I divided the rice into two heaps.
“Uncle, this is my great great grandmother and that,” pointing to the heap of rice on my plantain leaf, but towards his side, “is your grandmother.”
Too ungrandmotherly a shape, he could only nod at the heap of rice I pushed towards him.
“This. My grandmother.”
“Yes! Your grandmother.”
With that settled, I was now busy delineating relations with the rest of the rice. From the corner of my eyes I could see Divya sitting at the far end of the hall engrossed at my work. She could be wondering what game I was playing with my grand-uncle, the ex-minister.
“Uncle, now please look carefully. So these are my great great grandmother and your grandmother,” I pointed to the two heaps of rice. “They were sisters.” My granduncle nodded. “And see how our families panned out in different directions after that generation. And this,” I took a chunk from the heap of my great great grandmother, pushing it down the plantain leaf, “is her daughter, that means, my great grandmother. That much clear?”
“And that,” I reached out for his grandmother, splicing the heap of rice into two, pushing a smaller part down to the bottom of the leaf. “is your…” But just before I could complete it, alas, tragedy struck home.
“Oh…no!” I cried.
While I was thus away setting things right with his grandmother suddenly I saw my great great grandmother who sat on my side of the plantain leaf, getting dunked in blood. What hell! I rushed back home.
“Sambar!” I screamed.
“You need not have to shout. Here’s more.” The server ladled yet another spoonful of sambar on to the heap of rice we had already agreed upon as my venerable great great grandmother.
Soon, as my grand-uncle and I watched in horror, the damned sambar that pooled around at the crest of my grandmother, took that second spoon of reinforcement, broke the wall, headed down the mount, counted its options for a while as it reached the ground, and then ravenously hurtled its way on to where his grandmother was hiding. Panicked, my granduncle tried his best to airlift his grandma out of the way with his palm without considering for one moment that the whole action was happening on my ground, my meals, my banana-leaf. I don’t blame him. At the heat of the moment when a whole family was at peril who would care for trash borders! I too assisted, reaching out quickly, building a flash dam across the path of the sambar with my cupped palm. The old woman must be saved.
Meanwhile Divya, who had already quit all her affairs with her meals, was up on her feet; any minute I feared, she would climb on to the table to watch, she was dying with curiosity. From that distance, poor woman, she could hardly make out what the grandnephew of her husband and his celebrity granduncle were busy playing at with one meals while leaving the other, my granduncle’s, rot on his plantain leaf.
We were saving our family Divya, a family ruined all because of you.
I sat back at the end devastated by the calamity. The remnants of our common family, the whole flotsam jetsam, were bobbing up and down on the common sea of parippu, sambar and pulisseri. With the prospects of rasam and buttermilk looming large in the horizon, I could only dismiss the possibility of reconstructing the family tree ground up from whatever sticks of rice remaining on the margins of the leaf. The project stood busted. I threw a glance at my grand-uncle. He was quietly digging into his meals oblivious of the tragedy that struck what was his family also, a moment ago. Politicians!
Five years ago.
“Divya! Cover your face, Divya! Cover up!” I shouted while scrunching my face and turning it away from the road at an awkward angle. Divya too was quick. She had learned by now how to throw a shawl over her face, and duck her head the moment she picked the wailing of siren calls approaching. At lightning speed, a pilot jeep, a minister’s car, and a few escort jeeps whizzed past a bike oddly ridden by two headless travellers.
“Phew, that was close.” I came out of the contort, asking Divya too to get out of her bunker. We were riding around the city on my bike as usual when we heard the minister’s convoy coming.
“Why don’t you stand up to him and announce that you are in love!” Divya was hurt.
“You don’t know my (grand) uncle. He is old school, he couldn’t digest a love affair.”
“But he is a politician, a minister. He cannot be regressive like that!”
“Yeah… Divya, I know. But I don’t want him to call up my parents in the evening and tell them that he had caught me riding around the city with a girl. And you know. He has a quick temper. What if he asks the driver to stop the car, and shouts at me in public for this! I will be hugely insulted before the policemen.”
I could feel Divya nod sitting on the pillion.
“Still… I won’t blame him.”
“He cares a lot about me. He loves me a lot, Divya.”
CV Padmarajan, ex-minister who also acted as our CM for a while is my relative. At least on papers. Don’t ask me how close or distant the relationship is. One of my grand-aunts got hospitalised running out of her breath clarifying it to us. The minister wouldn’t know me, I was sure, but what gave me some relief all along was the fact that he didn’t know my cousins as well. Still we grew up strutting around in our circles crowing about the minister connection.
The light that I saw in Divya’s eyes when I first told her this before our marriage could have prompted me to drive the nail harder.
“So he calls your amma, every evening?”
“Every single evening, Divya, every single evening. My mother. She’s his favourite niece, you know?”
Readers, don’t look at me that way. You must know that my lies never came anywhere up to what my cousins were telling around.
One told her lover that uncle used to make fantastic egg omelettes whenever he visited her home. A cousin in Thrissur, Keeran, used to sob bitterly on the shoulders of his girl, displaying the thrash-marks on his legs. “Bitter childhood, Deepa. Uncle used to get angry whenever I scored low marks.” Thus absolving his poor father of the crime.
After my marriage Divya was curious. “Why is he not coming?” “Why is he not calling your amma?” I found one excuse after the other, always scraping at the bottom of the barrel for new ideas. When I thought I could somehow get away with the lie, circumstances threw me hard into the wedding reception of a relative. There I found him sitting near me, the grand-uncle. I looked away. It was then I saw Divya sitting at the far end of the hall waving frantically at me. “What?” I gestured. She pointed out to me to check who was sitting near me digging into his meals. I turned, looked, got startled for my wife. Oh! I could not thank her enough, I told Divya through gestures, for the prompt signal. Big wife was watching. Egged on by that presence I opened my nervous gambit.
“Uncle, I am your relative.” I smiled.
He slowly turned to me, the whole body gyrating because of old age; he took a look, sizing me up. “How?”
“I am Indira’s son.” I beamed.
“Who is Indira?”
I looked at him blankly. This would not do. I turned to Divya, there she was, smiling. I flashed back a smile and turned again to uncle.
I turned and smiled again to Divya, this time waving with my hands.
If only someone handed me a paper and pencil I wished. It was then I saw that heap of rice on my leaf. I smiled.
“Uncle. I will explain.”
It was on that heap of a family I had painstakingly built with rice that the bloody sambar rained down. I knew I had failed miserably. After the sambar fiasco I didn’t say another word to the uncle, and quietly consumed my family, er, my meals. As I got to the washbasin, all dejected, Divya pinched me hard my on my shoulder.
“Liar. You didn’t tell me you were this close. You were both eating from the same leaf, weren’t you?”
I turned towards her. She meant it, I could tell that from her eyes. I felt a sudden urge to hug her then and there. I was about to, but suddenly saw to my horror, Padmarajan uncle walking towards us. I took my wife’s hand, turned, and sprinted into the crowd. The last I wanted that evening was my wife asking me to tell uncle how she was related to him through me!