Boisterous laughter floated in from somewhere. Not a lone burst, but an endless uproar, like a long string of firecrackers going off, as if a whole army was laughing. Startled, I looked up from the book I was reading. A short distance away, under a sun umbrella set on a grassy knoll adjoining the lake, a group of men and women sat on a bench or lounged nearby, chatting among themselves. Everyone had a can of Pepsi or Coke in their hand. Mostly young; tourists perhaps, or colleagues from the same
office. Repeating whatever had triggered their uncontrollable laughter, they laughed again: carefree, uninhibited, joyous, explosive laughter.

What could have caused so much mirth, I wondered. I was amazed by people who could laugh with such abandon, so freely, as if there was nothing on their minds except the present moment, not even the shadow of any other.

If they tore their chests open like Lord Hanuman and revealed what was inside, they would prove that there was no burden in their hearts. As a child, when I had gone to my friend Uma’s house, I saw a large portrait of Hanuman in their puja room. A monkey with pink, bloated cheeks. He stood tall and upright, tearing his chest open with his hairy hands. Lord Rama and his wife, Sita, were visible
inside his torn chest.

‘Shall we keep a picture like that in our house too?’ I had suggested.

‘No,’ Amma said, smiling.

‘Why not?’

‘Because we don’t need such things. All we need is good thoughts in our minds.’

‘But they are not god, Amma.’

I remember Amma pulling me close in a tight hug. I can still recall the fragrance of her body.

‘For us, they are our only god.’

In what form would good thoughts appear? I was confused. The next day, on her way back from work, Amma bought a figurine as if to offer me an explanation. It had three monkeys. One had covered its ears. One sat with its mouth shut. The third had closed its eyes. Luckily, Amma didn’t say that it was god.

‘Speak no evil. Hear no evil. See no evil. That’s the message of this figurine,’ she said. ‘If you follow it, you will always be happy.’

I didn’t know if she actually lived by those maxims. She must have tried and failed.

At the age of five, I realised that our family was different. When I told Uma that there was no god in our house, she stared at me with wide eyes, as if to say, ‘How sad. You’re an orphan.’

‘In that case, I’ll pray for you too before our exams,’ she said.

Uma created the illusion that it was through her prayers that I had cleared every exam up to twelfth standard. I lost touch with her after school. During my first-year exams in college, I was afraid that I had truly become an orphan.

For some of my classmates in the hostel, temple prasadam arrived from home to reassure them. During the exam season, those who always loitered around with their foreheads bare would smear their faces with vermilion, sandalwood paste and sacred ash in a drastic makeover of their identities. Some kept a palm- size picture of their god at their bedside. Christians wore a cross at their necks as though they were born with it. They kissed it often. Having no such sacred object, I felt anxious. I feared that god would surely reject me because I didn’t know how to pray. I was annoyed that Amma was not one of those mothers who said ‘I will pray for you, don’t worry’; a mother who expressed her love by sending me bottles of Chyawanprash and Complan to boost my energy.

But Amma did call me without fail on the eve of every exam. ‘Have you prepared well?’ she asked, like a class teacher.

For some reason, I felt a lump in my throat. ‘No matter how much I study, I think it’s not enough. I am afraid I might forget everything.’

I could imagine Amma smiling at the other end. ‘That’s how you feel now, but once the exam begins, you’ll remember everything.’

‘I am really scared, Amma.’

‘But an exam is not a devil or a demon, is it?’

‘That’s how it feels, though – as if a demon is strangling my neck.’ I still remember how I had burst out in despair once. ‘Others in my class are confident. Their mothers pray for them, send prasadam from the temple.’

I couldn’t tell whether there was a change in Amma’s expression. But moments later, she said quietly, ‘Let’s not discuss what others do. If a person doesn’t work hard and lacks confidence, no god can save them. Haven’t you done well in class so far? Why do you feel scared now, suddenly? You should be confident of your worth. Then all the demons will run away and leave you alone. Best of luck.’

I got very angry with Amma that day. I was furious that she had offered me no sympathy or solace.

I didn’t raise the topic again with her for the exams that followed. Determined to shun both god’s and Amma’s kindness, I focused my attention on studying. When I told Amma a few years later how I had felt then, she laughed. ‘If I hadn’t reacted like that, you wouldn’t have grown into an independent girl. You would be looking for a crutch even today.’

A sudden gust of wind made me feel cold. It penetrated my bones and made me shiver. I pulled the woollen shawl tight around me. Only then did I notice the wetness on my cheeks. Whenever I thought of Amma, my eyes welled up involuntarily; there must be a direct connection between my thoughts and tear ducts. Stemming their flow was beyond me.

Black clouds were forming in the distant sky. Fearing them, a mass of white clouds overhead was rolling away like a bale of cotton. From a white cloud, Amma waved and smiled.

Amma was different. It was her distinct character that had alienated me in some ways from the normal run of people.

I couldn’t burst into loud, hearty laughter; I had never seen Amma laugh that way. Her smile was the only permanent feature of her demeanour. Sometimes I felt guilty because even that smile had begun to recede from my memory.

There was no sign of the frolicking tourists. They were probably laughing and partying somewhere else. Creatures who believed that life was one big celebration. Their mothers must be normal people. I realized only now that Amma had been neither normal nor average, that she had had a complex personality. She must have sat in the same reclining chair where I was relaxing now. She must have analysed the black and white clouds that floated overhead. What kind of thoughts had passed through
her mind?

If you are confident, no demon can stalk you.

Amma was confidence personified, but some demons must have stalked her too. The very idea that she was unable to fend them off seemed incredible to me.

Breaking Free

Excerpted with permission from Breaking Free, Vaasanthi, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Raman.