Vaigai – A Short Story
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 24 September, 2016
Copyright © 2016 Dr. Seshadri Kumar. All Rights Reserved.
This is my second attempt at fiction. I wrote this to enter a writing contest. I did not win, but I thought it might be worth sharing. I hope you like it.
Subramanian got up from his chair. He was in the boardroom in his flagship restaurant-cum-head office, the “Vel Murugan” in the Mylapore area of Chennai, the capital city of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was 10 pm, just past closing time.
He had just finished tallying the receipts, along with his senior managers, and analysing the results of the past year of all his restaurants: his 20 restaurant branches in Chennai, the remaining 20 branches in the rest of the state of Tamil Nadu, the 30 other branches in leading cities in India, and the two dozen international branches in the Middle East, the USA, and the UK.
South Indian vegetarian fare was constantly increasing in popularity the world over, because of its nutritious value and its vegetarian nature, and Subramanian’s “Vel Murugan” was at the top of the heap when it came to the South Indian restaurant business.
Subramanian congratulated his managers, ended the meeting, and reflected. Business was good. It always had been, thought Subramanian to himself, ever since he started being an entrepreneur in the food business, 25 years ago.
Twenty-five years ago…
He had grown up in the town of Rameswaram, in the southern part of the state of Tamil Nadu, the closest point to Sri Lanka. When he was a kid, there was nothing to live for in that place. Rameswaram had only two things – a temple and fishing. As a person born into poverty and into a low caste, mobility was not easy for him, and he grew up as a help in a tea stall. Later he started his own fast food joint, focusing on Tamil vegetarian food – idlis, steamed rice and lentil cakes; vadas, deep fried lentil doughnuts; dosas, lentil-rice pan-fried crepes; accompanied by sambars, fiery sauces of tamarind and chilli powder; and chutneys, made of coconut, coriander leaves, and tomato paste. Another popular accompaniment was a dry spice powder often referred to as “gunpowder” because of the punch it packed. Then there were the spicy rice mixes – coconut rice, tamarind rice, and lemon rice – always ready to be packed for people in a hurry.
The local townspeople frequented his joint and it was quite popular, but Subramanian was not happy. He wanted to do bigger things. A couple of years after he started his own fast food restaurant, his uncles and aunts insisted he get married (his parents had died when he was young and he was raised by an uncle and aunt and his grandmother), and found him a bride through the “arranged marriage” system. Sitamma was a girl distantly related to him – they could only marry within the caste and their community preferred a known family, and this family was well-known to them.
The marriage was a happy one, and within a year Sitamma was expecting. But Subramanian was not happy staying in Rameswaram. His ambitions were bigger. He wanted to see the big world, hit the big time. A sleepy fishing town could not contain the turbulence within him. So, with his pregnant wife, he decided to take the ferry on the Vaigai river from Rameswaram to Madurai, the nearest big town, as a transit point to Chennai, his eventual destination, where the fortunes of the high and mighty were being made.
It had been a very good monsoon that year, and the Vaigai was full with water. As his luck would have it, the ferry was hit by an unexpectedly fierce evening storm as the ferry approached Madurai, and most of the passengers drowned when the ferry capsized. Subramanian, meant for better things, miraculously survived, but Sitamma, the only person to ever mean anything to him – the only person he ever loved, even more than himself – along with their child that she was bearing – went missing.
In Madurai, Subramanian waited for months to find out if any news of his wife had been reported, but after 4 months of searching, the authorities told him there was no point in waiting – that he might as well do the final funeral rites for her. They had scoured the entire length of the river. A heartbroken Subramanian went back to Rameswaram, performed the last rites for his wife, and swore never to come back to the place that had cursed him with such bad luck. From now on, the only place he would call home was Chennai.
With all his savings that he had brought with him after selling his restaurant in Rameswaram, Subramanian bought a place in Mylapore in Chennai for his restaurant. Chennai was a bustling city and the hub of business in South India. An urban centre like it was full of hungry people looking for a quick meal. Subramanian also knew that his upwardly mobile patrons came predominantly from the upper castes, and so made sure to keep the place running as per their standards – pure vegetarian food, no alcohol, sparkling clean. Whoever he hired got told that these principles were non-negotiable. Plus, there was to be no haggling and service had to be outstanding. Honesty was a value he would never compromise on.
In return, Subramanian took care of them. Of ALL their needs. He got workers from rural areas who had just migrated to the city, who did not have a home, provided them lodging, took care of their medical needs, their children’s education, employment, and marriage, their retirement – everything. In return, he asked for absolute loyalty and perfect performance from his employees. No other restaurateur offered such amazing benefits to his employees.
The workers loved him; the quality of his food was outstanding; the service was fantastic; naturally, the business was a roaring success. In the first five years, he expanded from his flagship restaurant in Mylapore to 5 new restaurants all over Chennai. In the next 5 years, 15 more restaurants followed. In the next 5 years, he expanded all over India, and in the next 10 years, he turned his attention to the world.
But there was a darker side to him. He had learned about succeeding in business, and his ambition took him to greater and greater heights; but on the personal side, the loss of his wife devastated him so much that he never married again, because he believed that all he loved was doomed – his parents had died when he was just ten – and then the tragedy of his wife and his yet-to-be-born baby drowning in the Vaigai. He took to drink to drown the loneliness, and found comfort in whores when the physical need was too great.
Success also meant friends in high places, and this meant people from diverse occupations such as politics and crime. The vice equation in his life meant he did not limit his lust for whores. A few times a woman in his restaurant had caught his fancy, and he had had his way with her, sometimes using his money to get his way and sometimes using threats after forcing himself on her. His loyal deputy in the business, Sankaran, made sure matters were kept entirely hush-hush, and his connections with politicians and criminals served him well in these indiscretions.
Most of his employees were unaware of his trysts; the few who knew explained it away as the product of a life of loneliness and forgave his conduct in light of his otherwise impeccable behaviour – for, apart from this occasional vice, his behaviour towards both his employees and towards the general public was impeccable. He had established three colleges in the city and run a few centres to help destitute women stand on their own, and was generally considered one of the upstanding citizens of Chennai.
And Then, Jayanthi…
Subramanian continued pacing in his office after the managers had left. Normally he would walk to his home, just a block away from the restaurant, and go to sleep after a meeting like this. But today he could not.
He was thinking about Jayanthi and what had transpired this morning.
Jayanthi and her husband, Muthuvel, had come to his restaurant in Mylapore three months ago, looking for a job. The cooks had put them through a few tests to see how good their skills were, and the duo had passed all the tests with flying colours. The final decision on hiring senior cooks at the restaurant was always Subramanian’s own, as the chief cook, Palani, knew. The test was for him to sample a dinner they had prepared for them.
Subramanian had a policy of not meeting the applicants until he had tasted the food first.
“Palani, serve the rasam.”
“Yes, sir.” Palani knew his boss well. Many a time he had said, “Palani, a cook who cannot prepare good rasam cannot be called a good chef, no matter what else he does.” Rasam is a tamarind-based spicy soup that is eaten with rice and also often drunk, one of the standard features of Tamil cuisine.
“Exquisite. Now the sambar…hmm, this has a unique freshness all its own…the tamarind and the red chilli powder are perfectly matched. And the fenugreek flavouring is subtle.”
And so it went, until all the items had been sampled. At the end, he said, “bring the cooks in.”
In came Jayanthi and Muthuvel.
Subramanian was too stunned to say anything. Jayanthi seemed more beautiful than anyone Subramanian had ever seen. More than beauty, there was something magical about her that he could not take his eyes off her – he could not understand why. But keeping in mind that her husband was also there, he controlled himself with a great effort and said,
“Your cooking is outstanding. Where are you from?”
“Manamadurai, sir,” replied Muthuvel.
“Ah, Manamadurai…” replied Subramanian, closing his eyes. Manamadurai was a town that was on the river between Rameswaram and Madurai, and it was after they had passed that town that the boat had capsized…
He tried not to think about it. The reminder of the loss he had tried to forget his whole life had killed his appetite for any more questions.
“Well, you two are hired,” he said abruptly. “Palani will take care of everything else. Congratulations!” he said hurriedly and rose, signalling an end to the interview. Some memories that should have remained buried had been exhumed, and he wanted them to go back into the ground.
Subramanian not get Jayanthi out of his mind. Why was he so drawn to her? After fighting his feelings for a while, he decided he would make her another of his conquests. But whenever he wanted to make his move, Muthuvel was always there. They did not suspect anything, but he was never getting the perfect opportunity.
And then, after three months, he had thought of a plan that morning. He called Palani and told him, “Palani, the season for the small mangoes for the pickles is starting. We need the best quality. Send Muthuvel to the villages today – he knows where to go – to get the best for the restaurants. Shouldn’t take him more than 4-5 days.”
Palani had taken care of that. Around noon, Subramanian called in Jayanthi and said, “We are having a family function tomorrow at my mansion on Old Mahabalipuram Road. I want you to personally prepare food for the guests there – your cooking is the best I have seen and I want nothing less for my guests. Be there by 2 pm to start preparing.” Jayanthi, suspecting nothing, agreed.
Subramanian could not sleep the whole night. He was thinking of his upcoming tryst with Jayanthi the next day. He did not come to the restaurant in the morning; instead, he went to the stylist, got his hair styled, got a manicure, and then went straight to his mansion around noon. On the way, he bought vegetables and other supplies and brought it with him to the mansion for the “function” that he had asked Jayanthi to come cook for so there would be no suspicion when she arrived.
She came promptly at 2 pm. “Come in,” he said, smiling broadly.
She looked at the empty house and said, “No one is here, master?”
“No, no, they will all start coming in at 5 pm, and I want everything to be ready by then. Let me show you into the kitchen.”
He took her to the kitchen and told her what needed to be prepared, told her what he had procured and how he wanted it done. She got to work.
He went back to the living room and poured himself a drink to calm himself down and prepare himself for the next move.
An hour later, he tiptoed into the kitchen. Jayanthi was looking gorgeous as she wiped the sweat from her brow, stirring the sauces. As always, she wore jasmine in her hair, which drove Subramanian crazy with desire. As she was stirring the sauce, Subramanian came from behind and, one hand holding her waist and another holding her hand, said, “That’s how it is done, my dear.”
Jayanthi recoiled with horror and turned around to see Subramanian. “Master!” she screamed.
“Not master. You should call me ‘Subbu’ from now on.”
“What are you saying?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I want you. I desire you. I wish to feel your body around mine. I have not been able to forget you since the day I first saw you.”
“But I am married to Muthuvel!”
“Ah, don’t worry about him. He need not know. Satisfy me, and the world is yours. Just give yourself to me once in a while, and see where I take you.”
“Aren’t you ashamed of talking like this? I am young enough to be your daughter!”
“Come now, don’t play hard to get now. Many women would kill to be in your place,” said Subramanian, moving towards her.
Knowing she needed to act quickly, Jayanthi picked up a large kitchen knife and said, “Don’t you dare!”
Subramanian laughed. “My dear, I am a veteran at these things. Why are you being childish?”
But she wouldn’t budge. Subramanian decided he had had enough. He would take her forcefully. He tore off her saree, and was about to pin her down, when she lost her balance. The knife in her hand accidentally turned around and impaled her on the chest as she fell to the ground.
She was dead.
Subramanian was stunned. He never wanted things to end this way.
It was not the first time he had seen an unnatural death. There had been a couple of women over the years who had been stubborn and would not give themselves willingly to him – and bad things had happened. He was not unnerved by Jayanthi’s death. But he was truly sad to see Jayanthi die. A pity. She could have had such a great life.
He prepared to make the call to Sankaran to take care of the mess. Suddenly he noticed that her handbag had fallen down and everything in it had fallen out. He should put everything back in her bag – or there would be trouble with the police. Sankaran would take care of things, but why take chances?
As he was collecting her things, he suddenly noticed an old, faded photograph, with the Tamil word for mother written on it: “Amma.” Curious, he looked at it … and the blood drained from his face.
It was a very pregnant Sitamma.
Subramanian’s head was spinning. Jayanthi was Sitamma’s daughter?
It all made sense to him now. Manamadurai…so Sitamma had survived and been saved in Manamadurai … so she died giving birth to Jayanthi … why else did Jayanthi have no other photo? But… he had waited for four months … how did they not find her? And if she had survived, why did she not try to contact her family? Did she lose her memory? Who took this photograph?
He would never know now. The only person who knew the answers – his own daughter – was dead on the floor before him.
He should have been the one to drown in the Vaigai.
There was only one thing to do.
He went to the living room, opened his bag, found his gun, and put the barrel to his mouth. “Please forgive me, Sitamma,” he said to himself, tears flowing down his face, as he pulled the trigger.
Disclaimer: This is entirely a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this short story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.