He knew the day she was born, that there would be heartache. It was always that way, raising a girl in S.C. Colony, but for the moment, she was perfect. Tiny face, tiny feet, tiny fist which grasped his thumb in sleep.
Pavithra was Rani and Murugan’s first baby.
The couple had no clue how to parent, but in S.C. Colony, there was an endless supply of able-bodied grannies and loud-mouthed aunties.
Two years later, Rani gave birth to their son Parthiban and promptly had her tubes tied. Her child-birthing years were over by the age of eighteen.
The people of S.C. Colony had always led a life of labor—chop the weeds, dig the holes, make the bricks, harvest the grain, cut the wood, mix concrete—all under the leathering sun.
Their children would start working from the age of eight. They would marry young, have babies as teen-agers, burn out by fifty, live another five or ten years, then blink off one by one.
Murugan’s father Oondiveeran was one of those who had died young.
His tough-fibered wife Mariammal had been the village belle in her day,
but raising five shiny-faced kids and years of toil had taken a toll.
Murugeswari was their first, then came Murugan, Mahalakshmi, Palanichamy, and finally Vijayalakshmi, the one who married for love.
After Appa died, twenty-year old Murugan was told to marry Rani, his 16-year-old cousin. The elders blessed their union and Murugan became the head of his family.
Though Rani could barely write her name, Murugan had made it through 8th grade. That was eight more years of schooling than the previous generation had achieved.
And he had a dream. Murugan believed that their Pavithra and Parthiban would be the first in their family to finish high school. They would fly away to that golden place, taking their parents with them.
Murugan imagined being a grandfather in a nice suburb like Lakshmi Nagar, where citrus-colored bungalows were sprouting faster than flamboyant trees. Their bungalow would have a rooftop view of the mountains.
Murugan imagined purring over to Raj Bhavan on his new motorcycle, his three-year-old granddaughter sitting in front clapping her hands. She would be dressed in fluffy chiffon, her big eyes lined with kohl, jasmine in her hair. Murugan would be wearing a neatly pressed white veshti. They would sit at their own table and after sprinkling their banana leaf plates with water, Murugan would order special pooris with potato ginger masala.
On their way home, the two would stop at his favorite petti kadai to buy chocolates. Murugan would then send the little girl off to help Granny Rani while he would sit on the porch in a red plastic chair, reading the paper. A little nap, chicken curry at noon, another nap, masala tea at four and a walk to main street to chat with his friends. Big screen TV in the evening. A light supper. A cozy sleep on a real mattress in an air-conditioned bedroom. No more fights with money-lenders when he couldn’t pay. No more worry about rent or food or the marriages of his children.
As a young father, Murugan worked as a cooli in the spice plantations of the Cardamom Hills where he could earn higher wages. Rani worked first as a field laborer and later in a cotton mill.
Granny and her childless sister, Big Auntie, would care for the children. When the kids were old enough for middle school, Murugan came home from the mountains to supervise their education. He got a job caring for cows in a local dairy. All his extra money went to after-school tutoring.
Unlike many others in S.C. Colony who still lived in shacks, Murugan’s father had managed to get government funds to build the brick and plaster home where they now lived.
Pavithra had their own room because she was a girl.
Murugan and Rani shared a room with Parthiban.
There was a sitting room, a small side room for granny, a pooja room in the southwest corner, and an indoor kitchen and washroom.
Water, when available, had to be hauled from the communal plastic tank 100 meters away. Or by bicycle from Bodi town, a distance of two kilometers.
Their backyard opened to a small shrine in a grove of trees. Between their house and the shrine,
Murugan had built a shack for Big Auntie under a yellow hibiscus tree.
He also built a little brick hen house for his chickens. Recently his hen had hatched 11 chicks, thanks to the services of a local rooster. Murugan loved his chickens. He figured that between keeping the females and selling the males, they could make some decent money. Not bad, going from one chicken to a dozen in one go.
After Pavithra had passed her eighth grade exams, Murugan borrowed money and put her into Pankajam Higher Secondary School for Girls.
Paying the extra fees for a private education meant yet another loan from the money-lender. The 24% interest per year stung, but he could see no other way.
Pavithra passed Ninth and even the tough Tenth grade final exam, but one February morning a month after the harvest festival, she came home and announced that she had dropped out of school.
“No! You can’t do that,” Murugan said.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She rushed into her messy little room and turned on her C.D. player.
“You listen when I’m talking to you!”
“Slowly,” Rani said. “Later.”
That evening after his anger had cooled, Murugan invited his daughter to accompany him to Bodi town. She accepted with a shrug. It was a ritual the two had enjoyed since she had been little. Sometimes he even took her out to eat special pooris in Raj Bhavan, but not recently. These days it seemed like his daughter had become a stranger.
They crowded into a crowded share auto and alighted ten minutes later by the bus stand. It was just past the 7:00 PM power cut and the winter air was settling over the town. Little pushcarts selling tapioca chips, bananas, and ready-made clothing were lit by petromaxes. The tube lights in larger stores were powered by little red Honda generators that spewed kerosene exhaust and droned in cahoots with the traffic.
They walked past the Thevar Statue and down the chaotic Kamaraj Bazaar Road, avoiding cycles and two-wheelers and jigging in and out of the scores of villagers who had come to town to shop.
“There’s Dr. Ravindranath’s clinic,” Pavithra said. “I wonder if he would even recognize me now.”
“I’m sure he would, considering all the times we brought you there for injections.”
Murugan bought her a string of jasmine from the line of flower sellers in front of the temple.
They stopped by a street vendor who was deep-frying yellow peppers dipped in channa batter. The man handed them each a bajji wrapped in a square of newspaper. Murugan took a nibble, but the heat made his front teeth ache.
“So what happened today at school?”
“I hate that science teacher. Senthil sahr thinks he’s so smart, but he’s an ass.”
“But science is really important if you want to become a nurse.”
“I’m done with school. You can get me work in one of the local nursing homes and I’ll learn on the job. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”
Murugan bit into his bajji, relishing the moist burst of flavor, the salty crunch.
“But you’ve only finished 10th. You can’t be a nurse until you pass 12th, , unless you just want to be a helper or a cleaner.”
“Whatever. I’m not returning to Pankajam. There’s no way I’ll let that eggplant bash my head against the wall again.”
Murugan pulled her away from the other customers.
“He did what!”
“He grabbed my braid and pushed me into the wall. Here, see on the side of my scull? Feel this bump?”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
Murugan gulped down the rest of his bajji and threw the crumpled paper into the open sewer. “You must have done something to make him angry.”
“Well, maybe I did cause him to burn a bit. He asked me the formula of sulfuric acid and I said ‘ H something and a 2 or a 3 and maybe an O, or maybe not, and who cares, what’s that got to do with life?’ He said I had a bad attitude and that’s why I’m failing and I said that if he would teach properly, all those stupid facts might have a chance to rise into our brains. That’s when he lost his temper.”
“You were wrong to talk back like that. What’s gotten into you these days?” Murugan put his right hand on his chin and considered what to say. The thought of a man harming his daughter made him burn, and not just a bit. “I don’t pay all that money to have teachers attack my daughter! I’m going straight to the headmistress tomorrow. I’ll go to the newspapers. If the public hears that a male teacher is assaulting an S.C. girl, they will have huge trouble!”
The next noon Murugan cycled to the multi-storied yellow school opposite the petrol bunk and entered the Pankajam campus through the iron-grilled gate. The watchman directed him across the dusty courtyard to the headmistress’s office. Groups of girls in uniforms, their hair tied up in twin braids, were lounging under the shade of old neem trees.
The headmistress welcomed him into her office and removed her reading glasses.
Murugan’s voice trembled as he stated his case. The H.M. listened carefully, a grave expression on her face.
“This will never do.”
She directed her assistant to call the concerned teacher. Unlike the rogue that Murugan had imagined, the man was thin and mild mannered and wore a faded safari suit. He began to fidget when the H.M. explained who Murugan was.
“I like Pavithra, but lately she’s been refusing to study. She just failed her quarterly exam and she’s always talking back, making me lose respect in the classroom.”
He studied his bare feet while the H.M. gazed at him intently.
“But that doesn’t excuse my behavior.” He looked up and wrapped his arms in front of him. “I am truly sorry for pushing her like that, sir. Please have her come back to class. I will give her passing marks in the exam she failed and do my level best to help her get through the finals in April.”
A few days later, Pavithra went back to school and with the help of extra study sessions, passed the year-end exam. After a short summer break, she went back to Pankajam for twelfth, her Plus Two year.
Murugan put Parthiban into tenth grade in a good school an hour away, unable to get a seat in the private Z.K.M. School in Bodi.
Both children studied hard studied hard and attended all the after school study sessions. The Deepavali festival in October came and went. The rains gave way to the cold season which yielded in due course to the fiery weather of March and April. Pavithra and all her friends were studying furiously for the big Plus Two Exam. Her curriculum track had papers in English, Tamil, Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics.
“How are you feeling about the exam?” Murugan asked her.
“I’m sure I’ll pass. Then I can apply to nursing college. I’ll get to wear a little white cap and start IV’s and help sick people!”
Exams over, Pavithra spent part of the summer with her brother and her two little cousins in the countryside on the other side of the district.
They took walks in the fields, watched the windmill generators go round and round and played games like when they had been small.
The two little girls vied for the attention of the handsome Parthiban.
Back home, Pavithra helped with housework and her father’s chickens. Of the original eleven chicks, four had been lost to crows and street dogs. Each night, she made sure all seven chicks and their mama were safe inside the little hen house.
On water day twice a week, Pavithra would go out in her nighty and jostle with the neighbor ladies, as they fought for turns to fill their plastic water pots at the neighborhood tap.
She would then haul the water home, one pot on her head and one on her left hip. There was never enough, so Murugan would rise at 5:00 AM to cycle into Bodi where he was able to procure three pots of water from the township supply.
During the third week in May as the date for exam results drew near, Pavithra would spend hours chatting with her girl friends on her cell phone. She stopped helping with housework and holed herself up in her stuffy room, or else sat on the steps of the little temple behind the house and read tattered magazines about beauty and movie stars.
After sunset on the evening of the big announcement, Murugan cycled into Bodi, Pavithra perched sidesaddle on his carrier. They stopped near Subha Textiles and Murugan locked his cycle. Pavithra led him up the narrow stairs to DIGITECH Computer Centre and entered the boxy space crammed with old computers. The air smelled of sweat and cologne, whipped around by dusty fans. Pavithra’s classmate, whose cousin was the manager, greeted them. Sweat poured down Murugan’s chest, soaking through his cotton shirt.
“I passed!” the girl said. “So did Kavitha and Darshini. I’m sure you did too. Come, let’s look up your results.”
The friend opened a screen and typed in ‘dge.tn.gov.in/exams/hsc.htm’. Murugan watched as the girl entered Pavithra’s ID number. In his day, kids would have to jostle for space in front of the announcement board at school, scanning a maze of numbers as they searched for their results. One of the neighbor girls had drunk poison after learning that she had failed. Though her family had rushed her to the Government Hospital where her stomach was pumped, she had died. At least now, the Directorate of Government Examinations allowed students to retake the subjects in which they had failed.
The internet was slow but finally Pavithra’s results popped up. Murugan searched for the word PASS.
Pavithra had a little pout as she jotted down the result numbers: Tamil 110 of 200, English 82 of 200, Chemistry 40/50 for practical and 25/150 for theory for a total of 65 of 200, Maths 72 of 200, Biology 90 of 200 and Physics 58 of 200. Overall 477.
“You passed, right?” Murugan pointed at the flickering screen. “You got more than 420.”
Pavithra’s face was distorted, puffy. Her friend tried to smile.
“Let’s go home, Appa.” She stood up and headed down the stairs.
“Four hundred and seventy-seven isn’t bad. Those subjects are really tough.”
“You have to have at least 70 in each subject, Appa. I failed Chemistry and Physics. It’s over.”
“There must be some mistake.”
They stopped near Murugan’s cycle.
“Take me home. I can’t stand this town a minute more.”
“But you can take the retest in those two subjects, right?”
“I’m done, Appa. You just don’t get it. All my other friends passed. I’m the only one who failed. I’d be too ashamed to fail again.”
“But you’ve come so far. Look, I’ll pay for a tutor. Just a little more. Remember about becoming a nurse.”
“No! Just stop, or I’ll walk home alone in the dark.”
About a week later, Murugan had just finished his morning bath and was feeding some kitchen scraps to his remaining chicks. Two more had been killed the day before by mongooses.
He wore only a blue plaid lungi and relished the cool morning air against his bare chest. Rani was still in her ruffled nighty and was slapping a soapy shirt against their washing stone. The rinse water drained across the dirt to a marigold and two chili plants that Granny had planted. Parthiban was sitting on the back steps, drinking his morning tea. He was dressed in his peach and maroon school uniform, ready to catch the town bus to his high school.
Murugan looked up to see Pavithra emerge from the house.
“Looks like lazy girl finally woke up,” Parthiban said. “You’re early. It’s not even noon yet.”
Pavithra grabbed her thumbi’s ear and twisted. Murugan was surprised to see her dressed so nicely and with make-up. Especially after the way she had been moping around all week.
“This is what I’ve decided to do,” she announced. “I’m going to study computers at DIGITECH. All my friends have enrolled in the beginning class which starts tomorrow.”
“Is it free?” Rani asked.
“Of course not. Normally they charge 15,000 rupees but since my pretest was higher than 60%, they’ll let me in for only 6000.”
“Six thousand! That’s twice of what I earn in a month at the mill,” Rani said.
“Appa! It’s really, really important. I’ve saved 2000 rupees from my allowance over the last three years. Have you noticed I haven’t bought any new clothes lately? I’ll put in every single paisa of my money and you can pay the rest.”
Murugan couldn’t imagine finding that kind of cash. He knelt down to study the chicks. Three looked like females and the two larger ones with tattered necks would definitely turn into roosters. At full size, they would fetch a decent price in town.
“Appa, you’re not listening!”
Murugan stood up and pressed his palms into his lower back. “Why should I help with all that computer business when you still haven’t bothered to review chemistry and physics. You only get one chance to finish Plus Two. Otherwise you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
“Like I keep saying, I’m not going to take the retest! Please. You have to know computers these days for jobs. Besides, the Chief Minister is giving all the 12th grade students a laptop next week. My name’s on the list. Can you believe it? I’m going to have my own laptop. DIGITECH will teach me everything in 6 weeks. I’ll learn Basic and Microsoft and Internet and everything!”
“Where am I going to get 4000 rupees?”
“Maybe you can borrow it from your boss?” Parthiban stood up next to his sister. “Akka’s right about computers. They are the way of the future.”
“We barely have enough money to buy onions, what with all the loan repayments I have to make each month. I had to ask for a salary advance just to refill our cooking gas cylinder this month. This class sounds like a complete waste.”
“Appa!” Pavithra raised two hands and shook them at him. “Please! I’ll help wash all the dishes and all the clothes for a month.”
Murugan pursed his lips and blew out slowly through his moustache. “Fine, here’s what I’m willing to do. You talk to my sister Jeyalaksmi’s husband. I’ll ask him to phone you this evening and then we’ll see.”
“Him? He’ll just brag madamadan about how he dropped out in 8th grade to work in some mill and then studied hard in night school so he could pass his Plus Two and now is a big government official and I should be like him and blah blah.”
“He’s a Revenue Inspector! That’s no joke.”
“Fine fine, I’ll listen to his speech. I might even be polite. Then can I study computer?”
The next morning before breakfast, Pavithra announced that she was going to retake her physics and chemistry. The family was standing near the kitchen while Rani sautéed curry leaves and mustard seeds for the coconut chutney she had just ground in the mixie.
Granny had just finished frying a pile of crisp dosai and was rinsing a few aluminum plates.
“That’s excellent news,” Murugan said. “I’ll pay for a private tutor for you.”
“No need, Appa, I’ll just review my notes and the text books. No problem.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing. You know you’re going to feel so good when get your Plus Two Certificate. And then you’ll be eligible for the 50,000 rupees the government pays S.C. girls to help with their weddings.”
“Aiyoh! Please don’t talk about that, Appa. I’m nowhere near old enough.”
“I had already given birth to you and was pregnant with your thumbi when I was your age,” Rani said.
“Well I’m not you. I’m going to make something of my life.”
“Just study with the tutors, Akka,” Parthiban said. “Then you won’t fail this time.”
“You keep out of it, little boy.”
Without telling her father, Pavithra took all her allowance money and enrolled in the DIGITECH Computer course, promising to pay the balance later. In the evenings, she would try to explain to her father about keyboarding and word processing and spreadsheets. She pestered him until he finally relented and borrowed 4000 rupees for the rest of the tuition. After 6 weeks she received a very colorful ‘Certificate in Computer Applications’. It had her photo in the top right corner and was embossed with seals and stamps and green signatures.
Soon afterwards, Pavithra came home with her new laptop wrapped in plastic, a gift from the Chief Minister herself.
Murugan had never seen a laptop before. He was impressed at how she could click here and there and change the screens one after the other. It could even play Tamil movies in full color, songs too! So, his little daughter knew computer now. Maybe it hadn’t been a waste, that class. Maybe this powerful knowledge would lead to a high paying IT job in Theni. Or even in Chennai.
A month later just before Pooja Holidays in October, Pavithra completed her exam and after another week, took a share auto by herself to the computer center to look up her results. That evening when Murugan walked through the door, Pavithra handed him the print-out with the results. When he saw that both numbers were below 70/200, his chest tightened. He frowned at her.
She shrugged. “I told you this was all a waste of time.”
“You would have passed if you had taken up my advice and worked with a tutor! That’s their job, helping stubborn girls like you. You’ve just thrown away two years of hard work and money. My money.”
“So because I didn’t pass, you think I should just become a sweeper or something?” She began to cry.
“Maybe that’s all you’re good for.”
“You just don’t get it!” Pavithra wiped her eyes on her selvar sleeve and ran into her room. A few seconds later she returned and thrust a tattered book of practice test questions at her father.
“Here, look at these. Please. Even Dr. Ravindranath couldn’t answer this stuff. Try reading one yourself. Do you understand a word of any of it? And we’re supposed to memorize thousands of these and then the wicked exam committee changes them just a little so that in the real test you get tricked.”
Murugan read through a question and its’ multiple choice answers.
22. An organic compound C4H10O when heated with excess HI gives only one type of alkyl iodide. The Compound is
(a) diethylether (b) methyl n-propylether
(c) methyl iso propyl ether (d) n-butyl alcohol
His daughter was right. He absolutely could make so sense of any of it. Still, lots of other kids managed to pass. Perhaps they were smarter. Or lucky enough to have a father with more than an 8th grade education.
He handed the booklet back to her. “Give this trash to Granny. She can burn it when she heats her bath water.”
After a promising start, the Northeast Monsoon sputtered out and crops began to wither. Parthiban was struggling in his new school but at least he was studying. His older sister, however, was still sitting around at home watching TV serials. Murugan wasn’t happy to leave her there alone, but she flat out refused to try day labor or study in a third attempt to pass her exam. She had also stopped helping around the house.
One evening after removing his work clothes and putting on a comfortable lungi, he lay back on on his plastic woven cot under the fan and sighed. Big Auntie was banging an aluminum pail in the bathroom.
“Maybe after they marry you off, I can have that room of yours,” Big Auntie said. “Sure would be better than my shack.”
“Nobody is marrying me off!”
“That’s not what I’ve heard. Maamaa is coming over tonight to discuss your future. His daughter was a fancy one like you. Adeyappa, you should have seen how he used to beat her. Now she does construction work as a chithaal. Earns decent money too.”
“If you love you older brother so much, go live with him instead of hanging around here, spitting your tobacco juice all over the place.”
Murugan dragged himself up and sat on the edge of his bed. He had completely forgotten that he had asked his mother’s brother to come over to help with his daughter.
“Big Auntie’s right,” Parthiban said. He came out of his room and stood in his sister’s doorway. “You should get married.”
“Shut-up.” She tossed a plastic box at him.
“Just think. When you have kids, I will be their uncle. Me, Parthiban, the big man, the Maamaa of the family. I’ll boss you around good.”
“You can’t even grow a moustache, powder boy.”
A gust of wind burst through the front door, hurling a cloud of dust and dry neem leaves into Murugan’s room. He stood up, put on a fresh shirt, and ran a comb through his hair.
Maybe family pressure would help get Pavithra back on track.
Around 7:00 P.M. after Rani had come home from the mill and was rushing around making tea, Maamaa arrived. He was in his seventies and had hair like a brush that had been singed over an open flame. His face was deeply lined and he had small, dark eyes.
After serving tea on the back steps, Murugan summarized the problem. Rani, Granny, Big Auntie, and Parthiban were present. Pavithra stood near the hibiscus tree, her back turned towards the group.
“Well,” Maamaa said. “It seems simple to me. Obviously we can’t have a teen-aged girl sitting around at home alone, especially when Granny and Big Auntie are off gathering neem berries. If the girl doesn’t want to study, let her work with the old ladies.”
“Nice joke,” Big Auntie said. “She would faint after an hour. We don’t want her.”
“Then make her clean manure on your cow farm,” Maamaa said. “There’s nothing lowly about that. I’ve done it, Rani’s done it. You’re doing it. Work is work. Then maybe she’ll realize that she has to study if she doesn’t want this kind of life.”
“The only way to get her to do that,” Big Auntie said, “would be to put a cord through her nostrils like a cow and tie her to a post. She hardly lifts a finger to help us in the kitchen any more.”
“Oh leave her, the poor dear,” Granny said. “It’s hard for kids these days.”
“Especially for lazy ones. She doesn’t even get the water, but still demands that you serve her tea while she’s watching movies.”
“How about if she joins me in the cotton mill?” Rani said. “I’ve heard there are a few openings.”
“What do you think, Pavithra?” Murugan asked. “You could earn some money until you figure out what to do next. Come and join us so we can talk. Pavithra!”
She kept her distance, her back still turned. Parthiban went to her and tried to pull her towards the group. She gave him a shove.
“Well, then there is no other option but to marry her off,” Big Auntie said. “Cousin Rajan over in Andipatti has a son and they’ve expressed some interest in her.”
“What’s he do?” Rani asked.
“He’s a taxi driver. Supposed to be nice. Doesn’t drink.
“Not yet, anyway,” Maamaa said. “Maybe he’s OK. We could check him out. The point is, once she’s married off, then the girl is their worry.”
“I doubt she’d agree,” Granny said. “If we’re talking about the same boy, he’s rather short and dark. That’s not the kind she hopes to marry.”
Pavithra walked quickly towards them, he eyebrows furrowed. She pushed past her mother and went down the hall to her room. Parthiban followed her.
The group sat in silence. Gusts of wind from an impending storm were cracking twigs from the trees. Plastic litter from the neighbor’s plot blew into their yard.
Parthiban returned. “She says to tell you that if you force her to marry, she’ll drink poison.”
Murugan caught his breath. He had never heard Pavithra talk like that before. He thought of the other schoolgirl, the one who had died.
“She’s just bluffing,” Maamaa said. “If she were my daughter, I’d buy the poison myself and tell her to drink it in front of me while I described exactly how painful and horrible such a death would be.”
“You all should go easy on her. It’s really hard to be at home when all her friends are having fun in college. That Plus Two exam is a killer. Me, I’m thinking of quitting after tenth. If Pavithra can’t pass, what about me? She’s much smarter.”
The words hit Murugan in the stomach. He felt almost as if he were detaching from the scene, as if the wind was sucking the liquid out of his core. His eyes fell on the chili plants near the washing stone. Their leaves had fallen, leaving only a few shriveled green chilies.
“Be a man, Murugan,” Maamaa said. “You should grab that girl and beat some sense into her. Here, I’ll do it for you. Where’s my stick? It’s time somebody straightens her out.”
“Nobody is striking my daughter!” Rani’s voice was uncharacteristically sharp. “It’s late, Maamaa. Perhaps we should all get some sleep.”
The old man found his stick and stood up stiffly. “The way you people spoil your kids these days! It’s all going to hell, I tell you.”
“Rani’s right,” Granny said. “We’re all tired. I think that if we don’t know what to do, it’s best to do nothing.”
“Whatever. She’s your head-ache.”
After the others had gone, Murugan was left alone on the back steps. The power went off and all was very dark, save for a waning sliver of moon behind thick clouds. Dust settled on his neck. His eyes felt gritty.
What if Parthiban really dropped out? Or ran off to Coimbatore in search of easy money and the family didn’t know where he was? And what if Pavithra became so depressed she really did drink poison? How had his bright little schoolgirl taken such a turn? Perhaps Maamaa was right. It is all going to hell. Maybe all this schooling had been a mistake.
Murugan remembered the chickens. He stood up abruptly and called into the house. “Rani, did you put the chicks in?”
She answered from the candle-lit kitchen. “No, I barely got home in time to make tea for Maamaa.”
Murugan rushed out and began to search the yard with his fading rechargeable torch. Perhaps they all went into the hen house themselves. He knelt down to look. Nothing. He searched the trees.
After five minutes he found the hen roosting high on her favorite branch. Alone.
Murugan stood there blinking, the wind rushing his ears…you carefully put each egg into a sand-filled chetti and keep it next to your bed and when the hen finally gets broody you place them under her and watch over her for 21 days till they finally hatch–eleven chicks so enthusiastic in their pecking and flapping, perfect little babies, tiny faces, tiny feet, tiny balls of fluff in sleep. You lock them up safe each night, they grow–but one by one they’re snatched, torn, swallowed.
There was no rain that night; neither was there a lull in the gusty wind.
Over the next few days, Murugan found it difficult to wake up and haul himself over to Bodi to fill his water pots, to wash and dress and pack his tiffin lunch and cycle to work against the heavy west wind and muck out the manure and cut the cow grass which left his arms stinging from the razor cuts and salt. At 6:00 P.M. he would wash up and cycle home to find Rani arguing with his daughter in her messy room, hair uncombed, dressed in a wrinkled nighty.
Then one night the arguing stopped. Murugan came home and found Pavithra coughing till she choked, her voice thick, her nose blocked. And she was shivering and so very weak.
Murugan gently felt her throat with the back of his hand. Her fever was raging.
“We’ve got to bring you to Dr. Ravindranath for an injection, right away.”
“Just leave me, Appa. I hurt too much to move.”
“Rani, dress her in something clean and comb her hair. I’m calling an auto.”
A half hour later, they arrived at the pediatrician’s busy evening clinic. Rani and Murugan supported Pavithra up the stairs. The waiting room was full of worried mothers with their kids. Dr. Ravindranath was behind a partition in his office, seeing a patient. The young receptionist took one look at Pavithra and called the doctor.
“You?” He inspected her face. “Is this really my little Pavithra? Vanakkam, Murugan, Rani. Please, bring her right in.”
He quickly finished writing a prescription and turned his attention to the girl. After doing a brief exam, he ordered two injections.
“It looks like she had a viral fever. She’ll need to be admitted over night with IV fluids, but not to worry. Pavithra, you’ll be fine soon.” He patted her on the shoulder. “So what are you doing these days, anyway? Must be about finished with school.”
She looked at her parents.
Murugan explained how she had failed Plus 2 and the retest and now was languishing in her room.
“What! A beautiful, talented young girl like you wasting away at home? This cannot be. Tell you what. Give yourself a week to recover from this flu, then come right back here. I’m going to give you a job as a nursing assistant. We’re looking for somebody just like you.”
“But I don’t have experience.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’ll teach you everything. Don’t disappoint me, now Pavithra. Promise me that you’ll come.”
A year passed. Pavithra took to her new job and learned quickly.
Her hours were from 11 AM to 4:00 PM, then again from 6:00 to 9:00 in the evenings with all night shifts twice a week.
During the day, she would take a share auto to work, but every evening no matter how tired, her father would pick her up. Dr. Ravindranath paid her 3000 rupees per month after her training period was over.
She gave all her money to her father who put 300 per month in her hands for make-up and threading her eyebrows and whatnot. The balance 2700 went straight into a savings account in her name.
One Sunday morning, Pavithra told her father that the doctor wanted her to come to work an hour early. She asked her Appa to drive her in on the secondhand moped he had just purchased.
It was one of those special monsoon mornings in June, the type where the mountains are exquisite, showers accentuating their peaks and valleys, a day when rainbows pop out at sunrise– full double rainbows.
The west wind was comfortable and the colors! Everything looked as if glory had been poured into each rock and blade of grass. As they drove past Lakshmi Nagar suburb, Murugan smiled sadly at the new lemon, grape, and watermelon bungalows that had recently been built. That was one dream which would never come to pass.
As they approach the downtown, the mountains seemed almost near enough to touch, their grass-covered peaks looming high above the busy streets.
After pulling up in front of Dr. Ravindranath’s Clinic, Pavithra took her father’s hand.
“Va, appa! Let’s go across the street and eat in Raj Bhavan.”
“I thought you needed to be at work early.”
Murugan tried to resist her pull. “I already had breakfast.”
“Come on. I’ve never known you to say no to a special poori.”
She dragged him him to the restaurant, expertly avoiding two motorcycles and a bus in the cross traffic. After finding their favorite table, she called the waiter.
“Annae! Special poori for Appa. Pongal for me. And a vadai, if it’s hot.”
Pavithra looked particularly beautiful this morning, her voice like music, her big eyes lined with kohl, a double string of jasmine tied into her thick braid.
“Did you know that Parthiban has decided that he’s going to do Plus Two? He wants to go to college and become an electrical engineer.”
“Why doesn’t he tell me these things?”
“And today is his Vijay Superstar’s birthday. Parthiban has joined the local fan club. They all pooled their money and are providing a big lunch for the kids in the handicapped children’s home. In Vijay’s honor.”
The waiter brought their breakfast. Murugan tore off a large piece of his deep-fried poori and placed it into his mouth. Moist, crisp, just the right amount of salt. And the potato masala was perfect. He couldn’t help but gobble.
Pavithra ordered him another poori, then poked her father’s tummy. “Somebody’s pot is getting rather large. You’re not pregnant, are you?”
“Stop, you’re embarrassing me.” He poured some water into his mouth and swished. “So, how’s work?”
“Dr. Ravindranath is amazing. He lets me start IV’s now. Says I’m the best IV starter he’s even had!”
The waiter brought Murugan’s second poori, more puffed and golden than the first.
“And he’s really strict. The other day I forgot to charge somebody a hundred rupees. He took the money out of my paycheck. And you should have seen his face when we nurses stopped working and ran outside to watch a sami parade go by. Aiyoh, did he shout!”
She closed her banana leaf.
“But then two weeks ago, on a Sunday, he rented a van and took all us girls on a picnic with his family. We went up into the High Wavies to see the tea estates. I’ve never seen such green wonder before.” She raised her hand. “Annae! Two masala teas please!”
Murugan poured his tea back and forth between the stainless steel tumbler and cup to cool the fragrant liquid. He pursed his lips, looked at Pavithra, hesitated, then spoke.
“Granny told me she had a marriage inquiry about you yesterday. A distant relative. The boy works as a manager in Coimbatore.”
She blushed. “Is that so?”
When the waiter approached with the bill, Murugan raised his hand to take it. Pavithra grabbed it first, then reached into her little purse and handed the man 150 rupees. When Murugan objected and tried to get the money back, Pavithra grasped his cleanly shaven face with both hands and turned it towards hers.
“Djohh, Appa! Why do you think I wanted to eat out this morning?” She released him and gave her head a confident little shake. “Today your little Pavithra is paying.”