The Queen of Diamonds
By Hari Kumar
Amooma gently picked up the thirteen cards that lay in a loose pile on the low table in front of her. She stacked them up before carefully opening them like a fan. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the cards and rearranged them in her hands. Ace of Diamonds, King of Diamonds, no Queen of Diamonds, Seven of Clubs, Eight of Clubs, no Nine of Clubs... She quickly glanced at what the Joker was. Queen. The Joker was a Queen. Not a single Queen in hand. Not a single Joker. No natural sequence either. Doesn't look good.
She studied the faces around her. To her left was twelve-year-old Anju. Angelic Anju. Anju of the wide innocent eyes. The same innocent eyes she had inherited from her father, Amooma's only son. Amooma studied those large eyes that were fixed intently on the cards in Anju's hand. To Amooma's discomfort, Anju's face did not betray the cards she held. To Amooma's right was snooty Sanju, Anju's elder sister.
"Don't look at me like that," barked Sanju, "I bet you are trying to read my face and guess what cards I have. Amma warned me you are very good at face-reading," Sanju's dainty eyebrows, which were pierced at the far ends with ivory studs, curved angrily.
"Sanju, don't make up stories," Lalitha said sharply and then turning to Amooma she added in a defensive tone, "I never said anything like that, Amma, this Sanju, she is very good at making up things."
"I know you wouldn't, dear Lalitha. After all you have such great respect for me," the sarcastic stress of the word "great" did not escape Lalitha's ears. She chose to ignore it and shifted her attention to Anju.
"Come on, Anju," Lalitha said, "your turn. Hurry up."
"Talking of stories," Amooma suddenly said, her furrowed face breaking into a kindly smile. "I will tell you one. After all, how can I be a good grandmother if I don't have a story for my grandchildren!" Amooma gave Anju one of her loving-grandmother looks.
Anju yelled "Yaay!" excitedly to which Sanju snapped, "Stop your yaaying and play the game, stupid! Can't you see she is trying to distract you with her silly story?"
"All right. If you don't want to hear my stories I won't tell a word," Amooma managed to sound hurt.
"But I want to hear your story, Amooma. Just ignore Sanju. She is angry with everyone, especially Achan for not allowing her to stay back in Houston and hit the malls with that Blake boy," Anju pleaded.
"YOU," yelled Sanju as she sprang up to hit her little sister.
"Sssit," hissed Lalitha at Sanju and then added tapping her forehead resignedly, "I have had it with this girl."
"Let's hear what the majority opinion is," Amooma looked straight at Lalitha's eyes.
"Yes, yes. I also want to hear your story, Amma," an unsure smile quivered in Lalitha's lips. "Please do go on."
Anju took the Jack of Spades that was open to her and threw out a Nine of Clubs. Amooma grabbed the Nine before it even hit the table like a swooping gull grabbing a jumping fish. Sanju glared at Anju with an expression that said, "See, I told you so".
Amooma looked pleased as she began, "Once upon a time long long ago in this very same Thiruvananthapuram city, there was a poor and pious pattar, by the name of Ganapathi Iyer. He lived with his young wife and baby in a tiny one-room house just beside the walls of the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple," in spite of Amooma's eloquent narration, she was deftly rearranging the cards, making new combinations in her mind before throwing away a useless Three.
"What a dumb game!" remarked Sanju seeing the Three. "We don't play Rummy this way in the US. Whoever heard of no quitting midway!" Sanju slammed the cards defiantly face down and said, "I quit!"
Amooma looked at Sanju blankly and turning to Anju she asked, "Anjukutty, whose house is this?"
"Your house, Amooma," Anju replied innocently.
"And whose cards are these, Anjukutty?"
"Your cards, Amooma."
"And in my house you play by whose rules, Anjukutty?"
"Your rules, Amooma."
"Anjukutty, tell your sister, if she doesn't play by my rules in my house, I will make her Achan clip the wings of that flat eagle in her pretty little passport. She will spend the rest of her miserable teenage life going to college in a sweaty, packed KSRTC bus, and getting groped by lepers and fishermen."
Fear flashed through Sanju's eyes before she picked up her cards and said crossly, "Okay, okay. Why should I be the one to spoil your fun?"
"Aah! Where was I, Anjukutty?" Amooma's smile was back.
"Ganapathi Iyer living beside the Padma-something temple walls," replied Anju eagerly.
"Padmanabhaswami temple," corrected Lalitha, "It is a very important temple here. I have taken you there when we were here last. Don't you remember?"
"I was a baby when you were here last, Amma!" said Anju.
"Ah, yes! Ganapathi Iyer," Amooma brought her cards close to her chest and gazed fondly at the whirring ceiling fan. "He earned a living teaching Sanskrit to the SSLC boys of Model School. He was also a good astrologer. Had a handful of regular customers, all poor like him, who threw him a rupee or two during their occasional visits to fix a Muhurtham or do a Prashnam. Unlike today, in those days sinners were rare, things were predictable, and so astrologers made very little money."
"Her young wife, let us call her, say, Subbulakshmi, was eighteen years younger to him. She was a typical pattar wife: docile, devout and domesticated as the temple cows behind those high walls."
"Now, we do not know whether our young Subbu had dreams and desires like the young girls today. But whatever she had was tightly locked up under the layers of her thick black hair."
"It may have been Subbu's vegetarian cooking full of fiber and lentils, or it may even be the difficult age in which he was, you know, when men bloat in the middle with a belly full of gas. Anyway, the fact was our Iyer man developed a serious and embarrassing case of gas trouble. It was so bad that his Sanskrit lessons had a grammar of their own, often punctuated by extraneous sounds that resembled starched cotton mundus being ripped apart. He would often try to mask the sounds by the sound of chair-shifting and loud throat-clearing. But his students were smart pattar students. Their giggles grew louder..."
"Waitaminit Amooma, are you talking about farting?!" Anju squealed curling her nose. "What a dumb question. Isn't it obvious, stupid?" Sanju snapped and then turned to face Amooma. "Amooma, go on, now your story is getting interesting," she kept her cards on the table and smiled at Amooma.
"Ewww. Gross!" exclaimed Anju holding her nose.
Lalitha covered her mouth and smiled at her mother-in-law coyly. "Sanju, your turn," she said looking at Sanju from the corner of her eyes.
"I want to listen to this, Amma," Sanju was adamant.
"Ganapathi Iyer was greatly troubled," Amooma went on. "In his tummy and in his mind. He tried all kinds of remedies his slender purse would allow him. Gelusils, Pudhina leaves, diet control... All had very little effect to calm the winds in his tummy. Finally, it was a neighbour who suggested the adsorbent qualities of the humble charcoal. The effects were miraculous. He started religiously consuming a moderate piece of charcoal after every meal. His face was happier and his Sanskrit lessons were quieter. Things went on like this for a few years until one day our good Iyer developed a terrible pain in his lower abdomen. The doctor did the usual tests after a worried Subbu pawned her only gold chain and promised the Pattala Ganapathi of Pazhavangadi — the god not the Iyer — three coconuts. 'Suspect it is a kidney stone,' the doctor had told her. 'Don't worry. Nothing serious. Can be flushed out with some medication.' But the following week the pain grew unbearable in spite of the painkillers Iyer had. He was rushed to the emergency unit and the duty doctor discovered that one of his kidneys had failed completely. He was immediately operated on and the offending stone removed. The young doctor passed the blood stained stone to Subbu who was waiting anxiously outside. 'Make a ring out of it,' the doctor had jokingly remarked."
"Subbu took the stone home and washed off the blood. Though the stone was irregular in shape, it was clear and Subbu noticed a fire sparkling in it. Her heart raced as she recognized it to be the same fire she saw in her rich neighbour's diamond nose-stud. The following day she took the stone to a trusted jeweler. The jeweler studied the stone and confirmed her suspicions. 'A fortune!' he had exclaimed, 'at least two carats after cutting. You are indeed fortunate, sister.'"
"The next day, when Subbu went to the hospital, the senior doctor took her aside and told her that she had to bring back the stone for them to determine the composition in order to prevent recurrence. Subbu quietly told the doctor they needn't bother. 'It was a diamond,' she said to the doctor's disbelief. 'This has never happened before. Never ever,' the doctor repeated as he studied the stone. After enquiring about Iyer's diet, the doctor was positive that it was the rich 'carbon' diet that caused the diamond formation in his kidney. Somehow the carbon that settled in his kidneys had turned to diamond. 'But anyway, you must stop giving him any form of carbon. He has already lost one kidney. He will surely lose the other if he takes any more coal,' the doctor had warned her gravely.
Iyer was discharged the following week. Subbu did not tell him about the stone. Every night after the Iyer was sound asleep, she would take out the stone to admire the fire in it. She would hold the stone against her earlobe and look longingly at her reflection. The fire ignited a silent storm in her mind that slowly built up with every passing night. Finally after a week of recuperation, Iyer noticed a small tumbler with a lump of charcoal beside his morning iddlies. To his questioning look Subbu replied, 'For your gas... Have you forgotten? Your Sanskrit lessons are resuming today.'"
Amooma laughed heartily as the other three looked at her with questions in their eyes.
"Then what happened?" asked Sanju.
"The story ends there, child. Don't know what happened next" replied Amooma.
"Amooma, your ear studs. Are they diamonds?" enquired Anju.
"Yes, Anjukutty. Two carats each," replied Amooma proudly.
"Amooma," Anju continued, "I don't want your studs after your death. You may leave them to Sanju. She likes body parts best."
"Cool," said Sanju excitedly.
pattar : local slang for Brahmin, the priestly class in India