I was four years old when I had announced to the world that I intended to be a painter of flowers. Mama was certain that this was a passing fad and tried to coax me into painting butterflies and rivers and mountains. But I steadfastly held on to this fascination and continued painting flowers with renewed determination. “I want to be the world’s best painter of flowers” , I declared sullenly, time and again. Each painting of mine would be proudly showcased in the study wall in a new frame. It was probably because of her persistent efforts to nudge me into painting other objects that I stubbornly continued painting flowers. I would be sent for a painting competition with the topic, ‘ My family ‘ and I would paint some roses and come home, much to my mother’s quiet frustration. ‘My favourite animal’ and I would paint the bougainvilleas framing our gate. A few more years of this and she soon gave up on me. Once I escaped school I chased my passion by studying in the best art schools in Europe until I became a full time artist with my own studio in Coonoor.
A few minutes more and the light would be just right for the perfect picture. I grimaced as I stared at the bright red flowers feeling vexed at my not-good-enough digital captures. This needs more light, I thought, looking up at the heavy grey clouds. “Picture?” offered a guy mistaking me for a tourist scouting for someone to take my photograph. I smiled and shook my head. “I’m an artist”, I explained. “I look at flowers for… inspiration”. He looked momentarily surprised. My spectacle framed nerdy face probably didn’t fit in with his mental image of a flamboyant artist. He, on the other hand, looked exactly as I imagined an artist would look like. Scruffy and unapologetically casual. Bohemian… yes, that was the word. “Naattil evideya?” came the next question which meant , where in Kerala are you from? I was stunned that he was a fellow Malayali and even more stunned that he could make out , inspite of my very Western sensibilities that I was one. He was on holiday and a hobby photographer. We exchanged pleasantries and he asked again, “You paint flowers?”. I nodded happily, “ Only flowers”. And then he grinned boyishly, pointing to the poppies in bloom. “That’s a dangerous flower to draw inspiration from.” I laughed heartily for the poppy flower was a notorious one. It’s fruit oozed opium, which was an infamous addictive drug in the seventies. Now, it was used to make morphine, the most effective and cheapest painkiller in the world. For a moment I was seized with this need to tell him , a complete stranger i had just met in the middle of Sim’s park in Coonoor, this story about my great grandfather. He would have listened. But I waited for that moment of awkward contemplation to pass me by and he soon sauntered away. Would he have believed me if I told him that my great grandfather used to ride around town in a horse driven chariot, back in Kerala? Being a close aide of the Dewan, he had what they called the Abkari contract from the Maharaja of Travancore which meant that he was the sole wholesale contractor for alcohol for the entire state. This included in addition to toddy and arrack… opium and ganja. Opium , the source of the painkiller morphine, soon became scarce once the law banning it got enforced in 1985. In fact , nearly two generations of doctors and nurses had grown up without even seeing a morphine tablet. Misplaced fears about drug abuse had condemned millions of terminally ill patients to an unnecessarily painful death. But things were different now. Sheila had no trouble getting morphine tablets for Mama as she had reached a state of severe pain.
I flipped out my mobile phone and checked for any updates on from Sheila. Nothing. So it had probably been an uneventful visit this Wednesday by the palliative care team who came home to check on Mama.
And then the phonecall I dreaded finally came last night. A call from my elder sister, Sheila. Her strangled voice with the four choking words. “ Mama. Has. Left. Us.” It wasn’t something we weren’t expecting. Mama was a terminally ill patient with limited mobility since five years now. Initially she held on stubbornly to her ancestral house in the village with a home nurse in tow. I’m too proud to stay with my daughters, she had said. But when my sister realised that proper care was not being given she put her foot down and insisted that Mama move in with her. At that time I was away in Paris, pursuing my own busy career as a painter. I would spend time with her every winter , when it got too cold here and I felt the need for some tropical warmth. Sheila had taken charge completely while I was left with this gnawing guilt of not having been there when she needed me. Once I relocated to Coonoor, I offered to take Mama there, but Sheila wouldn’t hear of it.
At the funeral, Sheila wore a grey saree , while I work a black fishcut skirt and net blouse. We always tried our best to look as different as possible. In our hairstyle, grooming and clothes sense. But every single time the comparisons would pop up. Sheila had done everything conventionally expected of her. While I had played truant. ‘The only consolation…’ Sheila had said , was that Mama was pain free towards the end as she had finally managed to convince her to take Morphine for pain relief. And that drug addiction was not a worry. That unlike with injected morphine, addiction would be rare with morphine taken orally. The reality was that even if she did get addicted, it didn’t matter in the least, especially at this late stage. But spelling that out to someone sick, of course, wasn’t easy.
After the funeral, when everyone left, we sat in Mama’s room, by her wheelchair, reminiscing about her and our childhood. We had to plan the 40th day function and decide who gets to keep Mama’s diamonds and sarees. That night I clambered onto Mama’s bed and slept on it. The next morning we were to unscrew the bed railings on the left side. These were screwed into the cot to prevent her from falling off in her sleep. I looked up at the dust coated ceiling fan. It was so strange that such a thick carpet of dust always coated the most used fans. It had such a creaky sound too. I wondered how Mama tolerated it day in and day out. My house in Coonoor thankfully had no ceiling fans. On the right side of Mama’s bed was the wall with all our old family photographs. My eyes stayed a minute longer on my handsome great grandfather dressed in a suit. I remember telling a friend about our dubious history and he just laughed and said, “ Her excellency has some very desirable contacts”. And then he told me this. “You would know that behind the most respectable families including the aristocracy and royalty there are some extremely unsavoury people. If I am not mistaken, Kennedy’s grandfather was a bootlegger. It just depends on how many generations you go back.” That made for some consolation. As I shifted in my sleep, I could feel something crunchy under me. I tossed in my sleep again, wondering how Mama lay here for five long years. I could feel the warmth in her old quilt comforting me as I started to slip into comfortable slumber. Again I felt something… like tiny pebbles in the beach. I slipped my fingers under the sheet and explored a bit. There was nothing there. I sat up and switched on the light and removed the bed sheet and scrutinised the cloth lining of the mattress . At one corner there seemed to be a small hole in the lining of the cloth cover. I wiggled two fingers in. I held my breath wondering what I would find there. Pearls? Diamonds, maybe? Out came something white… and round. I held them in my hand . Tablets! Mama had been hiding her tablets here. Why would she do something like that? And which tablets were these? And then, it struck me like a bolt of lighting. These were the Morphine tablets. Inspite of Sheila’s pleas, Mama had refused to take them. So terrified she was at the thought of getting addicted. So ingrained was this fear and distrust, going back a generation to a time when it was abhorred and abolished. I pondered over whether I should tell Sheila about this in the morning. Mama had squirrelled them away here, one by one, into the lining of the mattress. I sat and counted them and put them carefully into Mama’s old spectacle case. And then as the early rays of sunlight entered the bedroom through the French window in the east, I made up my mind.
I would go and try and see if I could return these tablets, if possible.
On my own.
I did not have the heart to rob Sheila of… “the only consolation”.
The photograph of a “Poppy Flower in bloom” taken at the Bodnant garden in Wales was the inspiration for this story
About the Author:
Dr. Priya Mary Jacob is a pathologist working in a cancer centre by day and harried mother of two by night. She blogs at acuteangle7.wordpress.com and has written a still looking for a publisher novel titled ‘Scopegoats’ along with her friend Dr. Sajna VM Kutty. It is a medical campus novel from a woman’s point of view. #scopegoats_the_novel.
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