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.