BEBEY’S DAY OUT
Pushpa roused herself from her almost somnolent state in front of the TV. Though she did not feel hungry, she knew she had to eat dinner. With an effort, she heaved herself out of the sofa she had been sitting in. Her arthritic limbs creaked as she made her way to the kitchen. The tube light there was flickering sulkily. It would give up the ghost any time now.
“I must call the electrician tomorrow,” she said to herself, “I hope I remember to, though!”
Now in her small kitchen, she felt a bit disoriented in the uncertain light. Rooting about in the fridge, she found a sorry-looking carrot. She had not been to the market in a while. In the mornings she put it off to the evening, and in the evenings it got dark early these days. She could not muster the energy or will-power to venture out amidst the crowds, the dusty roads with their sea of vehicles, their non-existent footpaths and the general atmosphere of chaos everywhere. To top it, these days with the demonetisation of high-value currency, she was thinking twice about spending her meager purse of 100s and 50s. She had kept aside the few five hundreds and thousands she had. She didn’t feel up to standing in long queues to get them exchanged. But she was also worried that if she didn’t exchange or deposit them in time, she would lose that money. If things got worse, she might ask her neighbours what to do.
Dinner would have to be instant noodles again. Her stock of those packets had dwindled too, because for the past week, these had been her only meals. She had been too listless to make the effort to cook for herself. There were practically no vegetables at home. The sabziwala would not accept the old notes, nor would he give credit. And she was spending the smaller denominations judiciously.
She remembered other times in the kitchen, the meals she used to whip up for her family. “The house was filled with noise and laughter in those days! And this very kitchen? The aromas that emanated from it! The demands that Gagan and Charan used to make! I used to come up with new and tempting ways to make their meals healthy.”
Pushpa did have a maid-of-all-work coming in to do the usual chores. But she could not bring herself to depend on a cook or maid for her meals.
“God knows how dirty their hands must be!” she would say. Even if she gave them soap, she could never be sure that they used it properly. Anyway, she just did not find food made by others all that palatable.
So when she had the energy and inclination, she cooked herself appetising meals, like she had always done. On other days, she resorted to instant meals out of packets. Instant noodles were the easiest. Their strong masala penetrated her weakening taste buds and gave her the satisfaction of having had something interesting.
The maid nagged her sometimes, with the familiarity of long-standing association.
“Bebey, how can you stay here alone? It was OK when Bauji was alive. Though I know how you struggled to take care of him when he was ill. But you have two sons living in the same city! Why don’t you go and stay with them? At least one Bhaiyya should come and take you away! Don’t they see that you are not able to manage now? Hmph, I don’t think they care much!”
“Soni! You don’t know what you are saying! Of course they care! When your Bauji had that heart attack, they arranged an attendant….”
“Yes, but did they pay for him?” Soni retorted belligerently.
“Arre, we could manage…,” Pushpa refuted her maid’s insinuations about her sons’ tightfistedness.
“And did they check if the attendant was working all right? And you too never called them to help out physically or financially!” Soni’s tone was accusing.
“It is all right. They are busy. With my bahus also working, their houses are empty during the day. So I’d be alone there also, na?”
“No, Bebey, your grandchildren would be there for half the day at least. And you would be among your people at night….” Soni seemed to have all the answers.
Pushpa was tired of the conversation. “Oh, the neighbours here are good; in case of any emergency, they always help out. You too are in and out of the house all the time! Chalo, now get on with your work! Sitting and talking away!” she had reprimanded Soni.
Though she had defended her sons to the maid, Pushpa had to admit that she was hurt by their cavalier attitude. They just chose to assume that she was all right, so that they didn’t have to make an effort to take care of her. When their father, Gyan, had been ill, they had come to the hospital just once each. Gagan had come to visit and Charan had come to shift them home. Gagan had sent across an attendant. About the attendant, the less said the better. He had to be given tea at all hours and took long lunch breaks.
Gyan had not been able to recoup and had succumbed to his weak heart a couple of years ago. Since then she had been chugging along in the small house, taking each day as it came. Pushpa made excuses for her sons- they were busy, they could not get leave, they had other responsibilities, their kids had board exams- the list was endless.
Well, at seventy-six, all she wanted was a peaceful existence. Yes, she was lonely, often anxious, but that was probably better than staying with either of her sons, knowing she was not really wanted, that she was in the way, taking up their space and time.
Now she chopped the lone carrot slowly, to add to the instant noodles. Her simple meal made, she carried it to the TV in the living room, and gulped it down, watching a serial. The serial watching was more for the familiarity of the characters than out of any real absorption in the plot. She nodded off in front of the TV, an occurrence that was happening more and more often. In the early hours, she woke up and put herself to bed, knowing that she would get up again soon anyway. She was not too keen on sleeping in the bed, actually.
Next morning, she got a call from her younger son Charan.
“How are you, Ma? I hope you are keeping yourself warm. How’s the arthritis?”
“I’m OK, beta,” she said, pleasantly surprised, “Yes, my knees do hurt these days…,”
“But you can walk?” he interrupted.
“Yes, of course, just a bit more slowly.” “Excellent! I am coming to get you in a couple of hours! Be ready!” he rang off.
Pushpa didn’t know what to make of it. “Coming to get me? And take me where?”
As she was mumbling to herself, Soni the maid came in and demanded an explanation. On being told, she exclaimed, “Ah, Bhaiyya seems to have come to his senses! He must be coming to take you home! Shall we start packing? Of course, you won’t need me now! I’m going to take a couple of your sarees! And ask Bhabhi to spare me a suit or two also! If it weren’t so far to their place, I could have come and visited you from time to time! If you give this house for rent, you will ask your tenants to take me on---,”
“Oh, wait, wait, Soni,” Pushpa said, “I don’t know anything about shifting. Charan didn’t say! Maybe he’s just taking me home for the weekend. The kids and my bahu will also be at home. It is long since I saw them…,”
“Oh have it your way! But I think I should bring down a couple of your suitcases to start packing. You haven’t taken out your woolens yet; there is a definite chill in the air now!”
“I’m using this shawl, Soni…,”
“That is the dahi shawl---- smelly thing! You haven’t been setting the dahi for quite some time now, so you are able to use this shawl.” Soni was right. Pushpa had been used to setting the curd in a thick glass or ceramic bowl and wrapping it with an old shawl to keep it warm for it to set. Nowadays, with her disinterest in cooking, she was not bothering about setting the curd either.
For all her bluster, Soni had a kind heart, Pushpa knew. During her husband Gyan’s illness, Soni had taken it upon herself to make those endless teas for the attendant, albeit cursing him roundly under her breath. Pushpa had protested but Soni had overridden her, saying slyly,
“I know your chulha will have to be cleaned again after I use it; well, I’ll do that too, Bebey!”
She had also washed Gyan’s soiled clothes without a word, though she never undertook washing at any other house that she worked in. Pushpa could never forget that.
In a couple of hours, as promised, Charan was there. His comments and questions flew at her in staccato bursts.
“Kya Ma, how long has it been since you combed your hair?”
“Do you have your Aadhar card?” This in an urgent tone. “Bet you don’t have copies though,” exasperatedly.
“But where are we going?” Pushpa managed to ask, confused.
“And you’d better take your PAN card as well…,”
“Do I have one?” Pushpa was doubtful.
“Of course you do! You do, don’t you? If you don’t we are sunk!” Thankfully the PAN and Aadhar cards were found without much ado.
“We’ll go out for a good lunch, Ma, just you and me---,”
“I don’t really eat outside food…,” she hesitated.
“Oh, it is OK once in a while, Ma! How long is it since we spent time together? Come on now. We must hurry. Are you sure you can walk OK?” Her phone began to ring, but Charan hustled her out, saying, “We just have a small task to do, then we’ll go for lunch.”
“Just a quick stop off at the bank, Ma. We need to deposit the old notes of Rs. 500 and Rs.1000. The bank is open only for senior citizens today. I will give you some money for each bank account you have. You can deposit it more easily than I can in my account.”
Pushpa smiled tiredly. She was flooded with emotions. She was still needed! She was not forgotten. It had been so many days since she had stepped out. She blinked in the warm November sun. She felt alive again.
Beside her, in the car, Charan answered his phone.
“Yes, Gagan? Yes, I have her.”
The phone crackled with Gagan’s annoyance at the other end. Pushpa could hear him too, in the close confines of the car.
“But I need her too….”
“Well, I got to her first, so…,” Charan smirked triumphantly.
“You should have asked me first,” Gagan blustered. “At least can you free her soon so that I can take her along too?”
“Sorry bhai! We have to go to at least three banks if not four! And after that, she’ll be tired. I’m taking her to lunch!”
“Let me talk to her,” Gagan spluttered, “I’m sure she’ll come with me!”
Charan hung up on Gagan with a curt, “We’ll see!”
Pushpa felt disturbed at this bickering but said nothing.
At the first bank, Charan steered her to the line of senior citizens. It seemed like the entire grey and wrinkled population of the city was out today. Elderly people with walkers, with neck collars, with back support belts and with walking sticks were all patiently standing in queue. On seeing them, Pushpa felt grateful that she was upright and walking with just a limp. Here and there, she saw some elderly couples walking hand in hand. A twinge of wistfulness overcame her. If only Gyan were still here!
Then she heard Charan muttering, “Maybe we should have got a wheelchair…then she could probably go to the head of the line.”
She caught him looking speculatively at her, and said firmly, “I’ll stand. How much do you want to put into this account?”
The amount he mentioned would have taken care of the attendant’s fees for three months! A slow burn started in Pushpa’s heart but she held her peace. Luckily, she had her own old currency in her purse, and would be able to deposit it along with the money Charan was handing to her. It took more than an hour for her to shuffle to the head of the line. Charan was outside the bank most of the time, popping in at intervals to check on her position and tch-tching impatiently. There were other middle-aged people with their elderly parents in line. They were getting them water, and standing in their stead for a bit, while the elders took rest on the chairs provided by the bank. Someone offered her water, which she accepted gratefully.
Finally, the ordeal was over and Pushpa thought they could go to lunch. But Charan was not done yet.
“Let’s not stop now, Ma! The next bank may get crowded later. If you are hungry, I’ll get you a juice or something…,”
Pushpa resignedly trudged into line at the next bank. Here the line was longer, but on the plus side, some good Samaritans were offering tea and biscuits. The atmosphere became relaxed and a little picnicky. She exchanged phone numbers with her queue-mates, noting them down in a small diary she always carried. Some senior citizens who had smart phones were sharing jokes about the current situation, or rather, the currency situation! The urgency around getting rid of the notes seemed to have died down a little. There was a general air of camaraderie in adversity.
Pushpa felt a glow of warmth. There were others, older or frailer than she was. Yet here they all were, doing what was needed, whether for themselves, or for their children. She was still fit, fitter than so many others were. She squared her shoulders and resolved not to let herself sink into the shadows again. She would come out into the sun, regardless of what her sons did or did not do.
So when Charan mentioned the next bank, this time to try and exchange currency notes, Pushpa put her foot down.
“I need to have my lunch now. If you can’t spare the time, I can go back home…,”
“Oh, no, no, we’ll break for lunch, Ma! There is this lovely Chinese place…,” Charan said enthusiastically.
The irony hit Pushpa immediately- she had been surviving on instant noodles all this while, and now Charan was taking her out for Chinese! She went into a fit of laughter that threatened to dissolve into tears. Pushpa pulled herself up; no self- pity now!
With a smile, she said to Charan, “No, we will have a good old Punjabi thhali!”
“Oh, of course, Ma, whatever you want!” Charan acquiesced.
Charan had not mentioned when and how he wanted his money back. Of course, the unspoken understanding was that she could withdraw the amount he had deposited in her account, and return it to him later when all the fuss had died down. However, these two accounts were still in Pushpa’s name alone, now that Gyan had passed away. Charan would not be able to get at the money unless his mother gave it to him. Pushpa meant to do something for Soni and her family with the money in her account. Her sons might have all but forgotten her, but she could still give them a little shock- she was their mother after all! She could teach them a mild lesson, at least.
Overall, it had been an illuminating day out!