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Laid low by a dear rooster

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The touching tale of a visiting granny and her handy aide with a brood

 

‘Mhow Granny’ was my mother's mother and she lived in Mhow, a cantonment area in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. As she was paralysed on her left side she used a walking stick to walk about and manage her house staff. Granny was an intelligent, witty and a very alert elderly woman. And we are told she was very good with numbers. When she came to stay with us, a lady who looked almost the same age as granny was employed to assist her. Her name was Chellamma. Soon she became Mhow Granny's confidante and Woman Friday.  

Chellamma had long silver hair that was tightly secured in a bun, fair waxy skin with deep wrinkles, a few green tattooed dots on her temples and chin and some hazy designs on her arms. She walked briskly and her anklets had a distinct clank. She had the sharpest tongue, and I was always a bit wary of her. The lobes of her ears had stretched till her shoulders under the weight of the heavy earrings she wore. I would get the shivers even looking at them. 

Chellamma, her son and his new bride came to live in the massive garage of our railway bungalow. While Chellamma helped granny with the daily routine, her son would do sundry jobs and his new bride Lakshmi would sit on a small wooden stool in front of the garage, which mildly smelled of the cow dung they had plastered on the ground, keeping an eye on her mother-in-law’s brood of hens and a rooster as the neighbourhood dog Bullu always looked interested in them. Lakshmi would be crocheting all the time. She crocheted banians for her husband. 

I was always intrigued by the activities of the two elderly women. They counted colourful pills that came in assorted sizes, over and over again, then they were bottled and then put in a box in the cupboard. Granny would interrogate Chellamma’s son about the bill and calculate the change and reprimand him for something or the other. She would then write her accounts in one of the many books that were in a cotton bag that accompanied her wherever she went. The little bag had prayer books, some family photographs and a rosary. No one was allowed to touch it. Granny and Chellamma would talk non-stop and argue often. And invariably they would both fall asleep sunning themselves, granny on her chair, a shawl covering her legs, her walking stick balancing on one side, and Chellamma on the floor next to her with her long silver hair cascading down her shoulders. 

I had to tiptoe around them both as I was subjected to a lot of rough physical affection: my cheeks were pulled, my hair was ruffled, kisses were planted generously and I was held on to tightly by granny with her right hand. They had some strength in them. The two old women would converse in Telugu, looking at me and smiling at each other, and I knew it must have been something about me. Granny called me bangaru bomma, golden doll in Telugu. That was all I could understand. 

I distinctly remember the day when, while playing during the break I fell down on the school ground, and both my knees were scrapped to the bone. That evening my eldest sister along with Chellamma’s son took me to the railway hospital. I was scared. And after the doctor had a look at my wounds he scribbled some notes on a piece of paper and I was taken to the dressing room. The nurse there read the slip and disappeared behind the partition, and soon came out holding what was a massive and mean-looking syringe. All I did was jump down from the bed and run. I ran down the hospital corridors which wrapped around a garden. The compounder and nurse were chasing me, yelling, saab ka baby ko pakado. In those days all railway officers’ kids were referred to as Baby or Baba, whatever their age.  

I was eventually caught by the duo. I screamed and kicked and cried while getting the tetanus injection, and my wounds were cleaned and bandaged. It hurt, and I was exhausted, sad and angry. What hurt even more was Chellamma’s son narrating the whole tale to his mother, my mother and granny. He added some bits and pieces to spice up the story even more. I can still remember them teasing me, laughing every time they saw me. This happened for what seemed like days. 

Chellamma would be in and out of the house. The clanking of her anklets let us know of her arrival, whereabouts and departure. She would be with granny in the mornings getting her ready, helping her with breakfast and giving her medicines. She would scold the physiotherapist if granny felt any pain while exercising. And periodically shouted at her daughter-in-law from our drawing room window to keep an eye on her brood. She was always worried about her rooster. She loved it. It was huge and colourful. Its feathers shone under the sun. It was always pecking around for worms in our front lawn and then would perch itself on the small concrete pillar which had a tap near the badminton post in the front lawn. In the evenings, while all the hens were cajoled under baskets which were then covered with a cloth, Chellamma sat on the floor, leaning on the garage wall, her legs stretched out in front holding the rooster in her lap. She would caress and pat it as if it was her child. This was the only time I didn't feel threatened by her.  

One afternoon the rooster went missing. Chellamma was distraught. We could hear her calling out till late that night, searching for it in the woody bushes beyond our fenced premises. She didn’t turn up for work the next morning, and her son said she had had neither food nor water. We could hear her crying the whole day and calling her rooster, calling out to her beloved rooster to come home.  

The next day when everyone was napping after lunch, we were awoken by Chellamma’s wailing. We rushed out to see Chellamma perched on the little concrete pillar in the lawn, her rooster’s favourite spot. Her eyes were red and moist, her face was dusty and tears had left marks where they had flowed. Her silver mane was open and dishevelled and she looked a hundred years old. Her cries were heart-rending. She held out a bunch of feathers. Her rooster had obviously become a meal. Whether it was Bullu or some other neighbourhood rascal, we never came to know. 

Chellamma was not herself after that. Whom I once feared was now someone I felt very sad for. I never got in her way and even if I did, it did not bother her. A few weeks later Mhow Granny had to return back to Mhow. After that Chellamma stopped working and only used to sit quietly the whole day with her back to the garage wall and her legs stretched in front of her, as the hens pecked around the front lawn, Bullu was somewhere in the neighbourhood and Lakshmi as before continued to sit on the small wooden stool in front of the garage and crotchet banians for her husband. 

isha29val@gmail.com 

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 6:35:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/laid-low-by-a-dear-rooster/article22267002.ece

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