Remembering Athai

In the early morning darkness a cry pierced my consciousness. I squinted at the bright red hazy numbers on my alarm clock. It looked like 4:35. Burying my head under the pillow, I hoped it was an aberration and Cee would go back to sleep. No such luck.

An hour later, I stood by the stove stirring a simmering stew of vegetables on one burner and occasionally turning over the aloo gobi that was showing flecks of crisp browning. Water boiled on yet another burner while I tried to figure out what was next on my to-do list before the rest of the world woke up. My cell phone rang. It was cousin V calling to let me know he would be dropping Athai off on his way to work.

Smile playing on my lips, I generously sprinkled a whole lot of love with the salt that went into the Sambar. I remembered the Athai of yore, saree draped over her tall frame, her long plait swinging by her waist, handbag pressed to her elbow walking furiously to catch the 7:00 AM bus that would take her 70 Kms away to the school she taught at. My memories of Athai have always qualified with adjectives such as strong, independent and amiable. For years I have wondered where my strong feelings about going to work once I graduated came from and I realized fairly recently it was her. My wide-eyed wonder at her fearlessly taking public transport or paying bills by herself or running errands translated itself into a deep-seated desire for independence in me.

The images are random and jumbled but they make a nice collage in my head. Athai carrying a tray of tea in white mugs. Sitting on the thinnai at our home swatting mosquitoes and swapping stories. Head bent, braids touching the ground, the three of us weaving intricate kolams on the concrete surrounding the home. Chiffon sarees, matching blouses and flat sandals as she walked to and from the bus stand each day. A tiny scar that ran at the base of her throat burying itself as she spoke. Long fingers as she sat by her daughter and traced patterns in her hair. A glint of the vaira thodu as she laughs throwing her head back. The oversized glasses on her face that reflect mine. The sadness in her eyes that her face belies.

I feel a rush of affection towards my athai. In many ways she is my surrogate mom. A presence in the background that is reassuring and comfortable. I call her from work to check if she had lunch. Her cheeriness is infectious. “Innum vera enna pannanum? (What else would you like for me to do?)” she asks listing a stuff she has already taken care of. Unashamed I list more.

Walking back to my desk, I remember to send a prayer heavenward. For family. For the love. For the present.

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