An Ordinary Life 6 - Chellam
When she lifted the lid off the idly pot, Chellam's 75-year-old mother Savitri knew it was going to be a bad day. The rice-dal batter had formed itself into coagulated lumps, sour steam was chasing out of the risen lid.
Ever since she had entered the kitchen at the age of seven, Savitri had measured her superstition with what was on the stove. Non-circular chappatis, non-crisp dosas, saltless upmas, clotting kesaris were all indications of evil and unhappiness just as a fine payasam, tasty oothappams meant a good day ahead. In Savitri's bad omen listing, soggy idlies topped: the day would be calamitous. Almost always, for Chellam.
"Look here. Today is going to be a bad day for you," she told her daughter, who was just coming out of the bathroom, sari wrapped around her still wet body. "Amma, don't you start your nonsense again. I don't have time for your superstition today," she threw back.
That shut Savitri up, but she spent a few extra minutes in front of the gilt-framed deity on the kitchen wall. She stopped an exasperated Chellam and smeared a wee bit more kumkum and vibhuthi than usual on her forehead. Just in case.
* * *
Chellam ran a small sweet meat stall next to Aminjikarai bus-stand. State Government issue blue booth under the disabled quota. Not that Chellam was disabled. She paid a monthly rent of Rs.400 to the original alottee, a man with deteriorating vision in one eye.
Which actually was a big drain on her meagre income, but a booth was a booth. Better than Aachi's open idly and aapam shop to her right, no protection from the sun and rain, that. Chellam sold cough drops, mint drops, betel nut and leaf, murukkus, thattais, excessively sweet coconut burfi and the regular ground nut balls, the sweet meats she and her mother prepared assiduously at home.
And after repeated requests from regular customers, very reluctantly started stocking cigarettes and shiny sachets of pan parag. It was something her mother and she felt very uncomfortable about, but "business was business," she rationalised. Once every week, her mother distributed sundal at the Pillayar temple nearby, hoping to neutralise the sin of selling cigarrettes.
* * *
Chellam boarded the bus as usual and sat in the rear, in the woman's section right next to the exit. In the third stop, the bus braked hard suddenly to avoid a two wheeler and Chellam was thrown against the iron bar in front of her. It was a rude jolt and her lip began bleeding from the impact. In five minutes, it had swollen like a lemon and Conductor Mohan asked her with concern, "Maami, your time must be bad. "
"Tch! Superstition again," Chellam muttered under her breath, but smiled at him. And as he went on to deliver a mini lecture about how man's life is dictated by the writing on his forehead, Chellam smiled lamely, and dabbed at the blood on her lip with the end of her cotton saree, afraid to disagree with him.
* * *
Chellam was taken aback when she saw her blue-shack lying upturned on the road. Other small shops nearby were being run over by a yellow earth mover. Her regular customers, some policemen from the nearby police station hung around, providing "security" for the demolition machine. As they saw her run towards them, palpitating, sweating, her hand on her heart, distraught, they tried to play the whole thing down, " Ah! Maami! There you are! Regular road widening work, you see. " They took her aside and, in conspiratorial whispers, told her how it would be o.k. "Once they go away, you can set up shop again. Just be patient," they told her.
Her swollen lip throbbed painfully and she was ready to weep as she let her eyes roam the destruction and havoc the machine had caused. Aachi was sitting on the ground and wailing. Beside her, aluminum vessels lay upturned in the mud, their contents colouring the earth.
That was when Chellam saw them: white, puffy, idlies, some of them slighlty brown from the mud, cocking a snook at her.
* * *
The policemen on bandobust couldn't see why Chellam should be laughing at all.