Next week, Ranganathan went to the University, with a thick Federal Express Envelope that had the picture of a blue eagle on it packed with Arun’s photographs. He granted everyone the
pleasure of flipping through all the pictures. As the photographs had the details of the place and date and occasion written on the back of it, in Arun’s pearl like handwriting in pencil, Ranganathan did not have to explain anything and it gave him an opportunity to watch the envious expression on the faces of his colleagues. After making many rounds in the University, the photographs finally made its way to his relatives in Thambaram. Here it was Vasumathy’s turn to closely watch her brother, sister-in-law and niece’s faces light up in awe and admiration, looking at Arun’s car, office, apartment and furnishings! Actually, Vasumathy was treated with so much respect and love, that it was hard to believe that the very same people use to cold shoulder her, whenever she came to visit her mother, a couple of years ago. Anyway, she was happy that her son Arun, at last, salvaged her sinking self-esteem. Before returning to Besant Nagar, Vasumathy asked Ranganathan, whether they could take her mother along for that weekend, as she had promised an offering of Vadamala for Arun’s welfare in the nearby Hanuman temple. Ranganathan was not very happy about the old lady’s presence in his house, but reluctantly gave permission, as he did not want to spoil Vasumathy’s triumphant mood during their return journey to Besant Nagar. After all, Vasumathy was entitled to some privileges like this, if not as his wife, at least as the mother to his son, Arun..........
After the Vadamala offering in Hanuman temple was over, Vasumathy distributed Prasadam to her neighbors and music students. Then she took a couple of vadais along with the Federal
Express envelope containing Arun’s pictures and went to Custom Officer Rajgopal’s place. She taught music to his daughter Supriya. When she rang the musical doorbell of Rajgopal’s house, an old lady in her sixties opened the door and gave her a ear to ear, grin, as though she knew Vasumathy and spoke. “Come in, come in, vango, vango, Arun’s Amma, right? I heard a lot about you, please sit down. I’m Rajgopal’s family friend. I stay in West Mambalam” Then, she said in a louder than necessary voice, “Sita, see who has come.” Vasumathy was quite surprised the lady could recognize her though she was meeting her for the first time. Meanwhile Sita came, wiping her hands in her sari pallu, saying, ““Oh, Vasumathy maami, what a surprise! This is Saroja akka. I did mention about her to you. She was in the States for about 6 months. Akka, Vasumathy Mami’s son is also in the States working as an Engineer”
Vasumathy gave Sita the vadai, saying “Amma has come to stay with me for the weekend, we had gone to Hanuman temple, so I brought some prasadam for you, Supriya must have gone to School, did I disturb you?”
“Disturb? Not at all, we finished our morning meals, I was just emptying the vessels to keep them for washing. Please sit down. Can I make a cup of coffee, maami?”
“No, no, we too finished our meals and my coffee time is two in the afternoon. By the way, I brought Arun’s pictures, came by Federal Express, I thought I’ll show them to you. You're all
his well-wishers!” Then, looking at Saroja, Vasumathy continued, “Before we got the phone connection, Arun used to call me here only. Poor Rajagopal mama and Sita maami had to put up with the trouble every Sunday.”
For Sita, one of three daughters of a poor middle school master, an MIG flat, scooter, phone, foreign music system and imported saris were great status symbols and the mention of using her phone by neighbors, was simply delightful. But she faked indifference and said, “What maami, what are neighbors for, if not for such small favors?” Then Sita flipped through Arun’s pictures with appropriate comments “Oh, Arun has put on weight here, maami, “looking handsome’, “Is this Arun’s flat?”, “very good”, “My God, his car, maami, pramaadam,” “Arun romba gattikkaran!”, “Look here, he’s cooking” and on and on and then passed them on to Saroja. Sitting across Saroja, Vasumathy was looking intently at Sita’s and Saroja’s faces and studying their expressions, so that she could relate her experiences to her husband. After the arrival of the photographs, communication between Ranganathan and his wife improved, in the sense, instead of the usual exchange of monosyllables and grunts, now
Ranganathan narrated with great excitement, how the faces of his coworker's registered admiration, envy, respect etc. Now, it would be Vasumathy’s turn to narrate Sita’s reaction.
Vasumathy was happy that both Sita and Saroja showed great interest in Arun's photos by looking, re- looking and then passing the most flattering comments about Arun’s looks, brilliance, luck, adjusting temperament etc. Vasumathy noticed that they took more than 20 minutes to study the pictures of Arun. Then, after a pause, Saroja said. “Sita, now I don’t mind some iced tea, Vasumathy too would like it”. Then, looking at Vasumathy’s ‘don’t- quite - understand’ look, Saroja explained. 'It’s Nestea mix, sugar and tea powder with lemon flavor. I used to take it in my brother’s place in LA, now Raja brought it from the airport, I believe. Nice taste”. When Sita got up to make ice tea, Saroja laughed and said,” Take your time, but make sure to put lots of ice in it, real hot nowadays, even with all the AC here. She then turned to Vasumathy and asked, “Ah, how’s Supriya’s music learning going on? Actually, it’s Raja, who’s keen on her learning music, Sita’s not all that interested. Raja told me that you are very good, related to Partha Sarathy Iyengar, right?”
““Yes, Maami, Vasumathy replied, he was my Periyappa. My Appa too used to sing well, though he was not famous like Periyappa, I learnt music from Appa. In my house only Arun is interested. Very strange, my daughter, Harini is like her father! No ear for music, what to do?! Arun enjoys good music and luckily, he now has an Iyer friend, Narayanan, so they listen to cassettes, watch Tamil films together. Arun said he'll join ‘Tamil Sangam’ an organization of South Indians, to celebrate Diwali, Pongal by organizing ‘kutcheris’ and Bharatanatyam programs.
Saroja shifted her sitting position, from leaning on chair back, to sitting on the edge of the seat, wiped her forehead with her sari palu, gave an ear-to-ear grin again, before she resumed her talk. “How nice to hear that, now a days the youngsters are all after western... what's that... uh... Popu, Pop or mom or whatever – the horrible, ear-piercing cacophony, even here, in Chennai. So, to say that son is unpolluted by his move, is something real great...Nee koduthu vechavaa.”
She paused and then lowered her voice slight, and asked, “How old is Arun? Don’t you want to get him married, now that he’s very nicely settled?” This was quite a surprise for Vasumathy, who still thought of her Arun as the same, quiet, shy boy, answering in monosyllables and afraid of everyone except her. In her attempt to cherish the happy memories of her beloved son, she forgot to notice that days, months, why... two years swished past her with such bluntness and
her son’s now old enough to get married. But, at that thought, somehow, a sense of discomfort gnawed at her. As though reading her thoughts, Saroja said, “Look, Vasumathy, it’s difficult for us, mothers, to admit even to ourselves, that our children are growing so fast. That’s because they’re a part of us. We’re so full of memories, fresh memories, of their trusting, dependent
relationship with us, for so long, that we fail to see them as adults, ready to take charge of their lives. I’ve only one daughter who got married at 21, now has two daughters 14 and 12. She’s well past 40 now, still... when I stay with her in Bombay, on vacation, I’ll be on pins and needles, if she’s little late to come home from her work place. As a rule, all mothers are over protective and I strongly feel the real reason is, deep down we don’t want our children to outgrow us. Anyway, sorry for giving you a jolt, talking of Arun's marriage.” Vasumathy was ashamed that the clever lady sensed her discomfort and so, to cover it up, she laughed, fidgeted with her finger ring and said “No mami, I know, I know. Arun should get settled but as you said rightly, it’s difficult to believe that Arun’s of marriageable age now. Well, he’s going to be 25, we must start searching for a suitable girl, once he comes on leave, may be next year”
Meanwhile Sita arrived with a tray laden with glasses of iced tea and biscuits. While Sita was giving Vasumathy iced tea, Saroja explained for the benefit of Sita, “Sita, I was just telling Vasumathy that she should look for a suitable bride for Arun, now that he’s settled with a good job”
“We've to finish our duty, so that we can relax. Once Arun gets married, you'll have less worry about him. Someone to take care of him, Akka. Arun’s such a sweet boy. Everyone in this
locality talks so highly of him..very quiet, very simple. Supriya’s Appa always says Mama and Mami are so lucky. Really Mami, you're blessed with such a good son.” Vasumathy poured little iced tea to her throat taking care not to make her lips touch the cup, and then said, “Mami's right. It is time we think of a suitable girl for him. Only thing is that he should come on leave. He says he does not plan to come now. It may take another year at least.” Saroja was lost in thought for a moment. Then wiping the iced tea that had dribbled down her chin with her Kanchipuram sari pallu , she said with renewed enthusiasm, “Vasumathy, don’t mistake me, I am old..much older than you, naturally more experienced and exposed to the life in the west too”. She then lowered her voice to a whisper, “See these Vellakkaris, mean these White women, are quite dangerous, they hook our boys with their white skin and skimpy dresses, shameless leeches. Once hooked, our innocent boys are doomed forever. Poor things, I know many cases like that; I don’t know why, they're attracted to Indian men, like moth to flame, repulsive creatures. Disgusting! If the boy’s well placed, he has no escape from these women, who are out to trap them.”
Saroja was pleased to notice the fear in Vasumathy’s eyes. She gave a laugh before she continued, “I’m speaking from experience. My Periyappa’s son, Dr. Jagannathan was a great
scientist. When he got a chance to work abroad, he could not go, as my thaatha was dead
against it. Later after thaatha’s death, when he got a second chance, he grabbed it and settled into very high position in Newyork. I think, for about 6 months he was in touch with his people, sending letters, money etc. Slowly he stopped all that and finally informed that, he was getting married to one white girl Catherine, that too, after converting himself to Christianity. Imagine that! My periyappa and periyamma died broken hearted, their only son marrying a white, was too much. Nobody knows where Jaggu is now, but someone told me... Don’t know whether it’s just a rumour, that he divorced his American wife now living with a Japanese colleague. He doesn’t have issues I, believe. Anyway, a brilliant scientist lost his head to a White. To be frank, my Periyappa should be blamed. Jaggu was 26, when he went abroad. Could they not have got a proper lyengar girl for him? We can’t blame the boys, the sudden exposure to a totally different culture, may have disastrous consequences, that’s common sense.” Quite satisfied by the effect her lecture had on Vasumathy and Sita, Saroja took a biscuit, broke it with both hands and threw it inside her mouth, urging Vasumathy with her mouthful to take a biscuit, “Very nice, this too,Raja brought. The cookies are very tasty”. Vasumathy took one biscuit, broke and threw it in her mouth, suddenly she was reminded of Ranganathan reprimanding Arun for biting into bajjis like Sudras...
Poor boy, endured so much harassment by his Appa. Would the sudden exposure to the West, as this Mami said, make him do stupid things like that Jaggu? Arun is so innocent, won't set his eyes on any woman. But won't it make him more vulnerable to these Vellakkaris now?
“How do you like the cookies? Tasty, right?” Sita’s question brought Vasumathy back to reality. “Yes, very good,” Vasumathy said, looking at the biscuit in her hand, as though biscuit - breaking needed a lot of concentration. Meanwhile Saroja went on, “In America, they call biscuits, cookies, like they call vendakkai, okra, not ladies' finger and kathrikkai, eggplant not brinjal. Funny, isn’t it? Sita replied enthusiastically, “Yes, I remember your telling me how big the brinjals were, almost the size of footballs and just one kathrikkai was good enough to make poriyal for four people. You know, Vasumathy Mami, Sarojakka was in LA with her brother Raman for about 6 months. She likes the place very much, it seems. When I said Arun was going, Akka said it’s the best place for studies, career, sightseeing, etc... Akka please explain to mami. She’s always worried about Arun. As though waiting for this opportunity, Saroja narrated her experiences at Universal, Disney world and in her brother Raman’s house in Montana that had a garden with by roses, lime, guava surrounded by apple trees. Saroja, beaming with pride rattled on, how the Ramans brought up their only daughter, Lakshmi, with all traditional values. And how both Raman and Vasanthi, his wife, insisted on talking only Tamil at home. Vasumathy noticed that Saroja could talk non-stop, that too, interestingly. She liked the older lady with her quick wit, smartness, intelligence and narrative skill. She noticed that when Saroja talked, her huge diamond ear-studs flashed brilliantly and her nose ring, another cluster of diamonds with a tiny emerald in the middle looked like shining bees.
Vasumathy remembered that her mother had to part with her diamond earrings for her wedding because her father could not afford to buy a pair of diamond earrings for her, as is the tradition for a Brahmin marriage... Even until a couple of weeks ago, Vasumathy thought she would have to part with her diamonds when Harini would get married, But Ranganathan reminded her that once Arun got a job, he could afford 10 pairs like that with his pay for less than 2 months. Harini was just 16 and she had to wait at least 4 to 5 years for marriage, but now Saroja mami had put the bombshell that unless they got Arun married to a lyengar girl soon, he would be trapped by some white woman. That thought was really frightening, her losing Arun to some silly white woman.
“Mami, what are you thinking? Have some more cookies. Aren't they very tasty unlike our Indian stuff? Foreign is always foreign", Sita laughed.
“I’m so full mami. I think I must go. My Amma is here. She wants to talk to Arun on the phone, this weekend. So, she’s staying back for a couple of days with me”, said Vasumathy, sighing deeply.
Saroja was still clutching the envelope containing Arun’s pictures. She again opened it, examined each photograph, especially the one with Arun in a suit taken posing in front of his Toyota. She held it very close to her bespectacled eyes for a better vision. Then she put them back, one by one in the envelope, as though with great reluctance and handed it over to Vasumathy. After that, Saroja cleared her throat and said, “Vasumathy, hope you won't mistake me for being so frank. That’s my nature, I always speak my mind and get into soup too because of that. Hmnmmmm …. Can I ask you one thing? Till now, that idea didn't cross my mind but I just realized that my niece, Lakshmi is going to get her Residency, to be a doctor, just about 21 or 22. She stopped, her eyes darting between Vasumathy and Sita. Sita took the hint, laughed and said, “Oh, Akka, you want Arun for Lakshmi? Good idea, from, what I hear of Lakshmi, she’ll
be an ideal daughter in law for mami. Intelligent, good looking, religious, what do you say,
mami?” A quizzical expression flashed through Vasumathy’s face, but she managed to overcome that and said, “Mami, we're very ordinary people and I really don’t know how Arun or his Appa would react to it. Arun has a lot of commitments too; we depend on him to settle Harini. His Appa is going to retire next year. Apart from all that, we can’t bite more than
we could chew”. Gesturing towards Sita, Vasumathy continued, “Mami knows our condition,” and before she could say anything further, Saroja interrupted and said, “Come on Mami, if Arun has commitments, that’s all the more reason you should get him married, before he gets out of your control and makes stupid decisions. Even if it’s not Lakshmi, you've to start right now, your search for a suitable girl. Nowadays, there are marriage bureaus, advertisements, why...even internet, to get proper matches. But, if you know the girl or any of her family members personally, that would be much more reliable. Anyway, I was just thinking aloud, that's all. Further, what do you mean by biting more than you could chew, anyway? We are all the same, middleclass, not very rich and our wealth is here, just here,” Saroja with her index and middle finger tapped her head to show ‘brains’ Arun has lots of it, so does Lakshmi. Everything depends on God’s will. After all, who are we to decide, we can at the most be His instruments.”
Saroja looked towards ceiling to indicate God. Vasumathy was pleased, though the idea of Arun getting married to a doctor in LA did not quite sink into her brain. She wanted to run home and share the news with Amma. Thought of Amma, reminded her of Arun’s horoscope and told enthusiastically,” Arun has a powerful horoscope, it was cast by the famous Astrologer Desikachari, My Arun is made of that kingly material according to Desikachari, born to rule”, Vasumathy smiled coyly and continued, “Amma too, is good at horoscope, what's Lakshmi’s nakshatram, anyway?”
Saroja grinned “Lakshmi's star is Rohini. I have her horoscope too. In fact, Raman sent Lakshmi’s photograph, horoscope etc. for the marriage purpose, only a few months ago, but it never occurred to me to ask Sita about Arun. Ask Sita, though many times she talked about you, your family especially Arun, his going to Arizona, phone calls etc., that idea never struck me. That's why, for everything there’s something called TI M E, when time comes, everything happens, till then however you try nothing happens. I believe in Destiny. If Lakshmi is destined to marry Arun, it will happen. We can be only instrumental, anyway. I'll send the horoscope and photo this evening, consult your husband, Amma and the Astrologer and let’s see. I'm really sorry, talking all the time... forgot to hear a Deekshithar Keerthana. Sita and Raja have told me how nicely you sing. Really you are gifted. Anyone who could sing is Bhagavan’s favorite, poorvajanma sugrutham” Vasumathy was extremely pleased by the genuine praise and said, “I'll come again mami. Now that Amma’s at home alone, I have to leave. Otherwise, I’m free, why one, several keerthanas, I can sing for you! You should come to my house too. You should listen to Supriya- she has a melodious voice. If she practices, she can sing well, but lazy like all these modern generation girls! I'm so happy to meet you mami, hope everything turns out well”
Vasumathy grinned, taking a pinch of vermilion from the cute lotus shaped filigree container, offered to her by Sita, signifying the customary taking - leave among South Indian Brahmins.