Krishna looked at herself in the full-length mirror. Her dusky skin set off the shimmering golden-colored short dress to perfection. The delicate gold chain with the diamond pendant that hung from her slender neck enhanced her elegance. Matching solitaires blazed on her earlobes. She looked and felt radiant. She had just graduated from Yale School of Medicine.
Her parents had attended the graduation and were waiting to wave her ‘bye’ before driving back home.
Krishna knew the real reason was that Amma wanted to see her dressed for the party. After all the dress was her idea. She had felt that the golden gown would highlight her dark coloring.
While others like Krishna had suffered the pangs of being ‘dark’ in a country of whites, Amma had inspired her to be proud of her swarthy complexion. After all black was amma’s favorite color. Black and all its shades!
As a kid, she had asked her, the meaning of her name. Amma had replied with a quiet assertion, “Krishna means dark. Dark and attractive. It also refers to a person who can attract others.”
Amma had sat herself down to look into her eyes, gathered her in her arms, and said “I want you to live up to your name. Be proud of your color because Lord Krishna is also dark, just like you. I want you to be worthy of his name. I want you to be kind, and compassionate in this world, that is becoming uncaring and hateful. Promise?” She had stuck her hand out and little Krishna had slapped hard on it, sealing the pact.
For some reason, that promise had remained not just unforgotten. It had become the mantra of her life.
As she got out of her dorm, she saw amma and appa, waiting for her. Amma looked spectacular, her striking fair color contrasting with her black sari with a red border. The black and red neckpiece she wore with it added to her grace. Appa stood next to her in a dark grey blazer over formal pants. They made such a stunning pair, with their fair skins, long limbs, and luxuriant dark hair. Her friends called them the golden couple.
Krishna had suffered the pangs of being a dark and short kid to her contrasting parents. She had pestered her mom for the reason. Her mom had told her that maybe she got her color and height from her granddad, who was short and dark.
But Krishna’s further questions about him had resulted in one of amma’s ‘silent’ phases. Her mom never answered questions about their Indian roots or their grandparents.
In a teenage fantasy, Krishna had imagined how both her parents had fallen in love and ran away from their families to get married. How the grandparents had tried to break them apart and maybe that’s why they had migrated to the USA.
Many years later, Krishna had put to rest her vague suspicions that she had been adopted. She had got a detective to check her citizenship papers and he had confirmed to her that ‘Krishna’ had been listed as the natural-born daughter of ‘Parthiban’ and ‘Mridula’.
Her mom’s eyes lit up when she saw her. She kissed her on the forehead affectionately before leaving. Krishna waved to them and waited till she lost sight of their car and then went to join her friends.
She had been laughing at a friend’s joke when her mobile flashed with an ‘unknown caller’. She picked up the phone with the smile still lingering on her lips and said “Hey”.
That’s when her whole world crashed and broke into million little pieces.
Mridu and Parthi had lost their lives in a car crash, just an hour after they left her. Krishna had gone from a cherished daughter to an orphan in just a second.
Two months had passed by. All the rituals and formalities were finished and done with. But not her anguish. Would she ever stop grieving? Will the feelings of sorrow and hopelessness will ever cease?
She stood despondently at the window looking into their garden. The curtains blew in the wind and softly grazed her cheeks and she was reminded of the time they had shopped for them.
“Black curtains, Mridu? Seriously?” Parthi had asked.
Mridu was caressing the black fabric with grey prints, a soft smile on her lips. “Who makes the rules, Parthi. If I like black curtains who is to stop me?”
Krishna could see the dark green bushes through the window. They were dotted with small star-shaped white jasmine flowers whose petals had a reddish tinge. The wind brought up the haunting smell of the mullai flowers that flourished in their garden. The distinctive smell again brought back bittersweet memories of her parents. Her dad had told her about how Mridu had smuggled the plant into the country so that she could have a keepsake from home.
Amma used to neatly string the flowers into fragrant garlands which went on to adorn the neck of a huge Krishna statue in their puja room.
Now the flowers lay withered under the bush, bathing the garden with its sweet fragrance.
A fresh bout of tears welled up in her eyes.
The sudden sound of the door knocker brought her back to the present.
She found her mom’s best friend Lysha at the door. Lysha was an Afro-American. She came in and they clung to each other in silent grief.
Lysha took Krishna’s hand in hers and spoke softly. “You know your mom and I have been friends for some twenty years. We had met in the school canteen and she stood up for me when I was being bullied by the salesperson. Later she would joke with me that it was a kind of bigotry too because she loved my dark skin and was prejudiced against fair people.”
Krishna had a soft smile, as she nodded
“Do you remember she fell ill a couple of years back? That’s when she gave me this sealed envelope with instructions that I should hand it over to you if at all she passed away suddenly.”
Krishna looked curiously at the letter. Her name was inscribed neatly on the cover, in amma’s dainty hand.
Lysha patted her on her shoulder, gave her a tight hug, and left.
If you are reading this letter, then it means Appa and I are not alive anymore. I have always loved you so much. However, half-formed there is a secret that may change the way you think about me. But I want you to understand my point of view. If one of us had been alive, we still would have taken you to Coimbatore. Home! We would have explained why we did certain things. Why we took certain decisions about not taking you home earlier.
I know you have been very curious about your roots. You have wanted to know about your grandparents, mine and appa’s childhood, and our life before we came to the US.
I could tell you the story now. But then it will remain just that- A story.
Instead, I want you to undertake a journey to India and fulfill a promise I made. I am not sure if what I did was ethically right! But in my defense, my only motivation was love.
I want to absolve appa from all wrongdoings. He had lost both his parents at a young age and he has showered all his love on me and later, on you. Again it was his devotion for me that made him a silent partner in all my transgressions.
After knowing the story, If you think what I did was wrong, please do forgive me. Is excessive love for someone a bad thing? Is wanting to do your best for a loved one, a mistake? Is it a human flaw to try and keep the promises you made, even if it meant breaking legal and moral barriers?
I want you to undertake this journey with an open mind. In a way, my story involves black color. It is inexplicably linked to my obsessive love for black.
I guess Velu will explain everything to you. Velu of Jallipatti. I am sure he is the only one left who knows the true story. But Velu is an impractical, starry-eyed romantic. I am not sure if he has a mobile now! I am damn sure he would not have an Email-id.
So you’d better make arrangements with my cousin Selvi about your stay in Coimbatore. I have included her mobile number and email id at the end of this letter.
Assuring you of our love for you, always and always.
Saravanan was very angry with his mother, Selvi.
“Why should I vacate my room for some random stranger? Anyway, I don’t like these NRI kids who come from the USA. They are either annoyingly precocious and assume that Coimbatore is a village and we have no knowledge about the world. Or they are so irritatingly patronizing and talk about how much they love ‘villages’ and ‘cows’ and ‘temples’ and ‘sambar vada.”
Selvi did not seem to notice his anger. She said in a reflective voice “I had completely forgotten Mridula. After she went to the US, I have heard from her only once. I think it has been around twenty years since they left. Yes, You were around two then.”
Saravanan forgot his anger and asked curiously, “Who exactly is she?”
Selvi replied “Mridula was a cousin. Her dad was a rich farmer from Jallipatti. Mridu’s mom had died when she was born. So she was a pampered kid. When she needed to go to college, her dad put her in a hostel, here in Coimbatore. My parents were her local guardians and she would come home for most of the weekends. At first, I used to resent her. But slowly my respect for her grew. She was a sensitive soul, quiet and perceptive. She gradually became a good friend. For five years, till she finished her post-graduation, I would look forward to the weekends she would be home. Both of us had a crush on Surya, the film star, and would go to watch his movies. She would tell me all about her hostel life. We would discuss politics, movies, neighbors and relatives and of course ‘boys’.
Saravanan was listening intently. “I had already gotten married and you were born. It was around then, she married this guy called Parthi and moved to Chennai. I remember she had a girl baby and almost immediately, they moved to the USA. My uncle, her dad, passed away soon, and after that no news from her. But last year suddenly one day, I had a call from Mridu. She had got my phone number and email id from a common relative. We chatted for while”.
As Selvi reminisced, Saravanan listened spellbound.
“Yesterday, suddenly I had a call from this young girl called Krishna. She told me that she was Mridu’s daughter and that both her parents had lost their lives in a car accident. She is coming over. I have no idea what her plans are. But she asked me if she could be with us for a month.”
Krishna woke up and lay listening to the sounds in the house. She felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep and was completely out of her jetlag. But she felt shy to venture out of the room.
Selvi opened the door, peered in, and asked her if she wanted dosa for breakfast.
Soon Krishna was sitting at the dining table, eating crisp dosas with fresh-made coconut chutney and hot sambar, answering Saravanan’s questions in monosyllables.
Even though the name was etched in her mind, she pretended to consult her mobile before asking Selvi about Velu from Jallipatti.
Selvi looked at her questioningly and said “Jallipatti is the village your mom belonged to. Your grandfather had coconut farms there. I remember your mom had a best friend in Jallipatti. I think her name was Valli. Mridu would always buy gifts for her from here, whenever she went back to Jallipatti. If my memory is correct, Velu was this girl’s twin brother.”
Krishna hesitated before asking her “Is my grandfather alive now?”
Selvi exchanged uncomfortable looks with Saravanan before sitting down next to her and telling her kindly “I see that you have no news about them. Your grandfather had brought your mom up with lots of love. But when he died, some ten years back, your mom did not come. It caused a big scandal here.”
Krishna had sudden tears in her eyes. Her mom was one of the kindest people she knew. Why would she do that to her own dad?
Selvi continued “I am not very sure but I think the estate was sold to someone and Velu still manages it for the new owner.”
It was afternoon when Saravanan and Krishna left for Jallipatti. Saravanan was driving. The car had left the city and was running over smooth empty roads, lined on either side by tall trees with dark green foliage.
He looked at her sideways. He was intrigued by this quiet girl with sorrow in her eyes.
“Shall I play some music? Do you listen to Tamil songs?”
She turned towards him and said with a wistful smile “My mom used to listen to AR Rehman songs. I like them too.”
A stirringly, melodious song played on the car stereo. A garland of fresh jasmines adorned the god’s idol on the dashboard and its fragrance filled her with the familiar sweet smell of their home in the USA.
Krishna leaned back, closed her eyes, and remembered the quiet evenings, back home.
Rolling violet-colored hills appeared far away. The sky was a deep blue with puffy white clouds. Occasional small ponds with lotus flowers blooming in them came into view and vanished.
Krishna’s heart started hammering when she finally saw the board with the name ‘Jallipatti Panchayat.’
The farmstead was set deep inside a wooded enclosure. She imagined her mom as a young girl, playing in the verandah.
When Saravanan asked for Velu, the maid who was sweeping the outside pointed at a rough mud path, leading into the woods.
Saravanan stopped the car in the compound and they got out and walked. The birds were chirping all around and a cool breeze blew over them.
They soon came across a pond filled with lotus plants. Velu was sitting on a rock gazing into it.
When he turned back and his eyes rested on Krishna, he looked at her in consternation. He stood up awkwardly, still looking at her searchingly.
Krishna felt he looked familiar. As if she had seen him many times. Then, with a shock, she knew where! In her mirror. She looked so much like him.
After a period of uncomfortable silence, Krishna told him about her mom and why she had come to meet him.
He listened to her quietly. Then he cleared his throat and in a patient voice began talking.
“I think I’d better start at the beginning. My dad came to this estate as the overseer. Valli and I were twins and of the same age as Mridu. We hit it off instantly. Because all three of us did not have mothers, ours became a special bond. Initially, we went to the same village school. Valli and I got picked on at the school because of our dark skin. While I learned to deal with it, gentle and naive Valli was easy bait. The students took special pleasure in harassing her calling her Karuppi. Mridu, bless her soft heart, would always stand up for her, fighting her battles for her.”
A soft wind blew in. Three ducks floated serenely in the pond.
“I remember one particular evening when Valli had cried her heart out, lying on her bed because a boy at school had torn her notebook. He had declared that a karuppi cannot have a white book as her dark color would stick to it. Valli had sobbed her heart out, claiming that no one loved her because she was dark. Mridu took her hands in her own tiny ones and told her that she, Mridu loved black. It would be her favorite color forever and ever. And because Valli was black, she would always be her favorite person too. That was how Mridu’s obsession for black began.
The wind brought in the mitigated sounds of voices from the bungalow. But Velu did not even glance towards it. He continued his reminiscence.
“Valli and I stopped school and Mridu went to Coimbatore for college and came to Jallipatti only occasionally. But the bond we three shared did not lessen in any way. Our dad got Valli married to Mari from the next village, despite opposition from me. Mari began harassing Valli citing her dark color. But Valli being the sweet person she was, continued living with Mari regardless of the abuse. My dad passed away and I replaced him as the overseer. Mridu was my only friend those days. She would console me whenever I became depressed. But she too married Parthi and moved to Chennai. ”
The ducks squawked. An unknown bird cried plaintively from the trees.
“Within a year, Mridu came back to Jallipatti for her delivery. That was the time Valli was going to have a baby too. Mridu was admitted into the hospital. Valli was supposed to deliver at home. She was having a terrible time giving birth. Mari had made her abort the last two pregnancies because the village doctor had confirmed they were girls. This time Valli had hidden her pregnancy till it was too late.”
Velu winced as if those memories were painful.
His voice reduced to a whisper. “I remember it was raining hard that day. I got the news that Mridu had delivered a stillborn girl baby. Just then, Valli passed away after giving birth to a girl baby. Mari, who had come home for the delivery, eagerly looking for a son, was furious. He asked Chintamani, the midwife who was attending Valli to kill the girl baby.”
Velu sobbed at the memory, his voice going hoarse.
“I saw her bundle up the baby and take it out into the rain. That was my niece they were going to kill. The only trace left of my darling sister. I had to save her at any cost. With a vague, half formed idea in my mind, I chased her and gave her some money, and convinced her to let me have the baby. I ran through the rain, all the way to Mridu’s hospital, keeping the baby cuddled into my chest. When I told Mridu my plan, she immediately agreed. We exchanged the babies and I gave the body of Mridu’s dead baby to Chintamani to bury.”
His voice was coming as rasping sobs. Velu took a deep breath and continued.
“The rain continued unabated. It was only me and Mridu in the hospital that night. My heart broke when I knew that I had to part from my tiny niece. She was all that was left of my family. Through the night Mridu convinced me that she would bring her up as her own. That she would make her a sensitive, humane person, proud of her village roots. She would not let her color hinder her life in any way. She would educate her, maybe make her a doctor, and one fine day she would bring her to the village to meet me. ”
Unashamed, Velu let the tears flow. After a while, he collected himself, wiped his tears, cleared his throat, and went on.
“The doctor at the hospital wordlessly gave the birth certificate details to the municipality. But Chintamani, sensing an opportunity to make money, started blackmailing us. Just then Parthi got a job in the USA. They felt it was the best way to get out of Chintamani’s clutches and took up the offer.
After that, the only channel for communication was a friend from Coimbatore whose sister lived in the same city as Mridu. I came to know that Krishna, my niece looked so much like her mom, that one look at her and people would have no doubts about who she was. Chintamani too was waiting greedily for us to make a single mistake. A friend explained to me that if it was proved that there has been a false claim, Krishna’s US citizenship would be revoked and she may have to come back. So Mridu decided to never come to Jallipatti. She did not come even when her dad passed away. But Chintamani died last year taking the secret with her. I had sent word through my friend, asking Mridu to visit us along with my niece. I never thought that my angel, my friend, Mridu would pass away. Never thought I would never be able to see her again.”
As Velu wept uncontrollably, Krishna placed her arms around his shoulders and said “Don’t cry, Mama.”
Mullai: A variety of fragrant Jasmine flowers with a red tinge to the petals.
Karuppi: A Tamil slang word for a dark girl.
Learning: I had meant for Krishna to stunningly resemble Velu because Velu and Valli looked alike as they were twins. But a vague memory kindled in my mind. I googled and my inkling turned out right. A boy and girl twins very rarely look alike. If at all they do they would be afflicted with Turner’s syndrome.
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