Looking for Amma
by Archana Pai Kulkarni
It was a glimpse of her flared nostrils, her heart-shaped jaw line, her chin tilted towards the sky and the way she held her shoulders back that caught his eye. It had to be her. She was his spitting image. Had it not been for her long pendulous plait that swayed from left to right, the blue printed sari she wore, and her slighter frame, he could well have been staring at himself.
Blue was his favourite colour too, so much so that his mother reminded him every time they shopped that his wardrobe was a sea of blue. ‘Rahul, that grey shirt is lovely, that mustard one too. You must try other colours. This leaf green looks so good on you,’ she would say, as he clung to the blue shirts and T-shirts he had chosen.
What was it about the colour? Neither his mother Sumitra nor his father Prashant particularly liked it. Maybe he had inherited the love for the colour from his other mother, the one who had given birth to him, and then given him away like a piece of unwanted clothing.
How does a mother discard her child? Had she placed him on the steps of a temple like they show in Bollywood films? Or was it a garbage dump? Or had she looked here and there furtively before placing him in the cradle outside the orphanage in Pune from where his parents had adopted him? Had she parted with him willingly or was she forced to? Had she cried and begged, pleading to want to keep him?
What if his mother was a beggar? Or a prostitute? Or an unwed mother? Or the victim of a rape? Would that matter to him now that he led a privileged life? A thousand such questions kept him awake all night. He had no answers. He tossed and turned till he heard Sumitra’s gentle knock on his bedroom door and her soft voice, ‘Rau, are you still awake? May I come in?’
‘I’m okay Ma,’ he would lie, wiping his wet cheeks, knowing that she knew what troubled him.
He remembered Shantabai, his nanny, who carried him on her hip singing folk songs from her village, as Sumitra cooked and pottered about in the kitchen, and the aroma of rajma chawal wafted in the air, cocooning him with love.
‘Rau,’ he heard Sumitra’s voice in his head, even as his legs broke into a run now, in the crowded Matunga market, mesmerised by the blue pallu trailing behind the woman he had spotted.
‘Amma,’ he called out. ‘Amma, stop!’ Trying not to lose sight of her, he zigzagged through the carts laden with onions, potatoes, capsicums, cauliflowers, and the fruit stalls with pineapples, apples, pears and papayas displayed on tiers, hoping their cries of ‘Lei bhaari, lei bhaari’ wouldn’t drown his own voice. Unmindful of the cakes of dung, and the peelings, roots, stalks, ends, and leaves that made the road slippery, he ran on, and dashed into a dazed cow, which was feeding on the refuse.
‘Damn,’ he hissed, and as he gathered himself, he lost sight of the woman. He had last seen her turning right towards Matunga station. A pandal stood in the centre of the quadrangle blocking the view of its entrance.
Like a crazed man, Rahul’s eyes scanned the whole area, searching for a piece of blue. Not finding it, he turned to the vendor who was roasting peanuts in sand in a large iron kadhai, placed on a brick stove from which tongues of flame leapt towards the sky, burning his eyes.
‘Kahaan gayi wo aurat? Neele rang ki sari peheni thi. Dekha tumne?’
The peanut seller, not amused by the disruption Rahul had caused, asked, ‘Kaun aurat, bhai? Nahi dekha.’
‘Meri Ma, meri Amma,’ Rahul retorted. He turned around several times, scanning the area, his eyes darting wildly. The vendors stationed in rows lining the footpaths outside the station watched him amused.
‘Pagal hai,’ said one, making tiny circles close to his right temple with his index finger.
Rahul was going crazy, breaking into sobs, as if his world had been snatched away from him. His legs gave way and he sank down on his haunches, his shoulders shaking, his nose filling up fast with snot, as commuters rushed past him to catch the train that had just arrived. He looked up as the soft, floral, notes of violet, vanilla, and rose hit his nostrils. The scent of his mother, as he had imagined it.
Then, he saw her, emerging from a grocer’s shop on the right, a large canvas bag hanging on her arm. ‘Amma,’ he cried, as she walked on, and within no time, he reached her and tugged at her pallu.
‘Amma!’ he cried, as the startled woman turned around sharply. Their eyes met.
‘Arre!’ she said, snatching her pallu away, ‘Kamaal hai.’
‘Sorry, sorry, aunty, I thought you are my Amma,’ Rahul said, as the lady clicked her tongue in disapproval, and walked away, but not before Rahul had seen her shocked face.
She did not resemble him at all. Her jaw line was square; her nose was scooped with a turned-up tip. She was shades fairer. Her eyes were brown, his own were black. He had been misled, yet again. He had chased a mirage, day after day, and roamed the streets of the local market like a lunatic, as if the bazaars had mothers for sale, as if amidst the heaps of fruits and vegetables, the chaos and cries, he would find his birth mother. He had dreamt of her night after night.
As he retraced his steps, his heart pounded inside his chest. His palms were sweaty, his breathing laboured. He could feel the blood coursing through his veins. His mother’s blood. His father’s too. What was he running after?
His flesh, his bones, his skin, his hair, his body—everything had a piece of the lady who had borne him. Had his mother suckled him? Had his birth father held him close to his chest? It did not matter now. His parents had made love some torrid night. Perhaps not love. But, they had brought him into this world.
The sun was bearing down on him. Hunger gnawed him to the bone. He became acutely aware of his body. A gift from his birth parents. A smile spread across his face. What a chase this had been. He was alive. He existed. Rahul.
He took a deep breath. ‘Amma,’ he whispered, as Sumitra’s loving face floated in front of his eyes.
Written as part of Rashmi Bansal’s Short Story Writing Workshop.