There are unsung heroes around us who are relentlessly waging a lone and courageous struggle to get through life. Most often we don’t notice them.
Morning Meanderings is a musings column by Dr Santosh Bakaya. Enjoy her jottings with a hot cup of tea. 🙂
Yesterday’s dust storm had brought down the mercury by at least three degrees, and the air was also cooler. Right in front of one of the shacks of the labourers, sat an old woman whom I had never seen before, looking straight at me, eating small chunks of roti, dipping it in a small aluminum bowl, which probably had some daal or sabzi. Her walking stick lay by her side. When I looked at her, she immediately stopped eating, and looked back at me, wary.
I immediately recalled another old woman.
It was the month of April, 2018, and having been unwell for almost two months, I had not been going to the joggers’ park. But that day, I remember, I went, humming a happy song. There was a spring in my walk, and spring in the air.
Nature was a coquette flaunting her winning smiles, the promising glances of her golden, fiery eye, and brazenly showing off the rosy blushes that flamed her cheeks.
The bougainvillea creepers were in full bloom, the amaltas and the bottle brush brilliantly splashed their beautiful hues, the roses in the rose garden smiled with a rosy cheeked splendor, and the birds seemed to be celebrating love, necking and kissing, chirping and tweeting. The park resounded with the raucous cries of budding cricketers, and the laughter of the laughter club members.
My steps headed on my own towards a particular spot, my eyes searching for a much loved figure.
“Where is she?” I asked a man selling bird fodder where she used to sit, under the shade of a tree, with her tiny paper plates filled with grain, which she sold for ten rupees a plate. My heart missed a beat as I recognised him.
He was her nephew, who used to accompany her many a time. Was something wrong? Why hadn’t she come? Alarm bells rang in my ears just as the metallic bell rang from the temple in front of the tree.
“She expired on 17 January, she was my maasi… her life one big struggle… you had not been coming…, you know, madam, she even remarked one day, ‘unn madam ko dhoondh key laa sakta hai? Unki bahoot yaad aati hai. Pata nahi kahan chali gayin woh.” (Can you search for madam? I miss her a lot. Don’t know where she disappeared.)
Little vignettes came back to me, and through my tears, I saw it all. Her affectionate hugs, her solicitous enquiries about my family, her profuse gratitude whenever I got things for her from home, all flashed before my eyes. The tap-tap-tap of her walking stick would drown the ping–ping of WhatsApp messages resounding in the park.
I remembered sitting under a concrete canopy in the park one day. That day, I had changed my route, so that I could meet her half way, from the entrance to the park. She had not been coming for a fortnight, and I was worried.
I waited for her in the dark, (it was only 5.30 am). My heart jumped with joy as the familiar sound of the tap–tap of her walking stick fell into my ears.
“Arrey aap kahahn they itney din sey?” I ran in her direction, almost tripping over a pebble in my excitement. (Where were you all these days?)
“Arey, bitiya, sambhaal ke.” (Child, be careful) She had recognised me even in the dark.
“Bimaar ho gayi thi… aankhon ka operation bhi tha,” she remarked, looking at me very affectionately (I was unwell, and my eyes had also been operated upon.)
“Ab theek ho naa?” (Are you all right now?)
“Haan ab to theek hoon.” (Yes, I am fine, now.)
I hugged her, quietly slipping a couple of hundred rupee note in her patchwork purse which she carried tied to her waist.
“Arrey bitiya, kya kar rahi ho. Jab tak taangon mein jaan ha, kaam karti rahoongi.” (Oh child, what are you doing? I want to work on till I have life left in my legs.)
Now life had ebbed from those resilient legs. I sighed, a huge lump in my throat.
A hero had died unsung. No ballads celebrating her life, no paeans in praise of her resilience.
I remembered the first day that my eyes had fallen on her, she had given me a bright smile, which had lit up the entire park. One day, not able to contain my curiosity any longer, I had asked the octogenarian:
“From where do you come?”
“Fifteen kilometres away from here. I have to change two buses.”
“Aap itni door sey aatey ho? Aapkey bachche aapka khayal nahi rakhtey? ” I was curious to know . (You come from so far away. Don’t your children take care of you?)
“Kya karoon, bitiya. Jab tak tango mein jaan hai, main kaam karna chaati hoon. (What can I do? I want to work, till I have strength left in my legs.)
“Aana zaroori hai, nahin to ghar kaisey chalega? Mera pati bistar per hai, lekin ussney kabhi kaam nahi kiya.(How will we survive, if I don’t come? My husband is bedridden, but he was always a good for nothing, a drifter.)
“And your children?”
“I have three sons, all well-placed. One in a government job in Delhi, one in a private company in Gurugram, and the third runs a shop here, in Jaipur…” Her voice trailed off.
Suddenly her nephew’s words inveigled themselves into my memories. “Madam, she used your blanket and razai till the last day, and was even wondering why you had not been coming to the park. She was very keen to see you. You know, she breathed her last wearing the saree that you had bought for her. Her sons came for the funeral along with her daughters-in-law… the sons who never cared for her when she was alive.” He said with in a choked voice.
This was enough to stop my heart.
I cast one last look at the empty space under the tree, and it was as if the emptiness jumped from there and settled into my heart. A bird came hopping near my feet, picked up a piece of grain from there and took an ascending flight on to the gulmohar tree. Was she also looking for the bird-woman?
I suddenly felt that spring had come and gone, and an invincible winter had crept into my heart. The flowers had lost their lustre and the chirps of the birds held no interest for me. I trudged homewards, wondering what that woman was to me. Why had her going away created such a vacuum in my heart?
Yanking away this sad memory chunk, I headed towards the other old woman who had stopped pecking at the food and was looking apprehensively in my direction. I noticed that she was even older than my bird-woman.
“Kaisey hain aap?” I asked her, smiling.
Immediately the apprehension was replaced by a huge toothless smile. I went closer, trying to read between the lines on her face. She stretched out an arm, asking me to pull her up, which I did, and in so doing, pulled myself up from the depths I had found myself falling into.
The day suddenly appeared brighter.
(Pictures: Santosh Bakaya)
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