Vibha Kaushik walked slowly, turning back every two minutes to check if Ramya could be spotted on the same road. She stopped for a minute to send her another message on her phone and then resumed walking.
There was a blip. A message from Ramya.
‘Vibha, sorry I can’t join you for a walk. Am much too tired. Cooked for ten dinner guests yesterday.’
‘Oh my God! Take care, dear. Just rest.’
Cooked for ten dinner guests? At this age? I’m about the same age as Ramya. Thankfully, whenever we come to the US, Sandeep helps me with cooking, dish-washing, laundry, the whole works. Ramya has come alone this time, having lost Seshadri, her husband. Vibha walked on, glancing at the maple trees dripping with the lush colours of the fall season. It was interesting the way orange, copper, yellow and rust red vied with the still green ones in the splash of hues. I must capture these rich tints while I’m still here, thought Vibha, clicking a few pictures with her phone. Then she turned around and walked briskly towards her daughter Mrinalini’s home, reminding herself of the breakfast and meals she had to do.
Mrinalini, and Sudhir, her son-in-law, had wanted poha for breakfast. On reaching home, she soaked the pressed rice, chopped vegetables, ginger and green chilies and sautéed all of them with the drained pressed rice and garnished it with lemon juice. Poha done, she scooped it in a bowl, covered it and placed it on the dining table. Next, she got busy making scrambled eggs for her grand kids. She peeped into the living room to say, ‘Sandeep, have poha while it’s hot. I’m going for a shower,’ and went to the wash room.
After bath and prayers, Vibha had her share of poha. Mrinalini and Sudhir had eaten poha, packed yesterday’s dinner for their ‘lunch’ in office and left for work. The children had left for school. Now she had to cook for lunch and make some extra dishes for dinner.
She took out frozen peas to make the peas-potato combo in tomato gravy that they liked very much. From the fridge, she took out carrots and string beans. Sandeep was already at the table, ready with the chopping board. He sat down and chopped them fine.
‘The poha was very nice,’ he smiled. Her eyes lingered on him for a moment. Back home in Delhi, Sandeep didn’t have to chop vegetables. They had a cook, and a help who did a lot of background work. Both Sandeep and Vibha had retired from active government service as senior officers in the IT (Income Tax) and Audit and Accounts departments. That’s how they had met, while training at the Academy as IRS officers, after cracking their civil service exams. It had been a nice journey together. Vibha had warmed up to him because he was one of the few gender-neutral officers who carried no excess baggage or prejudice. They got married, had a good life, a steady career and had retired, looking forward to doing other things that they hadn’t found the time for. One such activity was their Gita class held at Chinmaya Mission. The more they listened to discourses on Gita, the more they got immersed in studying the recommended books.
‘Anything else to be chopped?’ asked Sandeep.
‘Aah…I’ll make okra. They’ve to be split without cutting them altogether,’ said Vibha.
‘I’ll manage that. I’ve seen the way you do it,’ said Sandeep, splitting them neatly in the center.
‘We haven’t found any time to study for our Gita class. Tonight, I’m going to talk to Mrinalini,’ said Sandeep.
‘Well, I’m going to ask her why leaves the cooking entirely to you, the minute we enter this house? Doesn’t she do any cooking all the year round, when we’re not here?’
‘I’m not so sure we should raise the issue.’
‘Why ever not, Vibha? You do a lot of customized cooking for her whenever they come over to Delhi, despite having a cook. All the while Mrinalini has a good time shopping, visiting friends and showing places to her children like it’s a ‘Bharat Darshan’. Then you do all the cooking whenever you come here. You’ve retired, just like I have. Does she need any more proof that we’ve aged, and we can’t work like before?’
‘Doesn’t ever seem to strike her,’ murmured Vibha, joining him in splitting okra.
‘So, we’ll din it into her head,’ said Sandeep.
‘You know why Ramya couldn’t join me for the morning walk today?’
‘Her son had invited ten dinner guests last night. She just didn’t have the strength to get up from her bed.’
‘This is atrocious!’
‘To say the least. Her daughter-in-law doesn’t lift her little finger to help. As for her son, the less said, the better. He is spineless and very scared of his wife. I feel sorry for Ramya. Since Seshadri passed on, she has come alone in answer to her son’s invitation, and promptly got trapped in his hidden agenda, the endless cooking and house work.’
Sandeep was silently splitting the okra.
‘Sandeep, you help me so much with cooking and laundry. And I’ve you to share my thoughts. Poor Ramya, she has come alone this time.’
‘I’m mentally tired of all these charades our children are playing, and the way we’re also playing along with them,’ said Sandeep, the frown deepening on his face. ‘I’ve been seeing this ritual of ‘going to US to be with our children’ and then returning home every time with bitter thoughts about how our grownup sons and daughters have become so monstrously selfish.’
‘And self-centered,’ said Vibha. ‘At times I think we’re equally to be blamed, to make this visit as some kind of an annual pilgrimage, slave in their household, and then slave again for them when they visit us with their kids.’
‘Go and meet Ramya someday soon. She needs someone to talk to.’
‘Oh, the last time I went over to her place, it was a terrible sight. she was talking to me with something on the griddle on one gas burner, and something else simmering in a vessel, on the other. All the while, her hands were going up and down, reaching for a spice or ingredient in the shelf just above the gas range. Either she is cooking, loading-unloading the dish washer unendingly, doing laundry, grinding batter for idli, or she is taken to the super market for buying grocery, vegetables and fruits for the same grind the next week. All in much the same way as we’re doing here. The one difference is she is alone this time.’
Sandeep got up and went to the garage to check the laundry.
In the kitchen, Vibha kneaded the flour for chapattis, covered the dough with a damp cloth and kept it inside a covered vessel. She went to the garage, took the pile of washed clothes to the backyard, put them out on the washing line and came in. ‘Want some tea?’ she called out.
‘Come on here,’ said Sandeep, from their room.
She wiped her hands in a towel and went in to see Sandeep smiling over a tray, all laid out. The tea cozy was pulled snugly over the pot.
‘Aah!’ said Vibha, sinking into a lounge chair. ‘Thanks Sandeep. Just the thing we need, before we study a bit for our Gita class.’
In Chinmaya Mission, they met a nice set of people who were quite earnest in learning about Sri Krishna’s doctrine of karma and the complications it got people into. The Mission organized Gita discourses by inviting many erudite speakers from other Chinmaya centers worldwide. The Q & A sessions were especially lively. Each person defined karma according to his/her life and justified actions based on circumstances. The more they dug, the deeper the possibilities that opened up for them. With time it grew on them, the belief that one could get a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment if one had done what we term as ‘duty’ – to parents, spouses, children, the organisations one worked for and so on.
It was in the Gita class they got to meet Ramya, a doctor from the Apollo Hospitals. She had retired recently and was planning to get a placing as a consultant with a few accredited clinics. Her husband was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Ramya said her husband had poor motor movements and his speech was also getting slurred. After a long absence from the Gita classes, Ramya had returned and told them quietly that her husband had passed on, there were ceremonies and her house was swarming with relations. She said she didn’t know which was stronger, her shock and grief in losing her husband, or her relief that he was at last liberated from his wasted body and would find a new one now, in his next birth. Vibha and Sandeep admired her courage and wondered if the systematic study of Gita, plus her conditioning as a doctor had something to do with her fortitude and equanimity.
Ramya’s son Rajiv and daughter-in-law Chitra had come over with their children for the obsequies. That over, Rajiv said, ‘This has been a shock Amma, you need a break. You couldn’t come to US all these years because of Appa’s condition. Now come over as soon as you can.’
‘But I’m waiting for some clinics to revert to my application,’ she protested.
‘I’m sure that’ll take a while, Amma. You can always fly back as soon as you hear from them,’ said Rajiv.
She saw his point and agreed to follow Rajiv later.
And she had walked straight into their hidden agenda – a dreary regimentation of cooking, cleaning, loading/unloading the dishwasher, laundry, grocery shopping and other odd things. After having struggled with Seshadri’s illness for years on end, after all the tension, uncertainly and the emotional exhaustion of having done more than her best only to lose him in the end, she was now tired beyond belief. She missed Savitri, her cook back home, the friendly chats she had with her, the happiness that lit up her face whenever Ramya bought books, stationery and the school uniform for her children. Savitri was a great comfort after Seshadri passed on. How she would gently coax her to eat her meals when she was totally off food. She was genuinely compassionate, as compared to Ramya’s family that offered just lip sympathy.
‘I’ve an idea, Vibha,’ said Sandeep, sipping his tea.
‘Before you tell me, I want to say how much I enjoyed this elaichi tea,’ said Vibha, pouring out two more cups for themselves.
‘Pleasure, Madam,’ he laughed, with a flourish of his arm. ‘My idea is simple. Let me come with you on your morning walk tomorrow, that is, if Ramya ji also agrees to come. Then we could both talk to her, comfort her.’
‘I already got a message that she’ll join me for a walk tomorrow. I think she badly needs to talk, and that’s the only private moment we get. Do join us Sandeep. We’ll take a walk and find a nice garden seat somewhere to sit down and chat.’
Vibha recalled her chat with Ramya the last time they walked together. They talked about the change that had come over their NRI children in the US. They had discussed, although half in jest, if it had something to do with the colour ‘green’ as in dollar bills – ‘it’s a wicked colour, a sick colour, the colour of a monster’, they had argued. The colour green had lured their children away from the shores of India, but that was okay. Their children wanted success, recognition, affluence and a good life style. Really okay. But it had also brought about an alarming change in them over a period of time. They had come to look upon their visiting mothers and mothers-in-law as cooks, maids, nannies, and caretakers of their house. Never mind if the mothers are educated, qualified professionals who had worked very hard on their chosen field, had grown older and retired, and were now visiting them only for a holiday.
Vibha took the tray to the kitchen, washed the set and returned to their room to study. Sandeep was already poring over a book.
It was Ramya who had walked ahead of them the following morning. She waved at them and smiled when she spotted them.
‘Good morning Sandeep ji. What a pleasant surprise!’
‘A very good morning to you, Ramya ji. Thought I would spy on both of you and listen to your girlie talk.’
“Spy? No, three is company!’ quipped Ramya.
For some time, they walked in silence. Vibha stopped for a minute to say, ‘If this was Delhi, we’ll find a humble chai shop somewhere that’ll give us hot tea.’
‘Yes. May be with a crisp mathri to go with the chai,’ said Sandeep, warming up to the idea. ‘Anyway, let’s sit for a while and imagine we’re having chai,’ said Sandeep.
They found a shaded place with four garden seats arranged in a square.
‘Missed you yesterday,’ said Vibha. ‘Hope you had a restful sleep. Cooking for ten people, plus the family!’
‘And that wasn’t all. There were some painful discoveries too,’ said Ramya.
Sandeep and Vibha kept quiet. The birds chirped in the background. It felt so good to be out and away from the relentless chores that awaited the retired women professionals in the US.
Ramya sat, thinking of another dinner for which she was invited. It was hosted by Alka’s daughter. Renu was also there. Both of them were the typical mothers who came every year to visit their son’s/daughter’s house in the US.
The dinner unfolded like a scene that seemed like a flash back to the seventies or sixties in India.
The men sat in a more spacious area of the living room, engrossed in conversation about their work, their new cars, the mortgage for a new house, their next vacation and the soccer or sports played by their children.
Rajiv took his mother to this group.
‘Hello everyone. Meet my Mom. I insisted that she come here for a break after Dad passed on. Actually, she is waiting to fix up a consultancy with some good clinics there. With her long track record in working with Apollo hospitals, that shouldn’t be difficult at all.’
‘No, not at all,’ chorused many of them.
‘You’re sure to get some good offers, Madam. The one important thing is, you need to be careful about the clinic you choose,’ said Mishra ji, one of the fathers.
‘Oh yes,’ said Ramya, settling on the seat next to him. ‘Still, I can do with some advice,’ she said.
‘Sure Madam,’ he said, smiling genially. ‘Actually, what I meant is, one needs to do a thorough homework about the background of a set-up and the one who heads it. For instance, after I retired from my government job as a Chief Financial Advisor, some good friends advised me to avoid companies that offered to hire me with fancy designations and salaries. They asked me to opt for a PSU instead.’
‘What’s a PSU, uncle?’ asked a friend of Rajiv.
‘Public Sector Undertaking. And I’ll tell you why. If there is some litigation or dispute, I don’t get directly involved, especially if I insist on prefixing my appointment with an ‘Honorary Advisor’. It’s the responsibility of the man who heads the unit.’
‘Thank God,’ said Ramya.
‘Yes Madam. At this age, who wants to get into disputes for which you’re not responsible in any way? I don’t want a big salary. My needs are few. I just want a peaceful life,’ said Mishra ji.
‘Aunty, Dad lives alone now, with a housekeeper,’ explained his son Sanjay. ‘We too don’t want any complications in his life. My Mom passed on two years back.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear,’ said Ramya. ‘Yes Sanjay. What’s more important is a safe and peaceful life for your father.’
‘Yes Auntie, absolutely.’
‘Initially, I had other plans for Mom,’ said Rajiv. ‘I wanted her to apply for a Green Card right away so that she can stay with us for a longer time. But now, Mom is keen on working.’
‘Show your Mom around, Rajiv, give her have a good vacation,’ said a friend.
‘Sure, I will.’
Ramya laughed within herself as she thought of the so-called Green Card and her talk with Vibha about the colour green, the ‘sick’ colour that had changed their children into unrecognizably selfish people. The Green Card continues to be referred to colloquially as ‘green’, despite it’s changing the colour to pink now! She knew some GC holders in Delhi. They would shut up their house for six months, pay a retainer salary to their drivers and house help, lock up their cars in the garage and leave for the US. Then return to a dusty, termite-ridden home, get rid of things that were covered with fungus, clean up their house often by themselves because the drivers and help would have bolted with their money and found new employers. The car would need an elaborate servicing to make it road-worthy again. What a restless life. To our unspoken question if they enjoyed those six months of being away from the grind, we would get an unstated answer that expressed resentment against their children. It was an answer we felt on the skin, wordlessly.
The men had resumed their conversation, filling each other’s glasses. Ramya noticed that she was the lone woman there. She got up with an ‘Excuse me’ and moved over to join the women who sat huddled around the dining table. Some had pulled a few lounge chairs for themselves. A few women expressed their condolences to Ramya and inquired about how she was managing alone.
‘Life must be very tough without your husband,’ said one.
‘It is. But I’m looking forward to working in a few good clinics,’ said Ramya.
‘You’re lucky that you’re a doctor. With your experience in Apollo Hospitals, you’ll easily get work,’ said another.
‘Let’s hope so. I met Mishra ji just now, Sanjay’s father. I felt sorry to hear that he too lost his wife, about two years back.’
‘Yes. He now works with an organisation, but feels lonely. So, he comes to Sanjay’s place every year,’ said a lady.
‘He comes every year? Does he do the cooking while he is here?’ asked Ramya.
For a moment, the lady stared back at her, very puzzled by the query. The silence that followed was broken by a young woman who said: ‘Why auntie? I do the cooking.’ She folded her hands, ‘Namaste. I’m Rashmi, Sanjay’s wife,’ she added, with a pleasant smile.
Lucky man, thought Ramya. So, a widower in the US gets a better deal.
A few women got into a long discussion about the methods of making Hyderabadi vegetable biryani, and bagara baingan with eggplant. Two women got up and went to the kitchen. One of them helped Alka fry the puris, while the other fried pakodas for starters. She drained them in a large perforated steel bowl.
‘Hey, Ratna! Keep some pakodas and chutney for us separately in a vessel,’ Alka cautioned her. ‘If you take the entire thing to the living room, the men will finish it in no time, and there’ll be nothing left for us.’ The women nodded and giggled.
‘Okay,’ said Ratna, putting away some of the pakodas in a steel vessel. She kept the rest in a china bowl, arranged it on a tray with bowls for green chutney and tomato ketchup and took it to the other end of the room.
Dinner over, Rajiv turned back from his driver’s seat to ask Ramya, ‘Enjoyed yourself, Amma?’
‘There was a lot of talk about biryani and bagara baingan. Will go home and note the details in my diary, lest I forget, ’ she replied, thankful that they couldn’t see her wry smile within the darkness of the car.
‘Who talked about it, Amma?’ asked Chitra. ‘Actually, these aunties make excellent dishes whenever they visit here. So, the minute any friend announces about his or her mother coming over, our entire circle is happy.’
Chitra chirped on. ‘Amma, did Alka aunty ask you about making batter for idli-dosa? Ever since we told her you were due to come, she was so eager to meet you and learn from you. I’ve an idea. Why don’t you give a demo in her house, kind of teach her how your soak rice and urad dal in her house? Then she’ll be very clear about how exactly we do it. The same day you can also explain how to make coconut chutney and sambar. Aunty loves it.’
‘Not just aunty, the entire family and our circle of North Indian friends love idli-dosa with chutney and sambhar,’ chipped in Rajiv.
Ramya felt thankful again that they couldn’t see her face in the darkness of the back seat.
‘Both Alka aunty and Renu aunty are such sweet hearts. They cook extra and often pack take-aways for us. I don’t have to cook anything the next day,’ said Chitra.
Ramya thought of the dinner for ten guests that Rajiv had hosted. It had depleted her of all energy. She remembered how it had ended.
‘I’m tired, Rajiv. I don’t think I’ve any strength left to clear up the table now,’ said Ramya.
‘Oh, Amma gets tired so easily,’ said Chitra, lips curling.
‘Well, I’m not used to so much cooking. When I come home, there’s Savitri who cooks for me. But I suppose when I come here, I’ve to merge with the rest of the visiting women, the various aunties,’ said Ramya.
Rajiv stood beside Chitra with a sheepish smile. He avoided her eyes. Where’s the Rajiv who would pitch in to help for big things and small, seeing his father navigating his wheel chair from room to room. ‘Amma, you’re getting late for Apollo. Leave the rest of the work to me. I’ll manage.’
‘Come to think of it Rajiv, it’s a big party scene here. So long as the aunties keep visiting, they’ll keep it going, I guess,’ said Ramya and went to her room. She shut the door and firmly bolted it from inside and sat on a on a lounge chair to collect herself.
Seshadri and she had given Rajiv everything they could. He was for them, both a son and a daughter rolled into one. Why should I think of all that with an ache, she argued with herself? The mirror, placed at some distance from the chair, reflected her ruminative image. ‘I’m disappointed with you,’ she whispered to her image. ‘After all that you learnt in the Gita class about working without thinking of the fruits of your labour, after reading that “when you act in such knowledge, you can free yourself from the bondage of work”, why do you still get angry with Rajiv? Should that matter?’
That particular class studying Chapter Ten, Verse Ten of Bhagavad Gita had the most vociferous Q & A session. They felt encouraged by the London-based Speaker who had a robust sense of humour. Laughing heartily, he called them a ‘bunch of spirited disciples who’ll surely fight their way through life’. Most of the people in the class admitted that karma-yoga and buddhi-yoga could be understood intellectually, but were very difficult to practice. ‘Be in direct communion with Sri Krishna’, declared the Speaker in the end. ‘You’ll find that it’s a goal worth pursuing because it’ll liberate you from expecting certain results to happen.’ The teaching of Gita, Ramya realised, was more of a quest.
Did it matter so much whenever such ‘thankless moments’ cropped up during my work with Apollo, she wondered. Like the parents of a girl who has a severe neurological disorder, who shouted at me one day that I was unable to “cure her”, despite their spending so much money for her treatment.
‘Well, I’ve done my best, the rest is…’ she had argued.
‘Is this your best?’ hissed the mother. Two ward boys and her junior doctor had come in, hearing the commotion. They ushered the angry couple out of her room, but it left her seething with rage. She battled with the wish to fling off her white coat and drive off that very minute. To think that she had prayed for the girl…It became one more ‘case’ for Apollo’s ‘Grievance Cell of Doctors’ that protested against the rough deal they got from some families. They went on strike, once.
Slowly, her mind got stilled. Someone or something was asking her to be more accepting. That had its own comfort. Be happy. No, be proud that you could do a lot for that girl, for Seshadri, for Rajiv and others. Ramya opened her eyes to realise that she had dozed off on the chair. It was 2 am. She got up, changed into her night wear and went to bed.
The following morning, she brushed, washed her face, tidied up her hair and went out of her room. The house hadn’t woken up yet. On the way to the kitchen, she noted the startling sight. The used plates, glasses, cutlery and other things from yesterday’s dinner lay scattered on the table, just the way it was last night. She went to the kitchen, made coffee for herself and took it to her room.
The birds chirped in the background as the three of them sat quietly on the garden seats. Ramya turned to Vibha and said, ‘Rajiv’s ten dinner guests included some parents of their friends. One woman had difficulty speaking in English. She asked me in Hindi how to make idli batter. Another asked me the difference between dosa and uthappam, while a third inquired how I make lemon rice. Their talk was all about food.’
‘And that’s not all. After the guests left, I felt utterly exhausted. So, I told Rajiv and Chitra that I don’t have any strength left in me to clear up the left overs, or to tidy up the dining table. I went to my room and bolted the door. Guess what I saw next morning?’
‘What?’ asked Vibha.
‘The dining table was just as I had left it. Neither of them had cleaned it up.’
‘Oh God! This is too bad,’ said Sandeep.
‘Yes, and no.’
‘What do you mean Ramya?’ asked Vibha.
‘I needed a catalytic agent, and I got it! See… so long as I keep coming here, in their perception I’ll continue to be one of the ‘aunties’ who’ll cook endlessly. To be very honest, it’s not fair to the aunties, the Alkas and Renus either. They’re all getting on. They’re our contemporaries. Anyway, it’s their call if they still choose to come here. As for me, I don’t have to visit Rajiv.’
Vibha and Sandeep watched her silently.
‘So, in a way, I’m thankful for this shock,’ said Ramya. ‘Otherwise, I may have got into the mind-numbing routine of travelling to the US to visit Rajiv. After Rajiv and Chitra left for office, I called my travel agent and got a booking done for the earliest flight back to Delhi,’ said Ramya.
‘Oh! Splendid idea! Please ask your agent if he could book us too, if possible, on the same flight,’ said Vibha.
‘What! But why?’
‘Yes Ramya. Actually, Sandeep and I also had a serious talk about this. We want to return, the soonest!’
Ramya laughed as she got up. She dusted the back of her trousers, straightened her T shirt, and smiled at Vibha and Sandeep.
‘I guess our Gita class beckons!’ she said.
‘Yes!’ said Sandeep, with a wide grin. Vibha’s eyes absorbed the trees dripping with changing colours, before she joined them on their walk towards home.
Bagara Baingan: A spicy way of cooking egg plant
Biryani: A spicy dish made with rice and vegetables
mathri: A salty fried snack made with flour
pakodas: Vegetables dipped in a batter made of chickpea flour and water, and fried in oil.
Puris: Wheat bread, deep fried in oil.
poha: A popular breakfast item made with pressed rice, chopped fresh vegetables, ginger, green chilies, and garnished with lemon juice.
urad dal: black gram
Lakshmi Kannan also known by her Tamil pen-name ‘Kaaveri’, is a bilingual writer. Her twenty-five books include poems, novels, short stories and translations. Wooden Cow (2021), her latest, is a translation of the iconic Tamil writer T. Janakiraman’s novel. Lakshmi was a Resident Writer for The International Writing Program, Iowa, USA; Charles Wallace Writer, University of Kent at Canterbury, UK; British Council Visitor, Cambridge, UK; Sahitya Akademi Writer; Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. For details, please visit www.lakshmikannan.in