Ramu mama’s snores sounded through the common window separating 35 and 36, Ramar Koil Street, and could be heard from where Nasreen Gopal sat next door, cross-legged. With nothing better to do at that time in the village of Illundavoor, and no one to talk to (as Mr.Gopal had left to Chennai for the opening of another cafe at Mambalam), Nasreen sat playing with the ends of her dupatta. Suddenly, she thought she would go and have a mid-afternoon chat with Mami and after bolting her door, she immediately knocked on the adjoining one. Janaki Mami opened it carefully, lest she woke mama up.
Ushering Nasreen into the huge dark storeroom, Mami at last opened her mouth, “Onna thaandi-ma nenachen! I was just thinking of calling you to help me clean some old trunks.”
“Of course, mami. I was so bored,” Nasreen replied, “Tell me where to begin!”
Mami and Nasreen went to one end of the room where about five sturdy trunk-pettis stood. Mami opened a dingy green one. It was full of photos, papers, letters and certificates.
Nasreen and Mami patiently went through them- Mami as a blushing bride – her now beautiful self, looking more vibrant, more beautiful and young; Mama on his graduation day, wearing a trailing gown; Mama and Mami’s son, Suresh as a little boy –now working in America; Mama’s numerous articles with rejection letters from various magazines and newspapers he had sent it to out; Suresh’s various certificates singing praise of his scholastic and non-scholastic prowess. The twosome carefully dusted the aging stuff and segregated them, neatly putting them in the transparent folders in various albums.
Next came a brown trunk with a golden plate reading Janaki Radhakrishnan. Mami began, “I used to study in a convent. I’m just a sixth pass; but I always was a good student. I used to take all my clothes in this trunk when I went to the hostel. But after my sixth standard, my father,” and she paused and fondly ran a finger on her father’s name etched in the gold plate and with a sigh continued, “My father lost all his money in business. He couldn’t send me to school. My mother- who cared more for my father’s money than him- took ill on hearing his loss and I had to take care of the household. She died after a few years and later I got married to your mama. My father passed away ten years back.” she concluded, memories clouding her face.
Mami opened the trunk and what an assortment of clothes there was! Incidentally, Suresh was enthusiastic about plays and dramas. He had been educated in the nearby town, known for its theatre culture. He had taken part in many plays and Mami had treasured all the costumes he had worn in them. She had made most of them herself. Nasreen could see what deft fingers Mami had- the sewing was intricate, the embroidery very detailed; and the sequins and chamki patterns, exquisite. Rich materials for the Rajas from old pattu pavadais; old shirts reduced in size to fit the lad; a perfect policeman outfit made from Khadi (Mami revealed that she had got the buttons from a retired police officer who had been their neighbour then!) and plenty of others. A few dirty ones they kept aside to be washed. Mami decided she had better donate the good ones to some orphanage but Nasreen very much doubted if these fanciful clothes would comfort anyone but a dramatist’s theatrical soul!
Next was a huge black trunk with brown leather straps. It contained old utensils- silverware, bronze ware (the bronze almost about to do the disappearing act) and lots of other stainless steel paathrams and plates. Mami could tell her who gave her which of those items precisely after all these years. “Ah… this dabba,” she would begin, “Devika of Tillainathan Road gave. She is now in Muscat. This piththalai paathram, my Ambuja Mami gave when I went for her golu. She was my mother’s cousin’s wife. Now this silver plate- Mama was gifted this by his senior-most officer during our marriage. You see, he worked for the Indian railways then in the accounts department,” and on she rattled as Nasreen picked one or the other object and enquiring a “who gave you this?” or a “Oh, really? Amazing!” Mami decided to give a few items to Shanti, their maid. She kept them aside.
She then opened a red leather trunk. Lots of walking sticks were there. Nasreen was amazed and enquired, “Oh…you’ve preserved all your family’s walking sticks? Mami you are some hoarder of stuff-letters, photos, utensils, clothes and now… sticks!’
“No… no… this is totally Mama’s doing. When he was young he loved to play with walking sticks. He was a very bright boy and everyone loved and petted him. Whenever anybody died, they left their walking stick to him. If they didn’t, he took it anyway! This one here is his paternal great-grandfather’s who lived to be 94. Look at the material. Pure sandalwood. Smell it. Oh… wait,” she said and wiped it clean before handing it to Nasreen.
“Smells good and mami, it’s still so sturdy!”
“Old things never die. They live on due to the love and care once bestowed. Now this was his maternal great grandfather’s. He was 80 when he died. This is scented rosewood. He was a very rich man, a diamond merchant way back in those times! He had to travel alone and through dark forests. So this one has a built-in sword to threaten the thieves who dared threaten him. Mama still believes that two notorious thieves of the nearby forests were never found after his grandfather passed that way once! He claims his grandfather killed them and threw their bodies to the vultures. I don’t know how far it is true. But yes…there is a sword inside,” and she drew out the sword á la Jhansi ki Rani (incidentally, didn’t that rhyme with Janaki mami?)
The sword gleamed in the dark and a chill ran down Nasreen’s spine. The sword still looked sharp and polished with not a peck of rust visible. Nasreen mouthed a ‘wow’.
Mami then took another walking stick and said, “This was my father’s. He bequeathed this to Mama. My father was a famous lawyer. He used to carry this always with him as a mark of dignity. This is a very finely carved one with gold edges.”
And on she went, detailing the history of every walking stick. The last trunk remained. Mami opened it and it gave out a rotting smell on opening. What a sight Nasreen beheld! Old drishti lemons hung once over the door; alums of every shape and size; a dozen rosary beads; a cardboard sheet having some weird circular diagrams in what looked like blood; different packets and parcels of age-old manjal-kumkumam-vibhoodhi; tiny crystal rings, beads; radium balls; twigs and other odds and ends!
“Goodness! Mami, what on EARTH is all this?!” Nasreen exclaimed.
“God’s blessings and a few great yogis’ gifts and good-luck charms,” Mami triumphantly declared.
“These…? Mami! You are just being superstitious!” she said, puzzled, as if that was the last thing she had expected Mami to be.
“Rubbish! These are prayers,” Mami retorted.
“A nice way for these Yogis to dupe gullible people like you and swindle off your money!”
“Dear me… no! Why… Yogi Devadutta gave me this ring so that I recover from Measles and the very next day there was not a spot!”
“Oh Mami… it was just a coincidence! Come on… throw them away! It stinks!!!”
“Heavens no! These are precious properties that have guarded our house all along! I dare not throw them away!”
“OK… Let’s assume these are God’s gifts!”
“What?! No need to assume! They ARE God’s gifts!”
“Alright…alright…they ARE God’s gifts and their power has already been utilized for some purpose or the other. So now, you are free to throw them! You don’t want an insect raid here, do you!?”
“Konde! No!!! Even now they have their magic”
“God Mami! You are so naïve!”
Mami was so taken aback that she cautioned, “Nasreen… don’t ridicule God! You won’t believe it, will you?! Fine. I’ll make you believe. See this?” and with determination writ clearly across her face, she proceeded to show Nasreen a radium ball and a stick and continued, “A kudukuduppai kaaran gave me these. If I chant the mantra he taught me and rotate this magic ball thrice anti-clockwise and twice clockwise and then lift the magic stick five times chanting another mantra, Suresh will call within an hour! Remember he calls only once a week? And he just spoke yesterday… now keep that in mind and see if it works!”
As advised, Mami muttered some incomprehensible mantra and performed what Nasreen believed to be a “ridiculous act with a peepul stick and an ordinary radium ball!”
She completed the task and put everything back into the trunk, locked it and placed it back. The day’s work had been done.
Getting up she took the utensils and the clothes. Nasreen and she came out of the store room. Mama was leaving for his evening stroll.
Minutes trickled by and the tension slowly began to show on Mami’s face. She was so keen on proving her point. Lest she hurt Mami’s feelings, Nasreen quietly helped Mami in cutting up the urlaikazhangu for dinner.
Only five minutes remained of the challenged one hour. Mami looked upset as she roasted the urlai. Just as she kept the vaanali of nice brown oil soaked urlais on the counter, the shrill call of the telephone was heard.
Mami ran to pick the phone. “Hello?”
“Amma… Suresh here. For a while I kept having this weird feeling that you wanted to talk to me. So I called… is everything OK…?”
That night, Nasreen wrote in her diary,
“Whether love or superstition reached out, I shall never know…’
DUPATTA: a shawl or coverning worn on a salwaar-kameez, a traditional Asian dress.
TRUNK-PETTI: A trunk
CHAMKI: a type of glittering flat sequin
RAJA: a king
PAATHARAM: a container
KHADI: hand-spun material
DABBA: a container/ vessel
GOLU: a Hindu festival during the Navrathri/9 day season where people arrange dolls of gods and goddesses on steps and perform holy rites for 9 days.
MANJAL-KUMKUMAM-VEEBHOODHI: turmeric-vermillion-sacred ash
YOGI: a saint
KONDEY: a child, called affectionately.
KUDUKUDUPPAI KAARAN: a soothsayer who rattles a rattling-drum
PEEPUL: a tree
URLAIKAZHANGU/ URLAI: potatoes
VAANALI: a wide-rimmed vessel for deep-frying