Rohan popped the question within an hour of reaching Simhapara. His mother emerged from the bathroom that was attached to the bedroom they were to occupy for the duration of their stay at Simhapara, only to find Rohan waiting at the door. His mother’s stern look made him pause for a moment and stare blankly at his mother, who had discarded her saree in favour of a comfortable nightee. His mother always wore a nightee at home, even in Delhi. A familiar smell wafted towards Rohan. It was a mix of talcum powder and his mother’s body odour. The perfume which his mother sprayed on her wrists and underarms whenever she went to office or anywhere else was missing. But Rohan’s olfactory senses did not notice any of that. Instead, he quickly gathered up his courage and asked, ‘Mummy can I go for a bath in the river today evening?’
An exasperated look flashed across his mother’s face and disappeared equally fast. It was too early to feel exasperated. ‘So soon? We have only just got here.’ Her tone softened ever further, already into the cat and mouse game she had played with Rohan each year during vacation time, for the past four years. ‘Let’s get out of those clothes and eat something, shall we? We’ll think of bathing in the river a bit later.’
‘But when?’ Rohan persisted. He had been given a short haircut a few days before they caught the train from Delhi and he missed the long black locks which he had to sweep away every once in a while. He was much shorter than an average Indian ten-year old and took after his father who was of medium height and quite dark. He did not bear much resemblance to his mother who was plump, stocky and quite fair-skinned. He twitched his nose and sniffed as the smell of damp earth filled his nostrils. There had been a light summer shower earlier in the day, a precursor to the heavy monsoon downpours that would drench Simhapara and the rest of Kerala in less than a month’s time. His father came into the room. He was wearing a mundu and for good measure had folded it in half so that his legs were bare from below his kneecaps.
‘Do you want to have a bath now?’ Rohan’s mother asked his father, her head jerking towards the bathroom.
‘No. I’ll have my bath in the evening.’
‘You’ll feel fresh if you have a bath now.’
‘I am quite fresh.’ Exchanging his trousers for a mundu had given him all the freshness and freedom that he wanted. ‘Anyway, I don’t want to bathe in there.’
‘Daddy, are you going to bathe in the river?’ Rohan tilted his small head backwards at an impossible angle so that he could look his father in the eye and detect any signs of deceit.
‘Maybe. Let’s see.’ His father was vague and non-committal. Rohan did not push his demand any further for the moment. He knew that the chances of him being allowed to jump into the river that day were quite remote.
‘Let’s go and see what Ammachee has in store for us’, Rohan’s father declared. He led his way from the bedroom, which was not very large and had a wooden roof. The large double bed in the room occupied most of the space. As she brought up the rear, Rohan’s mother quickly opened the larger of the two suitcases they had carried with them from Delhi, which was kept squarely in the centre of the bed. She took out two large brown parcels from the suitcase and followed her husband. As she banged the door shut behind her, her husband’s shirt which, along with his trousers, was hanging on a hook attached to the door, fell off. She went back into the room, picked up the shirt and delicately hung it on the hook once more, on top of the pair of trousers. Rohan’s father pushed open the door slightly - he could not open it fully since his wife was standing just behind the door - and muttered - ‘Annie, don’t bother. We’ll see to it later.’ By that time, his wife had partly opened the door once more and followed her husband into the dining room, shutting the door gingerly behind her.
‘Annie-ammé!’ Her mother-in-law walked towards her. She had already greeted Rohan and his father. Her daughter-in-law had however repaired to their bedroom within a few minutes of their arrival. The family members who were present swarmed all over Rohan and his parents.
Rohan sat himself on a chair, one of 6 chairs which adorned the formica topped dining table. One of his aunts who sat on the large wooden rice box, which was no longer used to store rice, held out her arms towards him, ‘Look at Rohan. He has grown up. He is so tall now.’ Rohan went towards her. He was a little bit shy, but not as shy as he had been last year when he was a lot younger. A ten year old had no right to feel shy, but every right to be fussed over by his favourite aunt. ‘Tell Tessy auntie what you’ve been up to?’
Tessy’s son walked in, sweaty and panting, one arm wiping the sweat off his brow and another swinging a cricket bat. Tessy who was fussing over Rohan tried to wipe off some of his sweat with the fall of her saree, but he shrugged her off. Rohan’s father has two brothers and three sisters. All six siblings and their families would spend a substantial part of May at Simhapara.
‘Annie-ammé, how was your journey? His grandmother asked his mother. She treated all three of her daughters-in-law equally. The one due to arrive in a week’s time from Muscat would receive the same welcome as Annie who had travelled down from Delhi.
Rohan’s father did not receive an invitation to partake of the food, but he helped himself to a sukiyan. It was around three o’clock and the brunch they had had from a restaurant at Kottayam after getting off the train, before they started their journey to Simhapara by a taxi, seemed to have been ages ago. Rohan’s cousin Simi settled herself in his father’s lap.
'Why don’t you eat something as well?' Rohan’s grandmother asked his mother who reluctantly sat down on a chair. Manjith reached across her shoulders and snatched a Neyappam.
There was a commotion at the door and Rohan’s father’s youngest brother entered. His daughter Simi got up from Rohan’s father’s lap and rushed to greet him. ‘Eda Mathai, we nearly did not make a trip this year’ Rohan’s father told his brother by way of a greeting. Mathai entered the room, with Simi clinging to his legs. He brought with him a strong smell of rubber latex.
‘So how did you manage to get leave? I was hoping you wouldn’t make it and I could have some peace of mind this summer.’ Mathai bore an uncanny resemblance to his elder brother. He too was dark, of medium height and had the same aquiline features and shockingly intense eyes. His mundu was also folded up to his knee in the same jaunty way as his brother.
‘You little thief! You underestimate my capacity to get what I want.’
‘Have you been bathing in the river Manjith?’ Rohan asked his sweaty cousin, who was two years older than Rohan, but was almost twice his size.
‘Don’t worry, you will be able to bathe in the river before we go back to Delhi.’ Rohan’s mother’s tone indicated that it was unlikely to happen in the next few days.
‘Haah’, a collective exclamation rose from many lips around the table. ‘He’ll be alright,’ Mathai uncle came to Rohan’s defence. ‘Any man who has Simhapara blood flowing through his veins can go for a bath in our river and survive. Mathai uncle settled himself on a chair next to Rohan’s father. Simi abandoned her father and went back to Rohan’s father’s lap.
‘Only a man? Even a woman can do that!’ Simi asserted, turning slightly to her right to face her father.
Mathai uncle beamed at Simi. ‘The other day my darling daughter Simi went for a bath and….’ His voice trailed off as Simi who was sitting close by on Rohan’s father’s lap lunged at his throat and put her fingers to his lips.
‘Achcha, don’t…’ she began.
‘Well, can’t you swim as well as any man? Let me tell everyone what happened!’
‘No, let me tell everyone’, Manjith broke in.
‘Okay, you tell us,' Rohan’s father encouraged him.
‘Hmmmmm’, Simi growled. Then she smiled sweetly and said, ‘No, I will tell what happened myself.’
‘Yes, let Simi-mol tell us herself’, Rohan’s mother gave Simi a pat on the back of her neck’, and continued to daintily eat an avaloss-unda.
‘Well’, Simi began shyly. ‘Amma and I went for a bath. There was a bush floating in the water.’ ‘Yes, a thorny bush’, her father supplemented. Simi slowly moved away from Rohan’s father and sat on her father’s lap.
‘Aah, Aah, I wanted to touch the thorny bush as it floated past me. Amma said No, but still I swam up to the bush.
‘Swam! She can’t swim,’ Manjith butted in.
‘I can swim!’
‘Of course, Simi can swim,’ there was a chorus of voices from the elders.
‘There was no need to swim. The water was this high’, Manjith pointed to his upper thigh.
Simi ignored him and carried on. ‘I touched the thorn bush and swam back. I did not realise that my towel was entangled in the thorns. So, when I reached my mother, I was …. ‘ Simi did not have to complete her sentence. Once more there was a chorus of voice ‘Naked!’ Simi’s father gave her a hug.
‘Did anyone see you?’ Mathai uncle prompted Simi.
Simi was silent. Then she started speaking again, her six-year old voice slowed by the shame she had been exposed to. ‘Mia, you know Mia who lives in that house…’ Simi’s left hand pointed towards the road ‘was bathing close by and she saw me.
‘And what did you do?’
‘And what did your mother do?’
‘She quickly swam after the thorny bush and got my towel and wrapped it around me.’
‘And then what did your mother do?’
‘She pinched me and said I deserved what happened to me since I disobeyed her.’
‘And what did you promise your Amma?’
‘I promised her that henceforth I will always stay close to her when we go for a bath.’
‘Good girl.’ There were smiles all around. Mathai uncle beamed at his daughter once more.
‘You should have heard Simi make her Republic day speech.’
‘Oh! We would love to hear it.’ Rohan’s father affirmed. ‘Tonight. After dinner. We should have a Programme. Rohan acted in his school play. He was Bassanio in the Merchant of Venice.’
‘Rohan! As Bassanio!’
‘And what have you been up to? Rohan’s mother asked Manjith who immediately started enumerating his exploits with the cricket bat and the numerous fights he had won in his school.
After a while Rohan grew impatient. ‘Daddy, will you be going to bathe in the river today?’
‘Well, I might. After sunset. I can’t take you with me today, but I might take you with me tomorrow, …………if Mummy lets you that is’, he hastily added.
‘Mummy, can I go for a bathe tomorrow?’
Why not tomorrow?’ Rohan’s father's surprisingly angry voice challenged her.
‘Because he is already sniffling. And the change in weather. From the Delhi heat to this rain. And he is weak from the journey.
‘He is not weak. Are you weak?’ Mathai uncle asked Rohan mockingly.
‘I am not weak.’
‘Chacko, tell me what’s the big deal if Rohan goes swimming?’ Rohan’s grandmother addressed the question to her son and not her daughter-in-law, as if she expected her son to put his wife in her place.
‘Let me tell you Ammachee,' Annie butted in before her husband could respond. ‘It is because of his bronchitis. She did not elaborate and her voice trailed off as if there was no point in explaining the reason to her mother-in-law. The explanation was unnecessary. She then decided to address the entire gathering. ‘Last time, he went for a bath in the river, he caught a cold. He was sneezing and had a running nose. After that his sneeze became a cough and finally he started wheezing. He was wheezing for the entire two weeks we spent in Kochi! Even on Rosie’s wedding day!’
‘But I haven’t had bronchitis since then!’
‘What if you get it once again this time?’
‘If we are to keep him wrapped up in a cocoon, well then go ahead.’
Mathai uncle’s wife who spent most of her time in the kitchen joined in. ‘He is going to be a man very soon, isn’t he?’
‘So when can I go for a swim?’ Rohan asked his mother with the air of a martyr. He was floating on a groundswell of support and was determined to make the most of it.
‘Let’s decide tomorrow.’ His mother put him off. ‘Let me first give this to Ammachee.’ Before anyone could say anything, she handed over the smaller of the two packets to Rohan’s grandmother.
‘What’s this? What’s the need for all this?’ The protests were addressed to her son and not her daughter-in-law. ‘Every year you people get me something. It is so unnecessary.’ She was quite pleased nevertheless and opened the parcel to reveal a kavani. Her smile broadened. ‘I’ll wear this to church this Sunday.’
‘How did you buy this from Delhi?’ Mathai uncle wanted to know. The Kavani was a uniquely Syrian Christian garment and was definitely not something one could get in Delhi.
‘In matters like these, you have to hand it to Annie. She got her sister Rosie to bring a Kavani to Delhi when Rosie and her husband came to visit us last month.’
‘Why do you go to so much trouble? You could have bought me a Kavani after you reached Kerala. Couldn’t you have bought this from Kochi when you go there? When are you going to Kochi?’
‘Well, I think it’s better if we bring our gifts from Delhi.’
‘So when are you going to Kochi?’
‘We haven’t finally decided. Maybe next Monday?’ Annie looked at her husband who looked uncomfortable.
‘Haven’t you finalised your plans Chacko-chaya?’ Mathai uncle asked Rohan’s father, amusement writ large on his face.
‘Well, next Monday I will take Annie and Rohan to Kochi, spend a day or two there and come back. Then after a fortnight, I’ll go to Kochi once more and bring them both back. And then we will have another week here.’
‘So Annie will get to spend only ten days with us. Do you have to spend a fortnight at Kochi?’ Rohan’s Grandmother sounded cross.
‘Well, Biju-achayan will come home on leave only on the twenty-first. So unless we stay there for a fortnight, we will miss him.’
‘If you can stay here till next Tuesday, you will be able to meet Jose,’ Tessy was hesitant.
‘Won’t Jose be back when we come back from Kochi?’
‘He might, but with Jose one never knows.’ Tessy laughed at the capriciousness of her husband’s schedule. They all joined in.
‘Jose hasn’t seen Rohan in over two years I think,’ Rohan’s father said, wrinkling his brow.
‘Oh, I’ll ask him to make sure he’s here when you come back.’
‘Mummy, aren’t you giving this to Simi?’ Rohan tugged at his mother’s saree.
‘Oh! I nearly forgot. ‘And this is for Simi-mol.’ Rohan’s mother opened the other brown parcel and pulled out a pink frock which she pressed towards a Simi who looked very shy.
‘Oh she looks so pretty in that.’
‘And this is for you Susan.’ The saree underneath the frock was handed over to Susan who immediately looked at Mathai uncle for approval. ‘Nice saree,’ he formally proclaimed.
‘What about Tessy and Manjith?’ Granny asked with mock seriousness.
‘Oh! Tessy and Manjith have so many good clothes that they don’t need any gifts from us.’ Rohan’s mother’s eyes made contact with Tessy and sought her approval.
Tessy smiled at her sister-in-law. You needn’t buy any gifts for us. What’s the point of accumulating so many clothes? All those clothes we brought back from Dubai - they are going to last forever.’
Manjith had stopped sweating, mainly because his had repeatedly wiped his face on his tee shirt. Manjith did not look too happy. He would not have minded receiving a gift.
‘Don’t we have some Jalebis for Manjith?’ Rohan’s father suddenly remembered. Don’t you like Jalebis?’ he asked his nephew who still hadn’t dropped his cricket bat.
‘I thought we could take them out after dinner.’
‘Can I go for a bath in the river tomorrow?’ Rohan asked piquantly.
‘Come on. Let’s take out the Jalebis. Where are they? In the smaller suitcase?’
‘Chacko, don’t take them out now. We have so many things on the table right here. Annie is quite right. Let’s eat them after dinner.’ Rohan’s Grandmother sounded relieved at being able to side with her daughter-in-law.
‘Can I go for a bath in the river tomorrow?’ Rohan repeated in a louder voice.
‘Son, why are you in such a rush? After we come back from Kochi, you can go for a bath in the river.' His mother had the most reasonable tone possible.
‘Let me tell you. We have to go to Kochi in a week’s time. Tony and Teena will be there. If you are ill, you cannot play with them.
‘I won’t fall ill!’
‘I know better than you do. You will if you bathe in the river.’
And that was it. His mother would not budge. Rohan timed his requests so that he gave his mother a gap of at least thirty minutes between each set of pleadings. Even after Rohan won a round of applause for enacting the agony and ultimate happiness of Bassanio, without having any of his fellow cast members around him, his mother did not relent. Finally Rohan’s father grew exasperated and told him to shut-up. Rohan went to bed in tears. How could his father be so heartless after he and Mathai uncle had slipped off towards the river after sunset, each with a thin white towel draped across their bare shoulders and a soap-dish with a piece of soap in it. They had returned after an hour, his father telling Mathai uncle of his plans to fix their fishing net and go fishing.
The next day morning Rohan was in for a huge surprise. They had just finished a hearty breakfast of cassava and fish curry when his father asked him, ‘what do you plan to do today?’ There were a million things to be done before they left for Kochi in a week’s time. He had to explore the stretch of land that belonged to his grandmother - about five acres or so - which ran from behind the house and was planted with rubber trees. The attic on top of the house was something he had been planning to explore this year, but he might postpone it to the next year - it was too dark and one could hear the sound of rats running overhead. There were a few rabbits kept in a pen and Manjith had told him that one of them had a litter - he had to spend some time with them. He had to chat with Thankachan, the handyman who helped Mathai uncle milk the cows and tap the rubber trees. Thankachan was also a black belt in Karate and Rohan was hoping to persuade Thankachan to teach him a few useful tricks. Most importantly he was planning to go with Susan auntie and Simi to the river in the afternoon and watch them take bath - even if he himself was not allowed to plunge into the water.
‘Are you planning to go to the river with Susan auntie?’
‘For a brief moment Rohan thought he was going to be forbidden from even going to the river to watch others bathe in it. And then to his eternal joy, his father told him, ‘I have spoken to your mother. You can bathe in the river today.’ Rohan could not believe his ears. But there was no mistaking the gleam in his father’s eyes. It was as much a victory for his father as it was for him. ‘I have spoken to your mother,’ his father repeated.
Rohan ran to the kitchen where his mother was peeling onions. ‘Mummy! Daddy says I can bathe in the river today.’
‘Well, go and bathe in the river. When you fall ill, you and your father will realise that I was only acting in your best interest.’ That killed off most of Rohan’s joy. His mother looked so unhappy, standing there in that badly ventilated kitchen which was filled with smoke from a stove stuffed with firewood.
‘Annie-chechy why do you worry so much?’ Susan who was standing nearby said. ‘You worry about everything.’
‘It’s not as simple as that. Last year even after we reached Delhi, Rohan had not fully recovered from his bronchitis. He missed so many classes in June and July.’
‘He will be alright this year,’ Rohan’s grandmother said as she churned milk. She paused for a moment and said, ‘Rohan come here.’ Rohan walked up to the bench where his grandmother sat. ‘Do you still have your sniffles?’ Rohan blew in through his nose loudly. There was some evidence of a very mild cold. ‘Oh! That’s nothing’ his grandmother dismissed the evidence.
‘So what if he catches a cold? It will go away in a few days.’ the daily help looked up from the fish she was cleaning and asked Rohan’s mother. That woman had been with the family for so long and had a say in most matters.
‘Annie-chechy, why don't you come along with us as well? You have never taken a bath in our river.’ Susan had tried to persuade Annie to test the waters many times before and she had given up hope. She had not really expected to elicit a positive response from Annie.
‘Not for me! No! So many people take bath in that river! It must be so dirty!’
‘Oh, the current carries away all the dirt. And the water is so clear.’
Annie merely shuddered by way of a response.
Though his mother’s agony had dimmed his joy, Rohan was still happy. He had to find Manjith and Simi. ‘Susan auntie, where’s Simi?’
‘She must be in the cow shed watching Thankachan milk the cows.’
Rohan pondered for a few seconds. Normally he would have rushed to see the cows getting milked. A man who was denied the privilege of taking a bath in the river everyday, as most people at Simhapara did, was entitled to grab whatever other minor pleasures came his way. But now, watching the cows get milked did not seem to be a big deal. He could follow Thankachan around the next day. Or even the day after. ‘And where’s Manjith?’ Rohan knew the answer to that question. Manjith and his mother were closeted in a room finishing off Manjith’s vacation work. Manjith had been promoted to the next year on the condition that he completed a certain amount of schoolwork during his vacation time. ‘Don’t disturb them,’ his grandmother warned Rohan with a smile.
Rohan decided to pay the cowshed a visit. He walked out of the kitchen to the outer verandah, which ran all around the house, except at one corner where Mathai uncle had built a concrete extension. Rohan hated that extension. He could still remember the days when he and Manjith could run around the entire perimeter of the house, peeping into rooms through windows that opened out to the verandah. Rohan climbed down the steps that led to the courtyard, crossed the courtyard and started climbing down a steep flight of steps that led down a terraced wall. Simhapara was at the western foothills of the Ghats and the skyline in the east was dominated by the looming green mountain ranges. Much closer to him, there arose a small hill. The rock on top of the hill was supposed to resemble the head of a lion, after which the village had been named. As he climbed down the steps, the smell of cow manure assaulted his sense. Rohan ran up to Simi who was squatting by the entrance to the cowshed and said breathlessly, ‘My Daddy said I can bathe in the river today!’
‘So you are coming with us?’ Simi was also excited. ‘Manjith is planning to set a trap for the fishes.’
‘Has he made the trap yet?’
‘No, not yet! He is in his room - studying.’
‘I know, but will he do it today?’
‘I don’t know. He was planning to do it yesterday, but Tessy auntie did not let him.’
Normally such treachery on the part of Tessy auntie would have upset Rohan, but today he was not bothered. He did have plans to persuade Mathai uncle to take him fishing - fishing with a rod and bait and not with a trap as Manjith did - but today he would merely take bath in the river. The sands of time refused to move fast enough for Rohan. He did not eat much at lunch-time and surprisingly, his mother did not press him to do so. She was too upset by what was going to happen. There were the usual jokes about his father’s appetite which usually doubled itself when he was at Simhapara.
‘Simi-mol, tell us how much rice your Chacko uncle ate?’ Simi’s grandmother prodded her after the meal as they sat chatting in the main drawing room.
‘From here,’ Simi obligingly touched the ground near her feet, straightened herself, lifted her right arm into the air, walked a few feet and touched the ground again, ‘till here’. There were roars of laughter. Rohan felt irritated. It had sounded funny last year when Simi said it for the first time. Now he wished they would just hurry up and make a move towards the river. But it was only half past one and he knew that Susan auntie did not go for her usual bath till around three o’clock.
After lunch Mathai uncle asked him, ‘do you want to help me press the rubber sheets?’ Rohan nearly said No for fear that Susan auntie and Simi would leave without him. But he knew that he was being silly. The daily collection of latex from five acres of rubber barely yielded ten rubber sheets. Pressing them did not take more than thirty minutes. He went along with Mathai uncle through the tapioca plants to the shed where the rubber press was kept. It was a dinghy shed which had mildew on its wall and an overpowering odour of latex. Ten aluminium trays filled with latex were arranged in two rows of five each at the foot of the concrete slab on which the press was mounted. The latex had become semi solid rectangular sheets, each of which was around three inches thick. Mathai uncle picked up one sheet with both hands, held it up for a minute on top of the tray so that water draining from the rubber sheet fell into the tray, and asked Rohan, ‘Ready?’ There was no need to explain. Rohan grabbed the metal rod attached to the wheel, which moved the press and started to rotate it. Mathai uncle fed the thick rubber sheet into the moving cylinders and the sheet that came out at the other end was not more than an inch thick. The pressed sheet was put back into the tray. Mathai uncle picked up a sheet from another tray.
‘So do you get along with your friends at school?’
‘With some of them.’
‘What are their names?’
‘There is Amarpreet Singh, there’s Gautam Mulchandani, there’s …’
Mathai uncle was fascinated by the unfamiliar names. He would repeat each name and Rohan would correct him when he got the pronunciation wrong. ‘ No! No! it’s Go-tam and not Gow-dham.’
‘Oh! Is that how it’s pronounced?’
And Mathai uncle would encourage Rohan to tell him about his exploits. ‘The guy you got into a fight with last year, what’s his name?’
‘Yes that’s the one. Are you still enemies?
After all ten sheets had been pressed once, Mathai uncle adjusted the settings so that the gap between the two cylinders was less than a centimetre. They started the process again. This time the sheets that came out at the other end where quite thin and much longer.
‘And you actually hit him?’
‘I did. There was no one else left in the playground. Just us and I punched him.’
‘I guess your mother doesn’t know any of this.’
‘Of course not! She will only make a fuss.’
‘I know, there’s no point telling her.’
‘What about your Daddy?’
‘He doesn’t know either.’
‘Did your Daddy get a bonus this year?’ At that Rohan became a bit wary. It was one thing to tell Mathai uncle about his exploits at school and quite another to divulge financial details about his parents.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Didn’t he tell you?’
‘No, he didn’t.’
‘Maybe he did not get a bonus.’
‘I don’t know.’
Mathai uncle moved to a different topic. ‘How are your folks at Kochi doing? All well there?’
‘Your Shibu uncle, he’s been in the Gulf for over ten years now, right?’
‘Yes. He has. He will be coming home this December.’
‘Doesn’t he have any plans to wind-up and come back home for good?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t heard of any such plans.’
‘It’s a difficult thing to do. He must be making around - how many Riyals - per month?
‘I don’t know. But he does send a lot of money home. He gave most of the money for Rosie-auntie’s dowry.’
‘Oh, he did that, did he?
‘Yes he did.’
‘Didn’t your Avirachan uncle give any money?’
Before Rohan could divulge more details about his mother’s relations, Manjith entered the shed.
‘Hello! Are you finished yet?’
‘Almost. Just one more round and they’ll all be done. Rohan did it all by himself. Look at him - the man shows no sign of exhaustion.’
‘Well, Annie-auntie asked me if I could help you. She said Rohan might fall ill if he exerted himself too much.’
‘Oh! That mother of yours. She’ll ruin your life by molly-coddling you too much. Are you tired?’
‘No, of course not.’ Rohan was quite tired and would have happily handed over the wheel to Manjith if only he had not been sent by his mother.
‘Well, then carry on.’
Before Rohan could continue, his mother entered the shed. ‘Are you through with the work?’ she politely asked Mathai uncle.
‘No Annie-chechy, but we are almost through. ‘Come on Rohan. Let’s finish this task.’ Rohan started to turn the wheel and Mathai uncle recommenced the process of feeding the rubber sheets, which were now not more than a few millimetres thick, into the press.
‘Well, I’m off,’ Manjith scampered off, back to the TV channel he had been watching till Rohan’s mother very sweetly asked him, brave and strong boy that he was, if he could relieve Rohan who was quite likely to fall seriously ill if he spent more than five minutes working the rubber press.
‘Don’t worry Annie-chechy, he’ll not die if he does some physical activity for a few minutes.’
‘It’s been almost thirty minutes since you people started. And today he is going to bathe in the river.’
‘Well, what’s that got to do with this?’
‘If he exhausts himself before he goes swimming, he is much more likely to fall ill. Plus it will not do him any good to bathe in that cold water after sweating so much.’
‘Don’t worry Annie-chechy. Susan will not leave before three o’clock. It’s only five past two now. He’ll have plenty of time to cool down.’
‘If he falls ill, will you take him to the doctor?’
Mathai uncle muttered something under his breath and said, ‘if Rohan falls ill, I’ll take him to the doctor. I promise you.’ Rohan’s mother had nothing more to say. She walked off. In another five minutes or so, all ten sheets were done. Mathai uncle folded each of them in half - they were twice as long as they had been when they started - kept them all in one tray which he picked up and nodded to Rohan who walked out of the shed followed by Mathai uncle who used his right foot to kick the door shut.
When they reached the courtyard, Mathai uncle started to hang the sheets on an aluminium wire that ran from one of the pillars that supported the garage to a large murikku tree. Rohan’s mother was waiting for him on the verandah, another one of those thin, white towels in her hand. ‘Come here. Let me wipe the sweat off you,’ Rohan’s mother ordered him and he obligingly climbed the few steps that led to the verandah from the courtyard. His mother rigorously applied the towel to his face and to the sides of his head after which she unbuttoned his shirt, took it off and wiped off all traces of the sweat from his chest and back. ‘Now sit here for a few minutes. Once you stop sweating you can go and sit under the fan.’ Rohan dared not disobey his mother or give her an excuse to prevent him from going to the river. He sat on one of the four chairs, which were spread out across the verandah. After ten minutes or so, he went into their bedroom, switched on the ceiling fan and sat on the bed directly under the fan. He heard Manjith shouting for him. ‘I’m here,’ Rohan called out. Manjith came in.
‘Are you going to the river with Susan auntie and Simi?’
‘Yes. Are you coming along?’
‘No. I go on my own. Why should I go with the women?’ Rohan responded with a nervous grin.
‘You could go with me, you know. I will go by around four o’clock. All my friends will be there as well.’
Rohan was sure that his mother would never let him go bathing in the river with Manjith. Plus, there was no point in delaying his departure by an hour. Moreover, he was not sure if he would enjoy the company of Manjith’s friends. During his last visit, he had played a game of carrom with Manjith and two of his friends. One of them had made fun of his Malayalam which was accented and not very fluent. ‘No, Manjith. I don’t think Mummy will let me go with you. She would rather I go with Susan auntie.’
‘Very well then. I’m off. But you better grow up fast. All this hanging around aunties will not do you any good.’
‘I might go with my Daddy. He goes to the river after sunset you know. With Mathai uncle.’
‘Do you think they will take you along?’
‘Not today. But I will go with them one day before I leave.’
‘Your mother won’t let you go bathing in the river more than once.’
‘My father has told her to let me go bathing everyday.’
‘Is that right?’ Manjith looked sceptical.
‘What about Tessy auntie? Doesn’t she go to the river for her bath these days?’
‘No, she rarely goes. Three or four days ago, she went with Susan auntie.’
‘Did you go along?’
‘Well, even you go to the river with women.’ Manjith did not deign to reply to that comment.
‘Yesterday I got into a fight with …..’ Rohan listened to Manjith’s description of the fight with fascination. Manjith seemed to do practically everything he wanted without Tessy auntie constantly monitoring him and haranguing him. He wished his own mother would give him the sort of freedom which Tessy aunty gave Manjith. As if in response to his thoughts, his mother entered the room carrying two towels, a change of clothes and a soap dish with a Cinthol soap in it. ‘Don’t spend too much time in the water. If you don’t, then you will not fall ill and maybe you can go bathing in the river again.’
‘Can I go tomorrow?’
‘No. Not tomorrow. But you can go after we come back from Kochi.’
Manjith was about to tell Rohan off, but took pity on him and kept quiet. ‘What about you Manjith? Are you going to the river with Susan and Simi?
‘Me? No! I go on my own a bit later.’
‘On your own? Is it safe?’
‘Of course it is safe. All my friends will be there.’
‘I don’t think it is safe. Let me speak with your mother.’
‘Tessy! Tessy! Rohan’s mother went in search of Manjith’s mother. Rohan and Manjith followed her. They found her in the dining room reading a woman’s magazine and occasionally exchanging a comment with Susan who was in the adjacent kitchen.
‘Tessy, are you going to let Manjith go on his own?’
‘Where to?’ Tessy lazily asked.
‘To the river. For a bath.’
‘Well, why not? He is twelve.’
‘See I told you, I’m allowed to go on my own.’
Rohan’s mother looked deflated. ‘Annie-chechy, would you like to come with us? Susan asked Rohan’s mother.
‘Me? No! I’m going to heat some water and have a bath in piping hot water.’
‘Sounds like a good idea. When you do that, could you please heat some water for me too?’
‘Sure.’ Annie did not particularly want to heat some water for Tessy. But she smiled at Tessy nevertheless.’
‘Does Jose like to bathe in the river when he is here?’
Before Tessy could reply, Manjith piped up. ‘No he doesn’t. Papa hates to enter the river. He thinks the river water is too dirty. Not just here. Even at Muvattupuzha.’
‘He is like you,’ Tessy informed Annie with a shy smile. She was quite proud of her husband and all his idiosyncrasies.
‘Oh! Yes. You have a small stream near your house there, don’t you?’
Amidst all the chatter Susan auntie did not show any indication that she would leave for the river any time soon. When the large wall clock which adorned his Grandmother’s room chimed three, Rohan walked into the kitchen. Susan auntie was mixing some rice batter.
‘What’s this for?’ Rohan asked politely.
‘Vellayappam. Don’t you like Vellayappam?’
Rohan was silent, agony writ large on his face.
‘Don’t worry. We’ll leave in a few minutes.’ As promised, after a few minutes, Susan poured the batter into a circular dish, which she set into a steam oven, stoked the fire and prepared to leave.
‘Chinnammé, make sure you take this out of the oven in thirty minutes. By three forty,’ she shouted to the domestic help who was washing dishes in the sink. She quickly grabbed a couple of towels, a soap dish and a change of clothes for herself and Simi. ‘You have your towel, don’t you? Oh yes! You do. Let’s go. Come on Simi.’ Simi started running ahead. ‘Simi don’t,’ Susan shouted after Simi who quickly crossed the courtyard and started running down the decline, which led to the main road. The area between the courtyard and the main road - around half an acre of land - was a garden and the declining pathway ran through it. Rohan’s grandfather had been passionate about his garden and had actually devoted half an acre of land to hibiscuses, roses, jasmine and crotons of various hues and shapes. There were anthurium plants, chrysanthemums, dahlias and daisies. You could plant rubber instead of those flowers and get at least an extra rubber sheet out of it every day, they had told him. But he had gone his own way and maintained his garden, paying good money to a handyman to weed the garden every alternate week. After his demise a few years ago, they had maintained the garden exactly the same.
‘Simi don’t cross the road,’ Susan shouted after Simi who was tugging at the bolt, which held the gate shut.
‘Simi don’t cross the road,’ Rohan repeated and looked up to Susan for approval. ‘You are ten years old. You can cross the road on your own. Why don’t you take Simi’s hand and cross the road?’ Rohan ran ahead and as he reached Simi, the gate flew open. Rohan took Simi’s right hand in his left and looked to both sides of the road. A bus bound for Kottayam passed by. As they were about to start crossing the road, Susan reached the main gate. All three of them crossed the road together, with Simi in the centre.
‘Why do you need two towels?’ Simi asked Rohan as they turned left and walked along the main road. Susan auntie had only one towel each for Simi and herself.
‘I like to use a dry towel after the bath. I’ll wear one towel while I am in the river and the other one to dry myself after the bath.’
‘Why can’t you dry yourself with the one you wear while you are in the river?’
‘Because it will be wet.’
‘What’s wrong with a wet towel?’
Rohan did not reply. To their east, the Ghats filled the entire skyline, their tops covered in a floating mist. Much closer to them, less than a mile away, there arose the Lion-Head shaped rock.
In a few minutes, they turned right from the main road and started walking down a steep and narrow road that led to the river. The Lion-Head was no longer visible. Rubber trees grew on both sides of the road and their foliage served to form an arch under which the three of them walked. Simi walked over to the edge of the road and kicked at a spread of touch-me-nots growing by the side. Rohan joined Simi. As they watched the plants shrink, Simi giggled and then looked up at Rohan who was staring at the shrunken plants in great fascination. ‘There’s more on the other side,’ Susan auntie pointed out to them. They ran across to the other side of the road and energetically stomped on the touch-me-nots. Susan gave them a few more minutes and said, ‘let’s get going.’
They started walked again and soon reached the main bridge, which spanned the river. Two well-worn trails ran from either side of the bridge to the bank of the river, which was around twelve meters wide at that point. As they took the trail that ran to the right, Rohan’s heart started beating faster with excitement. He could hardly wait to jump into the greenish water. Two women were in the water bathing and two others were washing clothes on a rock partly submerged in the water. Susan chose a spot, which was a bit further away from that group. Far away, they could see groups of boys and a few men bathing in the area designated for men. The river bank on the other side was overgrown with large plants and a few trees, the most prominent of which was a large Anjili tree, which grew very close to the water. Rohan quickly wrapped the towel around his waist and removed his trousers. He carefully folded his trousers and searched for a clean spot to keep them. ‘Here, keep them here,’ Susan auntie pointed towards a large flat stone, on which she had already kept her clothes and soap dish. She wrapped a towel around Simi’s waist and helped her out of her frock. Simi skipped and ran down into the water. ‘You too go ahead,’ Susan told Rohan who was standing by the water’s edge, his heart beating faster than ever and a very wide grin on his face. Rohan gingerly dipped his toe in the water and then took a series of very small steps, which took him into the water. The water came up to his hips. He moved a bit further and soon the water came to his lower chest. ‘Don’t go any deeper,’ Susan auntie shouted out a warning from the bank, as she discarded her saree and tied her underskirt tightly just below her shoulders.
Rohan squatted in the water so that it came up to his chin. Susan auntie waded in. Simi came from behind and splashed some water on Rohan’s head, which he had not yet dunked into the water. He splashed back at Simi. Susan auntie joined in and all three of them stood in a small circle and splashed water on each other. After a few minutes, Susan auntie turned to a side and made a shallow dive into the water. Simi tried to follow suit, but she only managed to fall into the water and came up again very soon. Rohan held his breath and slowly bent his knees till he was squatting and his head was under the water. He came up for air and then dipped his head in the water again. The sun which had been shining so brightly slipped behind a dark cloud. More dark clouds started to gather. We must make haste, Susan auntie told Rohan. It might rain today. Rohan made a wry face. What difference does it make if it rains? We are already in the water now.’
‘Your mother will panic.’ Susan auntie stated the precise thought which was passing through Rohan’s mind. They heard thunder.
‘Simi, go and soap yourself,’ Susan auntie ordered Simi who scampered out of the water and walked towards the large flat stone where the two soap dishes where kept. Susan auntie gave Rohan a look, which indicated that he too was expected to follow suit. Rohan unhappily waded out of the water and picked up his soap. Susan auntie followed him. She took the soap that was in Simi’s hand and rigorously applied it all over her. In a few minutes, Simi was covered in lather. Rohan was lethargically soaping himself. ‘Rohan, would you like me to help you? Susan auntie asked Rohan.
‘No, no. I can manage,’ Rohan said and increased the pace with which he was soaping himself. Susan auntie scrutinized Rohan for a few minutes and then followed suit herself. Rohan put the soap back into its dish and started to get back into the water, covered in a thin film of soap. ‘You haven’t soaped your nape,’ Susan auntie called after him. She took a few steps, took Rohan’s hand, pulled him towards her, took the Cinthol soap he had used previously and soaped him all over, starting with his neck. Soon Rohan was also covered from head to toe in lather. Susan auntie put the soap back into its dish and picked up her soap. Rohan walked back into the water. ‘Hurry up children,’ Susan auntie called out as she soaped herself with the same energy she had shown earlier. Rohan took a deep breath, ducked his head into the water and started counting. He counted till twenty and then had to come up for air. As he lifted up his head, he saw a wonderful sight. The clouds were disappearing and the sun was starting to shine brightly. By that time Susan auntie was back in the water. ‘I don’t believe it,’ she told them. Rohan yelled with delight. His yell was heard by a group of men who were bathing in the men’s section and they took up the yell. Rohan was embarrassed. Simi saw his embarrassment and told him ‘It’s okay. It’s only Rarichan and friends. He weeds our garden occasionally.’ The group of women who were bathing close-by prepared to leave. Two of the women had large loads of washing with them.
‘How long did you hold your breath?’ Susan auntie asked him. Rohan didn’t realise that he had been observed. He was silent, wondering whether he ought to inflate the number of seconds he had been underwater. ‘Thirty,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you both dunk your heads underwater? I’ll count. Let’s see who holds out the longest.’
Rohan wasn’t too keen. Simi used her thumb and index finger to pinch her nose shut and prepared to go under water. Rohan followed suit.
‘Ready? Ready! Go’
Simi plonked herself down and Rohan followed suit a second later. They both came up together at the same time. ‘Nineteen,’ Susan auntie announced. Rohan gave her a guilty look and said, ‘I count faster than you, you know.’
The sun was shining quite brightly now. All the rain clouds had disappeared.
‘Do you want to play ducks and drakes? Susan auntie asked them. Without bothering to reply, Simi immediately bent down, picked up a flat stone and used a sideway movement of her arm to throw it a short distance across the water. The stone fell into the water - like a stone.
‘Your stone wasn’t flat enough,’ Susan auntie told Simi. ‘Your turn Rohan.’
Rohan looked hard and came up with a stone, which he discarded. He picked up another and showed it to Susan auntie who scrutinised it and shook her head. Susan auntie’s eyes darted here and there, after which she bent down and picked up a stone. ‘Here, try this.’ Rohan turned sideways, puffed up his mouth and threw the stone. The stone skipped over the water once before it disappeared into the water.
‘Let me show you.’ Susan auntie picked up a stone and threw it with her arm almost parallel to the water. It skipped thrice before it disappeared. ‘Ammé, that was good!’ Simi praised her mother. Simi had better luck with her next throw which skipped over the water once.
‘Look,’ Susan auntie pointed out to the children. ‘There’s a rainbow over there.’ And sure enough, there was a rainbow on the horizon.
They stood in the water in silence watching the rainbow.
‘I thought a rainbow appears only after a rain,’ Rohan opined, turning his head towards Susan auntie. He wished his own mother would be adventurous enough to go to the river with him and chuck a few stones over the water.
‘Normally yes! But a large cloud filled with water can also do the trick.’
‘Why is that?’
‘I don’t know. You should ask your mother. She knows .. she knows many things.’
Rohan smiled at Susan auntie. What was that she had been about to say before she changed her mind? Rohan was used to hearing Mathai uncle make cutting remarks about his mother, when she was not present. But so far he had never heard Susan auntie say anything about his mother.
‘We ought to be leaving soon,’ Susan auntie announced.
‘Let me throw once more,’ Simi said and she started to look for a stone. Rohan followed suit.
‘One more throw each and we will leave.’ Susan auntie also started to search for a stone.
Simi picked up a stone and said, ‘Ready!’ she threw it rather well, for the stone skipped over the water twice.
‘Your turn Rohan,’ Susan auntie told him. But Rohan had not yet picked up a stone yet. Susan auntie had a stone in her hand and Rohan looked at it as if he hoped she would give it to him. But she didn’t. ‘Instead she said, ‘hurry up and find a stone.’
‘No, you go ahead,’ Rohan told her. ‘I will throw last.’
Susan auntie turned sideways and threw her stone as effectively as she had done the previous time. The stone skipped over the water thrice. Now Susan auntie and Simi waited for Rohan to pick up a stone. Rohan looked here and there and finally found a stone that he thought was perfect.
‘Go on,’ Susan auntie encouraged him. ‘Come on Rohan,’ Simi added.
Rohan puffed up his cheeks and wildly threw the stone which did not even hit the water. Instead it flew into the air and …. disappeared. They did not hear a plonk sound which would indicate the stone falling into the water somewhere. Simi and Rohan turned their heads this way and that way, but could detect no sign of the stone having landed anywhere.
‘Never mind Rohan, let’s go. Come on Simi. Let’s go. Let’s go.’ The children reluctantly climbed out. Rohan picked up his spare dry towel and towelled himself. Susan auntie used her towel to towel Simi and then used it to dry herself. After they had all changed, they started walking homewards.
‘Look, the rainbow has gone,’ Simi told them.
‘Yeah, Rohan’s stone hit the rainbow and killed it.’
‘Of course not,’ Rohan protested.
‘Where else could your stone have gone? And why do you think the rainbow disappeared?’
‘I killed the rainbow,’ Rohan declared wonderstruck. He knew that it was just a joke, but it was good fun nevertheless. None of his mates in Delhi had ever killed a rainbow, he was sure of that.
His mother was waiting for them when he reached home. She hurried up to him with a dry towel and vigorously towelled his hair. ‘If his head remains wet for a long time, he will catch a cold which can, you know ………’ They listened to her politely.
‘So, will you go with me tomorrow?’ Manjith asked Rohan. Rohan looked at his mother who was silent. His grandmother said, ‘your Daddy has allowed you to go. And you might as well go with Manjith. You are a man now. Why should you go with Susan to the place where women bathe?’
‘Rohan, breath deeply,’ his mother ordered him. Rohan complied. His breath came out naturally without any hitch which would have indicated the beginnings of a cold. He was exultant. ‘See, I am absolutely fine!’
The rest of the day Rohan tested himself periodically for any sign of a cold by breathing deeply. He was also slightly worried about the reception he would get at the hands of Manjith’s friends. In fact he was worried enough to mention it to God when they had their evening prayers which dragged on for more than half an hour. But he need not have worried. Manjith’s friends did not ill-treat him or even tease him when they met at the river bank the next day. It felt slightly strange to take the trail that ran from the left of the bridge, instead of the one to the right. Manjith was evidently one of the leaders of his gang and his friends treated Rohan with respect. They were curious about him and asked him a million questions about Delhi. As they splashed about in the water, Rohan felt that he had been silly to have gone with Simi and her mother the previous day. He should have gone with Manjith who was busy chasing the small fishes which darted in and out of holes and crevices in the water.
‘Who wants to do a headstand?’ One of the other gang leaders challenged the rest. Manjith took up the challenge. He moved to a spot where the riverbed was flat and firm, lifted up his arms and said, ‘here, watch me!’ He then bent down and planted both his arms in the water and then hoisted up his legs. The water came up to his navel. After five seconds or so, his legs went down with a splash and he got up. One of the other boys tried to do it and failed. His legs would not go up. A third boy successfully imitated Manjith, but could last only a couple of seconds.
‘We could help Saajan to stand on his hands,’ Manjith suggested to the group at large. Saajan, who had failed in his endeavour could not refuse the offer of help. ‘You try and lift up your legs. As they come up, we will hold them up,’ Manjith informed Saajan who took a deep breath, planted his arms on the riverbed and swung his legs up. Manjith managed to grab one leg and another boy took hold of the other, only to lose the slippery leg after a second. But Manjith held on to the leg he had grabbed. ‘never mind, lift up the other leg,’ he ordered two of the boys one of who bent down and lifted up Saajan’s other leg. Saajan was much shorter than Manjith and the water level came up to Saajan’s buttocks. They held on for a few seconds and then Manjith told the group at large, ‘someone keep count.’ The boys looked at each other and then realised that none of them had kept count from the time Saajan had gone underwater. Manjith suddenly dropped the leg he was holding and ordered the others, ‘drop him, drop him,’ which they did with alacrity. Saajan did not come up on his own, but had to be helped up. He spluttered water and said panting, ‘you chaps held me down for too long!’ They fell back and stood around him in a guilty circle.
‘What are you boys up to?’ an old man bathing some distance away asked them. They ignored him, but did not do any more handstands in the water.
‘You could do this,’ Manjith suggested to Rohan and proceeded to swim towards a nearby rock, which was partly submerged in the water. He used his hands to hold on to the rock, held the rest of his body horizontal in the water and flapped his legs. Rohan waded up to the rock and followed suit. ‘That’s the way I learnt to swim,’ Manjith informed him.
After some more time, Manjith told Rohan, ‘We might well be going. Or your mother might get worried.’
Rohan wasn’t too keen to leave, but Manjith was insistent. ‘We need to leave or Rohan’s mother will be angry with him,’ he informed the rest of the group.
That evening when they were having dinner, Rohan sneezed once. A nun, who was a distant cousin of Rohan’s father, was at the table with them. ‘Bless you,’ the nun said and Rohan sneezed again.
His mother had a horrified look on her face. ‘See, I warned you,’ she began in a loud voice.
‘Its just a sneeze, for Christ’s sake,’ Rohan’s father retorted. 'Anyone can sneeze. It doesn’t mean anything. In this family we’ve all had loud sneezes.'
‘Just you wait. He’ll soon catch a cold and then he will go from bad to worse.’
‘Maybe he won’t. What makes you so sure that he is going to fall ill?’
‘Do you have a running nose?’ Rohan’s mother was actively looking for further evidence of a cold.
‘No I don’t.’
‘You are lying.’
‘I am not!’ Rohan then proceeded to breathe deeply. The nun who was sitting next to him pronounced, No! He does not have a cold.’ His mother gave him a sceptical look.
Rohan did not sneeze after that. The next day afternoon, when they were having lunch, Rohan asked his father if he could go to the river with Manjith once more.
‘Sure you can. That’s the way to become a sturdy lad! Expose yourself to the elements!’
‘Chacko-chaya, don’t let him go today,’ his mother beseeched his father in an unusually humble voice. 'Let him get some rest today and we shall see if he sneezes again. If he doesn’t sneeze, he can go tomorrow.’
‘No, let him go bathing today as well. Let me see what happens.’
‘He’ll be alright,’ Rohan’s grandmother assured his mother. 'Tonight, we’ll boil some water and Rohan can inhale some steam.’
‘That’s a good idea. We ought to stick to these natural remedies instead of relying so much on antibiotics!’
Rohan went off to the river with Manjith in the afternoon and had a jolly good time. He tried to make a few strokes in the water and did cover some distance before he was forced to find his footing. He went back to holding on to the rock and flapping his feet in the water. ‘You are making progress,’ Manjith encouraged him. ‘Soon you will be able to swim.’ The boys were making plans to jump off the bridge into the river once the water levels went up during the monsoon. ‘I won’t be able to join you,’ Manjith sadly said. By the end of May when his school vacation got over, his mother would take him back to Muvattupuzha where they lived as part of his father’s extended family. The monsoon would set in only in early June.
‘Don’t you have a river there?’ Rohan reminded Manjith.
‘Yes we do. But there is no bridge over it like the one here. This is so convenient!’
‘How high does the water rise up to?’ Rohan wanted to know.
‘Last year, there was water till that that branch,’ one of the boys pointed to a low hanging branch of the Anjili tree, which was around five feet above the water.
‘That high! Rohan gasped.
‘The depth of the water does not matter if you can swim,’ one of the boys bravely declared.
They continued to play in the water for a while. ‘Kochu Varkey’s land has just been cleared. I saw them carting away the logs this morning,’ one of the boys informed the rest.
‘We should have a game there.’
The novelty of playing cricket on a piece of land where tall rubber trees stood until a week ago was not to be missed for the whole world. ‘Shall we leave now?’ The cleared land was not more than ten minutes away.
‘Who’ll get the gear?’
‘Hamid, isn’t your house close by?’
‘Yes it is! I will leave now and get my bat and ball and meet you all there’
‘Don’t you have any stumps?’
‘No I don’t.’
‘It doesn’t matter. We will definitely find a few sticks there.’
‘I will leave now.’ Hamid left in a hurry with the air of a host who was about to receive a multitude of guests.
The boys stayed on in the water for a few more minutes and then followed Hamid. Rohan was not sure if he should go with the boys or if he should go home. He was sure that if he went home and sought his mother’s permission, it would be refused. He decided to stay on, hoping that Manjith would not remember to ask if it was going to be alright with his mother. Once again he wished his mother were more like Susan auntie or Tessy auntie.
They all had a good time. While they were playing Hamid’s mother actually came down with a large tray with glasses of lime squash and a large plate of banana chips. ‘Who is this new boy? she demanded when she saw Rohan. Rohan smiled at her and waited for Manjith to introduce him. ‘He is my cousin from Delhi.’ Nothing more needed to be said. Hamid’s mother knew Rohan’s family. She knew that Chacko, Rohan’s father, had a job in Delhi where he lived with his family.
By the time they got home, it was quite dark. Rohan’s mother was almost hysterical. Rohan’s father had gone to the river to look for the boys and not seeing them there, had come home and announced to Rohan’s mother, ‘None of the boys are in the river. They could not all have drowned. They must have gone off somewhere to play.’ With that his mother had to be satisfied. Tessy also assured her. ‘Manjith does that very often. He goes to the river with the boys and then they have a game of cricket somewhere.’
Rohan’s mother made him take off his shirt and wipe off his sweat. ‘Don’t sit under a fan immediately,’ she ordered him.
His grandmother told his mother, ‘give him something to eat. As long as he eats properly, he will be alright.’ They had made kumbalappams, which Rohan liked a lot. He ate two of them and then he sneezed. He sneezed again after a few moments. It seemed that he had a running nose.
His mother gave him a Coldarin and went about the task of boiling some water, a bit of Vicks ointment in it, and getting Rohan to inhale the steam, with the air of someone who was about to witness a disaster she had warned everyone about. That night during prayers, when Rohan recited his quota of Hail Marys, his voice sounded hoarse. Even his father looked worried after that. ‘Well, don’t go bathing in the river tomorrow. You’ll be better in a day.’
‘If only he hadn’t gone today, he would have been alright.’ She then turned her fury towards Rohan. ‘Why did you go and play cricket after that? Did you have permission to do that?’ Rohan was silent. He was now too weak to respond to his mother. ‘Now how will he go to Kochi?’ his mother wailed.
‘Even if he is ill, he can still travel to Kochi.’
‘Or you could leave him behind. We will look after him,’ his grandmother informed his mother with a twinkle in her eye. His mother was too furious to respond.
When she calmed down, she said ‘the same thing happened last year. It was Rosie’s wedding and ….’
‘Well, nothing has happened so far,’ Rohan’s father silenced her. Did you give him a Coldarin?
‘Yes, it hasn't had any effect.’
‘Don’t be so pessimistic,’ his father said.
That night Rohan went to bed with a couple of handkerchiefs by his side to blow his nose into. The next day was a Friday. Rohan did not have permission to step out of the house into the warm sunshine. He watched some TV and then sat near his mother as she gossiped with Tessy auntie. He pretended not to listen, but drank in details of how Tessy auntie’s husband Jose had come home drunk once. Apparently his father, Tessy’s father-in-law, had cracked down on him and he had not repeated his misdemeanour.
‘I almost forgot,’ Tessy auntie told Rohan and his mother. ‘I have something for Rohan.’ She opened a cupboard and took out a couple of tee-shirts, a pair of jeans and a pair of sneakers. ‘Manjith grows up so fast, …’ There was no need to say anymore. The passing on of handouts from one child to another was a time honoured tradition and Rohan’s clothes would be passed on to his cousin Tony at Kochi after he out-grew them.
Rohan continued to sneeze and blow his nose until Saturday afternoon. A few more Coldarins did not make any dent in the cold. He did not get better, but he did not get worse either. And then he started coughing. It started as a mild cough, but soon became a harsh and rib-wracking roar. His mother immediately switched from Coldarin to Corex syrup, which made Rohan extremely drowsy. During evening prayers, Rohan could not complete his quota of ten Hail Marys. He broke into a bout of incessant coughing after the fourth one and Manjith was asked to take-over and complete the decade.
After the prayers were complete, Rohan’s mother told his father, ‘he better not go to Church tomorrow.’
‘Why not?’ his grandmother demanded, who claimed to have never missed Church on a Sunday.
‘All that incense will make his chest congestion much worse,’ his mother explained. Rohan was quite disappointed. The Syrian Catholic mass they attended at Simhapara was quite different from the Roman Catholic mass they had in Delhi. At Simhapara, the priest wore a much more colourful robe, he faced away from the congregation for most of the time and there was a lot more incense and smoke.
‘I’ve never heard of a person fall ill after going to Church,’ his grandmother argued. This time Rohan’s father took his wife’s side. ‘No Ammachee, it is true. All that incense might make his cough worse.
The next day morning, all the elders, Simi and Manjith went off to Church, squeezed into the rickety jeep, which Mathai uncle drove. Rohan was left under the charge of their domestic help. He coughed his way through Sunday. His appetite was a lot less and when his grandmother made some Ethakka-bolees in the evening, he only manage to eat a small piece. They were to travel to Kochi the next day. They would catch a bus to Kottayam from the bus stop in front of their house and the Venad express would convey them from Kottayam to Kochi in an hour’s time.
That night Rohan and his parents were in their bedroom packing up for the trip to Kochi.
‘Let’s take a taxi to Kottayam,’ his father suggested.
‘We took a taxi when we came here. That’ll be another thousand rupees.’
‘We took a taxi when we came here because you were so exhausted.’
‘I am not saying anybody is to blame.’ Rohan’s parents were oblivious to his presence.
‘So, shall we take a taxi tomorrow morning?’
‘We don’t have a choice, do we?’ Travelling by bus would expose Rohan to dust and could possibly exacerbate his cough and bring about an attack of bronchitis.
‘We should take him to Dr. James as soon as we reach Kochi tomorrow.’
‘I don’t think so. It’s only a cough. What’ll Dr. James do? Prescribe antibiotics right away in all probability!’
‘I think we should take him to Dr. James even if it is only a cough. If we delay it, he won’t be able to do much for him.’
‘Last year, what was the antibiotic which Dr. James prescribed? Aminomycilin? Aminotycilin?’
‘I have the prescription in my handbag. I’ll get it.’ Rohan’s mother fetched the prescription, which was all crumbled. She handed it to Rohan’s father. ‘Why don’t we buy this and have the boy start a course right away?’
No! Let’s don’t give him antibiotics at this stage for a cough. Maybe he will not develop a wheeze! You know, maybe the cough will go away. He is basically a healthy boy.’
‘If only you didn’t allow him to go bathing in the river, this wouldn’t have happened! The same thing happened last year.’
‘Go on, blame me. Let’s keep our son all wrapped up and protected from everyone and everything!’ Both of them looked at Rohan and then turned away simultaneously to face each other guiltily.
The next day morning dawned bright and clear. The summer was at its zenith and there was no sign on the impending monsoon or of the light summer showers they had had a few days earlier. The taxi drove up as they were finishing their breakfast. It was a rickety ambassador and looked likely to be as dusty as a bus. ‘Let’s have a short prayer before you all leave,’ their Grandmother reminded them. She shepherded them into the drawing room where a large garlanded picture of Jesus Christ was kept, an electric candle glowing underneath it. Before she could start, Rohan’s father reeled off an Our Father and a Hail Mary. ‘Oh God, please protect us and take care of us as we travel to Kochi. ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ They all intoned ‘as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen’. Their luggage was quickly loaded into the taxi. There was a flurry of goodbyes.
‘You’ll be back the day-after, won’t you?’ Rohan’s grandmother asked his father.
‘Oh yes! And they’ll be back in two weeks’ time.’
‘Rohan, give me a kiss,’ Ammachee demanded rosary in hand. Rohan duly complied and was rewarded with a muttered blessing and a cross drawn on his head. Tessy auntie and Susan auntie also gave him a hug each, unaccompanied by any prayer. Mathai uncle patted him lightly on his back and told him, ‘as soon as your cough gets better, make sure you go bathing in the sea at Kochi.’ Rohan’s mother grit her teeth. ‘Yeah, a bath in the sea is exactly what he needs now!’
The taxi rolled off. Rohan turned back to see the Lion-Head recede in the distance. A short while after that, he started wheezing.
Published earlier in Epic India Magazine
© Vinod George Joseph