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– a short story

I met her when I moved to the small apartment block in the suburbs. I had just kicked out Rajesh from my life when I found out he was having an affair with a colleague’s wife. It was Neha, my seven year old and I, on our own now. I had moved back to my hometown and found myself a teaching job at a local school where I had put Neha. I would get by. I am a fighter. I don’t let things get me down though there are times when the future seemed daunting. But then who does not have these moments in life when life seems too tough a nut to crack?

Tough nut to crack or not, there I was, having to face it on my own! That did not faze me as of now. “We’ll cross the bridges when we come to it” I had told my parents who have been hovering around me anxiously from the time I left Rajesh. I kept them at bay. I know they mean well. Nevertheless I hated the ‘taking over’ of my life by them as if I was some babe in the woods. Advice and more advice flew all around, in spite of the fact that they knew me to be fiercely independent. Why is it expected that a woman who has left her husband should go back to the daughter status once again?? I would have none of it. I decided to stay on my own. It meant more money down the drain as rent. But like I said, lets cross the bridge when we come to it.

As I was lugging the last piece of luggage up the stairs, with Neha in tow, the door to an apartment opened and the face of an elderly woman peeped out. I looked up to find a pleasant face smile down at me.

“Need any help??” she asked. She must have been around sixty with her more-salt-than-pepper hair tied neatly into a knot at the nape of her neck, a warm smile on her face. I smiled back and shook my head.

“B 32??” she asked.

“Yes” I gasped, as I struggled with the heavy piece of luggage. I had two more floors to climb and there was no lift either.

“I’ll get you something to drink. You go on up!” she said and disappeared inside.

That was my first meeting with Janu Aunty. She came up to my apartment with the promised glass of a cool drink as also some snacks. She refused to come in when I invited her as she said I sure must need some rest before getting down to arranging everything.

I settled down soon enough. Teaching and my household duties kept me occupied. Little Neha needed lots of attention.

One day Janu Aunty dragged me to join the other ladies on the terrace of the apartment block. The women spent the evenings among the water tanks enjoying the breeze and unwinding from the day’s busy schedule. The activities of the day were thrashed and the plans for the morrow discussed by them, while watching their children play in the play-ground below. The view was breathtaking and was what attracted me. The green trees seemed to stretch endlessly. Only when the sun set and the lights came on one by one, could we make out that the sea of green tree tops, held houses beneath them. That was the time for each of us to return to our homes like birds flying back to their nests.

Very soon, Janu Aunty and I were making trips together to the local market. I don’t have a good knowledge when it comes to fish and I positively dreaded bargaining for them with the uncouth and foul-mouthed fisher-women. Having Aunty around bolstered my courage to venture into their midst. She not only helped me with choosing the right fish, but also suggested ways to cook them in the tastiest manner.

Our Saturday trips to the local market became a regular feature. I would leave Neha to do her home work while I went out. On the way, Aunty and I would talk about whatever came to our minds. I found talking to her very easy. She took the fact of my leaving Rajesh very matter-of-factly, something surprising in one of her generation. It was quite unlike the others around me who usually shot direct questions if they could not find a good enough indirect one! Aunty refrained from making any comments once I told her I was separated from Rajesh. Anyway, she and I had lots of other subjects to talk about on our walks to the market. She talked of her son and family in Dubai and her daughter who stayed with her husband and his parents, in a different part of the same city. She had two grandchildren from her daughter, about whom she had plenty to say. I had enough to add to that with something about Neha and also my brand new cute little nephew, just on the scene. She was hopefully awaiting news about the arrival of the next grandchild. Mouth-watering recipes, the daily news, philosophy etc were topics that found its way to our discussions.

On just one such outing, did I learn from Janu Aunty of her one great wish. And pray what was that wish?? She wanted to go on a tour of pilgrimage to visit Mata Amritanadamayi. She had heard so much about this saintly woman. It was Aunty’s one wish to go to Vallikkavu, where the Mother’s Ashram stood and have her darsan. Her friends visited every year in the luxury coaches arranged for the purpose. One just needs the moolah, the rest was easy. Aunty was not short on that anyway.

“So, where is the problem??” I remember asking her.

“My children won’t let me go. Especially my son!” she said.

“Why ever not??” I asked, puzzled. Since they were not interested in going or even were being asked to take their mother, why should they stop her from going?? This was something that perplexed me.

Aunty did not have an answer to that. That was the only time her face would go sad. I brought up the topic time and again. Of course I did not want to make her sad. I just wanted to know, why her children would not let her do something which did not harm anyone concerned in anyway. They had their own families and led their own lives. Here was their mother, living and managing on her own with no complaints. All she wanted was to make a pilgrimage to the ashram of Mata Amritanandamayi. She was not even asking them to take her or fund the pilgrimage. Why the hell should they object??

“Aunty, you just tell your children you want to go!!” I told her one day. “Why should you wait for their permission?? You are not a child!!

“Not after my son specially told me not to” she said a tad sadly.

I was incensed!! What does a son mean telling his old mother not to do something she longs for?? There he was working far from home. He seemed to have neither time nor the inclination to take her. So why couldn’t she go on her own, with neighbors and friends for company?? I mean where was the logic??

She of course had no answer to that.

“What about your daughter??” I asked her.

“Oh, she asks me why I cannot stay put. She doesn’t want me gallivanting the countryside” Aunty sighed.

Gallivanting??

She stayed put in her apartment year in and year out except for trips to the market!! I brooded about the injustice of it. This bothered me a good deal. What did her children mean by saying that she was to remain there and not go anywhere?? The mother had brought up the two of them and let them soar free when the time came. How dare they put restrictions on her movements?? How dare they not let her realize her small wish?? And what a simple wish that was!! She just wanted to meet a saintly woman, not climb Mount Everest!

I met her children when they came to stay with her. Janu Aunty very lovingly introduced them to me. They seemed to be nice folk. I couldn’t bring myself to whip up feelings of anger against them for not letting Aunty go on the pilgrimage. I saw them taking care of her, getting her things she wanted, flitting around her, loving and cherishing her. I got an inkling of why Aunty did not want to hurt them by going against their wishes. They accepted me warmly into their circle as their mother’s friend. But why wouldn’t they let their mother fulfill her wish one great wish?? As far as I could make out from something that they let fall the son held this silly belief that ashrams, gurus and saintly persons were all out to swindle, hoodwink and cheat the general public. The daughter just went along with it.

I found this attitude ridiculous. Let us just assume for a minute that they were right. So what?? Janu Aunty just wanted to see the saintly woman, hear a few words from her and be blessed by her. She was not going to run away and make her home at the ashram! Or did they think if their mother associated too much with the ashram, she would give away whatever little she had to the ashram people?? I admit I felt a bit ashamed for thinking such thoughts about them. But I just could not see the justification for this moratorium on Aunty’s visit to the ashram. Their attitude seemed to suggest that their mother had everything any old woman would ever want and she had to be content and happy with that. But was it for them to decide or any children for that matter, what a mother should should have or nee or be content with??

On Sunday morning I went to the temple. On the way back I stopped at my friend Suja’s place. She insisted on me having breakfast with her. Being a holiday, it was fine with me. While Neha played with Suja’s twins, I helped her with the breakfast. We then carried it out to the lawn where we had a leisurely chat about good old times after we had wolfed down the alu paranthas. We go back a long way and she is one person with whom I can talk about Rajesh and my split with him. It was almost noon when I reached home. I parked my Scooty under the shade and walked towards the entrance to the apartment, Neha trailing behind me, kicking pebbles lying on the way.

There seemed to be too many people around!! Something was obviously wrong! I hurried across and started running up the stairs. Janu Auny’s door was open and her neighbors were all about. I glanced at those standing outside before I stepped inside. Aunty was lying on her cot. I ran inside ad touched her arms. I hastily withdrew it. She felt so cold. I stood there shocked. Someone kindly took my hand and led me aside. She told me (who had it been??) how they had to break open the door when Aunty failed to take in either the newspaper or milk. Repeated ringing of the bell also had got no result. I remember hearing the words. Nothing seemed to register in my mind.

“But she never got to go see Mata Amritanandamayi!!” I wanted to say.

Or maybe I did repeat that over and over again, because I could see puzzled stares coming my way. That was the only thought in my mind, going round and round in circles. I had wanted so much to take her to Vallikkavu. I had been secretly planning our trip. It was to be my big surprise for her, fulfilling her one heartfelt wish!

My ancestral home was close to the ashram. I had planned on taking Aunty there with me. Her children were not going to object if I took her along with me to meet my parents. From there, I just had to let my parents take over and we would make a quick visit to the ashram. I was somehow going to manage it!! I had even been asking my parents to check on when the Mother would be at the ashram so that I could plan my visit accordingly. Now it would never be. I dragged my feet back to my apartment as her relatives took over making preparations. Her son and family were still in India and would reach by evening.

I sat in my room the whole day. Neha for once left me alone. She seemed to understand. I dragged my feet downstairs in the evening to pay my last respects. She was laid out on a banana leaf in the traditional manner with all the trimmings that go with a Hindu funeral. I circumambulated her, touched her feet and joined my hands in prayer. She had become so close a friend to me in the past so many months. Had it only been months?? I watched as the family went through the rituals. Then it was the son’s turn and after that they would take her away. I could not stand there anymore. I slipped out and ran up the stairs to my home, where I cried my heart out. Through the window of my room, I watched her flower bedecked body being carried out by her son and other men to the ambulance which would take them to the crematorium. Where was she going now??

Wherever you go Aunty, I am sure you will get to see the one you wanted to see so badly while here on Earth. For aren’t all the saintly ones on earth sparks of the Divine above??

Reposted from shail-mohan blogs@sulekha.com