Chapter – 20
Father’s marriage procession was pompous. The timber merchant did not spare anything for showing off his pomp. A pageantry accompanied the marriage procession. There was also a singing troop. In the evening, at the courtyard of our home, toddy bottles popped up with sour-sweet effervescence.
Grandma and aunts did not remain long for the celebrations. They must have felt alienated before the disdainful pomp of the timber merchant. My brother and sister were sitting in a corner, watching all the strange things. Sister was all dazed by the flamboyance of her ‘new’ mother. Her eyes were fixed on her gorgeous purple saree. I was standing in the verandah. I had curled my lips into my mouth as an expression of disapproval for everything that was taking place.
Father approached me. He smelt toddy.
“Look, Chandi…see what I have brought for you…” He put his hands on my shoulder and said. Then he held close the timber merchant’s daughter to him and said, “A new mother for you… for all three of you…”
I looked straight into my stepmother’s face. It was for the first time I was seeing her. She was fairer than my mother, and chubbier. She had an air of haughtiness in her face and expression. She smiled, but it was never tender as my mother’s.
Then, I thought of the words of my aunt. I thought of my mother’s miseries. All my indignation and sorrow burst out into a yell: “No! This is not my mother. My mother is dead…This is not my mother!”
Suddenly, the whole celebration and singing came to an abrupt halt. Everybody present there for the party was startled. All stared at me. I saw the fair face of my stepmother turning dark in humiliation and anger. Father lifted his hand to beat me. But someone held his hand, and tried to pacify him. “Don’t take it serious, Thomacha. He is only a child…It will take time for him to accept her…” It was Geevarghese. Then he waved my brother and sister close to my father and stepmother. Frightened, they came timidly and stood close to stepmother. The singing restarted. Laughs burst out again. Toddy bottles popped up again…
I went inside my home and got into my bed, covered all my body from head to feet with my bed sheet, and closed my eyes and ears to everything outside. Soon I fell asleep into a dream where waves of strangled breaths lulled me!
My life changed all of a sudden. My eventides and my nights became lonelier than ever. I yearned for my mother’s presence and warmth. I painfully longed for my mother’s coughs and wheezing. I felt deep regret for every moment I had been irritated by her coughs which stole many a sleep from my nights.
My stepmother was a woman of a peculiar character. She did not know what it was to be human. She never understood other’s feelings, other’s minds. She judged everyone with the criterion of her own whims and fancies. And she loved to impose her own likes and ideas upon others. When she felt her words are not taken seriously, she turned hysteric and went wild. Lack of education and stubbornness together made her an unbearable witch.
She hated me more than every one else, because of what I did on her wedding night. I spent most of my time outside the house. She did not favour my studies. Whenever I was seen with my books in the home, she came barking at me and ordered to do some work instead of wasting my time on books. So, I had to shift my reading to the riverbanks, where the boughs of trees, an exceedingly bent trunk of a coconut palm or a bower served as an asylum for my thirst for knowledge.
The tiny thatched library room near by the market was another asylum. It was owned by the Parish Church, built by some farsighted missionary priest from Europe. It was from that library I got acquainted with the distant worlds and cultures, which ignited my desire to travel and see places. However, my stepmother’s aversion for me kept me out of my house most of my days. Thus, I was exposed to the world outside more than before. I was slowly learning to fly!
After returning from the classes, I went to my father’s shop and did some works there. Most often I was entrusted with packing things for the customers. It was in one of those eventides that I met Ammu once again.
One day, she came to the shop accompanying her grandpa, Velappan, who had come there with sacks full of paddy. Ammu smiled at me when she saw me. Her glances sparkled. I too tried to smile, but I think it was awkward because of my inner agitation. The shop was crowded with customers, and I was busy with packing. My heart yearned to go near Ammu and speak to her. Each time I was about to go to her, some customer came and ordered things. I felt miserable. Ammu was standing there with all smiles. Did she mean to tell me something? Did she feel the same as me? I packed things in a hurry, no, in a frenzy to be frank! Finally, I took a deep breath when the final customer had gone. In great relief, I sneaked out of the shop to meet Ammu.
Her canoe had moved away from the shore. Velappan, who oared the canoe, said something to me. But, I did not hear it. I was looking at Ammu, who was waving her hand at me, bidding good bye. As I stood lost on the shore in front of the shop, Ammu’s canoe moved away from my sight.
(to be continued…)