When I looked back before running out of the room, I saw the gold bangles on her hands and the red nail polish at the tip of her long fingers as she covered her face with both hands and her shoulders heaved. You don’t hang around when you have just hit the new bride of your uncle right on her face with the ball. Especially when they are on their first visit after their marriage. Doesn’t matter the ball was soft. Doesn’t matter the misdirected, enthusiastic kick was an honest mistake. Doesn’t matter I was barely seven years of age.
There was no one else on the room when it happened. Was my new ammayi (Malayalam for wife of mother’s brother) a snitch? Will she complain to my uncle? What will he say?
I delayed my return home as long as I could. When I came back, they were gone. I looked at my mother’s face. Sunny, with no clouds. More importantly, the ball was still where it had landed after its dastardly deed. Mother had not confiscated the evidence.
Years later, I asked ammayi. “I don’t remember,” she laughed. “Maybe I was laughing,” she laughed even more. Her eyes filled up.
Her tears are quick to appear, whether she is happy or hurt.
Occasionally, she shows me her old photos. She used to be a dancer. One of her favorite photos shows her with her two sisters, striking a pose in front of the camera. Whenever she shows me this photo, I tell her she looks the best. “You look like a film star! I want to see you dance.” And she would laugh. Then she would pout and put away the album. “You are making fun of me.”
She pouts beautifully. She has very expressive eyes.
I remember, years ago, uncle coming home rather late one night. “Girl,” he told my mother. “Dead,” he added grimly.
It was not the first time ammayi had delivered a dead child. Nor the last. I was too young to realize the gravity of the situation. However, I did feel that she no longer cared about her appearance. She was now more withdrawn, less playful.
When their son came along and lived on, we were all thrilled. He was spoilt silly by his parents and given half-a-dozen pet names. He grew up to be a little terror. He was full of pranks and had the knack to irritate all and sundry. The rest of the family preferred not to deal with him. He was immune to all sorts of punishments. He appeared to be on a mission to earn everyone’s wrath.
One day, I saw ammayi watching him sleeping. “He looks so innocent now, doesn’t he? This is the only time when no one is scolding him or hitting him. And I am not shouting at him. I like this peace. I like to live in peace,” she wiped her tears and walked away.
By the time they had a second son, my family had moved away. I was hardly in touch with ammayi.
When I met her again, she was her talkative old self. I had my wife with me, who did not speak ammayi’s language. “Wish I could speak to her. There are so many things I want to ask her,” ammayi was her inquisitive self once again.
She loves to do that. She has the power to extract a stranger’s family history using her rapid-fire questions. Not that she gave up on my wife. She dredged up a few Hindi and English words, possibly from her school days, mixed those up with some eloquent gestures and was soon “talking” to my wife. “Not very happy,” she would tell me now and then. “Not easy for me to learn a new language now, is it?”
Several years later, when we met again, the sons had married and gone away. The big house now had just the two old people.
Ammayi was in tears. “Your uncle is making fun of me. Sometimes I forget a little and he laughs at me,” she said. “And he scolds me,” she added. I looked at my uncle in surprise. I had never known them to argue; he never used harsh words. My uncle was her whole world.
Then they both laughed and I was relieved. “She would tell me she is making dosa for breakfast and then she would give me chapatti. Now I am used to her forgetfulness,” uncle told me later. For now, it was a joke at her cost. None of us knew the joke was to stay and turn cruel.
“Get out of my bedroom,” ammayi screamed at uncle. He was shocked. She rushed out of the house and ran to the neighbor’s. “There is this strange man in my house. Please ask him to go away.” Fortunately, the neighbors were sensible. They quietly escorted them back home.
“This is your husband, don’t you remember,” the neighbor asked her. Ammayi snatched their wedding photo sitting on top of the TV, pointed to the man on the photo. “This is my husband. He has gone out somewhere and at that time, this man has come here. Will you ask him to go away?”
I remember the day someone from the family called to tell me this. Surely, this cannot happen to them? Not to my bubbly ammayi? Relentlessly, news about her steady deterioration kept coming.
It was no longer possible for them to live together. Someone else had to be with them, between them. Uncle decided to move out. They started living with their sons by turn. Uncle hated to burden his sons and their wives. He did not have any option.
Last year, I met her again. She appeared calm. With a little effort, she even told me my name. She remembered my family and wanted to know why I had come alone. “This is just a passing phase,” her son whispered in my ear. “Suddenly, her mood will change. Then she will say and do whatever comes to her mind.”
They all know the diagnosis, except ammayi. They all know she is going downhill, faster and faster, except ammayi. All she wants to know is “When am I going home, to my house?”
Last night, my uncle could barely speak on the phone. “I am very tired,” he panted. He put his son on the line.
Ammayi is bedridden. She is no longer in control of her bodily functions. They have tied her hands to the bed because she keeps pulling at the tubes. She doesn’t recognize anyone. When she speaks, it makes no sense. Many people visit her; she has no questions to ask of them.
Sorry, ammayi. I must run away from the room again, leaving you alone. Are you laughing or crying? I didn’t know then. But you did. I don’t know now. Do you?
As then, I wish you would be gone when I come back, ammayi. This time to a place where you will always live in peace, just the way you wanted. Laughing, crying, dancing.
Love you, ammayi.