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Aatha’s Pongal

Every Pongal, I remember a courageous patient of mine who had suffered second degree burns during the festival some years ago. Aatha, as she is affectionately known, is the pivot of her large and lively household. Widowed young, she raised her two sons working as a maid in affluent flats around her mud hut in the fisherfolk community of the Marina beach.

Her sons were bright young boys who went on to work in government offices with jobs that gave their families a steady income and a sense of security. Though she could have retired into a life of ease when her sons started earning, Aatha never stopped working as she was treated as a loved and respected member of the families that employed her.

Every Pongal, she takes her daughters-in-law and grandchildren — three girls and a boy — shopping in T. Nagar for new clothes, trinkets, shoes, fruit and sugar cane. On the morning of Pongal, the family would gather around a wood fire under an open sky, cooking rice in a new earthenware pot. As the sweetened rice porridge bubbled up and spilled over the wide mouth of the pot, the family members standing around in their new clothes and finery raise their hands in salutation to the sun and call "Pongal-o-Pongal".

For Aatha, that fateful Pongal morning started like any other. The daughters-in-law had drawn a festive kolam to decorate the mud path in front of the front door. Stuck to the posts on either side of the door were a couple of knobbly sugar cane stems with their tall blades wafting in the cool breeze.

The children were bathed and dressed in new clothes for prayer and puja. The men had set up a makeshift hearth in the backyard with bricks. The rice mixed with moong dal, jaggery and ghee was being cooked.

The pongal cooked to perfection threatened to overflow when Aatha turned to pick up fried cashew nuts, slipped and landed in the hot porridge. Everything happened in a split second and everyone watched in horror as her heart-rending screams filled the air. Taking her out of the pot, the sons rolled her on the floor to douse the flames while their wives ran into the house to get cold water in buckets. The petrified children huddled in tears as they watched their beloved Aatha writhe in pain.

She was brought to hospital in a high-end car driven by one of her employers who paid the hefty advance and signed an affidavit to pay the bill for her hospital stay and treatment. Bundled in blankets, she was laid on the examination bed and I gasped in silent horror seeing the burns. Aatha, by then, was exhausted and in shock, not caring if she lived or died. The fabric that stuck to her was removed in the operation theatre under anaesthesia and she lay on her chest under a burns cradle for almost three months, while we nursed her back under antibiotic cover for a skin graft.

Cheerful in pain

I used to dread going in to do her dressings. Aatha would smile and say in Tamil, "Have you come?" She was such a good patient. She had an extremely high tolerance for pain and it was she who gave me the courage to soak and peel off her old dressings. She would grip the sides of the hospital bed and call out to all the gods she worshipped when the procedure became painful. Not once did she flail her arms at me, abuse me, or question her fate. She bore her suffering stoically with a quiet acceptance. It was heart-breaking. But she persisted with her positive attitude and walked out of hospital, dignified, reconstructed and mobile again.

We kept in touch for many years when she used to come to see me in the clinic sporadically, never empty-handed, but always carrying some fruit or sweets. I would mock-scold her and ask her if she thought I was not fat enough. We would laugh and she would tell me her news and show me pictures of her grandchildren who had grown into teenagers. I lost touch with her when we moved out of Chennai but I never forgot her. I remember her every Pongal morning. If she is still alive, I think she will remember me too wherever she is.

doctorsusiesamuel@gmail.com

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 3:12:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/aathas-pongal/article33642574.ece

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