For Radha, a middle-class lady, many were the things that were far away from the occurrences of her life. When people anguished every five years over the elections, she felt that they can as well fret over how long the pot-pourri of various party alliances would adhere to each other. She felt that both endeavours were equally unfruitful. According to her, whichever party took charge and assumed power at the Centre, the consequences were almost all the same - prices of essential products soared; the road conditions became poor during every downpour; the mass transportation, which you thought would detonate any time with the burgeoning population, somehow managed to suck in a few more thousands! “It is rather unbelievable if you dig deep into the problem,” thought she.
Even at school during her younger days she was similarly unappreciative of the new Principal’s influence on the life of students. ‘This Principal is really very rude….,’ she’d hear some students whisper, “Grumpy…” another student would pitch in her comments about the Principal…swaying her two short pigtails. “Anyway, what did it matter who sat on the faded leather chair in the office room with many newspaper cuttings, inspirational quotes and stories- all sealed under the glass surface; and the not-so-clean portraits of our great leaders adorning the walls. It would be the same lessons, the same morning assembly; and then the homework; followed by recess; and then waiting for class dismissal…” Never once did she come out openly with her thoughts and kept them locked within her.
Well into her early thirties now, Radha’s mind was constantly occupied with the thoughts of her aging mother-in-law. What a millstone around her neck, her mother-in-law had become. Her conscience warned her- “Am I not a cruel person to even think of admitting my mother-in-law in a Senior citizen retreat to live in the midst of strangers?” She detested her mother-in-law, Swathi, for reasons best known to her. But from the day she entered the tiny one BHK apartment, she felt that she could not stand the sight of the old lady. She had wished that on her entry, her mother-in-law would gather all her belongings and, smilingly make her exit, which would have been the end of the story. She did not like her presence in the house, moving around like a melancholic shadow, interfering in the privacy of her family. A day would come soon when the old woman would descend further into frailty and debility, and at that time she did not want to be the person on call always and tend to her needs. It did not matter to her that her spouse was the lady’s only child. Should not Radha have some consideration, some human feelings towards the aged lady? Can she not think rationally? And yet this lady Radha was not even wise enough to understand or grasp this much.
There lay Swathi on the other side of the wooden room-divider they had set up in one corner of the living room. She lay there coughing all through the night, apologizing profusely the following day morning, saying, “Sorry I must have kept you awake last night. But this horrible cough occurs only during the nights.…”
Swathi’s wrinkled face looked all the more pitiable in her crumpled cotton saree. What was expected of Radha? Was she supposed to hug her to her bosom and say comforting words; Take her to the doctor after completing her domestic chores and pay the doctor a few hundred rupees from the little money that she had saved from the household expenses by spending in a calculated manner…...? But all she said or did was nothing
Radha continued to do her routine chores of cooking or sweeping, just nodding her head now and then in acknowledgement to the complaints made by Swathi. If work were worship, Radha had carried on with her daily chores most successfully with Swathi in always in her thoughts. It was Swathi that she was cutting and chopping as she brandished her knife relentlessly over the day’s vegetable; the senior lady’s skull and not a coconut is what she struck with her the curved blade; her neck she twisted and not her husband’s shirt or her own skirt while washing clothes. Unbelievable to think that she had lived under the same roof with her mother-in-law for the past eight years! It is rather surprising that she had performed her wifely duties, with so much of hatred simmering inside her.
This morning, Radha was sitting at the table shelling peas that she had bought fresh from the market. She was observing her mom-in-law with eagle eyes, and yet when she turned her gaze towards her son, it was warmer and kind, with the severity magically dissolved. Vignesh was her only darling son of five years, who she thought had given her the courage and resolution to tolerate the elderly lady. According to her, her husband was useless. He, a banker, was an unimaginative and highly principled man (which he thought he was) and always maintained an air of self importance. His life was a clear cut demarcation of work and home, with not much of involvement at home.
Swathi was sitting bunched up at the further end of the dining table, muttering her prayers in a low tone, rolling a rosary in her hand. Vignesh was sitting diametrically opposite to her, busily doing his home work. Time and again he raised his head, stared at the ceiling, glanced at his grandmother, smiled a little, scratched his head with his pencil; and symmetrically kicked the table leg. His tiny weasel-like face shrunk further more when he forced himself to concentrate on his work. The clock stuck seven now-7 pm. The entire neighbourhood was getting ready for its nightly routine- vessels clashing; parents shouting at their children to get ready for dinner; bath water spattering; deafening sound from TV shows……. Lost in deep thought Vignesh continued to chew his pencil. He was taking down sentences with his eyes carefully scrutinizing the words in his workbook. He printed out one letter at a time darting between his workbook and notebook; with his tongue sticking out; and clumsily joining them to form words, which were names of objects whose pictures were printed on the page. Radha was about to reprimand him for putting the pencil in his mouth, when an ice cream vendor’s voice from the street caught his attention and distracted him.
“Amma,” he pleaded. Radha just stared at him, but he continued, “Please Mummy”
“No. It’s not good to eat often, you had ice-cream just 10 days ago, Vignesh.”
“Now stop talking and continue your homework.”
Radha thought that she had satisfactorily resolved the ice cream issue. Few minutes later she heard a soft murmur behind her back. Her first thought was that it was her mother-in-law but no it was her son turning desperately towards his grandmother. Swathi stopped rolling her rosary for some time and looked at Radha in an imploring manner. “It’s alright Radha for just one more day. He has been studying hard for so long.” Swathi got up slowly, resting her bony elbow on the dining table and went towards her tin box and from that small purse of hers which was inside the box, she pulled out a 10-rupee note. Radha was blind with fury. “Oh now I understand the game of this grand old lady-coddling the son into defying his mother’s words. How come she had missed this so long? Several were the instances which cropped up in her mind where Swathi would have played her against Vignesh.”
In a stern voice she continued, “Now Vignesh, sit down and you also Ma. I have made it clear that Vignesh will not have his ice-cream today. Is it understood?”
“But please understand that it is just for today. As a grandma, can I not treat my precious little one to a cone ice-cream today?” Tension prevailed between the two women.
“This is how he is getting spoilt! Don’t you interfere in my way of parenting! All his demands are fulfilled. No discipline is enforced. Come to think of it when we were small, our parents were strict disciplinarians……We never dared….”
“Mummy, please, one cone.” “Ajji, give me soon….” pleaded Vignesh with his grandma.