Monkey Tops

A Short Story by Prema Sastri

Anand studied the text message on his cell phone. It was from his brother, Venkat, in Bangalore.

“Mother serious, come at once.”

He pressed a number. Venkat’s voice came over the line.

“I got your message. What happened?”

“Amma had a fall. She’s in the intensive care unit, on life support”.

“Do I have to come?”

“She’s asking for you.”

He heard a click. Then there was silence. His wife, Shanti, came into the room.

“Why are you sitting in the dark?” She switched on a light. ‘Who was that on the phone?”

“Venkat. My mother is in the emergency ward. She wants to see me”.

“Are you going?”

“I don’t know”.

“You need to make up your mind soon, if you want to get a ticket”. Shanti left the room.

‘What a nuisance,’ he thought.‘Just when I am going to Florida at a client’s expense.’

Anand looked around the living room of his residence in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. The sofas were upholstered in white, the curtains were a pale cream. Persian rugs carpeted the floor. He had household help twice a week, and was president of the Rotary Club. He had achieved all this at the age of fifty, and did not welcome any disturbance in his plans.

Venkat watched his mother’s still figure under the sheet. One arm lay outstretched. It was thin, scaly and punctured by needle marks. She was entwined by tubes. A ventilator breathed for her. A drip poured liquid into her system.


He moved his chair.Where was his mother? She had a body that could not function a mind that was unable to recognize her son. Was there a soul distinct from flesh and bone?. If so, was it hovering around the body, or in some distant plane ?


Venkat felt uneasy.His father had died when he was ten.His mother occupied his whole horizon.He pictured her making dosas, folding clothes opening the door when he returned.  She would never open the door for him again.


For Anand memories of his mother had faded. He graduated in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute Of Technology, Chennai and came to Carnegie Mellon on a scholarship, when he was twenty three. He stayed on as a professor, till he found he was in demand as a consultant. He started his own company, and was soon inundated by clients.


One day at an open house hosted by the India Association he was introduced to Shanti, a tall girl with short hair. She too was a graduate from the Indian Institute Of Technology, Chennai. They shared memories, and had dinner together.

Within  a year they were married at the Venkateswara Temple. They exchanged garlands and went around the sacred fire as the priest, imported from Tirupati by the temple authorities, chanted the mantras. Venkat and his mother could not attend, as the arrangements were made in haste.

The reason for the haste became apparent when Nita their daughter was born six months later.Nita was now a junior at Chatham College For Women.Shanti was a partner in his consultancy.He had not been to India for six years.The thought of his country made him shudder.To him it was a place of overflowing dustbins, stray dogs and frequent electricity failures.On his last visit he had not been able to withstand the food and water. He had spent his vacation nursing a sick stomach.

The hand moved. Venkat held it in his. The eyes opened.

“Anand.”

It had always been Anand. His elder brother stood first in class, won prizes at school events and brought home hordes of friends to feed. His mother fried crisp bajjis and bondas while Venkat served the guests.

“Anand is so popular,” his mother would remark. She was proud of her elder son. She did not mind even when he chose his own bride. “Shanti is a fine girl. She is intelligent and well qualified. I could not have chosen better.”

After Nita was born she became the subject of every conversation. There were albums of pictures to be shown to friends. She did not tell them she had seen her grand daughter only twice in eighteen years.
                                                                                
Venkat thought of Anand. As children they seldom played together for there was  a difference of seven years between them. Venkat stayed at home, reading or helping with the household chores, while Anand was out playing cricket with his friends. As soon as his brother came home Venkat ran to take his bat and put it away. When Anand patted him on the head he felt as proud as if he had scored a century in an international tournament.

He was still married. He had gone to M.E.S. college and to Renukacharya Law School. He took up a job as assistant to a lawyer in Brigade Road. The lawyer prospered. So did Venkat. Many important briefs were entrusted to him.

The question of his marriage never came up with any seriousness. Either the horoscopes did not agree or the girl’s parents wanted boys from the information technology sector.

One day their neighbour, Vasudevan, came over with a proposal for his daughter, Radha. Venkat had often seen her over the wall. She had long plaits and a bouncy walk. He wondered what she thought of him. He never found out because his mother disapproved of the match.

“My son is not interested in getting married just now,” he heard her telling Vasudevan. “A very bold girl,” she commented one evening when Radha came over bringing mangos from her garden.

Venkat fell into a routine. He went home straight from the office. He visited friends. He and his mother went to Carnatic music concerts . On Sundays he went to the Malleswaram market and did the weekly shopping. He felt his life was well ordered, easy and secure. He could not visualise change.

The phone rang. Anand picked it up. Venkat’s voice was faint.

“Amma’s condition has deteriorated. She may go into an irreversible coma.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I leave it to you.” The phone went dead. Anand turned to find Nita beside him.

“Daddy, who was that?”

“Your uncle Venkat. Your grandmother is dangerously ill.”

“Daddy, you must go.”

“How can I? There is the business to attend to.”

“Mummy can take care of it. She knows more about it than you do.”

Anand laughed.
                                                        
“You women certainly know how to stick together.”

“Daddy, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“I know you didn’t. You are right. I haven’t had my heart in my work of late. Perhaps, I’ve been too busy improving my golf scores.”

“My Easter holidays are due. I’ll come with you.”

Anand was surprised.

“What will you do there? You will be bored.”

    “I want to see paati. She used to make besan laddus and rava dosas specially for me. I won’t be bored. Uncle Venkat tells such good jokes.”

“Jokes: he never told me any.”

“You hardly spent any time with him. Besides, he’s in awe of you. Daddy let me come.”

“If your mother agrees.”

Shanti readily agreed. Anand realised she enjoyed running the show, and would like time to herself.

The tickets were booked. Anand locked his Louis Vuitton suitcase. He had a six bedroom house with manicured lawns, membership in a country club and a wife and daughter he was proud of. He had it all. He did not want to leave.

Venkat was waiting at the airport. They got into a prepaid taxi on Airport Road. The cars moved forward in inches. Buildings and sign posts went past in a straight line. Anand leaned back.

“This is not the Bangalore of our childhood.”
              
           “ No!.”

The brothers were silent. Between them rose memories of Airport Road flanked by green fields; of the cantonment area with colonial bungalows and gardens vibrant with cannas, balsam, candytuft and sweet peas; of red tin roofs glistening with dew, of their own suburb Malleswaram and its old houses designed with monkey tops and high front steps. Most of them had been razed to make way for blocks of apartments. Their own house Bharani, named after their father’s birth star was one of the few that remained.

Anand was sure it would look the same. He recalled those monkey tops. They were large inverted V’s of wood with sloping sides. They were set above iron window
bars, and were meant to keep the rain out. Each time he came back from America he recoiled. He saw them as grotesque tribal masks, grimacing at him.

He did not care for the garden either. It consisted of uneven patches of red earth interspersed with shrubs of hibiscus and jasmine. Convolvulus creepers ran up the walls of the house in untrained profusion. The backyard held coconut, guava and jackfruit trees, planted at random. The ground was generally covered with dry leaves and rotting coconut husks. Anand sighed.

“What a mess.”

Meanwhile Nita had been taking in  Bangalore. She observed the pushcarts on the pavements. They displayed a colourful variety of wares from tomatoes to baby clothes.”Daddy, look; a moving market.They passed Sankey Tank and the Chowdiah Memorial. Nita was fascinated by the concert hall shaped like a violin. “Uncle, you must bring me here some time.” Venkat nodded assent.

The taxi stopped. Venkat opened the gate.

“Welcome home.”

Anand looked at the monkey tops, the paint peeling off the facades. He was far from home. His home was Pittsburgh. The Alleghany river, the downtown area, his friends and associates. These constituted his world.

           The taxi driver was hauling out the baggage. Anand winced to see his designer suitcase thrown out on the dusty road.

Venkat showed them to their rooms. Anand felt his had a musty odour. Nita came in holding up a faded green bedspread. It was embellished with red and white roses. The threads were gone.

“Paati embroidered this. I saw her do it. Isn’t it beautiful?” Anand gazed at the cloth with revulsion. He hoped there were no mites in it.

“Uncle when can we see paati?”

“As soon as you are ready and have had some breakfast.” Breakfast constituted of iddlis and sambar sent by Radha. Anand had found it difficult to complete his morning routine. He was used to a shower and had trouble in pouring water over himself with a mug from a bucket. There was no suitable power point into which he could plug the electric razor. He cut his chin while shaving with Venkat’s old fashioned kit.“I’ll be lucky if I don’t come down with blood poisoning,” he complained to Shanti when he phoned her to announce their safe arrival.

After breakfast they got into an autorickshaw and sped to Vani Vilas hospital. Anand thought of the two cars in his garage, as he was bumped up and down in the three wheeler.. They filed into the intensive care unit. The patient was hidden by wires and machines. Only a rasping sound from the ventilator indicated she was alive.

“Amma.,” Venkat called.

There was no response.

“Amma.” he called again.The eyes opened.

“Anand!” The whisper was as soft as a feather brushing a  cheek.

The eyes closed. The rasping stopped.



The death ceremonies began. Anand poured ghee on the flames. They leaped up as if hungry for the offering. The priests chanted the mantras.

    May your good deeds be remembered
    May earth, water, fire and air receive you.
    May your soul seek the sunlit path
    Peace  Peace  Peac

Venkat had spent the last few hours searching for priests. The young men had taken to other professions. Their seniors were abroad, officiating in Hindu temples. At last he was able to find two retired priests who agreed to perform the pujas, at their own price.

The room was filled with smoke and the acrid smell of burning cow dung. Anand feared he might be suffocated. At last the rituals were over. The body was carried a hearse.

At the crematorium the firewood was piled up and kept in place. Venkat had gone from  depot to depot. Wood was mostly sold to contractors, with little left for individual buyers.

The body was lowered to the bier. Amidst invocations Anand lit it with a burning faggot. The wood became fiery scythes ready to mow down their victim. As they left the area they heard a crackle and hiss. The edifice had collapsed. The wind carried a smell of burning flesh.

The post-death ceremonies went on for thirteen days. On the thirteenth day or Vaikunta Samaradhana the soul was said to have reached the celestial regions. A feast was held in celebration for those who had come to condole with the family. A pandal was set up in the backyard. Vadas, banana chips, payasam and other delicacies were served on banana leaves. There were more than two hundred people present. The ashes were immersed in the  Kaveri river near Srirangapatnam. Mourning was officially over.

Anand was in a hurry to return. He phoned Shanti every day. She urged him to remain and attend to the family affairs. He did not know what to do. In America his life was organised and predictable. In India he found that nothing was what it seemed to be on the surface. He did not know what people really meant. Friends  and relatives came with advice and queries. Their approach was so indirect that he could not understand what they were driving at.

His mother had not left a will. The house would be inherited by the brothers. Venkat seemed too dazed to do anything. Anand felt it would be best to sell the house and divide the money. He approached Venkat with the idea. Venkat was hesitant.

“We’ve lived here all these years. Why should we sell?”

“So that there will be a fair partition. In any case the place is falling into pieces. You can’t stay on.”

“Where will I go?”

“I’ll find you a good flat. You’ll be more comfortable there, and not have the hassles of maintaining an establishment.”

Venkat did not reply. If he did not know his own mind Anand felt he would have to think for him.

The house was in a sorry condition. The cement floors were cracked ,with sand coming through the crevices. The overhead beams were splintered and acted host to festoons of spider webs. Ants had colonised the backyard. Anand was shocked. His shock increased when he saw the maid servant beating his Armani shirt on a rough stone. He was too late to save it.

He sometimes found Nita trailing by his side. Her jeans were covered with dust, her feet were caked with mud. She climbed trees and came down with green mangos, guavas and curry leaves. She had taken to eating with her fingers and made slurping noises as she enjoyed the food. She often jumped the wall into the neighbour’s house and was learning cooking  from Radha.  By now she had taken over the kitchen with the help of the maid servant. Anand pulled a face at her attempts. Venkat gladly ate whatever was set before him.
“Why haven’t you got married, uncle?” she asked one day as she served pickles at dinner.

    “ Nita,” her father admonished her: “mind your own business.”

“It’s allright,” Venkat mixed the pickle into his rice. “In India everyone’s business is everyone else’s business. Nita, in my time there were no pretty girls like you around. If there were they wouldn’t have me.”

“There was Radha. I bet she likes you. That’s why she’s still unmarried.”

“Nita.” Anand banged his fist on the table.“That’s enough. Stop interfering.”

Venkat laughed.

“    We’re talking about the wrong person. I should be searching for a handsome young bridegroom for my beautiful niece.”

“Now who’s interfering?” Nita pushed back her chair and left the table.

Anand stared at the vacant place. What had come over his daughter? She was a totally different person. In Pittsburgh she had been quiet and passive, rarely bringing friends home. She hated to visit and lived in shabby old jeans and tops. Here, people were dropping in all the time to see her. She frequently visited neighbours. She wore bright salwar chemises, and liked to drape herself in a sari. Even her accent had changed. At this rate she would be a total misfit in America. Shanti would have a lot to say to him. He had better return as quickly as possible.

He set the wheels turning. Estate agents poured in like water from a leaking roof. Anand was amazed to find the property was worth crores of rupees. Clients crowded into the house.

One day Nita came upon him after he had dismissed a prospective buyer.

“Daddy, what are these people doing, meddling all over the place? One of them sat on paati’s bed cover.”


“So what! It’s old and mouldy.”

    “Why do you want to sell the house? You don’t need the money.”

“Uncle Venkat does.”

“How do you know? You haven’t asked him.”

“I am doing what is best for us.”

  “You don’t know what is best. You only think you do. You never asked mummy or me what we wanted. Now you’re running uncle Venkat’s life. You’re pushing him out of his own house.”

“All the better. He’s been sheltered too long. He has to learn how to cope.”

“He knows how to cope, daddy. It’s he who has been taking care of paati.

“How dare you?” Anand raised his hand as if to slap her. Nita ran out of the room, crying. Anand stood aghast.Was this how his daughter saw him? As an overbearing man who had neglected his mother, and cared little for his brother. It was not true.

        When Nita was five he had sent air tickets to his family, and asked them to visit. The visit was not a success. Shanti`s eyes glazed over each time his mother  sat on the sofa , and left the smell of her hair oil in its depths. She froze when  the old lady fried snacks at odd intervals, and insisted that they be eaten immediately. Nita had a cot and room of her own. His mother  made her sleep with her in her bed..Venkat appeared ill at ease in the badly fitting suit that had been made for the occasion. He mumbled when he spoke.

          One night Anand took everyone out to dinner at a fancy restaurant.The visitors shrank from the array of cutlery, as if they were surgical instruments. Venkat looked nervous and spilled his soup.  Chunks of cauliflower adorned the white cloth near his mother`s plate. They had a table in a corner where the other diners could not see them. However, when he paid the bill, Anand thought he saw a look of disdain on the waitress`s face.

        Venkat and his mother were not invited again. Nor did they volunteer to come.
   
         Anand`s visits to India had been few. He had been too busy adding a new wing to his house, building  up his clientele, performing his duties as an American citizen. What more could he have done?

       As he was ruminating Venkat crossed the hall. Anand wondered whether he had resented looking after  their mother alone. Did he envy his elder brother`s wealth, and success.?” He had never complained, or asked for help.” He has lost his initiative, “ thought Anand.” I must take care of him.”

Anand got on to a roller coaster of activity. He found an apartment on Margosa  Road, not far from Bharani. It was in a new complex, with landscaped gardens, a swimming pool and a club house. It also had two bed rooms, and a study where Venkat could meet his clients.

As they inspected the premises Venkat looked at the chromium fittings, polished wood work and colourful tiles. At one point he stood still with his back to the study door.He looked as if he was unable to move. There was a strange expression on his face. Anand interpreted it.

 ‘He never thought he could have it so good.’

The deals were finalised. With the advance from the house they could make a down payment on the flat. Anand was proud of his business acumen. He had made  a profitable bargain. ‘It’s lucky for Venkat that I’m around. He’ll be settled for life.’ The date to formalise the sale deed was fixed.

On the last day Anand wandered through the house. His eye caught a litter of tins in the store room. A piece of plaster dropped from the ceiling. He looked up. There was a large hook suspended from the centre. It had once held bunches of bananas. He and Venkat would sneak in and help themselves, much to the annoyance of their mother.

Jars of tamarind, cooking oil and pickles were once kept on the floor. The shelves had an assortment of vegetables, groceries and fruit of the season. Coconuts were piled in a corner. Invariably there were steel containers filled with home made savories. A delicious concoction of smells permeated the house and drew the boys in search of forbidden snacks.

One day Anand played a prank on his brother. As he saw Venkat reach for a banana he locked him in. He expected to hear banging and calls for help. There was silence. He ran outside and peered in through the window bars.

Venkat was standing with his back to the door. His face was stiff. His body was crouched like that of a caged animal. He looked as if he was paralysed. Anand rushed  to open the door. An unseeing Venkat brushed past him.

In a moment of recognition Anand realized it was the same look he had seen on Vankat’s face in the flat. It was the look of a creature trapped, with no way out. He saw a picture of Venkat living in the flat, like a dog in a kennel.

In that moment he pinpointed the same feeling in himself. He was a dog, chained and trained to do its masters bidding. All his efforts had been put forth to win the bone of
approval from his American contemporaries. He envied Venkat. He did not have to perform to win acceptance. He was part of the jigsaw puzzle. It was not complete without him.

He thought for a while. He was determined to go ahead with his plan.

The next morning Venkat came out of his room, neatly dressed, carrying a briefcase. “The documents are ready.”

Anand was sitting in a cane chair wearing a crumpled veshti.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“We have to sign the sale deed today. Aren’t you coming?”
                                                            
           “We are not selling.”

“What?”

    “I said we’re not selling. You know you don’t want to sell. So why didn’t you stop me?”

“You are the elder brother.”

“So what? You have responsibilities too. Take them up.”

“You mean be like an American.”

“No! Be yourself. Your more sane and sensible self. Stop acting like a frightened child.”

“Then Anna, you too be yourself. Stop acting like a boss. Let others think for themselves. I can repair the house. I should have done it long ago; Amma spoke to me about it many times.

           “ Don`t blame yourself. Both of us have had our lapses.”

            “ I`ll have the house divided in two portions. You can use yours whenever you want to.”

 “I`ll take you up on that; but only if you let me share in the renovation.”

             “ Don`t worry. You`ll get your share of the bills You’re. dealing with a lawyer, remember.”

     ..    The brothers burst out laughing. Nita came dancing into the room.

“I heard everything. Thank you daddy.” She hugged her father. She turned a stern look on her uncle. “Uncle, daddy is right. It’s all your fault. You can’t expect other people to know what you want. You have to get it for yourself.”

Anand patted her on the shoulder.

“Let’s go outside.”

They walked into the morning sunlight. Over the wall Radha was plucking
flowers for her puja. Venkat noticed she was slim and attractive, with a dark inviting skin. He waved to her. Surprised, she almost dropped the flower basket.

     The sun shone on the monkeytops. Anand turned in their direction. They seemed to smile at him. He smiled back. He knew he would be coming home to see them very often.