It was a family of thirteen, parents and eleven children. Out of those eleven, two were stepchildren for the lady of the house. With nine children of her own, the two from her husband’s first marriage irked her like a stye in the eye. The elder one a girl and the younger one a boy was a constant reminder that her husband had slept with another woman before her.
Back in the 1920s, the life of an ordinary middle-class family had only one joy. That is, the joy of relationships; the love, the belonging, selfless service, empathy, sacrifice…Bereft of several external stimuli that deprive one of such values to a great extent, life thrived sans affluence. There was no lack. If there was any, it easily went unnoticed in the ocean of love.
Such love existed between Laxmi and Nagesh, the two stepchildren.
Laxmi was married at the tender age of 12 and lived in the same town, not far from her father’s house. It was an unfailing ritual that, every day as Nagesh passed by Laxmi’s house on his way to school, Laxmi would stand at the door with a glass of steaming hot coffee knowing very well that his stepmother would not have given him. Nagesh would take the coffee with such a feeling of satisfaction as though he had been awarded a very prestigious prize and Laxmi would ardently watch him relishing it sip by sip! This ritual was repeated when he returned home from school in the evening.
Laxmi and Nagesh shared an obsessive need for coffee. Knowing it very well, their stepmother denied the very thing. All that she could see in these children was the reflection of the woman who had once reigned her husband’s heart and it was neither palatable nor digestible to stomach the fact. The two young children were easy prey to her wrath and her husband played blind and deaf to how his children from the first marriage were treated. As the great bard Shakespeare has said, he believed ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. He refrained from rubbing his wife the wrong way knowing the dire consequences he had to face the last couple of times he had dared to. She had used her weapon of denying conjugal rights.
Although their stepmother prepared good coffee every morning and evening, the privileged ones were her own children and husband. Fortunately, Laxmi had a loving family in her husband’s home who were generous in nature and sensitive to Laxmi’s feelings.
Both Laxmi and Nagesh loved rains just as much as they loved their coffee. The fresh smell of the earth just before the first rain in the monsoon made them delirious. The moment they heard the raindrops making a rhythmical pitter-patter sound, Laxmi and Nagesh were driven to wild excitement and ecstasy. The two children, one married, another one a mere boy, would simultaneously emerge from their respective homes, face glowing like fireflies, and start dancing in the rain with gay abandon. The dance ceased when the rain ceased to pour. Needless to say, their sojourn would end with a good coffee shared on the portico of Laxmi’s house.
Eventually, Laxmi grew up to be a woman and was pregnant at the age of eighteen. Nagesh, now fifteen, sported a thin mustache and looked more mature than his years. The bond between them had only grown stronger and Laxmi nurtured lofty dreams for Nagesh.
“Munna, you study hard and get good marks in S.S.L.C. I will talk to your brother-in-law and see that you go to college and become a big man. No one in our family has gone to college to date. I want you to be the first”, saying so she would fondly smoothen his hair and he would give her a light hug of gratitude. Yes, he too desperately wanted to break free from poverty and the suffocating atmosphere at home. He knew he had rock-solid support from Laxmi and he thanked God for that every single day.
Soon it was time for Laxmi to deliver the baby. Her husband admitted her to the only government hospital. The labor pains had begun but it was taking a long time for the baby to enter the world. Nagesh, standing outside the door, was getting anxious listening to her cries of pain.
“Coffee, Coffee” … It was Laxmi.
Nagesh told his brother-in-law that he would go home, make coffee and return soon. It had started to rain. Somehow the rain failed to bring joy with it for Nagesh. The otherwise soothing sound of rain seemed to pierce his heart with unbearable pain, to the same degree Laxmi was going through. He ran as fast as his trembling legs would carry him and once in the kitchen, lit the charcoal stove with shaky hands. When the charcoal turned blazing red with his fanning, he got up to reach for the coffee powder, sugar, and milk. He gathered them quickly and returned to the stove. It was black and wet! Someone had poured water on the glowing fire to stop him from making coffee. Nagesh started crying, more water coming out of his eyes than the rain from the skies. Composing himself Nagesh lit the stove again and made coffee. As he filled a brass container with fragrant coffee, he forgave his stepmother for her vicious act of putting off the stove and standing aside smiling at him with a look of vile satisfaction.
He ran back to the hospital with lightning speed. Nagesh was all wet and gasping for breath as he reached Laxmi’s bed. Laxmi lay on the bed still and lifeless. The coffee container fell from his hand with a thud. His brother-in-law was sobbing uncontrollably and Nagesh was frozen in willing suspension of disbelief.
The thunderous and treacherous rain that had reached a crescendo was unaware of emotions raining in Nagesh’s heart. It continued to pour mercilessly. Nagesh stood in the rain letting salty water from his eyes merge with rainwater from heaven.
Author- Leela Ramesh