nothing drunkard. As we were looking at ways for her to escape from his clutches, she got a telephone operator job in a private nursing home near your house. Her father is not aware of her appointment. Now is the time for her to move on."
"What do you mean by relative?"
"We plan to get married", Karthik was soft but firm.
"What if her father comes here?" Harini was not convinced.
"They are now in Pillaiyarkuppam near Cuddalore. It is highly impossible for him to look for her all the way here. Anycase I will be visiting her frequently to ensure she is safe."
"Karthik, let us go refuel my bike and reminisce our school days." Sivaganesh took Karthik out and explained everything about Charumathi.
"I am least bothered about the rent. All I need is a good and safe company for my mother."
"You need not have that worry anymore, Sir. I am not saying this because she is my fiancee. Annapoorani is a wonderful gem and it is unfortunate that good for nothing fellow never realized his daughter's worth", Karthik sighed. This is how Annapoorani ended up as a paying guest in Charumathi's house. Her world became a small but happy circle rather triangle which included just her job, her room and Charumathi. She was ever so grateful to Charumathi's family to have provided her a safe and friendly place, in spite of them knowing about her bitter past. She did not hesitate to take up all the chores around the house as her responsibility.
"You don't have to cook separately, Poorani. It is nothing big for me to do something extra for you", when Charumathi told Annapoorani, it was her children who rejoiced more with the knowledge that Charu would cook and eat something. As they shared their thoughts with Poorani, she assured, "Don't worry, Anna. I can guarantee that when you come home next time, amma's weight would have increased."
Annapoorani learnt drawing and improved her spoken English with Charumathi as her wonderful teacher. They would discuss about current issues and during weekends when Deepika also joined them, it became unbelievably enjoyable. Life became much more peaceful and routine. Though there was a small yearning for the 'Chakravarthy Thirumagan' and the pencil sketch, slowly and steadily Charumathi began to let go off her ill feelings and started her journey towards normalcy, until the day Karthiraj stood before her with a sad face.
"Amma, Poorani's maternal grandfather passed away in Manjakuppam. I shall take her there and bring her back in two three days time. Is that ok with you, amma? Can you manage alone?"
"It is ok to miss weddings, but never a funeral. Please take her with you and return safely. Meanwhile I will go to my brother's house. I have an important work pending. Let me get that finished now." Charumathi didn't see the book and the picture returning back to her in this life, so she decided to change her mangal sutra into a chain as suggested by Geeta and Dharani.
But as luck would have it, when Charumathi went to her brother's place, his daughter delivered a baby very much before the due date. The 'chain' matter just got postponed. Charu helped her sister-in-law in taking care of the new mother and the little bundle of joy for the next two weeks. When she came back to her house, she was surprised to see that Poorani had not returned back to Chennai. She contacted Karthikraj immediately, who simply said that Poorani's father also died and he would come in person in a few days time and explain everything.
It took more than few minutes for Charumathi to recognize Annapoorani who came by an auto with a trunk and four carton boxes. She felt instant pity for Poorani. Wasn't Charu in the same state as Poorani just months back? She hugged the younger girl comfortingly, "Karthik told me about your father, what happened, Poorani?"
"It is all fate, amma. That fellow, it is disgusting to use the word 'father' for such a filthy person, that fellow came for my grandfather's funeral. He spoke to me well without any anger or resentment. I trusted him and went back to my house with him. But he had never changed. In an inebriated state, he tried... he.. me.. I.. his own daughter..", Poorani broke down uncontrollably. Charumathi helped Poorani sit on the sofa and fetched her a glass of water.
"But luckily, before things got out of hand, I ran out of the house. As he was chasing me, he tripped and fell down. The injury on his head took his life away."
"I can see what you have gone through, Poorani. No words can comfort you now. Only time will heal your mental wounds. Karthik's affection and love would help immensely."
Annapoorani moved her boxes to her room. She enquired about Charu's health and Charu told Poorani about her niece and her newborn. They finished their dinner in silence.
"Shall I sleep in your room, amma?"
Next day, Dharani called from the US saying she had sent the necessary documents for Charumathi's visa processing. Karthik also came to help Annapoorani unpack her belongings. Charu entered Poorani's room with the tea tray and Karthik took it from her and placed it down. As Charumathi disinterestedly glanced at the things spread out on the floor... open carton boxes...plastic and stainless steel utensils... clothes..books... her eyes bore into a seemingly familiar newspaper bound book. As she walked like a robot, picked up the book and opened it, Sivarathinam smiled at her meaningfully. Her heart leapt in joy.
"What is this, Poorani?" she asked as calmly as possible.
"I found the book inside a bag in my house, amma. I donot know about the other contents of the bag. If it had been stolen by that fellow, supposed to be my father, I am sure they would have got exchanged at the Tasmac shop."
'I know my dear girl. The priceless items of the bag have returned back to me. Geetha anni, did you not say the other day that we can never understand the calculations of God? How right you are! I was so bitter that I had to suffer for willing to offer a small help, but hasn't He given me another life through the same rowdy's daughter? He also punished my offender with a similar but bigger punishment and how... by his own blood.. his own offspring! Is it enough to have a 'mathi' in my name? Did I really understand what I was doing, destroying my life in sheer self pity and helplessness? Rama... Sita... You have made me realize that making life meaningful is in our hands.. in our own control and that was a master stroke making my husband also to take part in this drama!' Charu was in ecstasy.
"Poorani, I have long been thinking about getting this book. Will you allow me to keep this one, please?"
Annapoorani got up immediately and held Charumathi's hand. "Amma, what is this? Why are you pleading me like this? Everything here, including me belongs to you", she became emotional.
"Thanks, Poorani." Charumathi walked out of the room carrying the book delicately as if she was carrying a new born baby. She returned back within a few minutes time and handed over a box to Karthik. Poorani and Karthik became wide eyed looking inside the box.
"This was the mangal sutra tied by my husband with whom I have spent more or less thirty seven happy years. This is my wedding gift to you both. Though it is worn out, it would still amount to thirty or thirty five grams. Please exchange this for a new mangal sutra and get married soon. Will you?" Poorani and Karthik fell at her feet.
"May God bless you with all happiness and prosperity", she felt immensely relieved and at peace. "I will be leaving for the states shortly. You begin your married life here in this house itself. I plan to spend six months here and six months there. Please give me a small room whenever I come back here. As long as I am strong, I am going to take care of the grandchildren in both the places and that would include your children also", as Charumathi smiled mischievously, Poorani blushed in happiness.
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