By T.S. NAGARAJAN
I do not know where to begin but I do know where it ended.
So many years together, so many memories. Losing her has changed my life.
Going back now to an empty house in Bangalore is difficult. There is no one to greet you. The house with its silence seems to grieve with you.
Somehow, this place doesn’t seem to fit me since Meenakshi died; but I really have to live here.
I love this place. It is my home.
Our house in Bangalore meant everything to both of us. We spent 20 of the full 50 years of our married life in this home. The house grew with us and acquired all its colours and glory. We developed a beautiful garden. Meenakshi was its brain. I was only the brawn.
Instead of a compound, we preferred a line of crotons as a green wall in front. Today, as I water them every evening, the plants remind me of the green fingers that nurtured them as they grew from little saplings to tall, robust and colourful sentinels. Meenakshi was a great gardener. She had magic in her hands. Whatever she touched flourished.
Life rolled on at an enjoyable pace for ten years. As all good things come to an end, we found it difficult to manage the garden. After much deliberation, we came to the painful decision to close the garden and pave the space around the house with grey granite.
I put in an ad in the paper announcing the sale of the garden. A few days later, an old gentleman arrived with a carrier van to buy the garden. After the deal, Meenakshi urged me to take some photographs of the garden and vanished from the scene.
She found it too difficult to witness the departure of her loved ones. The garden vanished in a jiffy.
As one grows older, passing through the realities of life, dreams die. But I still keep intact my memories of sharing an exciting life with someone special.
Meenakshi is dead.
How am I to tell you?
One does not fix appointments with fate.
There is a rigid lump in my throat. I am learning to hold on and come to terms with the reality that she is no more. Old age demands dignity. I manage a stoic face with a deliberate smile. Cross-sections of my life with her spring involuntarily from my memory. I have enough of them to ruminate upon.
Madurai to Delhi was a huge change for Menakshi. A few weeks after our wedding in the temple-town, she travelled by air for the first time and landed in the capital to a noisy welcome from my friends.
They were stunned by her beauty.
She looked like one of those chiselled figurines in the Madurai temple, her skin shining like ebony in the midday sun and eyes those of angels. She appeared as though she had descended from heaven just to taunt the blue-blooded beauties of Delhi.
Delhi’s weather was an entirely new experience for her. In summer, she loved the cooling rain that followed the dust storms, and wondered why in Delhi no one carried umbrellas while walking in the summer sun. She loved the exhilarating aroma from the wet khus curtains.
“Phatphatis”, Delhi’s famous motorcycle rickshaws, thrilled her. She had never seen a Sikh. She was puzzled most by the sight of a Sardarji drying his hair in the winter sun. Khushwant Singh was the first Sikh she saw and spoke with. He was also the first to plant a soft kiss on her cheek.
In course of time, she fell in love with Delhi, its people and their manners and customs. It was in Delhi that our two daughters, Kalyani and Vasanti, grew up and were married. We spent 30 long years in the Capital. They were indeed the sunshine years of our life.
Moving from Delhi to Bangalore was like going back home. A welcome change. We loved the city’s salubrious weather and the slow pace of life.
Riding on a Vespa scooter, we discovered Bangalore together.
Not knowing Kannada was a big handicap for Meenakshi. But she learnt the language by persisting to speak, despite the initial imperfections. In a few years, she was able to speak well, and relate easily with the women in the neighbourhood.
One day, I heard her speak in Kannada to a gathering of women in the temple behind our home. It was a meeting to form a women’s committee. She was elected its first secretary.
Our scootering adventures became less frequent after sometime. We then turned to walking. Most friends in the area got used to seeing us always together. If, for some reason, Meenakshi stayed back, I had to explain her absence to the friends I met on the way. To avoid this, I made it a point to cancel my walks on the days she didn’t go.
One evening, barely a few minutes after we had left home for a walk, I found Meenakshi lagging behind, unable to keep pace with me. This was unusual. I asked her what was the matter. She said that she was feeling exhausted and wanted to return home.
As we turned back, I found her collapsing on the road, a small by-lane in the area, and sweating profusely. I was shocked to see her lying on the road, unable to talk. I sensed something serious. A passer-by helped me lift her and take her home in an auto-rickshaw.
I managed to put her on the bed. Her pulse was terribly low. I gave her a glass of sugared water, thinking she might have had low blood sugar. She was diabetic. It might also be a heart attack, I thought. I put in a tablet of Sorbitrate (nitroglycerine, very helpful in such situations) under her tongue.
I had saved a strip of this drug for an emergency. Soon after the first aid, I phoned my grandson Duglu and told him that his grandma was sinking and urged him to rush home with his parents. They arrived quickly accompanied by a hospital ambulance.
She was given emergency treatment in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Her condition stabilised by late in the night. She was declared out of danger the next day. A coronary angioplasty was done. The doctors found an advanced block in one of the arteries. She was given a stent. She remained in the hospital for a few days and returned home, bright and beautiful.
The entire family heaved a sigh of relief. After a few weeks of rest and recuperation, Meenakshi resumed her normal routine. She got up well before sunrise, helped herself to a cup of coffee, got the breakfast ready (invariably an oatmeal), finished the day’s cooking and sat down in the favourite rattan chair in her room with the prayer book in hand. This was her meditation time. I made it a point not to disturb her.
It was also the time when some women, who swept the road every morning, her best friends, would drop in for their daily bible-babble. She wouldn’t mind their intrusion. She would make coffee for them. (A whole group of them came home to see me and condole her death. This was her speciality. She would relate with everyone on equal terms.)
Within months after she arrived in Delhi after the wedding, we attended a reception to the President of Ghana at Hyderabad House. It was hosted by Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Meenakshi saw Jawaharlal Nehru escorting his guest into the hall and whispered to me that she wanted to meet Nehru.
I told her that I didn’t know the Prime Minister personally. Barely I had finished saying this, she rushed through the gathering towards where Nehru was talking with some people. The next moment, I saw her talking with the Prime Minister.
The picture became a hit in the family back home in Madurai.
Another interesting incident involving Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the famous Indian writer, comes to my mind. We had met him a few times at Khushwant Singh’s place. When Khushwant Singh became editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, he wanted me to do some interesting pictures of Nirad Babu to illustrate a series of articles by him for the magazine.
Accompanied by Meenakshi, I went to the writer’s home. Nirad Babu had become a familiar figure walking the lanes and quadrangles of the Mori Gate area of old Delhi; a thin, short, spry man in dhoti and kurta. He would usually don Bengali clothes at home. His suits and the hats were reserved for his walks. He was proud of everything British. He loved showing off his collection of a variety of items, especially those made in England, to his visitors.
As he talked with us, he opened the shoe rack and pulled out a pair of shining Oxford shoes and began explaining its special features. When he brought the shoes somewhat close to Meenakshi, urging her to see them, she boxed her nose and politely pushed the shoes back telling him “Nirad Babu, thus far and no further, please.”
Nirad didn’t mind her comment. He had a hearty laugh with us, and continued singing in praise of the English shoes. Fame or position of people just didn’t bother her. She was frank. She was candid. She was brave. She had nothing to conceal. She was true to herself.
I found a big change in her in the years after her heart attack. She became very spiritual and often talked about God. She joined a group of women, all her friends, and started attending prayer meetings every Saturday morning. She stopped going out for walks because of pain in the knees.
She spent minimum time in the kitchen and would retire to her room when once the morning chores were over. Her interest in TV serials waned.
In the evenings, when I was busy with my computer in my room, she preferred to lie down on the couch in the drawing room waiting for me to come and sit next to her. This is the time we listened to classical music. Half past eight was dinner time. Thereafter, we would retire for the day.
Meenakshi was deeply interested in music and loved listening to her favourite singers. She was close to the diva M.S. Subbulakshmi. They became good friends when we spent three days in MS’ home in Madras documenting her life in pictures.
MS made it a point to meet Meenakshi whenever she came to Delhi or Bangalore. They would discuss not music but cooking.
We generally stayed at home and talked a good deal on various subjects. We listened to each other with steadfast attention. Often we discussed serious subjects like life, death and even God. We also indulged in a bit of gossip about the goings-on in the neighbourhood.
We derived a vicarious delight in giving nicknames to people. For example, we named a vegetable seller, who came every morning announcing his wares at a high musical pitch, “Bhimsen”, after the music maestro Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Meenakshi felt that Bhimsen was indeed blessed with a great voice; if he had only taken to music, he would have been a celebrity.
The woman, who swept the road, Lakshmi was called “R.L.”, Road Lakshmi. After she left, she was replaced by another Lakshmi. The new Lakshmi was called “N.R.L.”, New Road Lakshmi.
We found delight even in seemingly simple things in life. This is what perhaps made our life an enjoyable journey.