Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

An Old Women whom I Owe

No, I am not talking about me or Mani, my cousin, who is equally ancient. This is about another woman in my life, who is long dead, and I have always felt, never got (from me) the acknowledgement she deserved. In passing this is also a comment about our matrilineal society (Marumakkathayam), which was abolished more than sixty years ago

     Chiruthai Velyamma: Her name was Sreedevi, but all of us called her Chiruthai. She was my father's eldest sister, who managed my home after another sister, Edayi, a spinister, died early, of stomach ulcers. Mother of course, was never in the picture having died of Tuberculosis at the venerable age of eighteen!

     I called Edayi, (Her real name was Narayani, but everyone called her Edayi.) Ammamma to begin with. Later when I got fed up of not having a mother I made a unilateral decision; I started calling her Amma. She had no opinion on either, having spent her life looking after other people's children, and went on in her unflappable way to make sure that three children, (my father's brother's children, Mani and Appettan, and I), were fed regularly (albeit on conjee and moong in various forms)  even when my father went to jail and the money supply dried up. It was a classic case of loaves and fishes. My father's brother was caught up in the war in Singapore and we didn't see him or hear from him for six years.

     When Amma died I was scared. Who was going to look after our household? Father had come back from jail, but he had to work. Also he was hard to pin down in one place, pieces of him were distributed thinly over so many friends, extended family and Congress party workers. Chiruthai Velyamma had come to look after Edayi during the last few weeks of her life. So I confronted Chiruthai one morning. 'You are going to stay, aren't you, I asked'. And she stayed.

     When I grew up she taught me how to handle my periods and the facts of life, painlessly. I slept beside her as she narrated the stories from Ramayanam and Mahabaratham, while she searched my scalp with two fingers for nits. Those stories live with me and are part of my personality. They gave me a cultural starter kit for life before I reached ten years.
    
 When I was studying for my B.A, she made black coffee with ghee (milk would have run out and there was no 'fridge anyway.) in it and left it in a flask. At four in the morning she got up and made me coffee again. 'You need to sleep,' she'd say. 'Your brain won't function in the exam hall.' (It didn't function anyway.) So we'd make a pact. I would catch a quick nap from 4 to 6 and she would wake me up at 6 again.

     When I had my first baby and I did not know how to hold him, she would sit me down on a mat and give him to me to hold carefully. She was in her sixties by then, but she sat on a palaka, a wooden stool, and bathed him daily, umbilical cord and all. At birth, Kitta's cord protruded when he screamed and I was frightened to go near it. He also screamed a lot.

     She became widowed, she told me, in her early forties. She had married a rich landowner when she was twenty years old and had four daughters. She was his second wife. When he died, the custom was that she should leave her husband's ancestral home before his cremation. So they put her in a bamboo-and-rope stretcher and carried her home, three little girls following the procession. One was already married.

     After that she was dependant on her brothers for support. For five rupees to support her pan habit, she had to ask my father. I used to feel sorry for her humiliation. Still she always spoke with love, of her husband. He was kind and gentle, she maintained. It was just the law that his wealth should go to his nephews and nieces, not to her.

     This woman was intelligent and caring, but they laughed at her and treated her with contempt because she came to them empty handed for succour. She was one of the casualties of that ancient system.

     I am glad, that in her later life, until she died, I was able to treat her with respect and gratitude. I am sorry that I was far away when she died. I should have been there.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Uncertain Writing

Writing is like giving birth, I think. The long gestation and the urge to finish it and get it out there - does that sound familiar to women, at least?

     I am tired of this present project. I have written it many times, edited it even more times and when I blink, another apostrophe turns up in the wrong place, a word has lost its last letter in my hurried typing... Remind me never to start another novel again. Pure purgatory.