In My Mother’s Footsteps
Meenatchie’s sister-in-law, Ambigay, came rushing into the kitchen, bright eyes mixed with seeming concern and the desire to gloat. “Unni, I don’t know how to tell you this.” Meenatchie saw the feeble attempt to control her eagerness. “Logan is seeing that Kamala. I saw them walking down to the river. They were holding hands.” Meenatchie saw the other two sisters-in-law look up - Salatchie in excitement, Thamyandhi with genuine concern.
Meenatchie didn’t respond. She went on rolling out the pur for the samoosas she was making. This was not the first time she had heard of this friendship. People had been gossiping for weeks, but she had simply dismissed the rumours. This was just their desire to bring her down. She knew that deep down people resented her because she had always had the courage to stand up for what she believed in.
“Unni, I saw them with my own eyes.”
Knowing her sister-in-law was waiting for a response, she simply said, “Thank you, Ambigay.”
This did not satisfy Ambigay and she persisted, “But what are you going to do?” Meenatchie’s rolling pin continued its steady rhythm. “What if he wants to marry her? They say he’s been going out with her for months now.” Meenatchie patted another ball of dough onto her board but her sister-in-law persisted. “What are you going to do?”
Meenatchie picked up the boxes that were under the table. “Please help me pack the samoosas and achar sandwiches. Vadivel Annè will be here to pick them up just now.” They supplied the family cafè with samoosas and achar sandwiches for the late afternoon rush when people taking the bus to Atteridgeville and Saulsville stopped in on their way home from work. Sulkily, Ambigay turned to the packing and that was the end of her enquiry for the afternoon.
At the dinner table that evening, Meenatchie watched her son closely. Logan was in a very gay mood as he told the story of how members of the Pretoria Tamil League had caught the thief who had been stealing from the temple. “Uncle Aru,” Meenatchie flinched, “and Uncle Soobiah hid in the gopuram for three weeks waiting for the thief. But he didn’t come so they gave up the watch. They thought the thieving was all over and they could live with the loss of lamps and small statues.”
Meenatchie couldn’t look at her son; he was positively glowing as he spoke. Didn’t he realise what he was doing to her? And here was her brother-in-law encouraging him.
Deva, Thamyandhi’s husband, munching on a chilli as usual, coaxed Logan on. “But I thought you said they caught the thief.”
“I’m coming to that.” Logan’s voice was full of merriment and Meenatchi couldn’t shut it out. “The next day - all the murthis disappeared. I mean, the most important statues, Muruga, Velli, Devayanai and Ganesha. All gone. Straight after they gave up the vigil. They were wild with anger.”
Deva laughed. “I would be too if I sat there for three weeks in the cold night losing all my sleep.”
“You know how devout Uncle Aru is. But he was so angry he even shouted at the shrine. ‘Mariamman, you are the goddess of strength, give us the strength to catch the thief.’
“They didn’t take Mariamman?” Even Thamyandhi was encouraging Logan.
Drops of perspiration pouring down his forehead, Deva laughed again. “Mariamman is too powerful.”
Logan laughed too. Meenatchie couldn’t stand the sound of his joyfulness. “Uncle Aru was seething.” She flinched again. Uncle Aru, Uncle Aru. Since when had that man become his uncle? “He couldn’t believe how he had been fooled. He was going to give the thief the thrashing of his life when he caught him. That night, Uncle Aru - he can see the gopuram from his veranda - was staring up at it when he suddenly picked up his torch and a stick and without a word to anyone dashed off to the temple. Aunty Jean was surprised and sent Bala after him. When they got to the temple, they found the gate open and ran in. They saw a shadow on the other side of the shrine so they split up, circled the shrine and trapped the thief. Uncle Aru grabbed him and began bashing him mercilessly. Bala had to pull him off. Uncle Aru didn’t even know who he was beating.”
“Who was it?” Ambigay’s inquisitiveness always irritated Meenatchie.
“Philemon! The cleaner who used to work at the temple?”
Mopping his face with a big handkerchief, Deva shook his head. “That boy was so lazy, the League had to fire him.”
Logan laughed, “Apparently, for the three weeks that Uncle Aru and Uncle Soobiah were sitting at the bottom of the gopuram waiting to catch him, Philemon was at the top watching them.”
Meenatchie cut short the laughter that erupted. “And where did you hear this story?” She could see Logan going on the defensive.
“Oh, Bala was telling us about it.”
“Oh, were you visiting his house?” Bala was Aru’s son.
‘No, Bala and I were playing billiards at the caffy.” He stood up quickly. “Anyway, I have to go. Please excuse me. I’m going to the dance at the Dougall Hall. A band from Jo’burg is playing this weekend.”
But she wasn’t going to let him off. “Who are you taking to the dance?”
He didn’t look at her. “Just going with Vasu and some of the guys from the football club. Excuse me. I have to run. I promised to meet them at eight.” And before she could question him further, he was gone.
Meenatchie, aware of Ambigay’s sidelong glances, picked up some dishes and went off to the kitchen. But Ambigay was close on her heels, whispering, “Unni, I think he’s going to the dance with that Kamala.” Meenatchie gave her a look that quickly sent her back to help the others clear the table. Meenatchie deposited her dishes in the sink and went off to her room. She wouldn’t subject herself to sly looks and whispers behind her back. She would leave them to gossip to their hearts’ content while they were washing the dishes. She had had to put with their surreptitious laughter and giggling for too long.
Then she remembered that she hadn’t put out the mince for the next day’s samoosas. She would have to go back to the kitchen. As she approached, she heard Ambigay laughing, “Did you see Unni’s face? Like a stone. No smiling, frowning, nothing. But I think she’s boiling inside.”
She stopped. She didn’t want to, but she listened.
“How would you like it if your son was going out with that girl? She could hear contempt mixed with gloating in Salatchie’s voice. Salatchie resented her because she had made a name for herself in the community. “You think he’s serious about Kamala?”
“He must be. They not hiding anymore. I saw them walking hand in hand today.” Only Ambigay could be so gleeful.
“Nowadays children, they don’t care about our customs.” Thamyandhi was the only one who wasn’t titillated by the scandal.
Meenatchie nearly gasped out loud at what she heard next. “Unni doesn’t mind.” Salatchie spoke in a mocking tone. “I mean, she was in the passive resistance. She believes in equal rights. Chi, if it was my Gopal, before I can do anything, his father will give him such a clout, he won’t be able to speak. But Gopal knows his culture. Not like Logan.”
Ambigay jumped in eagerly. “That’s true. Logan doesn’t know what nation he is. He makes friends with everybody. He got friends in Eersterus and Atteridgeville.”
“It’s all Unni’s fault. She’s always talking about equal rights and rushing off to all the marches,” Salatchie was sneering. “Remember that time when the children were still small, she went and sat on the Whites Only bench outside OK Bazaars and they locked her up. We had to take care of the children for three months. So, why is she angry now?”
“Ya, why she goes marching around fighting the gov’ment? Is that the way for an Indian woman to behave, marching in the streets and going to visit people in the prisons? And then she expects her son to respect our traditions.”
Meenatchie had heard enough. She marched into the kitchen and her look told them that she had heard.
“Can I make you some tea?” Salatchie offered feebly but Meenatchie ignored her.
“I just came to take the mince out of the freezer.” She couldn’t keep the anger out of her voice. After she put the mince in the fridge, she turned abruptly and left the kitchen.
* * *
At the Dougall Hall, Logan paced about impatiently. “She should have been here by now.”
“Hey man, you know how girls are. They like to make you wait.” Vasu, the handsome striker from the Pretorians Football Club, lounging in his chair, surveyed the hall. Lots of pretty girls were throwing inviting glances at him but he was in no hurry. Logan knew Vasu loved the adulation. He and Vasu were the football stars of the location and they had great rapport on the field. It was as though they were inside each other’s heads. One knew when the other was going to make a run for it and he provided back up. They were the highest scorers in the club and they always tried to outdo each other.
Then Logan spotted Kamala, “Ah, there she is,” and dashed off as Vasu stood up leisurely and made his way across the room to where all the girls were waiting in anticipation.
Logan grabbed Kamala’s hand, whirled her onto the floor and they swept off together. “Man, you make me mad.”
Kamala arched her brows, “Oh?”
“I’ve been going crazy. I thought you’d never come.” He burrowed his head in her neck.
“So you missed me.”
“All the time.” He tried to kiss her but she turned away
“Not in front of all these people.”
Logan swept her to a quiet corner. “I want to get married right away.”
“What do you mean right away?”
“We can go to court on Monday and get registered.”
Kamala pulled herself out of his arms. “That’s how my father got married but that’s not what he wants for his sons and daughters.”
Logan took her into his arms again and held her so close, she began to blush. “I don’t care what anyone else wants. I want you. I’m in hell when I’m not with you.” Kamala just stood there, head against his chest, body pressed against his, not breathing.
“Hey, what are you two doing in this dark corner?” Vasu’s amusement forced them apart.
Kamala’s face was red more from the heat of the embrace than the intrusion. “What do you want here? Aren’t there enough girls in the room for you?”
“But Logan’s got the best.”
“Hey, keep your eyes off my girl. And go away.”
‘Oh come on broe, you’ve got the most beautiful girl and the best dancer in the room. Give me a break. Can I have one dance with her?”
“No. Go away.” Vasu laughed, found a partner hovering behind him and swung her out onto the floor.
Logan sat down and pulled Kamala beside him. “I’m serious. I want to get married.”
“So do I. But we will have to do it according to custom. You know my dad.”
“Does that mean the family must make the proposal?” She nodded. “Damn. It’s going to take forever.”
“I’m not worth the wait?”
Logan pulled her to him and gave her a deep kiss. “I can’t wait. I’m going crazy.”
Kamala stood up. “There’s only one way. I love you but I’m not going to hurt my parents. They never complain and they don’t show it but they have suffered and if I can make it up to them in some small way, I will.”
“All right, I’ll talk to my mum.”
* * *
The next morning, after she had cooked the mince and filled the samoosas, Meenatchie went out to buy a chicken from Mr Chinsamy on Eighth Street. She was busy examining the fowls in the coop when Jean entered the yard. She didn’t turn round and went on looking for a nice, fat hen.
But Jean greeted her, “Hullo, Meena. How are you?”
Why was this woman talking to her? She had never encouraged any kind of acquaintance. But the woman persisted.
“I didn’t see you at the Varaluxmi prayers last week.” Then Jean laughed, “I suppose you don’t need anymore good fortune.”
Meenatchie frowned. Was this woman trying to lecture her about her religion? Jean had started wearing saris but anyone could see she wasn’t Indian. She was too white. Today, she was even wearing a red dot on her forehead. What cheek! She didn’t have the right; she got married in court. Aru’s family had never accepted her but she had insinuated herself into the community and was even involved in temple functions. A Christian woman involved in the temple!
When Jean reached into her blouse and proudly pulled out her thali, the marriage cord, she was flabbergasted. “Look, I am wearing a thali now.”
“But you’re a Christian!”
“Not anymore. Not after Father O’Neal told me I was living like a pagan and couldn’t receive communion. Aru and I went to the temple last week and had a small private wedding ceremony. We did it for my daughter. Kamala has been nagging us for a long time to have a Tamil ceremony. She keeps saying, ‘Mummy, your civil marriage is not good enough. If you and Daddy don’t go to the temple and get married properly, you won’t be able to stand as my parents at my wedding.’
Meenatchie swun around with such force that she swiped Jean across the shoulder with the hen she was holding by the feet and it began squawking and jerking its head up. “What are you trying to tell me? Don’t think I will let my Logan marry into your family. We are high caste people.” She thrust the fowl back at Chinsamy and stalked out of the yard.
She abandoned the rest of her shopping, turned at the corner and stormed up Grand Street. So things had got that far. They were talking of a wedding now. Despite their reputation for kindness and generosity, that Aru and Jean were a cunning pair. Some bad karma had brought them into her life. Why had Aru married Jean? Why couldn’t he have kept her as a mistress in the Cape Location - like other men? Why did he have to bring her into their community? And all those years ago when she first came, the poosari at the temple had welcomed her openheartedly. And Thamyandhi, her well-meaning but simple-minded sister-in-law, had befriended her, had taken her in hand, explained what was happening, shown her how to conduct herself in the rituals and had brought her among the women to help with temple chores and preparations for temple festivals.
Then Thamyandhi had come to her very proudly and told her of Jean’s progress, modestly refraining from mentioning her role as mentor. Thamyandhi was counting on her approval but she got the surprise of her life when Meenatchie turned on her. Meenatchie knew that Thamyandhi admired her and was trying to emulate her. But fighting against a despotic government was different from dissipating one’s culture. She would never forget the look on Thamyandhi’s face when she scolded her for teaching a Coloured woman about their holy rituals.
Thamyandhi had surprised her with her outburst, “But you believe in equal rights.”
“That doesn’t mean giving up your culture and traditions.”
“I’m not doing that. I’m teaching Jean. I’m spreading our culture.”
“You are cheapening it. You bring these half-castes into it and you turn it into a half-caste culture.”
Thamyandhi’s eyes had widened in shock. She had said nothing more but ever since that time had become distant. She obviously couldn’t see how much they would lose with these kinds of inter-marriages. Coloured women were given to drinking, going to dances and picking up men. So many Indian men had mistresses in the Cape location, on the other side of Bloed Street, that she could actually see her own customs and traditions losing ground.
As she opened the door and walked into the lounge, she was confronted by the images of her husband and herself in the photograph on the wall. She shuddered. She tried to shut out thoughts of her husband. But Sadha’s face kept rearing up in her mind’s eye. She went to the kitchen to fry the samoosas. If she kept busy, she could forget. But it was no use. She couldn’t stop thinking of him. He had been one of those always hanging around at the Orient Dance Hall, mixing with Coloureds and coming home drunk in the early hours of Saturday morning. She never confronted him but he would yell at her. “Why you don’t look at me? Why you don’t say anything? You think you too bleddy good because you mix up with the politicians? You call yourself a wife? You just a cold fish.” Then he would beat her. It was an open secret that he was having an affair with a Coloured girl, sister of the leader of the Mafia gang, but no one spoke of it around her and she denied it even to herself. But when Sadha beat up his mistress, the Mafia gang came after him, there was a fight and he was stabbed to death. What a relief when he died. She dared not admit that to anyone and steadfastly remained in denial of her pernicious marriage. Her husband’s violent end, however, had confirmed her view that Coloureds had no culture. And it irked her to see Aru with Jean. Instead of making her his mistress, he had actually married her, had married out of his community, against fierce opposition from his family who, after thirty years, still didn’t speak to him. She hated to admit it but they were a devoted couple and their children were refined and good-natured.
After she had fried the samoosas and packed them in boxes ready to be taken to the cafè, she picked up her tray and went to clean spices outside in the yard. Soon she was enjoying the afternoon sun on
her back and thoughts of Jean and Aru and the trap they had set for her son, evaporated from her mind. The little spice trade that she ran from home had always kept her independent and she had really appreciated it in the days when she had been tied to an abusive husband. She should never have married; her only real joy had been her involvement in the political struggle. But in recent years with all the leaders in jail or out of the country, mass action had died down and people were working underground. And she was confined to the house.
Her mind drifted back to her childhood and to her parents.
They had been just such a loving couple as Jean and Aru. Her mother had walked side by side with her father in everything he undertook. She had been in that first group of women resisters trying to get legal recognition for Indian marriages. Her mother had always laughed when she told stories of how they had battled to get arrested because the police hadn’t known what to do with the dozen or so women walking around, hawking without licences. But her experiences in prison had been ghastly. They had been so cold and the food had been awful. When they left the prison after three months, they were practically skeletons and one had died soon after being released.
Meenatchie had always wanted to be like her mother. When her parents arranged a marriage for her, she looked forward to the same kind of happiness that her parents shared. She was ready to march alongside her husband in the liberation struggle. It had never occurred to her that her family’s courage and activism were unusual; she had simply taken them for granted. She was shocked when she found that her husband shunned politics and expected her to stay home and be a good housewife.
But she couldn’t do that. She defied her husband and found opportunities to be active. She went to jail during the Passive Resistance, to the very same prison in which her mother had been incarcerated. That had given her such strength that when the Defiance Campaign began, she was one of the first to volunteer. Marching alongside people asserting their right to freedom, she had felt truly alive. It was only in this house that she was a prisoner.
She was startled out of her reminiscences when Logan pulled
up a mat and sat on the concrete paving next to her. “Umma, I have
something very important to ask you.” Meenatchie’s heart hardened.
Without looking up, she continued to sift through the cumin seeds. “I want to get married.”
Meenatchie frowned. “You’re too young, Logan. You must wait a few years.”
“Ma, I’m twenty-five. I’m old enough. And there is this girl. I love her very much and I want to get married.”
“So, you want to choose your wife. That’s not your job. That is what I am supposed to do. Me and your uncles.”
“But, Ma, it’s different nowadays.”
“Maybe in some low-caste families. But that’s not how we do it.”
“Please, Umma. You will like the girl I have chosen. She speaks Tamil better than I do and she reads and writes Tamil fluently. She goes to temple and her family fasts on the same days that we do. Her mother has the same murthis as you, in her home shrine - Vishnu, Shiva and Brahman.”
“And who is this wonderful girl?”
Logan ignored the sarcasm and looked straight at her, “Uncle Aru’s daughter, Kamala.”
Meenatchie made a sudden motion to stand up and her tray went flying into the yard, scattering cumin seeds all around. The hens and chicks that were scratching in the sand came scuttling onto the concrete and began pecking and clucking in excitement. Meenatchie towered above her son who was on his knees trying to retrieve the cumin. “You want to marry into that family. You must be mad.” She stormed off into the house. Logan jumped up and ran after her.
“Umma, wait, wait. Talk to me. Umma, what’s wrong with her family?” Meenatchie bolted into her bedroom and slammed the door. Logan knocked and called, “Please, Umma, let’s talk about this,” but she just sat on her bed seething with rage. Then she heard a door in the passage open and Thamyandhi’s voice asking, “What’s the matter? What’s going on?”
Logan shouted back. She knew he wanted her to hear him. “Umma is angry because I want to marry Kamala. I don’t understand. What’s her objection?”
Thamyandhi, trying to soothe him, spoke softly. Meenatchie, who could just catch her words, clenched her fists. “Give her time. Let her get used to the idea. I am sure she will come round.”
“You think so, Athè? I don’t believe it.” He raised his voice even louder. “My mother! Of all people, my mother! She’s just a hypocrite.”
She heard Thamyandhi gasp. “Ah! Don’t talk like that. You’re angry now. You will regret what you say.”
Then he began to bang on her door again and afraid he would force his way in, she jumped up and cringed in a corner. “Come out, Ma, I want to talk to you. Don’t be a coward.” He banged again. Then there was a commotion in the passage and she could hear Salatchie and Ambigay trying to calm him down. Their voices were muffled and she couldn’t make out what was going on. Suddenly he was shouting at her through the door again. “I’m going to Uncle Aru’s house and I’m going to ask him if I can marry Kamala.” She heard him plunge out and the front door slam. There was a moment’s silence and after that whispering, which receded up the passage and then died out.
Coward! Hypocrite! How could her own son call her such names? Coward? She who had faced police batons and police dogs? Just because she didn’t want to talk to him when he was being so unreasonable? Flouting their traditions and going his own way, like a bastard who hadn’t been brought up properly? What did he mean? Coward? Hypocrite? She couldn’t get the words out of her mind.
* * *
Logan, angry and frustrated, walked quickly down the road. I don’t understand Umma’s attitude. She won’t even talk to me. She is being totally unreasonable. And Uncle Aru expects her to come with my uncles to bring a proposal. He is just as bad. Why is he so strict about customs? After all he married a Coloured woman. What am I going to do? My mother and Kamala’s father! Between them, they’ll drive me crazy. There’s only one way. Kamala has to understand that. We have to get registered. We can’t have an Indian wedding. As he strode up to Uncle Aru’s house, Bala, Kamala’s brother, came out of the door.
“Hi Logan. If you’ve come to see Kamala, she’s not here. She’s gone with mother to see granny in Eersterus. Granny’s not feeling too well and Mum has prepared some home remedies for her.”
“So where are you off to?”
“I think I’ll hang out at the caffy.”
“Good idea. I’ll come too. A game of billiards will do me some good.”
As they set off, Bala noticed Logan’s hangdog expression. “Anything wrong?”
“I just had a bust up with my mother.”
“Oh, oh. I wondered when that was going to happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. Your Mum doesn’t approve of my Mum.”
“That’s nonsense. My mother is just reserved that’s all.”
“Your Mum ignores my Mum altogether. She always avoids her. At the temple she keeps far from her.”
“That’s not true.”
“Oh yes, it is. Kamala and I always do our best to protect Mum. My Dad is so proud of the way Mum has adapted to Tamil customs that he only sees her outshining all the other women. He doesn’t see some of them sniggering.”
Logan was silent. He had heard his aunts, Salatchie and Ambigay, making fun of Aunty Jean. He put it down to their narrow-mindedness. He had never heard his mother or aunt Thamyandhi mocking Aunty Jean. Bala was probably bitter because Parvathy, one of Kamala’s friends, had rejected him despite the fact that he had his mother’s white skin and golden brown hair.
When they arrived at the cafè, they found Vasu sitting at one of the little tables. The usual teasing light was missing from his downcast eyes and his mouth was pulled into a kind of snarl.
“Hey, what’s up, Vasu. Man look at you. I don’t know if I should hang around you guys today. You both look like murder.” Bala grinned and went off to get cokes from Uncle Deva who was on duty.
“What’s bothering you, Vasu?”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do?” Vasu was sullen. “I’m in a fucking bind.” Logan waited for him to continue. Bala came back, set the cokes down, pushed the back of the chair to the table, swung his leg over the seat and settled down.
Taking one look at his friends, he shook his head. “If you two are holding a wake, I think I’ll go and get some action at the billiard table.”
Vasu pulled his tall frame up. “Yeah, let’s play. I need distraction,.” And they went over to the table. The cafè was not too busy so Uncle Deva sat down with Logan.
“The Club not meeting today?”
“No Sinuppa, we’re not playing tomorrow.”
“When’s your next game?”
“Next Sunday. We’re playing Cambridge.”
“I suppose it’s going to be a dirty fight with those bastards.”
“We’ve got our own strongmen. We can handle it.”
“No, don’t tell me that. I can’t forget how the gang followed you home and tried to beat you up. If me and Soma and Vadivel didn’t come out and chase them off, I doubt you’d still be playing soccer.” He turned his gaze to Vasu and Bala. “What’s the matter with Vasu? He’s been sitting here for an hour now with his face all pulled up.” He looked at his nephew. “You t o. Why you look so sour?”