Highway to Heart by G. B. Prabhat

G. B. Prabhat gives us a glimpse into the culture of a traditional Indian family, when a surprising romance is triggered by the main character's grandfather having a stroke. This story first appeared in Unlikely Stories Mark V.

In the summer of 1982, my paternal grandfather was felled by a stroke.

Thatha must have been in his late eighties. The stroke was a surprise. There had been no signs.

Thatha was a great eater but ate fastidiously almost the same meals at the same times. He had been doing that ever since he could remember. He slurped his food and ate heartily. Initially my younger brother, Jayanth, was somewhat repelled by the eating noises but soon, like for me, for him too, the spectacle of thatha's eating became entertaining and fascinating.

Every evening, thatha set out on his five kilometre evening walk donned in his sleeved vest and his veshti draped dangerously loosely around his waist. In all the years, Jayanth and I had nervously watched the veshti progressively unravel, but it hadn't once dropped. As the great Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar has pointed out, if a man's veshti threatened to drop, his hand would, in a reflex, move with extraordinary speed, avert the disaster, and restore the garment to its place of security.

I accompanied thatha on his walks frequently. When I couldn't, Jayanth would, although he could never overcome his slight embarrassment over thatha's dishabille. According to Jayanth, thatha's ox-like build made his attire more noticeable. But thatha's stories would keep Jayanth regaled and distract him from the old man's careless sense of dressing. Thatha always wore blue and white Hawaii slippers, which he scraped on the floor with every step, wearing them out in the heel area. The scraping was not the awkward shuffling of old men but a loud authoritarian announcement to the neighbourhood that thatha was either setting out on his walk or returning from it.

The uninitiated approached thatha for the mature wisdom stemming from his elderliness. In return, thatha deadpanned some vulgarity, and when he was sure that he had sufficiently shocked his listener, he would break into a noisy guffaw that resounded in the apartment complex. There were other old men who visited us from time to time or stopped him on his walk begging him for some profane joke. Thatha willingly obliged, never repeating a joke, merrily unmindful of the impressionable young minds like Jayanth or me or around him. In fact, he would turn occasionally to us and ask, "Do you agree?" or "What do you think?" The old men would explode into laughter in the middle of the road prompting a few windows of the apartments to open.

I was in the first year of my engineering degree at the engineering college nearby and Jayanth was in middle school. Father was an English professor at the same engineering college and had a relaxed schedule. He was often home by five in the evening. He had an equally loud voice as his father, which had been trained further for high decibel delivery because of his profession. Invariably he and thatha got together every evening for a chat session. Nobody or nothing was spared in the irreverent conversations. Thunderous claps of laughter punctuated their raucous dialogue. Resisting even the temptation of cricket, Jayanth and I would be hangers-on for the adults-only jokes and the bawdy lingo. Mother would appear from the kitchen to shush them, admonishing, "What will the neighbours think?" She would then shoo us to go play, and we would reluctantly leave. We knew conservative Mother was trying to distract us away from the satanic influences of the two men.

Thatha's temper was legendary. Though he and Father were generally great friends, they got into rows a few times every year. It was about issues like who should read the newspaper first or why one spent a very long time in the only toilet of the house while the other had to wait, performing intestinal yoga. Father's voice would grow louder and louder but was no match for the amplitude of the older man's. Once or twice, we had the doorbell ring and a kindly neighbour asking if everything was okay. Mother would reassure him and dispatch him with a benign smile. In a few minutes of the argument, thatha would wear his Hawaii slippers and be off on a walk, his feet scraping more urgently than usual. But a short while after his return, the two men would be back to their gunshot laughs over the fornication habits of their clan.

Jayanth and I shared a bedroom with thatha. If it weren't for our youth, our sleep would have been highly disturbed. Thatha snored like a hundred horsepower engine. He woke up at an unearthly hour and started pottering about, turning on the radio well ahead of the morning program, and dozing to the spine-tingling beep sound the station made. "Tsk, tsk," we would keep exclaiming as we snuggled further under our blankets. Somehow Jayanth and I managed the impossible task of sharing one working desk. Mercifully, our exam seasons were at different times. Thatha acted as our alarm, waking us up for our examination preparations with a stentorian call.

That night thatha went to sleep as usual. Early the following morning, Jayanth and I were stirred out of sleep by a laboured mumbling. We switched on the light. Thatha lay on his bed with a stricken expression, making strange noises. From the incoherent syllables, we made out that he was trying to call out our names. His mouth veered to one side every time he tried. He was also trying to rise from the bed, but was unable to. He was gesticulating with his left hand.

We helped him sit up. Thatha's right hand hung limply. Tears flowed down his eyes and he drooled as he tried to talk to us.

I recognized the signs.

"Go, wake up Father," I urged Jayanth. "I think thatha's had a stroke."



Maran came into our lives to look after thatha.

Since we had holidays when thatha got the stroke, we were home to help. The rest of us would soon be away from home almost the whole day. Mother could never have taken care of thatha, who weighed a formidable 95 kilograms, all by herself. He had to be supported on his way to the bathroom and back, and when he wanted to rise from the chair and lie down or the other way round. The stroke had damaged his right side, rendering his hand almost useless and leaving him with a pronounced limp. Thatha had to be fed with a spoon. Father became like a snuffed out candle, stopped visiting thatha's room frequently, and hesitated a lot to touch his own father. It was as if Father could not bring himself to reconcile to the idea of a maimed thatha. So it fell to Jayanth and me to manage thatha's feeding and bathroom duties during the night, while Maran attended on thatha during the day.

The maid of the house had introduced Maran to us. He lived in the same ghetto as she did. The ghetto was not far from our house, which was very helpful. On occasion, when we unexpectedly needed extra help to get thatha to a hospital for his check-up, or if Jayanth or I had to be away at short notice, we only had to go to the ghetto's entrance and ask one of the inhabitants for Maran. He would emerge from its interiors with the dishevelled hair of one who has awoken from a deep slumber. He would obligingly come home, finish his unscheduled duties and return to the ghetto without asking for any extra payment though Father tipped him now and then.

Maran was a school dropout and had been a loafer until he was employed by us. He claimed to be twenty-two but did not look it. Compared to the few doubtfully sprouting hairs on his upper lip, I, at eighteen, had what seemed like a grand moustache. Maran had no other facial hair. However, he had an attractive curly mop on his head and a captivating smile that made his eyes crinkle. He was clad in a lungi and full-shirts that he had received as charity, sleeves always neatly folded to his elbow. If he had dressed like I did, his boyish charms would have been very conspicuous.

The second night of thatha's return from the hospital, after Maran had left, Jayanth asked, "The noise has died down, hasn't it?"

"What noise?" I asked.

Jayanth pointed in the direction of thatha's room. "The noise this man made. Eating, talking, laughing, cursing, walking, sleeping. Everything was so noisy."

Soon after the stroke, Thatha spent his waking hours sitting in his easy chair and gazing out of the window and saying nothing. Jayanth was right. Our home had acquired a sepulchral quiet.

Thatha's routine was disturbed only by the daily visit of the physiotherapist who had been recommended by the neurologist. The physiotherapist, a tall well-built woman, made him pace up and down the corridor and exercised his right hand.

Two weeks later, some strength returned to thatha's right leg and hand. He still walked with a limp, but his steps were surer. His speech, from being a completely unintelligible slurring, became an awkward articulation. We could now make out the words he spoke. His right hand improved enough to support his transistor when he sat near the window. He could now also hold his copy of the Bhagvad Gita that he had been reading in parts since my first memory of him.

Maran became his constant companion. Thatha regained his raconteur's mood gradually and started narrating stories to Maran. Most of the time Maran nodded. It was clear he did not understand everything. When one of us stepped into the room while thatha was engaged in a harangue, Maran smiled his amused incomprehension at us.

Maran was a person of few words both to thatha and to the rest of us. He flashed his charming smile more than he spoke. He was extremely patient, never minding the number of times he was summoned for assistance. Sometimes it was just when he had completed one errand and was about to squat in our corridor, which had become his spot, thatha would call out to him.

There was only one problem with Maran. When he did not have work and when thatha did not engage him with one of his tales, he went to sleep with a bizarre depth.

The first time I encountered it, I was alarmed.

We ran to the corridor when we heard thatha's relentless hollering for Maran. There he was, curled up in our corridor, silent and unmoving.

I stood next to him and called out, "Maran... Maran."

There was no reaction from him. I raised my voice and tried a few times. Maran was still.

Jayanth dropped to his knees and shook him, at first gently, then vigorously. Maran continued to be still in the position he was left in.

"Is he dead?" I panicked.

Jayanth placed his head on Maran's heart and shook his head.

"No," he said. "Beating heart."

"Is he ill?"

Jayanth shrugged. "I don't know."

Maran was sleeping on his side.

Jayanth placed his mouth close to Maran's ear and blared "Maran" a few times. There was no movement.

Without removing his mouth from the proximity of Maran's ear, Jayanth let out a blood curdling, "Maaaaaraaaan." There was only the slightest movement.

"Wait," said Jayanth and disappeared into the house.

He came back with a Tamil magazine which he had rolled up into an improvised megaphone.

"Maaaaaraaaan." He repeated his blood curdling yell, this time through the megaphone placed close to Maran's ear.

That worked.

Maran sat up and gazed around with bloodshot eyes.

"Thatha wants you," said Jayanth.

Nonchalantly, Maran rose and went to attend on thatha.

In the following week, thatha's speech improved considerably. Even though he slurred occasionally, we comprehended most of what he said. Even better, Maran, because of the long hours spent in the old man's company, was able to understand him very well. So well that he translated thatha's mumbled words to us. I could not figure out whether thatha's speech improved his mood or the other way round, but Maran was now being entertained by stories that had a distinct risqué ring.

"Another young mind being corrupted," muttered Mother.

The physiotherapist also became a victim of thatha's salacious accounts. She just smiled them away as if she secretly enjoyed them, and returned to her peremptory orders, "Don't lean to the right," "Look straight when you walk," and "Lift your right hand more... yes, you can. Try harder."

Maran's bored yawns and vacant expressions, when thatha was in no mood to talk soon after the stroke, were replaced by a glint in his eye. He slept less and listened more. When he did sleep, Jayanth's magazine megaphone was deployed and Maran woke up and went to thatha, all in one fluid movement.



Maran was introduced to Kuppan by thatha.

Kuppan and his wife, Sigappi, were construction labourers working on an apartment building that was coming up in our compound. Kuppan was always dressed in a sleeveless vest, a veshti and a turban that were all equally brown and yellow with dirt. He was tall and wiry, and his muscles on his biceps and triceps, a product of hard labour, rippled. He had a bushy moustache and a few days' dark stubble, and was ruggedly handsome.

I thought he looked like Burt Reynolds.

"A Burt Reynolds who never bathes," giggled Jayanth. "Wonder when his body last saw water."

Sigappi must have been about forty with thick lustrous black hair that was combed back with oil. Though her face carried faint pock marks, there was a magnetic dusky charm about her.

Thatha had befriended Kuppan and Sigappi well before the stroke and they would visit him when they took a break from work. They sat at his feet as thatha lectured them on nuances of construction that they were unaware of (all fib), Kerala tales from his youth, and sometimes an eisegesis of a Bhagvad Gita line. They would be enraptured and leave regretfully only because duty summoned them.

"How he talks!" Sigappi would remark as she was leaving.

Though he listened to the tales with equal eagerness, Kuppan would butt in to capture thatha's attention.

"This one, here," he would point to Sigappi. "She makes excellent meen kuzhambu. I am hungry now, thinking of it. Pity you are a vegetarian, thatha. One mouthful and you would know what I am talking about." And would suck in his drool.

Sigappi would give him a friendly knock on his head. "Hold your tongue. Can't you wait until the elder has finished talking?"

Kuppan would then turn his attention to thatha's peroration. However during the next session, he would bring up the meen kuzhambu again, eulogizing his wife's tangy fish curry in oneiric ecstasy. "You need a special eye to pick the fish. Everybody sees the same fish in the market. But Sigappi, she can pick the mellowest ones."

Lakshmi, the only daughter of Kuppan and Sigappi, was eighteen like me. She was dusky like her mother but had inherited the good features of both her parents. She was in the first year of her bachelor's degree in arts. She never raised her eyes, was soft-spoken, and would come to beckon her parents who were watching thatha engrossed. If she sighted one of us, she would ask only one question huskily, "Where are my parents?"

Kuppan introduced Lakshmi to thatha. "My daughter. Her name's Lakshmi. She is learning big words from big books. The first in our family to do it."

Thatha responded, "All formal education is a humbug."

Kuppan and Sigappi went away as if they hadn't heard it.



Kuppan and Sigappi had temporarily shifted to another construction project before thatha's stroke. They returned to the project next door only some weeks after thatha's rehabilitation had begun. They made the construction site their home as nomadic construction workers did.

They entered our house half-running.

"We heard only now about thatha," panted Kuppan. "Where is he?"

They sat at his feet and began enquiring with doleful expressions. Thatha stopped them from commiserating with him in any manner by launching into a mischievous tale from many years ago of his colleague's adultery.

In a moment the sombre mood of the room was replaced by thigh slapping laughter.

"We will take your leave. Look after your health." Kuppan and Sigappi rose to leave.

On the way out, because both of them looked quizzically, Jayanth introduced Maran to them.

"Where are you from?" asked Kuppan.

"From Palladam," replied Maran.

Sigappi let out a whoop. "That's where we are from."

That kindled Maran's interest and he started walking with them out of the house.

I could see them at a distance, engaging in a brief conversation after which Maran returned to his corner in the corridor to commence his siesta.

Kuppan and Sigappi started visiting Maran more often. They would stand under the neem tree just outside our house and talk in low voices. They would break into laughter, and Maran and Kuppan would backslap each other. During his breaks, Maran also walked over to the construction site. Perching on an open window sill with his legs dangling, he would be in animated conversation with them. He never spoke this much with any of us. Later we saw Lakshmi join their conversations since she too had holidays. Sometimes we spied Maran speaking only with Lakshmi in an unlit corner of the half-constructed building.

One Sunday mid-morning, Kuppan, Sigappi and Lakshmi visited us with more formality than usual. Kuppan was clad in a reasonably clean veshti and was wearing a shirt in the place of his tattered sleeveless vest. Sigappi and Lakshmi were dressed in neat saris. Later I realized they chose a Sunday since Father would be home. It was he who opened the door for them. Sigappi had a plate on which were a bunch of bananas, strung jasmine flowers, betel leaves and betel nuts.

"Oh! What's the occasion?" asked Father.

Maran sported a knowing smile.

All of them walked into thatha's room. Meanwhile Mother and Jayanth had joined us.

Thatha looked on curiously.

"What's the occasion?" repeated Father.

"First, take this."

Kuppan offered the plate and Mother and Father received it.

"We have finalized the wedding of Lakshmi," announced Kuppan.

Lakshmi blushed.

"Who is the groom?" asked Father.

"Oh, it's our Maran," said Kuppan.

At that, Maran blushed too.

"What?" cried Mother unable to conceal the distress in her voice. "What's the hurry? How old is this girl? Seventeen?"

"Eighteen," said Sigappi.

"And she is in the first year of her college, isn't she? Can't you wait until she finishes her degree?" Mother continued.

"In our community we don't wait that long," said Sigappi. "In fact if we had been in our village, she would have been married a year or two ago."

I stepped in. "Amma, they have come with some happy news. Greet them."

Mother thought about it for a minute, unwrinkled her face and smiled. Wiping her hand on her sari, she went inside saying, "Wait a minute."

Our house had an unending supply of homemade sweets. Mother was back with some jangiri.

"We are tired of travelling. We want to settle down here. Our only responsibility is our daughter. If she is settled and finds a job after her education, our worries will cease." Kuppan's eyes brimmed when he said that.

When it was time to leave, Kuppan ordered Maran and Lakshmi, "Take his blessings," pointing to thatha. At once, Maran and Lakshmi prostrated themselves at thatha's feet. Thatha looked away and grunted.

"Take theirs too," said Kuppan pointing in our general direction.

Father and Mother lined up, ready to bless.

"Saar, you too," Kuppan addressed me.

"What? Heck, no. I am younger than Maran," I protested and withdrew hastily. It must have been my moustache.

After that, Jayanth lost no opportunity to tease me as "uncle."

Maran followed Kuppan, Sigappi and Lakshmi at a distance as they headed outside. He signed romantically to Lakshmi, who turned around and gestured with her finger on her lips.



Sigappi took our permission to serve Maran lunch a few times a week.

She spread a newspaper under the neem tree and served Maran in brass vessels. Invariably there were two, one containing rice and the other a curry. Many days it was her fabled meen kuzhambu, which had a strong aroma. Even though the neem tree was some distance from our front door, the aroma wafted in.

Sigappi emptied the meen kuzhambu from one vessel into the other with rice, kneaded the rice patiently to a delectable texture, and handed over the vessel to Maran. While he ate, she sat attentively by his side engaging in small talk. She was ready with a glass of water in case he had the hiccups. Occasionally she would run her fingers through the mop of his hair and chide him, "See how much your hair has grown." Maran returned the next day with a smart haircut.

"Already enslaved by your mother-in-law?" Jayanth would wink at him.

Maran would lift his hand pretending to hit him and would then laugh.

When Mother joshed Sigappi about feeding Maran, she responded, "I have to take care him of him well, don't I? He has to keep our only daughter happy."

Sigappi's meen kuzhambu performed a modern miracle. Its scent preceded its arrival by a few minutes. From the deepest slumber, Maran would sit up bolt upright. "It looks like mother-in-law is on her way."

We were stunned and tickled.

At other times, Maran returned to being his usual self. The magazine megaphone was required to wake him up.

Father pulled Kuppan's leg. "Looks like the only dowry you will have to give is meen kuzhambu?"

Kuppan said reverentially, "My wife. She is a genius. She knows how to tame her future son-in-law. She will make sure the boy adapts to our ways. Poor fellow. He lost his parents early. We will become his family."

We looked the other way when Maran took frequent breaks on weekends to go to the nearby building to talk to Lakshmi. Kuppan and Sigappi too gave the couple privacy. After all the entire incomplete building was empty. Maran and Lakshmi were free to choose their spot over four floors. From a distance, we could see Maran, with his captivating smile, talking endlessly to Lakshmi while she watched him coquettishly.

Thatha had given up his weekly shaving ritual since the stroke. He let his beard grow and it was shaved once a month when the barber came home to give him a haircut.

One evening he summoned me to retrieve his shaving set from his suitcase. There was, along with a shaving brush, a soap encrusted razor with a black stalk and a red top that could be unscrewed to fit a blade.

"Call Maran," he said.

When Maran appeared, thatha ordered me. "Give him the shaving set."

Maran hesitated in taking it.

"Nothing doing. You are getting married. You have to look well groomed," said Thatha.

"But no, that's not the problem..." said Maran and looked helplessly at me, pointing to his hairless cheeks and chin.

I tried explaining to thatha. His failing eyesight would not let him see Maran's face well and he did not quite understand the idea that a man about to be married could have no facial hair.

"Take it, take it," he ordered.

After taking the shaving set, Maran sat at the feet of thatha.

"The wedding is fixed for next month. 25th," Maran announced.

"Who from your family is expected?" asked thatha.

Maran scratched his head. "I was orphaned young. Here I live alone. I have some family in Palladam. Some aunts may come. Maybe some uncles too."

While thatha waxed eloquent about his wedding in the early 1900s, Maran interrupted. "Thatha, I must leave now."

"What's the matter?" asked thatha.

"My mother-in-law is arriving with my lunch."

"How do you know?"

With a rare effusive burst, Maran raved about the meen kuzhambu nonpareil. "You'll know it's on its way," ended Maran with a long, noisy breath, his eyes closed.

"Eat a lot. Fish is good for the loins," said thatha.



That morning, Kuppan burst into our house in alarm.

"Sigappi has disappeared," he said with urgency and despair.

It was a holiday. All of us were home. Maran had not turned up at his usual time. Jayanth and I had been debating whether we should leave for the ghetto to look for him.

"What do you mean, disappeared?" asked Mother

"She's not here," said Kuppan. "We went to sleep as usual. When we woke up, she's missing. I have looked everywhere."

We saw Lakshmi at a distance, under the neem tree, looking worried as she chewed on the end of her sari.

"Have you informed Maran?" I asked.

"Not yet," said Kuppan.

"Anyway we are going to the ghetto to look for him," I said and turned to Jayanth. "Come on."

With him on the pillion, I speeded on my moped to the ghetto.

"I have come looking for Maran," I told the first person I spotted at the entrance to the ghetto.

He signalled to me to wait and was back in a minute.

"He's gone."

"Where has he gone?" I demanded.

"I don't know. Nobody seems to know. All his belongings, along with his duffel bag, are missing too."



It was clear after a few days that Maran and Sigappi were not coming back.

Kuppan preferred not to complain to the police. "Matter of family honour. What will we achieve anyway?"

After Lakshmi cried many buckets of tears and the holidays ended, Father and Mother counselled her to return to college. She walked about with a forlorn expression and was sighted forever reading her college notes under the makeshift light her father had set up for her in the next-door building.

Kuppan had generously volunteered to take Maran's place temporarily until we found a replacement. It was like he had some guilt about Maran's disappearance. He alternated between his construction duties and attending to thatha.

That morning, after he had seated thatha in his easy chair and was leaving, thatha asked him, "Would you take Sigappi back if she returns?"

Kuppan thought about it for a moment. "Yes, I would."

"Why?" asked thatha.

"Nobody can make meen kuzhambu like her," replied Kuppan.

Thatha grunted. "Fish is good for the loins."

4 comments:

  1. Truly the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Thank you for sharing this story with us.—Edward Lee

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  2. Really enjoyed this vivid story. Terrific details and description. Thanks for sharing this.

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  3. As a Tamil speaker and someone who grew up in a similar background, I enjoyed this very much! Quite the twist there, and I could visualize every detail from your writing.

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  4. Maran, Kuppan and Sigappi together with Amma, appa and a thatha at home, took me back in time to the 80's. Strokes of tamil culture painted beautifully with English pen 🖊️!

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