I had just arrived at the Pandey Ghat when the cricket match ended and a dense crowd dispersed in all the directions. I had planned to watch the cricket match for a while but had to leave disappointed. Someone in the crowd said in a raised voice, “You’re late.” I moved ahead and began climbing the steep stairs when amidst the cacophony a faded voice fell into my ears. I looked around and saw an old lady sitting on a raised platform in a corner right at the entrance of a temple. A gigantic Banyan tree had clutched the decrepit walls of the temple and its roots had spread rampantly all over the place. An Indian pariah dog was curled up just next to the old lady and its head was resting on her lap.
“But I don’t have any money to give,” I said thinking she was asking for some money when she pleaded demurely, “No, no, I don’t need money. Can you help me with climbing the stairs? My house is up in the street. I’m too old to walk without any assistance.”
“Oh! Sure, why not!” I said, a bit embarrassed that I took her for a beggar.
I moved forward to the place where she was sitting and the dog, as if disturbed by my presence, silently rose up on his feet and went staggering to a nook.
The old lady handed me her ragged bag. It had a dull colour and looked like it hadn’t been washed for a long time. A small hardbound red book was peeping out from it, probably the Bhagawat Gita. There was not much in her bag except a piece of cloth, a toothbrush with stiff bristles, a hair comb and two empty water bottles.She handed her stick to me, grabbed my hands with all her might and rose to her feet with much difficulty. As she clasped my hands, I could feel the touch of her clammy skin gone rough with time. The lines of her palms could be felt. It was quite evident that she had done hard work all through her life.
She had short, silvery, tousled hair. It looked like was cut from all the places. I wondered if she had cut it herself. Although the sun touching the horizon but the heat was unbearable and humidity oppressive. She wore a maxi and the buttons were open and one could see her sagging, wrinkled, tanned skin.
She began climbing the flight of steps gingerly.
“How old do I look?” She asked as she perched her feet to the very first step.
She stopped right there and looked straight into my eyes, astonished and a bit disappointed by my guess.
“109 years old. I’m 109 years old,” she said with pride.
I smiled. Mostly people boast about their age. When people are young they usually say they are younger than they look and as they grow old they like to amaze people by telling them they have seen many more springs than what others think.
We climbed a few steps and reached the first landing. She requested me to wait there for a short while as she was willing to do her prayer there in the temple. It was a small Shiva temple in a corner. She knelt down and prostrated in front of the sanctum. Her energy had completely amazed me but I was more interested in finishing things off because I was getting late. It was half past six in the evening and the dusk had already fallen. I had to go to a friend who was leaving for United States the next day.
“Now help me with getting up,” she called out with authority, “Oh! This old age is Mahadeva’s vengeance for all the mortal sins we commit,” she said panting. I went to her and she rose by tugging my arms. Although she looked just a bag of bones, she had enough energy to stand on her feet with a little assistance.
“You know what Mahadev whispered into my ears? He said Tiwari’s daughter in law would kill me one day. Oh Mahadeva! My throat is so dry all the time and they couldn’t do so much as sparing me a drop of water. Mahadeva never lies. He is the only one who spares some time to chat with me these days. You must be thinking I’m blabbering senilely but he really talks to me, swear upon Mahadeva. My body should rot, my limbs should go lifeless, vultures should pluck out my eyes if l lie in the name of Mahadeva.”
“You know my scalp was full of acnes only a couple of months back. The God of sun probably wants to kill me. My room is a burning furnace during the day. It was Mahadeva who ordered me to cut my hair short and spend the hot days in this temple. I know you wouldn’t believe me but it healed in no time when I followed whatever Mahadeva said. This generation is too spoiled to believe in anything. Old age will teach everyone.”
We started to climb the stairs again. There was a small restaurant named ‘Kumiko House’ in the corner. I had read about it in the newspaper. A Bengali man had married a Japanese woman and opened a restaurant in her name.
I asked the old lady whether Kumiko still lived there.
“She died long back. Now her sons run the restaurant. You know Tiwari Ji got them married. When Mr. Gangopadhyay revealed his desires to marry a Japanese woman, a lot of fuzz was made by his parents. They even threatened him to leave the place but Tiwari Ji backed him up and got them married. Tiwari Ji was a big man. He was the priest in Kashi Vishwanath temple. He used to say old is neglected, old is rejected, old is dejected, old is insulted, old is ignored. I don’t remember all the things he said, he was such a learned man. Chinnu used to laugh and I laughed too along with him. It was so funny then but now I know everything he said was right.
“Who’s Chinnu, Dadi?”
“There you go! After the whole Ramayana is wrapped up now you ask who is the King Ram? Chinnu is my son. That devil forgot everything we did for him. Tiwari’s daughter-in-law has put a spell on him. Children these days only think of money. They follow their wives as a dog follows its master, wagging its tail all the time. Money wouldn’t buy you a mother. When Tiwari’s mother was alive he wouldn’t even dare as to talk to me in front of her.”
After ascending ten more steps we came to a cool, narrow street.
“You see, this is my house. Read the name painted above the door. It’s my husband’s name.”
I read the name ‘ Baleshwar Tiwari’ written in bold letters above the door.
It was a small beautiful door. On both the sides of the door there were beautiful paintings. On one side there was a king saddled over a horse and on the other side a beautiful elephant was painted.
As we drooped low and passed through the doorway we entered a small courtyard. The house had three floors.
“Could you please fill these bottles for me? What if I feel thirsty in the night! See there’s a tap in the corner but don’t go too far as the other portion of the house is not ours anymore. Chinnu sold it to a businessman. Now it’s a lodge. You see the golden lights? Where would we find so much money to buy these expensive lights!”
I opened the tap and filled both the bottles for her. From the other corner of the house there ran a spiralling stairs up to the third floor. She asked for my hands and began climbing the stairs. As we reached the first floor I saw a man smiling from his room.
“Your mother?’ I asked and he nodded in assent but looked grumpy.
I requested the old lady to sit there for a while before we could again start climbing but she refused and moved ahead determinedly.
As we came to the second floor a young lady was washing a piles of clothes and was beating it vigorously on a piece of stone. The smell of washing powder was wafting throughout.
“She’s my daughter in law,” the old lady said. I smiled a greeting to her and climbed puffing up the stairs.
By now I was completely drenched with perspiration and out of breath as we reached up to the third floor. Even at my age it was too many stairs and the fact that she had come down to the Ghat from the third floor was incredible to me.
“Dadi, how did you get down from the third floor? It’s too many steps to climb at this age. Even I’m feeling drained now,” I said amazed by her prodigious energy.
“I go down to the Ghats every morning at three. I spend my day there at the temple. You come daily and I’ll tell you many stories of Mahadeva.”
I gathered that it was impossible for her to finish a sentence without uttering Mahadeva once.
We reached a door passing through a dark corridor. An old rusted lock was hanging on it. The old lady took out a bunch of keys tugged in the collar of her maxi. She fidgeted a little, then turned the key in the lock and flung the door open. It led us to a narrow gallery and at the end of it there was a thin layer of empty cement bags spread out. It was her bed and by the bed there was a small window overlooking the placid river but hardly some fresh air came into the room. The river was gleaming where the moon hit it. She crouched down on the bed and asked me toput her stick in a corner. I leaned it against a wall. There were a few utensils and a hand fan near her bedding and the room was in a state of disarray. It was like she was cooped up in a suffocating cell.
“Would you like me to make some tea for you?”
“Oh! No, Dadi. Do you cook your food yourself? What about your daughter in law? Doesn’t she cook for you?”
“Oh! Not again, let’s not mull over the past again. Due to grace of Mahadeva I can cook for myself. Old people are unwanted by everyone,” she said briefly.
“You see that photo hung on the nail over the wall? That’s my husband with the president. Didn’t I tell you he was a big man? When you go out, don’t talk to anyone in my house. If anyone asks anything just tell them you came to see me.”
“Ok Dadi!” I said and walked out when I realised that her water bottle was still at the gate. I went in again and asked about where to put the bottles.
She pointed out to the other corner. “Keep it there.”
As I looked towards the other direction I was stunned by the view. My heart began to pound against my chest. There was a sea of water bottles on the floor. There was no space to keep one more bottle as almost thousand filled water bottles were sitting on the floor.
“Dadi, so many water bottles?” I asked a bit terrified.
“What if I feel thirsty in the middle of the night? Would I go all the way down to the Ganga?”
“I should leave now Dadi, will come again later,” saying this I sidled out of the room and scurried down the stairs, wrapped in contemplation about what I just saw.
Just at the moment I drooped low to walk out of the house a boy entered the house and went past me. I don’t know why I turned around but as I looked back the only thing I noticed was the two bottles he was carrying upstairs.
Was it her trauma? However, it was quite evident that she must have felt very thirsty one night and called out to her son and daughter-in-law but nobody must have listened to her. She must have spent the whole night without water. Probably this was the reason behind her collecting so many water bottles. Or perhaps the fact was uglier than it looked.