SHIRLEY’S LIKE THAT

எனது ஷெர்லி அப்படித்தான் சிறுகதையை நண்பர் கமல்நாத் ஆங்கிலத்தில் மொழியாக்கம் செய்துள்ளார், அவருக்கு எனது மனம் நிறைந்த நன்றி.

இக்கதை  உயிர்மை வெளியிட்டுள்ள எனது காந்தியோடு பேசுவேன் சிறுகதைத்தொகுபபில் உள்ளது

•••

SHIRLEY’S LIKE THAT

Calling bell’s chime heard. Shirley Frank was standing at the doorstep. The scent of the lavender perfume that she was wearing had entered before her. She should be the only woman who wears perfume with such intensity.

If Shirley Frank is standing at the doorstep then it means that that day is 7th of the month. Evening 4 O’clock on every 7th of the month, Shirley coming to meet my dad is a routine – This has been happening for more than 25 years.

For the past one year dad has been bedridden. His speech has diminished. Even we have employed a person to carry him to the toilet. For him, he is not able to see the face of those who enter his room. Since his hearing has also diminished, it occurred that he is not understanding even if loudly spoke to. The number of those who used to come to visit dad has got reduced. But Shirley never fails to come.

Shirley is the only Anglo Indian woman in our town. She always wears floral patterned gowns. In spite of moving to her newly built home at Bharathi Nagar, she had kept it as routine to visit dad as a mark of respect that he gave her a house to live on rent.

When she came last month, even mom said, “Shirley, why are you troubling yourself? He will not know about your visit. It’s just an unnecessary trouble for you.”

“It’s not like that Meenamma. Till I’m alive I should not forget the help he aided to me. It’s my duty,” saying, she went inside my dad’s room. She picked his hands and kept them with hers, prayed, then sat silent for ten minutes and then left saying her farewell.

She has come for the same today also. ‘What a woman she is? She’s showing her gratitude for a man who gave a place for her to live even after ‘these many years! Is gratitude a feeling this much deep?’ – The thought occurred.

Acquainting with our family for these many years, she had become one of the womenfolk of our family. My parents bought her a silk sari for my sister’s marriage. She accepting it, wore a gold ring to the bridegroom during the marriage. Not only that, she hosted a feast for the newlywed at her home.*

The way Shirley speaks would be like a bird chirping. Every time she came to meet dad, she would bring a homemade cashew cake wrapped in beautiful paper.

We had six houses in the railway feeder road. They cannot be called as houses – with pigeon loft like dark rooms – they are called as line houses. In one of them, Shirley was living in the beginning.

Her husband Frank was working in the Kethi Mills – a mill in our town. I’ve seen his photograph. He had the facial features like Roger Binny – the cricketer.

When Frank was working in Burhanpur, the relationship with Shirley had occurred. Shirley’s husband Herbert had been a military officer. Through him Shirley had got a male child called Steve. The relationship that had started by playing tennis with Frank – who had come to visit her husband – had morphed as love on him.

Shirley used to call it as srange (strange) love. It would appear that the real meaning of that word strange becoming explicit only when she pronounces that word strange. In the intensity of love, she left Herbert and moved to Mysore with Frank. From there Gorakhpur, then Pondicherry and then after that, Frank had come and joined as an engineer in the mill that was started in our town.

Shirley’s memory power is immense. She even now precisely says that on which day she came, by which bus, how the sunshine was and whom and all she met.

Shirley had three siblings. The elder was Marty, the younger was Hebba and the third is the girl – Dole. In the beginning, they lived in the residential quarters inside the mill premises.

The entire town guffawed that a European woman with a shortened hair roams around the town in a bicycle.

Her blonde hair and a red coloured Rally’s bicycle are the identity of Shirley. The men of the town would wonder that Shirley smokes. Shirley has a great interest towards photography. It was widely spoken in the town that during the sports meet of the mill, she borrowing the camera from the Aruna Studio photographer had shot photographs in different angles.*

Until her husband Frank died due to Jaundice, she didn’t know much of the townsfolk. Going to market to purchase fruits and veggies, taking the children to the St. Mary’s church on Sundays, and listening to music daily was her world. But Frank’s death disintegrated her world just like that.

She, in those days with three children struggling hard in search of a house to live in, had met dad one day. It was an early morning of the rainy days.

Going for walking in the playground that was inside the mill premises was dad’s routine. The roads inside the mill, which were dense with trees, are beautiful. Especially in the early mornings, the chirping of birds and the greeneries of the leaves would be pleasant.

Dad had a taste towards such things. He is such a man who would walk up to Thenoothu Bridge just for hearing the call of the peacock. He used to go up to the mill premises by bicycle, lock it near the second gate and start walking inside the playground. After walking for a three quarters of an hour, he would come and sit in the bench under the shades of the Spanish cherry (Mimusops elengi) tree. Then closing his eyes he would sit for ten minutes forgetting the entire world. In those rainy days, the bench being wetted by rain would be cold; sitting on that cold bench is a pleasure.

That day also, he after finishing his walk and while coming towards that bench, he saw Shirley sitting on that. She was smoking. A woman sitting alone and smoking with a worried face should have pricked something in his heart.

When he stood there hesitant whether to sit or not, she had indicated him with her eyes to sit. When dad sat on the edge of the bench, she with hesitance had asked him that if he could do her a help.

“My dear friend, what can I do for you?” – Dad had asked her. The way how he addressed her a ‘Friend,’ who was a stranger to him should have thawed her. She had wept telling him her hapless situation.

He waited till she completed and then he had just told her ‘take your things and bring the children, I’ll give you a house.’

That evening itself he placed her in one of our vacant line house and giving her hundred rupees saying, “buy a sewing machine and lead your life. You need not give any rent,” left.

Shirley did not buy a sewing machine. She went to Madurai and bought a camera. She started taking photographs in marriages, school functions, and public meetings like that, for pay. She set aside a room of the house for photography related works. Her children studied only in government schools. Dad did not ask her rent.

A young woman leading her life as a photographer in a small town is not easy. Every man meeting Shirley wanted only to share the bed with her. She created an image of an angry woman to protect herself. She would be looking rude in her speech and gait.

She has beaten people with umbrella who had spoken ill about her. Many rumours did spread that Shirley is a drunkard, drug abuser, seducing and sexually exploiting boys.

Dad had never asked her about those. Dad sometimes had helped her by lending money, and had given her suggestions. When our relatives spoke ill about my dad having a friend like this, mom told strongly that it was his wish and she had trust on him.

It was Shirley who had photographed all important occasions at our home. A photograph of dad that she took keeping him standing under the tree shade has been hung in the hall. Dad, in spite of having been friendly with her, had never visited her home.

‘Thanga Rathinam’- Shirley used call my dad by his name. It was our habit to make fun of her pronouncing ‘Retinam.’ It will be awe for us to see that how dad choosing appropriate words speaking in English like a poem to her.

We used to raptly listen to their conversation. Everytime they would use a new word. It was only like that I heard the word ‘abli.’ After Sherliey left, when I asked dad the meaning for that, dad told that she was saying ‘I believe’ like that.

“Your husband is a gem. Look him after carefully. God will be with you!” – Shirley has told mom many times.

Once, mom was unwell and was under treatment at a hospital. Shirley hearing from someone about tonsuring the head for others wellbeing, got her head tonsured at Irukkankudi Mariyamman temple,* for the sake of mom’s well being and came to the hospital to see her. There was a Thiru Neeru sachet in her hand * Mom seeing her with a tonsured head, burst into crying. That act of Shirley made mom to feel Shirley as her blood sister.

One day mom told me: “Being born somewhere… growing up somewhere… then finally coming to our town she losing her husband and struggling with three children… and apart from us, who’s there to support her? Her fate has been written such that that she must come and struggle at our town. Had it been me in her place, I would’ve died in the agony. I learnt living only seeing her.

Shirley had never wailed nor shared about her rough life. She shares only her happiness with others. Learning that in Shanthi teacher’s house – adjacent to the line houses – a lemon sapling had been uprooted in the gale winds, Shirley went on her own and using a support stick and rope she made the sapling to set its roots in the soil once again. From that instance people will call her if a tree falls and she will also go and correct it.

There were some rare traits with her. One of them is feeding stray dogs. Just for this purpose only, she would buy beef. She would go street by street in her bicycle and call the dogs. The dogs congregate just by seeing her. She stroking their backs would give them the food she had brought. Then she would pick the bugs from their bodies, and then would leave instructing them no to fight.

When petty shopkeeper Krishnan told that she bringing a kid goat bought a brinjal for it to eat, it was not much a marvel for me. Shirley is like that.

In our school days, dad sent to us to Shirley’s home for studying English. Rather than teaching English, the number of instants was more that she cooking sweet dishes and making us happy.

Her elder son Marty was in the school hockey team. He was a very good player but very much short tempered. He had been suspended many times for having broken the head of many opponent players during matches.

Marty used to be friendly with me. He was an ardent MGR fan * He would go and watch any new movies on the very first screening itself. It was also his habit to imitate MGR. It was Shirley’s wish to somehow send him to the Navy. But he did not satisfy that. Instead he love married a fisher woman of Thoothukudi and became a ‘dried fish’ merchant. Because of that Shirley got greatly depressed. She used to work more on days she is worried. She used to tell that her mother had taught her to do harder works to relieve the mind from the trouble.

The next is Hebba – a left hander. He is the only weak in that house. Sometimes Shirley used to bring him to our home.

He had never drunk the coffee that my mother offers. He could not drink anything hot. He is a cold animal. He munches ice cubes. Shirley used to say that their place’s winter chill resides just only inside him. Hebba used to play harmonica well. I had gone in search of meeting him only for this. Especially listening to him playing Hindi film songs in the harmonica will be mesmerising.

It is only Hebba who often thinks about his father. On those days, he thinking about his father’s death wouldn’t take food; he wouldn’t even talk to anybody; he would only be playing harmonica. Shirley used to cry hearing the sorrow that bubbles in that music.

He in that emotional state would say, “With these hands you have touched father, right! Gimme that. I’ll also touch father through you.” Both of them will cry hugging each other.

He was the one who taught me to drink cognac. He, saying that some friend had given it to him, gave me a little cognac brandy to me and saying, “Friend, like kissing a girl, you have to drink it drop by drop. Look at me,” he relished and drank it.

During Christmas times, Hebba would come and tie a star at our house also. He would act in stage dramas. He would be roaming the town with somebody on their bike. One day he brought an ‘illustrated weekly’ and showed me his poem, which had got published.

To celebrate that happy occasion, Shirley had cooked ‘Turkey Briyani.’ Hebba while returning at night from the marriage of his friend at ‘Szholavandan’ died in an accident rammed by a lorry. It was dad who went along with Shirley to receive his body.

Shirley was shattered with his son’s death. She was bedridden for 6 months. She conducted the days crying about her son and then praying when waking up suddenly. Those days it was my routine of mom to go and visit her daily.

Then one fine day Shirley was back to photography improving her body and physiological conditions. In that home, it was Dole who grew up disliking India, and constantly fighting and arguing with Shirley. Shirley had even scolded that how such a girl could have born to her.

Dole is a proud girl. She used to pride herself that she’s beautiful. At the same time she would remind others that she’s an Anglo-Indian in her every move. Mocking the English of others…, playing cricket like boys…, drinking beer… like that there is nothing mischievous that Dole hasn’t done.

She made the boys who proposed her to roam behind her. Then suddenly one day, when she told that she married Doctor Emmanuel who was 15 years elder to her through register marriage, Shirley drove her out of the home beating her with umbrella. She cursed that god will sort that doctor out. After that, Shirley started living alone. She didn’t accepted photography assignments unlike before. To get relieved of the pain pressing her mind, she would be lace-knitting all the day. She had given dad a white coloured scarf that she knitted.

One day, Shirley’s eldest son Marty came back and took her to Thoothukudi compelling her. She even didn’t take much notice of him saying that his sister is living happily in Mumbai with that doctor.

She came back from Thoothukudi in just 10 days. Saying, “It is suffocating to live in that childless home. I’m going to construct a new house. Only I’m going to live in that house,” she withdrew the money from the bank and started building a house at Bharathi Nagar.

It was dad who inaugurated that house. It was a beautiful house. She had hung dad’s photograph in that house’s hall. She gifted Engelbert’s records to dad. When dad received it, she said, “Bro! If you are depressed listen to the ‘love me with all your heart’ song. It is a great medicine.”

Only after that, dad started becoming an addict for Engelbert’s music. In our home, Engelbert was singing day and night. There was some magic in that voice. Like drinking honey drop by drop, dad was listening to it relishing it.

Once Shirley told:

“God has created singers to rescue human beings from sorrow. Engelbert was born in Madras. In his voice there is a fragrance of our place.

Dad with pride was telling Shirley’s saying that Tamil Nadu as our place. Shirley, compressing her sorrows inside her, was knowing to love fellow human beings. ‘What a gift it was!’ – It occurred to me.

The chime of calling bell heard again. Before I could come down from the upstairs, the sound of mom woken up from sleep and opening the front door and saying ‘welcome Shirley’ heard.

“It is my small gift,” saying Shirley thrust the cake. Then smiling at me asked, “How’s your life son?”

“Great,” I said. She nodding her head slowly walked towards dad’s room. Mom went to the kitchen to prepare coffee for Shirley. I wanting to chat with Shirley sat in the hall.

Shirley went near Dad – who was lying slumped – picked up his hands and keeping them on her lap prayed for a long time closing her eyes. Then looking around to see if someone is seeing her, she went closer to dad’s ear and said:

“Friend! My daughter Dole is pregnant. I’m going to be a grandmother. I’ve come to share my happiness with you. I know that your heart will be hearing this. You’re a man who had understood me. Dole spoke to me over phone yesterday night. Even saying that she spoke is wrong – she cried. She is calling me to stay by her side. I’m about to go to Mumbai. I perhaps may not even return to this town. I’ve come to say my farewell to you. The help that you did to me ‘when I stood blank without knowing what to do with three children,’ has made me to live. You’re a great man. I want to kiss you as a mark of my gratitude,” saying she kissed at dad’s head and came out wiping her dilated eyes. Then she started to leave stepping down on the stairs

Before mom came with coffee, Shirley had left. When mom asked, “Where’s Shirley?” I said, “She’s left just now.”

“I’m not able to understand her. A strange woman,” mom said.

I too nodded my head.

Mom told me to keep the cake that Shirley brought, in the fridge.

When I unwrapped that cake, it was written ‘Goodbye Friend’ nicely in white cream. Seeing that, my eyes dilated on their own. The word ‘Strange’ that she often says somehow came to my mind.

Translated  from tamil  : Kamalnath

Translator’s note:

  • It is a way of honouring one, by buying a silk sari for the marriage happening in a family. Only close relatives are honoured in that fashion. Similarly, it is also a custom for close relatives to host a feast for the newlywed.]
  • Aruna = A common female name in Tamilnadu
  • It is a temple for Mariyamman (Kali) in Virudunagar district, 8 km away from a place called Satthur
  • Thiru Neeru means Holy Ash, an ash made of cow dung. This ash is treated holy and worn on the forehead by Shivites. Wearing the ash has many medical benefits and it is a philosophical symbol meaning that one day this body will be burnt to ash!
  • The name Thanga Rathinam means Gold and Precious Stone. The ‘Tha’ syllable in the first word should be pronounced as the ‘Th’ syllable of the word ‘Thailand.’ The ‘Ra’ syllable of the word should be pronounced as the ‘Ra’ syllable of the word Rabbi. The following ‘Thi’ syllable should be pronounced as the ‘thi’ syllable of thief.
  • MGR = MG Ramachandran – the famous actor who acted in many Tamil films and had a wide a fan base and a much revered former Chief Minister of Tamilnadu].

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