A SHORT STORY LONG IN THE MAKING. IF ANY PART OF THE STORY IS BORING, WELL, ALL I SAY IS “IT HAD TO BE THERE.”
It was Saturday morning. Lakshmi woke up to the sounds of Appa coaxing the reluctant Bush Radio to belt out the Suprabhatham, in the divine voice of M.S Subbulakshmi and say Good Morning to God, courtesy the All India Radio.
Lakshmi, usually sang along lustily, as she got ready for her favorite school day of the week ( except on the second Saturday of the month, a holiday)– library, music, artwork, and oh yes, physical training. Lakshmi didn’t care much for the last, like everyone else in class, but endured the weekly 30-minute ordeal of bending, stretching and running , keeping time with PT instructor Ms Merose’s sharp commands that sounded like the crack of whip, as lethargically as she could get away with, while avoiding catching her eye.
Today was a second Saturday. Hearing the crackle and buzz of the Bush radio as Appa fiddled with it, she wished, fervently, that just this once, the moody radio would not oblige him. The sound of “Kausalya Supraja Rama Poorva Sandhya Pravarthathe” was the last thing she wanted wafting around the house this Saturday morning.
She drew her quilt over her head, hoping to drown out MS, who had now begun singing in earnest , Appa’s efforts, which included a sharp whack on the right side of the radio, to get it singing having paid off. She’d have to get out of bed soon, and face Amma’s dreaded “Silent Treatment” , which could last ALL DAY.
God had not heard her prayer, perhaps he was too engrosssed in the Suprabhatam, she said, and realized she was talking to herself. Like Alice, who loved to pretend she was two people, and had scolded herself for cheating in a game of croquet which she was playing against herself. Lakshmi toyed with the idea of boxing her own ears, and told herself not to be silly, as this self-flagellation (not her words, of course) was not going to save her from Amma’s wrath.
She lay there, listening to the sounds of Saturday morning- Amma clanging dishes in the kitchen, and Appa humming along with MS. Soon it would be over, and Amma would notice she was not up, and demanding “light coffee” , and chattering about the Amar Chitra Katha comics that Krishnan Tatha had given her yesterday……..
Krishnan Tatha ! Lakshmi groaned, remembering last evening . Her ears burned as if they had been boxed hard, and she wished she’d never have to hear the Suprabhatam ever again……
Mostly she wished to turn the clock back. About three weeks.
Three weeks earlier.
Lakshmi won the second prize for recitation of the Suprabhatham ( eight stanzas) at the school competition, and became the proud owner of “Sleeping Beauty” inscribed on Page One, somewhere near the spinning-wheel and the Wicked Witch’s wand, with “Winner , Second Prize in Suprabhatham Recitation”.
Amma had been there, to watch as she collected her prize. In the evening, Appa had said “Shabbash!” and slipped a Cadbury’s Five Star bar into her hand, but she could not fathom why he had laughed heartily when he saw the book.
“Sleeping Beauty for reciting the Suprabhatam?” he said, laughing loud and long , but when Amma too started to chuckle, Lakshmi realised there was a joke she was missing.
Which was annoying, to say the least. Lakshmi considered deploying her famous wail, that sounded , Appa said, like the siren blaring from the Government Soap Factory in the calm of the afternoon to announce the start of a new shift. However it died at her lips when Appa went on, “ ha ha! Can Suprabhatam rouse Sleeping Beauty?” .
Lakshmi choked on the wail , and turned it into a laugh, only it came out rather peculiarly, and Amma smacked her lightly on the head, saying, as she went by, , “is that a hiccup , Lakshmi, did you help yourself to stolen cheedai?” .
She hadn’t, there was no cheedai in the old Amulspray tin, besides, she thought it was a silly story Indu Pati had told her , that kids who dipped their hands in the snack-tin were always caught by their sudden hiccups! Why make cheedai and leave them around for kids to find if they were not meant to be eaten?
The next day, Jana Chitti, Amma’s younger sister came to visit. She was there when Lakshmi returned from school, and she rushed to her , whooping with delight, for she loved her college-going aunt who wore stilettos, and had a dressing table of her own. Of course, she had already heard about the prize and couldn’t wait to hear Lakshmi recite the Suprabatham.
A fortnight later, Lakshmi had lost count of how many evening visitors had been regaled with her Suprabhatam recitation. Amma was constantly interrupting her play-time, calling out “Dear, here is Shyamala aunty, would you like to ………..?”
Raman Mama, and Appa’s friend Suresh Uncle………Everyone brought chocolates, biscuits, she even got a pink-and-green stone-encrusted ball-point pen (that wouldn’t write) from Vijay Uncle, Appa’s best friend, who said, “its from Hyderabad” . Shankar Chittappa brought her an Amar Chitra Katha comic, Shivaji.
Lakshmi spent a half-hour one Saturday afternoon with Shivaji, finishing off the a whole bar of Cadbury’s 5-Star as Shivaji’s Har Har Mahadevs fended off attacks by the Ya Allahs from the enemy ranks.
She bit off a big chunk when the evil Afzal Khan pretended to embrace the shorter Shivaji and tried to thrust a kataar in his back, in her panic for Shivaji’s safety. But Shivaji had his armour on under his silk, and Afzal Khan hadn’t noticed that Shivaji had his tiger claws on, and met his own gory end, much to Lakshmi’s relief.
It was a few days before Lakshmi began to notice a reluctance on the part of visitors to subject themselves to a Suprabhatham recitation at sun-down. Raghu Mama, who came to drop off a bottle of Indu Pati’s mango pickle that he’d offered to deliver when he went to Madras the week before, said, “oh! Great! Second Prize? Nice, pretty book eh?”
When Amma said, “Lakshmi why don’t you recite it for Raghu Mama?” he looked uncomfortable, and said quickly, “ hey listen, I have to leave……there’s a bottle for Minalochani Maami too, and thanks for the coffee, Akka………..” the last as his Suvega eased out of the gate.
Lakshmi was a trifle put out, but he had slipped a bar of 5-Star into her hand as he left, saying, “next time, hmm?”
* * * * *
The short, plump Minalochani Maami , a much-loved aunt, had long , thick tresses that reached way down her waist, and it had to be carefully lifted so she wouldn’t end up sitting on a cushion of her own coil of hair. She and Amma had been best friends since school. She came to catch up on gossip with Amma.
“Hallo, dear!’, she boomed at Lakshmi “I hear you won a prize. Suprabhatham recitation, hmm? My Shyamu has flunked his unit test again…Maths, English…” she went on, cheerfully, as if she was reporting that Shyamu had scored the first rank.
“Maami, why didn’t you bring Shyamu?, Lakshmi asked, though secretly relieved he wasn’t there.
She and Shyamu had little to say to each other. He went to a different school, and their occasional encounters left her feeling life as a topper-of-the-class wasn’t all it was made out to be. He regularly flunked tests, and she was sure his English text book, “Songs The Letters Sing” with its story on Bun The Wee Rabbit had not been opened past the first two lessons. She had been careful not to let him know she had read all the lessons, because it was like reading a story book. Bun had disobeyed his Dad. He had wandered into Farmer McGregor’s cabbage patch, and been mercilessly shot. Bun Was Dead and Dad Was Sad. But Shyamu wouldn’t know that. Nor would he care..
Shyamu knew about Lakshmi’s Suprabhatam recitation, though. If he had tagged along with Minalochani Maami, he would have teased her, mimicked her with his gibberish Suprabhatham. “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi…….” she imagined him singing, in a surprisingly musical voice, laughing to herself at the idea of Chalam Thatha, who didn’t hear quite well, nodding appreciatively and rewarding Shyamu with sticky toffee and a pat on the head.
“Shyamu was playing with his friends around the house, dear, and I wanted some peace, “, Minalochani Maami was saying, “come sit by me and let me hear your recitation……….”
Here we go again, thought Lakshmi, but not wanting to offend dear Minalochani Maami, recited “Kausalya Supraja Rama…….” and fetched the Sleeping Beauty for her to admire.
Lakshmi soon wearied of the Suprabhatam routine, and the “Apacha gipachi……..” in Shyamu’s voice refused to go away. She was beginning to dread visitors. Her prize winning recitation was old news, and the assorted maamas and maamis were beginning to acquire a glazed look on their faces as Lakshmi submitted to Amma’s command-disguised-as request to recite the Suprabhatham, never mind they usually visited in the evenings. They clapped too quickly, or not quickly enough, and Lakshmi thought she might as well have been singing “Apacha gipachi………”
It didn’t help to know that Shyamu, who would never be summoned to recite anything, not even the gibberish Suprabhatham, didn’t have to try to be good at anything but playing pranks and staying at the bottom of the class. It didn’t help, either, that Shyamu’s pranks had a high degree of sophistication, and when they had been played, left grown-ups impressed ( his father laughed first, and punished him as an after-thought). He became a hero to his friends, and Shyamu’s exploits always reached her embellished with the collected exaggerations as it passed from friend to friend.
When Amma started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to her at bedtime, it was Shyamu playing hookey at school, and Minalochani Maami was Aunty Polly in a sari, who , more out of a sense of duty than faith in the power of punishment, ordered Shyamu (Tom) to paint the wall on a Saturday afternoon. And it was Shyamu who traded a turn at wielding the brush for a dead rat and a piece of string to swing it with, a broken Barlow knife, the core of a half-eaten apple ……..
The picture of Shyamu swinging the dead rat on its string, while Karthik and Shankar argued over who should go first with the painting, would be excruciatingly funny, if her own life showed any signs of progressing from endless Suprabhathan recitations………perhaps there was something to be said for sleeping spells and wicked witches, after all.
She had grudgingly admitted, to herself, that if Shyamu was Tom Sawyer, there was more to being bad than she’d given credit for. She wondered if Amma had got it all wrong– A bad person is not very brave, she’d said.
But could a brave person be bad? She wasn’t brave enough to ask Amma, and kept these bad thoughts to herself. When she felt exceedingly bad, she sang “Apacha gipachi……” silently, though occasionally she startled herself by singing it aloud. Luckily, a pre-occupied Amma probably thought it was “Kamala Kuchachu” and she didn’t have her ears boxed.
When a whole week went by, and Lakshmi’s return from school was not shadowed by the presence of a visitor who “was waiting to hear the Suprabhatham recitation”, she cautiously stopped praying to be sent to hostel, a threat that Amma often flung at her for many real and imagined misdemeanours. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been read to the last page, and Amma had suggested a break before starting Huckleberry Finn.
Even “Apacha gipachi……….” was gradually giving way to “Woh kya hai…………ek mandir hai…?” in the voices of Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar wafting from Shakeel’s house on the other side of high wall which gave the Dark Bedroom its name. For, unlike their venerable old Bush Radio, Shakeel’s newly acquired Philips transistor played Vividh Bharathi and Radio Ceylon, opening up a whole new world of Hindi film songs that none of them understood. It made for a refreshing change from MS, Lakshmi thought, although it made her feel disloyal.
And then it was time for Krishnan Tatha’s visit. Amma’s great-uncle Krishnan, who lived in Kodaikkanal, came down every year to visit his daughter, Amma’s cousin Shanta. Lakshmi returned from school yesterday, to find Amma had brought out the veena, which she was playing sitting by the planter’s chair on which Krishnan Tatha reclined, singing rather stentorially, a Carnatic kirtana quite familiar to her, Thyagaraja’s “Endaro Mahanubhavulu”.
Lakshmi ran into his arms, and was hugged and had her cheeks tweaked, and she was babbling about her second prize, and demanding to know what he had brought her, while Amma tried to shush her . It was a while before she was dismissed, to freshen up and sit down with Tatha for a long conversation, lessons in Carnatic music, and jokes and riddles and guess the raaga games.
And then Amma said, “Lakshmi, won’t you recite the Suprabhatam for Tatha?” Lakshmi suddenly felt like a deflated balloon, and began to mumble incoherently. It was a while before Amma realised she was protesting, and did not want to recite the Suprabatham. Not today, not again. Ever.
Amma was shocked, and angry. She drew her into the kitchen and hissed at her, “what is wrong with you? This is the one thing that would make Tatha happy, and proud”.
Lakshmi just stood there, defiant, silent. Amma said “hmph” and stormed out, but she heard her tell Tatha in a calm voice, “ she wants to rehearse, Tatha,”
And Tatha told her soothingly, “it’s alright , Thulasi, let the child be.”
After a few minutes, she returned to the living room. Tatha looked pleased, and asked her to come sit on his lap. Amma did not say anything. Which meant she was still angry. She decided to get the recitation over with and clearing her throat, just as she had seem MS do at the concert in Gayana Samaja once. she began “Kausalya Supraja Rama”…… Tatha was delighted, and began listening, with his eyes closed, and fingers tapping on his cheek to keep time, and her mother relented enough to throw a couple of smiling glances at her. Then she began “ Kamala kuchachu…….” and Lakshmi never knew when it had turned into “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi..” and she began to giggle uncontrollably……..
Tatha was staring at her, and Amma, was no longer smiling. Laksmi leapt off Tatha’s lap, and ran …….out of the house, down the road , to the vacant lot at the corner where a raucous game of cricket was being played, and stood there a long time, before slinking back home.
Tatha had left. Shanta Chitti had come to collect him. Appa was home, sitting on the planter’s chair recently vacated by Tatha, and had obviously been told of Lakshmi’s uncharacteristic, short-lived delinquency. He tipped her a conspiratorial wink as she entered, and clearing his throat loudly, he said, “ Lakshmi, where have you been? You should have waited to say goodbye to Tatha, it was very rude “.
She looked surreptitiously at her mother, who said nothing, and did not look up from the magazine she was reading. Lakshmi went to stand next to her, and mumbled “sorry, Amma.” Her mother said, “your dinner is on the table, eat it and go to bed”.
It was going to be a long weekend. And Huckleberry Finn wasn’t going to join her for now. She cried herself to sleep.
As MS was winding down on the Suprabatham on the Bush Radio, rather muffled inside Lakshmi’s quilt, she felt someone tugging it off her. It was Amma, and she was smiling, as she said, “ wake up , dear. Your light coffee is getting cold”.
Hurrah! Suddenly, second Saturday was back in style! Lakshmi got up, and joyously chorused the last few lines of Kamala Kuchachu along with MS. “Am I glad I didn’t listen to myself and box my own ears”, she told herself, and froze in her tracks to the bathroom as she heard, “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi..,,,,,,,,,,,,” and Appa saying, “I say Thulasi, this has great possibilities. I have never heard Krishnan Tatha laugh so heartily!”