Uncle Madhu whom I always called mamayya had been the only one to recognize me as an adult, while others pretended that I was still a boy. I liked him immensely, but always boyishly. He was a hero to me. It was hell for me if I didn’t visit him at least once a week to spend a brief two-hour respite from tiresome studies. Uncle was not a mere friendly man. He had always been, for me at least, a phenomenon. Among all the people I have known he was unparalleled in narrating an incident like a story that gave one what has now become a cliché, a kick.
When I entered Mamayya was relaxing reading a book.
“Get yourself a drink,” he said showing me a chair at the same time.
I picked up a bottle of lemonade and sat in the chair he showed me.
“I tell you this because it is you. Suppose you are eating a sweetmeat that you like most. You discover it is vanishing fast and deliberately slow down with a little bite each time with long intervals in between bites. You roll the bit on your tongue appreciatively, making it last longer, trying to enjoy the sensation more thoroughly.”
Even when I would turn twenty-five I would still be a boy to mamayya. But then I was a mere nineteen. He began with a brief lecture, which obviously was an aperitif. It was a bit of whetting my curiosity to fix my attention. I was a little annoyed that he should take so long with the appetizer.
“Like sipping whiskey, little by little, enjoying both the taste and the aroma, with eyes on something far away, unreachable?”
It was my intention to shock him.
“You lad! Only your father should listen to your talking in that tone. He’d think that I made you an incorrigible drunkard! … Incredible! Once in a bet, I could identify twenty-four brands of imported whisky in the second sip. … But that’s irrelevant now.”
“Then what else is?” I shot back.
“The book I am reading.”
Mamayya put down the book facedown spread-eagled and I looked at the title. It was a collection of essays.
“Whatever could be so ‘kick-giving’ in a book of essays?” I was really puzzled. At the same time I donned the look of an avid disciple to make an impression.
“Rey chitti, novel, essay or a play, whatever it is, if the writer has verve and grit, every bit of the writing would be like a sip of the choicest wine, the smile of a damsel of one’s own heart. Look, here’s an example.”
He lifted up the book and began to read out from the page, of which here is an inept translation of mine. “Whether we are to be saved or doomed, it depends not so much on our deeds as it does on our thoughts.”
Mamayya became very pensive. He was thinking either fast or very deep. Heaven or hell doesn’t come because of our actions but because of our thoughts: here’s something worth mulling.
“Do you believe in Hell?” Mamayya asked me suddenly.
“It’s a mistake. You are very young. It’s a mistake to ask you such a question. … All right, I’ll tell what Heaven and Hell mean.”
He got up from his chair, replaced the book in the cabinet carefully and slowly lit a cigarette.
The way he folded the book was something worth emulating. It was not a book, it was a fabulous winged creature which he appeared to be fondling with profound affection. “It is all a matter of handling, be it a book or be it a chukka,” he once said. (chukka in Telugu is not just a drop, it could signify a star and a star-like girl too.)
The women mamayya knew went out of his life only when he chose to give them up but never on their own. This was a revelation, not made by my heroic mamayya, but by some of his very close friends, who held me in deep affection.
I was all ears, waiting for him to go on.
At last he began.
“Parvati .. Oh! You wouldn’t know Parvati. … I was your age then when this happened…”
“Must be a very delectable experience”
“You must tell me after hearing me out!” This was a snub all right.
“Madhugaru!” Someone called from outside and mamayya had to go to the door to see who it was.
In the light of the fluorescent lamp, his pure-silk kurta dazzled. ‘The fellow knows how to live’ I recalled overhearing father’s remark about him to mother. I also recalled father telling her: ‘Don’t allow this little scoundrel go anywhere near him. He’d spoil the boy too. Now I hear that slut of a nursing superintendent lives with him in his very house.’
Of course it was true that mamayya changed his gaadi which he often liked to do as a matter of routine.
He returned sending the caller away. “What was I saying?”
“Oh yes, Parvati. She must be twenty at the most, then. A doll all in vibrant gold. I have never set my eyes on anyone more beautiful or more vivacious. She had a smile that was instantly disarming. She had majesty and then a lot of finesse. With all those went a rare degree of self-confidence coupled with daintiness. That brings me to her self-possession bordering on haughtiness. It is this last quality that bowls anyone over. She appeared to be proclaiming “ ‘What are you to me? I have a nice life; I have youth, beauty, money and a mate… You are after all a bachelor and your sly glances only bolster my confident recklessness.’ … All this could be transmitted in the fling of a glance, if only you could experience it.”
“But then, Parvati…?” I tried to bring him from the loop line on to the main track again.
“They used to be in the portion downstairs. Her hubby worked in a bank. They had their bath cabin in the open without a top. From the day they occupied the portion, my mind would just wander down through the window in my room. Not my eyes alone: even my feet used to be dragged there. I had my looking glass twisted with a length of wire to one of the horizontal bars of the window. In those days I had a luxurious crop of hair the grooming of which took most of my time….
“Perhaps she was confident that I was out. … I was looking down through the window making all my body only eyes. … How would it be if Botticelli’s Venus were to manifest carved in ivory? … My heart was beating fast. Eyes were drooping totally lost in intoxication. As though my glances pierced her through her heart, she looked up at the window… She had a smile on her face. She made no effort to shield her bosom with her hands across. She just gestured me to come down…. With tottering legs, I went down. My tongue had gone dry quite some time before. The bath cabin door was closed.
“ ‘Please! The milk seems to be boiling over. Could you please remove the vessel from the stove?’”
“‘Oh, yes,’ I said and went in to the kitchen. It was not boiling down. The milk boiled to the extent of getting a fine golden crust at the top. I tried to take the vessel off the stove with my shirt-tail but in the effort I burnt my finger and put it to my mouth.
‘Areey, did you burn your finger!’ She had her sari thinly wound around her middle up to the stem of the neck and seeing me with a finger in the mouth, she burst into loud laughter.
Perhaps her man heard this. He came out. A six-footer, I shrank to half my height. ‘Please do come in,’ he was saying but I exited with a feeble ‘That wouldn’t be necessary’.”
“‘I was worried about the milk boiling over and I happened to see him and so asked for help. Perhaps he thought he’d have a cup of coffee too… Poor scarecrow…’ I overheard her saying unnecessarily loud.”
- “What superb self-pride!” I couldn’t help blurting out.
“No, it was total self-possession. It was a firm resolve of hers to show me hell. That was the moment when it rained fire. I never raised my head again in her presence.” Mamayya sighed.
So did I too, out of a vague feeling of disappointment.