Amma sat chewing on her customary paan, betel leaf and nut, till her mouth and teeth turned a crimson red and fragments of green nestled in the gaps between her teeth. She grinned and her mouth was a festive Christmas theme all gone wrong. I looked away and cleared the table after dinner. The Lord and Master had had his dinner and retired to his customary spot on the balcony. Contorting himself at an impossible angle, he leaned against the railing of the balcony, talking incessantly on his phone.
The telephone rang. Checking the caller id, I answered, for it was my friend, Rekha. I spoke softly into the receiver and the TV blared in the corner, updating us all on the condition of the Kulkarni family. Mrs. Kulkarni was declaring her daughters-in-law absolutely incompetent, while her sons stood in the background watching helplessly. The camera raced from one impossibly made-up face to a fixed one and then to an apoplectic one, when the Lord and Master walked in, folding the hem of his lungi, tying the ends in a tight knot.
‘Sarla!’ He snarled. I hastily put the receiver down.
‘You are just like Mrs. Reddy.’
Ah, the reference to Mrs. Reddy. Again. Irksome
I knew Mrs. Reddy. Anybody who was somebody knew her. She was this delightful woman who was everything a regular woman could never aspire to be. In a sea of illiterate and barely literate women, Mrs. Reddy had a Bachelor’s degree in Home Science. Oh! The exotic creature! In a world where women teamed up their silks with one faded black blouse, Mrs. Reddy had matching accessories. And her home! A study in elegance. From the store-bought curtains to the polished brassware, she was elegant, cultured, sophisticated and savvy. Such a far cry from the women who bunched their sarees around their flabby waistlines, hair tied up into awkward knots, a bunch of wilting flowers sitting awkwardly atop oiled heads, Mrs. Reddy was unique. She dressed like a dream, a movie star, and was the cynosure of all eyes.
So, it puzzled me no end. Why would the Lord and Master snarl at me while comparing me to this gorgeous creature?
It certainly was a compliment.
I sat at the table chopping vegetables for the next day. I worked in a bank and had to balance both work at home and outside. But, I don’t want to talk about that now.
Amma got up to get herself a cushion and as she walked back into the hall, scratching her head and inspecting the residue under her nails, I said, ‘Do you remember the dinner we had at Mrs. Reddy’s? I wonder what the recipe of her salad dressing is. Do you think she adds honey?’
Amma snorted. ‘Aiyyo. Malini can neverr stop yexperrimenting woenly. She and her barrr-coli, that green cauliflower and mushrooms.’ She spat out of the window and said, ‘Chee, mushrooms are fungusss, you know. Unclean. Aiyyo, thoo.’
I seized the opportunity. Someone had told me that if you want to get the dirt on someone, praise him or her to any random acquaintance.
I was not disappointed.
‘I believe Malini Reddy is so beautiful. What a lovely home she has! Mr. Reddy is so lucky.’
Amma launched off. I sat, mesmerized. When Amma gets her claws into someone, she can be merciless.
‘Maaaaalini is good and alllll. Wokay. Aaaal very nice woenly. Bootifool, you say, Yess. If you go to the booty parlarrr regularly, spending aaaal his moneyyyyy…
Cooking-aa? Yesss. She cooks. No orrrdinaree fud for her. All vegetabulls and frootsu. All Home Science naansensss.
Yesssss. And she has no shame woenly. Gossoooooooooooooooooout with her fraands and allllll. Sometimesss Mr. Reddy comes here woenly to have meals. He tells for mee.. aiyyo vaini, he calls me sister-in-law, you allwaysss make the bestu saammbbaaar and rice. Your vegetabulls are saaaft and I can swamp it in one go woenly…Malini never cooks the vegatabulls prraaperlee woenly. Yand she knows-aa that I am home for dinnerrrr, but she goes aaff with her best fraands to movies and restauranttts, she don’t care woenly.’
I held my breath.
Why was I like her?
Look at me. My drab existence.
Amma lowered her tone significantly.
‘Akchooly, Malini talks to all mens. She sits with them at the clubb, and talks sooooo much woenly. All we ladies we sitttt with each other woenly, but-aaa, this Maaleeneee, she crazy. She likes to talk to mens. She drinks wine alsooo. I sawd. With mice wone eyes woenly. Mr. Reddy lookeddd so hurrt, I feel sooooo bad for him. I made him special coffeeee that day…’
Amma droned on.
Oh. Now it made sense.
The Lord and Master didn’t like me speaking on the phone to Rekha.
He didn’t want me to have a life.
I worked because it suited him.
There. Now the reference to Mrs. Reddy made sense.
Well, I always liked Mrs. Reddy.
Now, I positively loved her.
The next evening I came home, changed and walked out calling out to Amma, ‘I’m going out to catch a movie with Rekha. And then dinner. Don’t wait up. Tell him to heat up the dal in the microwave.’
I ran into the Lord and Master who turned his scooter into the compound. I waved at a cosmonaut whose eyes almost popped. His blood pressure, I didn’t care to know!
Oh, boy! He now had Mrs. Reddy to reckon with. Wasn’t his wildest fantasy coming alive!