My father, my sister and I are all confused about Vinayagam’s place in our new, reorganized family of three. Or four? We need him - at a moment’s notice - when we need him. But when we don’t want him around, we wish him to disappear into the lamp like Aladdin’s perfect genie.
Vinayagam looks nothing like Ganesha, the paunchy elephant-headed Hindu God of good luck, after whom his parents named him. On the contrary, Vinayagam is scrawny, skinnier even than Jesus Christ. This young bachelor of 26, our family chauffeur, rings the doorbell everyday at my father’s home in Chennai, India, at 7.30am. Outfitted typically in a recently ironed shirt inserted into a crisp dress pant, Vinayagam loves a hand-me-down from the men of our family, which he then alters to suit his puny frame. On his wrist he sports a $70 Skagen watch that I gifted him on one of my India visits. A broad black belt holds his pant in place but every half hour or so he tends to check and ensure that his privates are in place the way men often do in India.
In his hand Vinayagam holds a pink lotus, its petals still glistening with morning dew, that he picked up at a farm in the suburb of Porur where he shares an 800 square-foot low income housing apartment with his mother, father, brother, sister-in-law and a six-year-old nephew. He lays the flower down at the foot of an 8 by 11 photo of my mother in which she’s looking the way she always did when she liked something but not wholeheartedly, whatever it may be. He stares at her and reminisces about old times, shaking his head dismally. “She made sure I was never hungry. She fed me three meals a day. How can I ever forget that kindness?” He calls out to her via the photograph. “Mo.. Mo? How are you up there?”
Towards the end of my mother’s life, Vinayagam began to call her ‘Mo’, transgressing a mother-daughter territory that my sister and I had defined and cherished. We addressed our mother this way in our most tender moments and as she lay dying, our driver quietly adopted our term of endearment just because he was her gofer everyday for the last six years of her life. I saw her just once every year when I flew in from the San Francisco Bay Area; my sister, who was three hours away in Singapore, visited home every few months.
It’s funny how small things, like the usurping of a name, can peck and gnaw at your soul.
On a typical morning then, after greeting Mo, Vinayagam crosses our living room and saunters over to the dining area announcing his arrival with a ‘Saar...I’m here’. The ‘Saar’ or ‘Sir’ is my 82-year-old father. Nodding absently, dad continues whatever he’s doing - rinsing out his shaving brush in a bowl of water in the bathroom or writing yesterday’s accounts in a 1998 diary in his bedroom, or rereading the headlines in ‘The Hindu’ in the living room.
Vinayagam ambles into the kitchen wondering aloud if Saar is ready for his toast. He sneaks a peek at the top of the refrigerator. Whenever he notices that we’re short on bread, he says ‘Oh and by the way, Saar, I’ll have to stop later at Nilgiri’s to buy bread.’ He plugs in the toaster the way my father used to when mom was alive and well. Inserting a pencil into the top hole of the three hole power outlet, he thrusts in the two-pronged plug, drops into the toaster just two slices of Modern sweet bread and presses down the knob. He walks over to the fridge, pulls out the bottle of Maggi spicy ketchup and a slab of Amul butter. The bread slices toasted and buttered just so, Vinayagam calls out to my dad who then drops whatever he’s doing, walks over to sit at the dining table and promptly asks for the morning’s second cup of coffee or tea. If our cook hasn’t yet arrived for the day, it’s Vinayagam’s turn to make tea.
Nothing fazes Vinayagam though. Since our home began yoyoing under the weight of my mother’s ill health, he has figured out many things, not just the everyday running of the household. He has gleaned that orthodox caste-conscious Indian Brahmins who normally do not let non-Brahmins enter their kitchen, relax their rules when there are more pressing things like chemotherapy and radiation skewing their lives.
Vinayagam has had to take on my mother’s duties: every evening he boils a quart of milk for the next day’s homemade yogurt. When the cook is gone for the day, he steams hot idlis (rice and lentil cakes) for dad for dinner. By 9pm, he spruces up the kitchen for the night so the stone sink sparkles like it used to when my mother ruled the roost. Since her demise in July, Vinayagam is driver, bell-captain, errand-boy, barista, telephone operator, house cleaner, laundry machine operator, laundry folder, you name it. And, unfailingly, between all his odd jobs, he’ll stop, heave a sigh, and ask one of us how we’ll ever be able to forget about ‘our’ mother. These days dad’s siblings and all our extended family refer to him as my dad’s adopted son. Vinayagam is now part of our inner circle and when we have family and friends visiting, he doesn’t see anything wrong with sitting bang in the middle of all conversation. This doesn’t always work for my sister and me.
“Do you realize,” my sister asks me days after our mother’s cremation, “you and I don’t have a moment alone with anyone, not even dad, anymore?” We send Vinayagam out on odd jobs, just so we can get some time together with our father or an aunt or a friend.
“Vinayagam, can you go downstairs and wash the car?”
“Can you take these blouses to the tailor for alteration?
“Can you run upstairs to check if the laundry has dried on the clotheslines in the terrace?”
Perhaps Vinayagam will sense the vibes and keep a polite distance?
My sister and I don’t know exactly how and what we want him to be. There are days when he moves us to tears. Like the day I notice that someone has neatly hung a fresh pair of underwear and laid out a new towel prior to our dad’s morning shower.
“Vinayagam started doing this since life got complicated...when mother went back to the hospital,” my father says to me, choking on his words. “I never asked him to,” he says.
Then there are times when dad, my sister and I bristle as Vinayagam talks out of line, like the time he teases dad about his penny-pinching trait. It’s tough hearing things from Vinayagam - even though they may well be true.
“That fellow often crosses the line, you know,” my dad grumbles, observing that ‘this boy’ enters into the kitchen as he pleases and touches whatever he pleases. “So far,” dad mutters on, “Vinayagam hasn’t entered my prayer room but, god forbid, even that day may come.”
Over the years, the line separating us from Vinayagam has had to be broken, or dotted or, at the very least, zigzagged – especially as we began the countdown for my mother. While brain metastasis warped and zapped mother’s mental and motor skills, Vinayagam became her life support. He would grab every free moment to sit by her side massaging her forearm and calling out her name softly, a little tear glinting in the corner of his eyes.
“Can you believe it, him sitting on our mother’s bed like he owns this place?” my sister and I would gripe in private whenever we arrived in India to be with our mother, feeling somehow that this fellow who walked around and drove around in dust and grime had no right to pollute her bed. Yet when the female nurse we hired to help with our mother needed a hand to hoist her from the chair to the bed and back, guess who it was who came to her aid several times a day? Vinayagam would be at the door even before we hollered for help.
On our mother’s five-month journey to death, Vinayagam led the march. For three years, he drove her in and out of the oncology building, holding her by the arm, then wheeling her in a chair and even carrying her in his arms the day she had a seizure. Yet, somehow, my sister and I were troubled that an outsider was comforting our mother, touching her and pushing a stray hair away from her glazed eyes. What really was our problem? Terminally ill patients needed all the love they could get. And who were we to decide whose love she deserved and whose love she didn’t? Perhaps we resented the fact that the one person who spent every day of her last years with her knew more about her than we did.
On the morning of the cremation, a close friend gently led my father and Vinayagam away from the roaring flames, comforting a husband who married at twenty and lost his wife after sixty-one years, comforting a driver who found his surrogate mother at twenty but lost her after only six. I never got to see my mother’s body on the funeral pyre. Vinayagam did.
One evening two weeks after my mother’s ashes have been scattered in the Bay of Bengal, my dad and Vinayagam are sitting side by side in what will become another daily evening ritual. Dad is resting on my mother’s favorite green and yellow cane chair. Vinayagam is sprawled on the cool mosaic floor. They’re watching World Cup Cricket live on television.
Between commercials, Vinayagam reminds my dad about an upcoming to-do.
“Saar, you have to have a hair-cut the day after. Why don’t we drive up to the hair salon and also stop by Amudha. You’re running out of coffee grounds, you know.”
My father nods, his shiny cheeks reflecting the light of a Nescafe commercial playing on the screen, the beginnings of a smile creeping into his eyes. He cannot begin his day without percolating freshly roasted and ground coffee beans.
The All-Knowing Vinayagam, the Remover of All Obstacles, turns towards me and grins.