The sun seared her skin as she expertly split a large boulder into multiple small rocks. That’s when Mutthukannan felt the first twinge in her belly. The experience of previously birthing 9 children gave her the confidence that it would still be a couple of hours before her 10th one entered the world. Time enough to finish her shift and leave with her day’s wages.
By the time Mutthukannan stuffed her collected wages in her blouse, shooting pains were following each other at a furious pace. She walked home, calling out to the midwife on the way. At dinnertime, Mutthukannan served her family, as the newest addition slept in a corner.
‘He will bring you great fame and fortune. He is born lucky’, declared the astrologer, who was also her brother, at the 11th-day naming ceremony. Exhausted, because of a sleepless night and hardworking days, and annoyed, at having to miss half a day at work because of the ceremony, Mutthukannan looked at the malnourished and dark-skinned sleeping baby and had her own doubts. But she shrugged and named him Neelan, the blue-skinned one. The prediction was forgotten until Neelan’s legs refused to grow with the rest of him. Polio was the diagnosis. Mutthukannan beat her chest and cried for an hour, shrugged it off as fate, gave her brother a piece of her mind, and went on with life.
Her brother resolutely stuck to his astrological prediction for the boy.
In time, Mutthukannan’s husband had passed away and her older children had children of their own. As Neelan grew, so did his appetite. Mutthukannan rued how much he ate, despite which he had nothing to show for it on his, still, malnourished body.
Most of his older siblings had moved out of the small hut and Neelan was glad that he not only had more space to himself but the occasional monetary help from them too. Apart from eating Neelan spent most of his time in front of the mirror, until his mother smacked him hard and asked him to make himself useful. At such times he used his handicap to advantage, pointing at his shriveled legs and shutting her up.
When Neelan turned 14, Mutthukannan got him a job at a Beedi factory. He would just need his hands to roll the beedi’s she reasoned. Neelan was as good as gold for the 1st month, even becoming the owner’s favorite. Mutthukannan had begun to heave a sigh of relief. Till the owner realized that Neelan was smoking and selling far more beedi’s than he was supposed to be rolling. And was immediately kicked out, without wages. Now, apart from a gargantuan appetite, Vel smoked like a chimney too, when he wasn’t preening in front of the mirror.
When he turned 16, on Deepawali Day, Neelan announced that he wanted to be a Film Star. Mutthukannan was too shocked to react. His neighbor’s and siblings doubled up with laughter and after the shock wore off, his mother used the broom to beat sense into him. Pitying his aging mother’s state Mutthukannan’s eldest son, Selvam, decided to help her, and his youngest brother.
Selvam was one of the drivers for the local Member of Parliament’s fleet of cars. Well behaved, punctual, trustworthy, and subservient, he had made himself get noticed and decided now would be the time to make use of it. He spoke to the MoP’s PA about his handicapped brother whom fate had been cruel to and wondered if Saar would be able to get him a booth specially reserved for the physically challenged, from where his brother could sell beverages and snacks, thus becoming financially independent and helping his old mother lessen the burden of running the house.
The PA heard Selvam out and forgot all about it.
Selvam brought up the topic again 2 months later. As luck would have it the elections were 3 months away and the PA convinced his boss that helping a physically challenged person would look good in the papers. 15 days later Neelan was sitting in his booth.
Mutthukannan heaved another sigh of relief and she thanked the Lord, hoping her wayward son and he would finally realize the folly of his ways and mend them.
Her prayers had barely reached the Lord when the police received a tip-off and reached Neelan’s booth. Where along with tea, coffee, snacks, and newspapers they found him selling cheap alcohol, hand in glove with the Tasmac shop owner next door. The booth was shut and sealed and his mother’s broom met Neelan’s back once more.
A few days later Mutthukannan was washing clothes outside her hut when she saw a fleet of cars stopping on the main road and a line of people, mostly wearing blinding whites, making their way into the filthy slum. She shrugged and continued washing. In the next few minutes, that line of people was barricading the sunlight and casting shade in front of her.
She looked up and saw Selvam among them, trying his best to look somber. She didn’t recognize anyone else, not even the fat man wearing the whitest white and addressing her as, ‘Amma’. Mutthukanan stopped what she was doing, and stood up as she wiped her hands on the sides of her saree. She looked questioningly towards Selvam but his face gave nothing away.
The fat man was sweating profusely and had a smarmy smile on his face. He introduced himself as Selvam’s boss and joined his palms together respectfully towards her.
Mutthukannan’s bewilderment increased. What was going on, she wondered but didn’t know whom to ask. Selvam’s boss looked towards him, who in turn looked towards his mother and nodded towards the open door of their hut. Mutthukannan immediately walked inside and welcomed Selvam’s boss in, whom Selvam followed, while the rest of the party chose to stand outside.
As Mutthukannan got the fat man a glass of water, which he took gratefully but didn’t touch, she saw some visual exchange going on between her son and his boss. She stood with her back towards the wall, looking at the floor, failing to make any sense of what was going on.
Suddenly Selvam thrust a package wrapped in newspaper in his mother’s hands. She looked at the package and at the two men with a question in her eyes.
‘5 lakhs, Amma’, the fat man said, even more, smarmy this time.
Mutthukannan gasped, and almost dropped the package.
So much money? What for? Her eyes questioned Selvam, whose expressions still remained elusive.
‘Your son, Amma’, began the fat man and she looked at Selvam ‘No, not him, your youngest…’
Mutthukannan’s brow creased, Neelan? How did this man know him?
‘Very nice boy, Amma, very nice’ , he continued, as he got out a handkerchief and instead of wiping his sweaty face, wiped his tears.
What was going on? Why were these people here? What was this money for? Why was this man sitting in her hut and crying?
Mutthukannan was suddenly tired, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know anymore.
As if reading her thoughts the fat man continued ‘I know Neelan, Amma. I got him the Booth.’
Ah so that is how they were connected, Mutthukanan relaxed.
‘He wants you to have this,’ the fat man pointed towards the package in her hand.
She was confused again.
Why would Neelan send money through this man to her? Moreover, how did he get so much money?
Selvam coughed. A meaningful cough.
‘We are very saary, Amma. Very saary. It was a mistake.’
Suddenly Mutthukannan didn’t want to hear any more.
‘Saar’s daughter was learning driving and didn’t see Neelan sprawled drunk on the ground. She was practicing in Saar’s car, Amma. Government car. Big problem’.
Mutthukannan couldn’t hear a thing after that except for her brother’s voice saying,
‘He will bring you great fame and fortune! He is born lucky.’
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