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February 24, 2012

Two new lives

A cloudy new moon night does not make it very bright in the dark outskirts of the town. Add to it, the sound made by the dry leaves of the tall coconut trees, the faint sight of the canopy swaying in the howling wind, and combine that with the harsh sound of the raging sea in full flow, challenging the rocks at the foot of the towering cliffs and that would be fairly enough to make the faint hearted faint in fear. The occasional hoot of the owl, the wailing howl of a dreamy village dog and other anonymous sounds would not help his nerves either.

Despite all that, a man was making his way along the coast. He was clad in black, with a black head dress and black gloves, black shoes. He was not too fair either.

He traveled quietly, stealthily to be exact in description. Ever vigilant, when he heard a noise, he hid behind rocks or beneath the bushes. He was hungry.

It was past midnight and the local hotels were pulling the shutters down. Homes would be soaked in slumber. There was no point in knocking the doors here, he thought. He had to find a lonely house.

-----

It was a small thatched house. Not a hut, but not a big house either.

A feeble feminine voice responded to his knocks. “Wait… Am coming…. Who at this hour?”

The woman who opened the door had no idea what was coming…… “Who?”, she opened the door and the next instant, she was gagged and ordered to shut up…. He was about to draw his dagger to place upon her throat, but something prevented him. Was it the scent? Was it her voice? Was it her face? Or…. Could it be her?

Forcibly, he turned her face towards him. And for the first time, their eyes met. She was freed from his clutches, her mouth ungagged, as if by a charm.

“Valli!!....” – he exclaimed in a high pitched whisper…..

His eyes noticed her protruding stomach…… she must be very close to becoming a mother…..

Not words, but her moist eyes were the reply…….

-----

“I can listen to your tale after you eat. Eat first, you said you are hungry”…. “I can’t afford rice… don’t mistake me… ragi is all I have… occasionally I do get a fish or two from men who go to sea, when they get a plenty”

He gulped the ragi porridge, helped himself to his content. He returned after washing his hands.

“Valli,…….. how are you here?”

“It’s a long tale……..  you are tired….. I will get you a mat… sleep now, and we can talk tomorrow….”

He gave a wry smile… he sighed…… “Valli….. I won’t sleep if you don’t tell…..”

-----

“After we parted ways, my father got me married off here……”

“Your husband?”

She quietly pointed to a photograph on the wall, with a dry garland on it.

A long pause……

“How? When?”

“4 months after marriage…… he went to the sea…. I was told their boat was shot at by the other Navy”…..

-----

“Do you live alone here?”

“Father asked me to come and live with him……  I did not go…. He already has 5 girls after me to ferry ashore ……. I did not want to burden him….. I gave my jewels to my sisters….. I buy fish from others and sell…. I repair their nets and earn something”

“Did you go for checkup?”

“Joking? When did we go for checkups? When the pain comes there is an Ayah here three houses away…. She helps us……  You and I are not rich to go to clinics… even in Dharmaaspathiri here they take money….. I don’t know when this little fellow will come out…. See, even now, he is kicking me inside….”… she blushed…..

“What are you doing now? What are you doing in this village? Why do you go around with a knife?”….. “Are you doing any wrong job???” she added in a hushed up whisper….

“Nothing worth mentioning…… I feel sleepy Valli….  Traveled whole day, tired”

“Listen, You sleep inside there, I will give you a mat and blanket. No pillows in this house… wait.. I will give you a bundle of my clothes…..”

“For you?”

“Don’t worry…… I always sleep without all that… after this fellow came in to my stomach, I feel better without a support for head….”

“Shall I prepare your favourite lemon rice for you tomorrow? Will you be here tomorrow? You should stay for at-least 2 or 3 days….. Not a single day passed after we separated, without your memory….”

“It’s ok Valli….. Same with me… I have remembered you all the while…. Those days…. They will never return, will they? Life has taken you and me in different paths…. Never thought I’d see you here…”

“………”… She only looked at some distant object and nodded…… After a pause and a sigh, “You must eat here tomorrow… you remember? You used to taunt me that I cannot cook to your tastes….”

-----

“We’ll talk in the morning…. Am sleepy”….. He thought within himself, “Only if I am alive tomorrow”

-----

It was past midnight….. he had slept….. A feeble voice calling him woke him up….. It was Valli….. She was in labour pain….

He did not know what to do…… She helped him out….. Amidst her discomfort, she said “Go call Ayah from the third house from this, left side as you go out”….

He obeyed….. The Ayah was not so nervous…. But swift…… She was a little upset that all the women had gone to take part in the public meeting and Amman festival, scheduled the following day, in the town a mile or so away.

They were in with Valli in minutes……

He volunteered to help…… The ayah ordered him out…

“You, stand out and do not come unless I call…… understood? Now close the door behind you….”

The next two hours were filled with Valli’s moans and cries, and the comforting words of the Ayah.

The cries became more frequent, as the time passed on.

----

The Ayah came out. She was exasperated. She said “This is a tough one. The umbilical cord has been wound around the baby’s neck, I believe…. What a day to have labour pain, when no other woman is in town.....… My old hands are not as steady as before…. And you men cannot help…... Now go make some hot water in that stove… quick…… and get some clean cloth and a knife…. Maariamma should save her”

------

It was another 20 minutes of struggle, and a few screams and cries, and in that 20 minutes, there was not a single deity that he did not pray to……. Finally, he fervently prayed to Mariyamma “If you save her life, I will save lives by hundreds tomorrow. I will not do the evil deed, Mariyamma, I promise”…..

In a few minutes, There were the cries of a new born in that place.

He was summoned in…….

Valli was shown her off spring….. She fed the cleaned baby….. Her face was pale. The Ayah left after cleaning the place. She said she will come with other ladies the next day.

“He resembles his father……” – she said….. He smiled lightly..……

She started talking to her baby……

“Hello darling baby…. Welcome…… See your uncle ….. He has come after 2 years to see your mother and you…… He was like your mother’s brother in her childhood for 18 years…. Only now he has remembered her..... but he came in the right time to see you.....”

He had a look….. Little rosy cheeks, plum like fingers and toes, rose-bud lips and grape-like eyes…. Lotus feet…. Tiny belly…… toothless mouth and the occasional smirk……

“I’ll come in a moment, Valli”… he walked out….. She thought he was going to answer nature’s call….

He went to the shore….. He withdrew a bundle from inside his jacket… he took a plier, and cut something that looked like wires…… he dismantled the object,  tied the parts up into a bundle,  Tied the bundle with a stone and waded into the sea. He threw the bundle into the sea, as far as he could fling it.

“It takes so much of distress for a life to come into this world…. I was about to kill by the hundreds, when I could not help a single baby during labour. I would not kill innocent people by the hundreds by planting a bomb… Luckily Mariamma, thank you, I have no boss to explain my failure!”……..  he thought within himself……He entered the house a new man and told Valli, he came to attend the meeting the next day, and that will stay there for a few days, and take her to his mother’s care.

There was a new life in that hut…… or two new lives, should I say?

February 20, 2012

Saareera Sambandham

Chi. Rangaraja Varadhan was in a rather jolly mood that Saturday. He called on his close friend Srivatsa Malolan the first thing after waking up, much to the disgust of his mother Smt. Pushpavalli, who by this time had bathed, had her hair in a bun wrapped with a wet towel, and had finished drawing a most intricate pattern called “Kolam” that eluded her son’s wits. The Venkatesa Su-prabhaatham was in its Mangalam stage. Her protests had no more influence on her son than would a cycle bell on the Madras auto rickshaw. His father, Sri. Seshagopalan, in his wisdom, refrained from offering any advice, evidently tired of the exercise and convinced of its futility.

Malolan had no protests from anyone in his place, as he was staying alone in his small rented house. He was working in Madras at the State Bank of India and his parents stayed in Needamangalam Agrahaaram, near Thanjavur. They were looking for suitable proposals for their son. His mother was a teacher of Carnatic music, just like Varadhan’s mother. The only difference was, she could teach her son Malolan the art she knew, whilst Varadhan’s mother found it a lot easier to count the all the stars in the sky than getting her son to express any interest in music.

Merrily, the friends went to their usual haunt – the “Rayar’s Café”, a small but famous cafe, tucked away in Kutchery road, Mylapore. It is said that it had a big fan-following that included the batting hero of those days, Krishnamachari Srikanth. With the filter coffee ordered, conversation started.

“Hey Varadha, what’s up? You are so cheerful today… Any promotion?”

“Yes, yes…. Promotion is likely…… My parents are looking for a match for me and have shortlisted a few girls. I and my parents are visiting one of the girls and her family tomorrow”

“Aha, now I see why your face is bright like a fresh cut brinjal!!”

“Ha ha ha, I laughed… enough? Now listen, Jokes apart, you should accompany me tomorrow as my Maapillai thozhan”…

“Dei, maapillai thozhan is on the wedding day, not tomorrow”

“It’s fine…. You better come…..”.. “And listen, you’ll get some free food - bhajji and sojji, what hurts you?” – he added.

“Your alpa buddhi will not leave you…. Fine, I’ll come”…

---

The next day, they were in the girl’s home in Adayar. It was not a grand big house but a beautiful home. Well decorated with a couple of coconut trees and a floral garden, complete with a well and a washing stone.

The elders exchanged pleasantries and soon they busied themselves in discussing the horoscopes and how wonderfully they were matched.

The girl was asked to come to the hall. Nandhini, as Malolan learnt her name was, walked in gracefully, modestly but aesthetically decorated. She was a woman of graceful features and finesse. She had luscious jet black hair that extended below her hips in a perfect plait, a dusky complexion like her parents, big eyes and a dignified smile. Dressed in a green silk saree with a gold jarigai, bedecked with a golden mango necklace, golden bangles, udhiyaanam, a shiny tiny nose stud, dangling ear-rings that seemed to whisper in her ear and tinkling silver anklets. Her face, forearms and feet had a tiny ting of turmeric. Malolan, for a split second, remembered Devi Raja Shyaamala.

She performed the usual namaskarams to the elders and she gave coffee to all. It was deliberate that she looked at her toes while she handed the coffee ‘dabara-tumbler’ to Varadhan, whose eyes scanned her head to foot, in those few seconds.

Varadhan’s mother asked if she could sing, and she bashfully agreed. For the next forty minutes, the hall was filled with subtle swaras. She chose Marugelara O Raaghavaa. Experts of the art would have conceded she did extremely well in the niraval and aalaapanas, because she made it clear for even a novice child in Carnatic music that she was singing Jayanthashree and not Hindolam. The languid panache with which she emphasized the vakra-panchamam on the avarohanam was not something for the beginner. At the request of Varadhan’s mother an expert in Carnatic music herself, she sang Thaaye Yasodhaa in Thodi. Both Malolan and Varadhan’s mother were impressed by the way she emphasized the phrase P D N- D P, right at the outset, to bring the raga bhaava and swaroopam in full view, nailing it in the first 10 seconds that she was singing Thodi. Rarely would an un- seasoned singer do that. Gratified,, Varadhan’s mother asked a few questions about Mohanam and Veenaa vaadhini. Undaunted, Nandhini impressed with her subtle nishaadha prayogam to distinguish the two raagas.

Unfortunately, Varadhan was no ardent fan of music. Had it not been for the occasion, Varadhan would have found a way to excuse himself from that place and Malolan on the other hand, would have personally appreciated Nandhini.

The bhajji and sojji came, and after the pleasant meeting the party returned. Malolan’s mother had a few words of kindness and genuine appreciation for the young Nandhini along with a string of jasmine flowers which she personally placed on her plaits. It was agreed that the Varadhan’s family would write to nandhini’s family in a week.

---

That evening, the friends met in the café.

“So, how was the girl? You liked her?” Malolan asked.

“No.” was the abrupt answer.

Taken aback, “Why so?” asked his companion.

“She is a Karnaatakam… did you see the way she was attired? And she sings Carnatic music….. I hate classical music and all that stuff…. Already my mother’s torture for these 26 years has made me sick of that stuff….  You want me to live with it life long?” – replied Varadhan.

“Come on, any girl would dress up like that for a formal meet up first time. And what makes you averse to her if she knows Carnatic music? I am sure she will not force it down your throat. Let me tell you, the way she handled Mohanam and Veenaavaadhini was simply breathtaking…..”

“Please, please, please, now don’t start your raasika varnanas…. I saw your face when she was singing, and I knew this was coming….. Ah, you and my mother are of the same type”

“I am sure you could talk to her about this. Why don’t you call her office and talk to Nandhini for an hour? You know which school she teaches in, don’t you? If you reject her after all this formalities, how will she feel? Don’t you think it’s cruel on her if you make her wait for a week and write so?”

“This’s not the only reason I don’t want to marry her. My tastes are different. I want to marry a woman of fair complexion. And she is too short for me. I want a modern and beautiful woman I can take with me to my office parties”

Seeing that his mind cannot be changed, and that it was his life, Malolan withdrew – “Ok, it’s your wish. I do not see any reason personally to say no to her, but if you feel this is not the type of girl you would like to spend your life with, you can say so. I just felt bad for the girl”

---

A couple of weeks rolled by. A polite letter was sent to Nandhini’s parents despite disapproval from Varadhan’s mother. We do not know the contents of the same.

Malolan’s mind was occupied by Nandhini and her wonderful music.

He did not like the way Varadhan rejected Nandhini. If it was her darker complexion that made him averse to her, he did not have to visit her home in the first place. He had seen her photographs earlier. Carnatic music was an added excuse. But there’s no use in talking to a man who values Sareeram over Saareeram. And to be fair, Nandhini was not devoid of Beauty. People versed with Saamudrika Lakshanam would agree that she was a most beautiful lady of Padmini Jaathi, her complexion notwithstanding.

It was during one of those evenings he was thinking in these lines, did he get that idea. But he wanted to ask Varadhan first.

---

“Ah come on Malola, damn it, why will I mind if you approach Nandhini? Why do you ask me? If you like her, go ahead my friend, you will be a good fit. Both of you are avid lovers of Carnatic music and sudha karnaatakam cases. I wish you the best! I thought of telling you the other day, but did not, as I thought you may not feel good about me telling like that”

Malolan was happy.

---

It was a Saturday evening, in Parthasaarathy Temple. Malolan was standing near the dwajasthambam. He recognized Nandhini from a distance and went up, to greet her. Like most meetings of its kind heralding a great journey together, it was a shade awkward to begin with.

“Hello, Nandhini, how was your day so far?”

“Hello, Mr. Malolan, it was good so far. Thank you. How was yours?”

“Very good, indeed. Thanks….”

“You said you wanted to talk to me. I was wondering what you may have wanted to talk to me….”

“Your singing was great the other day, Nandhini. The way you sang Thodi was impressive.”

She smiled. “Thanks. I did notice you enjoyed the music, I am happy that you liked it”

“I am a connoisseur of Carnatic music, Nandhini, I learnt from my mother for 16 years….. Your handling of Mohanam and the nishaadhams to jump to veenaa vaadhini was great. So was your Thodi aalapana…… ”

“Wow. That’s great, Malolan… I knew you enjoyed my music, but didn’t know you discern so much! Am pleasantly surprised….. great to meet another person who loves music…..  I learnt for 14 years. My guru is Shri. Aandaal Iyengar”

“Thanks; That’s good”

“Nandhini… Music apart, I am sorry for my friend’s actions….”

“Ah, it’s ok, Malolan. That’s very nice of you, but to me, there was not much wrong in what he did… I may not have been the right type of woman he’d want to spend his life with….. Plus, this is not new to me….. Four people have done the same quoting my complexion as a reason… they have their rights to choose a fair girl, if they want to, don’t they?”

“Hmmm…… But I felt a little bad for his actions…. Didn’t you feel bad, Nandhini?”

“Thanks for your good heart, Malolan. I felt sad the first two times, But by now, I have learnt to accept life as it comes…… I do not feel bad. I have started to vent my love and emotions into my music. I love my Kalyanis and Thodis….. They keep me company…. I am sure there’s a man born for me, and he’d come in my life when he has to. So why worry? But thanks for your concern, Malolan. Even the other day, I knew you would be a nice person, which is why I agreed to meet you here…..”

“I wish you all the best, Nandhini… I pray that you’d soon get a man who loves you and your saareeram, with a sumptuous knowledge of the intricacies of Carnatic music”

“Thank you…… Same from me, Malolan. I wish and pray that you will get a woman who shares your passion for music, and loves you. You deserve a good life…. It’s getting late for me….”

Malolan thought Nandhini blushed a bit as she said that.

“God Bless you Nandhini, and I think we should meet again”

“May blessings be yours too! Yes, if you wish so, we will meet again….. Take care!”

Nandhini walked home……

Malolan walked to his home…… On the way, he stopped at the post office buy an inland cover letter. He had to write to his mother and tell her that he had found his bride.

February 19, 2012

Chithi

I was a little girl those days. We lived in a village near Nagarkovil, in the extreme south of Tamil Nadu. My father worked as a supervisor in the rice mill in Nagarkovil. He was a good man, but a rather strict father with stern features. I do not remember having seen him laugh or joke in the home, as far as I can remember. The slightest infraction in discipline invited application of the dreaded cane. He was a figure of authority, more respected and feared than loved.

Mother stayed at home and took care of us. She was a house wife. She was a sweet woman and my favourite at that age. She would make my favourite coconut burfi during festivals and my birthday. Father’s income must have been meagre, for we hardly ever visited the thatched theatre to watch movies. Father must have been an austere man; he would use the same set of clothes and sandals till they were no longer fit to be used. Same rule applied to mother.

She had a day full of domestic labour and I am sure she slept light, as I remember whenever I woke up in the night for water or to visit the bathroom, she would be up too. I always slept in her arms, and she would pat me to sleep. I knew no fears while she was around. I hardly ever remember her beating me, I doubt if she ever did.

I went to the local government school. Leela was my best friend. She was 2 years older than I was and lived in one of the houses in our street. We used to play paandi and pallaankuzhi in the evenings and holidays. I always wished I had the long luscious shiny straight black hair like she did. I had curly hair and it was short. Every morning her mother would spend half an hour to oil her hair and plait it into a braid.

I and Leela would go to the Isakki Amman temple every day, on our way home, from School. It was no big temple. Just a small shrine under a Banyan tree with an idol of Isakki Amman installed. On Fridays and Tuesdays a Poojaari with a big moustache and pot belly would come and do Poojas and give us lemon fruit as prasadham. We once made lemon juice from the fruits to drink, and got scolded by our parents.

We had heard that Isakki was a girl like us a long time ago and that her father married another lady after the death of her mother. The second wife of her father – Chithi – was a cruel lady who beat Isakki for everything and did not feed her properly. One day, she saw Isakki giving water to a thirsty cowherd boy and talking to him. She made up a story that there was an affair between them and spread the same in the town. The whole town abused Isakki and the poor Isakki hung herself. From then on, she is believed to haunt the banyan tree and they built a temple for her. She was believed to be a powerful goddess and we all believed she would make us pass in the exams and protect us by preventing maths miss from beating us when we scored low.

The unending labour at home and the rice-husk-ash from the husk-stove took its toll on my mother’s health. She fell ill and remained ill for 4 months. I do not know what father felt about it, but I could not see any grief in him. But he did not scold mother like before, when she could not do all the chores in time.

My mother, towards the end of her life, was closer to me than ever. She would talk to me about my future and the dreams she had about me, many nights, as father was in office, doing over-time, to meet mother’s medical expenses. She wanted me to study well, and become a doctor so that I could help people.

One night, she had severe coughs, and the cough syrup we had had little effect. Father was in office and I was afraid. I asked her if I should run and bring father so that we could go to hospital. She said that was of no use. She asked for some warm water and held me close to her bosom and asked me to study well and take care of my father. She said he was a very good man who loved both of us. She said the God she prayed to will be with me and protect me always, when she is not with me. I asked her if she was going anywhere. She looked into my eyes, kissed me and gave a wry smile... She said she was going to see her mother. She blessed me again and we slept. Her eyes were moist and I remember that expression on her face like today. I slept with my arms around her neck. She sung her favourite lullaby softly and patted me to sleep. I do not know when I dozed off.

Next morning, she did not respond to my calls – she was no more. I had never seen father shed a tear, till that day. It did not matter to me then, the only person who loved me was carried away and burnt. All I had of my mother were her saree and her ashes in a little copper urn.

Father’s mother – my grandmother came to live with us, after my mother’s death. A term later, my grandmother told me that I would have a new mother. A chithi. She told me that my father should not be alone, raising a young girl and that I must have a mother.

Leela was more terrified of the prospect than was I. She chided me “You foolish girl, did you agree to your father’s marriage?” as if my permission was sought.

I said “What do you think I should do?”…

She did not answer my question but asked me to be careful - “I don’t know. But be prepared to get more beatings if your chithi comes. We know from movies and stories, how chithies are”.

And to top it all, when we went to Isakki’s temple, she reminded me of Isakki’s history and how she died. Now I was terrified. Leela had to tell me a way out.

She said “Atleast pray to Isakki that your chithi should not have Children”. And I prayed like that every day for 2 years.

So, the wedding happened we had a good feast, and a well-dressed and decorated chithi came home, much against my muffled wishes.

My initial resentment towards her was twofold – I could not brook anyone taking my mother’s place in the home, and I was also afraid that she will be cruel. It did not help that she did not make my favourite coconut burfis like my mother.

My father was his usual self. One night when chithi had gone to visit her brother’s new baby, I saw him holding my mother’s photo on his chest when sleeping. I silently cried.

But as I grew up, things changed. I could see a bit beyond the veil of my prejudices. Chithi was not what I expected. I did not know her age, but she must have been younger than my mother. I inferred that as I grew up, because many strangers we met used to ask if I was her younger sister.

Chithi never beat me or scolded as I expected. This was a peculiar lady, to me. How could a chithi be good? I even thought if she had some silent evil plan! Three years rolled by. We got along well, but nothing special was there between us.

One day, I broke the wall-lamp while pouring oil and my grandmother was livid - “You broke the 20 year old lamp! A girl child with such carelessness….” - My chithi intervened and prevented her from beating me.

When I became a ‘big-girl’ in 9th standard, chithi prepared black ulundhu (urad dal) halwa and also my favourite coconut burfi. I started liking her when she presented a photo of my mother, newly framed, after the function. I thought I could be her friend. We began to be friendlier, gradually. It helped that Leela’s father got a transfer and they moved to Madurai.

One day, when I was in 10th standard, my father saw me talking to my class mate Ravi, in the street corner. I was asking him to give me his maths notes, as he was very good at maths. Once I came home, Father gave me a tight slap and unleashed a long sermon about how good girls had to behave. Grandmother said if I studied any more, I would run away with a boy surely. Chithi intervened and bore their ire, arguing strongly for me and took my father to task for not trusting his own daughter. And the dust settled. I had started to like her. She taught me Trigonometry. I did not know she was good at Maths and had a BSc in maths!

I passed 10th with distinction and a 100 in Maths, and I passed 12th with 3 200s – one each in Maths, Physics and Biology. Chithi was happy and proud. My father and chithi wanted me to join BSc maths like Chithi, but I wanted to do medicine. I told chithi what I had never told anyone - I wanted to do medicine because of what my mother had told me on her last day. She won the argument with father, speaking for me, and also made sure father agreed to let me stay in Hostel, in Nagarkovil.

She was happy every year, as I came out with great marks. And when I had the degree, and thanked her for her support, she asked me to thank my mother for inspiring me.

For the second time in my life, I had to see someone in my family on their last legs. My grandmother was on her death bed now. While I was about to enter the room as I returned from hospital, I heard grandmother speak, and I waited outside for some strange reason. She lamented to my father “The first one gave a girl and this one is barren. I could not see a grandson before I die”.

My father could not control his outburst. Despite protests from chithi, he said “Amma, please..... do not be so heartless to call her barren. On the very day I married her, she told me ‘Your daughter is my daughter, I do not want a child myself’, you will not go to a good heaven if you call her a barren lady”……….

And, the rest is history. We are the best of friends now. I went on to become a gynaecologist. I am married to another doctor, a neurosurgeon from Tuticorin. And my chithi with father visits me once a month. We have a great time together, on the beach and shopping together. Father is retired and gets his pension but I and my husband send money to father. Chithi wanted to do MSc in maths, and I supported her case to father. She finished her MSc in Maths recently and is doing her MPhil.

Six years have passed by since that day my veil of prejudice and resentment died with my grandmother and my chithi placed in my heart’s pedestal alongside my mother.  I still visit the Isakki temple. I hold my daughter who bears my mother’s name. I pray to Isakki that I get another daughter, so I could name her after my chithi………. Of course, chithi just told me in the temple that she’d rather have a boy named after father! That’s my chithi for you!

------

All characters in this story are fictional.

February 3, 2012

Agnisaakshi

He had kept his appointment to meet me at the beach…. My friend Srinivasarangan was a punctual man…..

It was two years since I had seen him. He was thinner and visibly paler, certainly not the ebullient man in his bell bottoms he was when we were together at the Presidency, and surely a far cry from the rosy cheeked young chubby lad he was during his school days. It was neither day nor night. The sun had gone down and stars had come out and darkness was swathing in a stride much like the grief of his heart. I wasn’t sure how to start.

“Ranga, I want to talk to you about something”

“Sure, go ahead”

“Will you mind if it’s personal, Ranga?” – I was unusually held-back with my best friend in being out-spoken.

“You can say anything, you’re my best friend.”…. “And now, what more do I have to hide as personal?” – he added with a look towards the blue lined horizon beyond the sea.

“We’ll talk sitting on this beach…..” he said. We walked a few yards to a spot at the foot of a tree. We sank down on the soft sand of the beach. The same beach that saw us run in fun and frolic, hand in hand as children – little boys who knew nothing about life’s travails; The same beach that saw us play beach cricket with tennis balls as college kids;

His now dried sea of sorrow reflecting in his voice cut through my heart.

“Ranga, you must marry again.”- I said, in my own blunt way, and paused.

There was his usual silence, and after a calm survey, he smiled. “And why must I?” asked he.

I had my answers ready – “You are still young, and you are not a father yet – why would you want to waste your life in Padma's memory? I respect your love for her, but you had only been married for 2 years”.

He smiled. “Did Amma ask you to talk to me?” -  He knew. The old lady had tried to get her son out of Padma’s memory for two years but received no response from him who slowly became a sober introvert, who’d not entertain any topic of him marrying again. Out of desperation she had called me and asked if I could talk to her son, in my capacity as his best friend.

“Well….” I started to speak, but his hand on my hand stopped me in my tracks. “I know you and I know her…..I am sure she would have”.

“…..…….” - There was silence in the air.

By now, the moon had come out….. It was a Poornima….. I thought for a second that the moon was more like a white swan that came swimming out of the black ocean, above our heads….. I wondered what was going on in Rangan’s mind…… His gaze was fixed on the moon…….

“Do you see that moon?" – he asked…..

“Ya… beautiful, isn’t it?” – I replied.

“It is…… It’s good you brought the topic up. I had to open my heart to someone, my friend. And none better than you…….” – he paused;

“Hmmm…..”

“Do you know, this moon has borne witness to my times with Padma here, on this very spot below this tree? This spot to me, is sacrosanct...... Every Poornima…. I and Padma would come here… to this very beach… this very spot…. We used to pack our dinner and come here”……..

“Hmmm….” - I did not want to interrupt him…… After a pause he continued……

“On our first day here, I wrote a shlokham for her, comparing her lovely turmeric tinged face with the rising yellowy poorna-chandhran. I don’t mind repeating to you".... He recited the verse.

“You are quite a poet, aren't you?” – I tried to infuse some cheer. He gave a wry smile and nodded it off... "What’s the point?”…..

“She was the best person in my life, you know? She took care of every single detail for me. She knew I liked my potatoes fried to crispness, with some extra chilly in it, and that’s the way it was done. She knew I was allergic to pea-nuts, and it was banished from the limits of the household. My wake up alarm in the morning, for those 2 years were her keerthanams and varnams, one raaga for each day, and my lullabies were her neelaambary and yadhukulakambodhi …. Despite my protests, she washed my clothes by hand. Do you know? I have bought a fresh set of clothes to be used after she left this world. I have preserved every cloth she washed with her hand. I did not want to dirty them…. They bear her finger prints and I don't want her finger prints to be washed off…. her unwashed saree wraps my pillow now..... and her scent wraps my heart“

Another pause…… I could see in the moonlight, his eyes were moist….. his gaze was fixed on the moon…… he went on…..

“Her lap was my pillow… her eyes were my mirror….. she loved me….. ever since the day she stepped into my home….. what had I done for her to deserve such unconditional love? She kept awake till I came home, and shared her food with me… I came home early to make sure she ate in time….. at times, she fed me… and I used to playfully suck on her fingers as she fed me… Though we could never conceive, I could see a mother’s love in her eyes… That was enough for us….. we were each-others’ child…..”

He was now breathing faster….. his voice betrayed a silent sob……

“She loved me….. I loved her….. unconditionally. She cared for my happiness unconditionally….. do you know what she said when kissing me good night, the night before we got her admitted?”

“…….”

“She said if she died, she’d be with me in spirit. She said in her next birth, she would want to be my wife. I said in our next birth I want to be her wife, and she must be my husband…. I could repay her kindness in some way….. And she asked me to remarry if she died. I broke down and refused…… She knew I would say no…. she knew my love for her”

Rangan was now in tears….. I could do nothing about it…. I was trying not to cry myself.

“You say it’s JUST 2 years…… I remember every single day of those 2 years. Every single minute…. She lives, my friend…. She lives now in me….. Do you think loyalty is just physical? When we tied the knot we circum-ambulated the fire 7 times….. I promised her that I’d be faithful to her in thought, word and deed. And faith to me, is not just physical. Her physical frame is no more, but her soul lives in my heart. And till God lets me meet her in the other world, I shall wait. That’s my respect for my sweetheart….. I am waiting to be united with her, again…… because, this bond is eternal…..  It was sealed with fire as witness…. Agnisaakshi……. No other woman shall ever have me…..”

I could not help my tears….. Ironically, he had to cheer me up…..!

“It’s time…. Let’s go home… Amma will be waiting. You must have dinner at my home today….”

We got up and started……..

I did not know what I’d tell his mother…..

I just wished, Padma heard his words…. Or perhaps, she lived in his heart and knew…….. Perhaps, she heard..... perhaps she rose  with the moon every poornima, and came eagerly to see her husband sitting under the very same tree to that sacrosanct spot……. She’d know he’d come there… It was agnisaakshi……..