I heaved my shoulder bag and peered through the grills of the gate. There was nobody in sight. This not how I had expected it to be, nor was this how I had known the place.
I opened the heavy gate. It creaked loudly as if in protest. Or maybe gate was just doubling up as an intruder alarm. Soon a lady came hurrying to the front yard. She wore a dark-colored nightgown pinched tightly to her underskirt at the waist. She had obviously been working in the backyard, probably washing clothes or tending to the garden.
“Ara,” she asked me, in Malayalam, my native tongue. It translates to ‘who are you’.
“I’m Manu,” I said and added “Rani’s son,” to make things clearer. I knew from the various conversations I’ve had with my mother that she is the full-time caretaker of the house and home nurse to my grandmother.
“Hmm…come along,” she said after a moment and I followed her.
‘Where is grandmother?” I asked.
“She is sleeping now” came back the curt reply.
“Are you Ammini chechi?” I ask, trying to strike up a conversation.
“Yes, so you already know” she retorts back, not in a friendly tone.
I decide it is best to keep my mouth shut and just follow her to where she’s leading me. I estimate that she knows as much about me, or at least my mother, as I know about her. I’ve heard stories of her spying information to the various factions of my feuding uncles and aunts. And I’ve also heard how she sells of some of the house’s antiques without anybody knowing to make an extra buck.
She reminded me of those house helps you find in Indian movies and TV soap operas, running the house for a weak matriarch and looking at ways to increase her influence, power, and stature within the household. How dependent my grandmother, who I once upon a time referred to as ‘iron lady’, was at the whims of this lady, I wondered.
Ammini chechi took me to a room upstairs in the outhouse building. The outhouse now had a totally new look compared to the garage cum one upstairs bedroom that I remembered. It now had four single bedrooms on the top floor and probably was converted to a 2BHK on the ground floor.
I was still looking around the room when I realized that I had to thank Ammini chechi for getting me here. But she was gone by then. Not a question of whether I had eaten anything or whether I wanted anything else was asked.
I remember coming to ‘grandma house’, as we children – my cousins and me – used to call it and getting pampered by the then house maids with snacks and lavish meals. I was no longer a child. I was an adult, full of 30 years, and Ammini chechi did feel that I didn’t need to be pampered anymore.
I quickly washed myself and wore a new pair of clothes, more comfortable for the sweaty climate conditions and for home. I sat down on the bed, contemplating and rehearsing how I’ll meet and greet my relatives, some of whom I’ll be seeing and talking to after nearly half a dozen year.
But the whole place held so many memories that my thoughts were punctured by instances from the past. One face that came to haunt was that of Prema, my cousin.
I remembered the outhouse as an old garage or store room with a single bedroom room upstairs. It was small back then. There was just a stair and some space under the stair landing where all odds and ends were usually thrown about. It was a favorite and quite common place where we used to come to take cover while playing ‘hide and seek’. The dark room filled with all odds things – broken flower pots, used tube lights, metal wares, punctured car tyres, empty whisky bottles and more – provided a perfect place to camouflage yourself till soon the ‘denner’ discovered the hangout, and till the subsequent ‘denners’ understood it to be the most preferred hangout for his prey and directly came searching for his prey there.
It was also here that once while playing hide and seek, me and Prema came physically close, more than once. Prema was my third aunt’s elder daughter and almost five years younger than me. We were probably hiding together or was there an attraction that started before, I couldn’t remember. We anyway came often to this small and dark room, most time when then larger group played hide and seek. And we used to sit together close by, exploring our bodies. She was probably ten or eleven then and me around fifteen or sixteen. She was at the cusp of womanhood probably, her breasts forming slowly. I used to like putting my hand inside her t-shirt and touching her tender breasts and lifting her dress up to kiss them. She used to cling to me and we used to kiss passionately, on the lips, the same way actors did in the many English movies that we watched.
We were never caught and as time passed, the passion simply died down. We knew such behavior was unacceptable but somewhere continued with it, our young minds probably curious and adventurous. Thankfully, we were never caught or found out. And as we grew a few more years older, we met less often, our own studies and activities forcing us from coming to ‘grandma house’ often, and later own our meetings, if any that happened by chance, became very awkward.
She is married and with kids today, living at her in-law’s place in another part of India. And I’m in London, married, divorced, and without any issues. I wondered whether she would be here today. I was not sure whether I wanted to see her or not.
I tried to put those embarrassing memories from out of my mind, I slowly climbed down the stairs and walked towards the main house.
The large compound with its colorful bougainvillea looked bright in the summer mid-morning. The lone dog in the kennel was probably too old and tired of the heat.
As children we used to like hanging out all day during the holidays – heat or rain, no matter what. Climbing the large mango tree that still stayed defiant and proud in the front yard and could bear testimony to the rise and fall of many generations, bathing in the outdoor tank, swinging high up in the air, putting up tents and cooking rice and dal on small earthen pots were some of the memories that suddenly came flashing to my mind. We were 17 of us in total – children from my mother’s 8 siblings – and I wondered where all of them were today and what we all did. Did I just wish that I could grow smaller, younger again? But sadly, time only moves forward and does not have a reverse gear.
I was more of the shy type and had not maintained much contact with anyone. I wondered whether others were in touch, at least some of them should be, I shook my head.
As I entered the palatial house, whose door had been left unlocked, I saw my grandmother seated on her cane chair, staring at the emptiness. She smiled as she saw me and made an effort to get up. I hurried up to her, folded my hands in obeisance, the way we greeted her every time in the traditional Kerala Christian way.
“When did you come?” she asked, her head and tiny hands trembling due to Parkinson’s even as she spoke.
“An hour or so ago” I replied and sat down on the nearest sofa.
“Hasn’t anybody else come?” I asked, surprised that the house seemed so empty.
“It is at 3 pm, the registrar and lawyer will come only then. Everybody will come after having their lunch. Latha aunty is inside, sleeping. And George, has gone out for some work.” She said nonchalantly, referring to my eldest aunt and youngest uncle, who stayed in the ground floor of the outhouse building.
I looked around at the drawing room. It was almost the same as I could remember it. The built-in shelf with all the assortments – handmade things by uncle George, mementos received by grandmother during her tenure as teacher and headmistress, old antiquated show pieces – and more had always captured by attention. It was like being stuck in time, inside that tiny shelf.
The whole house and all its accessories seemed to hold many memories. How difficult it must be for my aunts and uncles to go through it, I thought, since their hearts probably held more years of memory than mine.
I looked at grandma. She hadn’t changed much since I last saw her, may be three years or so ago. But she was a far cry from her former formidable self, the one I had seen during my childhood and admired. Widowed when she was just 46 years old, she had raised her nine children and married them all well, even as she taught at the local school and retired from there as the headmistress.
True, grandfather, who had been construction contractor, had created more wealth than was needed for the family’s survival and money, probably, had never been much of an issue. But many of my uncles had gone astray, as I’ve heard from my mother and other aunts, plundering along a good portion of this wealth.
And it was for the division of the rest of property and wealth, that all of us was expected to come today. I was representing my mother, who had died four years ago, killed in a vehicle accident.
The clock ticked slowly, inching past the 12 O clock mark to progress into the afternoon. I hoped Ammini chechi would soon call us for lunch soon.
I continued looking at my grandma, even as she stared into the distance. The property division was muddled with disagreements between my different aunts, and uncles, and even my mother when she was alive. Some tried to grab a bigger share, trying to please grandma more, others voted for an equal distribution. The family was no longer as united as I had known it during my childhood when all my aunts and uncles would speak to each other for hours together on phone, often making me, my dad, and sister go mad. Money could make or break relations, is the conclusion that I reached, and that one should not create more wealth than necessary in a lifetime that their offspring will only end up bickering over it.
The many disputes, litigations, and dozens of wills written further deepened the lines of disconnect between by aunts and uncles, and their families. And grandmother was often stuck in the middle, her age not allowing her to take a stern decision and forcing her to be dependent on her children; whoever cared to come and help, she sided with them for the moment. These are all accounts I’ve heard from my mother, and I’m sure she must have been biased too.
Seeing the current state of helpless, despair, and loneliness of my grandmother, I wondered why at this age, despite having enormous wealth, grandmother wanted to live her son at this house rather than choose a lavish old age home. There was no dearth of luxurious living options for the old who had all the wealth and I wondered what prevented her taking such a step and showing herself to be stronger.
Old age is a tricky state, I concluded, where you become helplessly dependent on even those who cheat by living on you, just because you share the same blood, and once went through the pains of laboring them.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence and both me and grandma staring at each other or at the distance, lost for words or too tired for them, grandmother said, “You must be hungry.” “Ammini, is lunch ready?” she called out.
The maid came running to living room, “Yes, it is. Do you want it served here?”
“No, we’ll eat in the dining hall. Manu is also there. Wake Latha up too.”
There was an awkward meeting with my eldest aunt before we proceeded for lunch. She too had aged with time, widowed a few years before I left for London. I had not been able to attend the funeral then, being at Delhi for completing higher studies.
I had heard that she had gone into a depression after that and had to take medicines and other treatment. I wondered whether she was alright now.
“How is Keerthi and Kevin chettan doing?” I asked trying to strike up a conversation. They were my cousins, children of the aunt.
“Good, good” she murmured.
As when we sat in the living room, there wasn’t much conversation around the dining table as well. The maid had cooked fish curry, aviyal, and rice. Though a simple meal, I had not had Kerala style cooking for long and relished every bit of it, earning the disapproval of the cook as I asked for second and third helpings. I had to stop myself seeing her scorning face. I wanted to say it was an act of complimenting her cooking, but I think I was eating into her share and she couldn’t say it out aloud, as my grandmother kept insisting that my plate be refilled.
After lunch, grandmother went for a siesta leaving me and Latha aunty in the living room, now.
Unlike in the dining room, she spoke quite a bit now, Mostly, memories of yesteryears. And about, grandfather and how things would have been different of he had lived longer.
By 2:30 pm, others in the family started to trickle in. Uncle George, being the male member running the house came in a bit earlier. Though very formal, we chatted for a while, mostly on how work was, weather and other news in London.
I remember him as the jolliest of all my mother’s siblings. He used to buy us many chocolates and toys as well as gift us some of his own crafts. He had a very good aesthetic sense – creating various decoration pieces for Christmas, making greeting cards and artificial flowers, and more. He was the one who had decorated the stage for my marriage eight years ago.
His own children were grown up now, working odd jobs, and ready to be married off. But his own marriage was probably not that happy. Shama Aunty rarely came for any family functions nor talked with any of the family members unless we took the initiative. I didn’t enquire about any of them and kept the talk to London weather itself.
This youngest uncle of mine was the one who looked after grandmother and the house now. He had a small computer business and during my days in school and college, it was him whom we approached for quick anti-virus software, laptop formatting, and other computer services. Though we hoped for discounted prices, it was not always given especially since the business was run in partnership with somebody else. But for all those last-minute requests, we were sure to be accommodated.
Of late there have been many rumors (or maybe they are the truth) circulating in many of the family WhatsApp groups how he has misappropriated family wealth. One message even suggested that he had complete power of attorney over grandmother’s all activities and had clean-swept her bank account. Another suggested that he had sold some pieces of land in Ammachi’s name without consulting others and had in fact lost money through the sale.
He was also once bitten by a poisonous snake just outside the gate of the house. But by some miracle he had escaped death and only one of his toes had to amputated. His sisters had then told that it was God’s punishment for his misdoings, often done in such hushed secrecy and a veil of innocence that it rarely went noticed. After this incident he had become an ardent devotee of St. George, the Christian saint known to have killed Satan in the serpent form. Ironically, uncle was named after this saint. St. George is often depicted on a horse with his spear thrust into the mount of a serpent, killing it. And uncle George used to go visiting churches in St. George’s name, offering prayers and money.
But I guess his ways were rarely amended and he was the one today driving the initiative for the property division.
The next to arrive was my second eldest aunt, Jessy. She was one to whom I was closest and, on whose command, that I was here today. Retired as a school teacher, she is also my godmother. So that meant a special connection. No, that does not mean that I talked to her frequently. But every year on my birthday, she calls to wish me and I, in return, call her up for every Christmas and Easter.
I also think that she was closest to my mother as well. While they both shared striking physical similarity (more of my grandmother’s genes that grandfather’s, I think), they also had the same wavelength of thoughts. She, like my mother and father, had risen the financial ranks by saving one coin at a time and living a life of prudence. This was unlike some of my other relatives who had been comfortable with the large wealth their business estates produced in the early years but had gone into debt and near bankruptcy lately.
I smiled as I saw her walk in. She grinned back and hugged me, asking me how I was. And pressed a five hundred rupee note into my hand, like she would do for my birthdays as a gift when I was a child. “Not needed,” I started to protest, but she said, “Keep it. I know it’s not worth all your pounds but it’s still something, for all the missed birthday gifts. I couldn’t make you anything, didn’t get the time, and I’m getting old too.”
She was an excellent cook and made some great wines and churned out her own recipes. Her own children were both outside of the country, one in Australia and the other in South Africa. I knew that they too were doing well from the many Facebook posts that kept cropping up one my timeline.
Soon, others too arrived and there wasn’t much else I could talk with her.
As other members started dropping in, the group became larger and then there were many smaller groups talking to themselves. Most people started with a ‘Hi’, politely enquiring about England, the Queen, and Brexit, and expressing surprise that I had come. Sure, they hadn’t expected me to come to this family dispute, having not come home in the last three years and met many of them for several years.
The registrar and the lawyer walked in sharp at 3:00 pm. There were few pleasantries exchanged while tea was served and soon it was all business. Grandma’s last will was read out to show what her preferences were. There were barbs traded as some uncles and aunt’s questioned disproportionate distribution of shares. Others countered back saying that it was ‘Ammachi’s’ will and nobody could question it.
There were heated arguments, tears, and threats. The major issue was with the division of the palatial home and the half acre land along with it. It was a prime property and could fetch crores. The backwater running behind it only made the place more beautiful and attractive.
Many in the family wanted this property and were willing to give up their share of inheritance in other family properties to get this as a whole or at least in partnership with some of the like-minded others.
Calculations were made, barbs traded, and insults hurled. I was majorly a silent spectator. Often, someone took my mother’s name, sometimes to grab her share and at other times to add to hers, and of course theirs.
But for me, it was vastly and majorly an ugly family drama playing out, just like in the TV soap operas. At one point, I even wished I had not come and had just arranged for someone to be there with my power of attorney.
But it was also interesting to note how people’s behavior change when money is involved. Maybe as I grow older I too may become like that. But for now, the young blood in me was convinced that I still had a good number of years ahead to make a fortune for myself, with my own sweat and blood.
I observed how grandmother was mostly silent throughout the whole evening, talking only occasionally and that too not without much conviction or force, again something that I had never seen before.
The proceedings were almost over by seven in the evening. When I was called, I put my signature in the paper, where the lawyer asked me to, reading the contents very briefly to be sure that I was not committing any big blunder.
Some of the relations stayed back to have the ‘biriyani’ that was ordered, most others left for their abodes, disgruntled and disappointed by what they had received. There were talks of celebrating grandmother’s 92nd birthday next year, while some raised doubts whether it will be needed.
I quietly ate my share and retired to room on the top floor of the outhouse. I had a flight to catch early in the morning. I needed my sleep and my quiet to think, to sort my memories, and to try not to attach any ill-feeling to anybody. Or may be just to dream of those good old days, when I was still small and the world around me innocent and accommodating.
Aviyal: A Kerala dish made of many vegetables and coconut
Biriyani: An Indian dish
Chechi: A term used to address elderly people as sister
Chettan: Term used to address an older brother
Denner: The person in the ‘hide and seek’ game who tries to locate where others are hiding
Author’s Bio: Gitanjali Maria, resides in India, and loves trying her hand at weaving stories, poems, and essays in the time that she does not spend doing market research studies for a global IT firm. She has been published in websites, newspapers, and anthologies such as eFiction India issues, The New Indian Express, ‘Have a Safe Journey’, etc.