I wasn’t sure, when I would be able to visit Ammachi again. Although I have holidays for Christmas, I will have to go back to Kottayam. Since I won’t be able to see Ammachi for Christmas, I thought I might as well do something for her
“Ammachi, Where did you keep the Christmas star?”
“I can’t remember Nina, must be in the pathayam(granary). Why are you looking for the star now? It is only November!”
“Who said it is November? Today is 20th of December, Oh Ammachi, how can you not know the date? 5 days from now, it is Christmas and you are thinking it is still November? What would you have done, if I didn’t come home? You would have celebrated Christmas 1 month later!”
Ammachi looked at me. “You are trying to cheat me, Nina. It is only November”
“Do you think I am mad? Why do I have to cheat you?, you see, you won’t have all these problems, if you buy news paper every day, or atleast listen to the news in the radio. Atleast you would have heard the Christmas carols on the radio!”
“Radio isn’t working Nina, I asked your father to repair it and he kept telling me, he will do it tomorrow and never bothered to fix it”
“Why can’t you send it to the shop and repair it?”
“Nina, it costs money”
“Do me a favour Nina, go outside and shake the tree”
“Huh? What tree?”
“The tree where money grows, the one near the fence, go and shake and bring me some money, we will send the radio for repair today itself. May be we will buy a new radio. why waste money repairing an old radio, when you can buy a brand new one, right?”
“How come Ammachi? How come you don’t have any money?”
“From where do I get money from Nina? We don’t have paddy, now rubber has no value, where else do I get money from?”
“Don’t you have any savings?”
“Ofcourse, I have two kids and 6 grand children, that is considered a good savings, don’t you think?”
“ofcourse, but Ammachi, what did you do with all the money you got from selling the rubber and paddy all these years?”
“Nina, whatever money I got, went back to the land one way or the other. Do you think paddy just sprout in the field? You need to pay people to plant it, you need to pay for the fertilizer, you need to pay the workers for harvesting and sometimes after all these, the weather won’t be merciful and it rains and destroy the crops”
“Hmm, if you don’t have any money, Why don’t you ask Appa for money?”
“Do you think he will understand? He thinks I have too much of money?”
“Why don’t you explain to him?”
“Why should I Nina? He grew up in this house, he should know, how much money we can make from the farm. I don’t have to explain anything to him”
“What about the government?”
“What about the government Nina?”
“Can’t you get some sort of assistance from the government?”
“When your grandfather died, I could have got widow’s pension from the government!”
“Could have? what do you mean?”
“I didn’t collect the money then and I won’t do it now”
“Why Ammachi, why didn’t you collect the money?” I felt my grandmother is the biggest idiot of all
“Why should I? Why should the government pay me money just because my husband passed away? I have 2 legs, 2 hands and I live in a farm and and can earn my own money. I don’t need any help from the government. Besides Nina, there are so many other women out there, who needs help, like Suzy”
“Who is Suzy?”
“You don’t know her?”
I shook my head and said No.
“Suzy is my mother’s cousin’s daughter. The one who stays in Thiruvalla”
“What happend to her?”
“She was stupid enough to marry a widower, Actually she wasn’t stupid, her parents got her married to a widower with three kids, because they didn’t have to pay dowry. After the marriage, her wonderful husband told her, he doesn’t want her to have any kids, because he didn’t want her to show partiality to his kids from the first wife”
“And she agreed?”
“What do you think? If a husband says, I don’t want you to get pregnant, can a wife go against his words?”
“Then what happend?”
“She took care of his kids as though they are her children, raised them, they all got married and are well settled in life. One is a doctor, another works in the bank and the third one is teaching as a lecturer in some college”
“Then the husband died”
“He wrote his will before he died, giving all the property to his children. He was afraid, Suzy’s sister’s children would ask for a share of his property, because she doesn’t have kids of her own and whatever is hers will go to her sister’s kids”
“Can her sister’s children do that?”
“Ofcourse not, but who will a dying man listen to, his children or his common sense?”
“Then what happend?”
“After the funeral, when they came back from church, the children told Suzy, thank you for taking care of us, all these years, now that we are well settled in life, we don’t need you anymore, and they threw her out”
“Why did she leave Ammachi? Why didn’t she say, she has a right to stay in her house?” My blood was boiling, thinking about the injustice done to a helpless woman.
“Nina, if the children that you never gave birth, but you take care of, as though they are yours, if they throw you out of the house on the day your husband died, Do you think you would stand there and fight?”
“Where is she now Ammachi?”
“Don’t know Nina. She came here 2 days after they threw her out, She was asking if she could stay here with me”
“Your father was here, he said No”
“Why? Why did Appa say no?”
“Don’t know, may be he thought she would be a liability to him. Before she left he gave her 50Rs!.
50Rs Nina, that is all you are worth after struggling all your life, raising someone else’s children”
“Why didn’t you ask Appa to let her stay here Ammachi?”
“I can’t Nina, this is his land. I am just a servant”
I was stunned to hear Ammachi say that she considers herself to be a servant
“You are not a servant Ammachi”
“Oh yes I am. Your father will throw me out, when I am no longer useful to him. Like you throw the curry leaves from the moru before you eat the rice. I am just a stupid curry leaf Nina, I was only needed as a servant. If I wasn’t a servant, why did your great grandfather write in the will that a 10 year old boy is the owner of all these land?? They too knew I am a servant.”
“No Ammachi, you are not. You are not a servant. You are my grandmother”
I looked up and saw the tears in her eyes. How tormenting it is to live knowing that eventually you will only be a burden to the one and only person for whom you struggled each day, everyday? For the first time, I understood Ammachi’s heart ache and I didn’t wipe the tears that were rolling down her cheeks or mine.
My grandmother was 18 years old when she lost her husband. She could have re-married. But then her children would have lost their inheritance. She struggled for my father and he wasn’t worth it one bit.
I got up slowly, I had to find the Christmas star. I had to bring some light in to Ammachi’s life
I went to the pathayam(granary) near the kitchen. It was pitch dark inside. I tried to switch on the light. The bulb didn’t work. I went back to the kitchen, climbed the dining table and removed the bulb from the kitchen and took it back to the pathayam(granary). I removed the old bulb and fixed the bulb from the kitchen and swtiched on the light.
I looked around the room. This room was once the heart of Chengannur house. Ammachi used to keep the fresh produce from the farm here. She used to hang the bananas from a rope hanging from the ceiling while waiting for it to ripen, so the rats won’t eat the bananas. The rice was kept in a huge wooden box, coconuts used to be grouped together and kept near the corner.
Today there were dust and cobwebs everywhere. There were 4 empty ropes hanging from the ceilings that were once used to hang the bananas. There was 2 empty uri*, that at one time kept the fish curry and yogurt safely from the cats. There were few dried shrivelled coconuts on the floor near the door. In the corner, I noticed Ammachi has stacked up all the utensils used for paddy harvest, including the kuttakom(huge urn, used for par boiling the rice).
Kuttakom (urn) was always kept outside, It was our status symbal, that showed the visitors how much rice grew in our fields and now it is inside.
I desperatley wanted to recapture the magic of my childhhod. I wanted to bring back Chengannur house to its glory. I took the broom and started to clean the room and I started to sneeze
“What are you doing there? Why are you playing with dust? You see, you are sneezing already!” I turned my head to see Ammachi standing next to the door
“Nina, leave it. There is no point cleaning it. It is going to be dusty again. I don’t use the pathayam(granary) any more”
Ammachi turned and walked away. I stood there holding the broom in my hand and sneezing, trying to see, what I should do?
It feels awful, when you know you want to do a lot of things, yet you are helpless. I threw the broom and went out.
In the morning I was getting ready to leave. Ammachi bought me a Salwar Khameez yesterday and I decided to wear it.
“Nina, how much is the train fare?”
“don’t know. Must be around 100!”
“How come you don’t know? Didn’t you buy a ticket when you came?”
I looked at her and grinned
“Don’t tell me, you travelled all the way from Bangalore without a ticket?”
I grinned some more
“oh, Nina, they would have arrested you, if they found that you didn’t buy a ticket!. How can you be so irresponsible?”
“Ammachi, I didn’t have any money with me to buy a ticket and I didn’t have time to go to the bank to withdraw the money. I didn’t do it purposely”
“Here, take this money and next time buy a ticket when you travel in the train” she passed me three 100 Rs notes
“Why are you giving me so much money. I need only 150 Rs. “You take this”, I took two 100 notes and tried to give it back to Ammachi. “Give me a 50 Rs note”.
“I don’t have any change. You keep the money” Ammachi turned and walked away. I knew it is futile trying to give her the money back. I took one hundred note and kept it under her bible. I knew she will see it tonight.
When I went out Ammachi was sitting on the parapet wall.
“Nina, I am sorry, I don’t have any food to send with you to eat in the train”
“Ammachi, why do you have to be sorry? Even Amma doesn’t send any food. I buy my lunch and dinner from the railway station and I will be on time for breakfast at the college tomorrow. So don’t worry about me”
“Hmm” She looked away.
I went up to her, kissed her on her cheeks.”I will see you soon”
“hmm” She still didn’t look at me. Her eyes were already looking at the bund wall, waiting for me to return.
“Bye Ammachi” I whispered
“hmm, Nina, on the way will you stop at Thomas Kutty’s ration shop and tell him to send his son over? I will have to buy some rice flour and potato to make Appam&stew for Christmas. I must be growing very old, I really thought, Christmas is a month away.”
I walked up to the steps, turned around and looked at Ammachi. I was grinning
“nee enthina avide ninnu ilikkunney? Vattu pidicho ente kunjinu?” (Why are you standing there and grinning like a mad woman?)
“Athey Today is November 27, Christmas is one month away!”
“You!, you cheated me, ninne njan!”Ammachi was struggling to get up from the parapet wall. I knew she can’t chase me anymore. I walked back to her. She turned her head and looked inside the house.
“Thagamma, my darling Thangamma, have I ever told you how beautiful you look when you are angry?”
Thangamma didn’t respond
“Oh Thangamma, don’t break my poor heart. Turn around and look at me and give me a 70watt smile”
Thangamma was still mad at me
“Ok, at least a 3o watt smile?? Please Thangamma,Smile Thangamma. I won’t leave unless you smile and if I don’t leave now, I will miss my train and if I miss my train, I won’t be able to attend the class on monday and if I don’t attend the class on monday, they will suspend me, if they suspend me, I will never become a doctor”
She looked at me
“You really fooled me”
“Sorry Ammachi. I wasn’t planning to make you upset”
“I am really sorry Ammachi, I won’t fool you again”
“Ok, go now” Ammachi looked at me and smiled. I kissed her hand and walked again
“Nina, what is that, on your dress?”
“Where?” I turned and looked
“There, on the right side”
I pulled the salwar to the right to check the dress. I had actually checked the whole dress yesterday before buying it. May be I didn’t see any damage. Oh God! Now I don’t have time to go and exchange it. I pulled the dress and looked and looked, I couldn’t find anything
“Where Ammachi?” I turned to look at her
She had a 100 watt smile on her face
“You fooled me Ammachi, go Ammachi, I am not talking to you anymore” I huffed and walked away. I could hear her laughter all the way to the bund wall.
*uri: I have no idea what it is called in English. It is a contraption made with coir ropes and hung from the ceiling. One can keep a pot full of curry(often fish curry) inside the base of the uri and one can always find the neighbourhood cats laying down on the floor and looking at the uri and salivating!