I am a retired School teacher and my name is ‘Bhagyalakshmi’ which means ‘goddess of luck’. According to my mother, I have inherited my father’s looks & her brains, like the famous Bernard Shaw joke. And she never left a single opportunity to mention this as a proof for her beauty.
‘Your father was very intelligent, hardworking, a Mathematics wizard, he fell for my beauty’, touching her ankle, Amma would continue, ‘I had this much long, lustrous hair & I was often mistaken for an upper caste due to my ivory complexion’. Sighing deeply she would conclude her monologue ‘But we were poor. Your father was ‘Nair’ while I belonged to ‘Thiya’, lower caste.’
I hardly listened to the oft-repeated story of my father getting a lecturer’s post in Loyola college, settling down in Chennai where I was born after 10 years of their married life & father’s untimely death when I was just two etc. etc.
Once, infuriated by her constant lamenting about her impending death &and her only fear of leaving me behind as a spinster due to lack of dowry to compensate for my looks, I retorted,
“Getting married is not the only goal in my life okay? I agree my father was brilliant but I’m also educated enough to get a Teacher’s job & make a living. So, stop worrying about not settling me. I think my father was not only intelligent but also a great humorist. Otherwise, how could he name me ‘Bhagya Lakshmi’ while Dame Luck never even glanced towards me, leave alone smiled at me ha ha ?’
Suddenly my mother’s face changed & she said in a very serious tone, ‘Bhagyam , you are lucky ,that’s why you got a good job when you were just 21 & we could get a roof over our head . You are just 42; it’s all your luck. You know what, that elevated mole on your nose indicates great luck, in Malayalam we say, ‘Mookkathu marukundaayaal, nokkunnathellam labhikkum’. I laughed uncontrollably at her explanation & in between laughter I said, ‘How nice! Our Malayalam has many treasures like this. So, this ugly mole occupying most part of my tiny nose means, I’ll get everything I wish for right?’
Suddenly, looking at my Amma’s ‘hunted-animal’ look, I hugged her close & said, ‘Don’t worry Amma, I do believe in my luck. You know how I’m smitten by wanderlust. When I retire, I will have enough money to visit all the countries and all the wonders of the world .Cicero once said, ‘Grow cabbages that pay at once, so that roses may be planted to meet the soul’s need for beauty That’s why I’m growing cabbages now........’
That was twenty years ago......
After retirement, I started seriously thinking of visiting some foreign countries to fulfill my wanderlust. And at last, Dame Luck smiled at me during my father’s cousin Meenakshi ‘s unexpected visit to my house, on her way back from Thirupathy Temple. Incidentally, Meenakshi was the only relative from my father’s side, who kept in touch with us, at least occasionally. In fact her son Rajesh, a lovable boy, stayed with me when he came to get visa to join some American University, four years ago. I remember, his loving letter thanking me profusely for my hospitality.
Meenakshi convinced me that for my foreign visit, the best place to start with was California. ‘What’re you waiting for, Bhagyam? Rajesh has an apartment in Milpitas & he would be too happy to have you with him. He can take you around to various spots like Golden gate bridge, Las Vegas etc . When my husband went last year, he looked after him so well, took him to Grand Canyon, Los Angeles etc. Once Manju gets settled, I too plan to visit him. Meanwhile, you can escape this miserably hot Chennai & its frequent power cuts, this is already April, and next month is the worst month. No time to waste. I’ll talk to him right now, Subhasya Seekhram.’
The next day, when Meenakshi mentioned about my trip, Rajesh sounded genuinely happy & excited. He said, ‘Aunty, I remember how well you cook & if you come here, it’s like manna from Heaven , just reach San Francisco, the rest is my responsibility, okay?’
I was on cloud nine, at last my Amma’s words about the role of my nose mole was coming true. Otherwise, who would have imagined Rajesh’s offer of looking after me in a foreign country? I certainly could not have enjoyed the organized tours with a bunch of strangers. I used to envy my colleague Ambujam, who went to Chicago for her daughter’s delivery & stayed three whole months there. She used to talk about the shameless, skimpily dressed Americans White & Black kissing openly in public places & busy malls, the huge, football sized ‘Kathrikkas’ which they call ‘egg plants’ or funny name for ‘vendakkai’ okra’ & the green cauliflower (later, I realized she referred to ‘broccoli’). Though I used to wonder why she did not mention about the tourist attractions in Chicago, Shedd Aquarium, Millennium Park, and Willis Tower etc. I did not dare to voice my doubt for fear of being accused of an old spinster’s jealousy for the happily married colleague with a well-settled son abroad....
To be frank, I was a bundle of nerves when I saw the inside of a plane for the first time in my life. Clutching my bag awkwardly, I followed the other passengers almost to the very end, to find my seat. Finally, I spotted my seat &sank into it with a ‘thud’ & looked around .The seat next to me was vacant, but at the window seat , I noticed a silk sari -clad, bejeweled , very fair -complexioned lady , smiling at me with an obvious ‘let’s get acquainted’ look. Just then, I heard the announcement of the plane’s taking off & noticed the charming, air hostess smiling at me with her deep read lips & pointing her lovely finger with the same deep red nail towards the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign, while walking past my seat .When I started fumbling with my seat belt, the sari-clad lady moved towards the vacant next seat & fastened my belt with a brisk click & asked gently with a very pleasant smile, ‘First time eh? Tamil?’
Silently admiring my co-passenger, Sarojini Iyer’s gracefully aging face, kind, soulful eyes, aquiline nose with clustered diamonds like a shining bee on it &very fair complexion highlighted by her wine-colored silk sari , I listened to her incessant chat. Soon, my awe & admiration for the elderly lady developed into a something stronger feeling, an affection and friendship perhaps due to her frank and innocent talk from her heart.
‘You know Bhagyam, I was worse than you , actually terrified during my first flight, more than 15 years ago for my daughter in law’s delivery in Phoenix, I can’t even speak English ,got married before completing my high school. Luckily, both my sons are intelligent, like their Appa, he’s a retired High court Judge. Now I’m going to Phoenix to look after my three year old granddaughter, as her mother had to go to Bangalore to be with her critically ill father. Only I can manage my granddaughter as she’s so much attached to me’ she laughed .
By the time we reached Singapore & took leave tearfully from Sarojimni mami, I learnt all the enjoyable aspects of air travel- the trick of getting the pretty airhostess , for getting juice ,coffee & even wine ,pocketing the complimentary gifts, toiletry kit, using ear-phones etc. etc . Thanks to my new friend, I was confident & enjoyed the flight to San Francisco.
At the San Francisco airport, it was Rajesh who spotted me. I could not recognize the young man with the Tee-shirt printed ‘San Francisco’ on it.
He came running to the baggage claim & gave me a bear hug & told. ‘Welcome to USA aunty’ & introduced me to his friend, “Meet Jay, my close friend”. While Jay brought my baggage, Rajesh put her protective arm around me & gently led to the parking place. I almost shed tears of joy at the affection of the two wonderful boys. True, I could not help believing in the kindness of strangers, at first Sarojini mami, now these boys, and three strangers showering their love & affection to me. Rajesh talked nonstop on our long drive. He told his friend, “This Aunty’s dad, my mom’s cousin, loved & married her mom, nearly 60 years ago braving the tsunami of opposition. I have great respect for uncle & aunty for ignoring the stupid caste system which is prevalent even now.
A few minutes before reaching Rajesh’s house, I witnessed the ‘magic’ of Rajesh ordering food at a window, seated in his seat & drove on to another window, collecting the parcel. Really, amazing!!
At Rajesh’s two roomed, neat apartment, I admired Rajesh getting all the modern gadgets, fridge, cooking range, dishwasher etc. Then, he laughed & said, “Aunty, it’s all given in the rented apartment. I didn’t buy these things.” Huh! Another surprise!!
From the very first day of my arrival, after Rajesh left for his work-place with packed lunch, I enjoyed the bliss of solitude. . I loved the way I was left alone with none ringing doorbell, no visitors, no sales persons with their products like in Chennai. I could listen to music, knit, watch TV or even curl up with my favorite authors with absolutely peaceful atmosphere. How interesting!!!
In a weeks’ time, I learnt two important facts. First, I had certainly inherited my mother’s culinary expertise in Kerala style dishes .Second of all, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Within a short period, I was accepted, loved & even admired by Rajesh & his close friend Jay. Their lavish compliments were my ego-boosters. I was even popular among Rajesh’s Office colleagues, especially his Indian boss, Iyer, a great foodie. He loved my biriyani, pepper chicken fry & beef ‘olathiyathu’ fry. Taking advantage of Iyer’s weakness for non-vegetarian dishes which he could not get at home, Rajesh regularly packed non-vegetarian dishes for him.
He kept on telling me that I brought him luck, as his boss was so pleased by my chicken biriyani &beef, that he promised to hasten his otherwise delayed ‘green card’ process.
Two splendid weeks flew & I visited San Francisco & local tourist spots with Rajesh & Jay and was getting ready for our LA trip that Friday evening.
So, after packing my suit case for our long weekend in LA, I picked up Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment.
Soon, I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s hero plotting to murder the old pawn-broker….
That was the time I heard the distinct noise of our door bell. Rajesh strictly instructed me not to open the door for anyone. As usual when he repeated his warning that morning too , I retorted rather annoyingly, ‘I know son, yesterday only I watched ‘America’s most wanted’ with a warning to be on the lookout for a serial killer ,suspected to be in California now, so don’t worry.” ..
Again, I heard the doorbell’s disturbing shrill noise ringing for a longer duration. But, I was not alarmed as I knew pretty well that nobody could break open the door, that too in this broad day light. Then to my utter shock, bell was ringing non-stop for about 5 minutes, almost piercing my ear drum in the eerie silence. Though slightly frightened,, I managed to reach the door & looked through the peephole. ...
My God! I saw a wild-looking, bearded, white man in shorts, pressing impatiently the doorbell. The formidable look of the man coupled with the persistent bell, sent shock waves through my spine. I could hear the loud beating of a drum from my heart. Sweating profusely, I thought, what this man would want from a small apartment, certainly not cash. Then all of a sudden, I thought of my gold chain & four thin gold bangles. It was worth about a lakh or more Rupees, as the gold price was prohibitively high in recent times. With trembling fingers, I touched fondly my exquisitely designed chain & bangles which I wore very occasionally in Chennai, for fear of theft. Look at my fate , here ,in this country , I was going to be the victim of an unscrupulous drug addict due to these ornaments.......
Again, the bell, this time louder than ever, as I was very close to the door.
After a moment, I heard the man opening the door with key. ‘God, this thief using some master key too. Would he shoot me? Guruvayurappa! Please save me.’
Soon, the bearded man stood right in front of me .Chewing his gum vigorously he hollered something. Then he laughed, showing his steel-clapped, yellow front tooth.
‘Guruvayurappa, how can this animal laugh? How can I tell him to take all my gold & spare my life? My tongue got stuck somewhere inside my dry mouth. Even if I have the power of speech, how am I to converse with this white fellow in my Indian accent?’ Oh! He’s trying to take something from his pocket, must be his gun.”
I could feel the violent pounding of my heart and the jerking & trembling of my legs. I wanted desperately to clutch something from falling down .So, like an acrobat , I bent backwards l & pressed my trembling palms down, against the wall, for a grip....
Slowly, but surely I was going down, down and down ... I did not want to see the fellow shooting me & shedding my blood like in the movies. .I closed my eyes and waited for the gunshot.....
Even at that most critical moment, I imagined my obituary in some insignificant corner of newspapers & some local TV giving the news of a School Teacher being shot dead by a drug addict in California. After all, I’m not that young, pretty Devyani Khobragade for the media to go gaga over her arrest. The Indians even burnt Obama’s pictures in protest. But, who would care for an ordinary looking old spinster’s murder? What a cruel, unfair world!! .....................
When I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital with drips flowing & a nurse cheerfully telling me that I was fine. I saw the anxious faces of Rajesh & Jay, “Are you okay Aunty?”
I was of course touched by the anxiety, love, affection & kindness in their voice.
No doubt, I was happy & relieved that I was alive, but how could I escape the shooting without injuries. I stammered, ‘How did I escape? Did’nt he shoot me? Am I injured?’
Rajesh said, “Sh sh aunty, we’re going back home now, as soon as the drip gets over. Nobody shot you, okay?”
During our way back, Rajesh in between laughter told me what really happened. About two weeks ago, he had reported about the leak in his bathroom. But they could not repair it as their timings did not suit Rajesh’s. So, When I came, he informed them that his aunty was at home & could come anytime or repairing.
“So, aunty, that wild looking man was not one of the ‘America’s most wanted’. He was the maintenance man, who has key for the apartments .Poor guy called 911 & you were saved due to his timely action, you just fainted, and that’s all.”
In the midst of all this conversation, I failed to notice that the car parked near a very posh hotel, ‘Amber’.’
As though answering my unasked question, they said, “Look aunty, we’re all going to have chicken Kerala style & rice for our chicken -hearted Aunty. Okay?” Before I could answer Jay laughed & said, “Mean fellow, tell Aunty the big news”
Then Rajesh said with a broad grin. “Aunty, you are really ‘Goddess of Luck, You brought so much luck to both of us ,now listen to this conversation...
“Aunty, tell a number between 170 & 200 and above.” That was Rajesh.
“Why, why?” that was my voice.
Jay interrupted, ‘Just tell aunty, don’t ask the reason, then it will not be effective, just think & tell’”
‘Okay then, 250"
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course, yes, yes, yes, 250…..’
After a pause, Rajesh said ‘We were asking about our stock & you know we both gained considerably because our stock value touched more than 250 because of your guess, We both gained almost 90000 to 100,000 dollars . Now, we are planning for busting at least some of it by going for a Caribbean cruise, visiting Europe etc. with you. What do you say aunty dear, Goddess of luck?”
Choking with unshed tears, I said, “Sons, I think this ugly mole on my nose brought me all luck, that’s what my Amma used to say, quoting a Malayalam saying. Now, with you both around , I certainly feel lucky, more than fulfilling my wanderlust, I got two loving sons without any pain of bringing them out or bringing them up . I’m so happy now. Can I ask for more Luck, I’m indeed Bhagyalakshmi’ as my father fondly named me...