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Mercy

P.F.Mathews

Story by P. F. Mathews, translated from Malayalam by Ram Anantharaman

An appooppan thaadi[1] slowly swaying and dancing along in the wind, drifting gently up and down, entered the bedroom through the window and landed on the waterbed, and is lying flat and squeezed over there, as if it were trying to tell ‘I’m overfatigued’. Actually, it should not be called appooppan thaadi, it should be ammoomma thaadi[2] instead. The white chatta and mundu[3] worn in the ancient Syrian Christian style with fanfold pleats at the back and madisheela[4] at the front remained as is, without even getting wrinkled a bit. As the mekka mothiram[5] had been removed, the large holes in the ears have begun to close. Esther combed and tied the silver hair that lay spread over the pure white pillow. Now she has to bathe by softly wiping the entire body with scented cloth. When the younger son from Canada comes on video call at half past eleven, the ninety-two-year-old grandma has to appear as pretty as Our Lady of Lourdes. Neighbours and the parish people used to call her ‘pretty grandma’ always. Everything around grandma was beautiful and fragrant. Those days, at the end of qurbana, as she rose up from her seat wearing chatta and mundu and a scarf pinned with a butterfly-like brooch and walked towards altar to receive the sacramental bread, the entire church used to swoon over the fragrance of Eau de Cologne. Grandma retained that sense of beauty in every aspect even after getting bed ridden, until her speech was lost.

Grandma used to always celebrate her birthdays by preparing and serving payasam[6]. However, her ninety second birthday passed by without having even a speck of sugar. It was an order from Canada. That innocent son from Canada was afraid that the thought of how old she has become might blow away the ammoomma thaadi to death. Martha Mariam, the grandma, has been bedridden for six years; her tongue stopped functioning six months ago. Even her memory might have failed. The rest of her children and grandchildren who visited once in a while to please her younger son, after entering her room and closing the door, would recollect her lapses and flaws of olden times and deride her. During such occasions, Esther who had been employed to take care of grandma, would not have eyes, ears and tongue. Nevertheless, while listening to the cruel words those wicked gang spoke, she would tell herself: My dear Holy Mother, please open grandma’s ears just for a while so that she could hear all the filth these people are saying.

“What for, my dear?” Mother would ask.

“So that when ammoomma returns to life, she could take revenge on each and every one of them…”

“Oh… why my dear… my son wouldn’t like that…”

“Oh… so all these are games you mother and your son Jesus purposely play, is it? From now on I will never go to the novena church, nor would I light candles…” When Esther expresses her displeasure, Holy mother would smile mischievously. Esther would be reading it from grandma’s face.

When no relatives are there, there was no problem. It will be only grandma and Esther in the room. Even though it is a little village, expensive imported flowers which are meant to adorn huge apartments and offices in the nearby town would arrive every day. As soon as they reach, the old flowers with wilted petals would be removed from the vase and fresh new flowers as soft as babies’ cheeks would be placed there. When the son comes on video call at half past eleven, he has to see them first. Once, when he saw wilted petals around the vase on the table and the floor, he simply disconnected the call! That’s how he showed his anger. One day when Esther woke up in the morning and came in, she saw a withered petal on the white sheet covering grandma’s waterbed, lying near her feet. As she took it wondering how the petal from the flower vase kept on the table near grandma’s head came over here, a numbness spread through her fingers. It was not a petal from the flowers. It was a finger that had dropped off from grandma’s foot! It was her first experience in all these years of care giving. First, she thought of burying it somewhere in the thicket before any relatives or neighbours come. But when she remembered the video call at half past eleven, she realised it would be a big mistake. Then she decided to inform the old doctor from the church hospital who visits and does special check-ups.

“No need to ask or tell anyone… just bury it somewhere in the compound.” Doctor’s reply reminded her of some mischievous children talking. The remaining fingers also would wither away like this. Do the same every time. When she said that Doctor himself should take up the responsibility to explain it to the Canada son, he agreed with a gentle snicker. But Esther felt sad when she thought that she would have to watch the remaining fingers falling off one after the other. Poor grandma… she can’t imagine even one moment that is not beautiful… how will she ever bear this?

She remembered the grandma of eight or nine months ago.

“Esther… even if you don’t care for me, you should look after the man on the other room… OK?”

Appaappan is fine ammachi… why are you getting worried?”

“Who said he is fine…? He has a lot of problems… as soon as Jerrymon’s attention shifts a little he goes out of the house itself… isn’t that a bigger problem? Jerrymon has no free time at all after his kitchen work…”

Grandma would get very excited while talking about appaappan.

Seven or eight years ago, one of grandma’s front row teeth fell. She was very sad. The tooth had no damage at all. Afterwards she always kept her lips tightly sealed because she was hesitant to show her smile with a hole. She felt that her smile-less face is as good as being dead.

“Nowadays it is possible to fix a good tooth easily, that is why I told him that I want a new tooth… do you know what appaappan said then…?”

After remaining silent for a while, looking at Esther and changing her voice to that of the Fathers in the church, grandma said: “it’s already four o’clock Maria… it will become dark very soon…”

Esther was surprised to hear that: “Appaappan should have been a poet, isn’t it ammaamma?”

“Oh… nowadays if someone is not watching, the poet is busy climbing on top of the building and trees like mischievous kids…”

As she was certain that Esther would not say anything, a sentence descended from grandma’s tongue as if she had thought about it a lot and byhearted: “Once memories are lost, it is better to die… isn’t it dear?”

Don’t say such things… that was how she should have responded… but it was not possible to lie to grandma. Grandma wouldn’t like it at all. That day grandma was silent for a long time. Then she said: “In other countries, there are laws to kill someone who is suffering… isn’t it so?”

Esther didn’t say anything, and she cleverly walked out of the room. Grandma also did not talk for the next four or five days. She wondered what grandma would be thinking and felt sad for the next six days. Would grandma also have started to forget things? But Esther was wrong. On the seventh day, after her eldest daughter’s mischievous daughter who was studying in the twelfth grade came and went. Grandma gave a paper to Esther with a smile and asked her to read it. Grandma watched Esther reading through it silently. It was an agreement which said that when she, named Martha Mariam, got to a stage of extreme pain and suffering but not dying, someone could end her life on her behalf. Her thumb impression along with her signature verified the document.

“What have you done ammoomma… wouldn’t that girl go around singing this to everyone?”

“Not at all. I have promised to give her my gold ring with emerald embedded in it… Even though she is impish, she is greedy for gold, isn’t it so?”

“Whatever it is, this is not right.” Esther was actually a bit sad and she didn’t try to hide her tears.

Edi penne[7]… even if I die your income would not be stopped… I would make all arrangements for that… and you will get additional remuneration for finishing me off…”

Esther was terribly angry, and all the bad words she had learnt from childhood days came rushing to her tongue. Moving aside all those bad words, Esther said: “Look old lady, I don’t want any damn thing from you. Esther knows how to work hard and earn well. I cannot be your executioner. You can tell your eldest daughter and granddaughter… I am leaving now.”

She uttered those words in a single breath. Having said, she wanted to adhere to her threat. Esther sent a four-line message to the children, packed her belongings and went home. On the fourth day, three of the children came in a car to her home. The Canadian kept on calling. After Esther’s leaving, grandma hadn’t have had anything to eat or drink, she had even stopped talking. Her eldest granddaughter who had been the cause of everything voluntarily confessed her mistake. Thus, after a brief interval, Esther once again came back to grandma. On seeing her, even though the pretty grandma who was lying without much fragrance smiled once, Esther felt that the smile didn’t have soul in it. It was from that day grandma’s tongue slowly started to stop functioning. She would always be lying in a half-asleep state without responding to whatever Esther would say. She wasn’t certain whether grandma was pretending. As days passed, it became a habit for grandma. Her days and nights became devoid of sounds. Earlier, she used to listen to old songs with a smile, but now, even when playing one of her favourite songs she would start frowning. Gradually, her hands also stopped moving, like her tongue. It became impossible to even know whether she had any pain. It was then one day appaappan slipped down from the steps on the veranda and passed away. The fall wasn’t that serious. It was as if for everything else, there had to be a reason for saying goodbye also, that’s all.

Amma should never ever know about appan passing away…” voice message from Canada arrived to the siblings and Esther.

How can that be possible… they lived together for almost seventy years… how can we not let her even take one last look… before such thoughts could even reach their tongues, all of them wiped it away from the mind itself. Esther didn’t step out of grandma’s room until the funeral was over in the evening. They carefully kept all the wailings of the dead house outside the shut door. However, the scent of frankincense kept spreading across all rooms. In the evening, before the prayers and songs of the priests from the church who came for the funeral function went well out of their control, the elder daughter had sealed her mother’s ears with cotton rolls so that she wouldn’t be able to hear anything. After seeing appaappan off, when the children gathered in the family room and sat around sipping black coffee and chatting, there was a power outage. Apart from that, everything went well.

When Esther came into grandma’s room with a lighted candle to keep the darkness away, she saw something strange that surprised her. Tears had been flowing like streams from both the eyes of grandma who was until then lying like a dead piece of wood. Seeing that Esther became sad beyond words, and she felt a hot burning sensation in-between her neck and chest.

Realising that there was no other way to escape that feeling, she also sat near grandma and cried for some time. Esther considered it as her major lapse that she was unable to recognise grandma being aware of everything even though she was lying like dead body with all her organs shut. They didn’t sleep that night. For the next two weeks too, Esther wouldn’t sleep. As she closed her eyes, pretty grandma would appear in front of her and accusingly point finger at her. She would wake up from the half-sleep with a shudder and gently massage grandma’s twig-like legs with wilting fingers. Then she would sit like that until dawn breaks. She felt as though she did not show mercy to grandma, and moreover what she did was a severe injustice towards her.  

Two months after grandpa’s passing away, Esther video-called Canada and showed grandma’s wilting fingers, wax filled ears, abnormally open nose and throbbing veins on the forehead and said: “Looks like there is not much time left now… it would be better if you start today itself.”

The Canadian doesn’t question Esther who knows everything about grandma. He started the next day itself. The other children and grandchildren had already reached by the time he arrived. Without any dramatic incidents necessitating special descriptions, just like a ripened leaf slowly detaches itself in a gentle breeze, grandma passed away. Within hours, she was laid to rest in the same grave where grandpa was buried. There was no need to keep her body in an ice box. Soon after returning from the cemetery, when Esther collected her belongings and started to leave, though the residents magnanimously tried to stop her, she didn’t yield to their requests. The mischievous doctor from the church hospital also took her side. The doctor told them that he would drop her at the railway station in his car.

Even though the doctor was aged above sixty years, he was funny. On the way he stopped the car by the river side and told that he wanted to have a smoke.

Seeing him lighting a cigarette and exhaling the smoke Esther told: “Doctor, you are smoking like kids who have just been initiated into smoking.”

“Then show me how adults smoke…” said Doctor and offered her a cigarette. Looking at her lighting it and exhaling the smoke in a beautiful manner, Doctor laughed. After finishing the cigarette, Doctor asked her where she had kept grandma’s letter. She took it out from her bag and handed it over to him. Doctor read it one more time and lit it with a match. From that paper containing grandma’s signature and fingerprint, smoke as delicate as her soul emerged and drifted in the wind, and began to float up like an appooppan thaadi.

“Why did you burn it? I had kept it for my remembrance.”

“No need… it is better to abandon some remembrances at the same place where they originate…” Doctor threw the burnt sheet of paper into the river. It soaked and dissolved in the water and disappeared.

“Let’s go…” Doctor said. Esther nodded her head.

[1] grandfather’s beard or Indian milkweed

[2] grandmother’s beard

[3] traditional attire worn by the Syrian Christian women of Kerala

[4] waist pouch

[5] a long hoop that is normally worn on the ears by elderly Christian women

[6] classic south Indian sweet dish

[7] Hey girl

P. F. Mathews is an Indian author who writes in the Malayalam language. He is a recipient of multiple literary awards including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and a National Film Award for Best Screenplay.

Ram Anantharaman is an engineer by profession. He has done translations from English to Malayalam and Malayalam to English.

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