Continued from here:
Next, Sumi called Kanakambal to tell her that she would not be able to attend the Nischithartham function, and why. Kanakambal, her hands full with all the hassles of getting a daughter married, listened with growing irritation. The moment Aunt Lakshmi’s name was mentioned, she exploded. Her loathing for Aunt Lakshmi exceeded that of her daughter, Sundar’s wife.
Theirs was a rivalry worthy of the great epics. Aunt Lakshmi and Kanakambal were fierce adversaries, evenly matched in size, wits, gossip networks and everything else that mattered. The two had hated each other (each realizing that she would not have the upper hand in this relationship) from the outset. At the wedding of their children, there hadn’t been even a pretense of cordiality. The fact that the horoscopes were such a perfect match was the only reason why the wedding had taken place (or so they each believed). And things had gone downhill from there. Kanakambal planted the seed of hatred for Aunt Lakshmi in her daughter, nurturing it carefully, and making sure it grew. She had deliberately not invited Aunt Lakshmi for Malini’s wedding, and she had a very sound reason for doing so, something which she and she alone knew. And now, Lakshmi had the gall to show up for Malini’s wedding, without an invitation? So, she had come to sabotage things, had she? To be a bad omen? To spread malicious rumors about Kanakambal’s family? As her fury mounted, her voice rose, and Sumi had to hold the telephone away from her ear as a shrill torrent of words came crashing down the line. She managed to gather that Kanakambal was making her way there, wedding or no wedding, to check matters out for herself.
Well, that was done. With a sigh, Sumi called her husband and gave him a detailed account of everything that had happened, and what she had done. Kannan, although worried, felt reassured by the new note of decisiveness and authority in Sumi’s voice.
A short while later, three people in a bad mood made their way to the guest house where Sumi and Aunt Lakshmi were staying. A neighborhood doctor, awoken from a nap, and in a grumpy mood because he had been told this was urgent and thus could not have his evening coffee; Sundar, Aunt Lakshmi’s son, still reeling from the banshee-like screams of rage from his wife who couldn’t believe that he was actually choosing his family over hers, particularly at such a critical time; and Kanakambal, hurtling down the streets of Bombay in an auto rickshaw, alternating between anger and panic, sure that the Evil Eye had come in the form of Aunt Lakshmi to destroy her daughter’s wedding. Three Bad Moods knocked at the door of the guest-house. And this is what they saw when they stepped inside.
A living room which looked as if a hurricane had swept through it. A television set on the floor, squawking and buzzing. A couple of chairs flung down on the ground. Clothes strewn across the floor. Huddled in a corner, the butler and cook, their eyes bulging with terror. And in the middle of the living room, in the calm eye of the storm, Aunt Lakshmi. Stark naked. Wild eyed. Crazy haired. Next to Aunt Lakshmi, Sumi, with her arms around her, rocking her gently. Back and forth, like a baby being put to sleep. Except that Aunt Lakshmi did not go to sleep.
The doctor, Sundar and Kanakambal stared. Too thunderstruck to avert their eyes from her nakedness. Stares of incomprehension, horror, fear. Stares with thudding hearts and shaking knees. The doctor was the first to move. But before he got to Aunt Lakshmi, he stopped. Abruptly. For Aunt Lakshmi, still being rocked by Sumi, still wild-eyed and crazy-haired, began to sing. And what singing! It was the radio station of the heavens being broadcasted through Aunt Lakshmi. She sang something that nobody in that room had ever heard before. She sang in a way that nobody in that room had ever heard before. She was the Goddess of Music herself. Where did that voice come from? Not Aunt Lakshmi of the booming bellow, not Aunt Lakshmi of the shrill anger, not Aunt Lakshmi of the raucous laugh. This was Aunt Lakshmi of the voice of Gold and Honey, of Happiness and Wealth, of Life and Love. Aunt Lakshmi who had never been trained in music, who was as musical as a donkey.
Everyone in that room listened, rapt, forgetting the coffee not drunk, the angry banshee-wife, the daughter in her wedding finery, the dinner half-cooked, the money-lender not paid, the heat, the smell, the mess. In mid-song, on a high note, she stopped. There was complete silence for a couple of seconds. Nothing, nobody moved. It was a freeze-frame moment from a movie. Then several things happened all at once. Aunt Lakshmi grabbed hold of a fistful of Sumi’s hair and pulled it, hard. Sumi yelped in pain. Kanakambal strode up to Aunt Lakshmi and screamed into her face, “Oh, you shameless devil, how dare you come here and do this? My goodness, what are people going to say? Malini’s future is ruined! I deliberately did not call you…” Her rant was cut short. Aunt Lakshmi swung her arm out and slapped Kanakambal right across her face.
Kanakambal gasped, clutching her cheeks, backing away in horror. Sumi tried desperately to put the nightgown on her, but Aunt Lakshmi, seemingly possessed of some super-human strength, kept lashing out blindly, not allowing anyone near her. Sundar and the doctor approached gingerly, one on each side, trying to catch her and pin her down. Moving her head wildly from side to side, Aunt Lakshmi sank her teeth savagely into their arms. She showed no sign of recognizing anyone in the room. She was breathing heavily, but otherwise made no sound. It was utterly impossible to imagine that just a few moments ago the most divine music had emanated from what was now a raving lunatic. The butler and cook cowered in their corner, too terrified to help and too fascinated to leave. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it ended. Aunt Lakshmi sank down to the floor, panting and sweating. She was now as limp as a rag doll. Sumi rushed to her side and managed to cover her with the nightgown. For the briefest moment, a spark of something human flickered in Aunt Lakshmi’s eyes. She whispered, helpless, pathetic, “Help me. Please, help me”. The spark died, and her eyes became vacant and empty again. Sumi’s heart broke when she heard that whisper. She turned to the others.
Kanakambal was standing as far away from Aunt Lakshmi as she could, her chest heaving. She looked as if she was gathering herself together for a major outburst. Her eyes glinted with terror and hatred. Not a shred of compassion there. Sundar stood a couple of steps away from his mother, his face a frozen mask of horror. He stared at her, unable to speak or move. The doctor, along with the cook and butler, looked ready to run for his life. Sumi knew that she had to force them to act. She spoke to the doctor first. “Please, doctor sir, please help her. She has had a long train journey, and something has happened to her after that.”
The doctor, still massaging his arm where he had been bitten, his un-caffeinated head pounding harder than before, hesitated. He was an ordinary local doctor who had made his money and his name by curing headaches and stomachaches, and had no desire to expand his domain. Yet he couldn’t simply walk out of here. He would become the laughing stock of the neighborhood. The cook and butler would see to that. He cleared his throat and spoke, sounding more confident than he felt. “I can give her a sedative now. But she needs to see a specialist. A…” What on earth was this in the realm of? “A…neurologist, or a psychiatrist. I can recommend a good psychiatrist for you.” He inched forward while speaking, holding his medicine bag in front of him. “Now if you can hold down the...aah, patient, I will inject her with a sedative. This should give her a good twelve hour sleep.” He was now in front of Aunt Lakshmi. Ready to flee if she showed any signs of attacking him again. But Aunt Lakshmi lay sprawled harmlessly on the floor, her eyes dull and unfocused. Sumi crouched by her side, gently pinning her arms down. She didn’t flinch when the needle pierced her skin, and the doctor backed away hurriedly, relieved that he had escaped unharmed.
Now, Kanakambal decided that her moment had arrived. She was used to being in the limelight, and was certainly not used to being slapped, and slapped in full view of her son-in-law and the guest-house servants. She was convinced that the devil himself had taken residence inside Aunt Lakshmi and was guiding her actions. And she firmly believed that her sole purpose was to destroy Malini’s wedding. She had never been so angry, or so frightened. She erupted. Forcefully and loudly. It was an impressive performance, fueled by her screaming hot rage. And to her utter amazement and fury, she was completely ignored. Her voice galvanized Sundar into action. He sprang forward towards Aunt Lakshmi and knelt next to her. “Amma, Amma,” he said, his voice hoarse with emotion, “I’m here, Sundar, your son. Look at me, Amma, please, look here, I’m right here, right in front of you”. Sumi tried to lift Aunt Lakshmi’s head off the ground so that she could see Sundar, but it was of no use. Perhaps the sedative was already taking effect. Her eyes rolled back in her head and closed. Her breathing steadied.