It was a very small part of a long house. Yeah, one couldn’t say it as a large house. When Kathir got transferred to the town down south, they found most of the homes are built differently. For some reason, Mullai, his wife fancied this particular house. The back portion of the house was for rent. The front portion was occupied by the owners of the house. Kathir was pleasantly surprised by the friendly demeanor of the family. There were no extreme conditions or rules. Even when he said, he couldn’t afford the full advance amount, the owner let it go.
“You are new to the town. You have to have liquid cash in hand in case of any emergency.” Lakshmanan, the house owner said. His wife helped Mullai with arranging things. The house was on the road perpendicular to the main road, where there was bus transport to Kathir’s office. The house stood gigantically in the middle of the compound. To the left of the main quarters, there was a narrow lane with the wall freshly painted with lime and kerosene. With two hooks embedded strategically served as the place to dry the clothes. A cement drum was placed at the entrance of the narrow lane for people to wash their hands and feet before they entered the home. At the end of the narrow entrance was Kathir’s rented quarter.
It should be called Mullai’s place. She loved it as soon as she saw it. There was a small depression in the kitchen giving way for the water to go. It is used to wash vessels, wash small clothes, sometimes even bath. There was an old clay stove and some sticks when they first saw the house. Three kittens gave out a feeble sound from the clay stove. Mullai sat on her hunches, crooked her index finger, and took it near the kittens. The kittens lapped it like they found their mother’s teats. Kathir couldn’t help but hug and kiss her from behind. He would like to think that is why Mullai was steadfast in renting the place. She may have wanted to preserve that memory.
The front portion of the house had a small swing in their verandah. On weekends, when he took a walk out of the house to smoke cigarettes, he has seen Lakshmanan’s wife having a little siesta there. In the evenings he had seen the Lakshmanan’s daughter sitting there, studying. In a few days, Sornam, the daughter almost started living in their portion.
“Mullai Akka! I just love your ear drops” she would say sitting where they found the kittens. She would reverse the bronze drum used to store water, sit on top of it and chat away with Mullai, who would be cooking.
“I can make one for you Kanna!” Mullai would say adding the curry leaves in the sauté. “I have all the materials and I make earrings from the scratch”
“Really! Please teach me Akka” Sornam would beg.
“You have your public exams this year. You can learn all these things next year.” Mullai was clear. Mullai never had a little sister. She was a single child and she loved all the attention she got from Sornam. However, to Lakshmanan and his wife, Sornam’s board exams were not first of concerns.
When Kathir came home from work one day, there was a power cut in their area. He tiptoed to their portion to see Mullai working in the kitchen. He hugged her from behind and placed his chin on her shoulder. “I don’t know what you pop in the orange candy for. I could still say you have smoked” she said as she turned around. “Go wash your face. Lakshman’s wife wants our help”
Ah! Kathir thought. Financial help maybe. Just when he thought his life was too good to be true. But they had a different request “Sornam is not a woman yet” Mullai said staring at her cup of coffee. Kathir nodded “She is still a kid, yes”.
“No! That’s not what I mean. She hasn’t attained puberty and her parents are worried.”
“Oh!” Kathir said. He didn’t know what else to say.
“They want you to find a good doctor in Chennai to treat her.”
“You didn’t say about our doctor friend to them, did you?” Kathir asked.
“It may have slipped out” Mullai shrugged.
Kathir somehow found a good contact from his friend. The family was away for fifteen days to put Sornam under some hormone treatment. Kathir didn’t understand the nuances of treatment but Mullai and Lakshmanan’s wife whispered a lot in the kitchen. When Sornam came back to the town, Kathir couldn’t help but notice that she has become tall. She had to take a leave of absence from the school on special permission. Sornam almost started living in their portion. Mullai was more than happy to entertain her sister from another mother.
Kathir wasn’t entirely happy about this but he let it go. Lakshmanan and his family were the ones who made him feel at home instantly. If there is a small way to pay them back, he would do it. Sornam would assist Mullai in cooking, cleaning, and stuff. They had a lot of time in hand to speak about things giving Sornam a peek into the grownups world.
On another day of a power cut when Kathir and Mullai were playing Dumb charade, Sornam joined. Sornam almost shouted the song which Kathir enacted. In a haste, Kathir closed her mouth with his hand. Mullai still guessed the song. “Mama, I like the smell of cigarette and orange toffee in your hands. It makes me go giddy” Sornam said as soon as he released her. It was so dark that Kathir couldn’t see Mullai’s reaction. Things changed from that day.
Sornam would sit in the swing when he is back from the office, turn while Kathir washed his feet, speaking this and that and slowly lift both her hands to clutch the chain of the swing and lean forward just a little bit. “Old clothes are shrinking” she would say. Kathir without looking at her would reply “It is you, who is outgrowing the dress” and walk-in. Mullai would mention Sornam talking about him, asking about his likes and dislikes in the passing.
One Saturday, she stood before him along with a beaming Mullai, fully draped in a saree. Kathir raised his eyebrows looking at Mullai. “See! Our Sornam is a lady now” Mullai said. She went in to get the film camera from the shelf to take a picture of Sornam. Sornam almost whispered to Kathir “Akka said you like her so much in this saree mama. Do you like it on me?”
Mullai’s eye got moistened when Kathir said to maintain distance with Sornam henceforth. “She is just a kid. Just because she has now attained puberty, it doesn’t mean she has become someone else.”
Kathir looked at his wife in disbelief. He couldn’t believe their first fight was about a girl next door. “It is not her. It is her age. We are newly married too. I don’t think it is a good idea.”
“Are you attracted to her?” Mullai asked looking straight into his eyes.
“Shut up! She is just a kid.”
“That is what I was saying,” Mullai said as she went back into the kitchen.
The next two days, the silence hung in the house like an invisible guest. They talked carefully, not to hurt each other, keeping it to the minimum. Kathir took bath and put his damp towel in the string tied to the hooks against the wall opposite to the house. His dress was pressed and ready and the food was ready in the table. He ate quietly and left. He couldn’t concentrate in the office. “What a silly fight this has been?” He thought to himself. “If that is what Mullai wants, let her have it. I come out every day, meet new people. Poor Mullai, her world starts and ends in the portion”. He applied leave for the rest of the day, picked up a few DVDs, and went home. Unsurprisingly, Sornam was there with Mullai. Kathir took Mullai outside for a minute.
“I am sorry. I couldn’t stay like this. You know Sornam better. I spoke unnecessarily” Kathir looked at Mullai who was looking at her big toe all the time. Without a word, she hugged him and gave a little peck in his cheek. “I will shower in a minute and join you. Let’s watch a movie together”. Kathir smiled and changed to home clothes all the while wondering if it was his perverse mind that mistook Sornam.
They settled down in front of the TV. Sornam and Mullai sat on the floor while Kathir made himself comfortable on the sofa. Mullai signaled something to Sornam, she went out and came back with a long cloth, covering her chest. After the movie ended, Mullai started laying out plates for lunch. She noticed Sornam had Kathir’s towel across her chest. They started eating in silence.
“Sorna, that is his towel,” Mullai said in a no-nonsense tone.
“I know Akka. I have seen him tie it around his waist while coming back from the bath. He didn’t even wring it properly today. It is still wet” Sornam said looking at Kathir.
Mullai went in and brought one of her dupattas and laid it next to Sornam. “If it is wet, you can use mine,” she said looking at her.
“No Akka! I like how it feels on me” Sornam said. The rest of the lunch went in silence. Mullai pushed out Sornam telling that they were going to have a nap. Kathir didn’t know whether to talk about what just happened or let it go. Mullai didn’t come out of the kitchen. Sometimes it sounded like she was puking. Kathir ran to see her, but she was just spitting at the place where they found the kitten as if she was trying to get rid of a bad taste from her mouth. Kathir offered to make coffee in the evening which she refused. He asked her multiple times only to get a no. The power went off like clockwork and the mood of the house added one more layer to the already existing darkness. In such darkness, one could hear everything very clearly. It sounded like Mullai having multiple glasses of water. The power didn’t return but it was bedtime.
Kathir laid out the bed carefully like he did every day. However perfect it would be Mullai would come, straighten some invisible wrinkles in the sheet, place the pillow to his right side and sit with a big ‘happada’. Then she would put her wrist to her cheek and lay looking at him. Kathir had put the pillow ready and he waited in the darkness to hear the ‘happada’ for the day. Today Mullai didn’t go to his right side. She lay on him, hugged him tightly, and kissed him all over.
“Let us find another house,” she said and started weeping.