Just outside the College of Fine Arts where I go to teach I have seen for the past three months an old adivasi woman sitting on the rough path by the gate. Someone said that because of the famine her son-in-law brought her here and left her. The old woman hears and understands little and her name and village are unknown, so arranging to send her back is difficult. She has with her a few rags, an old set of clothes, a bundle and a water pot; sun or rain, night and day, day after day, this old woman keeps sitting there. If the sun is strong she shifts a bit, or makes a shade for her eyes with her palm often, in the nights of the cold weather, same have seen her lying shriveled and shrunk upon the ground. When she first came she was completely emaciated but now looks somewhat filled out after the canteen boys ‘regularly doling out leftovers from the students’ tiffin carriers to her, and she can even move about a little. These days the college is closed for the holidays and the canteen shut, but occasionally passing vendors feed her something. A friend, once, overcome at her condition, impulsively bought a bunch of bananas and gave them to her/ She said to give me bread, bread.
Not being able to restore her to her home: I, too, carry the guilt of this sin within myself. But where is it, heme? Beneath her palm the old woman’s face is a patch of darkness, and around her the sun beats load and brimming as a drum. The trees on either aide have dried up; acme leaves lie on the ground, some drift down. I have an old-fashioned love for falling leaves; seeing bare branches, falling palash flowers, at a distance abundant clusters of laburnum, simmer’s other face. The sua must dry up the old woman’s bodily wastes in a second; if she slowly dries up too it is difficult to tell, because her body is now like the naked tree, not growing, not diminishing! her world is just as still, going neither forwards nor backwards. The heat has eaten her rags threadbare and her clothes have probably rotted by now? but she sits by the doorway hidden under her tatters so like a knot of shadows that people passing do not even notice her any more.
Somehow I never had courage enough to look into that old woman’s face. But today as I watch a hundred-year-old female relative of Bhrangadhra lying bundled up on her bed, I see her face and watch her wrinkles with fascination. As running water smooths deep incisions into rock, or white ants carve minute grooves into the sides of a tree, the winkled face of the old one le criss-crossed in small squares - her eyes floating lite bright fish. Seeing old age it is difficult to keep from thinking of time’s sport. The old woman lies asleep upon a rough tope charpai. The small, fibrous weave of the cot and the woman’s wrinkled face, the narrow wooden frame and her tiny body, gnaw the memory. This body, once in its prime, abundant, now withers; seeing the very moment of decay before my eyes, my body too recoils, as though there were no other way to go.
Going home now I see mother lying on a charpai. For the last six months she has been unable to get up. She remains here constantly, in this bed she eats and rids herself of bodily wastes. The doctors have given up hope; so my brother and sister-in-law allow her every delicacy she wants. Certain foods are harmful to her diabetic condition, but in the eagerness to keep her happy, and the hope that her remaining days will carry some peace with them, rice and sweets are served her; consequently she grows worse each day. Mother is how like a bundle of dry sticks. Her teeth are gone, her eyes thick with cataract, her hands stiff with rheumatism. Added to this is the last affliction of age: increasing lapses a of memory. She can no longer recognise us. One moment there is faint discernment, the next, a blank; often, on recognising us and not knowing what to say, she begins a kind of refrain which she keeps repeating to herself. Mother has seen much. Home and family having suffered financial problems for a long time she has acquired as a result the habit of eating large amounts of food very fast, forgetting that she has eaten immediately after, and asking again for food. Mother was married twice, of the first marriage there was a daughter; this daughter was betrothed and settled somewhere but mother has no recollection of it and I, too, have never met her. Of her second marriage there came our large family - five sons, of whom one died in infancy, and a daughter. My father’s devout yet stabborn character; my elder brothers’ education and ensuing difficulties, in the end one of them having run away from hornet the other two brothers’ constant quarrels with my father and then the splitting up of the family. On one side, my brothers and sisters-in-law in two groups; on the other, mother and father and I dragging after them, alone. I watched the Gaikwadi Maidan behind our home, the slaughterhouse next door, spent my time wandering aimlessly along the drled-up bed of the river Bhogavo. Father offered countless namas at the mosque, fought the municipal elections to have a place as filthy as Ghanchiwad, the oilseller’ lane, cleaned and repaired, racked his brains over how to persuade the authorities to build dean public lavatories for our small town, his blood boiling over quarrels with the brothers; he would rub a popular looal ointment, ‘Germs-Cutter’, over his ecszemaed feet; to Keep the household running find ways of borrowing money from the local banias and oil traders, or from the municipal office-holders. All this while, mother eat in the tiny kitchen within that recesses of the house, the blade room, cooking meal after meal. More than her face I remember her presence having melted into the blackness of the room. The Vermillion glow from the cowdung hearth, the sparks flying from the coal and dung fire, rotla cooking on a black earthenware griddle, the bubbling and boiling of a pot of vegetables - and amidst this, my mother’s hands, as though this is all that remains in my memory now. Her calling loudly, scolding us to eat early: this too, I remember. Sometimes she would chat for a while with the women of the neighbourhood, but of seeing or hearing mother laugh with abandon I remember few instances. Now, because of her deteriorating health, her cataract, she stays in my mind much more than before. About the closeness a mother and son share I came to hear much later, seeing this in the homes and families of friends; that was why, a little sadly, with the futility of time lost, when I turned to her It was with the desire to bring her some happiness.
Mother was born and grew up in the village. Being illiterate she was not very religious. It took time to teach heraboutreligiousmatters, ritual, namaz. I remember seeing my father angry at this: hehadlearnt much on his own and was a self-made man. Now with her bruised memory mother does not remember the name of Allah, despite my brother’s endless repetitions; instead she is alive to recollections of all sorts of diverse places and things - as though the present were dead already, and the past coming to life. Sometimes she says, take me home, the goats have to be milked; sometimes, take me to the other side of the river. Often, mistaking identities, she begins saying anything that comes to her mind to anyone who may happen to be before her. Once she said that it was she who had brought up Mohammed’s daughter Samira, but if she were to see her, probably would not recognise her at all. Now past and present, mental fatigue and physical agony are fused together and she obsessedly repeats, night and day, the refrain, O mother, father……. I suffer……. sins of some past life…….. To stop her uttering such a thought, my brothers, and sister who is visiting from her husband’s family, comfort her in loud voices, telling her to say Allah, Allah, instead. Mother stops for a second or two and begins all over again. Seeing my mother like this wrenches my heart, yet still I sit before her and try to apeak with her; taking her hand in mine the slightest pressure aggravates her rheumatism and she cries out. I take my face close to hers for recognition: her eyes are shiny pools and the pupils float like creatures hidden in the moss of a waterfall. Her face is withered, and her clothes, not changed regularly, have become dirty. Relieving herself in bed has stained the quilt and it stays that way. In this dark back room of my brother’s newly-built house there are no windows-only a door, through which the daylight floods, carrying dark images coming whose reflections must shine in mother’s watery eyes. Mother talks to herself night and day, repeating any phrase that comes to her lips. Sleep is now a stranger, and too many sieep-inducing medicines not good, the doctor says. So mother is always awake. Sister-in-law sleeps by her at night. Gradually everyone becomes used to mother’s endless mumble.
If I speak about this with anyone I hear them describe Instances far more painful than mother’s Relief through comparison - a lessening of pain - what use, seeking peace In the knowledge that someone else’s grief is greater than ours? This is why I do not like to touch on this matter with anyone. Sitting by mother I recognize a similar emotion in my brother’s eyes. How much shall be do, what can he do? Everything possible has already been done. Sister-in-law feeds mother, tends her, cleans her up. We two brothers, so different in temperament, profession, demeanour, sit here side by side on mother’s charpai brought together by an unspoken, shared pain. Sister is more experienced and has seen sorrow and suffering; perhaps that is why she sits by the bed with such composure.
I fear becoming used to mother’s constant muttering. I would not argue with those that call this comardice; something stirs in my mind against time, against fate, against the entire world. My body not with the sun, a restlessness within, propels me on; I wander, daring my very being alive.
As we travel to Dhrangadhra in the bus the sun is at its height; returning I see it sink. Sitting there with my sister I suddenly realise that mother’s voice murmuring her old refrain has awakened in my mind. Outside the dust swirls; the sun is dim in the sandy haze, its edge shining like the clean rim of a polished copper pot. The boa speeds on, the chatter of evening birds gradually subsides; through this the branches of the neem, the green softness of its leaves, fade into the storm and dust, predicting an inescapable moment.
Now in the cooling evening I see the glow of coals on the hearth, sparks from the fire; over the diminishing sky tiny grey flecks are stuck. The red dust of the road is burnt black. It seems as though my sister and I are together running away somewhere. Returning to our town we see from where we sit someone’s hearth being lit in the recesses of their house; we walk home. On reaching I hear my mother’s low refrain. I eat the evening meal and collapse on my bed on the terrace; over the charpai are scattered fragrant neem flowers. As I drowse, thinking of a Samira and Kabir, the neem tree rustles; the heat begins to melt and a breeze stins. Heavy with the day’s sun and many thoughts my mind swings like the small neem fruit. From below mother mutters, ‘sins of some past life…..’