Granny had somewhere secured yard-long sugarcane for the celebration, although it was not the season. She said, “No birthday is truly celebrated unless and until a sugarcane is seen in the house. It’s auspicious.” She strung mango leaves across the doorway, and decorated the threshold with coloured rice-powder. A neighbor passing down the road stopped to ask: “What’s the celebration? Shall we blow out the ovens in our houses and come for the feast in yours?”
“Yes, by all means. Most welcome,” said the old lady courteously, and added as if to neutralise the invitation, “You are always welcome.” She felt sorry at not being able to call in the neighbours, but that recluse grandson of hers had forbidden her to invite anyone.
Left to herself she would have engaged pipes and drums and processions, for this particular birthday was a thing she had been planning all along, this twentieth birthday when she would hand over the savings pass Book to her grandson and relinquish the trust.
It was an adventure accompanying Granny to the Fund Office, four doors off. She seemed to shrink in stature under an open sky-she who dominated the landscape under the roof of Number 14, lost her stature completely in the open. Sriram couldn’t help remarking, “You look like a baby, Granny.” Granny half-closed her eyes in the glare and whispered, “Hush! Don’t talk aloud, others may here.”
“Whatever it may be. What happens behind one’s door must be known only to the folk concerned. Others had better shut up.”
As if confirming her worst suspicion, Kanni cried breezily from his shop, “Oh, grandmother and her pet on an outing! A fine sight! The young gentleman is shooting up, madam!”
Sriram felt proud of this compliment; he was seized with a feeling of towering height, and he pursed his lips in a determined manner. He gripped in his right hand the brown calico-bound pass-book presented to him with a somewhat dramatic gesture by his grandmother a moment ago.
“Oh, the young subedar is going to the right school with the right book,” Kanni remarked. “He must live to be as great as his father and grandfather put together.”
Granny muttered, quickening her steps, “Don’t stand and talk to that man; he will plague us with his remarks; that’s why I never wanted your grandfather to sell that site opposite, but he was an obstinate man! He was also fond of this Kanni, who was then a young fellow.”
“Was Grandfather also buying plantains?”
“Not only plantains,” she muttered, with a shudder, recollecting his habit of buying cheroots in Kanni’s shop. She had thought it degrading for any person to be seen smoking a cheroot. “Like a baby sucking a candy stick!” she was wont to remark, disturbing the even tenor of their married life. She had always blamed Kanni for encouraging her husband to smoke and never got over a slight grudge on that account.
Before reaching the Fund Office, they had interruptions from other neighbours who peeped out of their doorways and demanded to be told what extraordinary thing made the old lady go out in the company of her grandson. They could understand her going out all alone on the first of the month in the direction of the Fund Office- that was understandable. But what made the lady go out in the company of the young fellow, who was-an unusual sight-holding on to a bank book?
“What!” cried a lady who was a privileged friend of Granny’s, “Dose it mean that this urchin is going to have an independent account?”
“He is no longer an urchin,” cried the old woman. “He’s old enough to take charge of his own affairs. How long should I look after him? I am not immortal. Each responsibility should be shaken off as and when occasion arises to push off each responsibility.” This was a somewhat involved sentiment expressed in a roundabout manner, but her friend seemed to understand it at once, and cried, coming down the steps of her house, “How wisely you speak! The girls of these days should learn from you how to conduct themselves, “which pleased Granny so much that she stopped to whisper in her ear: “I was only a trustee of his money. From today he will take care of his own money.”
This is an extract from ‘Waitnig for the Mahatma’ by R.K. Narayan
R.K. Narayan was one of the greatest Indo-Anglican writers. His books are read by the young and the old alike. He was born in 1908 and died at the ripe old age of 92 in May 2000.