A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.
- Chinese Proverb
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Venu Mama was the most venerated and welcomed relative in Eashwar's family. He was the youngest brother of Eashwar's mother and quite attached to his nieces and nephews, especially to Eashwar, both for his disciplined business acumen and devotion to family. Eashwar too had immense respect for his maternal uncle, a semi-literate rural middle-aged man with simple pursuits in life and an ever-smiling face. Venu Mama had been with them in difficult times, when Eashwar was young. But today that Eashwar was all grown up and doing well as a Railway Contractor, he always made it sure to extend any financial help to his dear uncle for running his business.
On his part, Venu Mama continued to protect and care for his sister and her family without an invitation or hesitation, as he had always been doing. A villager to the core, his naive and helpful heart endeared him to all. He lived a contended life doing rice business in the nearby town and lived with his wife and two sons who were in their teens. Life had been quite harsh in his initial years and had aged Venu Mama considerably, with snow white hair and wrinkled skin that made him look like a grandfather, belying his age. But one wide-toothed grin did what a dozen anti-aging creams couldn't. He would suddely transform into a young boy, eyes twinkling with humour loaded in them and the chuckles coming in a chain straight from the heart. And he did that quite often.
Cycling to his rice shop, five miles away he would stopover at his friend and acquaintance Krishnan's house on the way for anything between five minutes for some chilled water to fifty minutes, engaged in some interesting chat. Now, Krishnan's daughter Jayshree was married to Eashwar and hence they became samdhis. Venu Mama too had a say in this match-fixing. Visits became frequent and an integral part of his life. Moreso, now that Jayshree had come to stay with her parents, after her first child's birth. It was customary for the parents to take care of their daughter and her baby for the first nine months. When mother recovered fully and baby was healthy, both would be ceremoniously taken back and left at the in-laws house.
On one such visit, he happened to chance upon Jayshree and her mother struggling to calm the baby, by now nine months old, from incessant crying. On his visit on the following day, he came alongwith his wife and handed over a tiny wicker basket filled with goodies for the baby. Mother and baby were to return to in-laws in a week's time. The basket was loaded with fruits, flowers, sweets, biscuits, frocks, a pacifier, silver trinkets and a small silver bowl with a spoon. Jayshree was overwhelmed by the couple's touching gesture.
As planned, one fine auspicious day the following week, Jayshree and Amulu (Samyukta was lovingly adressed so with Amul baby cheeks) were taken to her in-laws place. Eashwar returned home in the evening and was excited to hold Amulu in his arms. When he saw her mouth shut with a pacifier like a wooden stop-cork, he got livid. Hiding his displeasure, he chided Jayshree in a mellowed tone, "Why have you put this abominable thing in her mouth. An educated mother like you! Don't you know how unhygienic the habit is." Taking it out he turned to go when Amulu began to howl. He stopped in his footsteps and waited for her to subside but it only took to an intolerable crescendo and he hurriedly put it back to where it belonged. It was sheer magical. Amulu became as silent as a church mouse. Jayshree laughed at the bewildered father and told him it was a gift from the ever so thoughtful Venu Mama.
All said and done, the parents did find the peace welcoming. In course of time, Amulu touched two years. With their second child on its way, the parents decided it was time that she was placed under her maternal grandparents care as the delivery time was nearing and they wouldn't be able to pay much attention to her. Mother-in-law too had her own health issues to tackle with. Jayshree's parents were only too happy to oblige and as if they were waiting for it, pounced upon Amulu and took her to their home. Being their first and only grand-daughter, they lavished her with the best care and love. Six months in total bliss for both sides.
A bonny baby brother had come by now and Dhruva (nicknamed Babloo) was four months old. Jayshree was yearning to see Amulu and when Venu Mama heard of it, he stepped in to be the harbinger of happiness, this time. Despite Krishnan insisting to take his grand daughter himself, Venu Mama heard none of it. He was scheduled to visit his elder sister anyways, and after a long tug-of-love, finally his persistence paid off. It was decided that he would take Amulu the next day to her parents and a week later, Krishnan would go alongwith the Diwali sweets for the samdhis and bring back Amulu with him.
The travel involved a journey of nearly seventy miles, changing two trains. Krishnan, who had his business near the city accompanied them half the way on the local EMU.
A worried Krishnan got up as his station neared and advised Venu Mama to be very careful with the child while getting down and boarding the Express train. It was a two hour's ride from there. Venu Mama assured him not to worry at all. He was visiting them often and he knew the ways like the back of his palms, he claimed. He held Amulu's hand firmly and a small bag with a few of her belongings and eatables, packed by her grandmother.
They disembarked two stations later and waited on a stone bench at the station platform. Amulu seemed a bit restless and started whining. Mama rummaged the bag and took out a biscuit packet. She pushed it away. Water from the sipper calmed her a bit. Just then the automatic announcement system ting-tonged the arrival of their train. Hurriedly, Venu Mama closed the bag and lifting Amulu up in his arms, waited anxiously as the Express thundered in. Getting in after some struggle to locate a much less crowded coach, to his delight he found the it sparesely passengered and thanked God for such tiny mercies. Taking a window seat he perched Amulu comfortably besides him on the empty berth and saw two men seated in the opposite berth, seriously discussing something. They just threw a glance at the new entrants and carried on with their talk. Seeing some more room on the berth, Venu Mama took out a towel from the bag and spread it out to put Amulu to sleep. Now that they had settled down, Venu Mama heard them animatedly arguing on the bleak future looming large over the leather industry. Business uncertainity had been the main issue taken up at the conference they had just been to. New place, new people for company, Amulu looked on at all one by one, in silence. A few minutes later she started whimpering and Mama could make out that she wanted something in particular. Again he foraged inside the bag and came up with an apple this time, but she shook her head. He could make out her saying "akkuchi" and repeating it. Water from the sipper..no, milk bottle.. no, a choclate.. no. Her chanting became louder and by now it took the form of wailing for akkuchi with tears rolling down her cheeks. The men stopped their talk midway and joined Mama in pacifying Amulu by offering her grapes but she shook them away. Completely clueless, Mama lifted her up and sat her on his lap to show her the fleeting meadows, towns and villages from the window. Outside it was scorching hot. But the AC inside their coach kept them cool. After a few minutes of gazing, a sleepy and tired Amulu again began her demand for akkuchi interspersed with loud snivelling sessions. It was then that the TrainTicket Examiner stepped inside their coach. Checking the other two men who had passes, he turned to Venu Mama who readily showed him his ticket. The TTE looked at the ticket and gave him an inspecting look from top to botton. Dressed in a white shirt that could easily accomodate another, with long and wide sleeves, drowning his slender arms in them, a starch white dhoti and a white towel thrown across his shoulder, he looked every inch the countryside cousin one always had in the family. Was enjoying a comfortable travel seated in a reserved first class compartment with AC, all the while carrying an unreserved ticket. His confidence while handing over the ticket to TTE, suggested his cluelessness. When he was enlightened about his blunder, beads of perspiration broke out on his forhead and temples. Even the AC could not wipe them away. The other two passengers looked on aghast . When he began pleading in a thick, fear instilled voice with the TTE to let him go, citing his ignorance, they too joined in and implored the TTE to forgive and send him to an unreserved coach. Venu Mama could well have stopped at that but he went a step further and quoted his nephew Eashwar's name, saying he was a reknowned railway contractor. The tracks the train was chugging on, were laid by him. Now the TTE saw his chance to milk some money.
"Hmm Peddaina (elderly person) you know you can be fined upto 1000 rupees and sent to jail. Only because of the little child with you, I am leaving you. You need to pay 500 rupees".
500 bucks, quite a sum in the early 80's, could have easily fetched him two grams gold, Venu Mama thought wistfully. But at that moment he was so filled with terror of having to go to jail that without wasting a second, he took out a manja-pai (yellow cloth carry bag made of mull, thin and light) that he had folded and tucked in his midwaist inside the vesthi fold and unfolding the rolled up bag, fetched a crisp green coloured bundle of five rupee notes with the bank seal still intact on it. Handing over half-heartedly with trembling hands, he requested the satiated TTE to allow him to continue travelling in the same coach as just a half hours travel was left. Nodding slightly with a whiff of official airs, the TTE shoved the bundle on the inside secret pocket of his white shirt, under his navy blue coat. Diwali, next week was going to be brighter and louder said his countenance. In all of this, he neither bothered to write out a receipt for Venu Mama nor the latter dared to ask him for one.
This minor interlude had silenced Amulu. She looked on with interest at the confused exchanges between the coated-capped stranger and Venu Mama, all of a sudden meek and nervous. Once the TTE's cap disappeared, she began to squall for her akkuchi again and this time around, a usually composed Uncle was sounding distraught and his eyebrows furrowed. But he gulped down his helplessness and focussed on stopping her cry. When Amulu saw that he was only talking nice things to her and distracting her by showing her the fleeting scenery outside, with no signs of the elusive akkuchi coming her way, she began bauling non-stop. Now no one present there knew what an akkuchi was. They juggled with their brains and Mama struggled with her baby talk that just kept parroting one word. He again foraged the bag for some clue and showed her too the contents for her guidance but no relief came their way. The fine too had started taking a toll on Venu Mama. He just sat back, calming and assuring himself, just a few more miles to go. Things would be back to normal once they reached her home. But Amulu's tantrum kept up its tempo and by the time their station arrived, the co-passengers were too happy to see them off and even helped Venu Mama with the bag while alighting with Amulu in his arms.
It was a completely harassed, shaken and exhausted Venu Mama, who stepped into his sister's house. He had taken a jutka from the railway station. Amulu's nonstop crying made the jutka-man whip up his old horse and gallop faster across the two miles. Hearing a jutka outside their gates Jayshree rushed out from the kitchen and hurried up the driveway. Opening the gates, she grabbed Amulu into her arms and greeted Venu Mama, taking bag from his hands and leading him in. By now his elder sister sauntered in and joined them holding baby Dhruv. Even before she could utter a word, Venu Mama plopped on the couch and by now on the verge of tears, asked on a weary note,"Can anyone tell me what is akkuchi ? For heaven"s sake give it to her. She's been at it for the past two hours.' His bone tired countenance and hollow voice portrayed better, his ordeal with Amulu and her akkuchi .
Kissing an equally fatigued, and flushed Amulu, Jayshree turned to fetch him some water. Is it from the "bridge" he asked and looking at Jayshree's blank expression, repeated, "I meant ice-petti." He had meant a fridge and for clarifying it further called it an ice-box. Uncle was coming to terms with modern gadgets, of late. Hot and flushed he threw his hot water habit to the winds. Only ice-cold waters could revive him, today. A tired, red-faced Ammulu clinging to her dear mother tightly, repeated slowly..Akkuchi. Jayshree smiled reassuringly and ferreting about the bag, came out with a tiny steel box. Carefully taking out the sterilised pacifier from it she put it to her mouth. A calmed Amulu glanced triumphantly at a horrified Venu Mama, as he froze midway gulping down iced waters, with his hand holding the glass, suspended midway!
Venu Mama, a strong believer in Karma often quoted you get what you give. Karma came a full cycle, this time in the form of a pacifier.