By Sharika Nair
The old man hurriedly sliced the few stragglers left from the bunch of cowpea beans. It was nearly eleven, time for Sofiemol to pass by. Picking up the bowl with the neatly diced beans, he walked into the kitchen. His wife was sprinkling masala powders into the sambar, and the kitchen was filled with the heady aroma of the simmering lentils. She was absorbed in her kitchen witchcraft, the mixing and the churning and the frying, in which she was so proficient that with a mere bowl of lentils, a few vegetables and a pinch of spices in her arsenal, she could transform any lowly dish into a treat for the palate. He quietly left the bowl on the kitchen platform and walked back to the dining room, before she could notice him. Taking the cutting board and the knife to the work area, he rinsed them in the sink. Placing them carefully on the sideboard to dry, he heaved a sigh of relief. His chores for the morning were done.
Though living the retired life, the old couple woke up at 6 am to the alarm. Water for their bath was still heated on the soot-blackened aduppu; the gas stove being reserved for cooking. Once morning ablutions were completed, the old woman lighted the brass lamp while chanting her prayers, and left it near the door. The old man helped her with breakfast preparations by grating coconut or chopping onions. After breakfast, the couple conducted the cleaning and moved on to the cutting and dicing for lunch with the stoic flourish of an orchestra, thanks to the assurance gained from years of repetitive chores, working in tandem and mostly in silence. Occasionally the old woman remarked on the quality of the vegetables or passed on some news from the neighbourhood. The old man grunted in acknowledgment.
Clothes were washed and starched every alternate day. The old man drew water from the well, heaving up the ancient aluminium bucket strung on the creaky pulley. The old woman scrubbed the clothes on the washing stone that glistened in the sun like black onyx.
The old man did not always wait for Sofiemol’s arrival with the anticipation of an ardent devotee, awaiting the opening of the sanctum for deeparadhana. The first few days that she passed by, more than two decades ago, she was a source of much excitement in the locality, and everyone would come outside their homes to gawk and wave at her. Sofiemol was the bus that first connected the sleepy village of Karipoothira to the country’s intricate bus network. Initially, it was just a coincidence that when the old man stepped out of the house, to stand leisurely near the gate and watch the ebbs and flows of his neighbourhood, the Sofiemol passed by. Over the years, he had started timing his routine to the crossing of the red and yellow bus during her mid-morning trip from Pulikkuttusseri to Kottayam town. On the way back, the blaring horn of the bus would wake him from his afternoon siesta and remind him it was time for tea and banana chips.
As he stood outside the gate, the old man could see the dust in the distance that signalled that Sofiemol was on her way. Across the road, Manikuttan of the Wadakke house was hurrying towards the bus stop with his wife, Hemalatha. Manikuttan called out to him, “Valliacho, we are going to the town to Anumol’s house. It’s her baby’s choroonu. All fine with you?” The old man smiled and nodded. It seemed just a little while back that Manikuttan’s daughter Anumol had come to pick up fallen mangoes from the garden wearing a bright yellow frock, her hair oiled, washed and tied in neat plaits.
Soon, Sofiemol passed by and halted at the bus stop further down the road. He stood watching as people got down and Manikuttan and his wife and a few others boarded the bus.
The old couple had moved back to Karipoothira in 1970, after the old man retired from his job at the Ordnance factory board headquarters in Calcutta. Their daughter had been married off to a suitable Malayali boy in Calcutta while their son had acquired the highly sought after ‘Government Job’ with a public sector company and moved to Bombay.
The first few months were spent on the renovation of the ancestral tharavadu. The sitting room had been extended, gleaming mosaic tiles had been laid on top of the red oxide floor, the bathroom had been redone and house was spruced up for the new returnees.
After that, life appeared to have come to a standstill.
In Calcutta, the days had been disciplined and fast paced. In the mornings, the children would get ready for school and in the later years for college and leave. The old man, who was a much younger man then, would glance through the newspaper, and set off to work.
He had been much appreciated for the impeccable maintenance of accounts at his office. His first boss, Mr Jenkins would often exclaim, “Mr Pillai what would I do without you?!” while thumping him heartily on his back, deeply embarrassing the mild-mannered accountant. After Independence, Stephen Jenkins had gone back to the empire where the sun had begun to set, and a much younger Indian gentleman had taken over in his place. Debasish Sengupta had quickly recognised his faultless work as well and had become reliant on him on all matters financial.
Evenings in Calcutta had spun by like the pages of a suspense novel, flipped hungrily while barrelling towards the climax, with the children’s homework, trips to the grocery store, the songs on the radio and the occasional socialising with friends all bundled together; several minutes, hours, years of a cluttered life; bits and pieces captured and caged inside the albums in the bedroom cupboard, tiny black and white squares featuring stiff shoulders and dour faces.
Ever since he moved back to Karipoothira, his life back in Calcutta seemed to be from another lifetime. The tram rides to work, the sounds of raucous card games from the neighbour’s house, the bustle of his Gariahat neighbourhood was a different universe compared to the sluggish Kerala village, where the neighbour’s cow giving birth was big news.
When Sofiemol started shuttling down the road in front of his house, she became a tiny whirlwind, shaking up the stillness of his new world. He had become a tree, rooted to a spot, watching the world go by, but seeing the bus, filled with people, moving with manic energy gave him a reflected sense of purpose.
Sofiemol had embarked on her maiden journey in 1972. By the following year, Sreelakshmi was running on the same route early in the morning, with a return trip during lunch time. By 1980, Baijumon and Minimol had been added to the fleet. But Sofiemol remained the old man’s favourite, a favoured first-born of sorts; just seeing her go by filled him with a vague sense of pride.
The old man was called valliachan or perappan by his Hindu neighbours and pillaachan or appachan by the Christian ones. His age had made his name redundant but the wiping out of his identity had been both secular and universal. It seemed almost poetic that he had lost his first name first. During his working years, he had been Mr Pillai.
Every alternate summer vacation his children, their spouses and grandchildren arrive for their cherished holiday, a break from the chaos of their cities. Suitcases would pile in the bedrooms and chatter would fill the house. The old woman would go into a frenzy of cooking, overwhelmed with the sudden need for larger quantities of food. She would also never fail to declare once or twice, loudly, lest he fail to hear, “Finally some noise in the house! Otherwise, it is deathly quiet here. You know how achan is. Difficult to get a word out of him.”
Towards the end of their stay, the old man would neatly pack several packets and bottles filled with jackfruit and banana chips, lime pickles and coconut chutney powder, into cardboard cartons along with raw mangoes and coconuts, for the visitors to take back home. When they left, baggage stuffed into the trunk of the taxi, the children screaming out their goodbyes, excited about their train journey back home he would invariably find himself choked, holding back tears. His parting words would remain lodged in his throat. Dinner that night would be unbearably sombre but the next morning would bring with it a palpable sense of relief at the return of calm and peace.
Four years ago, the old man had taken Sofiemol to go to the bank in Kottayam. Suresh, a distant relative, was the bus conductor then. The old man was seated near the door, and Suresh, standing precariously on the footboard with the effortless nonchalance that all private bus conductors seemed to possess, had enquired about his health, “Perappa sukham alle?” Making small talk, the old man had said, “This bus is in such good condition. Hardly ever breaks down.” Suresh had laughed, “Perappa, this is not the original bus. Do you think a bus will last for over fifteen years on these roads? The old Sofiemol was condemned a year back after the owner bought this new one. It was given the same name for good luck. It’s the owner’s daughter’s name, after all.” The old man had sat in stunned silence for the rest of the journey.
For the past year or so, the old man was waking up earlier than usual. As pale tendrils of sunlight stealthily crept in through gaps in the curtains, the chirping of sparrows on the mango tree just outside the bedroom window would awaken him. As he lay in bed waiting for the alarm to ring, he often found himself remembering a time long gone by, relics preserved well despite the passage of time; his mother’s voice scolding him for climbing trees, the sound of marbles getting knocked together by expert knuckles, the panicked voice of a friend shouting, “Gopala… headmaster is coming…run!”
Last week, the old man had gone to the dispensary for his niggling cold and the nurse had called out his name twice, “Gopalan Pillai”. He hadn’t realised she was calling him, till she tapped him on the shoulder and gently said, “appacha, you can go in now.”
As it is time for lunch, the old woman comes to the door to ask him to cut banana leaves from the backyard. Usually, banana leaves were cut for special occasions. Today, though, for some reason known only to her, the old woman has decided they would eat from the leaves. Maybe she has made a sweet dish, jaggery payasam perhaps, the old man muses hopefully. He hums a cheery tune as he dips his feet in the rivulet behind the house. For all her complaints about his laconic tendencies, the old woman would get irritated if he were to sing inside the house.
He mixes the rice, sambar, cabbage thoran and beans mazhikkuparatti together, making little balls of the mixture and eats them with relish. The old woman reminds him to buy candles from the grocery store in the evening. “The power cut is scheduled at seven this week,” she mutters. Half way through the meal, the old man clears his throat and says, “It’s long since you made chakka ada.” The old woman frowns. Since there is leftover dosa batter, she had been planning to make dosas later in the evening. The ada is a lot of work but the old man rarely makes any demands. So, after lunch, instead of taking a siesta, she goes to the backyard to pluck vazhana ila, bay leaves that grow wild in most yards, for the ada. She makes a dough of jackfruit jam and rice flour, and steams the dumplings after stuffing them in the bay leaves.
Once the jackfruit dumplings are cooked, the old woman pours tea into steel glasses and peeps into the dining room. The grandfather clock has struck four and Sofiemol still has not passed by. No wonder the old man has not woken up yet. Her arthritis has slowed her movements considerably. She trudges slowly to the bedroom and finds the old man on the floor clutching at his chest. She rushes out to call the neighbours.
Within half an hour, the doctor arrives, examines the old man and officially declares what the group of relatives and neighbours gathered in the house already know. The old woman’s wails ring through the house. “He said he wants to eat chakka ada.. he did not even eat them,” she cries as the other women try to console her.
One of the assembled mourners whispers to his neighbour, a bit self-consciously given the atmosphere of bereavement in the house, “What happened to Sofiemol? The bus is late today.” The other man whispers back, “I heard one of its tyres got punctured. I saw Mechanic Joseph going with the new tyre a while ago.”
Just a few metres away, on the road in front of the house, oblivious to the human drama inside, Sofiemol speeds by on the afternoon trip from Kottayam back to Pulikkuttusseri, setting off a dust storm, that soon settles into the silence of a thousand afternoon siestas, broken only by the occasional wailing from the house.
Sambar – spicy lentil and vegetable curry
Aduppu – traditional firewood stove
Deeparadhana – ritualistic waving of lamps in temples
Valliachan – uncle
Mol – endearment for a girl child
Choroonu – baby’s first rice intake ceremony
Tharavadu – family house
Perappan – uncle
Pillachan – a title for elderly man from Kerala’s Nair community
Appachan – term used for father, grandfather or an elderly person by Kerala’s Christian community
Achan – father
Perappa sukham alle? – uncle are you well?
Jaggery payasam – sweet dish
Thoran – vegetable and grated coconut stir fry
Mazhikkuparatti- fried vegetable dish
Chakka ada – jackfruit pudding
Dosa – rice crepe
Vazhana ila – bay leaf
Sharika Nair wrote feature stories on entrepreneurs and women achievers during her stint with YourStory. Her story ‘The Silver Anklet’ won a prize in Deccan Herald’s short story competition in 2018. Sharika recently authored a children’s book titled Tara and the quest for the Cursed Prince. Her short stories have been part of anthologies titled The Other Side, Ether Ore and A Lie on Her Lips. Sharika lives in Bangalore with her family.
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