Sethu Iyer had had a bad night. It is because of old age, he muttered to himself. Despite his best efforts he was unable to reduce his intake of coffee. He felt angry at himself. He was trying to reduce his intake but was finding it almost impossible. He had become so addicted to drinking coffee. If Lalitha had been alive, she would have definitely chided him gently for having so much caffeine day in and day out. Thinking about Lalitha, Sethu Iyer realises that tears have welled up in his eyes.
Lalitha his dear wife, passed away four years ago but it only looks like it was yesterday. What a lady, Lalitha was and how fortunate he was to have someone like her as his wife. How could Lalitha be so patient and understanding – he was unable to fathom. He often felt that his wife Lalitha was Goddess reincarnate. The way in which she reared the children and handled a belligerent bull like him was incredible. She also sacrificed a lot of her happiness to maintain harmony in her marital life.
A good wife is a divine blessing. Lalitha was indeed a gift for Sethuraman Iyer. Even as he thought about it, Sethu felt his heart filled with sadness and remorse. ‘May be I could have treated her better’, so his thoughts ran. He remembered Lalitha’s beautiful face. How glowing was her face ! The face that she painfully smeared with turmeric, her diamond ear-rings, the diamond nose ring – all of these added to her beauty and made it ethereal. This - despite the fact that Lalitha was only wheat complexioned.
“Paalum Pazhamum” was a 1961 Tamil movie that featured Sivaji Ganesan, the icon of Tamil cinema. In the movie, the saree won by the heroine (B Sarojadevi) had become so popular that to this day, this saree is available at all major cloth stores in South India. When Sethu had purchased her one such saree, Lalitha was so happy. She looked resplendent in that saree.
Sethuraman was the middle among three siblings. Born and brought up in Elathur in Tamil Nadu, Sethu’s grandfather had become a landlord after earning big bucks from Singapore. So, the financial status of Sethu’s family was quite modest. Average in his studies, Sethu completed his BA with pass class. Based on a relative’s recommendation, Sethu landed a job in Lucas in Chennai.
After his confirmation, Sethu moved to a rental home in West Mambalam and shifted from the bachelor pad in Triplicane where he was put up earlier. Half of his salary went towards payment of rent. Within three years, Sethu got a promotion and this paved the path for buying a small home in West Mambalam itself. As is the norm in South Indian families, the time was ripe for Sethu’s marriage.
Sethu’s elder brother was already married and settled in the village. His younger brother Vibhu landed a job in Railways in Nagpur. He was to later migrate to Mumbai in his later years. The hunt for a bride for Sethu ended when the family zeroed in on Lalitha who was born and brought up in Kallidaikurichi. The marriage was soon solemnised. A motherless child, Lalitha was brought up by her father who had chosen to shun marrying for the second time out of fear that his daughter might be orphaned after the arrival of her step-mother. A clerk in a bank, Lalitha’s father had meticulously started saving for his daughter’s marriage right from the beginning. Purchasing a gold jewellery for Lalitha had become an annual ritual for him. The love for his daughter had turned into him a saint and had made him eschew the carnal desires that often tempt males.
On the eve of Lalitha’s marriage, her father purchased her the best sarees that he could afford. He gifted her a diamond ear ring and a diamond nose ring. As Sethu was handsome and energetic, Lalitha’s father was relieved that he had found the right boy for his daughter. Within a few days after her marriage, Lalitha moved to Chennai along with Sethu. Sethu’s parents stayed with them for a while followed by Lalitha’s father.
Within a few months, Lalitha took to her husband’s anger and adamant nature in her stride. When Lalitha delivered her first born Prasanna, her father was overjoyed. The truth was that despite not having a mother, Lalitha’s father was both her father as well as her mother. Tracing an old cousin of his, he insisted that he would assume responsibility for her delivery with the old cousin sister’s help. Though Sethu’s family declined to have a baby shower citing the family custom of not having one, Lalitha, although hurt, kept her feelings to herself.
Anger often blinded Sethu. He would shout at the pitch of his voice when provoked. But, his anger would subside quickly like a snow melts in bright sunlight. Due to this habit, Sethu developed hyper tension at a young age of 30 years. But though anger was his weakness, his love for his wife too had no boundaries. Sethu had no vices – he was a teetotaller. No smoking, drinking or womanising.
In the initial years, Lalitha did face the goose bumps. Since she had been brought up by a gentle father, she wasn’t used to this sort of shouting. But this was his only weakness. There was one more weakness too. It was Sethu’s uncontrolled hunger.
If it was 830 am in the morning, it was mandatory for Sethu to have idli cum chutney/sambar. Lalitha brought in variety in the snacks in the form of Pongal, vadai, dosa, utthapam, upma, poha, rice noodles etc. “Karama Upma” (made from rice and not semolina) was Sethu’s favourite so also all kinds of flavoured rices. Sethu was so fond of dosas that he did not have anything less than 15 dosas at one go. But the dosas had to be paper thin and had to be served with til molga podi (chilli powder along with grounded sesame powder).
Sethu would leave for his office at 9 am sharp carrying his double-decker tiffin box. He would be back home in the evening by 6 pm. He would take a quick bath, refresh himself and start doing the chanting of Gayatri Mantra. Life was going on as usual.
However, once he was diagnosed with hypertension, Sethu wisened up. He reduced the intake of food. But the breakfast time of 830 am stayed on. Lalitha would cook lovingly for her husband, mixing the ingredient called ‘love’ that is missing in most households today. She would remind her husband to partake the blood pressure pills. Despite her devotion to her husband, Lalitha never felt the need to keep a purse for herself. Sethu would help her with all the household errands. Sethu would insist in purchasing vegetables from vendors whom he felt were kosher and were charging a reasonable price.
Once, an old lady was selling green leafy vegetables and drumsticks. Lalitha requested that Sethu allow her to buy them. Sethu repudiated her request citing the reason that the lady might over charge. But he would not miss to note the disappointment on his wife’s face. Come evening and lo, Sethu would, without fail, purchase drumsticks and fresh green leafy vegetables from the market.
Lalitha’s love for her husband knew no bounds. Sethu? Despite his short temper, Sethu was deeply in love with his wife. Such was the marital life of this couple.
When Prasanna was 5 years old, Malathi was born. Lalitha’s father was delighted to know that his daughter’s family was now complete. A few months later, when he suddenly passed away, Lalitha was inconsolable.It was Sethu who stood like a pillar to support his wife and give her the much-needed solace.
The passing years dented Sethu’s temper, however he had got addicted to the habit of having a breakfast at 830 am in the morning. The dinner had to be piping hot. Lalitha felt that Sethu needed to be more flexible in his habits. Discipline though important in life had its limitations. It was important that one adjusts when occasion demanded. What would Sethu do if Lalitha was not around ? When she chided him gently for this, Sethu sulked for three days.
Prasanna joined an engineering college and Malathi started pursuing her ambition of becoming a chartered accountant. During his final year, through campus recruitment, Prasanna landed a job in IBM. He had to undergo training for a period of one year in US. By the time Prasanna returned from US, Malathi’s marriage was fixed with an Iyer boy who was settled in Canada.
After Malathi left for Canada with Arun, Prasanna shifted to join IBM, Bangalore near Outer Ring Road. He found himself a rental pad at Indira Nagar, Bangalore. The children were well behaved and had imbibed the right values. Though they were affectionate to their parents, Prasanna and Sethu did have that occasional clash – which is so common place nowadays. But Lalitha never bother about these things as she considered them too trivial.
Malathi broke the news of her pregnancy. The Sethus insisted that she have her delivery in Chennai and expressed their inability to travel to Canada. Blessed with twins, by the time Malathi flew back to Canada, Lalitha and Sethu found themselves completely famished and drained out of energy. As Sethu had retired around that time, it was a huge relief for Lalitha.
Two years later, the Sethus chanced upon the horoscope of Lavanya, who was working in SBI and was from a middle class family. Prasanna liked her, the horoscopes matched and the wedding was fixed. Lalitha and Sethu were relieved that they had finished all their major responsibilities. However, the time for their relaxation had not arrived.
Prasanna had purchased a plot in C V Raman Nagar. Lavanya had helped with the loan from SBI. Sethu was thrilled. Prasanna was earning in lakhs. It was high time we moved in with our son, so they (Lalitha & Sethu) thought. Needless to add, Prasanna was very glad that his parents had decided to relocate to Bangalore to live with him. But Lalitha and Sethu were unaware of what lay in store for them in Bangalore.
By the time, Prasanna had finished building his home, the family was completely exhausted. As if the troubles created by contractors and government authorities was not enough, the budget also overshoot by a few lakhs. In Bangalore, no matter what their financial condition, everyone wants to buy a car via a car loan. Prasanna was no exception. Prasanna’s plight moved the Sethus.
“Prasanna, please do not worry. We will sell off the Mambalam flat and support you. You can use the fund to reduce your loan liability,”, Lalitha told her son in an assuring tone. Though Prasanna was reluctant, it did not take long for Lavanya to convince him.
“Look Prasanna, your father is getting old. What is the point of keeping the Mambalam house locked ?” she questioned him.
The housewarming ceremony was a simple affair. Sethuraman and Lalitha moved to Bangalore lock, stock and barrel. The proceeds of the sale went to part paying the loan. Sethuraman did a bit of gold plating – in a fit of emotional outpouring. The PF amount that he had kept in a bank fixed deposit was withdrawn through foreclosure and the proceeds were ploughed to Prasanna’s loan account.
But within 3 months Lavanya started showing her true colours. The morning chore of preparing a variety of breakfast items in the week became a burden for Lavanya. Why can’t he eat the leftover rotis from the previous night ? she questioned herself. Why can’t he have a bread in the morning ? This caused friction between Prasanna and Lavanya. A shocked Lalitha was speechless. A tad disappointed, Lalitha who had toiled all her life, had no option but to re-enter the kitchen. To make matters worse, Lavanya was posing a veiled threat to Prasanna that he had to make a choice – either she quit her bank job and cook elaborate meals or continue with the job and have others in the family adjust to her schedule.
It was too late but Sethu had realised his folly. Malathi’s invitation to them visit Canada was turned down by the couple. Sethu felt that it was inappropriate to spend more than a week at the daughter’s place.
One fine morning, Lalitha felt giddy and fell down unconscious. She was admitted to the hospital. Her only prayer was , “Lord Balaji, please let me recover fast so that my son does not have to bear unnecessary expenses in my medical care.” Her blood pressure was dangerously high. The doctors advised complete medical rest.
Sethu’s addiction for the 830 am breakfast seemed to have momentarily subsided. But on many occasions, Sethu started to have headaches when he couldn’t have his regular breakfast. Sadly, within 2 months after her return from hospital, Lalitha passed away even before emergency care could arrive. Perhaps, she did not want to burden her family any more with the medical expenses. Malathi was inconsolable. Sethuraman Iyer was shattered from within – but he successfully managed to camouflage his pain.
Marriage. A meeting of two minds. Two souls, two companions on a journey together called life. Neither is complete without the other. This is life. Marriages are made in heaven and fixed on earth. Today times might have changed. Divorces might have become more of a norm. But the fact is that marriage is still a sacred institution in India.
Many husbands do not realise the worth of the spouse when the latter is alive. Ditto many wives. After the death of one partner, the other partner starts facing desolation and desperation. If the children are accommodative and caring, then there are no issues. Even if the children are well behaved, the behaviour of the daughter-in-law or son-in-law plays a critical role in maintaining harmony in the family.
Every house has a doorstep. Every family has problems – these are part and parcel of life, but then that is life. As Kannadasan, the Tamil poet had written –
Kudumbam Oru Kadambam
Pala vannam Pala vannam
(A family is a mixture of different colours, hues and shades).
Senior Citizens become “prisoners of circumstances” without their knowledge. Life is like the deer that Seetha asked Ram to chase. For some time, it would appear as if we have everything. Then, life can become fickle and ephemeral with the myriad of problems that one has to face. Change management is not important only in professional life, it has become equally relevant in personal lives too.
Sethuraman had got used to life after Lalitha. He had adapted himself to the changed circumstances. But what about his hunger ? Generally, as you grow older, it is difficult to control the hunger pangs. The feelings of hunger are different for different people. It depends on the body constitution of the individual. What is there to laugh about it?
Sethuraman started going for regular morning walks. After returning home, he would take a bath and then sit down for his morning rituals. Then he would chew the 2 – 3 bread slices that Lavanya would have kept for him. He would then start his morning round of temple visits. The positive energy and vibes in the Siva-Sakthi temple exhilarated Sethuraman.
Prasanna had also started changing. Sethu sensed this. But then why spoil the peaceful atmosphere at home by unnecessary squabbling ? Whenever he had to depend on Lavanya for his pocket money, Sethu would feel acute embarrassment that could not be described in words. But did he have an option ?
It is very important for senior citizens to have some savings for themselves – perhaps Sethuraman had realised it way too late. But what was the use of talking about it now ? However, he could not deny that it was insulting to be dependent on children in this fashion.
Over the years, though not regularly in contact, Sethuraman was not out of touch with his siblings. But he was determined not to share his sorrows or burden with anyone else. Why pass on the negative energy to other people ? But is it really possible to do so? We are living in a closely networked world where word spreads fast. The way Lavanya was treating her father was not something that could be hidden from Sethu’s family members for so long.
On rare occasions, when Sethu Iyer really felt hungry, he would help himself to idlis and dosas available at road side stalls. Once he wandered around in CMH Road where a congregation was going on for the avani avittam ritual (the changing of sacred threads in the Brahmin community, which is an annual ritual). The organisers were offering breakfast and on seeing him, someone invited him in and soon Sethu was offered breakfast – puliogare, idli, vada, sakkarai Pongal, sambar and Pongal. Tears welled up his eyes when he realised that he was eating such a sumptuous breakfast after a long time. He suddenly remembered Lalitha’s culinary skills and the awesome taste her Pongal and chatney had. Milagu Kuzhambu (Black Pepper sambar) was Lalitha’s specialty and along with sambar, vazhakkai podimas (grated raw banana cooked and sauntered) sounded divine. The tomato cum cucumber salad in curd that she prepared was something to die for. Freshly chopped coriander leaves were aesthetically garnished in the salad that was stirred in fresh home-made curd. Lemon rasam was another item that Lalitha was an expert at.But now all these are mere memories. Lavanya wasn’t interested in cooking (it is boring, she often lamented).
As both Prasanna and Lavanya were childless, Lavanya started showing her frustrations on the food items that she prepared. In the absence of an ingredient called love, whatever she prepared was not only sub-standard but also bland.
If by any chance, Sethu wandered around near the kitchen (even if it was only for drinking water) ,”O, my god, what have I done to deserve this kind of punishment ? I am going to die one day cooking for this old man” she muttered in a voice audible enough for Sethuraman to hear. Sethu was shattered beyond words.
What is there in my life now ? Sethu thought in desperation. He helped himself to umpteen glasses of water whenever he felt hungry. “O, Lord Balaji, how many more years are you going to torture me like this ?” he fervently prayed to Lord Balaji.
The hour before dawn is the darkest. For Sethuraman too, the dawn was around the corner.
In Elathur, Sethu’s elder brother lived alone after his wife’s death a few years ago. His son Ramesh had settled in Mumbai. As soon as Sethu heard of his elder brother’s demise, he rushed to Elathur. Vibhu who had now relocated to Vile Parle in Mumbai had also rushed to Elathur. After the 13th day ceremony was over, as Sethu was readying himself to proceed to Bangalore, Vibhu prostrated at his feet.
“What is this Vibhu ? “ a surprised Sethu asked his younger brother.
“Anna, this is the agreement for this ancestral property. Prior to his death, our anna (brother) spoke to me and asked me for my consent. How can I refuse?”
“But Vibu, I do not need this house” – Sethu vehemently nodded his head in exasperation.
Ramesh and Usha (Ramesh’s wife) prostrated at his feet.
“Uncle, we have made all arrangements to open a bank account in your name in Elathur”, said Ramesh.
“It is my responsibility to ensure that a fixed sum is deposited every month in your bank account, “ chipped in Usha.
“Please bless us uncle” said Ramesh.
Sethuraman Iyer stood dumbfounded.
Despite his refusal, Sethuraman found out that his brother and his nephew were in no mood to listen to him. Vibu informed him that they knew the manner in which he was being treated in his son’s home.
“Uncle, the time is ripe for you to celebrate life and celebrate old age. Elathur is struggling to build a temple for Siva and Sakthi. We have told the elders that they can count on your dynamism to build the temple”, said Usha.
There was a bang on the door. What was the carpenter doing there ? Ramesh took his uncle along to the entrance. What he saw made Sethuraman Iyer overcome with emotions. “Lalitha Illam” (Lalitha Home) – the board was being displayed at the entrance. The letters in the board glittered.
An overwhelmed Sethuraman Iyer hugged his brother and nephew.
When Sethu came to Bangalore to collect his belongings, Prasanna did not speak much. He did not even stop his father from settling in the village. Had life’s hardships inured him to the plight of his father ? We do not know. Sethuraman was calmness personified. However, Lavanya muttered, loud enough for him to hear, “Once your father has decided to spoil our name in the community, what alternative is left for us ? What is there to talk or discuss about this ?”
After Lalitha’s death, Sethu had transformed himself beyond belief. His temper had become mild and he had developed an incredible level of patience and resilience. So, Lavanya’s taunt did not impact him much. He had got used to this sort of erratic and deviant behaviour. God had given him a splendid opportunity to extricate himself from the debris of grief and greed and hopelessness that had submerged him. This opportunity had come to him through his siblings. Sethu felt proud for his brothers. He had not done anything great for them, yet they had taken such a positive step to help him overcome the stress that he was undergoing at that point of time. Ramesh’s gesture of sending him some money every month warmed the cockles of his heart.
Despite all the morbidity around him, Sethu felt a renewed vigour on thinking about his impending visit to his native village.
He told Lavanya, “Please take care of Prasanna. Do visit Elathur when you have time. I want both of you to be happy. Do not worry about me at all. Once the temple activities are completed and it is time for the kumbaabhishekam, I shall intimate to you. Please do come”.
Even while he walked to the auto stand, Sethu was inert about his son’s indifference to his moving away from home. But it was a bit hurting that Prasanna never even asked his father if he needed some expenses for his onward journey. Even if he had asked, Sethu would not have accepted it anyway.
Steeling himself, Sethu had wiped his tears that had welled in his ears. But he resolved to himself, “ Come what may, I shall not let this affect me. I am not going to be a victim of self pity. This is a lesson that life has taught me. I aim to spend the rest of my life peacefully – without bothering anyone,”.
He had informed Malathi and her husband, enquired about his grand children and politely declined Malathi’s offer to take him to Canada.
After reaching Elathur, Sethuraman completely devoted himself to the activities associated with rebuilding the temple. He did his best to keep his home clean. He enlarged Lalitha’s photo and the frame was hung in the middle of the main hall. He cleaned the pooja hall and ensured that a lamp was always lit. He prayed incessantly for his children.
The energy with which he worked amazed the villagers of Elathur. He was involved in raising funds for his village temple. He successfully liaised with government authorities to get the requisite approvals. He constituted a temple committee and became its chairman and rallied the village youngsters around him.
His committee displayed exemplary team work. Construction work began swiftly and was completed in record time. On hearing the positive developments, money poured in from all quarters – including boys from Elathur who had settled abroad. Malathi was thrilled with the new lease of life that her father had got.
The kumbaabhishekam was a grand affair. The entire village of Elathur wore a resplendent look. Sethu had become popular in the village. He earned lots and lots of respect. Malathi, Vibhu, Ramesh, Usha – all of them graced the occasion. Though Prasanna did not come, Sethuraman had no time to even ponder about these issues. Sethu was thrilled when his son-in-law parted with a sum of Rs.10,000/- towards the temple fund.
Sethu’s health had vastly improved. His blood pressure was under control. Everyday at 830 am in the morning, piping hot breakfast would reach him from the homes in the village. Despite his pleas, the benign villagers of Elathur would not let him go hungry. The demonstration of affection by the villagers moved Sethu Iyer. The positive vibes in his ancestral home gave him indescribable mental strength. On Lalitha’s death anniversary, Sethu donated food to the needy and derived solace from it.
What next ?
The Vedas and shlokas that Sethu had learnt during his growing up years paved the path for setting up a gurukul at his home. As young Brahmin boys queue up outside his home, the villagers look at him with gratitude.
Though Prasanna and Lavanya seldom called him, Sethu had made it a practice to speak to them once a month. Ego had dissolved in the process of self-realisation. What is wrong in having a big heart ? It is difficult to forget some of the wounds. Wounds may heal, but scars remain, often a grim reminder that someone has hurt us. But the truth is that – all these emotions hurt only one person – that is the “SELF”.
We should let providence punish the guilty instead of taking it upon ourselves to teach a lesson to others. No castle can ever last if it is built on tears of others. This is life. Children often pay the price for the sins the parents have committed. Perhaps Sethu had committed lot of sins in his previous birth that he had to suffer so much.
There is a popular saying in Tamil – “Arasan Anru Kolvan; Theivam Ninru kollum” (The King punishes immediately, the God punishes at leisure). Having said this, we should leave the decision to God. Hemming and hawing only endangers our peace of mind and health. No one can get away without paying for his sins. This is the fact of life.
Expectations lead to disappointments. A life sans any expectations is well lived. The mind also becomes calm.
It had been 16 months since Sethuraman landed at Elathur.
It was Deepavali – the festival of lights. Sethuraman got up early in the morning, had an oil bath and began preparations for the pooja. After Lalitha passed away, Sethu had the lost the desire to wear new dresses. The villagers had sent sweets, mixture to his residence.
“Sethu mama, sethu mama,” voices were heard in unison.
All the students of his gurukul were standing there with fruits for their master.
“Happy Deepawali, Mama” said one boy. Another boy said,
“Mama, have you had Ganga Snanam ?”
Sethu hugged all his students. All his students had a surprise for him. A spotless white dhoti and a half sleeve bush shirt. Sethu quickly changed to the new attire and broke his convention of many years.
The first call was from his daughter’s family.
There was another call at 1130 am. Could it be Vibhu ?
As he lifted the receiver, Sethu hears the voice of his son.
“Daddy, wish you a very very happy Deepavali” says his son Prasanna from Bangalore.
“Thank you my son. What a coincidence. I was about to call you. My blessings to Lavanya as well”.
This is a positive step for Sethu. Who knows his daughter-in-law might also thaw and they may visit him in the near future ? What is life but a pot pourri of hope, hope and more hope ? Hope is what sustains life, isn’t it ?
Sethuraman waits for that day. Positivity has overcome negativity. Sethu looks at his wife’s photograph. Is Lalitha smiling or is he deluding himself ?