Mrs. Meenakshi Narayan stood patiently behind the steel barricades at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Smog hung over the vast airport like a dead man’s shroud filled with smoke and dust. It was sweltering hot despite the late hour on this June evening, and Mrs. Narayan was sweating bullets. A gaunt lady with a weather-beaten face adorned with silver-tinted spectacles and a knob of iron- gray hair swept back sternly from an intellectual forehead, Mrs. Narayan still possessed the qualities of discipline and diligence which had made her a reputed school mistress of a boys school a few years ago. She wiped her sweaty brow with her saree ‘pallu’ and smiled as a wave of remembrance hit her. The saree had been given to her by her eldest, whom she had now come to receive on this extremely stifling summer evening. It had been seven summers back, her train of mental reminisces continued– her eldest daughter, now settled in New York City, USA, had gifted her with this pale brown saree streaked with violent splashes of red and purple “Amma! her daughter had said, this is for you… now don’t say no… I know my taste in clothes is not so good as yours but take it… “
And she had taken it amid delightful protestations. That had been the highlight of her visit as Suman had then endeavored to sleep the rest of her holiday away. After that trip, Suman had become too wrapped in her budding career as an anesthesiologist, and baby girl. When the baby had been two, Suman’s husband had suddenly died in a terrible car crash. Suman had shed tears but refused to be taken with the tide! She had moved to a smaller house, engaged a baby-sitter, and begun working longer hours at the hospital. Mrs. Narayan had herself visited her eldest three times but had, had to bid these visits goodbye as she could not afford the tremendously high airline prices. But there had been letters, post cards, greeting cards, telephone calls, and chatting on Skype.
Mrs. Meenakshi Narayan sighed again and taking her spectacles off, proceeded to wipe them gently. She adjusted them on her high-bridged nose and continued thinking– yes… life had been hard for her dear Suman but she had managed to conquer life’s challenges and debts. Suman was now the proud owner of a one-storied brick house in suburban New York City— she was the head anesthesiologist at her hospital, and the mother of a very bright girl of five. Mrs. Narayan sniffed– her emotions had caught up with her brain and her throat was now being choked! But then, Suman had done everything by the book– always obeying her parents. She had wanted to study art in her final years of schooling, but Mr. Narayan had put his foot down! And Suman had quietly opted for the science stream. When at the age of 22 her parents had told her to discontinue her post-graduation and marry a young banker and relocate to New York City in the United States– Suman had done so obediently. But, Suman had not been content to be a housewife. Oh no! Mrs. Narayan shook her head slightly– she had enrolled in an online course and got her masters, and then gone to do a job in the City’s biggest private hospital. Suman had acquired US citizenship, courtesy her husband and settled down happily to married life. Then little Puja had followed after six years of married bliss, and Meenakshi Narayan had become a doting grandmother. Then life had changed course. Suman became a widow and within months Mr. Narayan too had passed into heavenly abode. He had always had heart trouble with minor heart ailments, murmurs, and severe medication. Mrs. Narayan, sometimes resented this. If only he had managed to hang on, they would have got their youngest too married off. Now, she was shouldering the enormous responsibility, and their youngest was a difficult child! She glanced sideways at her youngest daughter and sniffed. Even at the airport, she did not know how to stand properly. Leaning on the steel railing like a hungry beggar, a wilting flower now she, even at the age of 62, could stand erect for hours like a soldier! Mrs. Narayan sighed again like a chimney emitting smoke; life had been cruel to her!
Besides her, 25- year old Kusum Narayan frowned looking at her mother. “Would you stop that please?”
Kusum Narayan was irritated angry, in fact. Of course she loved her sister and her niece and was looking forward to seeing them in the flesh after so long, but she had not bargained for this! Standing and waiting because the Continental air pilot wanted to play hooky in the sky with an airplane filled with people. Oh yes, the plane had arrived an hour ago, but the ground officials at the airport had decided to play hide-n-seek with the plane. And the pilot had graciously acquiesced, and proceeded to hide the plane behind clouds and then re-appear to excite the ground officials. This had been going on for the past 60 minutes and… Kusum felt a sharp nudge. It was her darling mother, “Go and see what’s happening?”
“You want me to fly up and ask the pilot? Really Amma… whom should I ask? They won’t allow me inside the airport… I don’t have a ticket… we just have to wait… after all it is only 10 in the night… we still have the entire night…”
“Shut up,” her mother snapped raising her voice, “anyway why did you come?”
“Had to… cannot have my old mother rushing off to the airport in the middle of the night… she might get lost”
“Shut up!”said her mother said icily, frosty eyes behind the glasses.
Kusum shrugged her shoulders– she was tired, mentally and physically! The meeting had run into overtime and all she had wanted was to come home to their two-bed roomed house and collapse into bed. But, once she had climbed the steps to their apartment on the sixth floor (the elevators had not been working again), instead of hot food, she had found her mother dolled up in that terrible saree, looking like a cherry Christmas present. Her sister did have horrible taste in clothes good thing she never shopped for hers. She would have committed fashion suicide by now, Kusum shuddered mentally. But then maybe her taste had matured and mellowed in seven years! Kusum coughed and immediately there was a reaction.
“Looks like you are catching a cold.”
It was her mother. Kusum grinned despite feeling tired and weary– she had always done things her way majoring in Commerce against the wishes of her parents. Then, to the chagrin of the retired school mistress, she had opted for a job in GE Capital, as a call center representative after school. Unlike her mother, she had grasped the bare financial essentials of their situation at once. They needed money– her mother had retired and her father had died. They had bills to pay, loans to take care of. And GE had been the perfect solution– lots of her school friends had joined the multinational along with her. That had been seven years back. From a lowly call center officer working night-shifts, she had pursued her graduation in Economics and climbed the corporate ladder to be the youngest Assistant Human Resources Manager. And now she had last week enrolled in an online post-graduate diploma course in Human Resources with a minor in Economics. She had promised her mother that she would tie the knot when she would become the manager. Kusum hoped that would happen in another five or six years.
A slight breeze blew and Kusum smiled. They waited like sacrificial cows in the long line of receiving relations behind the iron railings. Kusum yawned and rubbed her dark eyes. A few passengers started filtering out pushing trolleys of suitcases, and she brightened. Both mother and daughter now stood alert as the passenger trickle now became a steady stream. And then suddenly– “Ammam! Ammam!”Amidst the adult voices, car honks, a child’s lilt penetrated like a ray of sunshine piercing through the dark and gloomy sky.
Kusum grinned raising her hand waving furiously at her sister and niece.
Really, thought Kusum her grin widening, thought that seemed to be the only vocabulary of her niece! They finally came out, Suman, now sporting a few premature gray hair, clad in jeans and a loose shirt. Kusum cut through the surging queue and took charge of their trolley pushing it in the direction of their cab. Mrs. Narayan was hugging her eldest and exclaiming to her granddaughter, “Puja! How much you have grown.”
Kusum stopped her pushing and spoke urgently, “Please… let’s just get out of here! It’s going to get crowded even more… we can have our family reunion at home also.”
Mrs. Narayan frowned as Puja giggled saying, “You are funny Pins!”
“Glad you think so sweetie… I plan to become a clown soon and give shows!”
The frown deepened but this time it was Suman who laughed and said linking arms with her mother, “Kusum! You will never change… come on Amma let’s go home… Puja walk carefully with Pins”
Kusum shook her head as she turned her attention back to maneuvering their trolley through the maze of beeping cars, security guards and porters. Her niece skipped holding a large soft teddy bear in her right arm, and talking incessantly.
“I slept on the plane Pins… Mom says I will see many animals near our house…”
Kusum bit back a sharp yell at the loitering porter who had meandered into their path. Her mental machinery was chugging– Pins, the name had stuck even though Puja could now say the proper word for aunt in their mother tongue, Pinni! Suman had even said that by now all her American teachers and friends who had never seen her called her Pins!
“Yes…you will get to see plenty of dogs, cats, pigs, rats, cows, and buffaloes,” said Kusum coming to a halt behind a white-colored Maruti car. She yelled, “Hey… wake up… time to go back!”
Behind her an emotional conversation was in full swing.
“I get so tired… shoulders, back oof…”
“Is this the luggage?”
“I am going to be a vet when I grow up… I love dogs…”
“This time I am going to give a puppy to Puja for her birthday…”
Kusum held the door open. “Don’t finish all your conversation here only… leave something for the weekend at least”
“Will you keep quiet?” said her mother climbing in and continued, “Go and pay the parking fee.”
Kusum muttered as Puja chirped, “Can I come?”
“I am not going to dance over there sweetie– don’t you want to sit here with your Mom and Ammam?”said Kusum kindly.
“They aren’t talking to me,” was the plaintive reply. And soon Kusum found herself walking to the booth with the driver and her niece. The fee paid, the luggage and passengers installed, the car roared off into the night.
It was midnight when they reached home. Suitcases were hauled in and sleeping arrangements discussed. It was decided that Mrs. Narayan would occupy her single bed as usual and Kusum would give up her cozy bed for her sister and niece and take refuge on the couch.
“Your bed is wide and both can fit,” her mother said in an explanatory fashion.
Kusum snatched her pillow and blanket and made her way to the couch in front of the TV. In the bedroom, baths were in progress. Soon, lights were switched off and quietness descended on the apartment.
“It’s the weekend now,” thought Kusum gleefully hugging herself– I love weekends.”
It seemed only a few hours when Kusum felt a little shake on her shoulder. She ignored it but then the shake became more insistent, and this time accompanied by a loud whisper. “Pins… wake up… do something… this is boring”
Kusum slowly opened her eyes and saw a small figure in front of her. Carefully she reached out and switched on the table lamp and checked her watch. It was nearly five in the morning. Much too early to do anything, she thought. She yawned eyeing the little figure, looking like a pink ‘n’ white cherub with curly dark hair standing like a halo around an oval face.
“What do you want me to do? Its early morning.”
“I woke Ammam and she went to brush her teeth and said I should wake you up… do something,” now the figure was sitting besides her tapping a tune on her thigh.
Thanks Amma, Kusum gritted her teeth. “Where is your mother?”
“Sleeping but I am not sleepy…” Puja was hopping on one foot like a singed cat. “I want to run… I want to play.”
And I just want to sleep, thought Kusum and yawned. She slowly got up and began folding the blanket.
Mrs. Narayan made her appearance and said, “Why don’t you go for a morning walk? Plenty of people about now just go around once…. won’t that be fun?”
This last part was addressed to a hopping Puja as Kusum stared in horror– she never went for walks of any kind!
But her niece was tugging her hand and she found herself agreeing to the idea. A cup of hot coffee and two sweetened biscuits and she was ambling like a dispirited tortoise on a dusty lane around their building. Puja was skipping and talking like a rail engine, not even pausing.
“Look Pins…. cow!”
Kusum stopped and saw a fat cow trying to match her ambling gait. That cow was also feeling sleepy like her, she thought as she tuned into her niece’s observations. “She must be a mamma and is now walking to look for her baby…”
“I think it is a cow”
“Oh Pins… you are so funny,” said Puja and laughed.
Kusum caught the little girl’s hand and they rounded a bend. They almost bumped into their neighbor, Mrs. Singh, and Kusum had to curb her yawn and exchange morning pleasantries. When the lady departed full of information about the new arrivals, Kusum released her yawn.
“Let’s go home.”
“No,” Puja said loudly. “This is so nice… let’s walk some more Pins.”
Kusum sighed but nodding walked on. Pretty soon this became a morning routine. Weekend or office day– five in the morning, aunt and niece had to go for a morning walk and discover the joys of domesticated animal kingdom! Mrs. Narayan and Suman went shopping– Mrs. Narayan cooked and Suman slept and talked about her bodily aches and pains! The month flew by and soon only two weeks remained.
“We can always visit Ammam and Pins and talk to them on video,” said Suman biting into a ladoo.
“Don’t think about it,” said Kusum as Puja’s face became teary. “Think about the cows, pigs, and dogs we will meet tomorrow morning. Turning to face her mother and sister, “She has even named some of the the cows near the temple- Blueberry, Buttercup, and Bela.”
Suman laughed, “Amma I am going to miss your cooking.”
“I am going to miss the cows,” said Puja. They all laughed.
Morning, next day, saw aunt Kusum and niece Puja trudge down the lane for their morning walk. Both felt dispirited and unhappy. Puja didn’t want to go back! She wished summer holidays were just a bit longer! Kusum, on her part, wanted her sister and niece to stay with them in India forever, but she knew it was fanciful thinking. Suman and her daughter had their lives in New York City, USA. Both were silent as a warm breeze blew past rustling the dead leaves. Kusum heard it first– a whining sound faint but pitiful like someone being struck by a pointed nib– such a sharp, fine point tearing the flesh apart and causing pain!
The whining was becoming audible with every step both aunt and niece took. Puja was now hopping, anxious to see what it was. They rounded the corner and stopped. Lying amidst the green bushes and yellow leaves was a dog. A dog with big brown eyes, pale brown skin, a droopy tail and three legs. It stopped whining and began emitting short barks wagging its long thread of a tail. Kusum stared but didn’t budge. It was Puja who stepped forward and squatting in front of the dog said, “See it won’t harm you…She slowly reached out a slender small hand and petted the dog.
“Leave it Puja… it’s a stray!” Kusum said brusquely.
But Puja remained petting the dog and then laughed. “See it licked me it likes me but why is it here all alone?”
Against her own personal bias against dogs, Kusum gingerly squatted and eye-level with her niece explained, “It’s lame… see” pointing, “it has only three legs.”
Puja’s happy smiling face took on a stricken pained look. “But… poor doggie… all alone,” turning to her aunt she said, “Then how does it eat?”
Kusum shook her head, “Tough luck there is no garbage bin also near or any shop for it to get crumbs and eat… must be hungry.”
“It’s so friendly,” Puja said getting up and continuing, “How about we give it something to eat?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Bread slices… hey it is trying to get up…. no,” it was a wail from Puja as the dog fell over. “oh no! Is it hurt? Don’t worry doggie we will get you some food… it is so thin…. now stay here…. stay and we will be back with food.”
Puja blew a kiss at the dog and catching her aunt by the hand broke into a run.
“I don’t think your Ammam will be happy to hear about this,” said Kusum panting.
“Don’t worry,” said Puja as they hurriedly climbed the stairs. “Ammam never says anything to me.”
But she says a lot to me, thought the worried aunt as they reached the apartment and rang the door bell. Mrs. Narayan merely raised her eyebrows and handed three bread slices to her granddaughter. To her daughter she whispered, “Now what have you done? You cannot even take a small girl for a walk! Today it’s a dog– tomorrow it will be a cat!”
Kusum held her tongue as the door banged shut.
This is my round of exercise– thought Kusum following her niece down the stairs. The dog was still there. It wagged its tail fervently when it saw them. Puja gave it the slices and squatted petting the dog, what seemed to Kusum, an eternity.
“I think it is a boy,” said her niece. “It looks like a boy… what about a name? Softie… because he has such big beautiful soft eyes…”
“I think it’s time we said goodbye for today,” said Kusum impatiently and gently pulled her unwilling niece to her feet.
“Bye Softie… I will come back again tomorrow.”
Morning walk the next day became a stationary one as Puja sat and talked to Softie giving him bread and even brushing his domed head and straggly fur on his back. Kusum couldn’t understand the fascination– what did Puja see? But Puja was enjoying herself as she told a puzzled Suman and Mrs. Narayan, “Morning walks are so much fun I go to Softie and tell him about my school… what I want.” He eats and licks me, he is my best friend.”
“Aren’t morning walks meant for walking?”said a bewildered Suman brushing her hair.
“Oh! But this is so much fun… Softie is great fun…”
Kusum sighed smiling slightly who would have thought that a five-year-old girl would befriend a lame dog and spend her mornings with it? It was indeed a strange friendship between the sensitive caring small girl and the big lame dog! It was a bond built on more than food! It was sympathy and love! Puja even gave Softie a sponge bath and the big dog, gave her huge mammoth licks!
One Tuesday morning, they arrived late to meet Softie, armed with three bread slices, a pack of Glucose biscuits, an old tin with a lid filled with water. Kusum was the ‘coolie’ and watched as Puja squatted and calmed the big whining dog.
“Look Pins…” said Puja, “he got scared that we were not coming – he thought we had forgotten him.” Opening the Glucose biscuit pack, Puja had said, “Softie likes these Glucose biscuits which are for humans—he doesn’t like dog biscuits… remember Pins last week we got him dog biscuits and he ate just one…”
And Amma gave a tongue-lashing about buying expensive dog biscuits for dogs who don’t eat them, Kusum had thought. Softie was a fusspot – even today, they were late just by five minutes but he had been whining and trembling like a withered leaf in a whistling wind storm!
Kusum sighed – what an unusual bond!
The days went by swiftly like frightened birds and soon, the Narayan household was getting ready for the departure of its eldest and her daughter.
“But who will look after Softie when I am not here? He will die…” Puja said in a troubled voice. “He depends on me… we are friends..” she said gesturing wildly with her hands. Her round eyes filled with shimmering tears and she sniffed.
“You can meet him next summer,” said her mother folding a dress.
“NO…” yelled her daughter, “Can’t we take him with us please Mom?”
Suman was speechless and then clearing her throat said, “Er… we will get a puppy when we get back OK? Which one do you want? A poodle…a German Shepard?”
“NO,” shouted Puja hands over her ears, “I want Softie… only Softie…”
She ran outside the room as her mother said, “Don’t be like this Puja… the flight is tonight… where are you going?”
Kusum hastily thrust her feet into slippers and took off after the sobbing girl. Puja was running, and behind her Kusum was running breathing hard. Both niece and aunt turned the corner and stopped. There was no sign of the dog– just a few crushed yellow leaves…
“Where is he?” screamed Puja kicking Kusum. “Where is my Softie?”
By now the compound security guard had made an appearance and beckoning to Kusum said in rustic Hindi, “The animal control people came and took the dog away… they clean the streets of strays…”
Kusum nodded and then glanced helplessly at the small girl. Puja was crying and calling out the dog’s name. She ran to Kusum and tugging at her hand said, “Let’s go and look for him. Maybe he is hurt and can’t get up.” The little girl sniffed loudly as tears continued streaming down her face, “He has only three legs… he must be hurt and crying… hungry also…”
Kusum closed her eyes– her niece’s visible grief was overpowering. But she had to do something. She felt a hand on her shoulder – it was her sister and mother. Kusum drew a deep breath and sat on her knees to look squarely into eyes brimming with tears.
“Softie has gone home… he came here for a holiday just like you and your mommy came here for a holiday… his holidays have finished and so he has gone now.”
Puja said brokenly, “He didn’t even say goodbye…”
“Of course he did,” said Kusum. “He nuzzled his face close to yours yesterday and licked your feet… well that was his way of saying goodbye till we meet again…”
“But I…” Puja’s voice shook. “I never knew that he would go away and so I… I…” she stopped bursting into a deluge of tears. “I never did say goodbye…”
“But you did – the sponge bath and the dog treats and bones… you told him everyday how special he was…” Kusum said struggling to maintain her composure.
Puja nodded slowly as her mother came forward saying, “Maybe you can talk about him at Show and Tell in your school- he made you so happy… all your friends also should know…”
“But…” Puja said forlornly twisting the end of her T-shirt. “I don’t even have his picture.”
“You can draw his picture… now won’t that be a nice way to remember Softie even when you don’t see him,” said Suman smiling.”Come on lets go now,” she continued holding out her hand.
Puja gripped her mother’s hand and said, “I will draw a real nice picture of Softie – he is my best friend. And I will talk about him at Show and Tell – he is special… my Softie.”
Mother and daughter walked back to the apartment hand-in-hand followed by Mrs. Narayan and Kusum.
Photo credit: Steve Wall
Nirupama Akella is published academic and fictional author and poet, having published her first novel titled ”The Summer Break that” won several awards in Shankars International Competition; She has also participated in many national academic conferences.