[Issue 12 / 1 Feb 15]
In some parts of that city, a sleeveless blouse worn with a see-through chiffon sari was the greatest act of rebellion. Amutha was from that part.
“Manasula periya Balachander pada heroine-nu nenappa?” Amutha was mocked by her mother, when she cut out the sleeves from her blouse and wore it with an old saree, as she sometimes did.
Amutha thought herself to be a heroine in this film that was her life, and hoped God was as loving a director as Balachander was to the women he crafted in his films. That comparison from her mother also gave Amutha a kick. She’d watched Aval Oru Thodarkathai (She is a Never Ending Story) four times in the theatre four years ago. Each time, coming up with a new excuse at home, flicking loose change from her father’s shirt pocket. It was among Balachander’s greatest social dramas. A shocker of a Tamil film with a never-say-die heroine: Kohl-kissed eyes, watch in right hand, a ponytail tied up with black ribbon and a yellow rose held in its place by a thin hairpin behind her left ear. Amutha dressed every evening thusly and sat outside her tiny independent house where adolescent boys, who were out to play marbles and cricket with rubber balls and makeshift bats of coconut tree barks, would swarm around her and adolescent girls would follow the boys and ask her if she would teach them as well to dress up and wear “liftik”. Amutha would throw her head back and laugh, the way the heroine of her favourite film did, showing off all of her teeth. She would say, “Adu liftik illa di mundam, lipstick.” (It’s not liftik, you headless moron. It’s lipstick!) She even chose her abuses carefully. Before uttering each word she asked herself how her idol would react.
19-year-old Amutha was from the sort of lower middle class Madras family that only spoke of the past. Of the 7,000 square foot village house that was slowly, but steadily gambled away by uncles who spared no bad habit – alcohol, cards, races, and that thing every self-respecting man of some means must have, a china veedu, a small house—which was just another name for a second wife taken by a man who was not only still married to his first wife but also living with her full time. Some china veedus had children. Some didn’t. They were sometimes also called a second account.
After watching a series of “women empowerment movies” in which the heroine invariably ended up alone, because that’s what happened to strong women, Amutha had already started to think of herself as a tragic, head of the family type figure who would fall in love, only to be jilted; find a mature, older man, only to have her reformed former-alcoholic brother die on the day of her marriage; sleep with a man, only to have him say to her father, “She is like my sister” because, that’s just how life was for women like her. The times were like that. Women were going to police stations to complain about men asking for dowries and newspapers were gleefully reporting instances of office-going women slapping leery, lecherous men on buses.
There were some problems along the way for Amutha though. For one, her mother, Kumudavalli, was busy sending out her horoscope to brokers who promised to find her a bank manager (at a nationalized bank of course) husband. There was also this other problem. There weren’t any destitute women in her house. Her mother was outgoing—not shy—and had a job in the state government. Her father, Ananthan, it seemed, had no plans of deserting the family for the life of an ascetic. And her brother, Sukumaran, was an engineer going to America, which was the pinnacle of achievement for a man of any age from Madras or from any part of India for that matter. Hers, unfortunately, was not a dysfunctional unit that she could somehow hold together like Balachander’s heroine.
She spent hours in front of the mirror every day, though, repeating the dialogues from these films, trying her best to incorporate some lines while talking to family and neighbours.
Every morning, she’d wake up and watch her family, as each member dressed up. She waited for each of them to make a mistake. When her father called her mother out on the salty curry. When her mother saved up poppadum for her brother but didn’t give her any. When her brother waited for his mother to hand him his morning coffee instead of going in to the kitchen to pick it up. She called them sexist pigs. Primitive.
“It’s 1978. Not Stone Age…”
Initially, they were taken aback. Soon though, they got used to her—so much that her parents started calling each other PP and SP, Primitive Pig and Sexist Pig, in front of her.
“Why is this funny?” she would scream and they would just laugh at her.
It was summer vacation and many of her college friends had left town to cooler places like Ooty and Kodaikkanal. Friendless, Amutha had a lot of time at home. She figured finding some skeletons from her family’s closets might take her further in her quest. So every day, after they all left, Amutha locked the door and picked a cupboard.
First she went through her mother’s things. She found 50 chiffon sarees on the outside shelves. A few dozen blouses, bras and a few in-skirts. She was, however, hesitant to open the locker, which was out of bounds. She wanted to. But she decided to come back to it later.
She then went through her father’s cupboard. It was unremarkable. Files with bills and papers. More papers. More files. More bills. Bell bottom trousers. Checked shirts.
No locker. No cash. Nothing. She knew her parents shared the locker in her mother’s cupboard. So going through his was rather uneventful.
When she got to Sukumaran’s wooden cupboard on the third day of May she had struck gold. Playboy magazines. Too many to count. Hidden under his clothes. Between them. He wasn’t even being careful. It was almost as if he wanted to get caught.
She picked out a dozen of them and went to the bedroom. She switched on the fan, drew the curtains and lay in bed on her stomach.
When the initial shock subsided, she ran outside to see if anyone was around.
Sumathi was standing outside.
“Why are you back so early from vacation?” Amutha asked running across to her neighbour’s verandah.
“My grandmother died.”
Amutha noticed the many slippers outside Sumathi’s house. She thought about it for a while and decided she would be the strong pillar of support Sumathi needed at this time of distress. She briefly went into the house. Bowed her head and walked out.
“We are all going to die. One day. Let’s not cry,” she said.
“I haven’t been crying much anyway. I was never close to her,” Sumathi said.
Death was supposed to be dramatic. Not this casual.
Amutha considered her friend briefly. She felt a special sort of bond with Sumathi over the realization that someone’s death could leave two people totally unmoved.
“It will hit you soon. It hasn’t sunk in. That’s why,” she said.
“Maybe,” Sumathi said, shrugging.
The two shared a moment of silence and then Amutha said, “Want to come to my house. I have to show you something?”
“Ok. But I don’t know if I am allowed to come there…” Sumathi wiped her forehead with the loose end of her half sari.
“Meet me in the terrace in twenty minutes,” Amutha looked at her watch. It was one.
She needed twenty minutes to heat her food on the pump stove. Amutha ate beetroot curry with rice and curd, gathered all the books from the cupboard, carefully packed them in a bag and walked up to the terrace. She wanted to shock Sumathi. Wanted her to feel the same raw tremor she had felt.
Sumathi was already there.
“Ready ah?” she said and Sumathi blinked back.
With the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Amutha showed off her treasure.
Sumathi said, “Chi! What is this?”
Amutha hid the books. She then sat on them so that Sumathi couldn’t see them at all.
“What is it?” Sumathi said.
“You said chi… which means you aren’t interested.”
Sumathi thought about it for a few seconds.
“I want to know. What is it? Show it to me…”
The two girls found some shade behind a wall and sat there. Flipping through pages. Their mouths wide open. Sometimes giggling. Sometimes exchanging notes.
“Mine is not this colour...” Sumathi said, when they heard a noise.
Amutha tried to push everything into her bag, but it was a little too late.
It was her mother.
“What is this?”
“This is not mine… This is not mine,” Amutha screamed, as her mother held her by the ears.
Sumathi scurried down, like a rabbit, back into her mourning hole. Not to emerge for a few days. When she went home that day, she didn’t have to try too hard to grieve. She shed her first tears as she ran down the stairs. First out of shame. Then out of guilt. Later that day, out of sorrow when they took her grandmother’s body to the funeral grounds.
Amutha and Sukumaran were both named and shamed at home in front of their father. Sukumaran felt the sting of his father’s wrath in every word that left his mouth, as Amutha’s cheeks burned and turned pink with red hot tears, unable to bear her mother’s emotional rant peppered with choice abuses.
Kumudavalli made a bonfire in the backyard with all the books. The siblings were asked to then do ten thoppu karanams. Hold their ears and squat and stand up, as penance while asking for forgiveness from God for their mistake. It was not just punishment. It was humiliation. Sukumaran stormed out of the house. More out of embarrassment than anger.
“I am not a baby,” he said and slammed the door as he left.
Amutha locked herself in the bathroom and came out only later in the night.
Their mother called home a ‘bhai’, brother, the default name for all Muslim men in town. He was a little man who came regularly and drove away the evil eye with benzoin resin, sambraani and peacock feathers. She then purified the house with teertham, the water used to bathe the idol at Karapagavalli Amman Temple. She also used this excuse to extend some regulations on Amutha.
“If I see you slipping away to watch another movie, standing in front of the mirror admiring yourself like you are a beauty queen or wearing any of those blouses without sleeves, I will throw you out of this house and have you beg for a living.”
Amutha felt like a tragic protagonist.
She sang sad songs from her favourite films. A lot of them.
Adi, ennadi ulagam. Idhil eththanai kalagam.
(Oh woman, what world is this? In this how many tumults.)
Deivam thanda veedu veedi irukku… (God’s house, the street, is there…)
Uravaugal thodarkathai. Unarvugal sirukathai… (Relationships are serialised stories. Emotions are short stories…)
She waited for her parents to realise that the songs were meant to taunt them. Instead they patted her on the back and told her that in another life she could have been a singer like L.R. Eswari.
Was this hypocrisy? Amutha asked herself. Or had they just forgotten what had happened? In a week’s time the entire issue was brushed aside and everyone had moved on.
A month passed and her old pangs returned. For snooping is as dangerous a drug as any. Amutha could not resist the high. So she took up where she left off.
In Sukumaran’s cupboard, this time she found poetry. Beautiful love poetry, meant for some girl in his class, perhaps. She had new respect for her brother. Unlike the previous discovery, she didn’t show this off to any of her friends. But went back to read the poems once every few days. And wondered, for the first time, what it must be like to adore someone that much.
And nervously, finally, after days of being scared, and chickening out, one day, she braved on and opened the locker in her mother’s steel almirah.
Lemons from temples. Leaves from temples. Vermillion. Turmeric. It was like another prayer room.
She dug a little deeper and found a hundi, in which there was a lot of change, meant for some temple or the other, as donation. Amutha was not interested in the money.
She looked further in. And found a file, all bills and receipts.
Of jewels pledged and re-pledged.
College fees receipts.
Mortgage loan papers.
And a fresh application for a loan on Provident Fund. Perhaps to fund her brother’s impending American trip.
Just signs of middle class poverty.
Amutha was overcome with self-pity. Where she’d expected to be awed by something outrageous, she had been humbled by the mundaneness of her existence.
Further in, in the locker, in a small tin box, there were a few remnants of her childhood that had been carefully kept away from all those other silver things that had found the pawn broker: a sipper cup out of which her brother had his first sip of milk; a small bowl out of which Amutha had been fed her first morsel of rice; a waist band; and some passport size photographs of the siblings through the years.
She put everything away and took a nap.
That evening, she did not go out to sit in the verandah. She sat inside and read a book her mother had recommended, instead.
The following week, when she turned 20, Amutha’s mother bought her a new saree.
“You usually get me half saree. What’s special? I get an actual saree?” Amutha said, pleasantly surprised by this gift that marked the onset of adulthood. She felt important.
“You are a woman now. And you shall dress like one,” her mother said, and planted a kiss on her forehead.
“I am a woman now,” Amutha smiled back.
“See this photo?” her mother said. “The broker says your horoscope matches perfectly with this boy’s. He lives in Bombay. He’s so young and already a Bank Officer. No siblings also…”
“Ma!” Amutha said, by way of protest.
Her mother took her hand and walked to the steel almirah.
Amutha felt the colour rise to her cheeks, as she thought of the last time she’d opened the locker, as her mother showed off a box full of gold jewellery.
“We’ve been saving up for our little princess...”
Bangles. Necklace. Earrings.
Amutha saw that Provident Fund loan form in every piece of jewellery in that box.
She took the photo.
He was a dark, mustachioed man. In bell bottom pants, white shirt. He was standing in front of the Gateway of India. That stranger peering back at her from the photo, with those cat-eye frames, was going to decide how she would live. Where she would live. What she would wear. Eat. And how many children she would have.
Krupa Ge lives in Madras. Her short fiction has appeared recently in Muse India, The Bombay Review, The New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology 2014, Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature among other electronic and print journals. She was a finalist in the César Egido Serrano Foundation, Madrid’s Flash Fiction Competition Prize's second edition. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Hindu, The New Indian Express, The Alternative, etc. She curates The Madras Mag, a multilingual literary journal – www.madrasmag.in