Monday, 25 August 2008

Pilgrimage: A short story

One
Pilgrimage.

A journey into the depths of faith within you.

Nothing to do with the external traversal.

Anu did not don the pretence of that long journey. No, she wasn't going to any shrine or temple. Just visiting her homeland after a long long time. A time long as the separation of the atma from the Paramatma, perhaps.

She tried to equate her journey to the pilgrimage for the umpteenth time. Why am I becoming so philosophical, she asked herself, again, for the umpteenth time. Of course this just had to happen. A visit back home after 30 long years was no joke.

If I had been as alienated from my roots as the other Malayalis in the North, it would have been just a tedious trip to a place you don't relate to, just for the sake of performing duties, or as a service to the ageing parents/ grandparents. But she was always the scary true-blue Keralite. Mouths the language like she was in the state all her life, writes in the language, and knows so much about Kerala. So unlike her fellow north-brought up 'Mallu's, many of who could not even say 'Malayalam' properly. Who spoke with an accent, "Enikku Malayalam kurachu kurachu ariyam (I know a little Malayalam)."

I wanted to be like them at a point of time. I wished my mother was not so strictly Keralite. I hoped I would not meet any more Malayalis so that I would gradually forget the language. But that never happened. She kept meeting Mallus from Kerala who longed to find someone who could converse freely in the language, and were always delighted to be with her. She could not escape them, wherever she went. Her friends called her the Mallu Magnet.

Now she realised what God had been doing to her. Guiding her to her real roots. Where she should be. Like the streams that should empty into the river and the river into the ocean, she should end at her journey at the soil, the waters of her homeland. Her long-lost homeland. The homeland she ever ignored, avoided.

Two
It wasn't her fault. She was born in Mumbai, then Bombay, and shifted to Pune for studies and work. She had never been outside Maharashtra except for 15-day visit to her hometown of Thrissur once in every five years. Then she got married. To another 'Mallu' settled in Mumbai, Rohit Menon. Her husband was so disconnected with Kerala that in their married life of 25 years, they never even talked of going to Kerala. Whenever she mentioned it in passing, he'd be annoyed. "Don't try your Malluism on me, Anu", he'd say. "I have no connections with that place except that my grandparents grew up there. For God's sake, even my parents have nothing to do with that communist land anymore!" Anu never bothered to carry the argument further. She wasn't very keen either.

Till when her younger child, Trisha, 7, once asked her a simple question in her usual language of English. Anu was brushing Trisha's hair after her evening bath.

"Mamma, why don't we speak Malyalam like Sangeetha does? She says it's bad if we are from Kerala and we can't speak Malyalam."
"O baby, that's ok. We are not from Kerala anyway, mamma's born and brought up in Maharashtra, and so is dada."
"But mamma, we cannot be Marathis, mamma. Sonu says anybody belongs to the place where their ancestors are from. And she says ancestors means our parents' parents' parents. So we are Malyalis no?"
"What do you kids do in school, huh? Discuss ancestral issues? Stop this rubbish and complete your homework."

But that night as she lay beside Rohit, an old Malayalam song suddenly came to her mind. Maamalakalk appurathu, marathaka pattuduthu malayalam ennoru naadundu, kochu... It was her father's favourite song and he listened to it on his old tape recorder even the day before he died. There is a land of Malayalam across the beautiful hills, that wears an emerald sari... Was it her land? Did she belong there?

When Raj Thackeray kicked up a row about Maharashtrians and outsiders, some of her 'outsider' friends had launched into an argument whether he was right or not. Did Mumbai make them, or did the people make Mumbai? She had felt very strange then. An urgent need to run towards the south. But Rohit showed no tension. He proudly proclaimed in their company's annual party, "I was born and brought up here. I am a Mumbaikar. I do not know Kerala; but I can take you to any corner of Maharashtra without hesitation." She could not share that sentiment, but smiled anyway.

Her children had many 'Mallu' friends, and they picked up some words very typical of Kerala. Da, pinne, poda, patti, amma, chetta, maashe, etc. She was surprised. But she noticed that they did not use it with her or Rohit. Trisha would mouth them unwittingly at times, and Rohit would look at me with critical eyes; but Anoop was very careful. She noticed that he had learnt many words and phrases, and heard them using to his friends on the phone. Later she discovered that his girlfriend was his motivation. But anyway, he had learnt because he wanted to. Trisha just picked up from her friends and her brother.

She felt so out of touch with herself. One night, Rohit was in Nagpur on an official tour, and she lay on the bed all alone, without his body greedy for hers. She thought of her self. What have I become? Just another 'homemaker'. A fashionable word for the same old job. She was a qualified lab technician, but she wouldn't work because Rohit adored her as a housewife. "You cook so damn well. You know Anu, Sumit's wife can't even make omelettes without burning them. He cooks at home, can you believe it? Whatever you say about women's emancipation and all that shit, you can't cook? That's ridiculous. What did you do all your life?"

Wasn't it the same me who smiled at that exclamation who once slapped a guy in the college for saying that his mother 'did nothing, just sat at home'. Wasn't it the same Anu who broke up with a gem of a boyfriend because he refused to learn to cook? Where did all that idealism go? What happened to the young energetic girl who knew a lot about the world, talked beyond her age, and had great ideas for society?

She sat up straight. No. I cannot be so servile to Rohit. I have to start using my own brains. I am not being the smug housewife. I have to shake it off me.

Three
She started reading again. Unnoticed by Rohit, she read Shashi Deshpande and Amrita Pritam, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, Shakespeare and Milton. She started going online and joined a couple of forums on Women's NGOs. She actively participated in forum discussions. Finally, she met Ananth.

He ran an NGO in Pune that worked for the working women facing domestic violence. She got highly involved with the work of 'Saccha Ghar', and also with Ananth. He was a Malayali who never forgot his roots. He could read and write Malayalam, and also wrote articles for Matrubhumi and some Malayalam magazines. She started spending more and more time out of home. Rohit started noticing this. But he never questioned her. The ridge between them widened each day, and they pretended not to notice. His tours increased, the nights they spent away from each other became more.

When Anu started first met Ananth after an online discussion, she already had enough free time, two teenage kids who were happy not to have a full-time at-home mother, a perpetually touring husband, and a two-wheeler at her disposal. Both of them were already quite impressed by each other in the virtual world, and the meeting only strengthened the impression. After a long time, she had someone to talk about Kerala, feminism, and life. Rohit had never been an intellectual partner, but then she had never realised her need for intellectual stimulation. Within three months' time she was sleeping with him too.

One night, Anu did not come back home. She was at Ananth's place, and Rohit, who was expected to return from a tour the next evening, came back to find the house lady-less. He called her mobile—switched off. The next morning she walked into the house to find Rohit really angry.

"Where were you all night?"

Anu hadn't expected him home. She fumbled for a credible answer.
"I told the kids..."
"Fuck the kids! Did you tell me? Who are you answerable to?"

Anu was enraged.
"Mind your words, Rohit. And I am not answerable to anyone!"
"Oh, that so? Then you may leave my house. I pay for the people here."
"Does that mean you have bought us?"

The voices were raised. Trisha was home, and she peeped out from her room.
"Mind what you are saying. If I leave you..."
"The hell it will make any difference. I can sustain myself, and my kids too! Thanks for feeding us all these years!"

Both Rohit and Trisha seemed a little taken aback. She turned to Trisha, "Do you want to come with me or stay back here with this fool?"

Trisha didn't know what to say. She just withdrew into her room and locked the door. Probably she picked up the phone to call up her brother.

As Rohit watched in shocked silence, Anu picked up some of her clothes, books and purse and started walking out.
"Is your man waiting for you outside, you bitch?"

Anu gave him a killing look. "He doesn't have to. He knows I can come on my own. I am a woman, no baby."

And she walked away.

Rohit looked perplexed. He did not understand those cryptic last words.

Four
She went to Ananth's place and told him all that happened. He smiled.
"Now what? Are we live-in partners? I'm game."
"No. Before we start that, I have some things to do. A divorce to take. And then a purification."

Ananth had a questioning look.
"I'll tell you what I have in mind. Let's have food first. I'm damn hungry!"

She had decided on the way to Ananth's place what to do with her life now. She'd take a divorce first. If Rohit refuses a mutual divorce, she'll fight for one on the basis that she has fallen in love with Ananth. And that she can't live with Rohit anymore. The children could be a problem. They have the right to decide since both are above 18. Maybe there won't be a 'for the children stay together' jazz in this age. That should or out fine. Trisha may understand her, Anoop may not. Or neither might. Or, best, both would. They could stay with her and Ananth, or with Rohit. Let them have their choice. Anoop has a girlfriend, Trisha has a boyfriend. They'll get over the divorce soon enough. Life's so much easier with the true partner.

The next thing was a visit to Kerala. Meet the old relatives, go around old homes, write about them, maybe stay there for some months, and feel like a Malayali....

Five
And that is how she finally headed to Kerala. With Ananth. She went to Thrissur, her native place, visited all her aunts and uncles, who were in fact happy to hear that 'the Kerala hating son-in-law' was finally off her.

It wasn't easy though.

Anoop, now an earning software engineer, decided to stay on his own with his girlfriend whom he's marrying soon, while Trisha wanted to stay with Anu. She also wanted to go to Delhi to do her Masters in Film Making.

My kids have grown up, Anu thought. Now I can afford to break free. Ananth came at the right time.

Her pilgrimage made complete sense now.

She was going back to cleanse herself of her subservience to an indifferent husband. She was going back to remove the sin of ignoring her motherland from within her, and reviving her love for Kerala. She was going with someone who identified with her devotion to the land. She had reached the purpose of her life.

Ananth and she started a Root Awareness for Keralites group when they returned three months later. She had the support of several of her relatives settled in Pune, whom she never knew. The group taught Malayalam, spoken as well as reading and writing, and held open forums and seminars on Kerala culture, traditions and Arts. They grew through the years.

Once Trisha returned from Delhi, she too became active in it, making short movies for the group.

Anoop came along when he got time, though he still seemed to resist being with Ananth.

Ananth, who gradually gave the entire management of RAK to Anu was always there when needed. His Sacha Ghar gained power with the Domestic Violence Act in place.

And, God gave them more challenges, but for Anu Kerala always remained the holy land. Her pilgrimage centre which she never missed now. Her purpose on earth was achieved. She was ready for eternal life now.
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