An extremely witty story about an old woman’s new found spiritualism and her lifelong material possessions. The story includes spiritual gurus, stealing relatives, long running soap opera show and a lot of objects. Read this story for the amazing writing style of Radhika Venkatarayan. Some of its lines will definitely stick with you for long. Narrated by a third person, reading this story will put a gentle smile on your face.
‘We really need to get rid of this painting,’ Amma said as she squinted at the buxom woman with an awkward smile staring back at her from the wall.
I didn’t even look up from the book I was reading and offered a non-committal, Mm-hmm.
‘You may have noticed that I am systematically getting rid of one thing every day,’ Amma continued. ‘There are way too many things in this house.’ She collapsed into the diwan, displacing a cloud of dust.
Seeing that we were now at the same level and it was impossible to avoid eye contact I looked at her. She gazed across the room, looking for the next object. Her eyes surveyed the contenders, lingered on one and after a brief moment of evaluation, moved on. I imagined that she was mentally sorting the objects into disjointed sets. Keep. Throw. Defer.
For now the object that seemed to be going through scrutiny was a pink flower vase that Anu, my younger sister had made when she was eleven. It was the year that pottery was introduced as one of the options in craft class at school. The prospect of getting her hands dirty had instantly appealed to Anu and she was among the first people to sign up. The vase that she produced after six months of labour was not the ugliest thing in the room. In fact, it was reasonably symmetrical. The pear-shaped bottom of it gave way to a slender neck. It was painted a shade of shocking pink and had an elaborate geometrical pattern drawn in silver. The vase had been preserved for many years now. The coat of dust was wiped every Sunday and the dead cockroaches emptied every month. We even varnished it on more than one occasion. And even though the plastic flowers that the vase housed changed every now and then, the vase itself remained. ‘Maybe Mia will want this,’ Amma said. I rolled my eyes, my face carefully buried in the book that I was still pretending to read. Mia was my niece and Anu’s two-month-old daughter.
Right next to the flower vase was a sword, safely ensconced inside a glass box. It was one that Appa had picked up on one of his trips to Rajasthan. Amma hated that sword. It led to numerous fights between Amma and Appa. Verbal duels. ‘Other husbands bring saris for their wives, my husband brings me a sword,’ Amma had said at the end of one such fight. But now that Appa was dead, the sword seemed more palatable to Amma.
‘Dead people are to be treated with care,’ she said, ‘dust them often and occasionally remember them, but never shift them around too much.’
Keep. Throw. Defer.
Some objects were easy to get rid of. Just last week we got rid of a chair, an old cane chair, the type that leaves a crisscross pattern on your buttocks and arms. While the chair itself was in reasonable condition, it was possibly the world’s most uncomfortable chair. In a moment of poor inspiration, Anu had christened the chair The Titanic. After Amma and Appa’s wedding, The Titanic was the first major purchase they made for a sum of rupees eighty. Over the years, they discovered that it was one of the many poor decisions that they had made. As a result, one avoided the chair, unless we were having a full house. Amma would place the chair in a spot that was farthest away from the fan’s breeze. It was likely to be the hottest spot in the house. Yet, this clue seemed to be insufficient and many guests would sink into it. Of course, they would then shift around uncomfortably during the course of the conversation, but were too polite to move to another spot. It was getting up from The Titanic that proved to be the most difficult, especially if you didn’t have good knees. On numerous occasions, Anu and I had rescued fat aunts, frail uncles and little children from The Titanic. Last week, in a moment of benevolence, Amma gave away the chair to a local charity.
Keep. Throw. Defer.
Amma had always been a hoarder – collecting objects each day and giving them a life long after they were dead and deserved to be buried. Appa would go Tolstoyian on her and ask the general air around, ‘How many objects does a woman need?’
Amma remain unmoved, even as she found both Tolstoy and her husband, just a tad tedious.
After Appa’s death, Amma found herself embracing spirituality.
Now, as a good Hindu, Amma did observe most religious holidays. This usually meant an occasional fast, offering flowers and food to the idols that she had inherited from her mother-in-law or making Anu and I reproduce the appropriate Sanskrit slokas that we read using the English script. She even went to temples and broke the odd coconut for the small victories that came our way. But she was never really spiritual.
It was Rama Aunty who introduced Amma to the notion of spirituality. Rama Aunty was no special friend of Amma. In fact, Amma found her to be a strange woman, with her beads and free, unruly hair that left a carpet of silver wherever she went. ‘Why won’t that woman tie her hair like the rest of us,’ Amma and others complained often. An oversized pottu dotted Rama Aunty’s forehead, which turned from a maroon to a black one when her husband died. Rama Aunty was a follower of one of those new-age spiritual gurus, Moksha Baba, who was lovingly referred by his followers as Mo Baba. He enjoyed an almost cult-like following. The followers thronged his Ashram and stalked him at the numerous public appearances that he made. While several women Amma’s age took a fondness for the Baba, Amma remained suspicious. ‘This babas business is nonsensical. They get around in their chauffeur driven BMWs and ask us to give up all our material possessions.’
But after Appa’s death, Rama Aunty took Amma under her tutelage, as if they were part of some Dead Husbands Club. And overnight Rama Aunty became a friend and confidante. Rama Aunty introduced Amma to Mo Baba.
At first Amma protested and stated her reservation,
‘I don’t believe in this Babas nonsense. They are for poor white people and rich brown people.’
‘And besides, there are enough Gods to pray to anyway.’
‘Mo Baba is not a God. In fact, meeting him has nothing to do with religion or God. It is about spirituality and finding your bliss,’ Rama Aunty offered, her smile so benign and happy that it looked like she had just had medicine for her gas.
Amma really didn’t see any difference between being religious and spiritual.
But then she began to notice that it was fashionable to announce that one was in fact, spiritual, but not religious. Once on TV, she watched a film star being interviewed in front of a Ganesha temple after she had paid a visit. The crowds around were jostling for a glimpse of this on-screen goddess and the reporter stuck a mic on her face. Sans any makeup, smeared generously with vermillion she said, I am not religious, but I am spiritual, before being whisked away by her security guards. Amma had snorted then, but now confronted with the very persuasive Rama Aunty, she too contemplated the dark side.
Mo Baba preferred group sessions. He walked in, fashionably late and his mere presence was enough to silence the chattering crowd. His entourage was made up of a combination of young white women and older brown women. They fussed over him, fluffing the chubby pillows and dusting his designated spot for dust that did not exist. After a while Baba settled down on his makeshift lavender coloured throne and looked at the crowd. When he spotted an important person in the front row, he bestowed his kindness by folding his hands.
He sat there rubbing his palms together slowly for a while and then shut his eyes. Then he sprang an Om on them with little warning. Aaa Ooooo Mmmmm, he went, as he stressed on each of the three phonemes.
The congregation dutifully repeated. And as this volley of Oms progressed, they got louder and louder and louder. Amma joined in, but after a while she began to look around at her fellow spiritual sisters and was alarmed by the thought that this might never end. It was however an excellent time to assess the saris of other women and oscillate between admiration and envy. Mo Baba’s sudden modulating of his voice and a loud Om brought Amma back to the present. Clearly the Baba is going for the cadence, Amma thought. And then just like that, it ended. Silence. Everyone in the congregation still had their eyes closed. This until Mo Baba signalled that it was okay to open their eyes by heavily breathing into the mic. And as Amma saw all the others get up, she knew that the day’s lesson on spirituality was over.
‘It was all such a waste of time. I could have watched some TV instead,’ Amma complained to Rama Aunty.
‘How can you say that? Do you know how much Mo Baba has changed my life? You need to be open minded,’ Rama Aunty suggested.
That Amma wasn’t as much in love with Mo Baba as she was, wasn’t something that Rama Aunty was prepared to accept. She took it personally and decided that the best way to woo Amma would be to arrange a one-on-one audience between Amma and the Baba. ‘I don’t want to meet Baba alone. What will I say to him?’ Amma had wanted to know.
But Rama Aunty was relentless and after a few days of persuasion, which involved threats and tears, Amma had to agree.
They met at the Baba’s penthouse, minimal and pristine white. In fact, this is why Amma didn’t even notice Baba, his white robe merging with the walls, the floor and the ceiling. But there was his brown face and permanent smile.
‘Baba, this is Yamuna, her husband died recently,’ was how Rama Aunty summed up sixty-one years of Amma’s life. Amma folded her hands and self-consciously pulled her sari around her waist. Baba looked at Amma with practised kindness and gestured her to move closer. He put his hand on Amma’s head and it stayed there for the duration of the conversation. Amma had to control an enormous urge to yank his hand away.
‘People die and leave us. That I am afraid, is the only truth in our lives,’ Baba offered. Rama Aunty and the other members of the entourage who were present nodded vigorously. Amma wanted to giggle. Instead she put her palms of her mouth and coughed.
‘But we have to move on and live for those who are alive. I am not an expert, but I will tell you how to overcome your unhappiness,’ Baba continued, his hand now gently patting Amma’s head. Amma wanted to protest. She wasn’t exactly unhappy, was she? In fact, she was pretty happy as long as she didn’t think about the past. Or the future.
‘The key to happiness is freedom from all the objects and relationships that hold us back. Do you see my space? What do you notice? That it is bare, white and clean. There is not even one unnecessary object in this house. And because of this, my mind feels the same way too. I have a clear head. You should get rid of things around you. Things you don’t really need. Ask yourself this, how many things do I really need? And what you don’t need, throw it away,’ Baba droned.
And then it came, suddenly and without warning, in the penthouse of a banal baba, the memory of a conversation long forgotten, the memory of Tolstoy. Amma sobbed.
When I came home, I found that Amma was busy watching her weekly soap. Kanamma, the protagonist of this soap was a part of our lives, like some kind of distant relative, whom we liked to gossip about. Kanamma’s story centred around one decision – should she keep her schizophrenic, but very rich husband in her life or not. Week after week, circumstances posed the same question to her. To keep? To throw? To defer? It had been three years now and the unimaginative writers had always picked option three. Amma, who was normally not the patient sort, had an infinite amount of patience for Kanamma.
And then I saw an oddly shaped box on the dining table. It was squarish to begin with and then sloped to become a trapezium. As I freshened up I wondered what was inside the box. When I was done, the soap was over, and Amma was sitting by the dining table, waiting for me.
‘What is in that box?’ I asked her.
‘Something that really surprised me. Your Calcutta Aunt had it sent today.’ Amma nodded her head, indicating that I open it. I opened it, excited and weary in equal measure. Inside it was a typewriter. It felt a little anticlimactic.
‘It is just a typewriter.’ I said.
‘It is not just a typewriter. It is your Appa’s typewriter, one that your Calcutta Uncle stole from us,’ Amma said.
This immediately piqued my interest. ‘Start from the beginning, won’t you,’ I said, as I rummaged through the refrigerator hoping to find some pre-dinner snack. I had to settle for some cut fruits.
Amma sighed and called a combination of three Gods, who were all the avatars of the same God. She did this often. In fact, this was her superpower. It communicated disappointment and often let her get the last word in.
‘You remember when your Appa went to Italy when you were four,’ she began. Of course I did not. I was four. But I nodded. ‘When he came back from there, he bought a typewriter. An Olivetti Lettera 32,’ Amma said, as she ran her fingers over the typewriter.
‘But why did Appa buy a typewriter of all things,’ I asked.
‘Oh, that,’ Amma said as she waved her hands around, ‘it was because he wanted to write a big fat book.’
‘Appa wanted to write a book? But what kind? Why did he not write it?’ I asked. This somehow seemed incredible.
‘Yes, he would have, if your uncle hadn’t stolen the typewriter,’ Amma said assuredly.
I imagined Appa being a writer as opposed to the forty years that he spent going through a pile of claims in an insurance company. My Appa writing a book of epic proportions inspired by his Russian writing idol. I imagined going to school and telling my classmates, ‘You know that really fat book in the library? My Appa wrote that.’ Would the other children have been kinder to us, I wondered. But the more immediate question was, why and how did uncle manage to steal the typewriter. ‘You know how he was living with us when he was studying. Then when he got a job in Calcutta. The day after he left, we realised that the typewriter was gone too.’
‘Naturally your Appa immediately wrote a letter to him, asking him if he had taken the typewriter. A letter that he never replied to,’ Amma continued, her tone beginning to sound more wistful now. I considered this story. My dead father wanted to be a writer and my soon to be dead uncle was a thief.
That is the thing about families, always surprising you with their little secret histories.
‘Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.’
They said that Calcutta Uncle’s cancer was in its second stage. That is not so bad, everyone assured the aunt. So it was not as good as first stage, but at least it was not third or fourth. Every person offered solace with tales of cancer survival, heard, borrowed, stolen, experienced or made up.
One day, during her morning walk, my aunt was attacked by a crow. She knew then that the ancestors had spoken and death must be near.
When I returned home that evening, I found the typewriter was placed on my table, right next to my study lamp. As I flung my bag on my bed, I punched the keys –
i s h o u l d w r i t e a b o o k
Over the next few days, as the typewriter sat on my table, it served as an invitation to the baby lizards that had appeared in our house. Amma’s call to her combination of three Gods was not helping much. The baby lizards seemed to be drawn to the typewriter, getting inside its nooks and crevices and lodging themselves around the keys.
L i z a r d s a r e n o t o u r f r i e n d s
But as time went by, the lizards grew fatter and had to abandon the typewriter and took solace behind the half a dozen framed god pictures that adorned our prayer corner. Now dust had begun to gather on the typewriter.
Meanwhile Amma’s Project Tolstoy was on in full swing. Today it was the turn of a long and trusty mirror to leave our home. It was a peculiarly flattering mirror, one that made everyone seem just a little thinner and taller. Little dots of sticker pottus dotted the sides of the mirror, each of a different colour and in different sizes. I even recognised a few of them. The bright red medium-sized one was the one that Amma pasted on her forehead each morning until the day Appa died. The really tiny black ones that Anu and I were forced to wear that we would try to accidentally lose once we stepped out of the house. There were some multi-coloured ones, from a visit from our aunt, Amma’s sister, who liked to match her saris with the pottus dotting her forehead. Amma gifted the mirror to our maid, a very thin and tall woman.
‘So we are done for today. What should go next?’ Amma asked after the maid left.
‘How about the typewriter?’ I asked, shivering at the image of the baby lizards.
Amma shrugged and the typewriter got some respite. Keep. Throw. Defer.
Uncle’s condition was getting worse. He was now beginning to have seizures; the cancer they said had now entered the brain.
The pile of claim files that I, like my father, had to scrutinise had begun to rise. Factories were getting burnt, people were losing their lives, motor vehicles were skidding off roads, terrorists were bombing people’s source of livelihood. Living in such apocalyptic times was forcing me to carry work home. My home desk was a mess too. And that day as I was ready to dump my files, I found that suddenly I had some space. The typewriter was gone.
‘Amma, you finally got rid of the typewriter, hanh’ I asked, as Amma was keeping up with her scheduled appointment with Kanamma.
‘Not exactly. Anu came home today and she took a few things, including the typewriter. Maybe she will write a book, ‘Amma said, more hopeful than with any real conviction.
Later in the night, I put away the claim files I had got home to read and instead picked up the old, dusty and yellowed copy of the complete works of Leo Tolstoy.
Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno
O those Russians, was my last thought as I drifted into sleep.