That Tuesday morning was hotter than most ordinary summer days. The blistering heat was debilitating every living being. The red bucket in the small courtyard of the house had become transparent after many idle days of getting faded under the scorching North Indian sun. The spiky ends of the iron gate were burning hot like the seekhs from a tandoor. Even though it was only nine in the morning, no one was stepping out of their houses. The heat had parched the narrow gully and the hot walls were like an oven.
In this morning struggle with the sun, down came a faint sound of moving flip-flops from the stuffy staircase, across the small court. The seventy-year -old tenant was coming down decrepitly through the stairs of her rented one-room flat. The blazing heat did not impede her from coming out of in the sun. Fondly called Kakin, she lived with her two sons and their respective families in an apartment which was nothing more than a pigeon hole. It was little over a year since they had made the rented mortar and bricks their home. Their first floor accommodation was originally a bachelor pad, but Kakin’s sons choose this place for they could not afford any extra square feet in the new city.
Kakin’s calloused soles had never recovered from the last winters in the valley. It was that unfortunate time when she had slid with her family in the thick of the night to escape to a safer place. It was the same night when lakhs like them fled to save themselves from inhuman atrocities. Kakin followed her sons just like a small child, holding on tight to the supporting parent’s hand.
Her sons looked for lodging and the bachelor pad was their new address. After four months of their stay, the local municipal officer came to their locality to take a final count of migrants; Kakin did not give her name for registration. Because, she did not believe that she was a migrant who had flee her home and hearth. Because she did not accept that she was rendered homeless by a bunch of youngsters, who were her next-door neighbours in the valley. Because she knew that her current dwelling which was the size of her store room in valley was a temporary arrangement.
Today Kakin had completed four hundred days in exile away from her homeland. And the small pebbles she had collected for each horrifying day and accessorized on the wall of the house were crude reminiscent of the reality. When nascent, none of her family members had noticed this strange change coming about in their mother’s behaviour. Kakin had begun to live in an “alternative world” of her own. The abrupt exodus from the valley had left a deep psychological impact on her mind. It was playing havoc on her mind and she was soon left to the caprices of her own brain. She had de-alienated herself from all household chores and any visiting relative. At day break, she would step down to the small court and sit on the small granite seat embellished with her bag made out of her old cotton rag, safely ensconced under her right armpit. The white muslin scarf, which rested on the cotton head gear, was her only protection from the grilling solar heat. After establishing herself there, she would call out to every rickshaw puller from the fringe of her rented house which lay in a congested gully. Rickshaw pullers would pass through the gully and Kakin would stretch out her hands in the air to wave at them; pleading them to take her to her homeland. For the lack of proficiency of Hindi language, Kakin only struggled with ‘Baya… jana mera ghar?’ Most of the rickshawpullers would not get a clarification on the destination and pass through without stopping. An old, haggard lady who appeared unattractive and destitute was of no attraction to the rickshawpullers. Her frail body, which housed an ankle length gown and a cotton head gear, anyways made them think that she was from some other planet. The old lady who had refused to change from her traditional attire to a more localised saree, was more comfortable in that garb, which was well accentuated with brick red colored lace at the bottom and on the sleeves. Almost all of them had by now started to ridicule the poor, old lady and had given her funny names. Kakin could not understand their tongue wagging and would walk after them until the next chowk with cynicism. When back within her precincts, she would again sit on the granite stone and call out to her family living on the first floor – ‘Come on, we need to reach back home soon. I have not even locked my room’. This was a ritual for the last one year. Every day after spending two hours in the sun waiting, her children would trick her back to the room. Her sons often wondered if the rickshaw puller gets to know that Mataji wants him to paddle 1200 kilometres to reach to her desired destination, then surely we will have another big trouble coming our way! Within an hour of settling down with a glass of water and boiled rice with speck of vegetables, she would go back to the granite seat and shout out at the rickshawpullers. It had become a ritual.
The second time her grand kids would pull her up under some pretext. Surprisingly, Kakin would listen to her grandkids. Just like the way they would have adhered to her in the good, old days. As soon as she would reach up, she would rush to the small made-up kitchen corner and pick up a basket saying – I need to rush down, the fisherwoman is coming with fresh catches. Bedazzled as the family was expected to be, they were only mute spectators to the antics of their old mother. On many occasions, Kakin would sit down and peel heaps of potatoes, claiming that her sister’s family was coming to stay. Her children soon understood the struggle that their mother was going through. The pain and agony of being truncated from her home was visible in Kakin’s way of living. The feeling of loneliness and longing for her home had taken a toll on her. Though she was physically in Delhi, but her mind and soul was still in the valley. Oblivious to the true realities of life in Delhi, Kakin everyday pleaded to her sons to take her back home. Her incredulous behaviour had soon become a talk for the neighbours.
Kakin was going through an emotional turbulence and was yearning for her homeland. She knew, she was going back home soon and would often tell her sons – ‘Look, once we go back, I need to repair the window of my room. The hinges are coming off. I will not be able to bear the approaching harsh winters. Also the steel trunk has many of my valuables. I need to reach back soon to show those valuables some warm sun of the valley. Is anyone listening?’ In the midst of all the survival struggles that her children had to face, Kakin’s dialogue about her trunk and broken hinges in a forlorn house was an unwelcomed conversation.
The political situation of their hometown was not conducive for their return but it was difficult the make Kakin understand that. Her hopefulness was evident in the long hauls on the small granite seat waiting for a transport which would take her to her homeland. The landlords, who lived on the ground floor, had begun to complain to her sons about her crazy adventures. They had suggested a psychiatrist to them. But it was not easy for the family to accept that their mother had turned a case of psychological imbalance. And neither did they have enough finances for her medical treatment.
But that Tuesday was different. Kakin had changed into a pleasant, pink cotton saree. Her regular Bata flip-flops had been washed well, just like brand new. The little bag was heavier because of the battered water bottle she was holding in it. After sitting on the granite seat for more than an hour and ignoring all the calls from her family, Kakin got restless. None of the rickshawpullers stopped for her. They went straight ignoring her call, overlooking her. They did not acknowledge her standard hand waving and rode speeding towards the square. Kakin got angry, since she was “getting late for her drive back home”. Kakin swung up and walked with a fey sense of energy towards the nearby rickshaw stand. She thought it was a good idea to go to the source and fetch a rickshaw for herself. All this happened while the family was indoors. At the rickshaw stand, Kakin scanned at the melee of young and middle-aged drivers shouting ‘chalna… mera ghar?’. The rickshawpullers for their parochial insight had ignored her. These benign beings were ignorant about the pain that she was enduring; about the agonies of running away from one’s home and hearth because there was a threat to one’s respect and dignity. About living like refugees in one’s own country. About the challenges of sustaining and securing future of the young broods in spite of all hurdles.
Soon Kakin’s eyes froze on a rickshaw, which was very well decorated. The golden and red tassels on the handles on the bright red glossy seat covers were not what attracted her, but a picture on the front side roof of the seat. It depicted a small house with a mountain range in the backdrop and a stream flowing across. The house was cut of bright red rexine with a blue chimney rightfully showcasing it. Next to the picturesque house was a garden burgeoning with flowers of all colours. On each flower cutouts, there were fake birds sitting. The phony flowers and the river were rightly cut out of bright blue, pink, lavender and orange colours. Kakin was excited to see this picture. There was a sudden shudder of old memories in her body and scampered in the direction of the rickshawwala. It whiffed her to her old house in the valley. Quite childlike, Kakin reached close to the young boy and poked the chap. For the lack of well-versed Hindi, she ordered him to look at the scenic photo on his rickshaw. The rickshawpuller was new to the flock and squinted a bit at the surprising request. He was stretching on the seat but got up immediately to follow the instructions. He glanced at the rear with a puzzled face. He wondered to himself – ‘what is this old mad woman trying to show me? I see this picture every day’.
Kakin’s impatience was unbridled. Her pink and rosy cheeks were back. He deep-blue eyes had brightened. She was no more stooping or bending. Her posture was erect with confidence. She was smiling and happy. Agog, she told the rickshawpuller , “This is a picture of my home. I want to go there”. The rickshawpuller nodded affirmatively. This was a ‘yes’ which she was eager to hear. Finally Kakin had acquired what she had been wishing for so long – a drop back to her home, which she had left in the dark of the night.
Eagerness and excitement choked her voice box, her eyes were suppurating with saline water, her wrinkled hands and calloused feet were trembling – but all were indications of happiness. Kakin patted the young chap on his shoulder and ordered, “Let’s go”.
Kakin mounted and secured herself on the seat. Her feet right on the front aluminium sheet festooned with coloured and golden thumb pins. Both her hands on the side handle bars. Head was upright and burgeoning with self-esteem, since she was going back to her own house. Kakin did not even once turn her head back at the rented one-room house and galloped her last journey towards her homeland away from the clutches of despondency and hopelessness. She had defined her own destiny, away from the eons of endless misery. It was indeed Kakin’s triumph.
Within no time of her take off, Kakin was in control and navigated the driver. She ushered him left, right and straight on roads which were unknown to both; on ways explored or unexplored by people; through the crowd which hurled abuses at the way the driver drove; through labyrinths, which both had threaded through. They rode for many hours, until one fine day, the young driver came back to his yard, dropping the old woman at the desired destination. And after that Tuesday none of the rickshawpullers ever saw her again.
While on the first floor of the rented house Kakin’s sons were hopefully looking at her smiling photo in the newspaper’s ‘Missing’ section.