The rain water poured down the eaves all of yesterday. This morning, when I woke up after an unusually dreamless and peaceful night, I saw the droplets frozen in time hanging like shards of broken glass suspended in the air. The sun, every time it condescended to peep through the clouds, shot the shards through with the seven colours of the rainbow. I wondered if I should read this as hope, a feeling I had lost in the last few months.
Sipping my cup of hot black tea on the verandah of my Airbnb cottage in the middle of nowhere, well, in the middle of an orchard to be exact, I felt light and frothy. The trees were full of flowers; blooms that combined white and pink shades mixing, blending, and disappearing into each other; waiting to turn into fruits that keep the doctor away. The air was redolent with that mild fruity fragrance, heralding the arrival of the fruit. Had I not known these were apple blossoms, I would have taken them to be yet another of those gorgeous flowers that bloom in the hills.
All around me was the mesmerizing sight of snow-capped peaks. There was total silence and the sun was shyly appearing and disappearing behind its veil. The birds were stirring out of their sleep and their song was yet to begin. For someone from the South, this was as exotic as a holiday in Switzerland. Taking a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, I felt energized for a walk around the orchard.
Today would be five months since I arrived in this little village called Soch in Himachal Pradesh. In a matter of minutes, Suraj had arranged confirmed tickets to Chandigarh and onward to Buntar by helicopter. He also found accommodation on the Internet. All I had told him was to find me a place without humans assuming the impossibility of it. But Suraj being Suraj, he actually did! Except for Rajesh, who cooked, cleaned and got me my supply of tea leaves, biscuits etc., there was no one else around. In fact, he should be coming in an hour or so to make the routine breakfast of paratha and omelet.
‘Kantiiiii,’ a soft, yet grouchy voice, emerged from Amma who was garnering the last bits of strength left in that body breathing for ninety-two years. I was no young energetic woman myself. At sixty-eight, I had had my share of blues: post-retirement blues, singledom blues, diabetic blues, ‘grown-up-but-never-outgrown-kids’ blues; it was an endless list. I went in to find Amma drenched in urine. ‘I told you all this diaper viper nonsense is not going to work.’ ‘Fine, it doesn’t matter now, I said severely, but please let Kalyani help me. My back aches, Amma, when I turn you and change you. Please,’ I pleaded with my mother-in-law.
Amma was stubborn; it took her some time to let Kalyani help with feeding her, handing out medicines and so on. But when she tried to help her with bath and diaper change, she had pushed her away. Now, she turned her face the other way and uttered an ‘hmm.’ It broke my heart to see the tears slowly wetting Amma’s pillow but my back really hurt. A retired government school teacher, always dressed in starched sarees, strict with students, and at home one who made no bones about not particularly liking cooking. And now, stripped of agency and dignity, she lay in bed, totally helpless.
Kalyani was the young girl appointed to be by Amma’s side day and night. I had myself gone to Kottayam, known for its agencies providing nursing services, filled several forms, made the payments and booked tickets for both of us. Once the formalities were completed, the supervisor, a tall, well-built woman wearing a starched, pale green, cotton sari called me into her office and spelt out a series of instructions in a monotone: ‘You will not ask her to sleep on the floor; you will let her eat with you at the dining table using your spoons and plates; you will not ask her to do any other chores apart from the patient’s work; you will let her do whatever she pleases, watch TV, talk on the phone to her family, whatever, once her tasks are completed.’
I nodded through it all and finally assured the supervisor that Kalyani would be well cared for. Ever since Amma took to the bed, I was in need of help even though I had retired from my bank job and was at home most of the time. Moreover, Vivek and Suraj insisted on getting someone to assist me. ‘Had it not been for Kanti’s gentle ways, Kalyani would have left the same evening she had arrived,’ a cousin had commented. Amma would yell at Kalyani, push her and refuse to have her in her room. She would say, ‘Look, look, see how she looks at me like a rakshasi (demoness) with her big eyes!’ All this was a good three years ago. Kalyani had fortunately lasted this long, in fact, had become so integral a part of the family that Amma got her will altered to pledge some of her gold for her.
It was a strange family. My husband, Prakash, had left us for a life in an ashram barely a decade after our marriage, leaving me with two sons, aged seven and five. Amma had stayed back with us having nowhere else to go. So close were we to each other that she could not think of deserting me when I was already traumatized with the turn of events. She was also infuriated with her son and as a woman known for not mincing her words had told him not to breathe the same air as hers!
From a distance, I noticed Rajesh climbing up the path from his home below, in the village of Chachogi, with the agility of a goat. Following him were the two large, handsome dogs, Kallu and Moti. They always tagged along with Rajesh, ran around the orchard, chased each other and ambitiously tried to catch birds. Having never been a pet parent, I took a couple of days to interact with Kallu and Moti. The expression in their eyes that seemed to ooze with a plea, ‘we don’t bite, come play with us,’ melted me. Now, I waited eagerly for their arrival and felt bereft when they left in the evening.
‘Madam, aapka Marie biscuits nahi mila, Gulucose lekar aaya.’ (Marie biscuits not available, I’ve got you Glucose.) I appreciated his initiative but didn’t have the heart to tell him his choice was bad for my diabetes. I had a few and gave away most to Kallu and Moti, who seemed to love them.
I brought out my box of paints, brushes and a small two feet by two feet canvas and propped it up on the easel set in the shade of my cottage’s awning. Kallu and Moti sniffed around and ran away, perhaps finding the smell of the oils and turpentine obnoxious. Having painted innumerable landscapes until now, today, I decided to paint a portrait. I let the brush move freely on the canvas; slowly the portrait of an aged woman took shape. I put her in a wheel chair. The woman looked regal but the expression on her face seemed to say that she was tired of it all. For the background, I painted a wall with a family picture and also put in a switch panel in one corner with a plug point and some wires hanging carelessly. When the first coat was done, the caption floated to the top of my head like dead fish, ‘Wish it were an electric chair.’
Handing me a prescription for Rosubest 20 and Ecosprin 75, Dr Jagan Murthy, the last of the those who did home visits, said, ‘These are life-saving drugs. Whenever you notice excessive sweating, breathlessness or she complains of chest, shoulder, jaw or left arm pain, simply give her these two tablets and call the ambulance.’
Kalyani who was standing at Amma’s bedside also heard the instructions clearly. Since that first episode three years ago, during which she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure with an ejection fraction of just thirty percent, Amma displayed these symptoms four times. Each time, in the hospital, I was lauded for saving my mother-in-law’s life. A couple of days, few in the Cardiac ICU and a few in the ward, and Amma would be fit for discharge.
Last night, Kalyani woke me up. Amma was breathless and in agony over severe pain in her left arm. The drill repeated. Rosubest 20 and Ecosprin 75 were given. She swallowed them with difficulty and by the time the ambulance arrived, she looked better.
When she returned from Apollo Hospital, for the first time, she had these words to say, ‘I should have gone. Is this a joke? Go to hospital, come back, some months later again go, come back, what is this, I’m tired. My mother always said we come with the date written on our foreheads. Don’t know my date!’
While marvelling at her resilience, a wicked thought knocked on the inside of my head for a fleeting moment. I crushed the thought; yet felt the guilt settling down like overflowing milk once the fire is turned off. The burnt smell of the drops that spilled over lingered for a long time. In the meanwhile, to ward off the evil in me, I tried placating her, ‘Well, Amma, we are all wait-listed passengers biding our time.’ Kalyani was amused, ‘Akka, then what happens, one day our ticket gets confirmed?’ Laughing raucously, I replied, ‘Po di, smarty girl, what else? We board the train.’ Groaning and moaning, yet with a hint of a smile, Amma said, ‘Laugh, laugh, both of you, at my cost.’
The sun shone brightly from over the snow-capped peaks and through the pines. It was the month of June. The trees were loaded with tiny apples, yellow-green in colour, with a hint of pink that would slowly turn pale red and then scarlet by late August or early September.
Then, they would pack them in crates to be taken down for auction from where they would reach homes in different parts of the country. I felt a part of the genesis of this process having seen the fruit taking shape from a bud to a flower to a firm fruit with a mild fragrance.
As soon as the three feet of snow had cleared in mid-February, there was some activity in the orchard. Apart from Rajesh, I saw more faces. Ditches were dug and heaps of manure were thrown into them. The previous year’s stubs were cut off; so that this year’s apples could come from new shoots. It seemed like apples are rebellious and highly individualistic fruits indeed! Try growing one from seed and you will get something entirely different from the parent. That’s the reason apple trees are grown by the grafting method. Rajesh informed me that they were looking forward to the year’s harvest with a great deal of anxiety as a large part of last year’s crop was damaged by aphids.
For the first time, in a whole year, I decided to go to a place other than the bank, market, chemist; usual errands for which I stepped out almost every alternate day. Today, I would join my friends for my bank colleague’s wedding that was a whole day event at a resort on the outskirts of the city. Kalyani seemed more thrilled than me. She helped me choose a saree for the occasion. A few minutes before Mala was to arrive to pick me up, Amma created a scene. ‘Kantiiii, call the doctor…something is happening to my head, it’s splitting …’ Kalyani gave her an Ultracet, and Amma continued with her racket while the friend was honking at the gate. By then, I was so filled with disgust at the universe conspiring against me, I waved to my friend, saying, ‘you go ahead, crisis here.’ Mala hit her forehead with her palm and drove off. Once Amma was assured that I was at home, she stopped her wailing and slept like a baby. Had she been my child, I may have given her one tight slap. So furious was I that I tore my sari while ripping off the pallu from my shoulder.
I was filled with an inexplicable sense of wonder at how manipulative the old can get. I chided myself for falling prey to such emotional blackmail. Yet, I always asked myself the terrible ‘what if’ question that invariably presented doomsday answers. Ultimately, calming myself with a cup of coffee and changing into my home clothes, I played a game of Ludo with Kalyani.
As if I didn’t have enough on my plate, Kalyani tested positive for Covid a week ago and had to be quarantined. I sent her to my room upstairs and occupied her bed next to Amma’s. Just two days before Kalyani was to come out of quarantine, Amma’s heavy breathing in the night woke me up. I switched on the light and grabbed the tablets. Amma pursed her lips tight when I approached and nodded her head. Her eyes looked glassy and her palms were cold. I knew it and didn’t insist. I had a hunch that this was her end; so just held her hand and stroked her head. Amma looked at me but seemed already in another world. For a few seconds, she clasped my hand tight, tried saying something but failed. The gasping got louder; I decided it was pointless to call the ambulance. The guttural death sounds began to emerge from her throat, as though she was bidding me goodbye. Her clasp loosened and her head dropped to one side.
I immediately called Kalyani and informed her. She cried, ‘Please, I’m coming out, I don’t care.’ I heard her racing down the stairs asking, without a pause, ‘How? What happened? Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you call the ambulance?’ Then her eyes fell on the unopened strip of medicines and she gave me a look that seemed to bore into my conscience.
Two days later, Kalyani packed her bags, bid goodbye to me, saying, ‘This is our life, Akka. We do our duty and move on.’ As I dropped her off at the railway station, I held her hand and said, ‘Kalyani, how do I thank you? I could never have managed without you. I’ll keep calling you, okay?’ Kalyani smiled but the look in her eyes was unchanged. The same piercing, accusing one that shot through me like an arrow. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, what’s this girl trying to convey? Was Amma more perceptive than me when she called her a rakshasi?’
Ever since, conflicting thoughts rushed in and out of my head like passengers from crowded trains. Even if I had called the ambulance, Amma could have breathed her last before it arrived. Or she may have exited this world from the interior of a screeching ambulance. Or she may have passed on within the cold walls of a Cardiac ICU with its soft drone of machines and the hapless laboured breathing of near-lifeless people? Whatever, did I have the authority to decide that Amma’s end had come and nothing could help? Did I do it out of a sense of magnanimity – putting an end to the ins and outs of hospitals as had been happening for three years now? Or did I do it to release myself from the single-minded devotion required of a caregiver? The one harshest of questions that hammered my head was: Did she board the train on a confirmed ticket or did I push her in when she was still waitlisted? When I couldn’t take it anymore, I wanted to get away and that’s the state of mind in which I had arrived in Soch.
After a near cancellation of the chopper due to inclement weather, I reached my cottage a good three hours behind schedule. But the discomfort receded into the background in a flash. Perched on a slope in the middle of an orchard, the cottage with its large mullioned windows, sloping roof and wooden floors took my breath away. The snow that covered patches here and there appeared as though the clouds had descended to the earth. The sky, draped in orange and red, was bidding goodbye to the sun. The apple trees stood naked, with dull grey branches housing spots of white snow. The tips, thin and deceptively sharp as needles, but soft to the touch, opened out like destitute arthritic fingers. The evergreens that bordered the farm stood like sentinels with undying loyalty.
Rajesh had already prepared the fire in what he called the tandoor room. The nomenclature amused me. Sitting in it, basking in its warmth, I felt like a chicken being slow roasted in a cover of curd and spice marinade. When I woke up the next morning, I had no idea when I had shifted into my bed. All I could remember was I saw weird dreams that unfortunately I couldn’t recall.
After Vivek and Suraj immersed some of the ashes in the Cauvery River at Srirangapatna, I had reserved an urn to be immersed in the Ganga in Benares. Today, I changed my mind. I went this morning with Rajesh, who drove me in his jeep to Hallan Nalah, a small stream that finally joined the Beas. It was a clear day; the mist had lifted, there was a splendid azure sky with beautiful cloud formations. Sitting on the edge of a deciduous forest with the deodar and chir pine trees spread across, filling every inch of space on the earth, this slice of paradise filled my heart with an ineffable joy. Every hue of green from my paint box – sap green, veridian green, cadmium green, emerald green settled on my eyes in all their natural glory. The only sounds came from birds far away, and the gurgling of the water flowing over rocks and pebbles rushing to meet its end. The silence was beatific. I felt a load lifting off my chest like the mist over the mountains that had vanished. When I looked up, there was an eagle circling in the sky. Did he pluck away a part of my flesh that had threatened to grow into a tumour?
I took out the urn from my bag, went down to the river, negotiating the slippery rocks carefully and emptied it. While some fell into the water, the wind carried the rest. The date marked for her that Amma had yearned for did arrive. Finally, she had boarded the train we had spoken about facetiously. There was no one around, no pesky priests, no cacophony of pilgrims. What better tribute to a woman who always wanted silence in her classroom? She held a deep contempt for noise and never fought shy of giving a mouthful to any autorickshaw driver who honked without reason! For many months now, the only images of Amma that had crossed me took the form of diapers, mackintosh sheets, nasogastric tube feeding, her mulishness and so on. Now, miraculously, I began to remember her as the diminutive figure walking briskly to school, yelling at my boys for jumping on the sofa, yet with a soft side that showed up in the form of tears while watching soaps on television. With her ashes swallowed up by the river, I too was liberated from the uglier memories.
This afternoon, Kalyani gave me a pleasant surprise. She called to say she was getting married next week and showed me her wedding sari. On top of it she had placed Amma’s necklace and bangles and said this is what she would be wearing. From the background came the sounds of a home prepping for a wedding – scurrying feet, children yelling and screaming, busy women in the throes of organizing a major event and men shouting out orders. Gingerly, I dared to look into Kalyani’s eyes. That steely look was gone and in its place was compassion.
Kallu and Moti hovered around, wetting their paws in the melting droplets that had frozen in time hanging like shards of broken glass suspended in the air.
Note: The author wishes to thank Sudhir Garimalla and Nikhila H for their suggestions on an earlier draft.
Gita Viswanath is the author of two novels – Twice it Happened, (2019) and A Journey Gone Wrong (2022), a non-fiction book, The ‘Nation’ in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema (2014) and a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems, essays and short stories have been published in several print and online journals. Her short films “Family Across the Atlantic” and “Safezonerz” are available on YouTube. She is also the co-founder of an online film club called Talking Films Online