Sangeetha Vallat | July 2022
After replanting the tomatoes on the freshly tilled vegetable patch in the backyard, I surveyed my garden. A smug smile cropped up on my lips. My association with gardening and cultivation began when my father, fed up with the city life, decided to move back to his village in the foothills of the Western Ghats. Since then, I have dabbled in growing vegetables for the family. The practice continued even when I shifted to the city, landing a bank job. Post-retirement, gardening became a compulsive passion, granting me the nickname, Mr. Green Thumb.
The weeds needed plucking, but it could wait – my daughters will be here soon. The banker in me chose the last Friday of every quarter for their visit. Like the good old days before the girls left the nest, just the four of us would enjoy a cosy dinner at home. I wanted to finish my gardening, have a quick shower and catch a short nap before they reached. Their mother, my wife of 40 years, was toiling in the kitchen since morning. She had planned an elaborate menu, cooking all the favourite dishes of the girls.
“It’s too hot today. You shouldn’t have replanted them; they will wilt in the sun.” Visalakshy honoured me with her expert opinion, standing under the shade of the kitchen awning, her hands on her ample hip.
“I am the gardener here, madam. I know my job. Now be kind enough and fetch me a chilled beer!”
As expected, Visalakshy feigned nonchalance. Enraptured by the sizzling sounds from the stove, she did not bother getting me the much-needed beer. I washed the gardening tools and the mud clinging to my feet under the tap near the well. Then I wiped my hands in the apron and let my slippers dry for a while. Deciding to down a beer during the wait, I unfolded the teakwood easy chair with the colourful cotton canvas, under the shade of the mango tree. The chair belonged to my father, and whenever I sat on it, a feeling of calmness washed over me.
The next-door house had been unoccupied for a while. Now the raucous laughter from the new neighbours dented the peace and calm. The lady of that house hollered for her son or her husband often, “Kannaaaa, Kannan come here.”
I quail every time the name crossed my ears. The cruellest thing to happen to people of my age was forgetfulness. I would gladly welcome it.
In the late ’60s, when my father moved the family to the ancestral house in Kerala, the political wave of communism had drenched the state. EMS Namboodripad, at the helm of the government, had passed the Land Reform Bill, creating a furore.
My father inherited a couple of acres of agricultural land. But, caught in the communist upheaval, we were among the ‘Landlords’ affected. Steadily the lands exchanged ownership and reshuffling of the moneyed class transpired.
It took a while for the disparity to obscure. But it was shocking for a city-bred like me as older men and women bowed in obeisance, and gave way when I, a lad of 13, walked across the pathways between the paddy fields. They addressed me Thamburan, an epithet of respect, and my ego swelled like Goliath.
Andiappan, dark as a coffee bean, with a towel layering his waist and another on the head, strode the fields from dawn to dusk. He was my father’s trusted man on the campus. At the sight of me, Andiappan removed the headgear, stuffed it under his sweaty armpits, and bent his lanky frame.
Kunji, Andiappan’s wife, helped my mother at home. Attired in a tanned dhoti and a threadbare towel that failed to conceal her ample bosom, Kunji always sported a grin displaying brown betel stained teeth. My teenage hormones somersaulted, and I crimsoned whenever I sneaked a peek at her sagging breasts. Kunji had to remove the towel when she encountered men from the upper echelon, as covering the torso was considered disrespectful.
Their son Kannan, a year younger than me, herded the cows and goats of our family. We could have been playmates if not for the yawning class division.
“Papa, I thought you would be waiting for me at the gate! Instead, here you are in the backyard… what is this? That too, two beers down!” Gayatri, my youngest, squatted next to my chair and touched my hand.
“Ah, my dear little girl. Your mother wouldn’t have bothered even if I slept here forever, but you care so much. When did you arrive? Where is your sister?”
Gayatri picked up the beer cans and hoisted me up, not that I needed help, but it was a pleasure if the children were around to fuss over.
“Sis is running late—some last-minute office call, as usual. I cooked food for my husband and children, and still managed to reach on time. She has no one to take care of but acts pricey. As if her time is more valuable than everyone else!”
“Gayatri, stop comparing yourself with your elder sister. You don’t work in the corporate sector anymore. She holds a high position at work and has many responsibilities on a much higher level. Don’t you see how she tries to mask her sorrows with work?” Visalakshy ambled over with a tray of coffee and biscuits for her daughter.
“Grr… As if I don’t work at home. It’s because of the children that I had to quit my job. If I remained unmarried like Bhadra, I too would be at the top of some firm.” The drama queen Gayatri sniffled and wiped her nose on her dress sleeve.
“Ladies, enough. All my girls are responsible workaholics! I am the only one who whiles away the time drinking beer. Okay?” I gathered my little one, Gayatri, in a bear hug and winked at Visalakshy.
I excused myself to take a quick shower, hoping that Gayatri would not boast about her happy married life when her sister arrived.
It was a hot sunny day like today when Bhadra, my eldest daughter, had brought her friend home to meet us. He worked in her office, and they had started as friends but ended up falling for each other like any other love story. He was a decent boy, ambitious with a middle-class upbringing. Visalakshy was hysterical at the apparent differences amongst the families. She cried and screamed for days, even managed to give us the silent treatment. I remember how peaceful the house seemed without her constant caustic comments. However, Bhadra stayed resolute in her decision, and I managed in convincing Visalakshy to meet his family.
“Papa! Are you still in the shower?”
I heard Bhadra rap the bedroom door softly.
“Just getting ready to meet you, my sweet child.” I pulled the door open and gazed at my firstborn who had finally arrived. “You look tired. I heard you had an unexpected official call. Come, let me make you a ginger tea.”
“Yes, papa, that would be wonderful. Yeah, work tensions are never-ending. Wait! I will peel the ginger and grate it. You get the milk and water boiling.”
Bhadra was like that, always helpful and thoughtful. My darling daughter. It pained me to see her clam up inside a shell, a shell of my making. Oh, how I wish things were different.
The day I met the boy’s family, I knew I couldn’t allow this union to happen. A gamut of bottled feelings arose like bile, and I struggled to swallow than spit them out.
When my father left me in charge of the house and farmlands for a few days, I had sprouted horns on my head. Until his return from the city, I monitored the wages paid to the fieldhands, and watched them with hawk eyes. Then, one fateful day, as dusk bled into night, done with my studies, I reclined in the front veranda. The swaying fields and the cool breeze lulled me to sleep. My sister smacked my head and ran before I could catch her pigtails. Then my eyes fell on the shadowy figure rustling amidst the ripe paddy. Rubbing the sleepiness from my eyes, I sidled across the courtyard and merged in the darkness. A puny figure plucked the rice kernels from the bent paddy stalks. I pounced into the field and caught his hand. It was Kannan, the cowherd stuffing his shirt pocket with our rice grain.
“Hey, you thieving bastard!” I yelled, twisting his arm.
“Thamburan, it hurts. Would you please release my hand? You shouldn’t be touching me.” Kannan howled like a hyena caught in a snare.
“Scoundrel, we treat your family so well, and this is how you repay our kindness!” I scuffled with him, tugging at his coir-like hair. My fingers caught his frayed shirt pocket, which submitted itself meekly. The precious grains tumbled into the earth. I pushed him away as he wailed and scrambled on the mud picking the grains.
I trampled the rice kernels into the earth and glared at him. His tears glistened, and he wiped his mud-streaked face with his shirtsleeve. His clothes, pre-owned and discarded by me, hung loosely on him.
“Thamburan, forgive me. Let me go home.”
“I should report you to my father. Maybe he will call the police.” Spit sprayed out of my mouth.
Kannan convulsed like he had touched a live wire.
“Better still, I will punish you. Remove your clothes, everything at once!”
Kannan goggled at me, realising that I meant business; he slowly undressed. His bones were sticking out. I crumpled the clothes in a bundle and darted home to hide them in the corner of the attic. I was wary of being seen carrying the clothes worn by a servant. Kannan waited till the darkness enveloped before he sprinted home. The new moon showed him the kindness, which I had failed.
“It was scorching in the morning, and now it’s chilly. Papa, you will catch a cold standing out bare-chested. Come inside. Amma and Gayatri are laying the dinner table.”
Snuffing the cigarette, I locked the door behind me. By then, the mosquitoes had begun their orchestra. Visalakshy had outdone herself. She stuffed all of us with the lavish spread. Gayatri had baked an apple and cinnamon cake, and Visalakshy opened her precious diary to write the recipe.
“Amma, everything is on Google. Even Gayatri got the recipe from it. So why don’t you check it on the mobile whenever you want to bake?” Bhadra patted her mother’s shoulder.
“I am old fashioned. I love to have the recipes written in my own handwriting.”
Bhadra rolled her eyes and stretched her legs on the sofa. I sat near her feet and massaged them.
“Papa, it’s okay. I should be massaging your feet instead.” Bhadra chuckled.
I was a happy man surrounded by my women I loved. Gayatri had her family to get back to, but my Bhadra had no one waiting for her. She never once questioned me on my refusal in allowing her marriage to that boy she had chosen. But she shocked all of us by her decision to stay single. Visalakshy tried her best until a year ago to change Bhadra’s mind. Stubborn daughter to a stubborn father. My eyes welled up, like rubbing grit off my eyes; I regained my composure and smiled.
“Let’s watch our family videos. It’s been so long since the four of us watched it together.” Visalakshy padded to switch on the system. Then, we all relaxed to dive into the days of yore.
When I met Kannan again a few years later after the harrowing episode, old customs had yielded to the new. The preconceived prejudices of snobbish traditions were diminishing. I was no longer the Thamburan, downgraded to Ettan, the elder brother.
I bumped into Kannan, a porter in a railway station. I witnessed his hair-raising speech delivered at a Railway Union meeting outside the station. When our eyes met, he swiftly moved his to the horizon. I walked up to him.
“What, Kannan, don’t you remember me? Perhaps I can re-kindle your memory.”
“Ah, Parameswaran, how are you? Good to see you again.”
I recoiled as he straightened his spine and marched forward to be swarmed by people bestowing congratulations. My ploy to see him squirm with shame, remembering the old episode, misfired. I was pulled into the quicksand. Drenched in sweat, I struggled to veil my discomposure.
Laughter filled my house; the TV played a karaoke party video that happened when days were not plagued with my guilt. Visalakshy and I completely smashed the song, after which the girls swore us from singing ever again. Happy, carefree days. Some things never stopped being funny even as years rolled.
I realised my throat was parched, and I looked for water on the table.
“Papa, do you need anything?” Bhadra touched my arm.
“Water. I was looking for water.”
“Here, take this bottle. Shall I get you a glass?”
“No, dear. Thank you.” We watched another happy memory playing on the screen.
Kannan had been shunted to the dark recesses of my mind. So, when Bhadra brought her special friend home, he managed to impress me right away with his politeness and educational achievements. Visalakshy needed time to thaw, but I could see the merit in my daughter’s choice.
“What does your father do? Where do your parents stay?”
“Sir, my father retired from Railways. They live in a village in ….”
As the lad proceeded, my heart constricted. I bolted from the chair and dashed out. It took three matchsticks to light my cigarette.
Bhadra scuttled behind, wringing her palms.
“This boy is not right for you. For our family.”
“I said NO. It’s either him or me in your life.”
My vicious words sluiced through her, and she was never the same again, ever.
The incident at the paddy field had warped my existence. I still remember how abrasive like a tree bark his skin had felt on that day. Something I read stayed with me – Heaven’s vengeance is slow but sure.
Oh, how true!
If only I could dare to uncloak my conceit? Dare to accept my flaws? Dare to stare into the mirror? But, instead, my punishment was to be plagued by the guilt of treading on my daughter’s happiness. Would I get another chance to salvage her life? Would a daughter forgive her erring father?
Forever such questions would swirl in my thoughts.
Multitudes of layers shroud me. Layers of ingrained customs. Layers of malignancy.
The layers demanded to be peeled.
One by one. Someday.
Sangeetha Vallat had a memorable career spanning 14 years in the Indian Railways after which she opted for voluntary retirement. She now stays in Qatar, surrounded by books and water. Her balcony overlooking the Persian Gulf inspires her to weave tales. She believes that life is a roller coaster ride and the adventures one encounters while soaring or plunging are worth sharing.
Books, friends, and conversations spice up her life.
Her short stories are part of anthologies – 21 stories for ’21, Everything changed after that, Asian Literary Society 2021, Existing Loudly, and Grieving and Healing.
Photo via Unsplash
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