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Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

[“Aththai” is the Tamil word for Aunt. “Bhuvaa” in Hindi]

“Oh, I don't know what is going on. Your Atthai is being so difficult today, of all days! The in-laws are coming for dinner, can't she help even a little bit?” Bhuvana complained to Raghavan, grabbing the television remote control from his hand. “Mom! I am in the middle of the match. What the hell?” Raghavan asked, irritated. He was busy watching a cricket match. “There is so much work to do Raghava, and your Atthai apparently wants to go to the beach today.” “Where? To the beach??” asked Raghavan, a bit confused. “Exactly! Can you believe that? She is becoming crazier by the day!” “Okay, let me go talk to her”, Raghavan said, getting up. He turned the television off, and walked towards the backyard. Atthai was folding the clothes that had been hanging on the clothesline. She appeared a bit angry, and also a bit upset. Tears started to flow from her eyes as soon as she saw Raghavan. “Your Mom is being so unfair. Most of the cooking is done; can’t your mom take care of the rest? I just can't go on like this, Raghava. I am feeling so restless since this morning, can you take me to the beach, please?” Raghavan was moved, seeing Atthai tearing up like this. She had seemed ill at ease the whole week. She is not someone who would open up and talk to anyone easily; she would just bottle up things inside and let them fester. “Ok, Atthai. Relax. Why are you getting worked up over this? I will talk to Mom. Let her handle the rest. I will take you to the beach.” Atthai is not the needy, demanding type, nor she is ever reluctant to help with the housework. She is more than sixty years old now. She had worn herself down working for this family, and still continues to do so. She is the unpaid help in this house. She never got married, so she has no one else to support her. She never went to college and got an education, so she didn't have a job. She just stayed at home. As long as Grandfather, her father, was alive, the family treated her with some respect. Since he passed away, Aththai has no voice at all in the house. Since both Mom and Dad go to work, all of the housework, chores and errands fell on Aththai's shoulders. Mom would occasionally drop by the kitchen that was all. 'Do this! Do that!’ she would order Aththai around, and make her do all the work. It was Atthai who raised the kids, Raghavan and Sumathi. That is why both the kids are so fond of her. They are the only ones in the family who would speak up for Aththai. Raghavan is on his way to become a doctor and Sumathi, his older sister, finished college and is now working in the United States. Her marriage was fixed the previous month, and the prospective groom is also in the States.


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

The wedding is in two weeks time, and things are busier than the usual. With friends, relatives, the in-laws, other visitors and vendors dropping by all the time, Atthai has twice as much work as usual. “Mom, Atthai can't do everything all the time. She needs a break too, doesn't she? You take care of the rest. I am taking her to the beach.” “Oh, why did I even bother asking you? Go, both of you, do you care at all? The in-laws are coming, shouldn't you be at home?” “Oh, for heavens sake! They have been here a thousand times before. This is not the first time, is it? Don't be so dramatic!” said Raghavan, silencing Bhuvana. “Yeah, Shut me up all the time!” Bhuvana said, exasperated, and walked away. “Are you ready, Atthai?” Raghavan looked at Aththai and smiled. “Hmm”, nodded Aththai. “Give me a minute”, she said and went to her room. Raghavan put on his shirt, grabbed his car keys, and went towards the front door. Just as he started the car, Atthai was there too. She was holding her songbook, just as he had expected. “That's what I thought, Atthai”, he laughed, teasing her, “Your songbook and your old black and white photograph, isn't it? This is going to be a long trip. “Oh come on now!” she said, feigning anger.

Atthai is very well versed in Carnatic music 1; it is her main and only source of peace, stress relief and happiness. When she sings, from Kaapi to Kaanada2, her mesmerizing voice flows and fills the listener’s soul. At times when Aththai wants to be alone, her songbook is her only companion. She would go to the rooftop, sit in a corner, and sing for hours together. She would forget where she is, what she is and get totally immersed in her music. Most times when she is singing, she would be looking at her highly preserved treasure in her Songbook, an old black and white photograph from the 50s. Aththai was eight years old when it was taken. In the photograph, she is wearing a silk skirt and a blouse, her hair is braided and shining with oil, a beautiful Bindi 3 is on her forehead, flowers are adorning her head, and she is smiling very innocently. Next to her, in the photo, was her grandmother, in Madisaar Saree 4. Her grandmother was Aththai's music teacher, her guru. Next to the grandma, was another beautiful girl, the same age as Atthai. She was dressed in a silk skirt and a blouse similar to Atthai.

1

Carnatic is South Indian Classical Music. Kaapi, Kaanadaa are some of the famous raagaas in Carnatic music. 3 Bindi – Round, color dots in the forehead 4 Madisaar Saree – Traditional South Indian attire wore by Brahmin women 2


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

“Rukmani, my best friend from childhood.” Every time Aththai says Rukmani's name her eyes light up. “Yes, Atthai, you have told that a million times by now.” Sumathi and Raghavan would make fun of her “Where is Rukmani now, Atthai? Do you think she would remember you?” “Wherever she may be, she will definitely remember me”, Atthai would reply, with so much confidence. --------“Marukelara , O Raghava, Marukelara” 5, sang Grandma in her deep voice. “O Raghava, Marukelara”, Krishnammal joined in, at the next line. “Marukela chara, chara roopa para ,raaa aaa” “Stop, stop”, interrupted Grandma. “If you are in tune, you miss the beat. If you follow the beat, you are out of tune. What are you singing, Krishna?” she berated her. “Ayyo! I am sorry Grandmaa! I wasn't paying attention. Let us start again”, pleaded Krishna. Meanwhile there was someone at the door. “Go! Go and see who it is”, Grandma said. Krishna got up and walked to get the door. “Is Charu Maami 6 there?” asked a woman as she entered. There was a young girl holding on to the woman's saree, timid, staring with her wide open eyes. Round face, chubby cheeks, light complexion, and a very beautiful smile. “Namaskaram ”7 the woman greeted Grandma, smiling at her. “Come in, I was expecting you. Is this your daughter? What is your name, Sweetie”, asked Grandma looking at the young girl. “Rukmani”, said the girl, giggling. “What a wonderful name. You are as beautiful as your name indicates” said Grandma, making a gesture to ward off the evil eye. “Come here and sit, today is an auspicious day. Finding a Wednesday is rarer than finding gold8 " she said as she made Rukmani sit next to Krishna. 5

Marukelara is a famous Carnatic Keerthana Maami is a common word used to address an elderly Brahmin woman 7 Namaskaram – Traditional way to greet elders. Hindi equivalent is “Namaste” 8 Wednesday refers to Planet Mercury and considered very auspicious. The saying finding a Wednesday is rarer than finding gold refers to the difficulty in spotting Mercury in the sky. 6


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

“This is my granddaughter Krishnammal, we call her Krishna. Rukmani, now that you have joined us, both of you should out do each other in learning music.” “Ok, Grandma”, said Krishna and Rukmani. From the very moment Krishna saw Rukmani, she was very fond of her. --------“Atthai, you seem lost?” Raghavan asked.” Are you here? Hello!" Krishna Atthai looked at him, losing her train of thought. “It’s nothing,” she said, softly. “Something is wrong. You don't seem to be your normal self. I have been watching you for a week now. What is going on? Tell me.” “Oh, nothing, really” “Did Mom say something? Let me know, I will talk to her” “Hey, no sweetheart, nothing is the matter.” Atthai didn't give in. Raghavan's cell phone started ringing. “Sumathi”, he exclaimed and put his phone on speaker. “Hello Sumathi!” “Hey man! How are you?” “I am fine. Atthai and I are on our way to the beach now. She is here with her songbook!” he laughed. “Oh no! Atthai, is everything okay? If you want some time off with your song book, that means something is going on,” Sumathi said. “Everything is okay dear. I was feeling a bit moody; I wanted to take a break. How are you doing?” asked Atthai. “I am fine, Atthai. I got a promotion at work. I called since I wanted you to be the first to know.” “Is it? Congratulations my sweetie! I am so proud of you. May you do better and better in life!” Atthai beamed. “Thank you, Atthai. You were the one who impressed upon me from childhood that women should study, get a job and be independent. It is because of you, I am where I am today. All the credit goes to you,” said Sumathi.


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

“It is all because of your effort honey. What did I do? I did not study myself; your grandfather told me to study, but I didn't listen. If I had gone to college and gotten a job, my situation would have been totally different now,” Atthai's voice lowered. “So what Aththai? You are no less to anyone! And you have us, we both love you”, Raghavan reached Aththai and grabbed her hand as a sign of assurance and support. ---------

Krishna and Rukmani had become very close friends. Their friendship continued to grow with time. From going to school, to practicing music, they did everything together. If Krishna was sick, then Rukmani would not go to school either. If Rukmani was upset about something, Krishna would be miserable. The previous year, when Rukmani had gone to the village for a month to visit her aunt, Krishna even contracted a fever, unable to stand the separation. “You two seem to be tied at the hip! What will you do when you get married? I think we just have to get you both married to the same boy” Grandma Charu would tease them. “Oh Granny! Stop!” 17 year old Krishna and Rukmani would say, embarrassed. That night, on the rooftop, under the moonlight, Rukmani shed tears. “When you get married, will you forget me?” “You silly! Definitely not,” Krishna consoled her. “Forget about marriage, my father told me that high school is enough, and I need not study further. I cannot go to college. You will be going to college soon, with new friends, a new life. I am sure you will forget me.” “Who said I am going to college? I plan to stay right here. There is so much more for us to learn in music,” Krishna said, holding Rukmani's hands. She then told Grandma the same. “Why? Are you mad? Your father himself is asking you to go to college, what is your problem?” Grandma scolded her. “Not everybody lets their daughters go to college, you should grab the opportunity” “I am not going to college Grandma. Rukmani is not going to college, so I am not going either.” “What nonsense! If she drinks cow's urine, would you drink it as well?” “Yes, I would!” “Oh, for heavens sake! You are completely mad.” “We are going to continue learning music together” said Krishna.


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

“Just you wait and see. If you do not go to college, your father is going to marry you off “ Grandma said with certainty. ---------

Atthai's face looked a little relaxed after talking to Sumathi. Raghavan's car had almost arrived at the beach by then. “Only two more months left until Sumathi's wedding, Raghava! I am counting days, I can’t wait to see her in the wedding dress.” Atthai’s face lit up. “That’s right, Atthai. You and Mom are going to cry buckets, that much is sure.” “Oh, you always keep teasing me.” When he was a kid, Raghavan, not knowing better, had asked Atthai why she never got married. “Ass! What kind of a talk is this? Beyond your age!” said Mom, who was standing nearby. She knocked him on his head to shut him up. Atthai would never answer questions like these, she would just remain silent. Much later, when he was old enough to understand, Mom explained it to him one day. “As it is, your Atthai has Mars in a bad position in her horoscope. On top of that, she apparently kept saying No to marriage. To make things worse, the first time a groom's family came to see her, there was a death next door. Just your Atthai's luck! The groom's family went away considering that as bad omen. The news spread throughout the town, everyone started saying your Aththai is unlucky. It was the 50s, what do you expect? No one came forward for marriage. She then became too old. Don't ask her about all this, she would get very upset. I knew only because your father told me.” Poor Atthai. She doesn't have a life to call her own. She is dependent on her brother's family out of necessity, and is living a menial life. Food, clothing and shelter; everything is at someone else's mercy. She never had any likes or dislikes, and even if she did, she never spoke about them. Raghavan used to wonder often how anyone could live like this, like an ascetic. Raghavan and Aththai got out of the car. There was a lovely breeze blowing from the beach, soothing to the body and the mind. “Shall we go in the water, Atthai?” “No dear, come let us walk this way. I want to go near the Labour Statue9.” “Sure, let us go”, Raghavan, agreed, but he did not really understand. Atthai's behavior was a bit strange today. Atthai is never one to insist so particularly on doing anything or going anywhere. He was curious.

9

Labour Statue is a famous Landmark in Marina beach, Chennai


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

Both of them walked down the beach and reached the Labour Statue. The area seemed more crowded than usual. Some people in the crowd looked a bit different. They were wearing very colorful clothes. It seemed like some kind of a big gathering. Raghavan went closer and looked at them. It was a mixed crowd, with middle-aged people, youngsters and seniors. The place was overflowing with journalists and a television crew. They had surrounded an enthusiastic, geeky looking, young man and were asking him questions. Raghavan went near them and listened. "Your name please” asked the reporter. “Aniruddhan Vasudevan” the young man said. “What is this gathering?” “We are here for the Chennai Rainbow Parade. This is a gathering to create awareness among society about Homosexuals, Bisexuals, Hijras10, and other Sexuality Minorities.” Raghavan lifted his head up and looked around. He could see some Hijras as well, along with the men and women. He immediately realized - Gay Parade! Damn it! It is not like Atthai comes to the beach every day, she rarely comes here. Just when she wanted, look at this! They had to have this parade, today out of all days! "Grrrr" He was disappointed. “Atthai, let us not stay here, let’s go to the other side.” Raghavan didn't want to get into the details. How could he explain all this to Atthai? It was best to just move away from here. “No. Wait a bit” Atthai said, innocently, not comprehending. Meanwhile, the people who had gathered there started their procession. In a couple of minutes, the entire beachside was filled with colors. Each one of them took up a banner, a poster or a balloon. They started moving, chanting slogans. “Oh Atthai, you won't understand. Let us walk somewhere else please,” said Raghavan, dragging her by her hands. “No Raghava! Stay here please” said Atthai, pressing his hands hard. Atthai's hands were shaking. She was visibly perturbed. Raghavan stared at her face in confusion.

10

Hijras – Transgenders


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

The procession started moving forward. The slogans got louder. “Hues may vary, but humanity doesn't” “My gender, my right” “We are people too, let us live our lives” “Our love will speak its name henceforth” “Minorities Rights, Human Rights” “Does love know any boundaries?” “Can love be Shackled?” Confusion reigned up and down the beach. People watching were clueless. What is going on? Who are these people? What do they want? Everyone was standing around, looking at each other in puzzlement, and mumbling to each other. Atthai was watching the procession, and didn't move a muscle. She quivered, and tears were pouring down her face. Raghavan heard that she was murmuring something non-stop. Not able to hear her properly in the noise of the crowd, he moved in closer. “Atthai, What happened?” he panicked. “Rukmani, my Rukmani”, Atthai was saying repeatedly, her eyes now full of tears. “What are you saying, Atthai?” Raghavan shook her gently. “The day the prospective groom's family came to see me, it was Rukmani, my Rukmani, who burned herself to death next door” Atthai said, choking " It was my Rukmani who killed herself, heart broken, that day." Raghavan was stunned. He did not expect this in the least. Oh God! What is Atthai saying? The death next door was that of her friend Rukmani? “Atthai, Atthai, I don't understand”, Raghavan said, thoroughly shaken. What Atthai felt for Rukmani – Is it love? Is that why she remained single forever? “Yes. Rukmani wasn't just my friend, she was my lover. I did not understand that myself. Our relationship was a mixture of love, lust, romance, affection, attraction, and passion, everything Raghava! Rukmani loved me immensely and I, in turn, loved her with my life. Neither of us understood it, though. I tried to suppress my feelings, since I did not understand how love between two women was even possible. At the same both of us couldn't dam this love, which sprang from within, it was beyond our control. We could not acknowledge it either. When the groom's family came to see me, afraid that she was going to lose me forever, Rukmani lit herself on fire and killed herself” said Atthai, blubbering like a child. Raghavan was standing thunderstruck.


Aththai By Shridhar Sadasivan In English: Niruj Mohan

“Rukmani, Rukmani was my lover. I have never uttered these words even to myself. I had been suffering all these years, bottling it up within. I have been racked with agony that I never got a chance to say these words to my Rukmani, the love of my life. Not even once could I tell Rukmani that I loved her like she loved me. Coming here today, and being a silent part of this parade, makes me feel like I have finally said that to Rukmani. I could feel her presence here. It was suffocating me, I couldn't control myself, that is why I had to say her name aloud!” Atthai said, breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably. Raghavan hugged Atthai tightly. “Oh Atthai, what a horrible tragedy is this? How did you manage to keep this locked up within you for so long?” he said, patting her back with affection, his eyes were filled with tears. At that moment, he did not even attempt to judge whether Atthai's love was right or wrong. ---------

May 2008 will be remembered as sad yet memorable month in the history of LGBT movement in Tamilnadu. Two women Christy and Rukmani from the lower economic class, committed suicide (burnt themselves!) because their families did not let them live their lives and accommodate their love for each other. This story of Krishna and Rukmani is a tearful homage to the charred flowers of love, Christy and Rukmani.

Profile for Gaysi Family

Athai  

Athai (அத்தை/Aunt) is a 60 yr old orthodox Tamil-Brahmin woman. She never went to college, never got a job, never got married. She lives wit...

Athai  

Athai (அத்தை/Aunt) is a 60 yr old orthodox Tamil-Brahmin woman. She never went to college, never got a job, never got married. She lives wit...

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