The day before Allarmelu had been told she would get a present. She thought it might be a new brother or sister all of her own to play with and teach. When she entered the bedroom with the edge of her pavadai in her mouth, she saw her mother lying in bed. While the other attendants greeted the girls with a “shush!” her mother only said, “Come my darling, come.” She was thinner than yesterday. Sweat was pouring from her forehead. Her hair clung to her head like wet black paint.
Allarmelu pulled her pavadai out of her mouth and with her dancing eyes jumped onto the foot of the bed. Her mother’s firm teak bed and its headboard carved with a rising sun between two elephants, was brought as part of her trousseau into Surya Vilas to complement its name.
“Aiyeee!” the two ayahs chorused disapprovingly, being protective over their patient. Both aunts stood like sentinels, clasping their fear like ammunition in their hands.
“Allallu,” Allarmelu’s mother said, stroking her daughter’s feet as she sat cross-legged, and wiggled into a comfortable position close to her. Kanna stood by the corner of the bed jingling her tiny bangles. “Allalu, Amma has to go for a while. What will you do?”
“Where is Naina taking you? Will there be chocolates there? Will you bring back lace?” Allarmelu’s eyes brightened.
Her mother intended to laugh, but coughed. A hoarse and hacking cough that nearly catapulted her out of her bed. The ayahs swooped and swarmed around her and one of them gave her a red liquid poured from a clear Polish cut-glass decanter. Allarmelu was certain this was blood to drink; she had seen her mother once sitting in a pool of blood when yet another baby disappeared on arrival.
“Allalu, I’ve told Naina to bring you lace, and that music box you wanted. But now you are a big girl...”
“Ammmmma! What does that mean? Everyone says I’m a ‘big’ girl. I don’t know what to do!” Allarmelu pouted and lay down close to her mother. So thin and frail, but so much love pouring out from her.
“Why do you say that, my bangaru? All I want is that you look after Naina. Make sure our Kanna is looked after and whatever you get you must share with her.” Allarmelu wondered if Amma was going away to have another baby. She felt her mother’s absence every time there was the news that she would soon have a brother or sister. It had been at least nine times that Allarmelu could remember, from since she was four years old.
It was a pattern. Amma would be sitting at the table – in the dining hall, or in Naina’s study. Naina’s sisters would be with her. Amma had a way of making the atmosphere congenial, even if the women were in territory that exuded male officialdom. It had that scent of wood- framed glass-panelled book cabinets. The French polish mixed with the aroma of sandalwood. When Naina wasn’t there, even menus would be planned, as well as discussions about weddings. When the men were in the room, the women took to silence and embroidery. Then there would follow months when her Amma wouldn’t be able to go out, and the weeks when she would have to lie in bed.
But there were also months that Allarmelu remembered, when her Amma and Naina would host parties at home or go out for picnics. Amma would be dressed in Tanjavur silks for festivals. When Naina had his Lawyer and Professor friends over, her mother would wear the Parsi glass-bead-bordered saris, and would read Telugu poetry. Amma was slight but always so beautiful. Naina was at least twenty years older, and was a large, generous man. Her Amma had a musical voice, open smile, and sheer grace because the breeze always blew when she walked into a room. Amma’s sisters-in-law clung to her for lightness in a world darkened by men.
Surya Vilas was their home and only refuge, and it was fortunate that Amma’s delicate health and gentle nature made the three of them care for each other. They were all nearly the same age.
But for Allarmelu, her Amma made world news because she could write poetry, speak in English, and walk confidently in front of Naina when she was allowed to.
“Naina said you were such a good hostess, the day Dharma Chinnaina brought the Italian gentleman.”
“Amma, he wasn’t Italian. He was U-rope-ian.” Her mother smiled and began coughing. More blood. More red drink. Allarmelu took the glass from Gowri’s hand, cradled her mother’s frail neck and cautiously poured the red drink into her mother’s mouth. She looked at her mother’s eyes wandering at the ceiling. The women huddled closer. Kanna began to cry. Allarmelu felt such a stinging pain in her heart and throat, the like she had never known before. Her mother looked at her.
“You are my Ganga.” A wail from the women as they hushed Chellamma, cautioning her not to speak and to save her dying energy. “Tell Naina, the sari has gone. Pongal...Please light the lamps...make sure the milk boils over...My mother’s sari...her mother’s sari...your sari...Dharma never came to see...O mother, Devi! Mahasakthi!”
Allarmelu saw the light sink in her mother’s eyes. She was fixed cradling her mother and the glass. She felt an electric current pass through her. Her aunts screamed and the ayahs wailed. Kanna prised the glass out of Allarmelu’s hand. Allarmelu eased her mother’s head on the pillow and watched the eyes so still and inward, yet smiling. She buried her head in her mother’s chest and stayed there till the suppleness of the body turned rigid, warm sweat turning cold.
By 1 p.m., the news had spread. Jagan hurried breathless upstairs without removing his outdoor shoes and saw his wife and daughter huddled into one silent, immovable sculpture.
He tried to pull Allarmelu away. She was the weight of granite. Hardly able to hear himself as his voice was being pressed by the stones in his throat, he muttered, “Allalu...Amma left us. We are alone now. Allalu, she left before I could come. Allalu...she left us alone, together.”
His sisters were sobbing inconsolably at Chellamma’s feet. The cook and Kanna bayed the way dogs do while escorting the souls of the dead to unseen realms. Jagan’s hands and knees were trembling as he sat on the edge of the wide teak bed, alone. Allarmelu still had her head buried in her mother’s chest and suddenly shot out her arm and held her father’s hand firmly. She sat up. There was a momentary hush. There were no tears staining her face. This was a greater shock for cook who beat her chest with her fists and screamed. “Aiyiyo! Cry! Allalu, cry! Don’t hold it back! Stay with us Allalu! Don’t become a stone!”
And they all wailed. “Your mother, our beloved Chellamma, may she go to the lap of the gods; she was a goddess on earth. She would never want you to become a stone.” But Allarmelu sat, and looked at them as if they were stone, carved into a grotesque manifestation of humans, set in a cloud of gloom.
While she had held her dying mother, Allarmelu had felt a current, a rush of energy like water but as light as fire, and warm. It was only now she understood something her mother had always talked about: the soul, and love. She knew she would always remember that, and she would hold on to it. It made her feel light.
The sari. Her mother remembered it. It was to be worn at the festival. She would have worn it. But it never came back.
It seemed like a long time since that picnic, when Dharma took the sari away to darn it. She remembered pressing herself close to her mother then, how alive and well she was then. She also remembered the magical smile that spread across Dharma’s face when the sari slid into his hands, the way his promise to return with it mended, reassured his mother on that happy day.
Excerpted with permission from The Sari of Surya Vilas, Vayu Naidu, Speaking Tiger.
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