Changing priorities- Part 1

It was 6.15 a.m. RK was sitting on the ledge of the yet to be opened water fountain, which the builder had built several years back to impress gullible customers. The large banyan tree’s shade made it a favorite place for RK and his co- senior citizens to sit when the weather permitted them to sit.

The schools were closed and hence all grand dads were taking a break from escorting grand children to the school bus. RK had the otherwise crowded ledge to himself. RK’s grand- daughter Maragatham (called Marge by all) too had a holiday and was asleep (even small kids now had sleep deficit).

Madhuram, RK’s spouse of four decades descended the steps and walked briskly walked towards him.  She gave him an excited smile and removed a flask from the bag she had with her. It was hot coffee made from fresh milk with new coffee decoction. Madhuram had brought two steel tumblers with her and as an added bonus two cookies (imported) to go with the coffee. They sat in comfortable silence and sipped the hot coffee. Madhuram gave the sweeter cookie to RK. He dipped it in the coffee and chewed it slowly, savoring it.

Madhuram was a seemingly tall woman, with a glowing fair complexion and a kindly looking eyes which hid the X-ray vision underneath it.   She was fortunate in not putting on weight and retaining a normal physique. She was a graduate of yester era and had even worked for a decade or so before exclusively concentrating on domestic bliss or in pursuit thereof.

RK was quite tall, with a receding hairline and fighting a losing battle with his waistline. He had an excitable and impulsive nature and lost his temper on small matters. Age however seemed to have a calming influence and RK displayed more patience than say a decade earlier.

RK and Madhuram had two children. Kausalya, the elder one had settled in US. Siddharth, her husband was an IT professional and was holding a good position. Though he treated RK and Madhuram well, both had a lingering suspicion that son in law viewed them as old fashioned and unable to adapt.

Their son Ravi- a consultant with a foreign consulting firm- had married Sunita – a Kannadiga (fortunately Brahmin as Madhuram used to say to her close relatives) and had decided to settle in Bangalore. For some reason, Ravi preferred to be in India and had refused foreign postings. Madhuram was disappointed as she had dreamt of travelling to different countries (at Ravi’s cost). She wondered how she would look wearing that long winter coat with snow falling all around her in some historical European city. RK was more pragmatic and hand offered to take her for a European tour with Kesari Travels or Thomas Cook. They had not come to a decision on whether to splurge that kind of money on a pleasure trip. Long years of thrift left them with an inability to spend money on themselves in any significant manner.

Their morning routine on normal days was to gulp the coffee while readying Marge for an early morning school. Weekends and holidays were reserved for such small pleasures as drinking strong and hot coffee beneath a banyan tree while munching cookies.

“Why not look at Moovur?” RK asked Madhuram.

RK and Madhuram- both hailed from Moovur a small village cum town in Kerala. They were distantly related and also vaguely knew each other before marriage.  When RK became an Mechanical Engineer, Madhuram‘s mother (who knew RK’s mother) made a “Tatkal” reservation on RK’s horoscope and thereafter the marriage took place at astonishing speed. So both had a sentimental attachment to the village of their origin. The Srikrishna temple, the tank adjoining it, river flowing close to the village, the green fields. the periodic festivals, local celebrations still held a sentimental charm for them. They visited Moovur at least twice a year. An uncle’s son had decided to settle there after taking an early retirement and welcomed them to stay there any time.

RK had purchased a flat in the complex where they lived now. Ravi purchased another flat in the same building after his marriage. This gave adequate personal space to both the couples. The question arose out of their desire to live the life they yearned for by relocating to Moovur, partially or fully as compared to the more acceptable option of living close to their son.

Madhuram remained silent for some time, her eyes and mind clearly moving over different spheres of thought and then said  let Uttrayanam be born ( January 15th).  She kept coffee tumbler on the ledge and held RK’s hands tightly- one gesture conveying all the emotions and desires behind this reply.

Madhuram gave half of her cookie to RK and started their morning walk around the garden. They walked together in a comfortable silence thinking over their decision.

Four months thereafter.

It was 6 a.m. RK and Madhuram were returning from the Srikrishna temple. Their rented house was seven minutes away from the temple. Their morning coffee routine varied depending on the temple visit. Mostly it was after returning from the temple. RK boiled the water and put it in the coffee filter. Madhuram changed her clothes, boiled the milk, by which time the decoction was ready. Both had their coffee in the verandah overlooking the garden of their house and the fields across the lane. The river though not visible, could be faintly heard.

The house was owned by a family who had all emigrated abroad and had built it with a desire to come there once a year or so. The visits grew infrequent and hence it was put out for rent. RK grabbed it, thought it was too big for just two of them. It had all modern facilities (including western loo) and still retained old world charm. A gardener came to tend to the rather large garden in the front yard which made it a very attractive place to live.

Their routine consisted of morning visit to the temple, breakfast, glancing through the newspaper, prayers for two hours, a more detailed reading of the news stories lunch, siesta, tea and light snacks, and evening walk to the river, prayers, dinner and retiring for the night.  They had made some new friends and renewed acquaintance with old ones. They were invited for some of the family functions. Some of them were of similar age and background and it was easy to bond with them. All of them were comfortable with lap tops, tablets and I Pads. Some of them tracked stock markets and were regular investors. Contact with children and grandchildren was through Skype and similar inexpensive means. Financial Newspapers, though delayed at times, were available.

RK and Madhuram missed Marge and her growing up process. Though Kausalya had two sons, they were too Americanized (“daddy, mama” in American accent grated on their Indian ears) and did not know their mother tongue which deeply disappointed RK and Madhuram. Though they loved their grandpa and grandma, they found it difficult to identify with them due their overwhelming “Indianness”.  So their visits were sporadic and for limited period. Kausalya was torn between adapting to a foreign mores and lifestyle and a deep desire to retain their feeble hold on Indian legacy and its lifestyle. RK and Madhuram found this amusing and in privacy mimicked the American lifestyle by addressing each other in US accents,

So Marge was their link to the future. Growth of any life form is most fascinating to watch. The pace at which a child blooms in the first three to four years of life is observed and enjoyed more by grandparents than the parents. Grand children instinctively grasp this and have a different relationship with grandparents. Marge was no different and their conversation through Skype was focused on how Marge went through each day. The playschool where she went had a website which uploaded the photographs  of the children every day and could be seen on the Facebook. Marge looked more docile and obedient in these photos.

Sunita was wary of Madhuram as she had a lingering suspicion that her non Tamil origin still rankled her mom in law. After several attempts, where she passed in individual subjects, but failed to get fifty percent in aggregate, Sunita finally succeeded in Tamil language and cooking. Marge, fortunately spoke Tamil and Kannada with equal felicity keeping both sides of the family happy. Sunita was simple and direct in her thought and action. She loved Ravi for his boyish looks, blinding smile and the ability to make her feel that she is the most beautiful woman in his life. He made her happy with his small thoughtful gestures, remembering all anniversaries (including the one when he first viewed her, first time he expressed his love, the first move where they smooched) and balancing the relationship inter se his and her parents.

RK and Madhuram had over the years embraced her into the family and loved her. The entry of Marge strengthened the ties and intertwined their day to day life. It helped that they stayed in the same complex. Sunita realized that her in laws longed for a rural existence which they perhaps viewed with tinted vision of their young age. She was careful in expressing her views on this longing. She felt that with advancing age, staying close to any one of their children would be a more practical decision. But to emphasize that could imply that Sunita is hinting at human mortality. She believed that each individual should seek their own path to happiness and contented existence.

Sunita knew that Marge had some quirks and traits which came from Ravi’s genes. She did not mind it as she could see some attributes she had seen in her parents. She however remained silent as she instinctively felt that discretion in such matters were ideal.

Marge missed the grandparents as they indulged her, spent time with her, took her out and most importantly did not squeal on her to Ravi and Sunita. Her secrets were safe with Thatha and Paati. She wondered why the grandparents should stay so far off leaving her all alone and was peeved with them. But Amma had told her that Thatha and Paati had work in the village where they were born and brought up and also had their own lives to lead.

RK was sipping coffee when Madhuram said that there was a missed call on the landline from Siddharth from his mobile phone. Both were surprised as Siddharth rarely called to speak to them. Madhuram tracked down the number in RK’s phone and told him to give a missed call to Siddharth and wait.  Siddharth rang up soon. Kausalya had received an offer from the local governing body to assist in setting up a new school which would take up roughly four to five hours each day. She was sorely tempted to accept the offer but felt that she would need some assistance on the domestic side as her two sons, though old enough  ( 11 and 13 years old) to look after themselves for few hours, would need attention. Kausalya was hesitating to call her parents for help. Siddhartha’s request to RK was on the following lines. Stay with us for three months, by which time the routine would stabilize, children would know how to cope, Kausalya would overcome the early pressures in a new job ( she was working for the first time after moving to US) and in any case Siddarth’s parents would move to US on a long term , if not, permanent basis.

RK knew that it took lot of courage for Siddarth to call on RK with this request. Partly, it reflected Siddarth’s love and affection towards Kausalya to give her an independent life and achievement and partly their distance with Kausalya who was hesitating to make an otherwise normal request to her parents.

RK and Madhuram knew that it was not possible to say no to a genuine request. Kausalya had a passion for teaching and had insisted on obtaining a master’s degree in education realm. RK and Madhuram had many times expressed their disappointment in not utilizing her potential. So when the opportunity knocked on her door, they could hardly say no.

Still, the relocation from Moovur to New Jersey was not simple. American life ran on a digital basis. There was no Srikrishna temple nearby at seven minutes walking distance where they could go at 6.00 a.m. It was not possible to sit without a shirt and wearing a dhoti on the verandah and sip coffee with Madhuram. A wary neighbor could call the local police pointing out presence of suspicious characters in the area. Loud chanting of prayers early in the morning, using pungent spices were viewed as nuisance and a cause for complaint to unknown authorities. Indian Rupee was not yet a global currency (NAMO perhaps could work towards achieving this in the next one or two decades) and $300 represented a month’s full expense (excluding rent) in Moovur. In USA it meant far less. There were no local transport buses (as in Kerala) or local trains (as in Mumbai) to facilitate movement. In any case, there were few places they could go alone. RK and Madhuram had strong Indian/Kerala accent which rendered communication in US an uncertain exercise leaving them with a faint inferiority complex.

Within the house, they had limited say as Kausalya’s kitchen, with modern equipment, looked forbidding. Siddarth had adapted to US type bland veg cuisine leaving them wondering whether the cow at Srikrishna temple ate a more edible and spicy food.

Madhuram rang up Sunita to discuss her dilemma. Before Madhuram could begin her monologue, Sunita excitedly mentioned that Ravi was selected for a prestigious project based in Geneva and thereafter in London which would last for five months. For a change (and because he had no choice) Ravi has accepted it. The silver lining was that the spouse could accompany from the second month onwards and wanted RK and Madhuram to temporarily come back to Bangalore.

Madhuram congratulated her and told her to return with more details on time line.

RK and Madhuram turned to each other and said “Baghbaan” together. (A Hindi movie in which the parents are separated to assist their married children).

The dilemma RK and Madhuram faced were no different from that of many others in similar situation. The desire to live their own life, not burdened with someone else’s responsibilities (without corresponding authority) had to be balanced with the assistance that children of today’s era expected as a matter of routine. Madhuram was reminded of her cousin’s sarcastic comment that he and his wife now belonged to IAS cadre – that is Indian Ayah Service.

An additional dilemma was that such requests would become more frequent and/or common in future leaving them with uncertainty on their future plans. They hated any uncertainty and loved a planned life which they controlled – to the extent possible.

RK and Madhuram went to the garden and stroked the new yellow flower bunch which had just started blooming. Their gardener had mentioned that the next bunch in this wilful plant would come only after 6 weeks. Both wondered where they would be six weeks hence.

What would be your guess?

(to be continued)

2 Responses to Changing priorities- Part 1

  1. V. Mahadevan says:

    Even if you change the character from RK (Iyer) and Madhuram (mami) to RK (Khanna) and consort Madhuri the essay …er blog with corresponding changes in states/towns retains its relevance.

    You have deftly taken the story along to its natural drift where the reader accepts that the elderly couple start living separately but with their children.

    In the present day, middle-class parents across caste and religion yearn subconsciously that their children jump-start their life even if entails shifting to a different place within or outside motherland. For this, they have traded off the near term psychological cost with the future life of wealth in plenty and super-comforts. Thus (y)our RK mama and mami are now impatiently looking forward to their flying to separate destinations. With speed and alacrity they will gel with the new Krishna temple and a bunch of new senior-citizens mostly hailing from same country.


    Fast forward to ten years – one fine morning a gleaming limousine pulls up at the village. RK mama steps out in Gucci, RayBan (French perfume is optional) and other ill-suiting accessories lugging a suitcase on which security tags of various airlines are craving for your attention; (on the few occasions that I have undertaken air travel I remove them before reaching our Mulund residence) followed by mami, who has cast her 6 yards for a faded jeans and matching tops, is adjusting the lock of hair which tries to cover her bindiless forehead. Octagenerian Aghoram Iyer slowly gets up from his reclining chair (which has long hand rests found typically in Kerala homes) and descends from verandah with a walking stick in one hand and the other raised to protect from blinding sunrays. He moves forward to greet RK with a disarming smile but the latter goes to assist a trio (father, mother and son) emerging from a car behind. They are seasoned city-bred wanting to own a house in this village. Since photographs and documents have been viewed via email the buyer takes a quick round and likes the house. He places a wad of thousand rupees notes in the hands of RK, one note falls down which is picked up Aghoram Iyer and extended to RK – but RK says put this in the Krishna temple hundi. After the buyer leaves, RK mama and mami spend a good one hour dwelling on what can be called AMERICA PURANAM; then returns to his hotel room in the nearby town.

    In the night, he gets up to answer nature’s call, falls, suffers heart-attack ad dies. Pleased with his devotion (via Aghoram Iyer) Lord Krishna took RK to His abode to RIP.

    • Satish Ranade says:

      Mr. Anjaneyan, when are you going to complete RK’s story? I am interested in knowing how he resolved his dilemma.

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