- Karthik Narasimhan
Usha Mami was always nice to everyone. She was frail and timid, and spoke so softly, we had to strain our ears to hear her. We took more liberties with her than the other adults. Much to our amusement (and her consternation) her harshest admonishments came out sounding like gentle entreaties. Insolent smile, back to play. We weren't afraid of her. No one was. “She couldn't scare herself if she wanted to,” was the general consensus.
On the other hand, everything scared her. Snakes and ghosts, dogs barking at night, people knocking on neighbors doors, son sleepwalking. A likable, pleasant scaredy cat. Paavamana Ponnu.
She had recently acquired an electronic chanting machine, a gadget that chants a phrase over and over again when you turn it on. Om. Om. Om. An eerie sounding female voice, dangerously close to being labelled a male voice; sounding eerier still due to poor acoustics. Flip a switch, and it'll chant something else. Nama Shivaya. She would turn it on for a couple of hours every day, a prayer ritual of sorts.
She turned it on that day and forgot to turn it off when she stepped out to go enquire about Yoga lessons. Yoga, she had been told, could help her achy legs. Called my uncle, locked the house, put her eyeglasses into a yellow bag (with best compliments from the bride and groom at a wedding she had been to) and off she went.
Off she went in a city bus. Enquiry done, she hopped back on to another bus to go home (or so she thought). She got down where she had to, and died when crossing the road, hit by a speeding scooter driven by an unlicensed young man in a rush to buy school uniforms for his boss's daughter. Who then carted her off to the nearest hospital, claiming she was a relative to avoid being beaten up.
She was pronounced dead on arrival, and the hospital promptly moved her to the nearest Government hospital where she was left to lie, unidentified except the yellow bag with her eyeglasses. A few vain (but valiant) attempts were made to call the phone number on the bag (Marriage Hall in Salem: “Don't know saar”) and the optician (Trichy: “Many people buy glasses from me”).
Finally my panic stricken uncle arrived there through a circuitous route that took him through the yoga school, a couple of police stations, and the hospital.
Meanwhile, their house had lost power. She was moved to her native town to be cremated, and a full two days after it tripped, electricity was restored to the neighborhood.
That night, the neighbors next door heard weird chanting noises and spent the next few hours mortified, worried her ghost had returned to haunt them. The maid refused to go near the house.
Had she been around to listen to the story, she'd have enjoyed it.