Pavi Akka

(Art by my little girl, Pratyangira Kashyap, at age 7)

At 2 o’clock every afternoon, give or take a few minutes, Pavi akka crossed the broken fence dividing our two houses and rang the doorbell. The whole of our ground floor had French windows, making visitors visible long before they reached the house. Nevertheless, my mother never let me open the door for Pavi until she had made her presence known by a discreet ding-dong. Once inside, my cousin would step into the dining room just right of the front entrance, while I skipped along behind her. My mother always greeted her with a happy smile of surprise and asked her to join in our lunch.

“No, no, I’ve just eaten! I’m ready to burst!” Pavi would declare. But amma would insist that she at least taste the paneer, or the chole, or whatever else was on the menu that day. Gradually, Pavi would allow herself to be coaxed. She’d dip her finger into the curry and put it in her mouth, frowning in critical concentration. She’d move the food around her tongue experimentally, still frowning. Slowly and by degrees, her face would relax into a smile of approval and delight.

“Hmmm!” she would say appreciatively, “You’re a grrrreat cook Su Pach!”

My mother would smile back, a certain gentleness in her eyes, and before long Pavi would be eating lunch with us. This happened every day. Pavi would always turn up accidentally at lunch time. At age eight, I always marvelled at the co-incidence. What I didn’t realize was that in those days, my cousin was hungry.

We had once lived together as a joint family in the ‘big house’. It was the house across the fence, the one in which my father and hers and their three other brothers had grown up. Over time, the brothers moved with their families into homes of their own. Only Pavi’s parents and their three children remained with our aging grandmother. Pavi’s mother was diligent and conscientious. She did the best she could, giving in to the demands of a strict mother-in-law, whose good-heart sometimes compensated for her ritualistic ways. Pavi’s father, my uncle, was … stoic.

Hot afternoons were fanned into warm, sultry evenings by the sea breeze, while Pavi, my sister Chatura, and I climbed up the water tank on the terrace of the big house and surveyed the neighbourhood mango trees from our vantage point.

“See that mango on Veli Achchan’s tree there?” cried Pavi excitedly one evening, pointing it out.

“Yesss!” said Chatu.

“Where?” I demanded.

There!” replied Pavi akka, pointing frantically. “Can’t you see it? It’s perfect for eating with chilli and salt! There! There!”

Where?” I moaned.

“Ayyo, the third mango tree, the one next to the coconut tree, you blind bat!” cried Pavi.

“Aaaah yesyesyes! I see it now!” I declared, not seeing it at all.

Pavi relaxed and dropped her arm, a conspiratorial air creeping into her lowered voice.

“We’re going to steal it.”

Chatu and I gasped in mingled horror and admiration for her guts.

“Adi, you go and ring Veli Achchan’s front doorbell,” said our cousin matter-of-factly. “When he comes to the front of the house and opens the door, you keep him talking while Chatu and I jump over the back wall, climb the tree and get the mango.”

“But what will I say to him once he opens the door?” I asked worriedly.

“Say anything. What does it matter? Come, Chatu.”

“But Pavi’ka!” I cried desperately, running after them. “I don’t… I… what will I say…?” I finished lamely at the look of irritation in her eyes.

“Don’t you have any imagination?”

Her derision failed to stir the Muse. Seeing no bulbs go off behind my eyes, Pavi finally took matters into her own hands.

“Tell him that your school has asked you kids to collect money for the blind. Any contribution will be appreciated.”

******

“Er… any appreciation will be contributed…” I stammered, precisely six minutes later, to the red-eyed, suspicious Veli Achchan, noted child-hater of Gopalapuram. He stared at me in disbelief for a few seconds.

“Whaadisthat? Whaad’re’you sayying??” he demanded in his charming Malayali accent.

“They must have got the mango by now,” I thought frantically. “And if they haven’t… let them face the wrath of Veli Achchaaaaaan!!!”

I turned tail like the coward that I was and ran for my life. Halfway down the street, Veli Achchan’s abuses still ringing in my ears, I realized that if I had got my siblings into trouble, Pavi akka’s anger would make Veli Achchan look like the tooth fairy on mood enhancers in comparison. That slowed my steps to a subdued walk. However, when I finally made it home, I found the other two happily bent over the green mango, dividing it into three parts. Apparently, Pavi akka had forgotten her exasperation at me, for when she looked up and saw me, her face lit up in a warm smile (her smiles were always warm, she was incapable of any other kind) and held out a third of the mango to me.

“Here,” she said, smearing it generously with chilli powder and salt, “you can have the biggest piece.”

My heart leapt. Not at the prospect of the mango (to be honest, I didn’t like sour things much) but at the affection in her eyes. In those days I hero-worshiped her, and for all the scolding and teasing she meted out to me daily, I knew she loved me too. After all, you can’t have your parents be siblings and share a grandmother and grow up in the same house and go to the same school and have someone follow you around all day and not love them, no matter how small and pesky they might be.

******

Pavi was in love. With Amitabh Bachchan, Ravi Shastri, Senthil the basketball player… and Shashi Jacob. Not all at the same time of course, one after the other, in that order, over the years. Amitabh Bachchan was her first love and she counted herself among his ‘true fans’. With the slightly deficient vocabulary of an eight-year-old, I did not entirely comprehend what a fan was. I figured a ‘true fan’ was somebody who spun round and round from the ceiling for the purpose of keeping the person they admired ventilated. For one growing up in the wilting Madras heat, being a fan of my understanding was probably far more useful than the alternative – maintaining log books of photos and newspaper cuttings, and sending endless fan mail to a certain address in Juhu, Bombay.

Pavi watched all of Amitabh Bachchan’s movies – thrice – and scoured the newspapers for write-ups on the film star.

“Look at this photo of him! Look at his eyes. And how he stands, yaar, with his hands on his hips, and glares down at Shatru in Kaala Paththar! What dialogues! Look at him! Isn’t he a god!”

“Yes,” I sighed sycophantically. In fact my Hindi was so pathetic I hadn’t understood a single dialogue. No doubt Amitabh’s voice had sounded impressive. Suddenly I recalled some gossip I had overheard in school. Two senior girls had been discussing how Amitabh had left for Tirupati with some individual called Rekha. So I repeated it for my Pavi’ka’s benefit, sure she would be glad of the tit-bit. On the contrary, her eyes flashed and she glared at me.

“Thoo! How can you talk about that? You’re not a true fan!”

I was puzzled. Then Chatu explained that Mr. Bachchan was already married to someone else, and had no business being any place with anyone else.

******

Pavithra, her sister Arati, and their brother (whom all of us called ‘anna’ because he was the eldest cousin in the family), were passionate about cricket. Every time there was a match, they were allowed to stay home from school. (How it was that the teachers of Church Park Convent never put two and two together is a mystery, given that both sisters went missing from school at the same time and showed up with notes of absence claiming ill health the following day!) I always tried to induce my mother to let me stay home too, but she refused flatly. Seeing as I didn’t know what a wicket was, I suppose she was justified.

On one occasion, Chatu and I got home from school in the afternoon to find our three older cousins in the throes of a match. It was the last ball of the last over of the first half. Arati, cool like her father, betrayed little emotion. She watched the game closely and in silence.

In contrast, Pavi was pacing the floor on her long legs, barely able to keep still. It was the era of Ravi Shastri. Mr. Bachchan’s place in my cousin’s heart had been usurped by the left-arm spinner-batsman, and then-captain of the Indian Cricket team.

As the Indian fast bowler sailed in to bowl, Pavi held her breath. The Pakistani batsman deliberately, and doubtless for the sole purpose of vexing my cousin, hit it for a six, eliciting mad cheers from one portion of the crowd, moans of disappointment from the other. Arati reacted not at all. Taking advantage of the lunch break, she quietly went off to catch up on some homework. Meanwhile, Pavi was gesticulating wildly, crying, “Bloody idiot! Shastri told him to bowl carefully and the fool gave away a six!”

From the other side of the room, Sanjay anna snickered, just loudly enough to be heard, just softly enough to infuriate.

“What are you laughing at? You’re cheering for Pakistan, or what?” demanded Pavi turning on him.

Anna grinned shamelessly and nodded. Pavi went speechless. She stomped out of the room, heading for the bedroom we all shared, while I tried to slip in after her before she locked the door.

“You stay out!”

“No, let me come in no, please no?” I begged.

“I have a headache, I’m going to take a nap till the second half starts…”

“Er… shall I massage your head?” I asked craftily, knowing that head massages were the one thing she couldn’t resist. She melted right there. “Okay,” she agreed.  As I walked into the room, Pavi akka popped her head out of the door and called, “Anna!”

No answer.

“Ay, anna!” she called louder, then quickly lowered her voice. If our grandmother caught her addressing her elder brother as ay anything, she’d be in for it. Still no answer. Going back into the TV room she glared at her brother who looked up at her politely from his chair. “Dumb ass, didn’t you hear me?”

He nodded cheerfully.

“Then why didn’t you answer?”

Anna pointed to his mouth and shook his thumb, to indicate he couldn’t speak.

“Hee hee hee!” I giggled, “you called him dumb just now, hee hee h…” I stopped mid-hee under her withering look.

“I’m going to sleep,” she said coldly to her brother. “Wake me up when the next inning starts, okay?”

He nodded again and went back to watching the lunch-break commentary. Meanwhile, secure in the knowledge that she had arranged for herself an alarm service, Pavi strode off back to the bedroom, her masseuse in tow. Once inside, she gave me instructions on exactly which parts of her head were hurting and just how much pressure I should exert.

“And don’t touch my hair,” she cautioned me. She hated to have her hair touched. As I pressed down, I felt the softness of her forehead under my fingers, the wisps of wavy brown hair that formed little curls at her temples. She had a certain smell, my Pavi’ka, a familiar thing that rose up to my nostrils then and every other time I massaged her head. It stayed with me into adulthood, a smell I can recall at will, the way I can recall the sound of crows cawing in the fading Madras evenings, or the quality of the sunlight on summer afternoons, or the taste of stolen green mangoes, long after I had left the city of my childhood and the sea that washed up against it.

Needless to say, anna didn’t wake Pavi up when the second innings began. Of course he didn’t. After she had fallen off to sleep, and I had dozed off by her side, after I had woken up and contemplated the wisdom of waking her up myself and running the risk of having her shoot the messenger, long after Ravi Shastri had returned to the stands, bowled out for a handful of runs, during the last over, I finally shook her awake.

We both charged out of the room in time to see India lose the last wicket with five runs to win. The Pakistani team surged together in a jubilant tangle of sweaty limbs … and anna danced around the room with his arms up in the air. Pavi took in the scene in one horrified glance… and burst into tears!

*****

My cousins played basketball. They played for the school team, the district, the state. One day, I overheard Pavi’ka telling my mother in the kitchen, “Su Pach, he’s so cute!”

“Who’s so cute??” I demanded, walking in at that precise moment.

“Senthil,” said Pavi.

“Who’s that?”

“Cockroach’s brother.”

Cockroach??” I squealed. (I had an active fear of the species.)

“The umpire of our match today. We call him Cockroach because he’s real ugly.” Then spinning around to my mother again, she quickly added, “But not Senthil, Su Pach. You saw him, he was cute, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” agreed my mother, looking with affection at her excitable niece.

Pavi’s face relaxed into a happy smile. “He plays really well too!” she sighed.

This was my Pavi’ka. A lover of love, a lover of people, and of life.

******

When she was 19, Sashi Jacob came into my cousin’s life. I watched them together in the Madras Boat Club where we all rowed. He was solid and patient and sensible, and he adored her. She would be a step ahead, and he’d follow, and behind them I’d tag along, unable to shrug off my old habit of following her around the house. I guess Pavi and Sashi were soul mates. I guess they came into this world to be together, and it was right that they ended up so. Anything else would have meant that somewhere in this big world of ours, among the thousands of things that go wrong every day, one more thing would have been out of place…

They had a difficult time of it. I didn’t realize how difficult, because by then my family had moved to another city. Pavi’s parents disapproved of the match, and the two of them tried to get along apart for a few years. During that time I noticed a change in my cousin. She seemed to dislike me suddenly. When she spoke to me there was anger and bitterness, and it confused and hurt me. I was never very popular in the family, and I figured that the general dislike had finally gotten to her.

Three years later, late one night, when I was on a visit home from America where I now lived and studied, Pavi’ka laid her head in my lap like in the old days. As I massaged away her headache, she told me the reason for her anger. A self-proclaimed well-wisher had told her parents about Sashi, but she thought I had been the one who had done it. She had only just realized the truth. Pavi’ka hurt me more than she knew by what she told me that night.

Anyway, this long story had a happy ending. Pavi and Sashi got married one nondescript day in August. Soon the log books of film heroes and cricket stars made way for photo albums filled with pictures of a laughing baby girl, followed a few years later by a serious little boy, dark like his father, with a penchant for Spiderman outfits! This little man was a superhero himself. He was funny, and taught Pavi to laugh at him and with him and near him and at herself. Motherhood became her. Pavi’s happiness permeated into the family, spreading itself with love and abundance, filling us all, recognizing no limits, much the way she herself recognized none. She was everywhere! She was the embroiderer of baby clothes, planner of weddings, packer of suitcases to disoriented travelers, advisor to young mothers who were unsure about ‘which side up’ when it came to their newborns.

I can safely say that my own little one would have been naked if not for Pavi’ka. After a difficult pregnancy fraught with episodes of bed rest, hospitalization and endless nausea, it never struck me that babies need clothes. I was too exhausted just getting through each day to think beyond the delivery. And then, two weeks before the birth, a package arrived from Pavi’ka. I opened it. Inside were tiny, hand-embroidered vests, base sheets, blankets, baby towels, wraps, socks, bonnets, mittens… everything a new born could ever need. Everything was washed and ironed, and ready for use!

The years passed with all the usual ups and downs. Another of our cousins got married in the final days of April, 2007. It was a splendid event! The whole family came together in sheer joy, dancing, singing, celebrating, adults, yet children again – the children of a bygone era. Pavi and the rest of the family were due to return to Madras after the wedding, on the 1st of May, but we wanted one last day together, just us cousins. We cajoled and wheedled my uncle, Pavi’s father, to postpone their return. And he, never one to change his mind, actually relented. Perhaps, somewhere he knew.

We headed off to a beautiful resort just outside Bangalore, the children in tow. We ate and talked and laughed and took pictures and more pictures. Then we took even more pictures till our children – 9-year-olds and five-year-olds and two-year-olds – called us to order and expressed, in varying degrees of coherence, that they had just about had enough. We left the resort reluctantly, Pavi in the center of the merriment as always. It was the brightest day, that 1st day of May, sunny and warm, the sky so blue that it hurt to look at it. Each step towards our cars was taken haltingly as we lingered over one last laugh, one final story. And so our reunion came to an end. But I believe, to this day, that the memory of it can stop us individually in our tracks, right in the middle of a busy day, and still bring a smile to our faces. A day like that will last forever.

The year went by in the usual way – school, work, coughs-and-colds, play time schedules – until April came round again. Pavi was not in the country, for she and Sashi had taken the children on holiday to South Africa. She had planned and planned this trip, afraid to speak of it, afraid to tempt fate. “I’m dying to go on this trip,” she confided, and happily, she got her wish. She spent two wonderful weeks with the family travelling through the southern part of the African continent. They were making their way by road.

Back home in India, I received a phone call. It was my father. He told me that there had been an accident. The car in which my cousin and her family were travelling had blown a tyre. The others were injured too, but Pavi was the worst affected. She was in the hospital, on the ventilator.

“That’s okay,” I told myself. “She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.” I repeated it like a mantra all evening, for my Pavi’ka was too alive to die. A little past mid-night the phone rang again. Numbly, I watched the number flash on my display screen for a few seconds before I answered it. But I knew before I heard the words that she was dead.

It was the 1st of May again.

She had a beautiful funeral. Despite the gut-wrenching grief, I knew, as I gazed at her lying there, that at the heart of this horrific moment there was love. I sensed it in the way the family came together to say goodbye; in the way they reached out to arrange the flowers upon her body; in the gentleness of their touch as they lifted her into the hearse.

A few hours later, under the scorching Madras sun, we walked across the sands of the Elliot beach with an urn cradled in our hands. This was the beach my father had brought us cousins to every Sunday of our childhood to splash in the sea and build sandcastles. Here Pavi’ka had played and dunked me and sung countless old Hindi songs and licked melted ice creams from soggy cones. And into these waters, her father and Sashi together emptied the contents from the urn – ashes and memories, laughter and tears, the special smell that was Pavi; all that we had lost of her, all that we had gained.

I watched my Pavi’ka disperse into the waters of the ocean, scatter and spread into it, boundless in death as she had been in life. And suddenly, amidst the terrible sadness, there was peace…

**———**

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