I have never seen him. I’m not going to either. He was my brother’s friend. All I know of him is from what I have been told by Rajettan.
Early teens are an age when girls hero-worship their elder brothers.
Before that the main occupation is fighting. Especially if there isn’t more than two or three years between them. At that time brothers are bullies, always poking fun at whatever you say and teasing you.
‘Amma! Ettan. ’
‘Why do you make her cry?’
‘Amma, come and see what she’s been upto here.’
‘Don’t you go and vex him, girl. Mind your own business.’ Brothers had to have some means of killing time, hadn’t they?
What better one than teasing your younger sister who hangs around you once you reach home?
When the brothers outgrow the teasing stage and the sisters outgrow the hanging around one, there comes the age of hero-worship. It’s a beautiful age. There will never be the same kind of intimacy between them at a later age. Once they grow into young men and women they have their own lives to lead. Then there will only be growing apart.
Yes, before that, it is a beautiful age.
I was fourteen when my brother went away to Madras to study.
I have been talking about the person who was his friend at the
I shouldn’t say friend. Rajettan was a student and he was a teacher.
I am not sure how to put it. It won’t be enough if I just say that he was his teacher.
Let me call him Madhava Menon. That was not his name. But let’s call him that.
He was a teacher in Rajettan’s college. He never taught my brother.
My brother studied a different subject.
I only knew him from what my brother used to tell me when he was home during the vacation.
Whatever he said was taken to be the gospel truth in those days. I used to wait for him to be home.
He was my window to a world outside — one that I didn’t understand, that I hadn’t seen, that I longed to see in those days.
The world of men.
How varied were the hues that a young girl’s imagination imparted to that world!
A world where a woman could never hope to enter even if it had not been walled in by aristocracy and propriety.
Cigarettes, bicycles and heroics — the world of power.
A world which a woman can never fully fathom (I happen to be acquainted now with a woman who can whistle beautifully).
It was to me that Rajettan would narrate his yarns. As soon as he was home, everyone would hang around him for a couple of days. Then they went about their business and he would get nobody but me to listen patiently to everything.
News from college, idiosyncrasies of his teachers, pranks that the students got upto in the class — he would describe everything in detail. It was his descriptions that started my craze for English movies. I made acquaintance of Stuart Granger, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
Only through hearsay. I could see a movie only if either of my parents condescended to accompany me. And neither of them was interested.
My two elder brothers were working in distant places. My elder sister was also away.
If I insisted too much on seeing a movie — ‘Your sister never threw tantrums like this.’ That was it.
It was a great disadvantage having such a well-behaved elder sister. It was her shadow that loomed large in front of me, while demanding costly, colourful dresses.
My beloved sister doesn’t know that I used to curse her in my
Rajettan and I were chums. It was between us too that most of the
fights used to take place. ‘You witch!’
‘You ogre!’ I wasn’t the sort of little sister who’d give in.
I still remember the tears I shed the day Rajettan left for Madras.
My brother never used to write to me. When he came home during the vacation – how fast those days used to fly!
Now I don’t think that everything he told me in those days was
When you find that you can get away with any old fib, you’d
The new-fangled custom that Rajettan brought from Madras was this – he must have a cup of coffee first thing in the morning.
Now, the custom in our house was that nobody should have a morsel of food before having their bath. Earlier, Amma used to insist not only on the bath but also on a visit to the temple.
The very first thing that Rajettan gave up on reaching Madras was this bath.
He was loath to give up his morning cup of coffee when he was home. So it fell to my lot to procure him this coffee. By the time Amma came back from her bath and the visit to the temple, even the coffee mug would have been washed clean.
Both of us were under the impression that Amma didn’t know.
But I am sure she knew. She wouldn’t have been displeased had she been told that her darling son didn’t even wash himself. If her son broke the rules, she would only pretend not to have noticed and turn a blind eye to it, rather than go against his will.
We weren’t old enough to know that then. We considered this coffee-making a pretty serious conspiracy or a subversive activity. How awfully funny the whole thing was! And the smoky brews that I got my brother to drink in the name of coffee!
It was when he came for the second time that we got to know Madhavan master well. Rajettan went down with typhoid over there. It was Madhava Menon who sat by him and nursed him, that too disregarding his own ill health. He went back with permission to shift
his residence from the hostel to the master’s house. The students were extremely fond of him. He had company every evening. When he joined them, to laugh and make merry like they did, he never gave one the impression that he was a man of great intelligence and erudition.
Someone with a serious heart ailment at that. A life lived in the knowledge that death, which might come to claim it unannounced, was right behind.
He spoke only to Rajettan about his illness. He hated to talk about
My brother was against his joining in the loud chatter. I think my brother wanted him to talk to him only.
Once he even tried telling him that he found it hard to study with
all this racket going on around him.
‘I am sorry that you find it difficult to study here, Rajan. In that case, you must shift to the hostel.’
My brother never mentioned the difficulty again.
Madhavan Master used to write in the magazines. Humorous pieces that would make you hold your sides with laughter. He never wrote anything that didn’t have a laugh in it.
The doctor had advised him against exerting himself but he never shied away from cricket matches with the boys in the blazing sun.
After making a day of it, he would have to endure pain through out the night but that never deterred him.
My brother had tried to get him to be careful.
‘Careful of what? Will you be quiet? You’ve got die someday.’ You have to die some day. Laugh through life till then.
We used to worry a lot about him. We even made elaborate plans to make him live more cautiously.
I never saw him. I do not even know what he looked like. All that I know is that he was slender, tall and of medium complexion.
Did he have curly hair? Large eyes?
I like noses that are slightly hooked at the tip. Did he have one?
There were a hundred things that I wanted to find out about him.
How do you ask your brother all this?
He hated to pose for photographs. So I never even got to see a snap. ‘I told you he’s not handsome. But he’s got personality.’ He had
nothing more to tell me.
However much a man cared for another, he’d perhaps notice nothing more than this about him.
I came to know of the time when they went swimming much later.
They often went swimming. This time they had been to a different beach. And went in a bit farther than usual.
‘Come on, let’s go back.’ He said suddenly. My brother turned back even though he didn’t fully grasp what the matter was. He had nearly made it back when he turned back to see him lagging very far behind.
When my brother started back in confusion, he called to him. ‘Go on Rajan! I won’t be long.’
Rajettan waited for him. They walked back together. ‘Why didn’t you keep up with me?’
‘The sea here is shark infested. I remembered that only later. I don’t usually go for a swim here. I thought I saw something moving in the water.’
‘If you saw a shark, shouldn’t you get out of the water fast enough?’ ‘You are young, Rajan. I wanted you to get out first.’
It was when he was home during the long April vacation that he told me about this. He’d been home a couple of times before that but hadn’t told me about it.
It was during that particular April vacation that I started to work on a handkerchief for him. To begin with, I wanted to knit him a muffler. But I didn’t know how to knit. I didn’t have the needles either. Even if I were to learn to knit everybody would come to know about it as soon as I started buying the accessories. Buying silk thread without anyone’s knowledge, posed no problems. And no questions would be asked if somebody happened to see me working on a piece of white cloth. It was a muffler that he really wanted. But what could I do?
I settled for the handkerchief (Somebody told me the other day that it was unlucky to present someone you love with a handkerchief).
I cut the cloth into four square pieces, made a broad hem at the edges. A flower in one corner. His initials in the opposite corner.
I was not an expert at needle work then nor am I one now.
Still I plodded on. I didn’t know that you were supposed to stretch the cloth on a hoop if you didn’t want it to wrinkle.
When I had done, I thought they looked a bit soiled from too much handling. So I washed them with perfumed toilet soap. The yellow colour ran a bit.
Never mind. It was just a little bit. I folded them neatly and placed a couple of heavy books over them to make them look as if they were ironed. I managed to get a piece of gilt paper from somewhere and wrapped them in it. I opened the packet and showed them to my brother before handing the packet over to him to be given to his friend.
He was to leave the next day. When Amma came with big tins of banana fritters and banana chips coated with jaggery there wasn’t enough room in the case.
(He was supposed to bring these tins back but he never did.) He offered to pack them in the hold–all.
Amma didn’t like the idea. She was afraid that the chips might lose their crispness.
‘Come on, move! Let me see. You take these things every time. Why shouldn’t there be room this time? You must have packed everything in a disorderly fashion. Let me pack.’
Amma pulled everything out. She started to repack. There was room. But her eyes fell on my paper packet. ‘What’s this?’
We stood quietly.
‘Where did you get this from?’
‘I made it, Amma,’ I said preparing myself to face the worst.
She was about to wrap it up again when – till then I had been proud of the fact that my mother could read English.
‘Whose initials are these? Rajettan did not speak.
And I did not even raise my head.
I got told off in the evening for having dared to embroider handkerchiefs and tried to send them to a strange young man without consulting anyone.
I think Rajettan got his share before he left. So the handkerchiefs that I spent sleepless nights to finish never reached where they were meant to. I cried a lot that day.
During their evening walks he would put his hand companionably around my brother’s shouler. Quite often my brother served as a prop.
‘There’s such a nice breeze here, isn’t there? Let’s stop here. There’s no hurry. After all, we came out for air.’
Rajettan, who knew the reason only too well, would stop.
When the boys kicked up a racket in the room, he never joined
‘Rajan, will you open that window? Isn’t it a bit too stuffy here?’ My brother lacked the guts to scream, ‘Oh, you scoundrels! You’re
killing this great man who’s gasping for every breath, get out.’
He returned home in Rajettan’s company. His mother who’d come to the railway station to receive him, fainted when she saw him stepping out of the compartment.
He died during that vacation. The numbing pain wore off after a while. It turned into a deep resentment towards everything and everybody, especially towards myself. I couldn’t laugh for a long time after that.
Did I fancy that he wouldn’t have died had my handkerchiefs reached him – carrying all the prayers and wishes of my young life –
Did I believe that those handkerchiefs which I had painstakingly worked in threads stained yellow with all the tenderness I was capable of feeling, would have guarded him like a talisman?
I never made handkerchiefs after that.
Today is my birthday. The birthday present of a dozen handkerchiefs, which came by post in a box, lies before me.
Folded neatly from corner to corner to reveal the hems neatly done in green, they are not hand made.
The person who sent me these gossamer thin ladies’ hankies does not know that when I receive them they’d revive painful memories in me. Memories which haven’t lost their bitter sting for me.
These delicate beauties must have been chosen, keeping in mind the fact that I love green.
There’s a world of love behind them. Still – what happened to those on which I embroidered yellow flowers with tiny violet centers?
Do they still lie, yellowed and faded in Amma’s clothes chest which gave out the smell of dried ‘kaithapoo’ when you opened it, among the old 703 mul onnaras and shawls with faded jari, waiting to be bartered for steel dishes?