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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

'My son needed help,' my father said as he pulled out the weeds from the soil. His voice had been plain, yet I felt a lump in my throat.
He placed a sapling in the pot and put freshly dug mud around it. I came and sat next to him and pressed the soil with my thumb.
'How did you know?' I said.
His eyes met mine, he said, 'Because I am your father. A bad father, but I am still your father.'
He continued, 'And even though you feel I have let you down in the past, I felt I should do my bit this time. A life partner is important. Ananya is a nice girl. You shouldn't lose her.'
'Thanks, dad,' I said, fighting back tears.
'You're welcome,' he said. He gave me a hug. 'I'm not perfect. But don't deprive me of my son in my final years,' he said.
I hugged him back. Tears slipped out as I let go of any self-control. The world celebrates children and their mothers, but we need fathers too.
I closed my eyes. I remembered Guruji. I stood on top of a green mountain, watching a beautiful sunrise. 2 STATESAs I held my father, the heavy cloak feels off, making me feel light again.
'I won't come for the wedding though,' my father said.
'Why?' I said, surprised.
'Your mother won't go without her relatives. I don't know what I will do there if they are there.'
'You won't come for your own son's wedding?' I said.
'Ananya is coming to our home only,' my father said.
I felt too much gratitude towards him at that moment to be mad at him.
'You have to come. I'm late for work, but I'll convince you later,' I said.

59
'Like I said, much simpler for us if you get your relatives to Chennai,' Ananya said.
'How do I get them all? I can't afford so many air tickets,' I said.
We were on our countless pre-nuptial calls.
'They won't fly down themselves?' Ananya said.
'Are you crazy? We have to take care of the baraat, until they reach you, of course.'
'Only you understand these Punjabi customs,' Ananya said.
'You'd better too,' I said.
'It's a Tamil style wedding,' Ananya said.
'What?' I said.
'Yeah, what else do you expect in Chennai? Anyway, won't your relatives like to see something different?'
'Actually, no,' I said.
'We'll see, and you can take the train To Chennai. The Rajdhani Express takes twenty-eight hours.'
'That's a long ride with relatives,' I said.
'You've waited so long for this, what's another day?' Ananya said and ended the call.

'You really won't come? I have your tickets.'
My father kept silent. My mother sat next to me at the dining table.
'Why does it have to be a choice? Why can't mom get her relatives and you come as well?' I said. Why can't we be a normal family for once? I thought. I guess there are no normal families in what we call normal.
'He feels they have insulted him in the past,' my mother said.
'And he hasn't insulted them?' I said, 'Anyway, what does it have to do with my wedding? Dad, say something.'
'You have my blessings. Don't expect my presence,' my father said.
'His drama never ends,' my mother said.' He himself went to Chennai and said yes to the Madrasis. This wouldn't even have happened otherwise. Now when everyone in my family is waiting for the wedding, he stops them. Why? Because he can't see them happy. Most of all, he doesn't want to see me happy.' She then broke into tears.
'Is that the case, dad?'
'No, I've given you a choice,' he said.
'Which son will not want his father to come?' my mother said, 'This is not a choice. This is blackmail.'
'Whatever you want to call it. If this wedding is happening because of me, then I should get to choose the guests.'
'No dad,' I said, 'Mom has equal rights, too. Unfortunately, I belong to both of you.'
'So, you decide,' my father said.
My mother and dad looked at me. I paced up and down the room for ten minutes.
'Dad, mom's family has to come. You do what you have to do,' I said and left the room.
Rajji mama had arranged a two-man dholak band at the Hazrat Nizamuddin station. I helped locate the 2 STATESthirty-seven II-tier AC berths reserved for my relatives in the Rajdhani Express compartment. Two of my mother's cousin sisters had decided to join at the last minute and we had to accommodate them as well. My mother made up a wonderful story about my father's viral fever that could be malaria. Everyone knew the reality, and apart from the awkwardness of fibbing to Ananya's parents again, people were relieved, as my dad equaled to no fun.
I stood inside the bogie, matching everyone's ticket to their berth. Rajji mama dragged me out. 'You have to dance a little, no? This is the baraat leaving,' he said.
At four in the afternoon, hundreds of bored passengers on the platform watched the free entertainment provided by our family. The dholak men jogged along the train and argued with mama over the payment. They couldn't squeeze much out of him as the train had picked up speed.
I came inside my compartment, which the ladies had turned into a sari shop. The entire lower berths were filled with the dresses everyone planned to wear for each of the functions.
'This is beautiful,' my seventy-year-old distant aunt said as she fondled a magenta sari with real gold-work. Women never get old for admiring saris.
My younger cousins had taken over the next compartment. The girls had their make-up kits open. They discussed the sharing of mascaras. I see why whole families get excited about a wedding; there's something in it for everyone.
I came outside to stand at the compartment door. The train whizzed past Agra, Gwalior and Jhansi over the next few hours. I still had a day to go as the train traversed through this huge country, cutting through the states I had battled for the last year. These states make up our nation. These states also divide our nation. And in some cases, these states play havoc in our love lives.
I came inside when the train reached Bhopal at dinnertime. My relatives coldn't contain their excitement that Rajdhani Express offered free meals.
'Take non-veg, the Madrasis won't give you any,' Shipra masi advised everyone,
'OK aunty, for the next three days, there are no Madrasis, only Tamilians,' I said.
Shipra masi separated the foil fromher chicken. 'Yes, yes, I know. Tamil Nadu is the state. But we are going to Madras only, no? Why does the ticket say Chennai?'
'It's the same. Like Delhi and Dilli, Kamla mami said as she slurped her chicken sweet corn soup.
'Is it true their chief minister is an ex-film heroine?' my mother cousin said.
'Yes-ji,' another aunt said, 'these South Indian women are quite clever.'
'God has given them a brain, nothing else,' came another loose comment and I considered jumping off the train.

60
Ananya's father checked my clan into twenty rooms at the Sangeetha Residency in Mylapore. 'What happened to your father? We just met him,' he asked.
'It's a viral fever that could become malaria,' I said.
'Is that possible?'
'It happens in Delhi. Anyway, what's the schedule?' I regulated the conversation.
'We have a puja tomorrow afternoon and another one in the evening. The wedding muhurtam will be in the morning day after tomorrow,' he said.
'Uncle, what about a DJ? There is no party?' I was aghast for my kith and kin.
'We have a reception party day after evening. Have your fun there,' he said and turned to my mother, 'Kavita jee, Shipra jee, can I talk to you for a second?
My mother, Shipra masi and Ananya's father stepped away from me and other relatives. They spoke for five minutes. My mother rejoined me. Shipra masi went to the reception to collect her keys.
'What?' I said as we climbed up the steps towards our hotel rooms.
'Nothing,' my mother said.
'It's my marriage. I deserve to know.'
'They asked me if I wanted a special gift,' my mother said. Perhaps, Ananya had recounted Minti's wedding to her parents.
'What exactly did you say, mom?' I said, my tone worse, 'what? Did you send him to buy a car or split ACs or what?'
'That's what you think of me. Don't you?' my mother said as we reached the first floor. She paused to catch her breath.
Shipra masi's expensive sandals could be heard four seconds before she arrived to join us on the first floor.
'See this stupid sister of mine. She said no to any big gifts,' Shipra masi said to me.
2 STATES'You did?' I said to my mother.
My mother looked at me.
'You will never understand how much I love you,' my mother said.
I hung my head down in shame. My mother smacked the back of my head. I deserved a slap.
Shipra masi waved her hands as she spoke.
'You and your mother, both the same – impractical. She tells him, 'I sent my son to do one MBA, I am getting two MGAs in return. Ananya is the best gift.' Shipra masi said, "OK, she earns a lot, but Kavita, why say no if someone is ready to give. Why not grab it.'
'Because we are not that kind of people, Shipra masi,' I said and gave my mother a hug, 'she is all talk. But she can never behave like Duke's mother. Never,' I said.
I came into my hotel room where ten cousins, six aunts and four uncles sat on my bed. I sat on the floor as space was at a premium. We had twenty rooms to choose from, but my relatives would rather be cramped together than miss out on juicy gossip session.
The younger cousins battled for the TV remote. I repeated the schedule to my aunts.
'They are big bores. How can they do puja the whole day?' Kamla mami said.
'They don't even have sangeet?' My mother said.
'I think they are trying to save money,' Shipra masi said.
'What language will the pujas be in? Madrasi?' another aunt said.
'Tamil, maybe Sanskrit,' I said.
I glared at my mother.
'Where do we eat?' an aunt expressed everyone's concern.
'The meals are in the dining hall at the wedding venue. Let's go to bed, we have to wake up early,' I said.
We had planned to meet in the hotel lobby at seven-thirty in the morning. We only left at nine.
'What is the address?' Rajji mama said.
I took out the piece of paper Ananya's dad had given me.
'I can't read this,' Rajji mama said.
I took the paper back. It said.
Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Karpagmbal Thirumana Mandapam
16, Venkatesa Agrabaram Street, Mylapore, Chennai
After three attempts at reading it, I had a headache. I counted the letters; my wedding venue had fifty alphabets in it. Delhi never gets this complicated. One of my older cousins had her wedding in Batra Banquets, another one in Bawa Hall.
We struggled for twenty minutes on the streets of Mylapore before we reached the venue. Fortunately, the locals had abbreviated the name of the place to AKKT Mandapam. From actor to political parties to wedding halls, Tamilians love to keep complicated names first and then make acronyms for the same.
'What do you mean breakfast is finished?' Shipra masi said.
'Illa, illa,' a pot-bellied, dark-complexioned chef said and shook his hand. He wore a lungi and a chef's cap. If he wore the cap to prevent hair in the food, he needed a body sheath, given his hairy arms and chest.
'Orunimishum,' I said, 'what happened?'
'Your son speaks Tamil?' Shipra masi said to my mother.
My mother rolled her eyes.
'No, I don't. It's a common word for wait a second,' I said.
'Now he belongs to them. They'll make him do anything,' my mother lamented loudly.
'Mom, please. Let me resolve this,' I said.
'What will you resolve? They will make us cook food also,' my mother said.
'Everybody, please sit in the dining hall,' I said, then turned to the chef. 'Can't you make something?'
'Who will make tiffin then? We have to serve it at eleven,' the chef said.
I checked my watch. It was nine-thirty. My family would have medical emergencies if kept hungry for that long.
'We want something now,' I said, 'anything quick.'
'What about tiffin?' the chef said.
'We don't want tiffin. We'll only come back for lunch later.'
'Girl's side wants tiffin. They came for breakfast at 6.30,' the chef said.
Rajji mama came up to me. "Bribe him,' he whispered.
I thought about the ethics of bribing at my own wedding to feed myself.
'Okay, I go now, I am busy,' the chef said and numbled to himself, 'pundai maganey, thaayoli koodhi.'
'Anna, wait,' I said.
The chef looked at me in amazement. How can a person with a heavy Delhi accent toss in a Tamil word or two?
I kept a hundred-rupee note in my hand and shook hands with him. Perplexed, he examined the currency.
'We are giving you out of happiness,' My uncle said.
'I can make upma fast,' the chef said.
'What is upma?' my uncle said.
'Salty halwa. No No, not upma. Can you make dosas?' I said.
'For dosa one by one making no staff now. Then lunch also delayed,' the chef said mournfully.
We settled on idlis. There would be no sambhar. However, the chef had a drum full of coconut chutney, enough to pave roads with.
My family sat in the dining hall as servers placed banana leaves in front of them.
'We have to eat leaves?' Shipra masi said, "What are we? Cows?'
'It's the plate," I said, 'and there is no cutlery.'
'They have hardly any expense in weddings, how lucky,' Kamla aunty said.
Forty of us consumed at least two hundred idlis.
Ananya's father came when we had finished. 'There wasn't breakfast? I am sorry,' he said.
'It's fine,' I said, 'we came late.'
'Hello, Kavita-ji,' Ananya's father said with folded hands, as per Ananya's instructions. He took the bucket of idli from the server and served one to my mother.
'Hello,' my mother responded, a hint of pride in her voice as her siblings saw her being served by the girl's father. This is what grown-ups live for anyway, considering they have so little fun otherwise.
'How's Krish's father feeling now? Ananya's father said next.
'He's better, he had soup last night and porridge in the morning. He is taking rest now. He sends his regards,' my mother said.
Ananya's father nodded in concern.
'What are the ceremonies today, uncle?' I asked for my relatives' benefit.
'First, we have the Vrutham, the wedding initiation prayers. We also have Nischayathartham, the formal engagement ceremony where we set the auspicious time for the wedding and give gifts to close relatives,' Ananya's father said.
My aunts only paid attention to the last four words.


To be continued...


 
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