The central figure in our household is my chikkappa, Venkatachala, my father’s younger brother and the family’s sole earning member. He has a weakness for work, and is at it night and day.
We’re in the spice trade – owners of a firm called Sona Masala. It’s a simple enough business: order spices in bulk from Kerala, parcel them into small plastic packets in our warehouse, and sell these to the grocers of the city. Chikkappa started the business, now our source of sustenance, and as a result he’s regarded above everyone else at home. His meals, his preferences, his conveniences, are of supreme importance to us all. The harder he toils, the better it is for us.
He’s unmarried, and we fuss over him such that he’s bound to wonder what additional comfort marriage can bring at his age.
He receives all the domestic privileges accorded to the earning male of the family. The first sound in the morning indicating he’s awake, and tea is made. When it’s sensed that he’s finished bathing, the dosa pan goes on the stove. He can fling his clothes in the bathroom or in a corner of his bedroom or anywhere at all in the house, and they’ll materialize washed and ironed in his room.
Sometimes, on the pretext of work, he spends the night in his room at the warehouse. We’re careful not to ask him anything about it. Once, only a couple of weeks ago, there was a commotion when a woman came up to the house. Chikkappa was at home, but he didn’t step out. And why should he, when we’re here to fight on his behalf?
She came on a Sunday, at around nine in the morning. She’d waited awhile some distance away from the house, hoping perhaps to speak to Chikkappa if he emerged. It doesn’t take long for someone standing aimlessly on the road to draw people’s attention – my mother soon saw her from the kitchen window. She had on a pale green sari with a red border. Nothing in her bearing suggested she was a disreputable woman.
Still, in the half hour or so the woman stood there, glancing from time to time at the house, Amma made several concerned trips to the window. In these matters, it is always the women who suspect first. The woman likely had no intention of creating a scene, and for all we know she might have been happy to return after seeing Chikkappa briefly. But that was not what transpired.
She finally summoned the courage to approach the house. Amma saw her opening the gate and rushed out. By then she had made her way to the front steps.
“How can we help you?” Amma asked.
“Isn’t this Mr Venkatachala’s house?” the woman asked, the hesitation evident in her voice.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“My name is Suhasini. Is he at home?”
“Whom do you wish to see?”
“I’d like to see him... Mr Venkatachala. Can I speak to him?”
“Do you have some work with him?”
“I’d like to speak to him.”
“Can I see him?”
Knowing Amma, she would have felt slighted by the visitor’s lack of forthrightness. But she held her tongue. After all, she had no idea what the woman was to Chikkappa, and it wouldn’t do to displease him. “Wait, I’ll call him,” she said and came inside, leaving the woman at the door. It’s not hard for me to imagine the thoughts that must have raced through Amma’s mind during that brief conversation.
While this was happening, we, the three men of the house, were sitting at the dining table over our breakfasts, listening to the exchange at the door.
Malati and Anita were in the kitchen, also within earshot. None of us acknowledged hearing anything.
Amma entered the room and turned towards Chikkappa. Before she could say a word, he’d begun making signals to the effect that he wasn’t home. This was all that Amma needed. She strode out.
“He’s not at home,” we heard her say.
“But... he is. I know.”
“I said he’s not at home.”
“Will you please mention my name to him?”
“How can I when he’s not at home?”
“He’s at home. I know.”
“Am I lying to you then?”
“I know he’s inside. I saw him through the window when I was standing there. Please call him. I only want to speak to him.”
“In which language must I tell you? No means no. That’s all – now, please leave.” It was clear from Amma’s voice that she was nearing the end of her patience. I was amazed she could stand so firmly behind a lie.
“I will not leave without seeing him.”
Malati went to the door to join the fray. Unable to resist my curiosity, I followed her and stood leaning against the door frame. Up close the woman was attractive, slightly dark-complexioned. I could see a healed scar on her left temple and the odd grey hair. Her green sari had a fine brown pattern on it. In her hands was a small package wrapped in plastic. A black handbag hung on one shoulder.
Amma was emboldened by Malati’s arrival. “Ey,” she said, her voice now raised. “It’s better you leave now. Do you want me to kick you out? Who do you think you are?”
The woman was taken aback by Amma’s aggression. She seemed to realise the matter was getting out of hand. Making to leave, she brought out a steel container from the plastic cover in her hand and attempted to hand it to Amma. She said, “I’ve brought this because he’s fond of it. It’s masoor dal curry. Please give it to him.”
“What is all this? Do you think we don’t cook at home?”
Amma was infuriated. She pushed the container back towards the woman.
“It’s not like that ...” she said, and tried to press the container into Amma’s hands. Amma shrank back and it fell to the ground. The lid shot off to one side; the contents formed a thick puddle on the ground. The smell of garam masala wafted into the house. We all knew that Chikkappa was fond of masoor dal curry.
All of a sudden, the woman seemed crushed. She went down on her knees in front of the spilt curry, making helpless little noises. The liquid traced bright red trails along the ground, leaving behind dark clumps. The woman’s affection for Chikkappa was evident. There was an awkward silence. I suppose we were all a little flustered now, and wondering what he would do.
The lull did not last. Amma burst into unprovoked invective. “Get out! Get out, you whore!” she screamed.
I walked back a few steps and glanced towards the dining room to see how Chikkappa was taking it. He had abandoned his breakfast and retreated to his room.
The woman had not abused us. She had not come here to pick a fight. We were thrown off balance by her love for one of us, and so we tore into her with such vengeance that she collapsed to the ground, sobbing. Amma and Malati called her a beggar, a whore, and it was clear from the disbelief on her face that she had never been spoken to in this manner. Perhaps she waited because she was certain that Chikkappa would come to her aid. That must have been Amma’s worst fear too, not that it stopped her.
On that day I became convinced that it is the words of women that deeply wound other women. I’d never imagined Malati and Amma to be capable of such cruelty – they were like dogs protecting their territory. All that woman had wanted was to see Chikkappa once. But these two felled her with their words, and they kept at it as she sobbed there sitting on the ground. Suddenly, she looked up through her tears, searching in the house behind us. She called out in a hoarse voice: “Venka... Venka... Come outside. It’s me, your Tuvvi.”
There was silence once more. She had deployed her most powerful weapon. It was embarrassingly clear now that there had been something between them. Venka and Tuvvi! Those private, affectionate names, now out in the open. Would he accept this part of him? We waited. If he was going to respond to her cry, it would be at once.
Amma continued to stand firm, but I noticed her turn and glance into the house. When a few seconds passed without sound or movement from within, it became clear that Chikkappa wouldn’t be coming out. A strange unexpressed fury radiated from the woman. Who knew how deep their relationship was? We had prevailed, and now it only remained to bring the scene to an end.
Excerpted with permission from Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag, Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, HarperCollins India.