Chapter-1 Her Death
“I am sorry she is no more,” said the doctor, and the entire family sank into mourning the loss of a significant member- Aunt Lali. She had been an inseparable part of the home, adored by the young and old alike for the past fifteen years. My mother had lost a companion, the younger womenfolk an affectionate second mother-in-law to look upon and the children, their second grandmother. She had been a great pillar of support and her absence meant an unfillable void. Had it not been for the sudden onset of the kidney disease, she would have survived for a few more years.
I still remember, Aunt Lali who arrived here two days after Mahesh’s wedding looking weary, famished and utterly devastated with a wound dressing on the face. With heavy heart, she revealed that Uncle Chandran had gone missing at the Chennai railway station while waiting for the train to Bilaspur. For two days, Aunt Lali hung alone in the massive city of Chennai running from pillar to post, looking for him. In the anxiety of searching him, she tripped and fell on a pavement and got hurt.
We did not want to give up on our Uncle, as nephews we too had a moral responsibility. I and Mahesh with aunt in tow set forth on a second search trial to Chennai to find our missing uncle. We filed a police complaint, and sifted the city with the help of the police, sparing no nook and corner but found no trace of him. As our attempts yielded no fruits, Aunt Mali’s life took a lonesome turn. In her helpless silence, we heard her implorations to take her along with us. After some deliberation, we considered her subtle pleas and gave our nod for her to live with us. She wound up her life in Kanchipuram and left with her possessions to spend the rest of her life with her extended family. Aunt Mali seemed somewhat chuffed, to begin a new chapter of life with us.
Chapter – 2 – Aunt Lali- The person
Aunt Mali was a naïve, docile and accommodating person. However some of her habits were irksome. She would unwittingly repeat what others said along with her term of assent that would sound pretentious. Her fixed gaze at anyone who spoke, ambulated or performed an action in front of her was intimidating! For the harmless nature and all the good in her, we gave a blind eye to her fallacies. She shared a great rapport with my mother that is her co-sister. They had got along very well with each other over since day one. Be it having meals together, lending hands in chores, shopping and going around they were picture perfect companions.
She also shared a great bond with the younger generation – our wives and children. Children would listen to her stories with interest and eat the food she served. She was affectionately called “Chinna Paati” by the children.
Once my wife lay sick in bed with high fever and body pains. It was Aunt Mali who came to our rescue. She fed her meals, gave medicines, baths and massages and nursed her back to good health. She donned the role of a perfect caregiver heeding every word of the doctor. Such that I did not mind brushing aside the cues of obscurity, that I had harbored in my mind regarding her character.
Uncle Chandran, on the other hand was a man with a caustic tongue. And to top it, were her absurd habits that drew snarky remarks from him. Sometimes, in a fit of rage he would hurl abuses and taunts at her much to her chagrin. Once his anger cooled down, he would cajole her back. Uncle’s health deteriorated with his age and the onset of Alzheimer’s. As days passed by, his condition began to worsen with frequent spells of memory loss. I had visited them with my mother a month before Mahesh’s wedding. He spoke to me normally in a moment, and then flinched from me like a stranger saying that he had a nephew who looked like me. Aunt Mali bore it all with an exemplary forbearance, and had never been happy in his company.
Aunt Mali had changed a bit since the time she came to live with us. She never demonstrated signs of grief over the absence of our uncle. On the contrary she seemed to be relieved and in a happy space. Somewhere in the corner of our minds, it made me and Mahesh wonder if Aunt Mali was a hand in glove in uncle’s disappearance. Whenever the topic of our missing uncle popped up, she would skedaddle with a stoic indifference. Her complexion had darkened a little and there was a scar on her right cheek. She said it was due to hyperpigmentation, as a result of medication she was on for a viral infection, which she had contracted a week before leaving for the wedding.
Chapter -3 -The Revelation
Like dutiful sons, we performed her last rites and carried out the subsequent rituals. We also invited some of her relatives for the final day ceremony. On the last day of the ceremony, the house got swollen with relatives from the either side.
After lunch everyone sat in the hall and scanning through some photographs which mother had fetched from her cupboard.
“With a dark skin she looks so much like Mali,” exclaimed one of her cousins.
“Mali, who is she?” I asked.
“Mali was the daughter of our estranged uncle”, said Nimi, the sister of Aunt Lali taking out a bunch of photographs from her bag. She held it to us as we watched with wonder.
Aunt Lali indeed had a cousin who was such a splitting image of her, unbelievable!
“This is news to us as we know only sparse details about her family. Please tell us more,” I urged.
“Ok,” nodded Nimi and went on.
“Mali was our first cousin, her father and our father were own brothers. She was slightly dark and had a mole on her right cheek. We grew up together in adjacent houses within the same premises in Trichy. Everyone reckoned Lali and Mali as look-alikes for their unmistakable resemblance. They often derived fun fooling people by faking their identities. As everything was going fine, there was a surprising turn of events. Our aunt got pregnant again after many years, which, according to uncle was God’s heed to their prayers and penance. Uncle was overwhelmed with happiness, sailing in the hopes of a male heir. His pangs of jealousy of not having a son like my father was going to be duly addressed. He wanted to leave no stone unturned in propitiating the atmosphere for his soon-to-arrive child. He consulted an astrologer who asked him to fetch the horoscopes of every member in the family. The horoscopes were thoroughly examined and one particular horoscope got pointed as the harbinger of evil to the clan and that was Lali’s. He laid the conclusions of the astrologer before my father and appealed to him to forsake Lali or to move elsewhere. Our family was furious and agreed to neither leading to a discord between the two. Not ready to take chances, they moved to Chennai to ward off Lali’s evil shadow on the unborn child. However things went askew as their child was stillborn, uncle lost a big sum of money in a business dealing and had to make ends meet with paltry earnings. Once, our aunt visited us unbeknownst to our uncle, and poured out her remorse before my mother. My mother reciprocated with wholesome warmth, consoled her and sent her back. Uncle died bequeathing the remaining money to his wife and daughter. Shortly after that, his wife, that is our aunt passed away. Mali was never married and led a recluse life in a shady tenement in Chennai. Last I met her was when our brother invited the near kith and kin to our father’s fiftieth year ceremony. Mali shared the melancholy of her impoverished condition with us. Her landlord had been snapping her with notice after notice asking her to vacate, she had run out of money and had nowhere to go. When Lali arrived, everyone was hailing the likeness of Mali and Lali, all the more due to Lali’s recent hyperpigmentation. Their bond rekindled and Mali invited Lali and her husband to halt at Chennai and stay with her during their trip to Bilaspur for their nephew’s wedding. Then she accompanied Lali to Kanchipuram, stayed at her house for a few days and then went back to Chennai. A week before the wedding, Lali and her husband landed at Chennai. The interval of eight hours for the train to Bilaspur was sufficient enough to touch base with Mali. She went to a telephone booth, called the number which Mali had given to reach her, and came to know that Mali had died in a cylinder explosion at her home. Distraught, she headed to the railway station, then settled the luggage and her husband in the waiting room. She went to a nearby canteen to buy some snacks and a water bottle, and when she returned, she found him missing!”
Chapter-4- The conclusion
Her narration came in like a jolt to me. I subtly gathered the details about where Mali resided in Chennai. After they left, I searched through the internet and traced Mali’s location. I enquired a few businesses and real estate agencies in and around that area over the phone. I inferred that there was one such building and there had been a fire accident that caused considerable damage to the already dilapidated building. It was purchased by a builder, mowed down and replaced by a new structure. The facts were verified to my reassurance but then, this was not enough.
Strangely, Mahesh’s wedding, our uncle going missing and Mali’s death in the fire accident- all these events coincided.
Then I began to connect the dots and frame the picture. Aunt Mali had never been dead. She was only looking for a way to come out of her misery. On meeting Lali, a plot began to frame in her mind. She familiarized herself with every meticulous detail of her life during her stay with aunt Lali. In Uncle’s Alzheimer’s she found a perfect ploy to abscond an incorrigible chauvinist. In Aunt Lali’s resemblance she found her own identity. With that in mind, she invited them over to her place. When our aunt and uncle visited her, she briefly hosted and sedated them. She safely appropriated the belongings that she needed for her further journey and life. Then she leaked the gas pipe, and let the fire to start. With this she destroyed every proof of her existence and assumed the identity of her cousin. To reinstate the fact, she even got a mole removal procedure done. She was one hell of a mastermind criminal in disguise!
In all these fifteen years, little did we have an inkling that an unknown imposter had been living with us and we had allowed her to become a part of our subsistence. However, she did us no harm and had always stood by us in the good and the bad almost like a true well-wisher. She had donned the roles of a mother, an aunt, a grandmother and a companion. She had been suffering from poverty, neglect and lonliness. All she needed was a roof above her head, two square meals and someone whom she could call her own. And she found it perfectly in Lali, whose identity and idiosyncrasies came to her advantage, in which she found an opportunity to make a life out of.
But then, we had been deprived of our uncle and aunt quite obliviously, and the bloody murder was unpardonable. A predicament hard to digest and live with, a compromise not easy to make. All we had to believe that there was a woman in our house who was in need, we gave her shelter, she served us dutifully and we remitted her dues.
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