Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Who Troubled Mrs. Vijayan?

‘Oh God, help me! What will I do?’ Mrs. Jaya Vijayan prayed as she removed her shoes at the doorstep. She looked tense and agitated. She had hurried home mid-way through her morning walk, perturbed by what she had seen. She entered the house and lay down on the sofa in the drawing room, breathing heavily, eyes closed, mumbling softly to herself.
She was brought out of that reverie by the sound of slippers slapping loudly on the staircase. That pair descended to the ground level and proceeded to the kitchen. The slippers then remained silent. The fridge door slammed shut. Vessels crashed against each other. Soft munching accompanied slow slurps. After few minutes of disconcerting silence, the slippers returned, drag-slap-drag. That pair took a few steps up, retraced and a head came along.
‘You ok?’ Raju, the youngest son, asked Mrs. Vijayan.
‘Huh?’ She stared blankly at him as if she failed to recognize him.
‘Where’s Appa?’ the young man tried again.
The head retreated and the slippers proceeded to a room upstairs.
Mrs. Vijayan sat up and surveyed the scene around her. The newspaper lay open on her husband’s armchair, resting peacefully and perfectly on his mundu (dhoti) though its owner was clearly absent.  
‘Where have you gone without that?’ She did not sound too vexed by his absence. In fact, she looked relieved.
‘He must have seen that it’s puttu (steamed rice flour) for breakfast and scooted to have breakfast outside,’ she thought. Instead of being irritated, she seemed rather pleased to be left alone. But, the worry lines returned fast along with thoughts of pending trouble. She washed her face and hands, then went to the kitchen and prepared her breakfast. She was sipping coffee absent-mindedly when the phone rang.
She ignored the ringing for a while but it refused to give up. She picked up the phone tentatively.
‘Is that Mrs. Vijayan?’ a strange, loud male voice asked. Her heart thumped like a big booming drum, chasing or inviting demons.
‘Yes,’ she replied hesitantly.
‘This is from the police station.’
With a huge sigh of relief, she said, ‘Ah! The police! How nice…! What can I do for you?’
‘Your husband wants to speak to you.’
‘What is my husband doing there?’ The strange voice gave way to her husband’s whisper.
‘What are you doing there?’ she demanded.
‘They arrested me.’
‘You?’ she asked incredulously. ‘What for…?’
Mama (uncle)…’ his voice trailed off.
‘Shhh… mamapani (pimping)…’ She could hardly hear his whisper.
‘Again…?’ she blurted.
 ‘Please come here…’ The call got disconnected.
A few months back, on some unnecessary solitary drive, he had given lift to a damsel in distress. As luck would have it, goaded by testosterones (as his wife suspected) or a full bladder (as he claimed), he jumped the red light at a busy junction and tried to speed away. The police stopped him at the next junction, fined him doubly for speeding and for not minding the lights, and took him into custody for soliciting. His companion seemed to be well-acquainted with the policemen. That time, Mrs. Vijayan had got him released without much fuss. She had refused to leave the police station without her husband. She had also surprised the inspector with her belligerent faith, ‘Does he look capable of that?’
Mrs. Vijayan took her time dressing. She was still preoccupied with her morning troubles. Raju and his slippers made a noisy descent once again for the next installment of his breakfast. He watched his mother walking like an overdosed zombie, shuffling from one room to the next.
‘Going out?’ he asked.
She gathered her senses, ‘Your father is in the police station…’
‘Cool…!’ Raju’s face lit up with admiration and a bit of envy. ‘What has he done this time?’
‘Oh, nothing…’ she evaded.
‘Don’t tell me…is it the same?’
‘Wow…let me put it on the Net. By the way, can you get me a bottle of soda on the way back? Let me know if you need help to protest about harassment or whatever, ok…?’ Raju and his loud slippers disappeared.
Raju works from home for an influential think-tank. He commands a large army of invisible, highly susceptible netizens that decides the fate of revolutions; anti-austerity, anti-smoking, anti-corruption campaigns; film ratings, global warming, tobacco lobby; pro-life, pro-choice, pro-banks, pro-state and just about every group that can afford their like or dislike. 
Mrs. Vijayan left home after a few more minutes of aimless wandering and drove to the police station. She walked inside confidently and accosted the SI in charge.
‘Where is my husband?’ she demanded.
The inspector smiled at the familiar face and pointed to a holding cell.
She looked inside. Since it was the election season, the cell was jam-packed with volunteers of various hues. The police picked up the troublemakers at regular intervals, gave them space and time for a breather, and even fed them before releasing the motley crew when the next pack was brought in. Though they fought pitched battles outside, there was admirable camaraderie and good cheer inside.
She eventually found her husband in that group, wearing nothing but his boxers. She giggled. Then, with a straight face, she asked the SI, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Do you have a service apartment which you let out to foreigners?’
‘Last night, we raided that place and found a tourist with a prostitute. The tourist confessed that your husband Vijayan got him the girl.’
She looked towards her husband, ‘Did you?’
‘Of course not…’ her husband remonstrated.
‘Of course, he didn’t,’ she passed on the protest to the SI. The policeman shrugged.
Mrs. Vijayan thought for a long while. Then she heard her husband cry ‘Eureka!’ She turned to see him do a jig within the cell in that Archimedean costume.
The SI gave her a look of great sympathy and said, ‘It happens here all the time.’
‘Are you ok?’ she asked her husband.
‘It is that scoundrel, our caretaker,’ her husband replied.
She slapped her forehead and addressed the SI, ‘Of course, it is that guy, V. Jayan, and not my husband, Vijayan.’
The policemen did not say anything but his tired, exasperated face indicated that he should not be taken for a fool.
‘Ask the tourist once again. Please…’ Mrs. Vijayan tried coy pleading.
‘He is Italian and the only thing we could understand from his confession was your husband’s name…Vijayan…’
‘Show him my husband and check, please.’
‘We will.’
‘So, you can let my husband out now?’ she asked hopefully.
‘No, it is a serious crime.’
‘Does he look capable of that?’ She tried that once again.
‘Don’t try that with me again!’ The SI warned and then his face exhibited a glimmer of rare intelligence. ‘Well, you know that this involves a lot of paperwork. And…’ he paused theatrically, ‘if we charge him, it could take a long time, you know…’ His voice was silky and slippery.
Mrs. Vijayan took a while to realize that he was suggesting some bribe to lubricate the rusty system. In that brief pause, her earlier problems returned to trouble her.
‘How long…?’ she asked the SI.
‘What…?’ The SI was taken aback by her question.
‘How long will it take?’ she repeated.
‘A few days, at least…maybe, a week, or even a month…’ The policeman decided to turn the screws a wee bit.
‘You promise?’
‘What…?’ As in a well-rehearsed play, that question came jointly from the policeman and her hapless husband.
‘I will come back in a day or two,’ she told the SI and scooted from the police station before the men could protest.
Mrs. Vijayan returned home, still pre-occupied still tense still worried, to find a young man sitting alone in the drawing room. He looked the type of guy every mother with dutiful daughters expects them to bring home. The young man stood up politely. She noticed that he had removed his footwear. ‘How I love men who enter the house after removing footwear!’ she thought. ‘And, he looks exactly like a prospective groom….’
‘Is she inside?’ Mrs. Vijayan asked. ‘Just like my daughter to leave you here alone.’
‘He…’ the young man started but was interrupted.
‘Mamma, you are back!’ Her eldest son Biju exclaimed loudly, entering the scene, munching crisps. ‘Have you two got to know each other already? Mamma, you remember me telling you about a lovely person I met… well, this is he!’ He offered the pack of crisps to the young man who declined the offer.
 Mrs. Vijayan looked at the two men, head darting from one to the other.
‘Are you crazy?’ she asked the young man.
‘Oh Mamma…now, don’t put me down!’ Her son protested before going back towards the kitchen, ‘Ah! I am so hungry…’
Mrs. Vijayan stared sternly at the young man. The young man returned a charming smile.
‘How many boys have you met?’ she asked him.
‘He is a man…’ he corrected politely.
‘Don’t be difficult with me, young man!’
‘Are you suggesting that I am some kind of fly-by-night operator?’ He looked pained by such an accusation.
‘Of course not…but I think you are wet behind the ears. How many men have you met?’
‘He is my first love,’ he admitted shyly. ‘To be frank, I didn’t realize till I met him.’
‘Of all the men in the world, you found him!?’  
The young man then realized her concern. ‘He has his flaws, I know. But he knows his mind. And I like that…’
She shrugged, finding it difficult to admit that her eldest son did have that redeeming feature. She moved closer to the young man. ‘Just out of curiosity… do you know when he realized? It can’t be when I forced him to act as Cleopatra in school…’
The young man laughed, quite relieved to be accepted and rather happy with his company. ‘Aunty, I don’t think he fits that stereotype. To tell you the truth, I don’t think it matters to him if I am a man or a woman.’ She found that declaration of love rather sentimental and embarrassing, and quite apt for her son.
‘Where is Appa?’ Biju asked loudly from inside.
Before she could reply, she was interrupted by a male voice from outside, ‘Excuse me?’
Mrs. Vijayan turned around with a start, expecting to confront her worst fears. But she was relieved to find a group of strangers.
‘Yes?’ she asked them.
They turned out to be some party canvassing for votes in the upcoming election. The candidate stepped forward and proclaimed proudly, ‘I am MoNa.’
‘Why did your parents give you a girl’s name?’ she blurted out.
‘Oh, they named me Mohan Nambiar but in solidarity with oppressed and harassed women here and everywhere, I have assumed the new name.’ He was now in full flow. ‘I also fight for vegetarianism and against alcohol.’ When he saw that both items didn’t find favor with her, he changed track. ‘The farmers have faith in me to bring rain. I will also bring growth, development and money. Foreigners and industries trust me. But I also fight against MNCs that distribute beauty care products. As you know very well, that is the main cause for female malnourishment.’
He was about to start on the next agenda when Biju came back to the drawing room, and stood between his mother and his beau, with his hands on their shoulders, hugging lovingly. A look of jealousy and then disapproval crossed MoNa’s face before he turned around in a huff and marched out with his shocked, conservative group.
The three watched the retreating group with amusement. But two new arrivals on the scene spoiled the fun for Mrs. Vijayan.
‘Biju, is this him?’ From near the gate, her daughter Viju shouted at her sibling, pointing at the embarrassed but happy young man.
Viju ran inside, embraced her brother and his friend. Her companion, a shifty-eyed man with an unpleasant smile as permanent fixture, entered the house without waiting for introduction or invitation, and worse, without removing his shoes.
Mrs. Vijayan expected just that from her daughter. If there was anything common in her daughter’s selection of companions, it was that it would make her parents very uncomfortable. Her last choice was an insurance agent (their daughter claimed that he was a banker) and he had tried to sell an insurance product to her parents which ‘assured kids a happy future, encouraged the kids to decide their own future, and promised a hefty bonus if the parents met with an untimely demise in the third or fifth or seventh year’.
‘Who is he?’ Mrs. Vijayan asked her daughter, pointing at the smiling man.
 ‘A friend, a lawyer and a …’ she thought hard for something believable.
‘A lawyer…in this house…?’ Mrs. Vijayan shrieked.
‘Come on, Mamma, not all are totally bad.’
‘Have you forgotten?’ her mother asked.
Viju shook her head to indicate that another flashback was unnecessary. Her parents, in their early innocent years, hired a lawyer for a minor traffic accident case. A drunk’s car swerved dangerously onto their lane and scraped their car, and that too, their first car to which they were, quite irrationally, deeply attached. That case ended after many years, leaving them much poorer. Their lawyer had by then become deeply attached to their dear car and they lost that too.
‘Where is Appa?’ Viju asked, hoping to divert attention and hostility away from her companion.
‘Yes, where is he?’ Biju asked.
‘He is…’ Mrs. Vijayan was interrupted by another group who entered the compound. She quickly scanned that group to make sure that the source of her morning torment had not sneaked in with them.
The group’s leader, a man in spotless white, with an impressive coiffure of black and white, and a broad smile, stepped forward.
‘I am Priya.’
‘Have you also assumed a girl’s name in solidarity with women?’ Mrs. Vijayan asked.
The man’s smile broadened. If it went any further, his dentures threatened to fall out.
‘Ah! That fraud MoNa has been here, I gather. My parents actually named me Priya…darshan. Priya of the Congress(XXX) at your service, madam, the only national party that can take this country forward.’
‘XXX…? Is that a new faction?’ Mrs. Vijayan asked.
‘We are guided by our great leader Slimy Loine and her son, madam. She has selflessly dedicated herself to the service of this country, madam, and she is the only politician who has rejected all offers of high position.’
‘And her son…?’
‘Oh, he is still a baby.’
Mrs. Vijayan decided to put forward her own political agenda before they started on theirs. She asked, ‘So, are you also going to clear the garbage and ensure better water-supply and no power-cuts?’
‘Did MoNa promise that?’
‘Of course,’ she lied glibly.
‘He is lying, madam. To prove that we are not lying, we will clear this area of garbage today itself? Madam, we will be back after that.’ He and his group left the compound.
‘That was very good, Aunty,’ her son’s partner said.
There was the sound of loud slippers once again. Raju appeared on the scene and looked around. He concentrated on the two strangers.
He went past the lawyer and shook hands with the pleasant young man, ‘You must be my brother’s.’
The young man nodded and asked, ‘How did you guess?’
‘My sister goes for social discards.’
His sister gave a loud snort of protest. Her companion still sat unperturbed like a smiling Buddha.
Raju surveyed the group once again and asked his mother, ‘Mamma, haven’t you brought back Appa?’
‘Where from…?’ His siblings asked jointly.
‘Jail,’ Raju informed gleefully.
‘Jail…?’ came the chorus.
‘He was arrested for pimping…once again.’
‘Wrongfully arrested,’ Mrs. Vijatan corrected.
‘Then, where is he?’ Biju asked.
‘Oh, he will be released after couple of days.’
‘What nonsense!’ Viju protested. She then gestured to her partner to rise, ‘We should get him released.’ The lawyer stood up slowly, his smile hardly fading.
‘Come on, Viju, what is the hurry?’ Mrs. Vijayan tried to stop her daughter, her face once again looking troubled.
‘Mamma, how can you say that?’ Biju said. He urged his sister to leave fast.
‘Mamma, have you brought the soda?’ Raju asked.
‘I forgot,’ his mother replied.
‘You always forget everything that I ask for,’ Raju sulked. He and his loudly protesting slippers went back upstairs.
Mrs. Vijayan watched her daughter leave. She kept looking worriedly at the gate as if she expected trouble to enter any moment. Biju and his partner sat together on the sofa.
‘Why are you looking so worried, Aunty?’ the young man asked.
‘Oh, nothing…’
She moved away from the door and walked inside. Once again, there was the sound of someone at the gate.
‘Now, who is it this time?’ Biju said.
Mrs. Vijayan turned around with a start and moved fast to the door. She gave a huge sigh when she saw that it was just another bunch of canvassing politicians.
‘The circus has definitely come to town,’ she muttered.
The new group chanted collectively, ‘We are from the socialist communist party.’
‘Are you socialist or communist?’
‘What is your leader’s name?’
‘Unlike others, we give no importance to names or to sex or to anything.’ A very serious man stepped forward and without any introduction started a speech on ‘neo-liberal policies’, ‘crony capitalism’, subsidies, corruption and what-not.
Mrs. Vijayan interrupted him, ‘What will you do about the garbage? Priya and MoNa were here a short while back, and they have promised to remove it today.’
‘What rubbish!’ the politician scowled. ‘How can they do that? It is our workers’ right to deal with garbage.’
‘Well, they are doing it,’ she taunted.
‘If they remove it, they will have to pay us. How can they take our livelihood? They must be doing it for the benefit of some corporate. We will protest, call for a bandh and also have a relay fast.’
‘Well, if you go fast, you can remove the garbage before them, can’t you?’ Mrs. Vijayan suggested slyly.
‘Yes, of course. Now, give your contribution,’ the man demanded.
‘I am not giving any contribution to any party.’
The man and his group grew restive. ‘You won’t give contribution?’ they asked threateningly.
Biju stood next to his mother, ‘Yeah, we won’t.’
‘We will see you outside then. Watch your back.’
‘Wait till my husband gets here. He will deal with you.’ Mrs. Vijayan re-entered the fray.
The group snorted, ‘And where is your great husband?’
‘In jail...’
The group’s bravado disappeared and their posture immediately changed to one of reverence. One of them asked with a low voice, ‘What does sir do?’
A collective shiver ran through that group. Though that group seemed too poor to avail such services, they must have remembered those respectable, untouchable members of high society and the political community who, in recent times, were felled by pimps (especially those ably supported by militant, remorseless female companions). That group slipped away without another word, careful not to let that genie out of the bottle.
Mrs. Vijayan remained at the door. Worry lines creased her face once again.  Biju and his partner looked at her, then at each other and shrugged. Those two talked softly to each other while Mrs. Vijayan remained at her post, silent and watchful like a sentry at the Wall during the heights of the Cold War. She did not budge even when Viju and the lawyer returned with Mr. Vijayan.
Her husband came in sulking and the indifferent reception at the doorstep hardly improved his mood. He mumbled something. That too went unnoticed by his wife who seemed in a trance, staring at the gate and the world outside.
‘Jaya…!’ he demanded attention.
That brought her back to their midst.
‘Huh…?’ she responded.
Et tu, Jaya?’ he complained.
Et tu what?’ came the lukewarm reply.
‘How could you leave me there?’
His wife came out of her trance. ‘Oh, I thought a change of scene would be good for you.’
Vijayan scowled at his wife. Then, he remembered another niggling worry. He turned to face his daughter and her companion.
‘Have you paid him for his services?’ he asked his daughter. ‘Please don’t detain him any further.’
‘Appa, he is not just a lawyer,’ Viju said.
‘How can a lawyer be anything but a lawyer?’ her father countered.
‘Appa, he is my friend, my partner.’ The smiling Buddha rolled his head in happy agreement, adversely affecting the spirit of that room.
‘He what…?’ Vijayan shrieked. He looked at his wife. He was pleased to see that she was ready to join forces with him to disown their only daughter. They were interrupted by the loud slapping slippers.
Raju squeezed into the crowded room. ‘Ah Appa, you are back. Did the police beat you?’
His father looked at him, shook his head sadly and then looked around, quite clearly worried about his genetic output. For the first time, he noticed the pleasant young man standing next to Biju.
‘Who is he?’ Vijayan asked.
‘He is my friend, my partner,’ Biju replied.
‘Is he also a lawyer?’
‘Oh no, he is not a lawyer,’ Biju comforted his agitated father.
‘Good,’ Vijayan said before turning to Viju, ‘see…even he can manage a decent guy.’
 ‘Mamma, I am hungry,’ Raju tried to defuse the situation.
‘We will have to get something from outside,’ his mother said.
‘Quickly, Mamma, I have some important stuff to do.’
‘What stuff are you cooking up now?’ Biju asked.
‘It is going to be the biggest Crusade.’
‘Against corruption…?’
‘Bah! Only wimps go after corruption.’
‘So, who are you after?’
‘The judiciary…millions have already joined in this big fight…to change the meaning of contempt…lawyers and judged will now be charged with contempt of court if there is any delay or attempt to prolong a case…’
‘Oh, Raju…my lovely boy…’ his parents hugged him. Biju and the young man patted him on the shoulder. Viju hugged her younger brother, wishing him success, ‘Go for the jugular.’ Her companion remained seated and smiling, but for once, he seemed perturbed. His face had blanched and dark sweaty patches grew rapidly at his armpits.
The celebration was interrupted by the sound of someone opening the gate. Mrs. Vijayan looked out, and this time, she went pale, nearly collapsing, ‘Oh no…’
The others looked at her with concern and then stared out at the cause. They scowled collectively at the tall, distinguished middle-aged man who approached them.
‘Have I come at an odd time?’ the stranger asked.
‘Maybe…’ Vijayan stepped forward to guard his territory. His wife hid behind him and the others.
‘Jaya, isn’t that you?’ the stranger asked friendly.
Mrs. Vijayan stepped forward sheepishly and introduced the stranger, ‘This is Chandran. We were in the same graduate school.’
‘Really…? Come in…’ her husband and the others quickly changed their scowls to smiles and welcomed the man inside. ‘Please forgive us…we have had a trying morning.’
‘Ah…that explains your reaction this morning…’ the man said to Mrs. Vijayan. He sat on the sofa, noticed the smiling Buddha next to him and immediately shifted to a chair in the other side of the room.
Then, he continued, ‘My sister lives nearby.  My wife and I are staying with her for just a day. We are leaving for the US tomorrow, you see. This morning, when I went out for a jog, I was so delightfully surprised to see you…walking around the park. I waved but you ran away, looking scared. Luckily, my sister knows you and here I am.’
‘So, you have a wife…’ Mrs. Vijayan said before adding quickly, ‘you should have brought her.’
‘Next time, next time…my God, it has been a long time. But still seems like yesterday.’
‘Thirty two years.’
‘Quite so…’
Meanwhile, the others took in the spectacle with great interest, their heads darting from one to the other, like following a long rally at Wimbledon.
‘During the Board exams...but we never talked then.’ Mrs. Vijayan tried to pinpoint their last meeting.
‘Quite so, quite so... and you never came to our get-togethers. Each time, I hoped you would be there,’ the man cooed. Mr. Vijayan thought of protesting about the blossoming romance but his daughter’s threatening glare silenced him.
Mrs. Vijayan did not respond for a while. ‘I think we communicated last during the study leave…’
‘Oh no, before the study leave, I still remember,’ he corrected.
‘I had sent a letter to you during the study leave. About a doubt in Engineering Drawing,’ she said.
Her husband interjected, ‘You sent a letter to him to ask about some doubt in Engineering Drawing?’ Viju, who was sitting next to her father, pinched him.
‘I did not get any letter,’ Chandran said.
‘I sent it to you…Chandran, at your hostel address.’
‘But which Chandran…?’
‘What do you mean which Chandran…you, Chandran?’ Mrs. Vijayan asked.
‘Don’t you remember? We had seven Chandrans in our batch. There was Rama Chandran, Krishna Chandran, Prasanna Chandran, me just K. Chandran, and three others with some initials.’
‘So, one of them got my letter?’ Mrs. Vijayan asked.
‘Must have…’
‘How are they doing now?’
‘All doing quite well, I think.’
‘That is good.’
‘There was one, though…’ Chandran paused for a while to recollect, ‘There was a rumour that he was involved with a girl who promised him lots. But then she married someone else and he tried to commit suicide.’
‘Successfully, I hope?’ Mrs. Vijayan asked with great hope.
‘Oh no, the rope snapped.’
‘Poor chap.’
‘Quite so… he is now a UN negotiator or something. I think he is in Syria or North Korea or some deadly conflict zone.’
‘We can hope for the best,’ she concluded, quite relieved with the outcome.
‘It is wonderful to meet you once again. Next time, I hope you will not run away when I wave.’
Mrs. Vijayan smiled coyly. Her husband cleared his throat. Her kids watched without comment. Even Raju seemed engrossed in the play. Only the lawyer seemed to have no clue.
Chandran left soon after, promising to stay longer the next time.
‘What a nice man!’ Mrs. Vijayan said.
‘Mamma, I am hungry,’ Raju whined.
‘I am hungry too,’ Vijayan joined, ‘I have not even had breakfast today.’ He shook his wife out of another trance. ‘I said I have not even had breakfast today,’ he insisted.
‘Who told you to get caught for pimping?’ his wife retorted.
‘Don’t you…’ Vijayan directed his wife outside and to the car. ‘Let’s go and get something to eat.’
Alone in the car, he turned to his wife, ‘That letter with a doubt about Engineering Drawing…?’
‘Was it the same doubt you asked me in a letter…during post-graduation?’
Mrs. Vijayan blushed, ‘Of course not.’
‘Any more of those letters floating around…?’ her husband persisted.
‘What to do…? Unfortunately, you got your letter… and I could not ask any more doubts, could I?’ The couple laughed.