The old lady was quietly sitting on the floor of platform No.2 with the cloth bag on her side, the wooden stick, resting upright on the column. Her face was hardened with fatigue and exhaustion but when one looked closely at her it appeared that there was a far deeper pain spread out over her pale countenance. It was difficult though to know whether that came from hunger and thirst or from the other mortal pains that a lady of her age had to forbear. She was restless at times, expectant almost, as she watched with a hidden eagerness at different directions but sighing every time when she failed to see what she intended to see. She wiped her eyes and her face with a cotton cloth at times and looking closely one could notice her eyes reddened with this repetitive act.
The evening was spread out in yellow and ash. The faces were half-lit in a canopy of faded colours. The people seemed ageless as they congregated on the platform floor, their possessions gathered on their sides. Their voices were audible although the language differed from one section to the other.
She sat at a place that was drawn away from the crowd and the activity. No one noticed her when she fell asleep, her body bent on one side but her hand holding the cloth bag. Her shape resembled a disclaimed luggage, discarded, and left to the scavengers. Her inanimate form left a lasting impression despite the hustle and the noise of the environs.
She dreamt of the wishes.
She was holding his right hand with her left, balancing her lean right foot against the stick she forced on the ground with whatever might she had at her age. She had a slight limp as she stepped with sufficient caution on the sidewalk. She looked up at his son sometimes trying to tighten her grip on his hand as if asking for some more support. She had a cotton bag on her left shoulder, which hung right up to her knee that restricted the movement of the left leg. She looked through her thick glasses, which were not clean enough and hazy as she strenuously stepped on the feet of a passerby.
Her son was tall and was almost towering over her at her side. His arms and legs were visible signs of hard labour, a result of constant toil in the fields or as freelance daily wage earner that might include jobs like pushing a cart on disheveled up-country roads. From the colour of his skin the former appeared more probable, coming from the scorching rays of the sun on open fields in absence of shade. He was wearing a dhoti that hung up to his knee and a cotton shirt with only two buttons, which exposed his chest. The chill of the January winds could hardly deter the body resistance built inside by the strength of destitution.
The two were right in the middle of a stampede from all quarters. The rush had started a few days back with the final countdown approaching for the Makar Sankranti. The continuous movement of humanity through the streets, the lanes, the mud-walks, was reminiscent of a stark tradition that renewed with more vigour every year.
Her name was ‘Bau’, might have come from ‘Bahu’, which means bride. She was a long time widow with an only son Mahesh.
She had never stepped out of her village all her life, which was now almost sixty years. She looked older than her age, hardened by the toil, hunger and fear. She remembered many things despite all this, the solemnity of deprivation looming over her mind as a reverence perhaps.
Mahesh had married a girl last year and the problems started from then.
Veergaon, a small village, stood in the middle of rice fields, which ran in all directions. The fields were dissected by narrow dirt roads and there were formations, which identified one property from the other. A few thousand families worked on these fields and derived their livelihood, each one supporting the other without the discretion of age, strength or creed.
It was a sunny day, Bau remembered, when her son left for the fields after she had given him the ‘Gur-Muri’ in a small cloth bag and her son had told her that the Mahajan had asked him to meet him at his place. Bau could guess why he had been summoned but she avoided discussing it with his son. She had heard the gossip going around that linked her son with the Mahajan’s daughter. But she had never dared to bring it up during discussions with his son.
Mahesh took the usual route through the village that curved around small hay-tenements and warehouses. The earth was dry, waiting to be moistened by the monsoon. The heat was unbearable and by noon it resembled that of an oven, slow and continually increasing in intensity before one could realize. The distance to the Mahajan’s fields was about four miles and by the time Mahesh could see the vast stretches of yellow spread over a hundred acres he was already sweating. He didn’t have anything with which to wipe out his face so he stopped under a shade. It was then that he saw Tali come out of the courtyard and he waved at her.
Tali had seen him but she chose to ignore. She went back inside the house and after waiting for some time Mahesh decided to go inside as well.
Mahajan’s sprawling house defied many things that stood around. It defied the village and its impoverished inhabitance, almost staying there immobile as a façade, demeaning things and distracting. Mahesh had been drawn by the splendour and the arrogance of this place, built by Mahajan’s father. He had been oblivious of the fact that in his mind a permanent place had been sequestered for Tali whom he had been seeing almost every day as he passed this house. In a number of occasions he had asked himself why his heart pumped more and the adrenaline forced through his nerves as he approached the house. But he had never dared to think deeper than this. But today as he entered the house for the first time he knew for certain why he felt like this.
Mahajan was sitting on his usual gaddi, sipping from his glass of milk when Mahesh entered. He took out his glasses from the side and wore them to have a better look at Mahesh. His voice was clear and firm as he munched his words and it shattered the curiosity with which Mahesh had started to follow at the beginning. When he had finished his soliloquy, Mahesh was already in the eye of a twister as everything around revolved at a menacing speed.
He was elated at the same time to this sudden benefaction showered on him from nowhere but it was eclipsed by the reverence of what price he had to pay. He stood there immobile, not being able to comprehend. He nodded his head at last as if relaxing his diminutive presence of mind, uttering incoherent words in otherwise quiet environs.
His life changed from this day but whether for the good or the worse no one could say.
The village had gathered in this concrescence and festivity, centered on the Mahajan’s place. Mahesh was married off to Tali and instead of her moving over to Mahesh’s house the reverse happened. No one needed to find out why this had happened as no one dared to question. Bau had on the other hand stood behind this, supporting it for the good of his son, in spite of the sacrifice and the estrangement.
But Bau’s life changed inordinately. She lost her sleep at first, which came from the absence of concinnity in her life, disheveled by the sudden trauma of missing her son forever from her clutches. And this was what she had grown used to from the time her husband had died when she was fourteen and Mahesh was just born. She lived with him as if she was part of him, which came from years of togetherness as human beings, trying to seek solace from coexistence, in spite of the depravity.
She had told him on the contrary, “Mahi, you will get to eat more now and work less. Don’t worry about me. I am about to die any way.”
She had stood on the fence of her dilapidated hut for a long time; looking at the path which her son took along with his newly wed wife, wishing them a long life and happiness. But she stayed there even after they had gone from her vicinity, lost in her thoughts about the future of her son in that dreaded house of the Mahajan.
She was thinking of her husband who had more often than not painted a bleak picture of this house and the pitiful experience that he related thereafter whenever the topic had come up.
The summer had been rueful for many reasons apart from the draught. The fields had waited for the rain, which never came although there were some occasional downpours. The clouds had hung like a canopy but never reached the critical mass and all the expectations were dampened as the summer progressed.
Mahesh had other problems at large. His first days of the married life did not go well with the support of a congeneric climate. Although his work had changed in the fields from that of a worker to a supervisor, he came home with the worries of the fields. His first visit to his mother took about a month, which was more influenced by the ailment than by the urge.
Bau had been running high fever for almost three days when the news reached Mahesh. He asked for a constitutional, but the Mahajan retorted, “Go tomorrow, we have some work to day.”
Even the next day had other excuses when Tali intervened.
Bau was sleeping on the floor on a mat, which Mahesh had bought from the Mela. She was holding the edge of the mat as if securing herself against an imaginary tide that swept her life. Her forehead was turbid as Mahesh felt it with his palm. He went over to the corner where a pitcher stood, but there was no water inside as he peeped.
He decided to stay back till the fever subsided. And this was the beginning of his ordeals.
Days changed for the worse when Mahesh was disallowed to visit his mother. The Mahajan thought it below his dignity to assign a reason. But Tali could imagine the suffering that Mahesh was going through. The worst part being that he could not send help in form of money or food either. Every night he could see his mother in the tattered clothes lying on the mat, as he closed his eyes. He distinctly heard her say, “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to die anyway.”
When the winter was severe and biting the bones and bare skin, Mahesh remembered how her mother used to warm him, pulling him to her side and cajoling him with both her arms wound. He could sense her heartbeat and how the beat went inside him warming him. Her skin touched him and her breath was on him. It was slow but it raised the expectancy inside him for the rhythm, which reminded him of good things that he liked. Why these thoughts came to him he never knew and never wondered till this time when he missed them.
It was then that he remembered that one year back he had promised his mother to take her to the Kumbha for the holy dip. He could vividly remember his mother say,
“It’s my last wish that I would take the holy dip to die in peace.”
The village had regular visitors. The entourage consisted of young and old, widows and middle aged men, self-chosen guides, veterans and first timers. They started in batches, some in the buses and some taking the railway route up to Allahabad. And from there barefooted till the holy water touched their aching feet.
Mahesh had heard the stories all his life from his mother who had never been there but knew more than what the eyewitness accounts could describe. He decided to take his mother that year.
At least he could fulfill the last wish.
The distance was longer than they had expected. The roads were alive with the humanity, moving at brisk pace, noisy and jubilant. Most of the people moved in groups with each one of them holding the hand of the other. From a distance it appeared like waves lashing on the shore and the dying froth floating momentarily before it disappeared. The men moved ahead of the rest as if guiding the rest of the team. The widows lagged behind and one could identify them easily from the colour of their dress.
The white and the saffron dominated. The veneer varied.
The pain on the left knee had started to bother her for a long time. The more it hurt, the more the grip tightened on his hands. But Mahesh didn’t know about the pain. He was busy steering through the crowd. He had never imagined the numbers to be such endless; they were threads of humanity that filled the streets and the sidewalk. He had a sudden fear that if he loosened the grip of his hand, his mother might be carried by the tide and chances were weak that he would be able to find her back.
Thinking this he tightened the grip even further.
The river was visible when the chanting of hymns started and the agony of the long walk started to lessen unknowingly. Bau’s pain however became so unbearable that she requested Mahesh to carry her on his shoulders. Mahesh immediately lifted her up and held her on his back with both his hands. She thanked him and tightened her hands around his neck.
It was not an uncommon sight and there were others in the entourage who carried old women on their backs and shoulder. Men seemed to muster additional strength at this last leg of the journey towards the Kumbha, they knew not how this came stealthily, but they hoped that it stayed with them till the holy dip. The river could be heard and the cold wind seemed to strip the skin of the little warmth it provided.
In no time the cold water would wash the sweat. The knees would get cold and thereby the pain would gradually die out as if by the divine touch. The eyes would not see through the water during the dip since they would be closed. They would be closed to many things around, busy thinking about the last wish.
Mahesh did not remember many things. When he had dipped himself a couple of times holding his mother’s hand, he had wished about Tali. He had then thought about his mother and when he realized that Bau had freed herself from the grip he took his time to take a deep and a longer dip inside the water. As he dipped himself he could see many bodies around and he closed his eyes.
He was praying for his mother when he saw his mother fall down. He had heard the feeble shout, the last one perhaps, “Mahe, Mahe..”. But he kept on praying. She was within hand shaking distance but the crowd pushed from the sides and she drifted. A group of fifty invaded the scene and there was a sudden rush for that place. Mahesh was still praying thinking that he would complete the prayer lest the Lord rendered an interrupted one useless. He took another couple of minutes to open his eyes. And then he knew that he had finally lost her.
He searched the scene on all sides. He pushed and shoved. He shouted and cried out. He fell on the ground. He prayed and prayed.
No one noticed her lying on the ground in her crouching posture. No one saw her trying to raise her hand to point at the direction where Mahesh stood. She was pushed and pulled from all the directions till she became unconscious. Then she lay there where the water was ankle dip. Like a left out luggage, while the entourage moved towards new pastures.
She was chanting her last wish.
20TH JULY 2001