Marymamma was a nurse in Saudi. She was forty when I first met her. For a twelve-year-old, forty is an unimaginable age. She was my Father's older sister, the one that was employed in Persia.
"Don't you want to see your mami?" My mother asked me while dressing me in the only frilled frock that I possessed handed down from a cousin that lived in Bombay. "Hurry up!" I remember her hissing as she dragged her heavy silk saree draped clumsily around her slender body up the steep newly tarred road to our ancestral home. The large white Ambassador in which she had come from the airport gleamed, reflecting the sparse monsoon sun on its windshield. I wanted to go over to the beast and pet it but the boys had already taken front row with Marymamma's sons Roby and Ronny shooing away cousins and neighbours. "It's ours, you can't touch it. I'll cut off your arms, pest!" I heard the boys warn the others, who despite the vicious threats palpated for its heart, still beating, its bonnet, still warm. I remember seeing an Ambassador recently though they stopped making the heavy vehicle decades ago, it was grunting and panting as the driver struggled to put it in reverse, like a large animal on the verge of extinction gasping for a final bout of air before it too would vanish entirely. My mother was clearly disappointed at herself (and me) because we hadn't arrived in time. The moist interiors were now humidified even more with swarming relatives, each fighting for his or her share of Marymamma's foreign goodies. The otherwise dull drawing room where Appachan usually sat squatted on the single piece of good furniture was now an abode of all things Gulf. Bright coloured T-shirts, chocolates, pistachios, pencils with rubber tips shaped like Mickey Mouse, frills and laces, chiffon sarees were now being tugged between relatives of ours that I had and had not seen. Appachan was still perched on his single sofa in a brand new Communist Red T-shirt and colourful lungi smoking foreign cigarettes on his black lips.
Marymamma was inside the guest bedroom, the stuffy little space with a bed and a large almirah. When we pushed our way past aunts and uncles into her room, we were greeted by the hateful pairs of eyes of Lucymamma, Sallymamma and all the other mammas who were in the same blood line position as my mother. The wives of Marymamma's brothers. "Marymamma!" my mother ran to hug the woman seated with her legs folded like a yogi surrounded by her disciples. "My dear Minikutty! Where have you been, you silly girl", boomed Marymamma reaching out for my mother. I still remember how surprised I was at seeing a grown woman in a churidar. I had one, a yellow churidar with blue bottoms, which I wore occasionally to weddings and baptisms. Women of our town had later gossiped, "How can you wear a churidar in your forties? It doesn't even look good on her" I disagreed, though silently inside my head, in a hushed child voice. I found her to be the most beautiful creature that ever existed. But the churidar was not the reason for my admiration. It was her, her large khol lined eyes, coffee brown hair as soft as silk, skin that glowed with cosmetics, and lipstick, dark red lipstick. The last time I had seen a lipstick that dark was on Nadiya Maidu, the smarter than smart dusky skinned beauty from Bombay that played the hard to tame heroine in most films in the eighties. I had never before seen that shade of red. Not on women, not on flowers, not on anything natural. It was the most unnatural of colours, the devilish red of rich blood. My mother, fought her way through distant relatives to claim her rightful position right next to my aunt, blocking Sallymamma’s view completely. Sallymamma grumbled while my mother after her joyful hugs and kisses introduced me, ‘You remember Alphy, Mary?’
It is then that she saw me, almost camouflaged behind carton boxes my size with the words DMM-COK written in bold marker across it. I figured that I could easily fit into one of those boxes, being the least valuable of commodities in them.
“My good God, how much you’ve grown, my Alphy kunje!” her shrill laugh echoed not off walls, but by my aunties joining in, almost imitating her loud careless laughter. Almost. They wouldn’t open their mouths so wide. It was unwomanly thing to do back then but nowadays I see actresses caught in such erratic poses in magazines with their pretty mouth wide open, tilted heads and flowing hair. Back then, we were trained to laugh with limits, so much so that I'm sure we anatomically couldn't open our mouths the way Marymamma could. You must always cover your laughter with your hand when you laugh, if you really must laugh, my ammachi had warned, and besides you have crooked teeth. No matter how old I am or what century I live in, I still do.
“Oh, that’s fine, she’s a girl in her growing age, she’d just outgrow anything you get her” Lucymamma chirped in balancing herself on a low stool, that made her seem like she was squatting to defecate, ‘My Lilly mol, however, has come of age, she could do with some nice cloth material’
“Who wants clothes anyway” my mother interrupted, "What she needs is something her aunt gives with all her love, that she can’t outgrow." My mother had a way with words, so contrived and twisted that it took a while for her less intelligent rivals in war to figure out what she meant.
“Come here Alphy kunje”, Marymamma called out, and I moved like a snake slithering between all the heavy woman and foreign goods to the touch the soft hands of my aunt, her scent so strong with perfume that it made me dizzy. Like a little prey in the clutches of a hypnotizing snake, I stood eyes glued to her dark red lips.
“You are such a beautiful little thing” she laughed again, so loud I believe, Chandychayan from Elanthoor junction who sold lemon candy could have heard her, if he were Sober that is, “But I don’t have dresses of your size, my dear girl” she frowned, her lips now doing an upside down smile, “Let me get you some -chocolates, and pisthas” she said digging into a carton that had its top ripped open and its entrails nearly scooped out. She placed a plastic tin of pistachios and a bag of chocolates into my twig like arms and I hugged them with all my life.
"Ennalum ente Alpkhykunje" she said, "I cannot believe I didn’t get you anything special. What shall I give you? Entha njan tharunne?"
"That’s fine, Mary, I think its best you save up some gold for her wedding" my mother suggested laughing, half-joking half –not. No body laughed with her.
“Of course!" Marymamma smiled looking into my eyes, “For your wedding, dear, you will wear a twenty pawan necklace your aunt bought you. But for now” she looked around the room and pulled her vanity bag from behind the bed, “ Here” from it, she pulled out a bright green multi coloured cloth purse that looked like a parrot had been skinned to make it. “This is for you” I unzipped it and basked under the scent of foreign cosmetics. “You can use it to put your pencils and crayons in” she whispered. I didn’t know what crayons were. But I still use this purse.
“Twenty pawan necklace” my mother paraphrased so as to let everyone sitting there bear witness to the promise “You lucky girl, Alphy!”
During the next few weeks we visited her several times and even went to the airport to send her off. My mother actually cried, surprising even my father.
I hadn’t seen Marymamma in several years though she remained an ever-present entity in our dinner conversations. Over bowls of fish curry and rice, my parents discussed her family affairs -She works so hard, they bought a house, she hasn’t visited in nearly ten years now, tickets are expensive. Babychachan is wasting all her money, the boys are reckless. Why did he go buy that rubber plantation, what was the necessity? Rony bought a Bullet Bike, isn’t he too young? It’s around two lakhs? Two lakh rupees for a bike?
I lost the thread of their family drama when I moved to the hostel to study Nursing. Even though the college was only a twenty-minute bus ride from my home, the management of the Malankara Catholic Medical College insisted we stayed with them. The girls will be more committed to their education. I doubted that it was a trick to obtain additional income from the students. I was wrong; it was to have unpaid staff for the night shifts in the training hospital. I was better at Math but my parents had decided that Engineering provided less of a future as opposed to Nursing. You could go abroad, like your aunt. By then, many of my scrawny cousins had settled themselves in foreign lands, earning in lakhs, living the life. I despite having been a disaster at the simple nursing care tasks, managed to get through each year, making the ends on my ‘Procedure Book’ meet. One such afternoon, having spent hours cleaning dark greenish stool the consistency of jelly off the old lady who produced them, made a call to my mother from the college pay phone to tell her that I was tired and wanted to come home, "Alphy!' she yelped ignoring my fatigue, "Your mami is back!”
“Who else? Marymamma. Come home this weekend, we need to go see her. Remember, how she promised to buy you a twenty pawan necklace for your wedding. If we consider time value of money, she should get us even more pawans”
“Maybe next month, amma, I don’t have any more leaves this month”
Even though I studied at a reputed nursing college in Central Kerala, student life wasn’t particularly better than of those that studied in nursing colleges in Andhra and Tamil Nadu that had cows shed for classrooms and certificates from non-existent hospitals. We were allowed a limited number of days to visit our families and limited number of hours that they could visit us on Sundays.
“Poor Mary” my mother sighed as she chomped down fried bananas while she was sitting with me on a Sunday. “It seems her sons are both ignoring her claiming she didn’t come home for years.”
“Bastards, no love yet absolutely no shame in spending my sister’s money”, my father growled.
“Oh Sunnychaya! Mind your language.”
I was only partly listening, partly waiting for them to leave to go back to sleep.
“The boys are saying she was enjoying herself in Saudi while they lived here.”
“Let’s suppose the children don’t know the hardships she faced, toiling away in that god forsaken desert of a country, Babychayan should know. Even he is uncaring it seems.”
My father nodded in agreement, “Eat, dear”, he held out the oily fry in his dark stained hands.
“There is a God watching above. Let them know that.”
“Let us pray”, my mother abruptly burst into a Pentecostal prayer annoying the Catholic nun that eyed us from behind the Malayala Manorama newpaper.
One weekend, when Mahanavami closed in with Muharam, and three beautiful days aligned in red on our college calendar, I went home. That weekend we went to see Marymamma.
Her house was different from the one I had visited a few years back, renovations had been done, it seemed larger, fairer, brighter like a woman in the Fair and Lovely ad in the after column. But at the door, stood Marymamma, tinier, darker and unrecognizable. Tiny brown dots littered her once flawless skin; her silky coffee brown hair was now a duller version of itself stained with red henna, her large watery eyes now sunken in two deep craters like holes in her thin face. There was no red lipstick.
“Alphy kunje!”, she shouted her loud and booming voice scaring perched crows on the mango trees, “What a big girl you’ve become! Beautiful thing you are!” her cheerful lies still loud enough for Chandychayan from the junction to hear, if he were alive, that is.
She hugged me and kissed the top of my head. I smiled and remembered how much I had liked her.
“More beef?” she said as she poured out beef curry from the bowl and splashed it onto my plate during lunch later that day, “Gowriamme, give my little girl some more Bitter gourd”
“No thank you”
“Where are the boys?” my mother probed.
“The Boys and their father are out on a trip to Munnar. They like trips” she did not meet our eyes, instead she talked to the bowls of curry.
I eyed my mother to say something to crack the hurtful silence “So Mary,” my mother said, “Excellent cooking here”
“I don’t cook, it’s all Gowriamma” she laughed all jolly again, “Gowriamma, did you hear, our guests love the food”
Gowriamma giggled coyly as though she was being wooed by men, covering her large stained teeth with her dark fingers that looked like long brown twigs.
“I, however, keep myself engaged all day, in my special project”
“Have lunch. I will show you” Marymamma and Gowriamma giggled like two little girls that shared secret knowledge of a crush.
After lunch, we were taken into the backyard where we both gawked at a large structure that looked like a small house on pipes.
“That my dear sister in law, is my goat shed” she called out, “Come”
We walked to it through the coconut farm and the goat shed was larger than it appeared initially. The pipes that held the shed was well over ten feet. The walls were made from weld mesh and pipes.
“You see this support here, is made from GI pipes. The roof is all Aluminum. A boy from Thiruvalla helped my do it. The floor is made from coconut trunks, they have spaces in between, this way they are free from diseases since their feces fall below. See that? The food and water are put in pipes cut in half and fit along the walls. The goats stay clean and are well fed”
“You have goats in there?” I asked
“Do I? I have pure Malabaris up there” She laughed, “Come on” She led us up a rigid wooden staircase to a veranda of coconut wood flooring, and I could see a mother goat and three kids in the shed through the mesh. “Meet Kunjamini and her girls, Kunju and Kunji.” she announced them like characters from a play. The goat kids sprung up and down as if their hoofs were fitted with springs. Marymamma unlocked the cage and walked in, they ran to her and she hugged them as they fought for her attention. The mother goat was white with large brown ears that hung by her face. The kids were both pale brown. I walked in welcomed by the smell of goat shit and newly cut grass that hung in a chunk from the ceiling.
“So, Mary” my mother interrupted from the door refusing to step inside, “Alphy is twenty now, maybe we should start looking for a groom eh?” I could feel the impatience in my mother grow with every passing minute. But she had lost her by now. Marymamma was in a separate world with her goats, “Alphy! Do you know Jesus was born in a cow shed?”
I was reminded of something father Kuriakose had taught in Sunday school but guessed that it was probably not the answer she was looking for.
“Because animals have more love than humans” she answered her own question.
I watched her as she sat down on the wood floor with one of the babies on her lap, “He made a mistake though” she laughed again, “he chose the wrong animal” her careless laughter was sent out into the warm shed air with no hands to cover her mouth, the goats tuned in, and they all laughed at the private joke they shared.
I hadn’t heard about Marymamma for weeks since that day and I went on with my ward duties, each day more tiring than the one before. More shit, more blood and more pain. It was strange but one evening midway while trying to complete an assignment in the library I looked up goats in the search engine on the college computer. I stared at the images for a good while before closing the tab.
One bright sunny afternoon my mother gave me the last bit of news that I would ever hear about her while I clung onto the yellow payphone with metal cords, “Alphy, Marymamma died yesterday. She killed herself. She was found dead in the goat shed”
Her funeral was on a Monday and I couldn’t go, I had already used up my two leaves allotted for deaths in family. I imagined her funeral, her body in an intricately carved ebony coffin in a large white home, attended by an ungrateful husband, disinterested sons, disappointed sister in laws and three sad goats.
That night she came to me in a dream, a larger heavier version of her, booming and towering, standing in the goat shed surrounded by dozens of goats, each fighting to get closer to her, and she, laughing at a joke I hadn’t heard in all the bleat of the goats, or hadn’t understood perhaps.
“Enallum ente Alphy kunje!” she called out, “Njan entha tharunne? What shall I give you?” she laughed again, louder, her lips glistening in dark red lipstick.