(Inspired by the women on the TV show Satyameva Jayate and their resilience in protecting their kids against abusive spouses! )
A Mother's cry!
A foray into a world unknown
She sat and stared at the purple bougainvillea, waiting for her mother to come out of the x-ray room. She hated hospitals from the time she was young. Funnily enough , that was the place she spent most of her life. Be it her parents , grandparents or relatives, they knew they could count on her to help. Waiting on hours for a room allocation, or in the line to pay the bill, Vatsala seemed to constantly be the one called in case of an emergency. No one knew she hated it. Not even her parents. While waiting she had seen burnt bodies when a mother had immolated her children and herself due to a drunk husband, severed arms due to caste riots and the worst of all dead children in the wake of the tsunami. To get rid of these images, she would sit and stare at a flower while waiting. Be it a wilted gladioli or a near perfect red rose, she would wrap her mind around it and block the other images out. That way the most she remembered of any hospital day was the twirl of the petal, the fragrance of the flower or even the shade of the leaf as it clung to a slender stem.
Today it was the bougainvillea. The nursing home was run by her family doctor. She had seen the plant unfurl from a stump to the creeper which spread its vines across the east wall. The ugly white paint seem to be covered by the profusion of color. As she was staring at a flower , two tiny fingers seemed to intrude into her vision. As she looked down the chubby hands, she looked into the cherubic face of a toddler. Mentally her shutters came down. She couldn’t smile back at the cherub, because she knew either the child or someone in the child’s family was sick, other wise no one entered a nursing home. As she tried to resume her staring, the child again stuck two fingers in her face., as she was about to shoo him away, an older voice stopped her
“He only wants two of those flowers you know? Could you please help me pluck it, I cant seem to reach outside the window”
Turning Vatsala saw a shrunken older lady in a traditional Indian madishar (Saree) . Thin and shriveled, she looked almost ready to drop, but the smile and pleading look on her face stopped Vatsala.
Walking to the window, she plucked two of the blossoms and brought it back to the child.
As the child squealed in delight the older woman sat down next to Vatsala and made herself comfortable. Vatsala squirmed in silence. The only reason she agreed to the long waits in hospitals was the fact that she was perfectly alone in her thoughts and with her flowers. As she sat to stare at the flowers, the lady continued with her dialogue with her as if Vatsala wasn’t being rude.
“My name is Andal mami, the name like you know like the consort of lord Ranganatha , what’s your name child?” Andal mami pushed
“Vatsala” was the short reply
“Vatsala. the affectionate one… a very nice name”
As she was talking Andal mami pulled out a basket of Parijatha or Night Jasmine flowers to combine them into a garland. Vatsala’s attention was now pulled to the little white flowers with orange stem and a fragrance worthy of the gods.As she saw mami’s nimble fingers string them into a perfect string.
Andal Mami continued talking
“You know Lord Krishna, brought the tree down from heaven, and to placate both his wives, planted the tree Satyabama’s garden, but the flowers always fell into his first wife Rukmini’s garden. That way they both got ownership over the plant”
“Typical male thinking”, thought Vatsala, “cheap too, one plant and two ladies”.
That’s the reason she stayed away from marriage, she had been in the hospital corridors long enough to see enough dysfunctional relationships.
Mami looked at the child playing with the bougainvillea while deftly creating her fourth strand of flowers , and said
“His mother gave birth this morning to a beautiful baby girl, I hope she looks like her father “. Vatsala was now sure that Mami was the cherub’s grandparent and definitely related only through the father. Only a proud grandmamma would want a new born to resemble her son.
As the child began weeping, mami quickly put the flowers aside to pick him up. For a thin frame she was full of dexterity and strength. Grabbing her basket in one hand and carrying the child in the other, she place one of the strands in Vatsala’s hands before hurrying away to feed the child. As Vatsala gazed at the beautiful garland, she couldn’t see the twirls in the petals this time, only the work that mami had put in,
A couple of days later, she was back at the nursing home, with her younger brother, who had sprained his ankle jumping out of a mango tree. Vatsala wished he had broken a bone or two, because they had to sit forever waiting for the doctor to see them. As she again tried to look for a flower , the smell of jasmines wafted by. She had no idea why, but she knew Mami was close by. She heard children’s laughter, to see Mami holding court between a couple of 8 year olds, who was closely listening to her. As her gaze met mami’s, Mami’s smile widened and she called
“Vatsala, come join us, these are Darshini’s children and their mother is not well. I’m stringing Jasmines today , you can help me”
As Vatsala, hesitantly moved closer, Mami dumped another basket into her lap and continued with her stories of baby Krishna
As Mami wowed her audience with Krishna’s fight against the mighty snake Kaliya to him stealing the butter from his mothers pots Vatsala actually didn’t want to leave when her brother hopped out on one leg. But as she prepared to leave, Mami gave her a strand of jasmines.
Vatsala met Mami on and off for about 4 months. Each time a different set of kids, flowers and a unique story. She learnt about the red flowers of the Asoka tree and the blue water Lilly which Lord Rama used to appease Goddess Durga.
During the sixth month meeting, Vatsala saw Mami when she was in a foul mood. Her parents kept asking her to meet some boy, whom they could arrange her marriage with. She was thankful, that her uncle Kumar had fallen off his bike, so here she was again watching the bougainvillea.
She smelt the roses and a calm settled over her. She knew Andal mami would find some long lost story and she could forget about her life. As she waited for mami to sit, she looked up to see Mami holding a string of flowers already done.
“These are for Radha , she gave birth to a lovely boy this morning, come with me to see her son” Andal mami said.
Vatsala had started to wonder how many children Mami had. Her grandmother had 13, so she was sure Mami had the same number. But it seemed that mami spent a lot more time in the nursing home than Vatsala did.
As Mami moved away, Vatsala couldn’t help but follow her. As they made their way to the nursery, this was the first time Vatsala had been in this part of the ward. She usually avoided it due to the screaming babies, but today they all were perfect angels.
As Mami stopped at one crib, she seemed to be bursting with joy.
“Look at him” she said . "Doesn’t he look just like a kutti (little ) Krishna ? I am sure he will have all the ladies jumping to his tune in no time".
Vatsala had to agree the baby looked sweet. As she looked into the innocent face, Mami continued
“You know Vatsala, there are only two types of love in the world that is pure – one divine and the other that you get from a child. To receive both these you need to open yourself to receive the love. And if you open yourself to this kind of love, all other types of loves will find you”
Vatsala looked into the wizened face and realized that Mami had realized that behind the competent woman was a scared girl. She had always hidden away from the world in these hospital corridors, scared that something might happen to her like all those people she had witnessed over the years.
As she smiled at Mami she felt years younger. Mami quietly tucked a rosebud in Vatsala’s hair.
“Young girls should always have flowers in their hair my dear, it enhances the flowers beauty “. Saying that she quickly hurried away.
That weekend, Vatsala met Rajesh, the guy here parents had selected for her. Funnily enough he was funny, liberal and had no idea about flowers. As they spoke through the next couple of weeks, her trips to the hospitals decreased. She still helped, but uncles and brothers could help each other sometimes.
After a month, she was back at the nursing, this time specifically looking for Mami. This time she had a bag full of creamy yellow champak flowers. She wanted to tell Mami about her engagement. As she searched around, she couldn’t find her. So she finally went to the front desk to ask about her.
What she found out, shocked her more than all the blood she had witnessed over the years. Mami lived in the old folks home in the end of the street. Everyday she would specifically come to nursing home to help babysit children, whose parents were unwell. The only thing she asked in return was flowers that she could use to garland her beloved Krishna. Sometimes, when she was sick or hungry, the hospital staff would give her food from their homes, telling her it was food from the temple. Only then she would consume it. Vatsala realized that Mami, encapsulated her nature in her name. Like Vishnu’s devotee Andal, she spread love wherever she went and through the words she spoke.
Mami was surprised to find Vatsala at her doorstep, with a young man the next day. They both bowed to receive her blessing and on on learning of their news, her smile widened to show her remaining four teeth . As Vatsala, gave her a mixed bag of champak, parijatha and jasmine, Mami was enthralled.
“My Krishna will be ecstatic with all his favorite flowers today" she gushed
Vatsala, held her hand and said
“Mami, I need you to help me. Rajesh’s uncle has passed away recently and his aunt is all alone in their big house. Would you please help out and stay with her for some time. I know the hospital will miss you, but you can use our car and chauffer to visit them as often as possible. ”
Andal’s eyes misted over. She knew what Vatsala was doing. She was giving her a wonderful opportunity, but she couldn’t accept such kindness. As she was about to say no, Rajesh stepped in.
“Mami, my mother passed away when I was 14 and my father was always away. It would be great to hear the scriptures and traditions from someone older, to help us through our new beginning. I promise, I would always ensure your Krishna has all the flowers required”
Mami couldn’t say no to that request. As she moved towards her little Krishna to start packing, she could almost see him winking at her. He would always take care of her, because she knew all his favorite flowers and of course he loved her more than she could ever love him.
Mr.Iyer shrugged into his short sleeve blue shirt and took out his cane. It was four 'o 'clock and it was time for his evening walk. As he moved towards the lift, his wife called out to be back early for dinner at 7.He didn’t need reminding, but she always did that. They had been married thirty eight years, and but their conversations mainly revolved her daily reminders and their granddaughters. As he started walking around the apartments, towards the fountain where, he could spend an hour reading his morning paper again.
People started moving away from him once they saw him. Mr.Iyer’s temper was known to one and all. Be it a 5 year old child who jumped into his way trying to catch the ball or the neighborhood grocer, who innocently parked his cart in Mr.Iyer's car spot, their ears were reddened by his loud outbursts. Mr.Iyer knew what people thought of him and he liked it just fine. He felt fear indicated the respect that they had for him.
As he sat in his favorite spot, all alone, looking at the editorial column and cursing the editor for the umpteenth time for backing the current ruling party, he noticed that a child of about 8 was sitting opposite him. The boy didn’t even bother looking at him, but just sat throwing stones into the fountain. Mr.Iyer let him do it for fifteen minutes and then signed, raised his voice and said
“This place is only for senior people, go play with other kids”.
To his surprise, the child looked up, glared at him and kept throwing the stones.
Mr.Iyer was disgruntled. Even his son never glared at him that way, and now he was a grown man of thirty. He raised his voice even higher and said
“Didn’t you hear me, leave now or I’ll call your parents”
The boy didn’t even bother looking up this time, but the stones and the splashes started getting bigger and louder.
Mr.Iyer finally thundered “Get up now!!!” He was sure the entire apartment heard him.
The boy looked up, glared and spit out
“My parents pay maintenance too, and as per the society bylaws, this part of the apartment complex can be used by anyone”.
Mr.Iyer was shocked. First, no one ever responded to his outbursts, and second this child actually had read the society bylaws. No one did either of those two.As Mr.Iyer grabbed his paper, and stalked back home half an hour earlier, his temper was raging. Its only when he got to house he realized, the boy was still at the fountain, but he had left!
Through the next week, the boy kept coming back and throwing stones into the fountain. Mr.Iyer was sure it was just to annoy him. If Mr.Iyer had his way the boy deserved a real spanking. That’s when he decided to speak to the parents. At least those people would be afraid of him
The next day instead of going to the fountain, he knocked on the door, where the new neighbors had moved in. The door was opened by a sleepy maid. On enquiring about the residents, he was rudely told that the father was on an assignment abroad and the mother would be back late from her meeting. As he walked back to the fountain, he was sure of the reason for the insolence .He had no discipline in his life.
Mr.Iyer decided that he would teach that boy discipline.
As he sat with his paper again, the boy was across staring morosely into the fountain. Seeing Mr.Iyer he brightened up and then started throwing rocks into the fountain.
Mr.Iyer cocked an eyebrow at him and said
“When I was your age, I would have got walloped by my father for being rude to elderly person”.
The boy stopped and looked at him
“Well, at least you had dad around to wallop you”
Mr. .Iyer said “Young man , it seems, that you have never been walloped in your life, so you don’t know !”
“Well, you haven’t spent the last year speaking to a web cam, instead of your dad, so you don’t know!!”.
Mr.Iyer didn’t know the right response to that, so silence reigned for some time.
Suddenly Mr.Iyer heard music, the boy was blaring it through the cell phone.
“So all kids have these cells nowadays, no wonder you don’t know how to talk to people”
“Well that needs to taught by adults, and with you all constantly busy, it’s easier to message than talk” ,pat came the reply
Mr.Iyer was tired of this little smart mouth.
“Don’t you have homework to do?” he asked
“Well did it at school, while waiting for the driver to pick me up. He’s always late, so he can ask mom for overtime pay”
“So who helps you with the homework at school?”
“I don’t need help; these problems in school are so easy. Dad is sure I am genius or something, but in this country he says I can’t grow to my full potential” said the boy puffing with pride.
Mr. Iyer was angry, not at the child but at the father. He had lived through the Indian Independence movement in 1947 and wore his patriotism like a second skin.
“Well don’t say that. This is the country of Gandhi and Nehru, every person can become whatever they want to be”
“Did you ?” asked the boy
Mr.Iyer was dumbfounded. That was the question that had haunted him from the day he retired five years ago. His life had been a steady stream of duties from the day he lost his father at eighteen, He had looked after his six siblings first, then his children and somewhere in there his dreams had withered. He felt angry at everybody - his family , his friends and his colleagues the day he retired. Forty years of hard toil didn’t mean anything. His siblings had their own lives, his children grown and left as soon as possible and his wife, was content in spending the rest of their life alternatively between TV soaps and prayer sessions that lasted days. His colleagues refused to respond to his calls, the day after he quit.
Mr.Iyer didn’t talk to the boy after that . But funnily enough for the next month , the child would sit opposite him everyday and play his video games, or read a book. Not talking , but only silent acknowledgement when their eyes met.
One day the Mr.Iyer was in his usual place, but the boy was missing. He came later, eyes swelled up , clearly he had been crying.
Lowering his paper, he said “did someone finally wallop you? Even if they did, boys don’t cry”
Tear stained face looked up and said “No they didnt !! I am not crying, I have an allergy”
On Mr.Iyer’s silence he continued , sniffing and leading to what happend
“The teacher made a grammar mistake today at class. I corrected him. He looked at me and told me he knew better and I was wrong and that’s why children need school, to learn ,not to teach. Then he asked me to stand up on a bench till lunch time”.
Mr.Iyer said “That doesn’t sound bad!. Lots of times teachers scold kids”
The boy got up in agitation and said “All I do is study and read.If I am not good at studies, then I am not good at anything. . I hate that teacher, and he was wrong. I wish I can make him stand outside the class on a bench for a whole day”
Mr.Iyer smiled and said “Do you know what I did to my fourth standard teacher, who walloped me for talking in class. I climbed up on the roof, waited till he walked in the corridors below and poured purple ink on top of his bald head. He looked like an eggplant for the whole week”
That visual started the pair laughing and the first smile broke through.
Mr.Iyer surprised himself, by offering to teach the boy cricket, so he would be involved in something other than reading all the time. Well he thought to himself that would at least discipline him to a certain extent.
Everyday now, Mr. Iyer looked forward to his fountain time. “That boy” , as he called him, was a quick learner. He had picked up “reverse swing” in a couple of days. That boy was Richard Hadley in the making, he was sure. Without knowing it, slowly a trickle of kids started coming through to the fountain. A club formed and Mr.Iyer as coach, used his voice to ensure that all had chances to play and learn. While the interested played, the others quizzed Mr.Iyer about independence, his days playing cricket on madras roads and days before cellphone.The booming voice now rang with laughter rather than rage. Mrs.Iyer had to come down to see what made her husband smile so much nowadays. She was drawn into the circle of children , that she became the official storyteller of the bunch. Mr.Iyer never knew his wife had the talent to weave tales , that sometimes he found himself listening as eagerly to her stories, than any of the kids around
A couple of months later , he noticed, that “the boy” didn’t come down to play. He wanted to go and check up on him, but his time was occupied by the club matches played with the neighboring apartments. A few days later he noticed a moving truck and he saw the boy helping to load it. As soon as he saw him, the boy disappeared. The truck moved out that night and so did the family.
The next day a card was stuck to the door. It said "open on Sunday". Mr.Iyer was sure it was from the boy
On Sunday, Mr.Iyer woke up at the crack of dawn to open his card. It said
“HAPPY FATHER’S DAY”
“Mr.Iyer I didn’t want to meet you before I left, because I would cry and I know you said boys don’t cry !. I brought this card for my father, but I have to give it to you. You made me smile you were my friend and taught me a lot more than all my teachers did. Could you please let other kid know how you stole mangos into class or walked at the independence march, we never get to read that in the books . Every time I see an eggplant now or play cricket, I will be thinking of you”
Aditya (That’s my name, not “You Boy”)
As tears slipped down Mr.Iyer’s face, he realized men did cry. He started to teach the boy discipline but the child had taught him about his own life. He moved towards his blue shirt, but this time the spring was back in his step after forty years.