Archive for August, 2009

Two Worlds

He sat on the rocking chair near the window in the living room. “There’s a lovely breeze this way in the evenings. And you can watch TV from here without being in the way” Sudha had said as she put the chair there and sat on it to see if it was the right angle to watch TV from. Without being in the way echoed in his ears hours later as he sat in the rocking chair waiting for the lovely breeze that never came. He looked out of the window only to see the curtained and shuttered window of another apartment. He squinted at the remote for the Play button. They all looked the same to him. The remote, the huge television set stuck on the wall like a giant beetle on a flower, the house, the city, his daughter, her family. They all looked the same – dusty, distant and alien.

It was almost six and a half months since Raji passed away. His wife of 37 years. She died a good death, he thought. No fuss, no fancy hospitals or painkillers, no suffering or unwanted pain. She died peacefully in her sleep, her trademark red bindi only slightly smeared, a small dribble of saliva on her chin and the stench of bladders loosened by death. She was out of everybody’s way with minimum discomfort. But until her death Krishnagopal and Rajeshwari had never known discomfort. They had lived in a small village Kurinichiyur on the outskirts of Thanjavur. He was the headmaster of the local school and she, the quintessential wife cum mother. Thanjavur itself was only a small town in their times. They raised Sudha in the village amidst lush green paddy and coconut fields, goat sheds and hen coops. They lived a simple life amidst simple people. When Sudha wanted to study computer science after high school, they sent her to Madras to stay in a hostel and study engineering. Krishnan had his own apprehensions but he did not want to tie down his daughter to the village life that he loved. And four years later when Sudha told him that she was in love with her colleague, he didn’t pick up the sickle or threaten to immolate himself in the name of caste or creed. He was an honest man who had nothing to fear for, no society to answer to. He booked a splendid wedding hall in Madras, the same way Sudha had wanted, got her married to the man she loved and left the very next day to his village. The only thing that worried him was city life which he felt was too inhumane, suffocating, noisy and money driven. It was Sudha’s choice, Raji reminded him gently when occasionally while shooing the hens into their coop in the evenings, he would remember the pollution in Madras and mutter under his breath, “If only they lived somewhere on the outskirts at least… the air is simply poisonous…too poisonous…” It was their daughter’s decision to make a life for herself in the city and they left it at that.


The maid’s voice woke him up with a start. He had dozed off in the rocking chair. The left hand felt cramped and uncomfortable.

“Lunch is in the hot pack. Tea is in the flask. Washed the dishes and folded the clothes. Washing soap is over. Tell Sudhamma when she comes saar. Lock the door and sleep Saar. City is full of robbers these days. Even last week…”

He watched her wipe the sweat off her neck with the pallu of her saree as she closed the door behind her. The clock showed 1.45. Another 6 hours before Sudha would be back home. Another 6 hours of loneliness and claustrophobic suffocation. Not that Sudha spoke much when she came home from work. She usually poured herself some tea from the flask and went over the day’s papers. In between reading the headlines, she threw sporadic questions at him like seeds being sowed on a well ploughed piece of land. Did he take an afternoon nap? Did the maid sweep the balcony? She usually forgets. Did he put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket?  Then she microwaved some leftovers from the fridge and settled in front of the TV watching soaps till Raghav came home. They would have dinner together, but separately. Raghav in front of television with CNN for company, Sudha on the couch with a fashion magazine and he, on the dining table. He often wondered how two people who had been so crazy in love had  exhausted all of it so soon. He hardly found Raghav and Sudha talking about anything other than work or dinner or which-channel-to-watch-on-tv since he started living with them. There were no fond glances, no fugitive smiles or hushed whispers. None of those small but beautiful signs of love that he’d seen in abundance five years ago when they got married. Maybe it was the cut throat work pressure. Or the now-or-never urgency to have a child. Or maybe, he thought, they simply got bored of each other.

He wondered why he had never got bored of his Raji. Not once in the 37 years of their life together. Thinking of Raji gave him a heartache. He missed his wife in a way which he would never come to terms with. When she left him, she took most of him along with her. And what was left behind was lost when he left his village to live in this inhumane concrete jungle. He missed his village life as much as he missed his wife. He missed the coconut groves, the animals he raised like children, the pump sets and muddy roads. Above all, he missed the innate simplicity and friendliness of his own people. He felt alienated and alone in the city, in his own daughter’s house. Nobody smiled. Nobody greeted each other on the roads. People didn’t have time for pleasantries. Not the barber, the grocer, the neighbour or the maid. Everyone was suspicious of the other person. All doors were locked. He felt suffocated.

The doorbell rang. “Appa, don’t ever open the door without looking through the peephole” echoed in his ears. He fixedly avoided looking at the peephole and opened the door. It was the small boy from next door. He’d seen the boy rushing out to catch school bus in the mornings. He was a chubby little boy who looked about 8 years old.

“Thaatha, did Amma give you the house key? I usually take it with me but forgot today. First time I forgot, you know?”

Krishnan smiled. It had been so long since someone called him Thaatha.

“No, she didn’t”

“Oh! I can’t watch Popeye then” He looked sad for a moment. Then he removed his very large school bag, placed it carefully next to the lunch bag and sat on a staircase step.

“Why don’t you come in here and wait until your mother comes home? You can have something to eat. And watch Popeye too.”

He looked puzzled and thoughtful. “Mom’s told me that I’m not supposed to talk to strangers or eat anything they give” He said it like a rhyme and then added, “But you are not a stranger. You are only Thaatha who sits on that chair and drinks coffee everyday” He pointed to the rocking chair and said with a sly smile, “I sometimes peep in when you leave the door open”

He picked up his schoolbag in one hand, lunch bag in the other and walked in through the door. Krishnan followed the boy inside and looked at him with wonder. What a lovely little boy! He is too articulate for his age, but so are all kids these days. He went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of milk and biscuits. The boy was looking at the fish tank.

“Milk! I love milk. But mom only gives me Horlicks. I love to play in that park too. See, you can see it from this window! But she never lets me go. Says the bigger boys will beat me up. We lived in another house sometime back thaatha. It was very small. But I had so many friends. Here I have no friends. I hate this house.” He pursed his lips and scowled.

“Do you want to go to the park?”

“Will you take me? I won’t run around. Promise.” He looked pleadingly.

“After you finish up your milk and biscuits”


“What is your name?”

“Ashwin. Ashwin Prakash. 4B. St. Peter’s Matriculation School.”

Hand in hand, they walked together towards the park. Krishnan couldn’t stop beaming. He felt a spring in his step that he hadn’t known since Raji died. He sat on the bench and munched peanuts watching Ashwin run around with gay abandon, jumping on to swings and see-saws and climbing the Alphabet Bars as if they were Mount Everest. He felt light at heart for the first time at months. Felt like he was in human contact after ages. He felt human. Felt alive. Felt like a grandfather. Ashwin came running towards him with his hands stretched like the wings of an albatross.

“Thaatha I want a balloon”

“Tomorrow. Let’s go home now. It’s getting dark. And your mother might have come”

“She usually comes only after 6. Thaatha balloon… Please…”

He had burst the balloon and made bubbles out of it by the time they reached the apartment building.

“Thaaaathaa raceeeeee”

He was sprinting up the stairs riding an imaginary bike. By the time Krishnan huffed puffed and reached the fifth floor, the ‘vrooooooommmmm’ had stopped. Ashwin stood in front of his mother tears streaming down his cheeks. She gave Krishnan a spiteful glance before proceeding to spank her son on the back repeatedly and pinch his ears.

“HOW MANY TIMES have I told you not to talk to strangers?? Where did you go ALL THIS WHILE? I would have gone to the police in ten minutes. ” She pulled him by the ear into the house. “Do you know how many children get kidnapped…” Krishnan stood staring at the door that shut with a loud bang.


“Appa, please… Why are you always looking for excuses to go back? The milkman is staring. Neighbours are not talking. Everybody minds their own business. Nobody has time to be nice. Life is so mechanical. Listen appa. This is not kurinichiyur for you to know each person in the locality by name and live as one big joint family. This is a CITY for God’s sake. Here people do get suspicious if you take their kids out all of a sudden. It’s natural. They might not even know that you live next door… ”

He locked his suitcase and looked calmly at her. “That is precisely why I want to leave. I can’t live here. Not in a place where people don’t know who lives next door. I am not blaming your world. I don’t want to change it. I only want to go back to my own.”

Raghav looked up from his Economic Times. “Sudha let him leave. He let you live your life. Now it’s time for you to let him live his.”

The skies were still dusky but dawn was about to break when Krishnan walked out of the house, back to where he belonged.

* Kurinichiyur is imaginary


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