My grandfather rarely took my grandmother out, unless it was to a wedding or other ceremony where they both had to attend. In the days I am talking about, which was at least fifty years ago, women did not accompany their husbands anywhere outside the home. As a Tamil Iyer woman, my grandmother’s domain was strictly at home, more so in the kitchen. My grandfather would buy all the household necessities and make daily visits to the vegetable market to buy whatever was necessary to keep the kitchen going. Dressed in a spotless white jibba or kurta and a panchakacha veshti equally spotless and white, he would drape a white angavastram over his shoulder, and visit various shops in the market, keeping a strict eye on the prices and the weights. No shopkeeper could get away with any deception and my grandfather, as a retired schoolteacher of the Hindu High School in Triplicane, would give a stern piece of his mind to any errant merchant.
My grandmother, fair and petite in a voluminous nine yards sari, was in charge of the kitchen, as she had been since the age of thirteen when she had become the second wife of my grandfather, who was a widowed father of a six-year-old. She had cooked for the entire household which included my grandfather’s first mother-in-law as well, who was a termagant and hated the little girl who had taken her dead daughter’s place. The day began very early in the morning for the new child bride who slaved over the firewood in the kitchen, getting it to light and made coffee by the buckets for the coffee-loving Tamil Brahmin family before starting the day’s cooking – after a bath of course. She told me once that the family wanted coffee even at night so she would fill a thermos with coffee last thing at night and make coffee decoction in the filter first thing in the morning. The kitchen was equipped with a kal ural and an ammi – both stone grinding stones, used every day for cooking the daily staples of idlis and dosas and chutneys , and for adais and vadas less frequently. There was a copper boiler for boiling the bath water which had to be kept primed with charcoal and water. There used to be a firewood-fed stove which was upgraded later to a coal stove and then, much later, to a kerosene Primus stove, which was perceived to be a new-fangled luxury.
In the midst of all the work, the women in most homes, would never have found the time to step out of the house, and their only relaxation was to sit on the thinnai, the ledge outside the house, and talk to the neighbouring women when the morning chores were done.
Once, my grandfather offered to take my grandmother with him to Town, which was the name Parry’s Corner was familiarly known by. I am not sure how old she was at the time, but since they were living in Adyar at the time, I think he was in his early eighties, and she was in her sixties. They went by bus to Town, which was quite a way off, and having bought jaggery in a shop, my grandmother was carrying the bag, and my grandfather must have had his own bag of shopping. Older people of their generation never walked together or had conversations on the road, so, coming back home, he clean forgot all about her. He got on the bus and she was left behind.
Now my grandmother knew how to find her way to the nearby temples or shops but she had never travelled by bus on her own and did not know which bus to take. She carried no money either, and was, no doubt, terrified by the bustling congestion of Town. She thought to return the jaggery to the shopkeeper and find out which bus might take her home, but, the shopkeeper, to his eternal shame, was inhuman enough to turn down the request made by this little old lady whom anybody would have loved. He flatly refused to refund her money to her and my little grandmother, in desperation, finally asked a cycle rickshaw puller for help. Thankfully, he was kinder to her, and safely brought her back home.
I think my grandfather must have realized halfway home that he had carelessly lost his wife along the way, and turned back, and must have suffered through a few anxious moments before he found her safe at home. Of course she was angry with him, but she always took care to take her purse with her after that day.
Each time I remember the incident, I feel very sorry for my dear little grandmother, but when I think of the shopkeeper, I hope his karma has caught up with him, in a hugely multiplied way.
A few years ago, in the Matunga Apna Bazaar, I had just finished my shopping and walked up to the cashier to make payment. The debit card had not yet made its appearance then. At the counter, an old Iyer lady who had bought one thing too many and run out of money to pay, was beseeching the counter clerk to cancel the purchase of just that one thing. But the clerk was a bully and refused her request and instead told her to leave her entire shopping behind and come back with the money later. She was quite terrified of being scolded by her son at home for her carelessness and obviously unable to make a second trip to the shop living as she was at some distance. I remembered my grandmother and feeling very sorry for the old lady, offered to pay and take the purchase off her hands. She was relieved and thanked me over and over again and blessed me saying Sai must have sent me to help her. I told her I was happy to help. I should have ticked off the shopkeeper, which I would be brave enough to do now. I was still meek in those days.