[Warning: Very long post ahead!]
‘Aunty-ji, Aunty-ji, open the door!’. Loud shrieks woke Mrs Marathe from her daily siesta. She hobbled slowly from the airy balcony, back into the sparsely furnished hall. The clouds were looming into darkness, although it was only 4:00 pm on a hot summer afternoon. By sheer force of habit, Mrs. Marathe peered through the faded looking glass. Satisfied that it was indeed the girls, she unlocked the chains that held the door.
Lavina and Priya barged into the hall, and dashed into their room toward the rear end of the old apartment. Mrs.Marathe followed them but stopped just outside. It was her policy to never enter the rooms of her paying guests, though the children did not mind her gentle presence. ‘Arre, what happened? Sooo arly today? College bund (closed)?’, she enquired.
The girls had pulled several outfits out of the small wooden cupboard and thrown them onto the bed, all quite breathlessly. ‘Sorry Aunty-ji, we forgot to call and tell you earlier’.
‘We are going away!!’ – they yelled in unison. They looked at each other, their cheeks burning pink with excitement.
Mrs.Marathe stood as still as a statue. She looked at the two glowing faces. Of all the paying guests she had had over the last ten years, these were the only girls who had managed to carve themselves, a place in her heart. The others had come from good families too, had had excellent upbringing, but had always treated her as only a landlady, a stranger who hailed from several generations before!
Mrs. Marathe lowered her gaze to the ground, as if to examine the grey-black speckled tiles on the floor, for the first time. At 80, she had finished living almost her entire life. She had married well, had three children, two of which migrated to foreign shores, leaving her behind in their ancestral home. The third had been prompt enough to sell that beautiful house, and send her away to this apartment. ‘This is a residential area, Aai, you can relax here’, he had said. True, this was a beautiful locality in the heart of Pune. Green leafy trees, wide roads, and to complement the stillness, a neighbouring college that buzzed with the lively banter of youth – the sound of distant chattering voices that kept her company through the otherwise quiet day.
Lavina and Priya were students of that same college. Both were in their late teens, came from middle-class backgrounds, and were studious, respectful and very friendly. They had spent many an evening, chatting over a cuppa, in that balcony, Mrs.Marathe sunk in one arm-chair, Lavina perched on the arm-rest, Priya in the other arm-chair.
‘Oh, theek’ Mrs.Marathe whispered slowly, and exited to the balcony. For two reasons. First, it would allow the girls to pack. The second, and real reason being, she did not want her eyes to betray her emotions in front of them. Her eyes had been accustomed to seeing people leave her. Her parents, her husband, children.. infact everyone she had known ever! Except for a handful of friends who, like her, were supposed to enjoy ‘retired life’ in the same neighbourhood. She knew, that at 80, she was supposed to be more ‘in control’ of her emotions than the two teenagers who were at that very moment, excitedly stuffing clothes and shoes into their bags.
‘Rent is high.. I can reduce..’. ‘They want telephone? Or come home late!’ She was already thinking, quite involuntarily, of why the girls were leaving, and how she could convince the girls to stay.
Her life was an empty page now. All the work of rearing her children now finished, she had nothing to do, but ‘relax’. How she hated that word! ‘You’ve worked so hard all your life, Aai. Time for you to take rest now’, they would always say to her. That she lived all by herself, with her nearest relatives living four hours away in Mumbai, hardly made a difference to their stance. She had been too hurt to argue with their logic.
She had gracefully surrendered before the war could even begin. Retired to her little shell, and sported a content smile. Always.
Her three sons would faithfully call her every Sunday. The same, standard questions.
‘How are you, Aai?’
‘How is your health?’
‘Are you taking care of yourself?’
‘We will come to visit you soon, Aai’.
They were loving boys. They had always respected her and her late husband. Always ensured she had a steady source of income.
But they hardly came to visit.
In the two years that Lavina and Priya had lived in her apartment, they had never seen her sons. Never heard of her going to meet them in Mumbai or Dubai either, where they now lived.
‘Arre, I am too old to travel’, Mrs.Marathe would always say, when they broached the subject.
‘Too old’, Mrs.Marathe thought to herself, and stifled a laugh. She laid a wrinkled palm on the jaded edges of the arm-chair and thought to herself.. ‘People envy my restful lifestyle. My slow-paced life. My indulgence in books. The rare afternoon tea parties I have with acquaintances from two generations before them! And whenever I want to DO something.. GO out.. play with my grandchildren here, they say ‘Relax, Aai. Don’t stress’. And I continue to plough through this lonely, lonely life.. this .. this curse’.
Suddenly, someone hugged her knees. Mrs.Marathe looked down to find Lavina crying in front of her. ‘Please don’t cry, Aunty-ji, please don’t’, she pleaded. Priya walked behind her arm-chair and gently placed her arms around Mrs.Marathe’s frail shoulders and gave her a peck on her cheek.
Mrs.Marathe smiled, and touched her cheek. How she longed for her own grandchildren to give her a kiss like that! She touched both her cheeks again, this time. They were wet. Tears were streaming down her pointy chin, and had made her green cotton sari damp where they fell! She instantly covered her face with her knotty palms. And let go of all the emotions that had been binding her heart, like a thick rope around a brittle vine. She shuddered for a few seconds.
‘I don’t want to Relax. I want to Live!!’ she cried.
Lavina and Priya held her close. Suddenly, they were the parents, and Mrs.Marathe, the child – desperately seeking solace.
In about fifteen minutes, Mrs.Marathe had calmed down.
Priya rushed to fetch some cold water. ‘Feeling better, Aunty-ji?’ Lavina asked softly.
‘Yes, my dear. I am sorry! For crying like this. You got frightened?’
‘Not at all’, they cooed. Priya gently stroked her silvery hair. Lavina massaged the frail legs.
Mrs.Marathe looked on at them. What relation were they to her? Neither her children nor grandchildren had displayed so much affection towards her until now. She was suddenly exhausted. ‘I want to take rest’, she whispered.
The girls supported her carefully, into her bedroom, fluffed up her pillows, and eased her onto the bed.
‘Aunty-ji, by the way, will you be OK when we go?’
Mrs.Marathe blinked hard. She suddenly realised, this was what caused the outpour after all. The girls going away from her. The tears had however, drained her of both energy and emotion. ‘Yes, don’t worry’, she replied and smiled faintly.
‘Its only for a week! You know, there was this sudden announcement in College, about a fully sponsored training programme, an entire week – in GOAAAAA!!! And guess what? We BOTH got chosen!!’ The girls looked at each other and grinned. Lavina clapped her hands like a child, who had just been given a lollipop! Priya let out a low whistle.
Mrs.Marathe smiled. The enthusiasm was infectious. Suddenly, she realised. ‘Then, you will come back?’ she asked with barely noticable a tremor of excitement.
‘Ofcourse Aunty-ji!’, they chanted happily.
‘This is our home’, Lavina exclaimed. Mrs.Marathe squinted.
‘She means, like our home’, Priya added quickly, not wanting to irk their already distressed landlady.
Mrs.Marathe laughed. She stretched out her hands towards the girls. They held her palms tightly. Almost as if they were afraid to leave her alone.
‘This IS your home, children. For as long as you want’.
The girls enveloped her in a gentle hug, and rushed to get on with the packing.
[Another para left – will be completed tomorrow 🙂 ]
[P.S: Had written this quite some time back, and was too bored to read and edit… so I leave the job to you 🙂 There must be a lot of language/syntax errors, please do help edit this!]