By Chacko’s Chechimma
Prayer time is always at 7 PM. So we hesitantly close our books, or pause the movie we’re watching, or wake from a fake sleep to heed the call of Mother Dear. These days, we just sit in Amma’s bedroom, because the floor is too cold; because Amma’s back and joints start paining. Because we’ll end up fighting, deciding who should put the paaya back.
But we don’t make the sign of the cross immediately. Or sometimes only Amma does. And then Sara remembers something stupid that Kenneth did; or Jamie enthusiastically reports about Nirmal and her friends. If nothing, I suddenly remember to retell that ‘Peter problem’ story or that ‘Mecca cafe’ story that my teacher told us in class.
And then we don’t pray for a while. I don’t even remember how it started day before yesterday. Mostly it started somewhere and ended in some nice story from Amma’s childhood.
Amma is a good storyteller. I remember when I was a child, she used to read us stories of saints. St.Therese, Don Bosco, Dominic Savio and Mother Mary. The printed words were in weird squiggles.
We always went to Karimannoor for summer vacations. It was there that I first discovered these squiggles. If I saw them in yellowed books without pictures, I don’t remember. But I remember Balarama and Balabhumi. E’elema still used to read them at that time. These books had coloured pages full of neat squiggles. Whenever these printed squiggles fell in a cliff, pictures filled the empty spaces. Little girls with big eyes and pink skirts with pleats, with fox and rabbit friends. A brown monkey in a magenta t-shirt. One squiggle in particular looked familiar. It looked just like the Kannada ‘la’ with its curves ironed out into edges. My suspicions were confirmed. It was Malayalam.
But the rest of it was like a stranger’s ice-cream. It would not tell me anything. So I went behind Mummy or B’cheriamma or E’elema, to get them to decipher them for me. But those story-sessions aren’t strong memories. I just remember unloading six to seven blue covered issues of these books from the grey Safari bag onto the dusty mosaic floor of my house. And then I tried to get hold of Amma during her free time, because nobody else could read Malayalam over here.
When I was twelve, B’cheriamma brought me an ‘a aa e ee’ book, meant for LKG kids. It had ‘a’ for ‘amma,’ with a picture of a woman in a sari next to it. But Amma always wore skirts at home. ‘Aa’ was ‘aama,’ with a tortoise next to it. The last two pages had the kaagunitha. I scribbled the Kannada equivalent on top of each Malayalam squiggle with a black Reynolds ball pen. For three years, I read sign boards and wall advertisements on trips to my native. Then I learnt enough not to depend on anybody else; to read small comics and captions under Vanitha magazine pictures.
But I still preferred Amma to read the stories. Everything came alive, like when she described St.Therese stealing chocolates from a made-up Jesus in her head; or when she told us how Dominic Savio brought his sister a frog for her birthday – complete with a red ribbon round its neck. I remember watching the way her lips moved and the way her hands and fingers – with veins snaking around – created patterns in the air. Her hair would tickle our faces as we, my sisters and I, huddled closer to her.
Amma also had a very exciting childhood. Married life – not so much. That’s probably how our stories started. We girls were sitting in Amma’s bedroom, debating how we’d be good to others even if we ended up with lousy husbands. And then Amma mentioned Kanagacheduthi. She had one – a lousy husband who harassed her, spat on the food and teased the daughters.
Amma said that Kanagacheduthi was from the ‘Dobhi’ Caste. I told my sister that they were in those days, called the untouchable caste. My sister couldn’t fathom it. We had all seen Kanagacheduthi help bathe little Chacko when he was a baby. To us, she was Kanagacheduthi, dark with a white smile. Kanagacheduthi, wearing saris in different shades of blue.
“But you know? Kanaga was the best among all the maids at home,” Amma would say, her eyes turning sunny, like the early morning.
Home was a warm place, nestled between vazha, thengu and rebber trees. We’d huddle closer to hear the rest.
“We’d beg her for kattankaapi. ‘Kaa, Kaa, please no, Kaa, once you give us kattankaapi please?’ She would play that we all were visitors from the next house. Then for us, she would make and keep kattankaapi. The other cheduthis’ – they were strict. They wouldn’t one time also, make kattankaapi or play with us when Daddy and Mummy were away,” Amma’s face would scrunch up at this.
“And then?” Sara would prod, her little face impatient, resting on Amma’s legs.
“Aanh, then we all, through that veranda, we would walk and knock on the half-door. She would appear and say – ‘oh! A’cheduthi, B’cheduthi, C’cheta, D’cheta! How much difficult it has become! Kochhasammanty and Kuriechenancle are away’,” Amma’s face would light up.
“Then we would say sadly – ‘Oh! Ok then, we’ll come one some-other day’. But then Kanagacheduthi would say, ‘Oh! No, no, Please the sunlight is too hot outside, please come inside. I’ll give you anything to drink?’”
One month back, Amma and I were waiting at the Tollgate bus stop. The town hall bus took its own sweet time to come. The bus stand was in front of a petrol bunk. My toes were burning through the shoes. Amma told me to unfold the umbrella.
“Oh! ee veiyilinu enthu choodah!”
“Amma,” I burst laughing. “You can’t say such things.”
“How can you say the sunlight is very hot? It’s like how Jagathy says in Yodha- ee kadu muzhuvan forest aa. Jungle full forest! It’s the same thing.”
“Illa di, that is no mandatharam. It’s perfect only. When the sun is little you don’t say anything, when the sun is too hot you say this.”
“You just wait, I’m going to tell D’chacha. Then we’ll see. He is going to tease you very badly.”
But when I told D’chacha, he simply shrugged. No bursts of laughter. No sarcasm. He explained to me morosely – in the midst of reaching for a translucent momo – that Amma was absolutely right.
I resigned myself to a lost chance and a secret source of amusement.
“Edi, is it that you are listening or not?” Amma’s voice cut in at the right moment.
“Aanh yeah. Then?” I said. Amma always knew when I was thinking something else.
“And then we all, inside we would go, and Ka would serve us the kattankaapi and let us listen to the radio, or talk about the rain. That sweetness of coffee was so sweet! For this and all, she would demand to listen to ‘Kathaaprasangam’ which will come exactly at 12 noon, on the radio. For us means, we hated it, but we would allow her to listen, because otherwise no kattankaapi,” Amma would say, smiling.
We have pictures in our heads of that big house. White house with brown roof. Home of the two girls and two boys, named in alphabetical order.
I was always proud that A was Amma. Eldest. Oldest. Strictest. Just like me.
We imagine carefree versions of Amma, B’cheriamma, C’chacha, and D’chacha, (E’elema wasn’t born yet) with a wonderfully childish maid, who plots with them and plays with them. We know how difficult it is to get not just ‘kaapi’ but this exotic black coffee. Karimannoor house is where we also discovered kattankaapi.
“How bad, no Amma, this caste system?” Jamie says. Her face is angry and eyes round. Amma says she got Mummy’s round-eyes.
“Dobhis were better off. The sweepers were the worst affected,” I say, showing off.
“There was one another lowest caste. That time, they were called the Parayars. Ittiyadi and Kaali. Their land and all Daddy gave them”, Amma says, with a tinge of pride in her voice.
“How sad no, Amma? They must have been forced to live such empty lives” I say.
“EmptyYoh?” Amma smirks, “Kaali was very particular. She didn’t like her name; she thought it was too old-fashioned, so she herself changed her name to ‘Meenakshi’. If anybody called her any other name, she would not at all like it. She would put her nose in the humid air and hobble away,” Amma says with a funny smile.
“But, Amma, why would Kaali change his name to Meenakshi – a girl’s name,” I ask, unable to vision this Kaali man calling himself Meenakshi.
“Hey, stupid, you didn’t hear ah? Kaali is the name of a woman!” my little sister says, lifting her head from Amma’s lap, to reward me with contemptuous looks.
I shut my mouth.
“Aanh, and not only that, Kaali was also very fashionable. A blouse and a mundu; and one different coloured towel to cover her sagging breasts. And silver kunnuku on her upper-earlobe, she would come calling – ‘Modalalli… Modalallichchi…,” Amma says and chuckles that chuckle. Her face is hiding something.
We know there is something more. Something mischievous. Something we haven’t heard before.
“Oh, and these people would call Banana ‘payam’ not ‘pazham’. Because their dialect was another one. And we were little kids, we used to hear other cheduthimar saying this. So to hear from her directly only, we would go near Kaali with a Banana, touch at it and ask – ‘what is this, Meenakshiamma?’ and she would reply with a gapped smile – ‘Oh! That is payam, Molle.’ Then we would go back of the thalam door and laugh. One time Mummy caught us doing this,” Amma is almost laughing. Her worry lines are almost gone.
At this point, our faces are eager. Amma and her siblings, being confronted by Mummy was a precious event. A certain tamarind branch was often an unwelcome visitor. Pulivaral.
“After that, what did Mummy do?” Jamie asks, pulling her monkey-cap lower.
“Oh! She beat us with the pulivaral of hers. We didn’t understand at all. So we still did it, but only the time when Mummy wasn’t there.” Amma says, with bright eyes.
I am now about to ask her to repeat the story of “Mr. Clean Glass” – the man who had the corns. But she sits up. Smiles all gone. Strict, distant Mother back in place.
“Ok. That’s enough now. Let’s start praying,” my mother says.
We are inwardly groaning, but we start reciting the well memorised prayers. Sometimes Jamie’s and Sara’s faces reflect Karimannoor thoughts. Like mine. Clean rain. Warm afternoons. Long hikes through the rubber mountains. Sometimes, Mummy calls in the middle of a Hail Mary. Amma cuts the call. Sometimes B’cheriamma calls. Sometimes she takes it. To listen to the struggles of a single mother; Cheriachchan had died 2 years back. C, D and E don’t call. They know prayer time.
Soon prayer will be over. Then dinner. And then I have to complete my records. Jamie will be practising the violin in her room. Sara will be trying out kajal or making earings. Amma will be doing Amma-work. These mornings I don’t even see them. They’re gone before I go down. Another day. Solitary journeys in cold days that smell of rain. And sometimes also like the dung pit behind the Karimannoor cow shed.
Amma is strict. But we never miss prayer time. Me and my sisters.