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The sun had barely risen. Birds sang. The cool morning air spread the beautiful smell of the white araliya flowers, piously coating the tree and glistening with dew. Although the town was still dreaming, the old woman was already awake. With her once long black hair circled into a small knot, the train of her brown saree wound around her waist, she slowly, slowly made her way down the perilously steep staircase. At the bottom of the staircase she placed a tin plate of milk and bread. A mangy cat with a pregnant belly loped over. The cat leaned hard on the woman's legs, meowing thank you. “And good morning to you too, my lady.” The old woman said. With great difficulty she bent down to pat the cat's head.
On the long winding street there was still no human life. Peaceful cows grazed on the brown coloured grass by the ditch. A skeletal dog slept by the storefront. But by the time the old woman's patient legs had neared the end of the lane, smells from the bakery and the angry music of the main road greeted her. Bus drivers hung on their doors and crowed: “Kotuwa kotuwa kotuwa” “Give up a seat for the mother now sir” “Colombo colombo colombo”. Cars carrying important men and woman swerved this way and that. Lorries caked with dust took their goods to stores. The old woman went in to the bakery, where the baker has been busy a while serving the bus drivers, and brought a fresh loaf of bread, a newspaper and a handful of toffees and another of chewing gum so unnaturally coloured most parents, wisely, forbade it from their children.
Back in her street, people greeted her with “grandmother” or “mother”. The town loved the old woman. Her kindness was endless and her aura of peace was contagious. “You shouldn't be walking all this way by yourself mother.” A woman said. “Remember your age.” Grandmother only smiled. How could she ever bear resting in her home, thinking and waiting.
Her home had red floors, an ancient sawing machine, a table, a cabinet, two narrow beds and a kitchen and a bathroom the size of a box. On the wall above the table were glued a few photographs. One showed a man wearing a graduation gown. Another was a picture of a baby, held by a pretty smiling woman. The two pictures were bright coloured and new. A third, brown-and-white picture was so faded it was only a memory. It showed the old woman, many years younger, with a small boy on one knee and a girl on the other. Her husband, the father, sat beside them with a cigar hanging from his mouth. All four were laughing at some long-forgotten joke. On another wall was a small wooden platform. Upon it was a white statue of the Buddha. Grandmother lighted an incense stick and arranged a handful of araliya flowers before the statue. She made tea and woke up her husband, whose snoring resonated through the tiny house.
Her husband's face was black, for years ago he used to be an alcoholic. He was a man that valued discipline and dignity. Although he stood no nonsense, he loved his wife deeply. Only a few months ago he used to wake earlier than his wife and go for a walk to clear his head and buy a newspaper so that he would be ready to discuss politics and the world with his neighbour in the evening. But now the vigor was ebbing away from the old man. He spent his day watching Hindi films on the television and reading books about the world, borrowed every two weeks from the library.
Grandmother and her husband had shared a life for so long that they could say much with only a few words. “Veena will turn forty tomorrow.” She said. “Don't expect anything now Sita” Her husband told her gruffly. “If they haven't talked to us in seven years, why would they ever.”
“At least they are happy where they are. A doctor and a lawyer! What more could a parent ask for.” Grandmother said after a pause. Yet both their wise faces were etched with deep sadness.
Grandmother sat at the sawing machine. Her wrinkled hands shook and her eyes squinted as she tried to thread the needle.
“Priya and Ratne had a baby girl.” She said as she sawed the sides of a tiny white dress. Grandmother sawed clothes for most of the children in her lane. With the leftover scraps she made mats and handkerchiefs and clothes for dolls.
Soon the silence in the house was broken by the screams of children, running up the tall staircase. They were two little girls and a boy. In the hands of the girls were books and the boy held a rope and an old bicycle tire. Behind them ambled up the yellow stray cat. She lay down in the shade of the small terrace.
Grandmother's face shone with happiness, but her husband said: “Give this old man some peace” and moved over to the wicker chair in the terrace.
The children proudly showed the grandmother the stars they had received at school and their drawings and other such accomplishments. For even an indecipherable scribble grandmother managed to give praise. On the table covered with the musty plastic sheet the children did their homework. The little boy tied the tire to the rope and swung it over the staircase, lost in an imaginary world. They combed grandmother's hair- which was coloured bronze, orange, silver and white with a few streaks of black, for bending her arms was painful. They crawled around the floor, searching for thimbles and needles. Sitting on the terrace with the children lying at her feet, grandmother told a story about how bears scratch themselves by rubbing against tree trunks. When noon came the children helped the grandmother cook, although it was difficult for everyone to fit in the narrow kitchen. Grandmother heaped the plates with rice so spicy it drew tears.
Soon it was evening. The children and the grandmother, for she wasn't afraid of her many afflictions, savoured the forbidden sweets while the crickets called each other across the town.
“You can come with us today Grandmother.” One of the children said hopefully.
“Who will look after grandfather then?” Grandmother said with a laugh. “Besides, won't I see you tomorrow and every day after.”
Suddenly the little boy asked gravely: “Grandmother, will you die?”
“Yes.” She replied. “But not for a long while yet. How can I go without seeing you children become important men and women?”.
“You can live in my house then Grandmother.”
“She would rather stay with me.”
“I asked her first!”
“We'll see we'll see” Grandmother chortled. “Lets go home now.”
After leaving the children at their home grandmother went to the house of her friend Kusuma. Kusuma was dying of cancer and stayed inside the entire day- ashamed of her naked head. The two old women discussed their troubles, and sighed and told each other “nothing is certain except death.” Although Kusuma was greatly comforted by the time grandmother left to go home, grandmother's heart was still heavy with hidden anguish.
Her parents had died when she was a child. She had raised two successful children on top of taking care of an alcoholic husband. For many years she had fought to keep her children safe from the floods of poverty. But now, her motherly love pained her more than all the hardships she had overcome. Grandmother wondered where she had done wrong.
The next morning Grandmother was again the first person awake in the town. She bought a yard of cloth and a package of books for the children. New Year was coming and she had to prepare presents.
She went to a child's first reading ceremony and to another home to help them decide a name for their baby.
Evening came and Grandmother finished sawing the clothes for the new baby. Eyes squinting, she embroidered them with tiny animals and flowers. She wrapped them in newspaper, dressed in her brown saree and made her way down the steep staircase.
When people learned of how grandmother's had been struck by a truck unsurprised. “It's a miracle she survived for this long” They said. Because they could not move her up the stairs to her tiny house, Grandmother was taken to the three children's house.
Her broken leg wrapped up in bandages and smelling strongly of iodine, grandmother consoled the children: “I'll be up and walking in no time. I can't be lying down when New Year comes.”
But instead of getting better, grandmother's leg only worsened. Infected, the doctor said. In only a few weeks the strong woman became helpless. The smile left her face. The love in her eyes was extinguished. Although the town cared for her as they would for their mother, grandmother yearned for her own children. At times she mistook a man in the distance for her son, coming to see her. She addressed the women who looked after her by her daughter's name- Veena. She hallucinated that her children were still around her. Knowing that her time was short, grandfather sent a telegram to his son and daughter miles away on another continent.
But they did not come. They came only when the old woman's cold body lay inside a coffin. The handsome scholarly man, dressed in a black coat and tie and the stylish woman, her short hair curled around her face and her high heels crushing the gravel on the road climbed out of the gleaming black car. Three small children walked behind them, nervous for they had never known their grandmother. The grandmother's children held enormous funerary bouquets in their arms and pity for the poor uneducated townspeople in their eyes.
The man and the woman did not recognize the wrinkled and weary face of their mother. They could not meet the eyes of their aged father, who sat by the coffin with a face of stone. Despite trying to, they could not cry. The children cremated their mother and donated a large sum of money to a charity in her name. They built for her the tallest gravestone in the cemetery. They were glad to climb on their shining cars and escape this strange and dusty world they had forgotten long ago.
And although her children soon let go of the memories of their mother and excused away their guilt, although the cat loved the old woman more than her children, the town never forgot their grandmother.
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This article has 1 comment.
Good job Sugee! Really well written! keep it up
- Sachindri akka