Cheriachen is sad. It is Christmas, a season to be joyful, and none of his children are around. It’s a day to be happy and jolly but he is not the least happy. He invited me for lunch on Christmas as my family was away and I went, as I am an acquaintance. We are related, yes, but a very distant relationship, in fact, he is a cousin four times removed.
The afternoon is a wintry cool, not too hot, not too cold, the plants in Cheriachen’s balcony dance in a complicated rhythm weaving patterns on the roof of his plaster-of-paris roof where Christmas baubles and streamers hang forlornly.
“There is no future in India. You know something? You should have gone abroad long ago,” he says morosely, “there is no happiness, no future here. Only sadness.”
“Then why didn’t you go?”
“See I could have gone. My brother is in the US, my daughter is in the US, a daughter is a nurse in Ireland, I can go and live with them even now, but I am comfortable in my life here, though I am not happy, I am not very unhappy here,” he says chastened.
“The same with me. I have learned to adjust. But I read there are guns in schools, violence, and racism, in fact, color discrimination, ten times that we have here.”
“What color discrimination? What are you talking? My daughters are as white as milk, put them next to the white Saiyips, you can’t tell the difference,” I forgot that Cheriachen and his children, though they were a darker shade of beige, considered themselves white, as white as an Occidental.
He pauses as his wife enters and offers me a cool glass of some colored water and Christmas cakes.
“How are you?” she asks me perfunctorily to which I give the standard answer. There is great tiredness and deliberation in her voice, as if she is not feeling too well.
“We were corporate employees. Our lives are gone. We get a pension, which is enough to make ends meet. Our children are enjoying the fruits of our labor.”
I remember, Cheriachen and his wife would walk the three kilometers from home to railway station every day, and not waste money on rickshaws. They would scrimp to the point of starving themselves, but they would save every extra Rupee. They taught their three daughters the value of thrift, and the children all grew to be responsible adults who knew the value of money, and, most importantly, how it is retained and not frittered away.
I know his routine nowadays as I live nearby. He goes for a walk in the morning, comes back exhausted, looks at an animated picture of a waterfall with sound effects, birds chirping, water falling on rocks, which the company he worked for gave him as a retirement gift. That’s all the nature he can afford in the concrete building in which he lives. The building is part of a complex named “Sahyadri,” in Vashi, New Bombay. Then he sleeps the whole day before he goes for an evening walk for purchasing groceries.
The phone rings insistently.
“Lillykutty, pick up the phone, it may be Jessy,” he says from where he sits. He has arthritis and a lot of other illnesses of old age, and is slumped in his chair, his chest collapsed into himself, his stomach protruding, and his face sagging with tissues that were once taut and healthy. His eyes have large circles under them due to sleeplessness, or, due to extra sleep. He sleeps all the time.
“It was difficult,” he reminisces, “bringing up my girls, the work was hard, I was a storekeeper you see, and if something is missing you have to take the rap. I slaved all these years.”
“Jessy is on the phone,” his wife Lillykutty says, “she wants to wish you.”
He gets up heavily from the chair and waddles to the phone re-tying his loose loin cloth around his waist. It had slipped.
“Haaaan, happy Christmas,” he cackles, “how is Shinymol? Fine? How is Joji? Fine?”
Static and an excited metallic voice at the other end.
Yes, he is happy for some time. But the happiness doesn’t last. His face droops again, his eyes again take a haunted look, he sinks into the chair.
“There, I mean in the US, they work only five days. And they don’t have to work like the company has bought our souls. They do their work and then go home. On weekends they go to beach resorts or holiday homes. If you don’t have a job the company pays you five hundred dollars a month, imagine. Around Rupees Twenty Thousand for doing nothing, just sitting at home. It’s not like here.”
It seems he is very upset and disgruntled, “Is that so?” I prompt.
“My other daughter, Jomi, who got married recently to a doctor, she is luckier,” he says pompously, “she is in Ireland and only works three days in a week and rests for four days, and draws a handsome salary, unlike here, you work six days and… all the harassment…,” he groans and shakes his head.
“And free healthcare, do they have free healthcare?”
“Yes, everything is free, absolutely free. Even education. I remember the difficulty I went through to get my daughters admitted to nursing school. I had to pay the hospital fifty thousand rupees. Then the fees, and after passing the miserly stipend they get for two years. Then for the passport, I had to bribe the officials. Yeverywhere corruption. God, it was so awful, but now they are enjoying a good life. God bless them,” Cheriachen says.
“Jomi took her doctor husband to Ireland, and he has a job in the same hospital where she works,” Lillykutty says from the kitchen. She sounds morose and depressed, too, two unhappy people in an empty two-bedroom flat. She is preparing our Christmas lunch. The smell of mutton and assorted curries fill the flat in Sahyadri housing society.
“Jessy’s daughter Shinymol studies for free. You should see her photographs,” he fishes out some photographs from the bottom of a pile of newspapers on the teapoy, “she is so fair, chubby, and fat, anyone would want to take her in hands and kiss her.”
“I guess it is the food they eat there. I read it is full of fat.”
“No. Not that. They don’t have to exert themselves, no? All they walk is inside their houses, from this room to that. To go anywhere they sit in a car, to go to school they sit in a car, to go to church they sit in a car. Not like we used to do. When I was a boy, I would walk five miles to our school, in Kerala.”
So that’s it. The number of empty, wasted miles spent walking is making Cheriachen a bitter man. He should have been in another country, sitting in a car, I think.
The phone rings insistently again.
“Lillykutty, it must be Jomi from Ireland,” Cheriachen says from his chair. He doesn’t make an effort to get up. He can’t.
Lillykutty comes into the room. Picks up the phone and says the usual “Merry Christmas.” She sounds happy.
Then she say “What?” into the phone and listens for a while. I can see her face fall, her body sag. Then she says, “Why do you want to do that? God, help us! God help us!”
Some static from the other end, a distraught voice. She motions towards Cheriachen.
Cheriachen comes to the phone, smiles joyfully, says, “Merry Christmas,” his sagging face muscles stretch, up, up, as he listens. He is imagining in his mind the heaven from which his daughter is calling him, free of worries, free healthcare, in fact, free everything. He is about to cackle when the whole muscles and integument of his face drop like a stone dropped from a height.
“What?” he says and looks at Lillykutty. Their eyes meet. There are tears in Lillykutty’s eyes. She sobs. Cheriachen puts down the phone. His eyes glaze with tears.
“Now, why would she want to do that? She has everything, works only three days a week, has around two lakhs salary per month, a good-looking husband, has everything virtually free, everything free….”
“We found the best husband for her, imagine, a doctor, handsome, too. We arranged the best wedding for her in the community. Now she says she wants to leave him, and she can’t get along with him,” Lillykutty says.
I look away. The rest of Christmas with Cheriachen was a torture, for me, at least.