Continued from here :
For Sumi, there was a grace period of a couple of hours. She had written to Kanakambal that she would be staying with a friend who would pick them up from the station. This was a lie. Sumi had no friends in Bombay and no relatives other than Aunt Lakshmi’s son and daughter-in-law, and she had no intention of staying with them. Kannan had made arrangements for them to stay in his company’s guest-house. Sumi and Aunt Lakshmi would take a taxi there.
In spite of everything, Sumi felt a small thrill of excitement. She started to bid farewell to her fellow passengers, but many of them had already been claimed by husbands, mothers, fathers, aunts, cousins, and were disappearing back into their lives. Clutching her purse, she scurried after the porter, Aunt Lakshmi at her side. Nervously, Sumi stole a glance at her. She was limping slightly, and her face was covered with a film of perspiration. Her breath came out in unsteady puffs. Sumi felt a pang of concern for her.
“Are you alright, Aunt Lakshmi?” she queried gently.
“Yes, yes, I just need some rest, this heat is terrible.”
Her voice sounded a bit quavery, not the usual stentorian boom, and she was now panting hard. A small balloon of worry popped inside Sumi. Aunt Lakshmi did not sound quite right. Yes, she loved to complain about her arthritic knee and the ringing in her left ear, but it was done in such a robust, booming manner that nobody, least of all Aunt Lakshmi, took any of it seriously. But this seemed different. Sumi put her arm around Aunt Lakshmi, and felt soothed by her massive bulk. She was as strong as a horse. The train journey must have tired her out, a bit of rest would restore her. Feeling a little better, Sumi hailed a taxi and arrived half an hour later at Kannan’s company guest house.
At the guest-house, Aunt Lakshmi collapsed straight onto a bed. She would not take a bath, or eat anything. Sumi let her rest. They had time until seven that evening, when there was a pre-marriage ceremony and dinner. A good ten hours for Aunt Lakshmi to recover. Sumi took a long, cool shower, reveling in not having to worry about the water running out, or about Dhanam calling out with some inane complaint. She enjoyed being served her lunch in the guest house dining room, loving the butler service and not having to bother about what to do with the leftovers. After lunch, she put her feet up and read a book, something she had not done since Aunt Lakshmi’s arrival. Periodically, she checked in on Aunt Lakshmi. She looked a bit pale, but otherwise her breathing was regular, and her snores, while a slightly feeble version of the usual Aunt Lakshmi snores, were loud enough by normal standards.
At four o’clock that evening, Sumi woke her up. She got her a cup of tea and sat next to her while she drank it, chatting about the sari and jewelry she was going to wear. She told her that she had brought her favorite sari, the peacock green one with the gold polka dots. Aunt Lakshmi sipped her tea quietly. She put her cup down when she finished it, then looked puzzledly at Sumi, as if to say, “OK, I’ve had my tea, now what next?” She made no move to get up, and had no question or comment about where they were. Her silence unnerved Sumi. Was this some act that Aunt Lakshmi was putting on? Was this what they called a touch of the sun? While they had traveled in an air-conditioned compartment, the air-conditioning had failed during the hottest part of the day, those hellish hours between noon and 3 in the afternoon of the second day. Nothing serious could happen from that, could it?
Sumi stood in front of Aunt Lakshmi and spoke in a firm voice, as if addressing a small child, “ Come on, we cannot be late for Malini’s Nischithartham function. Here, I’ll open your bag and keep your sari out for you. We won’t stay for long if you don’t feel up to it.” Aunt Lakshmi continued to gaze blankly at Sumi as if she had been speaking a strange tongue. She looked disheveled, her sari badly crumpled, and her hair sticking out in spiky clumps. A sour dried-sweat smell hung around her. She just sat there, and Sumi noticed a sticky string of saliva quiver from the corner of her mouth and balance on her jaw. She was breathing heavily again.
Now Sumi felt alarmed. She could take Aunt Lakshmi moaning lustily about the heat. She could take Aunt Lakshmi bellowing furiously at the milkman for daring to dilute the milk. Aunt Lakshmi in full flow was a fearsome, thunderous assault on all the senses. Where there was Aunt Lakshmi there was light, sound, action!!! Sumi felt alert, on edge, amused, irritated, shocked, annoyed, thrilled – in short, alive, in Aunt Lakshmi’s presence. But this…. It was as if someone had reached in and pulled out her spirit, and while doing so, messed up her hair and sari, punched her in the spine and sprayed her with a sour mist. Sumi’s heart took a swift trip down and landed with a thud near her feet. What on earth was going on?
All her life, Sumi had never had to deal with difficult situations. She had been shielded and sheltered from even ordinary annoyances like getting a drivers license, which her father had done for her by putting in a word to his good friend the Chief of Police, without Sumi ever having sat at the drivers seat! Opening a bank account, getting a credit card, applying for a ration card, all those niggling but necessary things had all been taken care of by either her father or Kannan. In her lovingly sheltered life, her biggest decisions had been limited to choosing what vegetable to cook for dinner or whether the dining room placemat set should be in yellow or orange. Perhaps this – her life lived on a calm, sunny country lane, away from the ceaseless, swiftly rushing highway of the modern rat race - had contributed to her exceptionally sweet nature. But now, here she was, forced to take charge of a situation she had no idea how to deal with. She stared helplessly at Aunt Lakshmi who gazed vacantly through her.
Something clicked on in Sumi. The take-charge switch. From the bathroom she got a bucket of cool water and a clean towel. Firmly quelling a stab of embarrassment, she gently removed Aunt Lakshmi’s rumpled sari and peeled off her sweaty, stinking blouse. She dipped the towel in the water and wiped her clean. She dusted her with flower-scented talcum powder and dressed her in one of her nightgowns, something Aunt Lakshmi, proud owner of over a hundred saris, had probably never worn her entire life. Her hair was a thicket of knots, and Sumi, not wanting to hurt her, merely ran the comb over it once and tied it up. Through all this, Aunt Lakshmi uttered not a word, but continued to gaze emptily through Sumi. She stood when Sumi put her hands on her shoulders and heaved her up, and sat when she pressed down on them. Up, down, up, down, like an obedient puppet.
Sumi took a deep breath. Her organized mind laid out all the steps she should now take. Step one: call a doctor. The butler at the guest house would surely know of some local doctor who would visit. Step two: call Aunt Lakshmi’s son and inform him of what was happening. Not a pleasant prospect, but it had to be done. He was, after all, her son. Step three: call Kanakambal and tell her…… tell her….. tell her something. An even more unpleasant prospect. Sumi would think of something when the moment came. Step four: call Kannan. No, step three could become step four, and step four could become step three. Sumi stopped herself. Enough with these steps and plans. Something had to be done. And she had to do it alone.
Maybe it was because there was no one else to turn to. Maybe it had been lying dormant in Sumi all along, needing to be prodded awake. Maybe it would have happened anyway. Whatever it was, at that moment, a new Sumi was born. Her husband, parents, sisters, friends, even Dhanam and Palani, would have been quite amazed at the Sumi now in action. She was by now truly worried about Aunt Lakshmi. However, she remained calm and cool, her mind darting cleanly and crisply from problem to solution. No dithering about scenarios, no planning out plans. She was all decision and action. She rang the bell for the guest-house butler, and told him that a doctor was needed, immediately. Then, a deep breath later, she called Sundar, Aunt Lakshmi’s son. He was at home, and listened in silence as Sumi described the situation.
He knew immediately that he was in an awkward position. His wife’s sister was getting married and he had to be there. His mother, here in Bombay (Wh..aat!? How? Why? When?) and not well….he had to be by her side too. His wife, who hated Aunt Lakshmi with a passion, would throw a screaming fit. Those three weeks when his mother had stayed with them had been hell. The quiet, peace-loving Sundar had been assaulted ceaselessly by complaints from his wife and his mother. She was interfering, she was a spendthrift, she used too much oil in her cooking, she left hair in the bathtub, and so on and on it went, back and forth, from wife, from mother, till his mind was a shrieking, whirling storm of noise. His only escape was work, and work he did – late at night, on weekends, early in the morning. To his relief, the nightmare had been short-lived. In an unbearable cacophony of a no-holds barred screaming battle (witnessed and discussed endlessly by open-mouthed neighbors), his mother had marched out, pausing only long enough to spit out at Sundar, “you just wait and see, you coward, you will suffer in your next life for not standing by your mother”.
Poor Sundar. He had no idea what had precipitated this last fight, but he had secretly sided with his mother most of the time. For the sake of marital peace and harmony, he had not uttered a word. Now however, he could not keep quiet. What Sumi was describing was something he simply could not imagine – his mother, unwell, silent, bereft of speech. He assured Sumi that he would be there right away and walked into his bedroom to break the news to his wife.