Ammalu amma stirred in bed at the sound of the bang from the mosque. She was always the first to wake up in the house. She got out of bed and went about her chores slowly, mumbling to herself. At 70, she still attended to the household chores. She grumbled when her daughter-in-law, Sarojini, stepped into the kitchen.
“When I was your age, I would be done with the morning chores by this time! Oh, whom am I to ask for a glass of water at this age?“, she remarked.
But Sarojini had learnt by now that it was best to not respond to any provocation from her mother-in-law. She heated the water and started to make tea. Ammalu amma muttered something under her breath and made her way to the verandah. Here, she picked up the newspaper, reclined on her chair and adjusted her spectacles. For the next several minutes, she read the newspaper, looking up only when her cup of tea arrived.
Anita and Ranjith came running to the verandah. They had picked up a squabble and were now creating a huge chaos.
“Don’t you want to know what happened to the squirrel that had entered the little boy’s house by mistake? Let me read to you! Come here, children!“, Ammalu amma called out to them. The children came over to take a look at the comic strip. Ammalu amma started reading out to them and that kept them preoccupied until their mother called out for them.
Ammalu amma stared at the trees in the distance. She thought back to those years when both her sons had been around. She had always taken pride in her sons; she bragged to the neighbours that they would never leave her. But the elder son had got married and moved out with his wife. The younger son had then married, and Ammalu amma always feared that he would move out too. She was prejudiced against his wife and though Sarojini took good care of her, Ammalu amma was never happy. However, she loved her grandchildren. She weaved her life around them. She told them stories, shielded them from spankings, and gave them little presents from time to time. Sometimes a sweetmeat. Sometimes clothes. Sometimes color pencils.
Ammalu Amma’s most precious posession was her betelnut box. She carried it all the time and refused to part with it. She guarded in it a stack of betel leaves, some arecanut and some lime. And beneath the stack of betel leaves, she guarded a stack of notes- money that she had collected over years. Some of it was money she had managed to save for herself. Some of it was money that family members deposited in her hands when they came to visit. She counted it many times in a day.
Occasionally, Anita would trick her. She would pretend to play with her betelnut box and stealthily take out a couple of notes. Ammalu amma was aware of this. But she would pretend not to notice. Anita bought herself sweets or clothes with the money.
However, Ammalu amma was wary of Sarojini. She would never count the notes when Sarojini was around.
“That wicked girl cannot be trusted. She will steal this money and buy sarees for herself. She will not give it to my son when he is in need of it. Nor will she spend it on my grandchildren. I must be careful!“, she would say to herself.
But in truth, Sarojini never bothered about the financial affairs of the family. She was a happy soul. She worked as a farmhand and was content with the money it fetched her. She was aware of Ammalu amma’s stack of notes, but she had no interest in it. Sarojini and her husband worked hard towards fulfilling the one dream they nurtured- of building a house for themselves. With a little more money, they could buy the land that they had in mind. Ammalu Amma could have made it easier for them by giving them her savings, but she had no such plans.
‘In any case, it will go to them after my death. So why now?’, she convinced herself.
Time went by and Ammalu amma grew older. The stack of notes in her box increased. But Ammalu amma’s health had begun to give her trouble. She fell ill from time to time. Sarojini took good care of her. However, Ammalu amma’s health declined steadily. She could feel that she wouldn’t live much longer.
One evening, Sharada, the neighbour, came to visit her.
“I have something important to tell you“, Ammalu amma said.
“Go on“, Sharada said.
“I have some savings. 10,000 rupees in total. I haven’t told anybody about it. I want it to be given to my son. But I don’t want Sarojini to know about it. She will use it all for her selfish needs. In the event of my death, inform my son about this money and ask him to buy the land he wishes to buy. Let me show you where I have hidden the money“, she said.
Sharada followed her to her bedroom. Ammalu amma sat down on her bed and started to unsew the pillow cover. Sharada was astonished by the stack of notes that lay within.
“Here it is. Mind you, not a word until I die!“, Ammalu amma said.
She counted the money, put it back in its place and sewed the pillow cover.
“Strange woman“, Sharada muttered to herself.
It wasn’t long before Ammalu amma fell ill yet again. This time, it was a fatal attack of pneumonia. Her condition deteriorated, but she refused to be taken to hospital. She breathed her last on the morning of a cloudy day, and the family attended religiously to her death rites.
A few days later, Sharada came to visit Sarojini.
“Sarojini, I have something to show you. Can you take me to Ammalu amma’s room?“, said Sharada.
Sarojini led the way, perplexed. When they stepped into the room, Sharada gasped. The cot stood there, but there was no mattress or pillow on it.
“Where is the mattress?“, asked Sharada.
“Oh, I burnt it! Why do you ask?“, replied Sarojini.
“And you burnt the pillow too?”
“Yes…the very next day, I burnt the clothes, mattress and pillow! But why do you ask?”
“Your mother-in-law acted rather unwisely. She sewed in all her savings into her pillow, refusing to tell you about it. There were 10,000 rupees in all. With that money, you could have easily bought the land. Silly woman!“, said Sharada.
“At the end of the day, money is just paper that will burn in the fire. It will leave nothing of itself “, she said.
“Let me get you a glass of tea“, she added and walked towards the kitchen.
Sharada watched her walk, perplexed by her calm acceptance of such a big tragedy.