By Rudy Ravindra
Professor Ranga Rao taught physics at Bangalore university. He used to give the same lectures semester after semester. So much so, he didn’t need to prepare for his classes, and lectured extemporaneously on Ohm’s law or Raman spectrum or whatever was the topic of the day. His day was prosaically predictable with teaching, meeting students during his office hours, and attending faculty meetings. His leisure hours were spent in his garden. He enjoyed handling plants, pruning, adding fresh soil and fertilizer, and watering. He was passionate about his garden, and proud of the colorful flowering bushes in his small backyard.
When he retired from the university, gardening became his full time hobby. But how much could he do in such a small patch, measuring about one thousand square feet? He had yellow, red, white, orange roses, three different varieties of jasmine, marigold, hibiscus, lilies, and many others. Every year he added more plants to his precious patch, and enjoyed seeing them take root, grow slowly but steadily, and finally yield bright blossoms. He used to say that the plants sleep in the first few months after planting, then they creep during the subsequent months, and in a burst of growth spurt they leap.
Poornima, his poor, long suffering wife put up with the professor’s fads and foibles. He never had time for anything else, only gardening or reading gardening books. He never took her to movies, never took her to restaurants, never took her shopping, never took her on vacations to Ooty or Goa, not even to nearby Mysore to see the famous Brindavan Gardens and the Chamundeshwari temple on the lovely Chamundi hills. The professor, for an otherwise smart man, was obtuse when it came to his wife. He never did learn to read her mind. He didn’t know that from time to time he should pamper her, bring flowers and sweets, take her out shopping for new saris or jewelry. He felt that he did his duty by letting Poornima run the household, manage the bank accounts, and take care of everything else. He kept his mind clutter-free, to better plan his precious garden.
While growing up Poornima had so many dreams. She dreamed of a well-educated husband, she dreamed of a big house in a good neighborhood, and she dreamed of romantic evenings with a loving partner. Although most of her wishes were fulfilled, yes, her husband a respected academician, their spacious house, a bright boy who held a good job in information technology. Rohit, just twenty five, made more money than his father, who at that age was still struggling to get his Ph.D. degree. Even at the end of his long, illustrious career, the professor’s salary was no match to his son’s.
Few days after the wedding ceremony, Poornima moved into this house. It was a typical joint family, comprising of her in-laws, her husband; a sister-in-law, happily married, lived with her husband in an apartment not too far from the house. The house was built by the professor’s grandfather. Now, only Poornima and the professor lived in that cavernous space. Rohit moved to an apartment, close to his work. Her in-laws’ rooms were eerily empty, and some of their belongings were still in the closets; the professor was loath to get rid of them after his parents passed. And Rohit’s vacant room. Although she missed her son, she didn’t blame him for moving out. The long, arduous commute, the smog, the pollution of the burgeoning Bangalore city were taking their toll. The boy hardly slept for six hours, left to work early in the morning, and returned home late in the evening. Now he had more time for his band, played in a nightclub in the weekends. At his invitation, his parents went to the band’s performance. The mostly young crowd was boisterous, drinking and dancing. The old couple felt out of place, also jazz was not something they were used to, having been brought up on a steady diet of Carnatic music.
The professor, now retired, had ample time at his disposal. He sat in his garden and pondered. He felt like he was in a valley, surrounded by high-rise apartment complexes on all the three sides of his garden. With sun light scarce, his garden didn’t do too well these past few years. The rose bushes refused to grow robustly, and refused to yield beautiful blossoms. The slender jasmine flowers were not as fragrant, and the hibiscus wilted even before they bloomed. His heart ached at the sad sight of his once-lovely garden. His was the last independent house on this street, and his small garden was one of the few green patches in the midst of the rapidly expanding concrete jungle of Bangalore. After the older generation passed the heirs sold the lovely, old houses to greedy developers who promptly bulldozed the centuries-old bungalows. The rich colonial architecture was reduced to rubble to erect ugly urban edifices. The peaceful streets of yester year were now filled with the cacophony of blaring horns, thundering lorries, sleek imported automobiles, and motor bikes. The pedestrians were in mortal danger of being run over by rash drivers. Every square inch of the land was used to build, and sidewalks were things of the past.
The professor pondered. Maybe he should heed his friends’ advice, sell the house, and let the contractor build a multistory complex. He might be able to persuade the contractor to give him a three bedroom unit at a discounted rate. But how could he bear to destroy his garden, a garden he spent a lifetime nourishing, watching each and every plant take root, and grow and blossom—sleep, creep, leap. He put the unbearable and unthinkable idea aside, and started to think of how to further beautify his garden. Sitting in his quiet garden he looked up to see the residents’ laundry drying in the balconies, and a few potted plants on the window sills. His eyes met that of a young lady who always greeted him on the street with a big smile. “Hello, uncle, how are doing today?” as if she really cared. He nodded and smiled at her, she waved and smiled. He resumed browsing his gardening magazine. A picture caught his eye, flower beds surrounded by colorful stones—blue stones, black stones, pink stones, and so many other colors. He thought, why not buy some of these stones to make a similar pattern around the rose bushes first. If he liked the effect, he might consider doing something similar around other flowering bushes. A website was listed, in this day and age who didn’t have a website, even his old barber on the seventh cross road had one. He got his laptop, a gift from his computer-savvy son, typed the URL, and the website popped up. So many varieties of stones, some affordable, and some very exorbitantly priced. He chose a few—a Lingham natural stone, an oval shaped black affair, Stromatolite Gallet, an oblong coral-colored one, and a tear-shaped natural stone. He ordered a few of each variety, thinking that if he first did this stone arrangement on a small scale, he might get an idea of how to proceed further. No point going all out, spending a lot of money. The glossy, colorful pictures in these magazines always looked tantalizingly tempting. Within a few minutes he got an e-mail informing that the merchandise was on its way, and would reach him in about five working days.
Satisfied that he did something productive, he went inside to get a cup of coffee. With his cup in hand, as he was about to step down into the garden, he suddenly stumbled headlong on the floor. Poornima heard the clink, tinkle of glass breaking, and the thud of a body hitting the concrete floor. She came running to see smithereens of the cup, coffee spilt all over the floor, her husband motionless, and looked as if dead. She immediately bent down, put her ear to his chest, and felt no breathing. She then proceeded to do CPR on the lifeless body, but it was useless. He was definitely dead. She was baffled at this shocking event. Her husband had no health issues, always hale and healthy. She postponed her cogitations, controlled her emotions, picked up the phone, called the ambulance service, and then her son. At the hospital the doctor pronounced him dead on arrival, probably due to cardiac arrest.
The professor was an atheist, he never stepped into the puja room where his mother prayed every morning, and avoided all temples. Poornima was ambivalent about God and religion, but to please her mother-in-law, she participated in the daily puja. But after the matriarch’s death, the puja room collected dust, and the brass and silver idols were left to tarnish. Poornima didn’t take the trouble to polish them to maintain the sheen, like she used to during her mother-in-law’s time. The room was kept bolted.
The professor left strict instructions in his last will and testament that religious ceremonies after his death should not be conducted. No purohits chanting incomprehensible Sanskrit slokas, and no feeding hundreds of relatives and friends on the tenth day after his death. He stipulated that his body be cremated, and the ashes scattered in his garden. Close relatives and friends visited Poornima to convey their condolences. Rohit took leave for a few days to be with his mother. Usha—the professor’s older sister, who lived just a few blocks away, dropped in every day to give moral support to Poornima and Rohit.
One afternoon a small parcel was delivered. Rohit opened the package to see a variety of colorful, polished stones. They were smooth to touch and cool on the skin. It was a rather hot muggy day, he enjoyed the soothing feel of the cool stone on his cheeks.
Usha said, “These are lovely.”
“Your father’s name is on the package. He must have placed the order. I don’t know why he purchased these stones.” Poornima was baffled.
Rohit was equally puzzled. “I don’t know, mom. He must have ordered just before his, his…” He lowered his head and bit his lip, but his moist eyes said it all.
Usha patted her nephew. “You gotta be strong for your mother. Now she has you only.”
Poornima nodded her head in agreement. She absent-mindedly rubbed a smooth oblong stone on her forearm where she had a persistent rash. It felt cool, gave her a momentary relief from the itching sensation. She felt as if the redness abated a bit. She liked the feel of the cool stone on her forearm, went on rubbing the affected area gently.
The next day Usha noticed that Poornima’s rash was almost gone. “This is a miracle! The stone cured your rash! It’s cured! Oh! My God! This is a miracle!”
Rohit said, “Aunty, the stone must have prevented mom from scratching. The stone is cooling the area around the rash, so, she feels no itching sensation. Once she stopped scratching, the rash cleared up. Don’t you agree, mom?”
“I don’t know, Rohit. But whatever it is, this really helped me. I’ll keep these stones in a safe place, Might come in useful. I get these rashes whenever the seasons change.”
Usha, a well-known gossip—people called her All India Radio, spread the word of the of mystic powers of the soothing stones, and how they cured skin disorders. Pretty soon, people were talking about this sensational stone in the street corners, in the vegetable market, in the Janata Hotel where hot, crispy dosas, and fluffy idlis were served, and near the Ganesha stores where sweet hot almond milk, and tasty sweets and savories were on offer. And then it was only a matter of time that people from all walks of life lined up in front of the professor’s house to seek the stones’ solace. Poornima was overwhelmed. So many people clamoring for this so-called cure. She was uncomfortable at the superstition of these ignorant people. She had some harsh words for her meddlesome sister-in-law, but bit her tongue out of respect for the older woman. The neighbors called the police to control the crowd.
Usha rushed to Poornima’s house, and negotiated the throngs of people to enter the house. Rohit drove all the way from work, but couldn’t find a parking spot near the house, he had to park in the next street. All three looked at each other.
Poornima looked at Usha. “What do we do now?”
Usha was happy at the publicity, to be in the limelight, and happy to be Poornima’s spokesperson. “Not to worry, not to worry. You know I am a good lawyer. I’ll handle it.”
She went out of the house, stood at the heavy wrought iron front gate, and spoke calmly to the clamoring crowd,. “Sorry to keep you all waiting. We must respect the dead. Some of you may not know that my brother passed away recently. My sister-in-law is in mourning. She is the owner of the mystic stones with curing powers. The stone has no power if anybody else but my sister-in-law handles the stone. In her hands only the stone has the curing powers. Let us give her some time to mourn her loss. She will start the sessions in a few weeks, when she is less distraught. In the meanwhile, I encourage you all to make appointments to meet with my sister-in-law. We will set up a website soon, we will give all the details, hours of operation, etc. Okay, now you all go on home. Thank you for coming.”
Poornima and Rohit heard Usha’s short speech and marveled at her presence of mind. Usha came in beaming. “Poornima, you got hold of a gold mine. We can charge a reasonable fees for the cure. How about it?” She rubbed her hands in glee.
Poornima wrung her hands. “Now, now, Usha let’s not get carried away. You know how your brother abhorred all these superstitions that plague our society. How can we do, this, this…”
Rohit agreed. “Mom doesn’t need the money. Dad’s pension and his investments will be more than enough. And I’m earning a decent salary.”
Poornima said, “Absolutely no fees, no money. I will not take even a single rupee. If I do this, it will be to help people only. No money will change hands, Absolutely no cash.”
Usha laughed. “Poornima, you are not thinking right. You can become a millionaire, selling this cure for a very nominal fees. We will fix the fees according to a patient’s income. Don’t worry, we will have very proper, legal documents drawn up. Everything above board, not like those bloody babas, those charlatans, those self-appointed God men, who use all kinds of tricks to cheat people out of their savings, seduce unsuspecting widows, and rape young girls.” She shuddered. “No, no, no. We are not like that. We make no promises. We simply inform them how this stone might help. Sometimes it may not work, sometimes it will work. This is like any other medicine out there.”
Poornima vehemently shook her head. “No, no, no. I won’t take any money. No money. That’s it.”
Usha smiled. “Okay, okay. Don’t get all worked up. We will not take money.” She looked at Rohit. “This is your father’s legacy, you can start to set up a website, explain all about the miracle, hours of operation, etc., etc. Lot of work. I’ll be by your side to guide you. Remember we need to be legal, ethical, and above all honest. Your mother is doing this out of the goodness of her heart, not out of greed.”
Eventually, Poornima’s name was known far and wide. Patients came from all corners of the country, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Karwar to Kakinada. Her fame spread, she was a much sought after lady, and the stones gained a momentum of their own. People called her Poornima amma—a goddess incarnate with mystical powers.
Since it was made abundantly clear that Poornima amma would not accept money, not even a token payment of a few rupees, the patients began to offer fruits, flowers, grain and other commodities. Pretty soon the house was filled to capacity with all these offerings, the fruits began to rot, the flowers withered, rats began to nibble at the gunnysacks filled with rice or dal or wheat. The house became a warehouse brimming with all types of commodities.
Poornima couldn’t very well refuse these goodies. To refuse those offerings would be disrespectful, and hurt peoples’ sentiments. It was a custom among Hindus to offer fruits, vegetables, or grain when they visited holy men or women. Rohit came up with a brilliant plan to sell these to different businesses, flowers to florists, fruits to vegetable markets, and grains to provision stores. He set up a user-friendly website to announce what was on offer on a given day. Although he charged only a nominal fee, lot less than the prevailing market rate, he still made reasonable amount of money, certainly more than his monthly paycheck.
Eventually, Rohit had to quit his job to oversee this large undertaking.
The enterprise flourished, the stones became a prized possession, insured to the tune of a few crore rupees. Thanks to his father’s inadvertent legacy, Rohit’s life changed, from computer software to commodities trading.
Poornima, the accidental healer, found time to visit places of interest around the country, an opportunity she was denied when married to the constant gardener. However, the media savvy Usha portrayed these journeys of Poornima amma as a way to reach those of her followers who were unable to travel all the way to Bangalore. Usha would send an advance team to arrange the logistics—a tent, ushers, food, drink and other basic amenities for the fervent followers the amma. Realizing that to travel incognito was no longer possible, Poornima reluctantly acquiesced to her sister-in-law’s plan thinking that it didn’t hurt to travel in style, befitting a well-regarded healer.
Rudy Ravindra always wanted to be a writer, ever since he discovered Maugham, Greene and others. His near and dear told him to forget his pipe dream, become an engineer or a doctor, job security. Instead he became a scientist. Retired, now he is writing all the time, harassing hapless editors of on-line magazines. He is pleasantly surprised that a few editors accepted his prose.
He lives in Wilmington, NC. His prose was published in Step Away, The Prague Revue, Bewildering Stories, SouthernCrossReview, and others.
More at: http://rudyravindra.wix.com/rudy