Young Sudha was lanky, edgy and always defensive, perhaps because life had treated her harshly from the very beginning. Even when her friends played with dolls and shared ecstasies of fairy tales, she had to look after her maimed father, her ailing mother besides her young sibling.
Years back, her father, Mahesh Chandran, a railway employee was discharged on the ground of disability after he met with an accident, losing his right leg and right hand. As compensation, he received a pair of steel crutches and a commendation letter. Mahesh Chandran also received fifty thousand rupees and a paltry pension, which was the only income of the family.
Mahesh Chandran had become a near recluse. Many times he thought of committing suicide. In fact, once he thought of poisoning his wife and himself but his heart went out to young Sudha and his toddler son Anandan.
“What a cursed life you have given me? What sins did I commit to deserve it?” He often grunted while limping past the ‘Meenakshi’ temple near his colony. Mahesh Chandran never entered the temple after he met with the accident. Not that he had turned atheist but a feeling had seeped deep inside him that God existed only for the rich and affluent, those who could propitiate him with elaborate pujas and offerings. Mahesh Chandran hated the sight of huge load of flowers and expensive garlands offered by the devotees to the goddess. He believed God or for that matter Goddess had no time for a poor, mutilated creature like him.
When his wife died after a prolonged illness, Mahesh Chandran was anything but distressed. He felt, he was relieved of the mental agony and his wife of the physical pain she has been suffering for half a decade.
Anandan at that time was five and Sudha merely eleven years old. The young girl was burdened with the responsibilities of looking after her disabled father and the young sibling.
Mahesh Chandran was sore at everything around him. He felt cheated and robbed of the joys of life. He often pitied his young daughter and cursed himself over his helplessness to be of any help to her.
Sudha was developing as a gritty girl with load of family burden on her slender shoulders. Anandan, on the other hand was growing in body, mind and aspirations.
It was indeed Sudha’s machine like efficiency needed to run the traumatized household. Morning breakfast, meals for the day and dinner for night, all came to her mind like a programmed computer. And then there were several sub-routines like helping her brother to get ready, check his books and put all assorted items in his school bag – arranging nearly everything while her father looked on helplessly. And then she would switch-over to a school going lass, taking her breakfast on a run to her school.
Sudha’s teachers had a soft corner for her. In fact, all of them were amazed at her relentless determination and immitigable energy to find time and strength for everything she was expected to do.
Sudha passed her matriculation examination with good marks and this time perhaps lady luck was favourably disposed for soon she got a job in a private firm. It brought a smile on Mahesh Chandran’s face after very many years of anguish and acrimony.
The financial condition and the social status of the family improved with Sudha getting a job. She now engaged a part-time help to assist her in the daily chores of the house-hold. Mahesh Chandran was now less acerbic and at times shared jokes with young Anandan who was in the final year of his secondary examination. Anandan had developed into a fine young lad to whom Sudha was intuitively a mother. He addressed all his problems to her and Sudha helped and supported him to the best of her capacity.
Mahesh Chandran could never muster courage to assert like a father to Sudha. He had succumbed to his helplessness and to her relentless spirit. Sometimes, he talked to her of his dreams for Anandan but never talked about her future even though he knew she had reached the marriageable age. Mahesh Chandran was scared to broach the topic.
In her office, Sudha soon earned a place; her superiors appreciated her work and efficiency apart from her willingness to lend a helping hand to her colleagues.
Madhavan Kutty, one of Sudha’s senior colleagues was absolutely floored by her qualities. He would watch her from a distance but developed cold feet to talk to her on personal matters. Sudha too liked Madhavan but purely on professionally plane even though she could feel that Madhavan wanted to come close to her.
One evening when the two were delayed while working on an urgent project, Madhavan Kutty asked Sudha if he could drop her at her place. Sudha agreed with initial diffidence though she appreciated the gesture. That was the beginning of their friendship. Soon they became good friends.
Sudha one evening invited Madhavan Kutty to her place to introduce him to her brother and father.
The meeting was like pairing of the mismatch. Mahesh Chandran had the sixth sense to understand that there was something going on between the two. He was uncomfortable and sulking while Madhavan Kutty failed to continue any string of conversation with his host. He had to fall back upon Anandan every time he tried to talk to Mahesh Chandran. The meeting ended abruptly after the tea was over.
“What if Sudha decides to marry this guy and go away? What would happen of him and Anandan? Mahesh Chandran was restless and could not sleep that night.
“Sudha, please don’t take a hasty decision; please wait until Anandan completes his graduation,” he pleaded with his daughter.
Sudha knew Anandan needed over two years from then on to complete his graduation and that Madhavan would not wait that long. Her gut feeling came to be true. Madhavan’s parents were pressuring him since his two younger brothers were waiting to get married and leave for the Gulf with their spouses. Besides, the old parents didn’t approve of breaking the queue.
Mahesh Chandran was quite relieved to see Madhavan’s marriage invitation card. He insisted that Sudha and Anandan attend the marriage. For Sudha, it was a heart break. She had come to love Madhavan but reduced to a silent witness of her first love taking a bride before her eyes.
Her relief and her solace lay in Madhavan Kutty soon changing the job. She didn’t have to face him every day.
Soon Sudha was back to her routine. Anandan was in the final year of graduation and had fallen in love with one of his classmates. The girl belonged to a rich, opulent family. Anandan was young and pragmatic and was able to convince his father to let him marry.
“I want to marry her before any one else claims her hands. She is very rich and beautiful and there are far too many suitors wooing her,” he told his father. Mahesh Chandran approved the plan tacitly though he knew Sudha was losing the years.
One day Anandan told his father and Sudha that he was getting married the next Monday and that his father-in-law had gifted him a flat and that he was taking his bride straight to the new house. Sudha was shocked and hurt; she was taken by surprise but she didn’t want to be a spoilsport in her brother’s happiness.
The marriage was a big show, everything being arranged by Anandan’s father-in-law. Mahesh Chandran was happy that Anandan had married a rich girl but he didn’t like his son going away from him. He but realized that Anandan would not listen to him any more.
After Anandan’s going away, it was left to Sudha to take care of her father who was now having an indifferent health.
Meanwhile, there was another development. Really, Sudha had nothing to do with it but she could not stay away from it either.
Ram Chandran, one of Mahesh Chandra’s relatives lost his wife leaving behind a son of three years. Ramchandran had no one else to fall back upon other than Mahesh Chandran who reluctantly agreed that the child could be dropped at his place after the school in the afternoon and stay there till his father picked him on way back from his office.
Sudha had sympathy and then affection for the child. She would leave a lunch packet for the young child despite Mahesh Chandran’s rambling demur. On the days the school was closed, Ramchandran came to Sudha’s place in the morning to leave the child there. On such occasions, they would go to their offices together. Slowly, their meetings developed into mutual liking.
Mahesh Chandran developed creeps whenever he saw them together, talking or smiling at each other. One evening he saw them in each others’ arms and kissing passionately. Mahesh Chandran’s blood boiled. He wanted to tear his hair and shriek but surprising he did neither of the two. The fear of being left alone was rising alarmingly in his mind.
“Who will look after me when Sudha gets married?” The apprehension tormented him and he became hostile towards the child and Ramchandran. One evening when Ramchandran had came to take his son, Mahesh Chandran asked him to sit down.
“I want to talk to you,” he said asking him to take a chair.
“You and your son are parasites, a bad omen for my family and I don’t want its evil effects on me or my family member,” he said without naming Sudha.
Ramchandran was at his wits end. He had never anticipated his uncle using such foul and offensive language for him.
“Listen, looking after your child can not be a life time liability for me or for my daughter. So, make your own arrangements at the soonest possible,” Mahesh Chandran shouted and limped off from the room.
After a week, Ramchandran stopped coming to Mahesh Chandran’s place. Sudha guessed something must have transpired between Ramchandran and her father and it was not difficult for her to guess what that could have been.
As the years passed and grey hair appeared around her temples, there were no suitors for Sudha’s hand. In fact, she had left the idea of getting marriage for she was nearing forty even though she was slim and agile belying her age.
A new boss had Hariharan joined Sudha’s office. He was middle age, baldy and with a little paunch. The story went that he was a divorcee.
Hariharan was jovial, somewhat garrulous and believed in taking life as it came. He was affable and shared jokes even with rookies. At times, he pulled Sudha’s leg for her work addiction and her disinclination to join his gossip group.
One day Hariharan went to Sudha’s cabin unannounced and took a chair beside her. Sudha was flabbergasted by the surprise visit.
“Sir, you could have called me to your chamber.”
“No. I wanted to talk to you on a personal note. Sudha, you generally avoid me…… perhaps consider me an unreliable person…. talking nonsense and possibly a flirt, a women chaser.”
Sudha was not prepared for such an outburst.
“No sir, not at all sir….. please don’t think that way …….. it is because I don’t get time from my work ……. believe me sir…. please sir……,” she managed to say.
Hariharan looked in to her eyes and said, “You too believe me. I don’t want to harm or hurt any one in any way.”
Pausing a little, he then added, “I am a lonely person. My wife left me twenty years ago. My only son has settled in the States. After leaving the office I have quiet, dreary evenings. I can’t sleep properly. So when I am in the office, I compensate for it. Believe me, I don’t intend to impress or influence any one. I act boisterous simply to avoid getting crazy.”
Sudha believed his words and after some reservations, the ice broke between them and she started liking Hariharan. In fact, they became friends.
Sudha took Hariharan to her place couple of times. Mahesh Chandran didn’t like him. He felt Hariharan was pompous and crafty; an unreliable man and therefore an evil company for ladies and for Sudha in particular.
To Mahesh Chandran’s discomfort, Sudha over the period got closer to Hariharan. She found him a soul-mate and they often spent their evenings together.
“Avoid that leech,” Mahesh Chandran warned Sudha many times. Sudha listened but did not react.
A couple of months later Mahesh Chandran was taken ill and admitted in a hospital. Sudha divided her time between home, office and hospital. She went to the hospital every morning with tiffin and took dinner for him in the evening. Mahesh Chandran sulked whenever Hariharan accompanied Sudha to the hospital and did not fail to register his disapproval over his presence in some way or the other.
“He is ugly looking and far too senior to you in age. You deserve a much better groom,” he often counseled Sudha.
Hariharan was very accommodating and sincerely helpful. Unfortunately, their companionship became a matter of gossip. Lewd graffiti filled the bath room walls and elevator doors. Rumours were afloat that they were sleeping together after Mahesh Chandran’s hospitalization and they noticed their colleagues avoiding them.
One evening Hariharan and Sudha discussed the situation and decided to get married. However, in view of Mahesh Chandran’s hospitalization, they wanted to make it a brief ceremony in the Meenakshi temple on a Sunday morning.
It was Saturday evening. Sudha got a call from the hospital to come over immediately. She rushed there and met the doctors attending her father and returned home after necessary consultation.
Following morning Sudha was married to Hariharan in the presence of the temple priest and a few friends. It was a brief ceremony, the thin attendance being attributed to the hospitalization of Sudha’s father.
After the marriage ritual was over, Hariharan suggested that they go to the hospital to seek the blessing of the ailing parent.
“Yes, we should.” Sudha whispered.
As Hariharan turned to take the stairs to the medical ward on the first floor, Sudha stopped him.
“He is no more in the ward. We have to go to the mortuary.”