Continued from here:
Summer had arrived. By seven in the morning the sun, cruel and harsh-yellow, was already beating down hard. Cool, dewy early mornings had become hot, dusty early mornings. The parched, cracked road sent up waves of heat, which wrapped itself around everything, along with a gritty coating of its constant companion, dust. Water became scarce, and on many days, all that came out of the taps were a hollow, gurgling sound and a few drops of murky brown liquid. Dhanam was in a foul temper all the time, and banged around the apartment muttering under her breath. Palani dragged himself around the scorched streets, his cart bearing wilted greens and shriveled tomatoes, his voice hoarse and tired from calling out his wares. Even Aunt Lakshmi took to spending her day lying down spread-eagled on her bed, fanning herself with the day’s petroleum-scented newspaper. Only gentle Sumi remained soft and calm as ever. She made cool lemon drinks for Dhanam and Palani, even slipping in an ice-cube if Aunt Lakshmi was not looking. In the afternoon, while Aunt Lakshmi talked sleepily about her grandfather's pet buffalo and her sister's daughter-in-law who tried to fool everyone by using an instant-idli mix and passing it off for the real thing, she pressed a cool, damp towel to her forehead and massaged her feet.
The steady monotony of this life was broken one day, when there came in the post an invitation for a wedding. Aunt Lakshmi's daughter-in-law's sister was getting married in Bombay three weeks later. The envelope was addressed to Sumi and her husband. Nowhere was Aunt Lakshmi mentioned, nor was there a separate invitation for her. Not inviting Aunt Lakshmi was like slapping her across the face in broad daylight, in full view of everyone. An insult of epic proportions.
Sumi, who hated confrontations and unpleasantness of any kind, was distressed by the many implications of the situation. She could not ignore the invitation and not tell Aunt Lakshmi about it. If she did tell Aunt Lakshmi, God alone knew what her reaction would be. What ever it was, it would not be a pretty sight. Various “how will Aunt Lakshmi react when I tell her about the wedding” scenarios played through Sumi's mind. In all the scenes brought to life by Sumi’s vivid imagination, the time was just after lunch, Aunt Lakshmi's best time of the day. Pleasantly full after a good lunch cooked by a well-retrained Dhanam, anticipation of an afternoon of rosy-hued reminiscences while resting on the sofa, with the curtains drawn against the harsh afternoon sun, the ceiling fan creaking and rattling gently, always put Aunt Lakshmi into a mellow mood.
Imagined scenario one: Aunt Lakshmi lying down on the sofa, Sumi at her feet, pressing them. Sumi, timidly clearing her throat, speaking in a fake-cheery tone of having just remembered something. "Oh, Aunt Lakshmi!!!! I just remembered!!! Guess what, Malini, your daughter-in-law's sister is getting married!! Finally! (her tone of fake cheer getting less fake and less cheery, a note of nervous doubt creeping in, in anticipation of Aunt Lakshmi's response). Aunt Lakshmi, her air of sleepy languor vanishing in a snap, bellowing in army-sergeant style: "What do you mean she is getting married?? Where is the invitation? When did it come? Nothing for me? That Kanakambal, that she-devil mother of that she-devil wife of my useless son, she has dared to insult me like this?" Much more along these lines, with every remote living relative in Kanakambal's far-flung clan and all her ancestors cursed with the worst possible fates in their next lives..... scenario ends with Aunt Lakshmi's blood pressure reaching dangerous heights and her being rushed to the hospital.
Imagined scenario two: Aunt Lakshmi lying down on the sofa, Sumi at her feet, pressing them. Sumi, trying to speak in a normal voice, clearing her throat frequently to keep her courage up. "Aunt Lakshmi, I think the postal system is really going downhill. I got this invitation to Malini's wedding, but somehow your invitation has not come. (Nervous laugh, following by throat-clearing). Just yesterday Kannan was telling me that there was a report about (throat clearing) the postal system put out by (throat clearing), er, ... Aunt Lakshmi, sitting bolt upright, shrill voice in crescendo: "What nonsense are you talking about the postal system? It is perfectly fine. This is an insult to me and my name. That ungrateful Kanakambal, her daughter never deserved my son, and now that buffalo-face Malini is getting married and she has the nerve to ignore me like this?" Followed by a lengthy harangue on the various insults heaped on her by Kanakambal and her family..... scenario ends with Aunt Lakshmi exploding in a shower of multi-coloured sparks.
Imagined scenario three: Aunt Lakshmi lying down on the sofa, Sumi at her feet, pressing them. Sumi, boldly and clearly: "Aunt Lakshmi, I need to go to Bombay next month for Malini's wedding - you know, your daughter-in-law's sister, Kanakambal's middle daughter. I'll be gone for just a couple of days, so I'm sure you'll manage fine." Aunt Lakshmi: .....Sumi cannot conjure up a realistic response to this. Scenario ends with Aunt Lakshmi's unspoken words battling to escape Sumi's mind.
Imagined scenario four: Aunt Lakshmi lying down on the sofa, Sumi at her feet, pressing them. Aunt Lakshmi, yawning languidly: "Oh, Sumi, the postman brought this for me today. It's an invitation to the wedding of that nice girl, Malini - you know, Kanakambal's middle daughter. Let's plan what saris and jewelry to take for the wedding." Sumi: speechless.
Sumi allowed herself to linger on this last scenario for a little while. This one was in the realm of fairy tales and Santa Claus and it was so nice and pleasant, suspending reality for just a few more minutes. That evening, Sumi presented the problem to her husband Kannan. Kannan, his mind gloriously uncluttered by aunt-induced scenarios and family politics, was annoyingly blasé about it. "Just go for the wedding, I'll manage Aunt Lakshmi here", he remarked. Oh, why couldn't he see that that simply could not be done? In the end, Sumi said nothing for a few days, clinging to a faint hope that a separate invitation would arrive for Aunt Lakshmi.
Three days passed and it became obvious that there would be no invitation for Aunt Lakshmi. Those three days were agony for Sumi. She tried to act normally, especially when the postman arrived. Her heart beat painfully every time she heard his bicycle bell. Her smile, always so luminous and lovely, was wan and forced. The sinking feeling she got when there was no red-tinted invitation envelope ruined her appetite. She longed for some solitude, but did not have the heart to tell Aunt Lakshmi that she did not feel like listening to her stories.
On the fourth day, Sumi knew that this could not go on for ever. Aunt Lakshmi would have to be informed, and plans had to be made. Whatever scenario took place would be for real. So, after lunch, while Aunt Lakshmi made herself comfortable on the sofa, Sumi spoke up.
"Aunt Lakshmi," she said, her voice faltering only slightly, "I received this invitation to Malini's wedding, your daughter-in-law's sister, you know. It's in about three weeks’ time." Now that she had started, the words came pouring out. "I really don't know what to do. I waited for three days thinking that there would be a separate invitation for you, but nothing came. I would really rather not go, because I know Kannan will not be able to go, he is so busy these days and he does not care about what people think or say. It will look very bad if I don't go, people will think bad things about me."
Aunt Lakshmi listened in stony silence. She could not believe that Kanakambal had pulled this off without her, Lakshmi, finding out about it. She put out her hand for the invitation and studied it wordlessly. Then she said, quite casually, and in a tone of voice that indicated that this line of conversation was dismissed, “Book two tickets for Bombay Mail, second class AC coach. I'll go with you." Sumi, her heart still thumping, stared at Aunt Lakshmi. This calm, off-hand reaction was the last thing she expected. Did she already know about the wedding? Had Kanakambal already invited her in person, perhaps during Aunt Lakshmi's brief stay with her son? If so, why had she not mentioned it to Sumi? Family gossip and news, particularly news before anyone else had heard it, was Aunt Lakshmi's specialty. Sumi was dying to find out, but Aunt Lakshmi had already launched into a tale about the village idiot.