Sudhir Venugopalan

Drama Tragedy

4.6  

Sudhir Venugopalan

Drama Tragedy

Ashwathi

Ashwathi

4 mins
256


The month of April heralds summer in Pattambi. Once lush, green paddy fields become stunted and turn a dull brown. As the river Nila almost dries up, boatmen who eke out a living by ferrying people to the other bank look for work elsewhere. Dried leaves rustle in the hot summer breeze in the deserted kolaya of our ancient Menon tharavad. As elders take a nap in the hot, quiet afternoons, we children of the tharavad on our much celebrated summer vacation; down unripe mangoes to be cut and eaten with a mixture of chilli powder and salt. Jackfruits were in abundance - occupying the pride of place in curries, side dishes, chips and jams. At night, emergency lamps and lanterns light up households as load shedding is announced by the Kerala State Electricity Department. Men and women sweat, stick, curse and feel miserable.


Nalini Oppol was one amongst scores of Malayalee women whose husbands worked hard and lonely in the Gulf. They used to remit much of their hard earned money to their families back in Kerala trying to save as much as they can with parsimonious, cramped living. Then heavily months pregnant with her first child, she prayed and petitioned for telephone lines to be laid in Pattambi at a time when it used to take ten days for a handwritten letter to be delivered across the shores. For we kids, she was god send. She was emotionally part of our mischief and a pillar of support for our childish impishness. Children cozied up to her and she was the source of endless tiny supplies of salt, chillies, tamarind and the like for our little culinary experiments. The halcyon summer days with Nalini Oppol continued and one early morning the ambulance of Valluvanad hospital drove up to our muttam to carry a struggling Oppol, accompanied by our grandmother, parents, aunts and uncles. 'The doctor will now take the baby out' we exclaimed as we started making plans for the rest of the vacation - five mischievous boys and one baby.


It was a little after 8AM that the bundle of joy came out. My grandmother decided to call her Ashwathi after the star in which she was born. When the news was broken to us, we all could not wait to see Ashwathi. In the evening we were quietly ushered in to see the little one. As I thrust my index finger into that tiny palm, it closed tightly around it and the first friendship was stuck. However, though we were kids, we did not miss to see the countenance of the adults in the household. There were only blank faces, there was no joy. The ever smiling Nalini Oppol looked despondent and just stared at the baby and tried to smile weakly at us. The journey back from the hospital was an eerily quiet one only broken by some hushed whispers and the sound of the horn of the Ambassador. Once back in the tharavad, we tucked ourselves quietly to sleep. The next two days the vacation mood took over and all was forgotten.


Early morning on the third day in the hospital, Ashwathi suddenly developed fits. Her whole body turned pale blue. A tiny mouth gasped for breath. Nalini Oppol wailed in maternal desperation. A few moments later all was still. While mere mortals watched helplessly, heavens took back a precious gift. As the Ambassador brought back a woebegone Nalini Oppol to the tharavad, she hugged my grandmother and both the women cried inconsolably. Our elders knew that they knew what they knew. For the rest of the summer vacation, nobody spoke to each other. We kids looked stunned and lost our verve. The world outside, which was once full of opportunities for mischief, looked cruel and unforgiving.The despondent hangover of it continued even as the school reopened in June.It was a vacation that we all loved to forget.


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Decades on, amidst a corporate life of cut throat competition and stress, I visit Pattambi to visit my parents and to relax and rejuvenate myself.


Whenever I visit Pattambi, there are facets of it which have never changed over the years. It has its annual tryst with the monsoon which bathes the countryside with lush, impossible green. Our ancient tharavad still retains its ethnic grandeur and old world charm. Boats still ply in the Nila ferrying people to the other bank. Nubile Malayalee women with long, oily hair pray at the Thirumittacode temple for early marital bliss. Ayyappan vilakkus and Paanas are still held in the holy month of December. Tastefully caparisoned elephants are a lovely sight in the numerous utasavams. Hindus and Muslims together celebrate the Pattambi Nercha; yet another symbol of the state's religious harmony.


There are some that have changed irrevocably though. All those uncles and aunts have retired from their posts and live in Pattambi tending to roses, chrysanthemums and babysitting their grandchildren. Nalini Oppol now has two lovely college going children but the loss of the first one still haunts her at times. Three out of five mischievous cousins grew up to be engineers, one a media executive and another a successful entrepreneur. We as kids that fateful summer loved Ashwathi. But probably the Gods loved her more than us. For, as they say, the good die young.



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