Primogeniture

by Rudy Ravindra

Following his father’s death, when all the pujas were concluded, Ramesh said. “Mama, it’ll be hard for you to stay here in this house all by yourself. I think you’d live with us in Bombay.”

Mangala said. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me. Sita is only a few miles away, there’s Devi, with us for us for many years, she’s a good maid.”

Ramesh looked at his two younger sisters, hoping they might support his idea.

Sita said. “I think it’ll be good if mama has a change of scene. The memories are still fresh in this house.”

Kavita, the youngest, said. “I don’t know if mama can adjust to life style in Bombay. Ramesh and Leela are busy, mama will be lonely there. She’ll miss our relatives here in Hyderabad.”

*

When Ramesh returned home with from America with a Master’s Degree, he found a good job in Bombay. His parents weren’t happy that their only son was so far away, hoped he’d eventually find a job in Hyderabad, settle down with a local girl. But their dreams were shattered when Ramesh announced his marriage to Leela. When he brought Leela to Hyderabad, Mangala was horrified to see the brazen hussy, who wore a sleeveless blouse and a hipster sari which was way below her navel, as though there was a severe shortage of cloth in the country. After his marriage to the modern maiden Ramesh’s expenses went up astronomically, notwithstanding his wife’s scanty garments. Being smart and enterprising, he founded an institute of business management. He foresaw the need for managers in the new India, a country which was growing by leaps and bounds. India is a young country and at the existing colleges, either private or government-run, only a small fraction of the eligible students could be accommodated, and thus many students had to go abroad for higher studies. But studying abroad was only for those who could afford to shell out several lakhs of rupees. So, Ramesh’s institute offered an alternative. Within a few years, his college was a success and he started to make money. Once the Bombay educational enterprise was solidly established, Ramesh spread his brand to other cities. In a matter of a decade, his educational empire made him rich and powerful.

*

Mangala reluctantly relocated to Bombay. Ramesh received her at the railway station, dropped her at his house, and went back to his office. After lunch Mangala sat by herself in the living room until everybody got home in the evening. Ramesh’s three daughters hugged her and went about their business, always glued to their cell phones, as if they were born with this extra appendage. Ramesh and Leela came later in the evening, and made desultory conversation.

After dinner, Leela escorted Mangala to a room at the back of the house. Mangala was shocked to see the room where she was supposed to sleep. It was at best a dungeon, windowless, and damp. There was an old cot with a thin mattress. Leela said. “I’m sure you’ll be comfortable here. You’ll sleep here, but the entire house is at your disposal.”

Mangala was unhappy that she gave up her spacious house, her privacy and the companionship of her relatives in Hyderabad. Worse still, she had to share a bathroom with the servants. She had to literally live out of her suitcase, there were no closets to keep her clothes. In her house at Hyderabad, Devi folded and neatly placed Mangala’s clothes in an armoire. Her large bedroom had big windows facing the backyard, where she sat on nice days to read and enjoy the sunshine. In the evenings, when she tried to spend some time with Ramesh or Leela, they looked busy, constantly fiddled with their iPhones, as though the world would stop if they didn’t look at incoming messages and respond right away.

After a few months of the lonely life, she couldn’t take it anymore, told Ramesh that she wanted to return to Hyderabad.

He said. “If you live with us, we can take good care of you. And if something should happen to you, God forbid, if you are all alone at Hyderabad, who is there to look after you?”

She didn’t say what was on her mind, but insisted on leaving. Ramesh reluctantly bought her a train ticket, and saw her off. It was a long journey, she sat by her window seat as the big city receded and the shanty towns gave way to lush greenery of the country side. Pretty soon it got dark, she couldn’t see anything but the lights of villages and small towns along the track. She closed the window to keep out chilly winds, ate a couple of rotis with potato curry, and laid down on her berth to sleep. She looked forward to gossiping with Sita, and to Devi’s delicious dishes.

*

Sita was a constant source of worry for her parents, she didn’t show any interest in studies, always playing or reading story books. In spite of extra coaching, she had to repeat some grades. It was with great difficulty that she managed to obtain a college degree. Knowing that higher studies were out of her league, her parents decided to arrange Sita’s marriage. With so much competition in the marriage market, when all the eligible grooms desired beautiful as well as highly educated brides with lucrative careers, Sita, at best a plain Jane and lacking earning potential, was at a severe disadvantage. After searching far and wide, Bhaskar was found. He was only a college graduate with some training in accounting. He was short and puny, walked funny, swinging his hips, like a woman.

*

Devi greeted her mistress with a broad smile. “Madam, lunch is ready. Glad to see you back.”

Mangala asked. “Devi, it’s good to see you. Everything’s okay with you?”

“Yes, madam. I come here every day to clean the house and dust the furniture.”

After a hot shower Mangala sat down with Sita at the dining table.

Mangala mixed a little bit of rice with eggplant curry, ate it and nodded approvingly. “How is everything here? How is Bhaskar?”

“Bhaskar’s fine, works long hours. Then he goes to his club, comes home quite late.”

Mangala frowned. “Still gambling, ha, the way he is carrying on, you’ll be on the street, spending all his hard-earned money on cards and drinking. What I don’t understand is, he has been working for the past thirty years, he should have saved some money to build a small house. You still live in that dingy apartment……”

Sita wrung her hands. “I told him many times, but he doesn’t listen. And now Srinivas got admission into some American university, we need to borrow money for his airfare.”

Mangala poured rasam into a small cup and sipped the spicy liquid. “So, he’s done with his engineering course?”

“Yes. He plans to leave to America in a few months.”

Mangala said. “We have to arrange his marriage before he goes to America. Never send a boy all alone to that country. You know what happened to Appa Rao’s son? That fellow went to America, and was snatched by a beef-eating Christian girl. Appa Rao and his wife were heart-broken.”

Lunch over, they went into the living room. Devi cleared the dishes and peeped in. “Madam, I’ll be back in the evening, if you want me to get some groceries…”

Mangala said. “That’ll be fine. Is your husband still working at the factory?”

Devi looked down. “I don’t know madam, he, he, ran away with another woman.”

“It’s probably for the best. Even when he was with you, all he did was to give you grief, come home drunk and abused you. Would you like to live in the spare room? It’s safer here.” Mangala saw the look on Devi’s face and smiled. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to pay any rent.”

*

After Mangala moved back to Hyderabad, whenever Ramesh came to the city to inspect his educational institution, he stayed with her.

After a sumptuous dinner, mother and son sat in the living room talking about this and that. Mangala applied a thin layer of white lime to the green betel leaves, added a few pieces of areca nuts, couple of cardamom seeds and a clove, wrapped it and offered the pan to Ramesh and popped one into her mouth. She chewed slowly, enjoying the fresh peppery taste, sat back on her sofa and sighed deeply, the mild stimulant in the areca nut started to do its job.

“How are the children?”

“They are fine, very busy, school, extracurricular activities, difficult to keep up them, ha, ha, ha.” He was happy and proud of his kids.

Mangala nodded. “Yes, yes, all my grandchildren are doing well, everybody’s happy, except that Bhaskar…he and his gambling…hmmm…”

“Yes, yes, it’s disappointing, Sita got unlucky, and Kavita chose to marry that low-caste man…”

*

Mangala remembered the search for a groom for Kavita, some twenty five years back, just a few years before her husband retired. Like bees enticed by the nectar of colorful flowers, grooms swarmed around Kavita, not only because of her recession-proof profession but also her dusky allure. But her father rejected many candidates as he found them not good enough for his favorite daughter. Those few who made it to the short list were promptly rejected by the prospective bride. While this drama was going on, Kavita got an opportunity to go to Bangalore—about three-hundred and fifty miles south of Hyderabad, to pursue advanced training in pediatrics. Her parents felt that she should practice medicine in Hyderabad, open her own clinic. In spite of her parents’ objection she went off to Bangalore, and escaped further torture of presenting herself to yet another eligible groom. Initially everybody, including Kavita, thought the Bangalore stint might last for about three years. But when she met Girish, the three years turned into a lifetime. When she informed her parents about Girish, they weren’t happy that she decided to marry a man from a different caste. Although Ramesh’s marriage to Leela took place several years back, the memories of their only son’s peccadillo was still fresh in their minds and time didn’t heal the deep emotional wounds. And now Kavita. But all their entreaties fell on deaf ears. Only after Kavita had her first baby, her parents reconciled.

*

Mangala fell while walking in her backyard and broke her hip. Kavita came to Hyderabad to oversee mama’s medical care. Since many of the doctors in the city were either Kavita’s professors or contemporaries, Mangala got preferential treatment, and the best orthopedic surgeon operated on her hip.

Sita, who went to Seattle to spend time with Srinivas and family, had to cut short her visit. Kavita, Sita and Devi took turns to stay with mama while she was in the hospital. A few days after the surgery, they brought mama home. Mangala slept soundly, thanks to all those pain killers.

Sita asked. “Where’s Ramesh? Did you call him?”

“Yes, of course. I came as soon as I could, took the first available flight out of Bangalore. I called Ramesh, he’s held up, some meetings, asked we postpone the surgery to next week.” Kavita grimaced. “Here’s mama in severe pain, and the surgeon told me that the operation should be done as soon as possible. I told Ramesh to come whenever he can, we are going ahead with the surgery. That’s it. Anyway, he’s very selfish. Do you remember when dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer? Those days we didn’t have much money, I was still in training at Bangalore, you and Bhaskar were struggling. Mama asked Ramesh for money to pay for the chemo and radiation. He said he didn’t have money. He lied. He purchased a brand new Fiat, and remodeled his house.”

Sita nodded her head. “Mama had to use her jewelry as collateral to borrow money. And when dad passed away, Ramesh was wailing and carrying on as though he really cared. What a hypocrite.”

Kavita agreed. “What a show he put on. Even though it was many years back, I still remember it. It’s like he rehearsed his lines. Some wailing, some talking, in between wiping away his crocodile tears, must have used a ton of glycerin, such a jerk, I’m ashamed to call him my brother.” Kavita peeped into mama’s room. “She’s sound asleep. Forget about Ramesh. Tell me about America. Did you do any sight-seeing?”

Sita was glum. “Not really, Srinivas works long hours, and Shilpa…hmmm…she’s never at home, it’s like I’d to do everything in that house, cook all the meals, clean, and keep the little fellow entertained.” Sita took a sip of her coffee. “It’s so good to be back. I hated every minute of my stay at Seattle.”

Kavita laughed. “I take it you aren’t anxious to return to Seattle any time soon.”

Sita sighed. “I don’t know, Bhaskar is going to retire in a year or so. And then, then…” She started to cry.

Kavita held her and tried to comfort her. “What’s the matter?”

Between her sobs, Sita said that they were broke. Bhaskar squandered everything they had, even his pension fund. So, after he retired they had no means to survive unless he found another job, and at his age it might be hard to find a job.

Sita continued. “So, Srinivas suggested that we move to Seattle. He will sponsor us for green cards.”

Kavita said. “But you’ll be a bloody slave in that house. Shilpa will dump all the work on you.”

*

When Devi knocked on her door, looking distraught, Sita asked. “What happened, Devi? Is mama okay?”

“Yes, madam, she’s okay.” Devi looked like she was crying.

“What’s the matter? You look upset.”

Devi said, “Madam, your brother threw me out of the house. He said I stole money. But I didn’t.”

“Shall I talk to mama?”

“It won’t do any good, madam. It’s his word against mine.”

“So, what you’ll do now?”

“I don’t know, madam. I don’t have a place to live.”

Sita couldn’t accommodate Devi in her tiny apartment, so she sent her to Kavita’s house in Bangalore.

*

Towards the end, Mangala simply laid on her bed, refused to eat, refused to talk, and refused to live any longer.

After the funeral and the pujas, when the relatives left, Ramesh gave copies of Mangala’s will to Kavita and Sita. All the property, the house, mama’s jewelry, cash in the bank, everything to Ramesh. When their father built it several decades ago, the house wasn’t worth all that much. But now, with the booming economy and rapid growth, the house stood on prime real estate and was worth several crores of rupees. Many developers had their eyes on the property, waiting for Mangala to go on her eternal journey. Like vultures, they were poised to move in after her death, to demolish the house, build a multi-story apartment complex in its place.

Kavita and Sita were dumbfounded. They both worked so hard to help mama, the will was like a slap in the face. Sita recalled the innumerable number of times when she was woken up in the middle of the night to take mama to the emergency room for her wheezing and coughing, when she had her first heart attack, when she had a severe anaphylactic shock from a wasp bite. The list was endless. And Kavita came to Hyderabad for every crisis, be it small or big, spending money and time, while Ramesh was gallivanting all over the globe with his hoity-toity wife.

“Let’s have a family meeting”, Kavita said.

            Ramesh said. “What’s all this meeting about?”

Kavita said. “It’s about mama’s will. I think this document is invalid. I know mama wanted to divide the property equally among the three of us. I’ll contest this will.”

            Ramesh yelled. “What are you talking about? Mama signed this will. She gave me the property. Everything is proper and legal. You have no grounds for any legal action.”

Kavita glared at Ramesh, and punched a number into her cell phone. In a few minutes, Girish entered the house with Devi in tow, a baby in her arms.

Kavita looked at Ramesh. “Meet your son, Ramesh.”

Ramesh was livid and lashed out at Kavita. “How dare you! How dare you! How can this be my son? There’s no way. No one will believe you.” Leela glared at Kavita and held her husband’s hand.

Kavita was calm, spoke in an even tone. “It’s true, Ramesh. You have violated this poor woman, and then threw her out. When Devi told us about it, I didn’t want to believe it. But I got the DNA analysis done, Sita helped in this process, she took some hair from your comb, collected the tumblers you used to drink tea and water whenever you visited mama. The analysis conclusively proves that you are the father of this child.”

Leela started to weep. “How could you, how could you Ramesh! I gave you everything, my youth, I work so hard for the business, why, why, why that servant girl, it’s disgusting. “ She ran out of the room.

Ramesh’s face lost all its color and he flopped down on the sofa as if hit by a lightning bolt. Kavita continued. “Now the right thing to do is to make sure Devi has a roof over her head. We’ll keep this matter confidential if you agree to our terms. Otherwise, all bets are off.”

Ramesh regained his composure and yelled. “Don’t threaten me. If I’m father of that boy, then I’ll take him.” He looked at Devi. “Give him to me. I’ll make sure he has a good life.” And was about to snatch the little boy.

Girish blocked Ramesh. Kavita said. “Ramesh, come to your bloody senses. You have no choice. I suggest we divide the property into three parts: one part to Devi and the boy, one part to me, and one part to Sita.”

Ramesh pleaded. “But what about me?”

            “Ramesh, be glad that we are willing to keep quiet about your geriatric transgressions.”

*

Sita said. “No, Kavita. I can’t take your share.”

            “It’s okay, Sita. You need the money. Girish has a good business, and I make a decent salary. I’m sure this money will see you and Bhaskar through your old age. And don’t give Bhaskar control over this money. You keep it with you, use it frugally.”

            Sita’s eyes were red, “I don’t know what I’ll do without your help. You have really saved me from a lifetime of slavery.”

            Kavita smiled. “So, is Shilpa still bombarding you with calls, asking you to go to Seattle?”

            “Yes, every day.”

“Sita, you listen to me. Don’t go anywhere. Buy yourself a small condo, keep Bhaskar on a bloody leash. Remember, now you hold the purse strings.”

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