HERE I AM and other stories

11. Supermom Syndrome

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: Sujatha Gopal

          ‘id Anuradha stop the Wheel of Time like the mythical Sumathi who stopped the sun?’ mused Surya Rao. He sat up in bed in anxiety.

          ‘The Wheel of Time hasn’t stopped; Anuradha has,’ mocked the clock, chiming nine.

          Anuradha finishes half her domestic chores before the sun rises. The kitchen and the rangoli in the front yard wake up along with her. The world remains in a deep slumber, but this house resonates with sounds of activity. That such a hard-working Anuradha should still be sleeping, covered by a blanket, perplexed Surya Rao. She isn’t an irresponsible housewife.

          She wakes up at 5 o’clock sharp in the morning and walks to the street corner to fetch the milk packets. When the milk vendor hiked his delivery charges, she resolved to walk and get the milk packets and save thirty rupees every month.

          She appointed a maid to clean the front yard and draw the rangoli. The maid also washed the utensils. Anuradha did not like any work remaining unfinished after 8 o’clock. She was transferred to the downtown branch recently. This was in a crowded place where an autorickshaw could not go and it cost a lot to hire a cycle-rickshaw. At the age of forty-five, she purchased a moped. Since it was difficult to drive in chaotic traffic, she started at least forty-five minutes early. Why was such a time-conscious Anuradha sleeping so late? Perhaps she was unwell!

          Surya Rao had never seen her sick. He pulled at the blanket that covered her face. His eyes widened, he covered his mouth with his palm, his head reeled and he leaned against the wall.

          Anuradha’s body was white, like limestone. Her eyes were open and tranquil, her clothes undisturbed, her limbs as white as pieces of chalk. Except for her eyes and hair, her entire body was like a lump of limestone.

          Anuradha was perfectly normal till 12 o’clock last night. She had watched the Hindi serial that she had rarely missed in the past one year. She had ground pulses to make idli for breakfast in the morning. She had boiled water and poured it into the water filter.

          Never in his lifetime had Surya Rao seen anyone contract such a strange disease. He held a finger near her nose. There was no sign of breathing. He placed his ear on her chest.

          There was no heart beat. He pulled back sharply.

          Was Anuradha dead?

          How could Anuradha die?

          He was bathed in perspiration. He pulled himself together and dragged himself, reeling, to the telephone and called his friend, Subbarao, instructing him to get a doctor along with him. The doctor could not diagnose the ailment she had died of, but declared her dead. In minutes, the news spread in the neighbourhood. The neighbours quickly finished their daily chores like drinking coffee and filling water pots, and went to Surya Rao’s house.

          One old woman ordered that the body be laid on the floor and an oil lamp kept near the head. They rolled out a mat on the veranda and laid the body on it.

          ‘Inform the children, Surya Rao,’ said Subbarao.

          Anuradha had unsubscribed from STD and ISD services as he had been making calls too often. He gave Subbarao some money and the numbers and asked him to inform the children. He hadn’t even brushed his teeth. Every morning, as soon as he brushed his teeth, she used to give him a mug of hot steaming coffee. She knew the exact measure of coffee powder to be used for two mugs of coffee. She blended the coffee decoction with the milk warmed perfectly to his liking. No one could make coffee better than she could!

          Subbarao wanted to touch Anuradha’s body. He had held her legs when they were shifting the body, but the legs were covered by the pleats of the sari. He was intrigued by the dead body. How did it turn into lime? Was it really lime or something else? His curiosity was aroused . . . but the dead body was his friend’s wife . . . his property . . . So what if it was a dead body? Would Surya Rao keep quiet?

          Someone went into the house, brought a cup of coffee and gave it to a reluctant Surya Rao. He didn’t want to drink it while sitting next to the dead body. He went into the next room. That was enough for Subbarao. He pinched her leg, took a white piece, put it into his pocket and went out to make the phone calls.

          ‘Keep Mama till I come. I will try to take the earliest flight, okay?’ said Surya Rao’s daughter Rajani, who stayed in New Jersey.

          The son started crying on the phone. It would be difficult for him to get back to the US if he came to India. ‘Why did she die like that, uncle? What happened?’ he cried his heart out.

          It was Anuradha who was keen on sending him to America. Cajoling and threatening him, she had made him study hard and after spending a lot of money, sent him to the States. She was admired by her colleagues in the bank. ‘Your children are gems,’ they praised her. She wanted to hear these compliments. She had been successful in fulfilling her ambitions. ‘But for Mama, he couldn’t have made it. But now he cannot see her. He can’t make it . . .’

          ‘Maybe we have to keep the body on ice till the daughter comes . . . or else it will start putrefying soon,’ said someone. ‘This isn’t an ordinary body. It is like a mound of limestone.’ ‘Won’t it melt if kept on ice?’ questioned others.

          ‘Sprinkle some powder around the body,’ suggested someone else.

          Subbarao finished making the calls, went to his house, had breakfast and gave the white object to his daughter Susheela, telling her about the strange events surrounding Anuradha’s death. She quickly put it in her purse and ran to a nearby laboratory. They told her that the white specimen was a tablet of aspirin used commonly for a headache.

          ‘I will go there, Nanna,’ said Susheela, getting a lens along with her. Everyone knew Anuradha very well in that locality, and clocks were set according to her movements. Inspired by her, many imitated her ways, many adopted her housekeeping methods.

          Susheela made her way through the crowd and approached the body. She placed the lens on the body. Anuradha’s body looked as if innumerable tablets covered her . . . some small, some big, some pink in colour, some round, some flat. She looked like a doll made of tablets.

          ‘Ants are surrounding the body,’ said a woman anxiously.

          ‘Of course! Some tablets must have been sugar-coated,’ explained Susheela.

          ‘Yes. He also gave her sugar-coated tablets,’ reminisced Surya Rao.

          They took the lens from Susheela’s hands and peered through it. Some even pinched Anuradha’s hands and legs when Surya Rao was not looking.

          They placed the body on a table and sprinkled some powder on it to keep the ants away. Surya Rao worried that by the time their daughter arrived, they would pinch off inches of her and take away the pieces, leaving nothing behind. ‘Shift her to the bedroom,’ he blurted out.

          ‘That’s not done, Nayana. She shouldn’t be kept in the bedroom. Wonder what configuration of stars it was when she passed away!’ said an elderly neighbour.

          ‘That is all right, Mammagaru! She built this house. She gave her sweat and blood to this house. Her body can be kept anywhere.’ Subbarao took the body to the bedroom.

          Twenty-eight years of companionship . . . She had given him everything . . . friendship, love, money, service and now, finally, her life.

          The house filled with people. Anuradha disliked having too many people in the house. She scrubbed the marble stones till they shone white . . . She cleaned the bathrooms. These people were boiling milk and spilling it on her spotlessly clean stove. They were breaking her sofas. Anuradha’s soul must be writhing in pain! Surya Rao was helpless – he couldn’t do anything. She had managed everything, right from housekeeping to finances – buying shares, selling them, mortgaging gold for loans, taking loans for gold . . . wasn’t she the pillar of the family’s prosperity?

          Rajani arrived with an apologetic, ‘I am sorry, Papa.’ Surya Rao recalled the amount of trouble Anuradha had gone through to get a foreign alliance for her. She had struggled to satisfy the never-ending demands of the boy’s mother. She had hoped that Rajani would get pregnant very soon and she could go to America to help her during the delivery. The ticket would be paid for by Rajani, but she would need money too! So she had saved money like a miser.

          Rajani, however, was in no hurry to have a child. The loan she and her husband had taken for their cars and house had to be repaid before they had children. Poor Mama! Rajani laughed at her every time she suggested that it was time they planned for children.

          Poor Mama was now dead. She had gone without witnessing her daughter’s prosperity in America. She couldn’t make it. But what had she died of? It was quite amazing.

          ‘Why didn’t alludu come, Amma?’ asked Surya Rao.

          ‘Ravi didn’t get leave, Papa . . . He is so sorry . . . He couldn’t make it,’ she said. ‘ “She is your mother, so you should go . . . Bring back your papa when you return . . .” This is what he said.’

          ‘Bathe the dead body,’ said the relatives.

          ‘The tablets will melt and there won’t be anything left for the cremation. Sprinkle turmeric water and purify the body,’ suggested someone else.

          ‘Her soul will not attain salvation if the body is not given the customary last bath,’ said the elderly neighbour. A ceremonial bath or turmeric water . . . the argument continued for some time till turmeric water won the debate.

          ‘No one has closed the eyes,’ said someone.

          ‘I cannot do it,’ said Rajani.

          Surya Rao tried to. He was surprised how many times he had ‘closed her eyes’ when she was alive? He had sent money to Subhadra, had had a good time with Mani at Kovalam beach, cheating on Anuradha . . .

          Now why wasn’t he able to close those eyes? When the body was all set to be taken on its last journey, Prakash Rao, a pathology professor, came by, panting. He was Anuradha’s cousin. He had brought laboratory equipment along with him.

          ‘I will not allow anyone to conduct experiments on my wife’s body,’ protested Surya Rao. He hated Prakash Rao because Anuradha had great affection for him.

          ‘It is my duty to bid a befitting farewell to my wife. My heart has broken seeing how her body has become. I cannot stand this anymore,’ he said.

          ‘Listen to me, Suryam. This is a challenge for the field of medicine. It is our duty to know why this has happened. It is extremely important to know,’ asserted Prakash Rao.

          The local newspapers, sting operators and videographers who cashed in on strange occurrences had already come to know about how Anuradha’s body had turned into tablets. Surya Rao wanted to have the body cremated before they descended on the house.

          ‘Let Mamayya see, Papa,’ said Rajani, his daughter.

          Prakash Rao examined the body for fifteen minutes and made notes. Someone clicked pictures. ‘It is only of the body, Papa. Mama’s soul must have reached heaven by now,’ said Rajani, trying to console him.

          At last, Anuradha’s mortal remains were consigned to the flames.

          ‘Where is the body?’ sighed Surya Rao, ‘Many parts were removed from it. Four years back, the uterus, along with it the ovaries, and a little later, the appendix. The blood and muscles have turned into tablets. Only the heart and brain must have remained,’ wept Surya Rao.

          Anuradha’s body burned in colourful hues. They were colours from the chemicals present in the tablets. Suddenly there was a sound, as if something had cracked. Something green and slimy flew from the pyre and fell at Surya Rao’s feet. He wondered what it was. Prakash Rao took it, scraped it with a knife and cleaned it. The object shone brightly. It was Anuradha’s brain. Surya Rao recognized it immediately. It was the brain that had played chess with him when they were newly married, the brain that had got a good rank in the bank tests. Why was it covered in slime?

          Prakash Rao laughed at his dilemma and said, ‘She cleaned your bathrooms and wash basins spotlessly clean, isn’t it? The grime from them must have got into her head.’

          Having consigned Anuradha’s body to the flames, the family had the ceremonial bath and was busy discussing which photo should be laminated when Prakash Rao approached Surya Rao and took leave.

          ‘Can I come with you, uncle?’ asked Susheela.

          ‘Do you have any work with me?’ asked Prakash Rao. He had cared for Anuradha as his own sister. Many a time, he had also been admonished for the suggestions he gave her.

          ‘You must tell me about Anuradha aunty’s ailment,’ asked Susheela.

          ‘Tell me also, uncle. I must also know what happened to my mother,’ Rajani, too, asked.

          Prakash Rao smiled and said, ‘This is called Supermom Syndrome, dear.’

          ‘My mom was really a supermom, uncle,’ said Rajani, wiping her tears.

          ‘The disease killed her.’

          ‘Please explain, uncle. It is very confusing,’ said Susheela.

          ‘Anuradha was of the firm belief that she was very intelligent and more capable than most women. To her, intelligence and capability meant owning a house, keeping it spotlessly clean, saving as much money as possible, working hard, bringing up the children efficiently . . . efficiently meant making them doctors or engineers . . . If that was not possible, getting the daughter married to a boy settled abroad, as in your case . . . that was her life’s ambition. She strived hard to fulfil that ambition, and succeeded,’ said Prakash Rao.

          ‘What is the connection between this and her death?’ asked Rajani, irritated by the argument.

          ‘There is a definite connection, my dear. In pursuing this dream, your mother never bothered to see what her heart or mind wanted. She tried out a variety of recipes, wore starched saris. She wanted to look special . . . different . . . She worked like a machine to earn money. She never allowed anyone else to help her as she believed only she could do everything neatly. She would not let your father do any work . . . she made him complacent with her services. She consoled herself, saying that even if she employed someone to do the work, she would have to do it again herself, so it was better not to have help. She would be fatigued by the evening. You know how careful and alert one has to be while making cash transactions in the bank. She would get vegetables and groceries while returning from the bank. She would immerse herself in domestic chores once she returned home. She would take a tablet every day for her headaches. She must have taken thousands of such tablets in these fifteen years. She was very keen that everything should go according to her plans. She couldn’t afford to have any physical problem . . . a crocin for fever, some analgesic for backache, and so on. She had her own medications. She used pills to postpone her periods to attend marriages, pujas and religious ceremonies.

          ‘Perhaps she lost count of the tablets she used. She sat with you to help you during your exams. She took tablets to stay awake and sometimes she would take sleeping pills when sleep evaded her. She juggled with many activities at her own risk. Right from saving money to making pulihora with leftover rice . . . she struggled to meet every demand of the family . . . She had heavy bleeding eight years ago, and on the doctor’s advice, got her uterus removed. She thought she could now work like a man, continuously for all thirty days. She developed complications and was given hormonal supplements. These were tablets again. She took vitamin tablets whenever she felt tired. When she crossed forty-five, she had problems with her eyesight and also, hypertension. She took tablets for that. Meanwhile, both of you got educated and became well settled. For the past one year, she had been seriously following a Hindi television serial. It is a suspense-filled emotional thriller. She couldn’t sleep without watching this, but could hardly sleep after watching such an exciting serial. She would pop a tablet and get up again at five in the morning. This was her routine and this was her ailment, my dear,’ said Prakash Rao, wiping his spectacles.

          ‘This is quite amazing, uncle. I didn’t know it. How sad!’ exclaimed Rajani.

          ‘It is true. You didn’t know because you were also very keen on getting married to a man settled in America and dreamt of dollars. When did you have the time to think about your mother? Anyway, aren’t you also a chip of the old block?’ asked Prakash Rao, stepping out of the house. Susheela, who heard this wide-eyed, ran towards her house. She wanted to embrace her mother and cry.


(to be continued..)


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