Ramya tapped her fingers impatiently on the handle-bars of her pink Scooty as she waited in yet another Wednesday morning traffic snarl at the busy Madhya Kailash signal. The countdown timer was flashing a number in the high seventies but the bespectacled git sitting comfortably in the air-conditioned Audi behind her was honking non-stop as if the racket he produced was going to make any difference. Turning away from the biker duo leering at her on her left, her eyes landed on the cute couple in the i10. Must be newlyweds, she thought idly, even as the girl opened a flask and poured some piping hot beverage into a stainless steel ‘tumbler’ and handed to the man.
‘Mmm, coffee, I so need a hit’, she muttered to herself. Her eyes glazed over as coffee in a tumbler took her swiftly to her childhood. Paati! Starched sungudi cotton saree, big red kumkum dot on her forehead, a sprig of jasmine pushed into her hair and a warm smile that lit her face from inside, she was the epitome of everything a grandmother stood for. Paati, her friend and former neighbour Aarti’s granny, the only grandmotherly figure Ramya had ever known. Paati, who stood in the common balcony every morning to wave to her grandchildren – and Ramya – as they went off to school. She was there when we came back in the evening, with a big urn of coffee for us all, brimming with questions about our day.
‘I wonder where she is now’, mused Ramya. She must be in her late sixties now, though she seemed ancient to us, all those years back, as grandparents should. ‘I know Aarti moved to Germany a few years back and her brother’s up in the North somewhere but I wonder if her folks still live in the same apartment. A little spin on Facebook might help shed some light on things. I really must get over my hatred of over-sharing and get reconnected with Aarti and Bubs.’
The cacophony that greeted signal change halted her reminiscences and carefully running a wheel over the right foot of the Leery Bike Romeo, Ramya sped down the road. With filter coffee and jasmine flowers filling her mind, she absently waved to her colleagues as they clustered around the central desk, looking for interesting assignments. Breezing into her cubicle, she almost ran into Karthik – stellar camera guy, office pin-up and her secret crush – who was sitting on her desk, the pace of his swinging legs betraying his impatience.
‘Finally!’ he gasped, jumping on the floor. ‘I snagged us a neat assignment and can’t wait to get started and today, of all days, you have to show up fashionably late!’
‘As long as we are running on Indian Standard Time, I am NOT late, fashionably or otherwise. What assignment? How neat?’
‘You remember the case last week of the old man, the one with Alzheimer’s, that ran out of his care home and under the wheels of a SUV?’, asked Karthik.
‘Oh that poor grandpa? The 80-year old? Yes, I do. What a horrible way to go! What about it / him?’ Ramya quizzed.
‘The government has announced some new norms for these places – usual knee-jerk reaction – and the Editor wanted a photo feature on the state of old age care homes in the city, with a heartstring-tugging article to go with it. Which is where you come in. I have spoken to a couple of these places and there’s a car out there waiting to take us there, so let’s get going, woman!’
‘Wow! Breathe, Karthik! What’s the hurry? Wait a minute! ‘Old age home’ isn’t code for ‘Beauty Pageant Swimwear Round’, is it?’
‘No, gutter brain! The situation outside the US embassy is heating up and I don’t want to end up frying in this heat, taking photos of people trying to give one another a coronary. Let’s leave before I get sucked in. Now, get!’
Travelling along the coastal road within the air-conditioned gloriousness of the paper’s car, Ramya felt kindlier towards Karthik. Of course, this was after he had propelled her out of the building and put an end to her spluttering with a tall cup of java from the coffee shop next door. Breathing in the heady aroma, Ramya opened up the info packet Karthik had dumped in her lap and started reading. Intensely aware of her favourite camera-toter sitting alongside her tinkering with his lenses and camera doodads, she had to struggle to concentrate. Hmm! His cologne was weaving into her senses and the weak coffee fumes were all she had to counter it. Damn the man! Every time he dragged her off on an assignment, her heart first turned cartwheels, crowing “Yayy! Finally!” before falling down with a thud! upon discovering no, once again, not a date! One of these days, she was going to go all Enlightened Female and ask him out herself. She should probably hold off on the head bopping portion of her agenda till after, though.
The manager of the first care home in their list reminded Ramya of the matron from the Carry On movie. She sure had the girth and the air of exasperation around her. Must have had a trying morning, thought Ramya, introducing them and explaining what they were looking for. Karthik wandered off to take pictures and Ramya got on with her interviews, gathering info, letting ideas float in her mind. The day went by as they finished with the place and moved on to the next ones on their list.
Thursday was more of the same. Care home after care home full of old timers, pottering about, some cheerful, some morose, many quietly introspective. Earnest looking workers and their withered and wizened wards. Some of the stories were stuff of nightmares and it became harder and harder to not let it all get to her. Despite Karthik’s repeated advice, Ramya couldn’t help the well of sadness that rose up from her heart to her throat.
‘Our situations are not much different; your children couldn’t care for you – my parents didn’t care for me’, Ramya thought to herself, even as she held the gnarled hands of someone’s forgotten grandmother. Paati! Where are you? Will I see you again?
‘I really should trawl through Facebook and get back in touch with Aarti!’, she told herself firmly. ‘I badly want to meet Paati and have a cup of her famous filter kaapi. That will be the perfect antidote to this depressing saga’.
She was waiting in the courtyard of the last home on their list, as Karthik flipped through his photos. He had got some amazing shots, in his words, and flipped the camera to show her a breathtaking black & white shot of a wrinkled hand in a smooth one – hers. Marvelling at his skill, Ramya flipped through the pictures, looking at the latest ones. They might use three photos, if he was lucky and Karthik, typically, had shot twenty times as many!
Suddenly, she stilled her fingers and clicked the back switch to take her back two photos.
‘Karthik, when did you take this?’, she turned to him.
‘Which one? Oh that? Just now. I was wandering inside and came upon this sweet granny sitting all by herself, stringing flowers in the back room and took her picture. Great shot, eh? See how the light slants on her face’, he pointed.
‘How do I zoom in and see close up?’, Ramya cut him shot.
‘Hand it over – I’ll show you before you delete something by mistake! Hey, Ramya, you alright? You are looking a bit funny. Is it the heat?’
‘No, no, the old lady in there, stringing the jasmine, she looks very familiar. I want to see her face clearly.’
As the well-loved face swam into focus, Ramya looked up in shock. Letting go of the camera, she ran inside. Ignoring his shout, she hurried into the rooms, turning into the one where Karthik said he found her.
“Paati!”, Ramya gasped, her voice breaking.
The hands stringing the garland stilled and the bowed head looked up. After a moment’s puzzled glance, recognition spread in the eyes and Paati’s face split into her wide smile.
‘Ramya! Is it really you? What are you doing here? What…. how… how are you, my dear child? What have you been doing to yourself? You are rail thin!’
The sound of her name broke the dam and Ramya threw herself into Paati’s lap.
‘Paati! Paati! What are you doing here, Paati? Why are you here? Where is everyone? Uncle? Aunty? Why aren’t you with the family? What has happened?’, Ramya couldn’t stop the questions.
‘Ah calm down, child! You haven’t changed one bit. Twenty five questions before the other person can open her mouth! All in good time. You tell me about you – how are you? How are your parents?’, Paati asked in her mellow voice.
After all the time she spent recently in thinking of Paati, to find her in the back room of an old age home far away from the city nearly broke Ramya’s heart. Swallowing her tears, she tried her best to answer Paati’s questions. If she knew her at all, Paati will respond to her own rapid-fire questions only when she was ready.
‘I don’t know about my parents, Paati but I am doing really well. After my dad used me as a punching bag while he was all but soaking in alcohol and yet again, mum mutely stood by, I said enough was enough and walked out of the house. You remember Madhu periappa? He had been begging his brother to get some sense and kick the habit. Alternatively, he begged mum to stay with his family for my sake. I was the only one who took him up on his offer. I moved in and despite having two young children of their own, my uncle and aunt were really nice to me. Helped me finish school. I got a scholarship and put myself through college. Studied journalism and am now working with this national daily.’
Heavy footfalls announced the arrival of a bewildered Karthik at the door. Ramya looked up and introduced him to Paati.
‘Karthik, I need some time. You can leave if you like, I’ll make my own way back.’
‘Don’t be silly, Ramya. I’ll wait in the car. I’ll just be working on the photos so you take all the time you need’, he said and walked out slowly, with a small smile for Paati.
‘That’s a good looking boy right there – is he your boyfriend?’, asked Paati, wiggling her eyebrows at Ramya.
‘Paati!’ hissed Ramya, checking to make sure Karthik wasn’t within earshot. ‘God, you are just as incorrigible as ever! Remember how you used to tease me when I had that huge crush on that boy who lived down the road from us?’
‘You all but carried a sign board on your forehead, my dear child! No wonder that boy got scared!’, chuckled Paati.
Blushing furiously, Ramya tried to bring Paati back to the main issue. ‘Now you please answer my questions, Paati. Why are you here? Why aren’t you home? What has happened?’, she finished with worry coating her voice once again.
A big sigh escaped from Paati’s lips. ‘What will I say, dear heart? I am not at home because there isn’t one any more. It all came crashing down a while back.’
‘What can I say? A few months after Couple after Aarti’s wedding, my son and daughter-in-law decided to visit Rahul in Australia. Did you know that Rahul had moved to Sydney? He had been inviting his parents to visit him since he moved but it was never the right time. Finally, after Aarti got married and moved away to Germany, my son and daughter-in-law decided to visit Rahul. That lovely boy arranged everything – sent the tickets, planned local trips, arranged for time off from work so he could take them around and all they had to do was get there. So he kept saying, calling home every day till they flew. Meera was so excited! Rahul called them from his office where he was finishing up his work so he could have a long weekend with his parents…’ Paati’s voice broke and she stopped.
Dread filled Ramya’s belly. ‘What are you saying, Paati?’
‘The unfortunate boy was so keen on tying up all the loose ends at work before his parents’ arrival, he worked through the night. He was there to receive his parents’ early morning flight. They were rushing home and on the long drive back, they all fell asleep….. there was nothing much left to even identify them’, Paati’s voice broke down completely and her anguish rolled out of her in gut-wrenching sobs. Ramya’s horrified wails joined hers and the pair of them hugged and cried for the loved ones lost in one senseless moment. That dimpled little boy she had had mock pillow fights with, gone?
The two women were each lost in their own reverie. Meera aunty and her disastrous cooking experiments in the kitchen were no more? Even now Ramya’s taste buds remembered the taste of her orange rasam. Oh dear Lord! Swamy uncle and his wicked sense of humour…. why did she not get in touch with them? Even as she mentally castigated herself, Ramya knew the reason – she was ashamed of her dad’s final alcoholic outburst that had caused them to be evicted from the housing society and even though, she knew she’ll find nothing but love and understanding with this family, she wasn’t ready for their kindness. Now, she longed for them but the people that had given Ramya her rare glimpses of normal family life were gone, forever.
After a long time, Paati continued.
‘So, after all the formalities were completed, I didn’t want to go and stay with anyone else. Not with my brother’s sons in the village and definitely not with Aarti in some far-off corner of the world. So I moved in here and have been here, counting down my days, ever since.’
‘I never knew, Paati. I am so so sorry! Poor you and poor Aarti. I am going to get in touch with her this very evening!’
‘You do that, Ramya. I know that will make Aarti so happy. The poor child, losing all of her family in one fell swoop! She calls me every other day, you know? I will also tell her about your visit. She feels so guilty, the poor child, that I am living in a care home with no one around me. But what else is there to be done? This is best for everyone.’
A gleam came into Ramya’s eyes and she gripped Paati’s hands firmly. She knew what she had to do.
‘I am definitely going to talk to Aarti tonight, Paati. And I will be back for you, tomorrow. You do have a grand daughter in me and it is time I stopped being just your honorary grandchild and stepped up.’
Even as Paati looked on in puzzlement, Ramya continued: ‘Yes Paati. I will speak to Aarti and will come back to take you away from here. You have a home with me. You gave me some of my best memories of my childhood and I am greedy for more. You will make your home with me and that is that! You watch all the weepy TV serials you want, shout at me when I eat too slow or forget I have kept rasam on the stove or discretely check my outfit for signs to see if I will keep bindi on my forehead or flowers in my hair that day….’ her voice broke down once again and faded as Ramya buried her face in her grandmother’s lap and wrapped her arms around the bony waist.
Paati’s astonished face creased into a wide smile, even as tears slowly made their way down the much-loved face. She hugged Ramya back, that dear child who captured her heart the day she moved into the opposite house all those years back. Desperately starved for love and care, maybe now Paati can give her some. And one of these days, she will get Ramya to invite that nice boy who took her photo to their home and…
‘Ramya, my dear child! Listen to me – I am happy here. And content. Which is more than I can expect at this stage of my life. I wasn’t abandoned by my family and I do not feel neglected. Do I wish things were different? Of course! But moving in with you isn’t the right solution for either of us.’
‘Of course it is! Why do you say that?’
‘Because I am older and wiser, child! You have your whole life ahead of you. You should go ahead and live it however you want…’
‘But, Paati!’ interrupted Ramya. ‘Having you with me is not going to hamper me in any way! I will be glad to have some family to call my own!’
Home! Paati closed her eyes tightly on the thought of home and all that it entailed, while Ramya expanded on her theme.
‘My apartment may not be big but it is in a great locality, Paati. You’ll love it. There’s this sweet temple, right on the beach where a lot of old-timers come to spend their evenings. You can join the Bhajan Mandali there – I haven’t forgotten how you used to sing all the time! Also there’s….’
Ramya ran out of words when Paati quietly took her right hand in both of hers. Her heart thumping madly, she looked up.
‘Ramya. Listen to me, child. I have lived a long, long life. I have lived long and seen so much. The happiness I was lucky enough to be blessed with through most of it is giving me the courage to deal with the recent blows and carry on. I am at peace here. I still do not know why the Lord I pray to everyday chose to leave me behind while snatching away those tender lives. I do not know what His plans for me are – but I know that I have not one, but two grand daughters who still need me in their lives. You have no idea how happy I am that you came into my life today! I now have so much more!’
‘I am not done. Just listen – I understand, more than anyone, that holding on to something isn’t the way forward. You need to begin making your own life. Go on, grab it with both hands and life it to the full. Fall in love, make a family of your own, fill every day with love.’
‘But Paati, I can do all that with you by my side too!’
‘I will be, my dear! I am going to be right with you! Just not the way you want – but that is all good! See, remember when Aarti went off to hostel when she joined college? This is just like that! You can come and see me whenever you can – and I can do the same. I can even come and stay with you for a weekend whenever possible. When Aarti comes to India next year, we can all spend time together, like all families do. And when you finally get your act together and get yourself a good man, I will be right next to you – from grilling him mercilessly to sitting on the dais with you as you get married.’
Ramya looked at the wizened face and after a minute fell into Paati’s loving arms. It may not be what she wanted, but she knew there was no budging the old lady once her mind was made up. It will have to do for now, though she was sure she could get scheming with Aarti and come up with a plan or two.
Just as she was smiling to herself at the picture Paati had painted of her future, there was a shout from the entrance and Karthik burst in, panting.
‘Woman! What gives? I practically gnawed my finger nails to stubs, waiting for you to emerge! Have you decided to move in here? What’s happening? Is everything alright?’
Typical Karthik! Rolling her eyes, Ramya hugged Paati extra tight and took her leave, whispering she will be back soon, trying to ignore that wicked lady’s wink and elbow jab.
‘I’m coming, I’m coming, don’t hurt yourself. Boy am I starving or what? Why don’t you take me to a nice restaurant and I bring you up to speed?’
Ramya returned Paati’s wink over her shoulder and rushed to catch up with Karthik. Paati slowly walked to the window, smiling hugely, even as the evening sun slowly sank into the horizon.
Indian Review | Authors | Literature & Poetry | Lavanya Donthamshetty is a chennai based author and writes on Indian Review.