The lovely cottage at the top of a mountain bathed in the morning sunlight was almost shimmering with happiness. And there was the chuckle. A chuckle she remembered so well. Tinkling laughter, followed by the cries of “Amma, catch me, catch me Amma”. Arunima smiled over her cup of chai and then ran after the little being who delighted in interrupting her musings. “Abhi pakadti hoon” she warned as she ran after her with mock seriousness. “Abhi pakadti hoon,” she cried.
Her giggles became shrieks of fear. “Mamma mujhe pakdo.”
“Anu main aa rahi hoon.”
The playground became a precipice and her daughter was falling, falling into the dark abyss. She tried to catch her but she continued to fall. Arunima screamed, “Anu …come back Anu.”
She woke up in the middle of the night again. Drenched with sweat. The same dream again. All around her, the pitch dark of the early morning. She decided that it was time to wake up. The familiar ache in the middle of her chest returned. The ache that was now almost a favourite friend. The only reminder of her two-year-old daughter. It had been a year that Anu had gone.
Just a minor case of vomiting, the doctors had said. Very common with day-care children. Until they had discovered that Anu’s intestines had twisted upon themselves. She died during surgery leaving her parents and their families in the throes of a pain too large for them to bear.
The first few months Arunima was seething with rage. At the paediatrician, at the hospital, at herself. And then the guilt. The gut-wrenching spirals of self-loathing. How could she have left her daughter at that daycare? How could she? No wonder God took away her baby. She wasn’t a worthy mom.
Then the questions came. Why me? Why were they being punished so? What had she ever done to hurt anybody? She pored over existential books, went to temples and godmen and kirtans, but none could answer her question – why me?
Arunima had always been a ‘straight A’ student. She had gone from one doting, indulgent family to another. Loved and cosseted by her husband and by his extended family. She was into singing and dancing and painting. She and her little “poonch” as she called her daughter – her little tail – were the most fun loving in the neighbourhood.
Nothing prepared her for the chaos her life became after Anu. The depth of pain that she had felt. The nights of torture as she remembered her playing, swinging in the park, her curls flying. Her peals of laughter. Her agonized screams of pain when she was vomiting. Why couldn’t she have known earlier? Why had the doctors not suspected it? Arunima seethed with anger and ache. They gradually burnt away leaving in their wake a numbness didn’t fade. Arunima became a shadow of herself. A train wreck of dark circles, bony arms, a withered, tired soul .
Rakesh had stuck by her while she had spiralled out of control with grief at losing his precious daughter. He lovingly contained her anger and her guilt. He had borne with losing his playful child. But her listlessness undid him. He too had retreated into his shell, salving his pain with work. Barely coming home. In the last year they had barely looked at each other. Each trying to pretend that their life was okay after the light that was their daughter had just disappeared one day into the bowels of a hospital never to return.
Her parents were beside themselves with anxiety. It had been hard for them to lose their grandchild, but losing their daughter while she was still alive was even harder.
She was withering away inside when her parents booked her the cottage. The mountains would be mercifully free of tourists at the time. And Arunima would have the time and space to heal a little bit more they felt. Far away from the memories of a being that was never going to be by her side.
Arunima went along with it because she literally did not have the strength to argue. Or talk, or even smile anymore. Sessions with her doctor in the city, along with her anti-depressants ensured she didn’t want to harm herself anymore.
So she packed. Just some jeans and some shirts. Everything was hard. This was Anu’s favourite shirt. Red with the orange motifs on it. She remembered how Anu would reach below it and look at her C-section scar with a mixture of awe and fear. “They made a door, Mamma? How did they make a door? Did it hurt?”
The morning air jolted her out of her reverie. The taxi’s coming, said Rakesh. And looked at her for a fleeting moment, a moment full of longing, sorrow and wistfulness before he again withdrew into his usual mask of efficiency. He checked that she had carried a flash-light and a mosquito net. I will miss you he said, but without any real emotion.
Arunima slept most of the way to Solang. She was oblivious to the river Beas in full flow merrily alongside the highway. She had decided that she would get through these seven days as though a jail sentence.
As Arunima awoke again she noticed they has arrived at the cottage. She straightened herself – the drive was uncomfortable for her stiff back. And started to really look at her surroundings for the first time in days.
‘Anandam’ said a moss-covered sign that led to the sweetest curving driveway. The lolling din of a stream caught her ear. A little climb ahead and Arunima caught sight of the little cottage that was going to be home for the next ten days. It looked like a cottage from the Enid Blyton novels. Small, stout and full of good cheer. Made of red brick and situated next to a sheer cliff the cottage was covered with Ivy on one side and overlooked a steep precipice the other. Terrace farms that were presently full of maize and pumpkin flanked the side near the entrance. She squinted in the bright sunlight. An eagle soared silhouetted against the bright blue of the sky. The kind of sky that city dwellers are fortunate to behold. And near her bedroom she could hear a stream. A sprightly babbling brook that seemed to whisper a watery welcome. Arunima smiled despite herself. Maybe it won’t be that bad.
A sweet voice announce “Didi chai le lo”. And in walked a sweet little girl of six with her morning tea. Arunima woke up with a shock, dreamless after many days, still fully clothed on top of her bed.
The little girl giggled at her bleary eyes .She quickly cleared up the room and then stood barely able to contain her smile as she asked, “Aur kuch, Didi?”
“Kya naam hai tera?” enquired Arunima. To which the little busy girl replied, “Jharna”. And despite herself, she found a smile on her lips. Jharna pointed to a photo of her daughter and said, “Aap shahar se aaye na, didiji? Aap apni gudiya ko nahin laaye? Main uske saath khelti”.
In the face of such an innocent enquiry, Arunima was horrified to find her eyes well up with tears. It seemed as if a dam had burst. She cried and cried, and little Jharna,with a wisdom beyond her years came into the older woman’s lap, put her arms around her and nestled her head in her breast and allowed her to cry.
As Arunima gradually stopped sobbing held in the arms of an unlikely confidante, she suddenly felt embarrassed. As she gently disengaged herself she found herself looking into the eyes of the little one that was comforting her. She was astonished to see her looking concerned. At thirty years her senior, Arunima felt a little ashamed. And yet the little urchin looked up with eyes of understanding that belied her years.
Eyes that had witnessed too much sorrow ,too much distress. Arunima extricated herself and said through her tears, “Chalo, mujhe yahan par kya kya hai dikhao”.
Jharna smiled again and ebulliently took her around the little cottage with its mango grove. Her eyes filled with mischief and talking nineteen to a dozen with her new friend Jharna told her all she knew about the small cottage and its surrounding fields. As she left for the day, Arunima, felt as if the sun shone on her world after long, long time.
“Kahan gayi Jharna?” asked Arunima, when she hadn’t seen her little muse for a couple of days. Since her massive cathartic breakdown she suddenly felt a need to explore the mountainside. She had hiked to Rohtang the day before and had even gone parasailing, egged on telephonically by her parents who were delighting in the fact that the deep sadness seemed on the wane in her voice.
The caretaker, a wizened Pahari of a man, just shrugged and mumbled something about getting a job with more money.
Arunima felt bereft of the little ones company but resolved to go and explore the little Buddhist temple at the corner of the little path. As she was walking deep in her thoughts, a little voice chimed up, “Arre Didi, aapne mujhe dhoond hi liya”.
Arunima saw her little benefactor carrying stones from the riverbed on her back. As they talked, the little wisp of a girl panted and puffed with the weight of the stones and Arunima made her pause and drink water. As she helped her keep her load down, Arunima marvelled at the fact that a girl, still a child, was carrying such a massive load. She asked her and the little girl said philosophically, “Zyaada paisa milta hai Didi. Thand aa rahi hai, mere bhai ke liye kapde khareedne hain”. With that she left Arunima to go higher up the mountain.
Arunima froze. This chit of a being was the caretaker for another?
What were her parents doing? Where were they?
The next day, Arunima sought out Jharna again and asked about her family. “Kahan gaye?” In a monotone, so unlike her, Jharna told her of the Maoist uprising that had swallowed up her family. Her mothered was murdered, her father inducted into the ranks – she did not know where he was. Jharna had fled the conflict and found shelter here with a group of kids her own age. She did anything to survive, pick up stones, wash clothes. All because she had another mouth to feed. Her little brother was barely two years her junior and yet she talked about him with the air of a seasoned mother figure. Rapt with shock, unable to believe her ears, Arunima followed Jharna to the top of the mountain where a contractor was bullying the children before he parted with the money
A whole gaggle of little children, some as small as four years old were scrounging a living up in these mountains and Arunima felt the stirrings of a deep protective anger. And also guilt.
Here she had been mourning the loss of her child when there were literally twenty kids here that were eking out an existence that was nothing short of bonded labour. She trembled with fury and then unable to see the sight anymore she turned around and walked away back into the comfort of her familiar existence where there no little angels or poverty or neglect.
That night, she slept very little .
‘What can I do right now?’ she asked herself. ‘How can I fix this?’ A large part of her just wanted to go back to being wrapped up in her misery. How much simpler than this impulse. The Maoist uprising had just been a small three line new article in her newspaper. She had no idea that it was the kids that had been displaced, the innocents that had borne the brunt of the conflict.
She wrestled with her fear and yet she knew that she couldn’t turn away. The pain of losing her daughter had changed into a fiery resolve to do something for these children that had no one to mourn for the states of their lives, their bodies, their souls.
She plotted and she planned .
‘Mujhe pakdo Mamma.’ Anu running. This time though she was able to catch her hand. ‘Maine pakad liya.’ I’ve saved you said she with the unfamiliar sense of gladness that was new to this familiar nightmare. And yet as she pulled her off the precipice, she saw not her Anu but Jharna complete with stones tied to her back. ‘Thank you Mamma,’ said Anu, ‘Thank you Mamma.’
The dawn broke to find her with a renewed sense of purpose. It was like a whole new chapter had opened in her life. From living for herself, she decided it was time to live as part of a larger paradigm. She was terrified, she had no experience. But she had a heart and she felt a firm unshakeable belief that slowly and yet surely she would rebuild her life. Up here in the mountains full of promise, full of misery. Up here where the air was clear and yet poverty ruled. A world in which the best way to mourn for the child she had lost would be to nurture the children that the world had forgotten.
“Rakesh, there is something we need to do,” she said over the phone. Rakesh listened in surprise as she poured out her heart to him. He didn’t know whether to be alarmed at her adventures or relieved at hearing the activism that had replaced the desperation in her voice. So he listened and comforted and then talked with his dear wife for the first time in a year. “I’m with you, Jaan. I always was, I always will be.”
“Aa rahi hoon,” she said.
Against all odds, she had made her home in the mountains. It had taken much convincing, but Rakesh had finally relented. He could sense that in this project was the panacea he was looking for. The salve his family needed. They built it together. The little cottage that they bought now housed thirty children and counting.
Jharna was now ten. And she was still the little mother hen. She was the first contact of all the little kids that came in.
They were building a schoolhouse next and her family and friends were finding in her efforts the focus of their energies. They were perpetually holding parties and raffles to fundraise back in Delhi. There was such a stream of visitors to her home that she had had to get Rakesh to conjure up a website to be able to schedule volunteers.
But most of all, she had not one or two, but thirty kids to mother. To wash and clothe and feed. To love. She was happily exhausted most of the time.
Many a visitor remarked at how Arunima was a gift to the valley. Arunima smiled at that – little did they know that it was she was the recipient of the greatest gift of all – the gift of Life.
And as the path turned, the mountain was framed by the little class room that Arunima made. ‘ Anu’s Home’ the moss covered sign said.
A new home.