Another longish short story, serialized. I should come clean and warn you: this story is not longish, it is l-o-n-g, added to which it has elements of the mad, sad and bad.
During the course of her life, Sumi had come across many aunts - Punjabi aunts, Gujarati aunts, Tamilian aunts and even a mixed-marriage aunt. All of them, mixed-marriage aunt included, had certain characteristics in common. They were short and overweight, they talked at the top of their voices, they had endless appetites while claiming that they hardly ate, and they had a keen ear for gossip. When Aunt Lakshmi came to stay, Sumi soon realized that she was Aunthood taken to its highest degree. She had a prodigious appetite, a shrill penetrating voice, and knew all the news from every possible side of the family.
Aunt Lakshmi was visiting because she had been thrown out of her house by her husband. She would not say why. The family gossip network came up curiously short on details about what exactly had happened. She had then landed up at her son's apartment in Bombay, from where she was kicked out by her daughter-in-law after a mere three weeks. Sumi, Aunt Lakshmi's brother's daughter-in-law, was next in line. A letter arrived, announcing Aunt Lakshmi's imminent arrival, followed by Aunt Lakshmi herself the next day. Completely unchastened, and bubbling with hatred for her daughter-in-law, she marched in and set her suitcase down in the spare bedroom with a thump that indicated that she would be there for a while.
Sumi was the gentlest of souls. She had married Aunt Lakshmi's nephew two months ago, and was filled with a newly wed bride's desire to please her new relatives. She was determined that nobody should say that she, Sumi, had been inhospitable to Aunt Lakshmi.
Aunt Lakshmi settled down with remarkable rapidity. She was not the sort to brood and be despondent. She was intensely curious about every detail of Sumi's household: how much she paid for the onions, how much soap she gave the maidservant for washing the clothes, what time Kannan, her husband, went to sleep, what brand of toothpaste she used. Strangely enough, Sumi did not mind any of this. She was lonely in this big apartment in a new city. She missed her mother and sisters and their boisterous, bustling home, where aunts much like Aunt Lakshmi were always dropping in to drink coffee and gossip. Kannan, Sumi's husband, worked long hours, and he encouraged her to explore the city, maybe also take some classes and make new friends. But Sumi was shy and not the adventurous sort. Her world revolved around her new home, where the main dramatis personae were Dhanam, the maid-servant, and Palani, the vegetable vendor.
Aunt Lakshmi was lively company. After lunch, when she filled herself up with vast quantities of rice, sambar, poriyal and yogurt, she would spread out on the sofa, belching softly, and tell Sumi stories of her childhood. Not surprisingly, it had been an event-filled childhood. Her eyes sparkling and her cheeks glowing, she regaled Sumi with tales about the village priest who slept on a tree because he was frightened of snakes, but ended up getting bitten by a monkey, the time when the Tamil teacher came to class in a see-through veshti without his underwear, the neighbor who named all his children after film stars... Sumi relished these afternoons. It was lovely to relax after an exasperating morning of scolding Dhanam for showing up over one hour late, then telling her off for not rinsing the soap off the dishes properly, then arguing with Palani about his outrageous tomato prices and how he seemed to save the best brinjals for Mrs. Iyer next door. Often it seemed to Sumi that life would be much simpler if only she did all the cleaning and cooking herself, but her husband, blissfully clueless about the daily maid-servant dramas, would not hear of it.
The weeks sped by. Aunt Lakshmi was such an entrenched part of the household that Sumi could not imagine how she had managed before her arrival. Aunt Lakshmi had become extremely fond of Sumi, and when she liked someone she went to any length to help out. In the early days of her stay, Sumi had cringed while Aunt Lakshmi screamed at her maid-servant and hurled insults at the vegetable vendor. Both left a lot to be desired, but they were all Sumi had, and she was quite willing to put up with them. She was sure that Dhanam would quit, and then she would have to start the whole harrowing process of hiring a new maidservant. But Aunt Lakshmi seemed to have an instinct for knowing just how far to go and remarkably, both of them had been brought into line. Dhanam showed up on time every day, and Palaniâs produce and prices improved dramatically.
Sumi learned a lot about Aunt Lakshmi's childhood escapades and life in "those good days". One thing that was never mentioned was what happened between her and her husband. Sumi was too polite to ask, or even hint obliquely at it, and Aunt Lakshmi behaved as if her thirty-one years of married life had never happened. Twice a postcard came from her son in Bombay, which Aunt Lakshmi glanced at with pursed lips and threw away. Then they stopped as well. Nothing at all from her husband, who, with minimal inquiring, could have easily discovered his wife's whereabouts.