Madurai, 24 November 2008
The clock struck 5. Sun was setting rather lazily into a known horizon that over looked the silhouette of Meenakshi Amman Temple. Rajambal hastily tried to wind up her chores for the day to start for the station. Easily in her mid- fifties, Rajambal was a woman of dainty persona. Averagely built, tall in stature and milky white in complexion, she shone to her brightest when replete with joy. This was the most favorite time of the day for her. Taking a look around the kitchen that was cleaned up promptly after preparing dinner, Rajambal started packing her bag of goodies. Sekhar loved them – Pori Laddu, Murukku and savory munchies made out of coconut she made freshly the previous morning – they were his tasty delights since he was four. Rajambal would often catch her boy stealing them from the kitchen that young. He would make such puppy eyes when his mother screamed at him. She could not wait till he got down the train. He would surely be hungry and there was no way he should wait to eat something till he reached home. Making sure the delicacies are neatly packed in air tights, Rajambal made way to the bedroom to get ready. Trying to catch a deep breath before the next course of action, Rajambal closed and opened her eyes as she opened her cupboard.
The inside of the drawer was stuffed with neatly pressed sarees. Rajambal flaunted a great collection – various textures, designs and colors hailing from different parts of South – You name it, she had it. Not wanting to wear the same colour that was worn the previous day, Rajambal looked closely at her vanity treasure – the red one was certainly the choice. Making sure to pull it out from the rest slowly, Rajambal draped herself in a graceful manner. She was old but she was perfect with the attire. Even in her late years, the saree would fall perfectly well on her frame. Age did not affect her to either stoop like an oldie or look like one. Her long hair barely greyed except for the roots on the scalp. Her friends would often tease her, calling her the ‘gorgeous’ of the group. Rajambal would ignore that outwardly, but would beam in the hearts of hearts for such a wonderful compliment.
Chandran walked into the house as he saw his wife, ready to head out. He was tired with the day’s proceedings at the court. Three criminal proceedings, one divorce hearing and one theft – all were standing trial that day. Being a public prosecutor was not easy – all the more not when the advocate was sincere and did not believe in taking bribes. Chandran was sincere – he fought for justice as the law should stand. He believed that protecting the greater good of a mankind was all the more important than sustaining financial value from such a profession. After defending three innocently accused the whole day and saving two out of the lot, Chandran was exhausted. He looked eagerly towards the kitchen as Rajambal walked out, looking at him with smile. She carried the delicacies in a cloth bag that looked faded and dirty.
“Where are you going? I’m very hungry” he said, carefully adding “and that cloth bag doesn’t go well with the rest of your outfit. If you wanted to look gorgeous for other men on the street, that is..” he sneered, trying to put his hand inside the bag to get hold of the snack. Rajambal hit him sharply on his hand, making a pretty frown that he was so fond of.
“Sheesh!! I am running late. The train would arrive any minute in under an hour. There is rice,
sambar and appalams in the kitchen. Help yourself”
“Again the same old boring combo” sighed Chandran as Rajambal walked out. He called behind her
“Try to focus on your man sometimes too, if you can”
“Survive with what is being fed” she shouted back, closing the gate behind her. She started walking swiftly towards the road.
The old couple lived in Meenambalpuram. The house they lived belonged to Chandran’s grandfather, renovated and re renovated since years. Sekhar would often help his mother, when he was around, to change the look of the house to a more fanciful one every time. Both mother and son would often dominate the proceedings in the house, leaving Chandran aloof and neglected. But the affection shared between the four was beyond words to be described. Sekhar had a sister, Meena, twenty four, who was happily married to a cardiologist in US. The two would often miss the girl. But now with Sekhar also gone most times on duty, the couple had more melancholic moments than ever. Sure there was technology – emails, skypes, cellular phones and 3G facilities – but nothing can really make up for the physical absence of the loved children in the house.
As Rajambal got into the Auto rickshaw, she adjusted herself properly. “Thambi, Railway Station please”
“Amma, I know” the driver grinned, looking at her from the mirror atop. “I’m the one who dropped you to the station day before yesterday”
Rajambal widened her eyes and smiled. She nodded in agreement
“Now I remember! Here have one” she said, taking out a laddu from the bag. “No, no Amma. Thank you”
“Ayyo why not?” she frowned “Are you afraid to eat something coming from a Brahman kitchen”
Driver laughed in embarrassment, took the ladduand took two big bites to finish off before starting.
“All castes are the same” Rajambal said as the Rickshaw zoomed past the lanes to head towards the destination. “The four divisions happened in our history for productive reasons”
Driver listened to her patiently as Rajambal went on about the origin of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishyaand Shudra communities in India. Being a History teacher, details often became a part of her regimen, no matter who the audience was. Rajambal was proud of her knowledge, sharing of information and her undying quest for new facts. The auto driver racked his head in confusion. He was not sure of his own caste.
The rickshaw pulled towards the station and Rajambal literally jumped out. She handed the change.
“Amma, you keep coming here every day” observed the auto driver “If you don’t mind, is someone arriving?”
“My son Sekhar” she grinned with delight. “He will come back any day this time and I want to surprise him before hand by being there” she said. Auto driver smiled. She turned, walked, and then looked back at him after pausing to announce proudly.
“He is with the Indian Armed Forces”
The driver saluted her and pulled away. Rajambal quickly went to buy a platform ticket. She was terribly dismayed to see a long line of people standing there. The next train to arrive was Thirukkural Express from Kanyakumari. Trying to act patient, Rajambal stood in line. Men and women stared at her. The red saree with black raw silk blouse from Tanjore was a gift from her sister in law who lived there. The fabric complimented her fair skin tone, making her look like an ex film diva. The vermillion on her forehead jazzed it up further. Used to being stared often, Rajambal waited on.
She was happy where she was in life. No great riches, a simple family and no serious goals – suited her well enough. Reading and teaching history was her passion – not to forget her great culinary skills. Unfortunately, none of the two children had flair for History as a subject. They have taken after their father, she thought. Meena graduated in commerce while Sekhar in Economics. His passion to join the army was endearing. Hailing from a community that was stronger with academics and weaker with sports, Sekhar proved that dedication was key and not the statistics. Despite all the resistance from family, the young lad made it – He was serving in the Army as a Major.
Though Sekhar was posted at Bangalore, he would first go to his uncle’s place in Tuticorin, spend time with his twin cousins, Viju and Vinu, and finally take an express train to land in Madurai. He was ardently fond of the Tuticorin Express. Most of their childhood trips were to their Uncle’s, and the two kids grew inadvertently fond of the sublime journey, their uncle being a station master in South Central Railways. Rajambal would predict when he would show up, looking at his pattern of calls made to the house. Sekhar called three days ago, which meant that he was due to surprise her any day with an impromptu visit.
Finally, having reached the counter and brought her ticket, Rajambal made way to the platform. Sekhar would often catch the one that usually arrived at seven thirty. There was still an hour to go, and Rajambal was in no rush. Picking up a latest copy of ‘Galatta Cinema’, she sat on one of the benches on the platform, engrossed in reading the cover story of “Surya – Jyothika; the hottest pair of Kollywood”. Rajambal started diving into the filmy facts, an excellent dope to kill time while she waited. The Vaigai Express arrived, and the people got off with their heavy load. She looked up to see a bunch of college kids rushing home after a long day in college and in train. She went back to reading again. Cool wind hit her face, making her feel the night chill.
Rajambal looked up to see a young girl, in her mid- twenties, dressed in Salwar-Kameez, smiling at her. She tried to recollect who the girl was.
“Yes?” she said, looking at the girl “It’s me, Vishaka”
“Vishaka? Vishaka…” Rajambal tried hard to recollect “Professor Padmanaban’s daughter”
“Ohh!!” Rajambal sighed and got up to hug the young girl. Vishaka was her colleague’s daughter, and she was seeing the young woman after many years.
“You have grown up Vishaka” she smiled
“Yes” Vishaka blushed “What are you doing here this late?”
“I’m waiting for Sekhar to come” she said, inviting Vishaka to sit with her for a while.
“How is your mother? Your father and I worked on many research projects in the past”
“Yes, Appa keeps telling us that. There is nobody as creative and smart as you in the History department in Sethupathy” Vishaka smiled
Rajambal blushed. She thanked her and looked closely at the girl. She would be a perfect bride for Sekhar, she thought. However, it was too early to think about prospects. Sekhar was twenty seven, and was not ready yet. She did not want to pressurize him into a quick wedding – like her parents did to her many decades ago. Not that she ever regretted marrying Chandran.
“So what are you doing these days?”
“I’m studying Management, aunty” Vishaka replied
“Nice” Rajambal smiled. She was excited and cheery, waiting to receive Sekhar by surprise. Taking out some savories from the bag, she gave them to Vishaka.
“Thanks, why don’t you have one too” asked the girl
“I’m trying to keep my weight under control. Not that I’m bothered about my figure now, just the health reasons”.
Both laughed at Rajambal’s silly joke.
‘Okay aunty, I had better get going. Do you need a lift” Vishaka asked, preparing to leave “Okay, do you have a transport? Get Amma home sometime. No, I will be here a while longer” “Yes, I have my bike parked outside and we will visit you soon. Bye”
Rajambal saw the girl leave. She sighed and thought of life. Women mature early, degenerate earlier in life, she thought. Academics, marriage, job, pregnancy, painful labor and then children – that cycle was such a trap, she wondered. Free spirited women were also there in the present times, but the cynical mindset gives in to thinking about the majority who sank and disappeared behind the thick curtains of family and responsibilities, she concluded.
After devouring on the latest gossips and film reviews in the magazine, Rajambal realized that the clock struck Seven Fifteen. Two trains came and went, and it was time for the Tuticorin to arrive. Rajambal was excited. The plan to surprise her son was childishly melodramatic. She may have failed last day but she was going to succeed today. Take Sekhar by surprise and beat him at his own game. She looked eagerly as the clock struck Seven Thirty. Still there was no sight of the train. Darned Indian Railways, she sighed. Never on time!
Ten minutes passed and the sound of a train resonated in the station from afar. People were on the platform once again ready to receive their dear ones. The Tuticorin Express pulled in to Madurai slowly, making a tired, exhausted sound as the engine stopped. Rajambal started looking – AC sleepers were never his choice. Sekhar was a hard core Army man now, roughened and adapted to all weather conditions. After patiently looking into the general sleepers for ten minutes, she breathed heavily. No sign of Sekhar – second time in a row. Taking a chance, she even looked into the AC cabins – no luck.
Rajambal was heartbroken. Her plan failed once again. Sekhar never told her before arriving, always planning a quick one on her, showing up unannounced. She wanted to pull the same trick on her darling boy. Another futile attempt made, she slowly turned back to walk towards the exit. It had been six long months that Sekhar was home. Every time he would show up, he would look different. Sometimes thin, sometimes bloated and sometimes skinny enough to not even be recognized. He chose a hard line of duty, the job of protecting the Country. He took his capacity rather seriously and was always on a mission – sometimes months together. The secret operations would never be revealed to the family, but her boy shone like a warrior many times, impressing his superiors and the peers. He would not call home for days at a stretch, away in some unknown territory at the border. Rajambal was proud of his gutsy demeanor. He carried a never say die motto in life, and he never gave up.
She still remembered how he rescued a girl from a bunch of bullies while in college. Sekhar would not stand evil or injustice, just like his father. Only difference was that he chose the highest form of service to the mankind. Chandran was never for it before, but gave in eventually. The tragic stories and fears of the families having Army heroes were not unknown. Rajambal was exhausted. She looked outside and hailed a rickshaw to get back.
“What took you so long?” asked Chandran, who was at his study, as his wife walked in with a lost look
“I waited to see if he boarded the last Tuticorin” she said, throwing her purse on the sofa, putting the cloth bag containing savories on the dining table. “He did not board any of those. I was so sure that he would” she sighed.
Chandran walked up to her and hugged her. Rajambal closed her eyes, calming down, trying to catch up with her breath. Thirty years of marriage and the hug was still so warm, so comforting. Just like the first one.
Chandran looked at his wife, rubbing her back gently. “Maybe he will come this weekend. Cheer up. And he did call this time, didn’t he?”
“Six months” she said, in a dry tone. Chandran sighed loudly, looking down, as they sat on the sofa
“Meena called two times” he said “I asked her to call in the morning. She knows you would be running off to that station in these hours”
“I will talk to her later. I would like to get some sleep now” “First eat something”
“Not hungry” and walking to the bedroom, Rajambal closed the door behind her, tying her long hair. Chandran went into his office to complete his case study.
25 November, 2008
A long day at the University, Rajambal was tied up with her classes. Teaching History effortlessly was her uniqueness. She was definitely not one among those boring professors who would drive the students to death. Rajambal had the knack of story-telling with facts. That kept students highly engaged into the subject. Between all the classes, reports and filing, Sekhar was constantly on her mind. She had a terrible urge to call him. But it was not wise to disturb him while serving duty and most importantly, he was unreachable all the time. Sekhar would randomly call them and talk to them for as long as thirty minutes, whenever it happened.
Meena would often be a part of those engaging phone calls, but now with her also gone far away, the feeling was dreary. She had an hour long conversation with her daughter that morning, and that did not satisfy her. The mundane story swapping about weather in US, the newly married scheduled rants from Meena and shopping details did not interest her, all of a sudden. She longed to hear Sekhar’s voice.
The first instinct was to call her brother at Tuticorin, but Rajambal dismissed the idea. Her instincts said that he was still at the quarters. The college finished at 3, and Rajambal quickly started off to her house. Chandran would be at the court, breaking his head over lost cases. She wanted to call Sekhar in a more peaceful set up than the loud surroundings of the campus. She reached home in fifteen minutes and without changing, walked up to the telephone to make that phone call to Bangalore quarters. She never followed the cell phone technology. Dialing the number slowly, Rajambal waited with bated breath for the call to be answered.
“Yes, I would like to speak to Major Chandrasekhar Iyer please”
“Please hold, transferring the call to the training” said a male voice at the other end. Rajambal waited as she heard the transfer happen. Another man picked up
“Major Chandrasekhar Iyer please” “Hold on, please”
Again! Another long wait. She was beginning to dislike the idea. Sekhar would be busy, and she was calling him for nothing. He was not her ten year old boy anymore. He had bigger things to do.
“Sekhar” Rajambal almost jumped with joy
“Sorry, The Major is in a briefing. Anything urgent?” said the voice that sounded so identical to that of her son
Rajambal was disheartened
“I’m very sorry. I’m his mother calling. If he is busy, I will call him later” “Is there any other message, Ma’am?”
“No, thank you. Just tell him his mother called” “Will do so. Jaihind”
“Jaihind” Rajambal hung up, with strange feelings overpowering her logical thinking.
27 November, 2008
Two days went by with no call or response from Bangalore. Rajambal woke up on Thursday morning, with obstreperous thoughts. She would usually be up by six, bathing and performing her Puja before she prepared breakfast. That day, she was up at seven, with a heavy headache. She had a bad dream that kept her awake – Sekhar was alone in a dark place, fighting demons that slowly charged towards him. No sleep, Rajambal quickly walked out of the bedroom, seeing her husband getting ready for his morning walk. He was carrying the newspaper to the park, in a vain hope to read it between the breaks of sitting down.
“I’m very sorry, shall I make some breakfast?” she asked him with concern Chandran looked at her with warmth
“Get some rest, Raji” he rose up after tying his shoes, coming closer to her
She smiled at her husband and nodded. In the state of mind she was in, everything seemed far from priorities. Chandran was about to step out when the phone rang, loudly. Both the wife and husband ran to answer it. Rajambal made it first to the screaming device.
“Sekhar!!” she screamed in delight
“Put that on speaker” said Chandran, bending towards the handset.
“How are you, Kanna?” Rajambal muttered, emotions blanketing her cheery voice, making it sound shaky. She could sense that he was under some sort of stress.
“Amma, I’m fine. Have you not watched TV? Where’s Appa?” “I’m here” his father yelled
“Read the papers Appa. Mumbai is under attack. I’m being dispatched on a special operation now. I will be briefed on the situation there”
Rajambal’s heart started beating as Chandran laid out the paper. The City of Mumbai was burning with terror. Unknown assailants with guns have barged into the city from water and started shooting people on the streets. The couple was horrified reading the headlines and the news randomly as Sekhar spoke.
“Sekhar, Sekhar” Rajambal cried “Come home. You have done enough for the Country!!”
“Amma, please don’t panic. Just one operation and I will be home to be with you all. There are plenty of civilians under threat. We are required there first. People trapped inside Taj hotel. Read the papers. I have to be there”
“Your mother was taking trips to the Railway Station every evening to spring a surprise on you” said Chandran, cutting Rajambal off, trying to make the conversation short and crisp.
“Yes, and I will not let her succeed. Wait till I shock her again” chuckled Sekhar at the other end “Amma, Appa, I will talk to you soon. Love to you both and Meena. It is time to go. Jaihind”
“Take care..” she was cut off
The phone line went into a haunting dial tone, leaving the old man and woman lurking in the most turbulent thoughts of their lives.
30 November 2011
Rajambal sat on the bench at the platform, waiting for the Tuticorin Express to arrive. The weather was damp, and the atmosphere lonely. The station was empty expect for few people waiting to board to their destinations or receive their loved ones. She sat impatiently, flipping through the pages of a magazine that she was not interested in anymore. Her eyes were tired, dark circles engulfing the once beautiful face. There was no life there – just a numb, void expression. The time was Seven Thirty and the express train from Tuticorin arrived, stopping slowly. People got off the train, and Rajambal walked the entire stretch, looking into the compartments. He was not there. She could visualize her son, with his backpack, waving at her from one of the sleepers that he would travel in. Tears rolled down her cheeks as the train fell silent, with death written all over it. He fought a tough battle, she thought. He gave away himself for the highest mother of all – his Country. Despite all the condolences, honors, medals, rewards and compensation that came their way last two years, the family fell apart with his memories – a brave warrior who could never make it home after that deadly operation of 2008.
Rajambal walked out of the station after the last train from Tuticorin arrived. The weather was getting chilly. She saw Chandran on his scooter, waiting for her outside. He looked the picture of a good man, a doting father and an ever caring husband. He looked at her with the same lifeless expression. Rajambal shook her head in response. The last Tuticorin never made it.
(Dedicated to Late Major SandeepUnnikrishnan, and all the war heroes of 26/11 Mumbai Attacks, who lost lives while fighting terrorists and never returned home)
Originally published on Scribd – The Last Tuticorin on Scribd