Culture & Society

Short Story: When A Riotous Mohenambal Came To Stay With Akka...

It was a rainy morning in Mumbai when Mohenamabal arrived and brought with her more cheer to a city that was drowning under the onslaught of the monsoons.  She was Athimber's distant aunt. To a 14-year-old, she looked like she was a hundred years old. She was also completely bald and covered it with the pallu of her saffron-coloured saree. 

Indian woman in white sari walking by a colorful house in Pondicherry
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“Where is the pen? How come every time the phone rings and I want a pen I never get one? Even though I keep replenishing the pen tray every week.” 

That was my Ramki uncle, aka Athimber, going off on one of his regular verbal rampages. There was at least one thing every day that caught his wrath. If it weren’t for missing pens then it was the drawstring in his pajamas, one side of which would always disappear well inside the hole leaving him to struggle with pulling it out. He would yell at his wife, my aunt Rohini, aka Akka, and ask her to make sure both sides of the drawstring were tied before she washed it. Then there was the nail cutter that was never on the dressing table especially when a particularly annoying nail had chipped and kept getting caught in his shirt or his trouser pockets. He would get infuriated with the gooey and sticky residue that a stick-on bindi left on the mirrors of his house. The rag that Akka used to clean the dining table would choose to disappear the one day in months when Athimber would decide to help her with cleaning up the table. And far from the help he promised it would turn into a little slinging match between them where Athimber sat Akka down and explained to her the importance of keeping every scissor, knife, and remote control in its rightful place. 

As Akka explained to me, Athimber was an accountant – both at work and at home - and a rather tedious one was never in doubt. 

To me, Athimber’s once-a-day outburst over the trite and banal was a way to use his voice in what his friends and family had convinced him was a decidedly matriarchal (aka henpecked) household. When I laughingly mentioned this to Akka after yet another sermon she had just received (this time she had misplaced some local train tickets and they had wasted a valuable two whole minutes searching for them before they could enter the station) she angrily took her one-year-old son Madhur from my arms and raged, "That's what they all say. Everyone thinks that I run the household. As if. He is the ultimate miser who thinks buying me coconut water after making me walk 3 miles in the middle of the smouldering midday sun is his idea of generosity. Henpecked? Huh!"

**********  

Meanwhile, the ‘I will return in two weeks’ note my mother left me was now going on two months. My separated single mother had left me behind with the warring couple as she went to Chennai to try and ‘make up’ with my father one more time. But just as I was about to give up and make a run for it to absolutely God-knows-where, the Gods above blessed me with

Mohenambal.

Ah, Mohenambal.

It was a rainy morning in Mumbai when Mohenamabal arrived and brought with her more cheer to a city that was drowning under the onslaught of the monsoons.  She was Athimber's distant aunt. To a 14-year-old, she looked like she was a hundred years old. She was also completely bald and covered it with the pallu of her saffron-coloured saree. 

Akka and Athimber welcomed Mohenambal with a secretive rolling of their eyes, quiet deep sighs, but an outwardly exuberant, “Vango, vango, Mohenambal! Romba naal achchu ungala parthu (Come, come, Mohenambal. It’s been a long time since we saw you)!” 

For the next few days, it was “Mohenambal this” and “Mohenambal that” in the house. Finally, Mohenambal took me aside and said, “Call me Mohena,” she told me with a wink. After being suitably scandalized I, happily, did just that.

Mohenambal was full of surprises. And was full of stories and quick laughter and fun. Widowed when she was a mere nine years old, she had lived alone for the majority of her life. She never even left her parents’ home to go to her husband’s home since her ‘husband’ died when he was operated on at the age of nine for his tonsils. Widow remarriage during her marriageable years was frowned upon in her village and she had spent her entire childhood and young adulthood cooking and cleaning and looking after her parents. When I met her, she had outlived her parents, her in-laws, and life in general. God cut her some slack when she inherited all of her parents’ and her in-laws’ property as an only child. 

“My in-laws hated me and blamed me for the death of their son. They believed I brought ‘bad luck’ to their son. But guess what? I lucked out since they had no one else to leave their money to either. So, every last thing they owned – from a 50-tola gold oddiyanam (a waist belt) to their beat-up coffee tumbler came to me too!” she said rubbing her hands in glee. 

She claimed to have more money, much more money, than she would ever need. “Which is why everyone in the extended family – including your Athimber and Akka - put up with me,” she confided to me with a titter.

 After living in her family home in Swami Malai (near Kumbakonam) her whole life. Mohenambal finally decided to venture out and find for herself just what the big deal was about the world in general. “Also, there was all that money I felt I should spend wastefully,” she guffawed. 

Initially, she booked herself on a lot of pilgrimages. She had been to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Kashi, Dwarka, and Ayodhya. Two years and some twenty pilgrimages later she decided she had had enough of God and he her to last her a lifetime and decided to “see” the rest of the world. 

“And the rest of the world included all her relatives. She just shows up. And stays with one of us for months and months on end,” Akka said caustically even as she made Mohenambal’s favorite tiffin – onion bhajji – and claimed that she absolutely adored Mohenambal because of ‘how funny she is.”

I am reasonably sure all that money belonging to Mohenambal helped with Akka’s ‘love’ for her. 

For me, after eight years of living in a mansion in Chennai with an indifferent father and mother – both of whom were too obsessed with one another to have any spare time for their two daughters – to moving to a tiny one-bedroom apartment opposite Akka in Mulund, Mumbai, after the parents split up – the only noise I’d ever heard was Athimber and Akka going at it over sponges that weren’t dry. 

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Despite the hustle and bustle and the noise of Mumbai, being quiet and surrounded by silence is all I had known until then. 
So, when a riotous Mohenambal came to stay with Akka, I was initially stupefied.

Mohenambal did nothing like other old people. She was loud (Why be quiet when you can make noise?). She didn't knit or sew (That’s why I have all this money – to buy whatever I want). She didn't sit in a corner and pray (I’ve visited all the Gods. Enough). She was never sick. She believed in euthanasia. She didn't believe in retirement. She hated to be called ‘patti (grandmother).’ I have a name so use it, she always said. 

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And with the typical sensitivity of a youngster, I asked Mohena, “You are 100. Aren’t you too old to be traveling so much? My mother falls sick if she has to go from here to Chennai. And she flies in a plane.” 

Mohena laughed. It was a gusty, ringing laughter that reminded me of the shrill noise you hear when you rattle stones inside a steel container. “First of all, I am not 100. I am 73. And I am much stronger than I look. You kids just peck at your food. When I was your age, I ate six meals a day. And they were good, clean, healthy meals. Our cities were not as polluted as they are today. The air was fresh, the vegetables fleshy and green. I can travel around the world seven times and still live to tell the tale,” she hushed me scornfully.
I had no reason to disbelieve her. 

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Athimber loved his money. After all, he was an accountant. He hated spending his money and loved counting what he had constantly. He was not a fan of the digital economy or online transactions. He complained every single time about the high cost of living and how everyone was ‘looting’ him as he paid them all cash – from the Rs. 2000 to our daily household help every month to the Rs. 82 to our local ironing person once a week to Rs. 225 to the newspaper delivery person and Rs 1200 to the milkman. He never took Akka out for any meals (You are the best cook in the world! Why on earth would we go anywhere else?) or went anywhere for a vacation (People from all over India come to Mumbai for their holidays! And we live here. Where else is there to go?). 

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The times that weren’t spent actually counting cash, he balanced and counterbalanced his various passbooks and checkbooks. Apart from updating them regularly and filing his monthly credit card bills and statements he also maintained three notebooks for his expenses. In one he meticulously recorded what he spent. Everything from spending ten rupees on salted groundnuts to spending a few hundred on toys for his son, he wrote them all down. In the second book, he recorded his income. Every bit of interest from every mutual fund that he received was dutifully recorded here. The third book was a secret. No one knew what was in it. Not even Akka. Athimber refused to divulge the details of its contents. Over the years the secret behind Athimber’s little black book - that was actually a brown color, plastic-covered, and dog-eared 1982 blank complimentary diary from Crompton Greaves – took on a life of its own and became the object of all of our obsessions. 

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Till Mohena came, Akka and I wondered. 

She, on the other hand, simply stole it. 

First, she stole the key to the Godrej bureau where the little black book was stashed, then opened the locker inside it, removed the book, and hid it inside her suitcase. 

Predictably Athimber blew more than a few fuses when the object of his immense affection turned up missing. Especially since no one took responsibility. He sat us all down and delivered yet another thunderous sermon and with the dark clouds threatening to break in the background the apartment looked like the setting of a confrontation between Oedipus and his sex-starved mother. Somewhere in the middle of his snarky diatribe Akka rushed out with several ‘sorries’ that the pressure cooker that was blowing its whistle would soon blow its gasket instead, while I stepped out claiming urgent homework that I had no plans of finishing. 

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But Mohena stayed back with Athimber and we never learned what happened between them.

Much, much later, we realized that there were some very interesting items recorded in that little black book. Too bad there weren’t any phone numbers of his illicit liaisons with other women. Instead, as an accountant is wont to do, there were meticulous details recorded on money spent on frivolous items by Athimber. Money spent on things that he forgot to mention to Akka. Money spent on cigarettes, carrot halva from Geetha Bhavan, solo English movie trips, and so much more. Back then, all we knew was that – suddenly - Athimber opened his purse strings like never before. We ate Chinese food, went on short trips to Matheran, and even saw a few movies.

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But as much as Mohenambal loved milking Athimber of his money, despite being a self-confessed crorepati, she never really spent much of it herself. 

For her policy was simple. Why spend when you can steal and blackmail? 

So. despite all the money she inherited, Mohena said that in her until-then three years of travel, she did not spend one paisa on soaps, lotions, towels, napkins, or shampoos. What she was allowed to take, of course, she took them. And the other stuff she took anyway. Each trip to a restaurant saw her return with at least two spoons. Each trip to the local supermarket saw her return with pencils, rubbers, and pens, stick-on-bindis. Some she took without the knowledge of the shopkeepers.  Others she took by cajoling, bullying, and pleading. 

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What’s a pen free when I’ve bought other stuff worth a hundred bucks she would claim to astonished shopkeepers? How are the two things connected they’d wonder. If she saw them melt, she oozed charm. If they acted tough, she acted appalled and claimed to be an old widow in her 70s that this cruel world took no notice of. “And I am bald too,” she delivered her ultimate blow on unsuspecting humans.

I tried to be a worthy follower.

When I stole, I got caught. When I tried to act coy and be a coquette and charm my way out, I was told with malicious glee every perverse detail of all the horrific things that would happen to people who took what didn't belong to them. When I yelled, I am just a kid, I was shaken and asked to shape up or threatened to be shipped out.

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Under severe duress, I gave up and allowed myself to live vicariously and enjoy Mohena's little treasure cove.
Each spoon, every napkin, or sugar packet she took and/or stole gave her more pleasure than the crores of rupees she supposedly had in the bank.

“Where is the pen? How come every time the phone rings and I want a pen I never get one? This despite the fact that I keep replenishing the pen tray every week.” 

That pens and paper pads disappeared regularly or the paper napkins were never there when Athimber’s posh boss and wife came over and spilled coffee was not a big mystery. What was mysterious was how they got resolved. Even as all of us made our escape from Athimber’s tirade, Mohenambal took me to the guest bedroom and opened her little iron trunk. Inside there were pens and nail cutters and paper napkins all of which she had stolen or “borrowed” from Athimber’s stash.

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“You should give them back.” I was horrified.

“Oh, but this is much more fun!” She twittered.

She went quietly. As loud and boisterous as she was when she lived, within a month of returning from staying with us in Mumbai, she died peacefully and with a smile on her face. 

Since she planned to live for many more years, she did not leave behind a will. The next few years saw the extended family fight for every piece of item she left behind – the many crores of rupees in the bank, the many kilos of gold jewels, silver and brass utensils, and a few homes. 

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But before she returned to Chennai, she gave me her suitcase filled with steel spoons, sugar packets, and a few napkins that had the “Balaji Bhavan” logo on them.”

It was my most priceless possession and, over the years, I made her proud as I continued to add to that stash.

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