That Family Festival

When Tabu’s mother breathed for the last time and closed her eyes, Tabu’s plastic clown, the wacky battery toy he calls ‘circus man’, clapped his hands and smiled his painted smile. The boy’s father, entering the room to stop the clown’s noise, discovered his dead wife and started.

After the doctor had come and gone to do the unnecessary vetting, after chests and breasts were beaten, the body of the young lady – not beautiful, but all the world to Tabu and father – was lowered into the rented glass box. Soon, plies of coloured flowers began accumulating over the box. Friends, relatives and neighbours visited to do the same ritualistic enquiry. Tabu’s friends, all little like Tabu, came to gape and whisper at the glass box and leave with their parents, attaining a sense of maturity.

The incense stick was replaced. Flowers and garlands were shoved off to leave way for the oncoming batch. Tabu’s father’s manager dropped in with his decorated wife, and before leaving, announced a week of paid leave. Tabu’s paternal grandmother, a mentally weak old woman, settled down at the head of her daughter-in-law with a large bowl of flour. Mindless of her surrounding, she poured in tumblers of water and began kneading as hard as her age and mind permitted. She had been meaning to do this for many days. For that night’s dinner, Tabu’s mother had planned to cook the packet of penne he had picked in the supermarket. But now with no one to intervene in her kitchen activities, the old woman concentrated her energy on the solidifying mass to get out of them soft rotis. Her husband loved her soft rotis.

That evening, Tabu’s father and three uncles shouldered their dear dead to the cemetrey a kilometre away. Once at the ground, a tussle erupted between the elder uncle and his two younger brothers on whether to bury or electrically burn. Tabu’s father pleaded with the warring factions to stop arguing, but they kept vetoing the opposite’s decision. Losing patience, Tabu’s father slapped the elder brother. As if suddenly realising their bereavement, all three calmed down. Tabu’s mother was presented in a copper container an hour later.

Back at home, Tabu’s grandmother had washed the floor and was waiting for others and her husband with set plates and a hotpack of soft rotis. Tabu was on her lap, trying to retain his mother’s face and silently praying it should stay with him forever.

A week later, Tabu’s father nailed his wife’s newly framed photograph beside his father’s.

Was

I am travelling to Madurai for my colleague’s wedding. She is not a friend; I pass reports across her to my manager sitting beyond. That is it.

On all sides of the chugging compartment are people from my office. Even my condescending manager and his officious assistant are there in an undisturbed corner. My two neighbours keep their energy in check, unable to do anything exultant with me beside. You would see the energy of people increasing as you go farther and farther away from me.

Had this journey happened a fortnight ago, my mother would have called me on phone for every station I passed. She becomes passionately restless if her knowledge of my whereabouts and well-being starts to become unsure. However, I still think of her in the present tense, as if she still lived; but somehow, ‘She was’ sounds very odd.

Death is always happening, but the instantaneous stop takes time to register; much time if the dead is your mother.

She always had this pure, well-meaning concern for brides known, or heard or dreamt. She would begin a sincere prayer for the life of the bride, and would express satisfaction whenever she heard the woman was doing well. I think it was because her expectations from her own marriage were shattered by itself. Well, with a doubtful lawyer for a husband, doubtful not only in court but also at home, expectations are meaningless to expect. He still doubts my mother had a lover as a young girl, but I knew she was a ten, and he was so imperfect and ill-fitting for her.

We are travelling to the mandapam the marriage is to take place in. Homogeneous people busily go and come and sell and smile. But nothing sticks, except images of mother-son duo wherever seen. As we pass urbanised rural areas, I see a cat frantically running from under a tree to the next with the nape of its littlest kitten so carefully caught between its lips. Mothers always seem to be anxious.

After bath we join the ceremony. A reception is happening, and now we are standing in a line to wish the couple and present our collective gift. The manager has not joined us; he must be sitting somewhere with his officious assistant stooping beside.

We are in the dais now with the couple. The man is in a suit and my colleague – she is not happy exclusively by my presence there, but shows her teeth nevertheless – is in a north-Indian garb. We take a group photo, the gift is handed over, hands are shaken and warm embraces are made. As we begin to descend on the other side, I don’t know why but I stop. Taking my mother’s golden ring, I present it unthinkingly to the bride. She looks at me for too long, so I drop it onto her palm and leave. Mother would have done that; nice and kind she is. Was.