“The past is always with us, for it feeds the present.”
When I came to know about a short-story writing contest organized by a major English daily, I decided this was the best opportunity to tell my tale. After all, what better way to be judged for your crimes, which according to the dictum of law, actually aren’t? For you see, I killed a person; and it never seemed illegal to anyone – except me.
June 1968. It was the first day of the tenth standard. All the girls in my class, including me, were reeling under a hangover of an overdosed cocktail of emotions. Apprehension, excitement, gloom and a horde of other anonymous feelings were having a field day in our minds.
The teacher walked in quietly and sat down on her designated bamboo chair.
She seemed very ancient. Her smallish frame was crowned by silver-black wisps of hair that was disciplined into a tight bun. The pallu of her soft Kanjeevaram saree was wrapped across her shoulders and over the right side of her head and hid her cheeks, arms and torso. Her creased forehead and wrinkled cheeks probably made her look years older than she actually was, but she did not seem to mind them. Despite her somatic appearance, she was the kind of no-nonsense teacher who chugged through the lessons solemnly in answer to their duty. She would never have favourites and seemed like the Indian Constitution in person.
We all stood up and greeted her in our sing-song way. After a small multi-faith prayer, we resumed our seats. We looked at her with keen curiosity as her spectacled irises scanned a piece of paper, pregnant with fresh ink. Then she finally looked up and inaugurated the annual custom of self-introduction with herself and continued it with her students.
I counted the number of rows that would speak before me and estimated my preparation time. Being one of the so-called ‘bright students’, I had to give a standout preface about the self. I opened the last page of my notebook and started doodling – a proven corollary of my extreme concentration.
Meanwhile, as each student spoke, she consulted her piece of paper and nodded her head. Once the girl was done, she spoke something to her and the other acknowledged. However, I was deaf to what was being exchanged by the others, for I was involved in perfecting my own introduction. Naturally, I assumed the teacher was either correcting them or complimenting them on their narrative.
I studied the new teacher closely, so that I may build a self-summary that would appeal to her and make me an instant favourite. My sanity, however, told me she wouldn’t be one of that kind of teachers. Nevertheless, my vanity saw no harm in trying.
Finally, it was my turn. I stood up and consciously threw my two long braids over my back. I smiled at her and greeted everyone and began my introduction. Once I was done, I waited for her to compliment me as I was fairly certain I had done a splendid job. As usual, she gave a quick glance at her piece of paper and returned to me.
“That was a fine speech, Anwesha. Your language was wonderful, but, to be frank, I actually got to know very little about you. It sounded very, how shall I say, made-up.”
I was shocked. I had never received a negative feedback for all my work and this pre-historic specimen had the audacity to overrule it!
“I know you don’t like what I’m saying, but I am your teacher and it is my duty to bring out the best in you.” She paused, while I seethed in anger, even though my smiling face belied it.
“From what you spoke, I could make out that you are very intelligent, your parents are much better off than most of us here and your English is pretty good. But, from how you spoke, I could make out that you are a little vain and selfish. You also want to be appreciated for all that you do, but you cannot accept constructive criticism easily. You also take life for granted and do not understand that not many live as comfortably as you do.”
I looked down at my open notebook, not knowing how to react.
“Do you know what we have all been discussing?”
I shook my head slowly, still not peeling my eyes away from the notebook.
“I see. Unfortunately, you’ve proven me right. So, you haven’t been listening, after all.”
She spoke in a slow and steady fashion, with stress laid on each word.
“We were all discussing the assignments to be completed for this term. Each one has a different assignment. They are all either collection of news reports, analysis of works of different writers or a study on how the language has changed over the years.”
She looked at her precious sheet of paper again and spoke.
“You have been allocated the work of analysing and comparing the work of the Bronte sisters.”
She gave a small pause and continued.
“However, you shall not do that. That would be easy. Not much valuable learning there for you.”
She paused again. The unusual silence of the class was suddenly noted by me. I bit my lower lip in anticipation.
She took off her glasses and locked her eyes with mine.
“You will instead visit Devika Ashram, every Saturday and Sunday. Do you know what they do there?”
As you might have guessed, I didn’t have the slightest idea.
“They care for the elderly. They take the place of their children and look after them through their sickness and pain. The inhabitants of the Ashram are so, because their kids were selfish and didn’t bother to tend to them till they made it to the Heavens.”
The customary pause again.
“I don’t want any parent in the world to suffer that way. It is much too painful. Hence, I want to change the world as much as I can. I do not want my students to become so ruthless that they throw their parents out of their very own house.”
“You are intelligent and hopefully someday in the future, you’ll understand why I am doing this. I do not want any report from you for this term. I shall ask the Ashram itself. Just be of service to them.”
The bell rang as a grand conclusion and she left the class.
The following Saturday morning, I found myself standing in front of a small iron gate that completed the circle of a crumbling compound. I walked in gingerly and looked around me. There were three two-storied buildings a few feet in front of the gate. Many faces peeped out from the old-fashioned balconies on my arrival, dutifully announced by the creaking gate. Small gravel paths, flanked by mehendi bushes led to the three buildings. On my right, a plump guard continued to doze in his modest cabin, unaware of my entry. Just beyond the guard’s cabin was a small temple, where some old people were praying or talking among themselves.
I walked straight to the middle building and approached the receptionist, a young man of about twenty. I mentioned my name and my teacher’s and was informed that I could begin my services immediately. Of course, my contribution would be entirely considered as charity – in other words, no stipends. I was a bit furious but I cared not to show it. Anything to achieve the damn grade.
Initially, it was tough. I had to clean bathrooms, change diapers and bathe the residents. It was hard to let go of my embarrassment when I was sometimes required to tend to their genitals. I consoled myself by saying how much more embarrassing it must be for them to be helped on such private matters by a total stranger like me. There were also times when I had vomit on my beautiful thick hair and body waste on my kurta.
Such times were however helped by beautiful moments, which compensated the repugnancy of it. The elders looked at me with such affection in their eyes that many told me, I looked like their granddaughters. They pampered me a lot by offering me books and candy treats. Many helped me with my homework and studies. We sang together, punched some cool moves and shared write-ups with each other. They also gave a lot of spiritual advice. I consulted them on moral matters, which I couldn’t easily do so with my parents! Altogether, I came to enjoy it very much and looked forward to weekends eagerly. It was certainly pitiful that all these wonderful people could not stay with their children and I felt outraged at their neglect.
To them, I was like a ray of sunshine, as one of them described. It was very depressing for them to be here, surrounded by medics, medicines and sickness. Some of them were so depressed that they would hardly talk, and when they did, spoke only of their grandchildren. Some would never speak. And then there were those, whose depression wasn’t evident at all.
One Sunday, an old lady approached me with a bundle of papers in her hand. As far as I knew, she was a bit touched in the head – Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. That day, I was assigned the duty of scrubbing commodes – not the best job in the world.
“What is this, Nani?” I asked her uninterestedly as my full attention was focussed on getting that adamant stain away.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just something I wrote.” She spoke daintily.
I got up triumphantly, having successfully annihilated the stubborn piece of grime.
“That’s lovely. I didn’t know you write!” I said as I received the sheaf in my wet hands.
“I just want to know what you think of it, Anwesha! My daughter would have helped me with it!”
“Don’t worry, Auntie! I shall read it and let you know about it!” I smiled and hastily thrust the papers in my bag.
Next Saturday, when I entered the Dining Hall, she got up from her lunch and ran to me eagerly.
“Did you read my story? Should I continue it?”
“Oh Nani, I forgot! I shall surely read it by next Saturday!”
The next Saturday came, and I still gave her the same answer. And the Saturday after that. I simply couldn’t remember to read it. Truth be told, I simply wasn’t bothered to read some sloppy work by a mad woman. I had far better things to do like oiling my hair, finish writing my story and designing my new kurta.
The fourth Saturday came and I was met with the same question.
“Did you read my story? Should I continue it?”
Damn this woman! Couldn’t she understand that as much as I cared, I didn’t have the time to go through her tale!
“I’m sorry Nani. I am up to my ears with work. I will read it sometime later.” I replied grimly.
She walked away with her head hung low and dragged her feet behind her. I did not sympathise with her. She had to know that I wasn’t always available for them and that I needed some private time as well.
The next Saturday, Advit (the receptionist) informed me of the demise of Mrs Dwivedi. I wasn’t sure who she was, so I followed him to her room. It was the ‘story’ lady! I couldn’t believe my eyes!
I stared silently at her peaceful face. Here was the lady who was talking to me only a week ago and now she lay dead!
“Overdose of sleeping pills. Poor thing, she must have forgotten we had already given her daily dose earlier.” One of the other nurses announced solemnly.
“Funeral is tomorrow, Anwesha. You want to come?”
I nodded my head vaguely and resumed my tasks for the day in a dazed manner.
That night, I took out Mrs Dwivedi’s story and read. Trust me, I don’t cry easily. But her story moved me to tears. It was the tale of a woman who had faced more than the normal prescription of struggles. Poverty. Harassment – sexual and non-sexual. Early widowhood. Loss of both her sons in the war of Independence. Acid attack on her daughter. And finally, not being able to remember anything, including herself. The protagonist was so tired of her life that she often pondered over ending it.
I slowly realised that she was talking about herself. I now understood the significance of her question, “Did you read my story? Should I continue it?”
Through this story, she was screaming for help. And she had chosen me to help her. She had begged me and in my arrogance, I had managed to ignore it. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. I could have prevented this. It felt like as if a knife had been thrust into my heart.
The next day, I was introduced to the only living member of Mrs Dwivedi’s family. As I turned to greet her, I was shocked to find out that it was my English teacher, Miss Dwivedi!
“Miss! She was your mother!” I asked, confusion clearly ringing in my voice.
“Yes, Anwesha. She was my mother.” She answered. Her usual strict tone seemed to have become softer and slightly fragile.
“But Miss! I can’t believe it! You, of all people, decided to send her to a Home!”
“There are reasons, my child. Some of them are beyond your age. I wouldn’t want to burden you with them.”
Suddenly, realisation struck me and I asked her hesitatingly, “Miss, did someone ever attack you with acid?”
She looked up sharply and pierced me with her eyes.
“How did you know?” She whispered.
Silently, I handed over the story to her and watched the stern face of my teacher thaw, as she broke down.
“I’m sorry. I could have saved her.” I breathed guiltily.
“What do you mean?”
I narrated the whole incident to her, interjecting many apologies along the way. She sat down on the nearest chair and was silent for some time.
She finally spoke again.
“I could be angry at you, but I don’t see the point. You are, after all, a mere child. You have been of great help to my mother and I’m grateful to you for that. Thank you.”
I was stunned for a while but gathered the courage to speak to her again.
“The acid attack, is it true Miss?”
She calmly unwrapped her saree off her shoulders and her head. The right side of her body was now exposed. What I had thought were wrinkles, were actually the periphery of her burn scars that poured like a fountain from just beyond her ear to her shoulders and chest.
“I’m lucky my eyes are intact.” She said quietly.
“As for your first question, I had to put my mother here, for I couldn’t take care of myself. I was dependent on an invalid home to help me every day. I admitted her here, so that, at least she would be able to live comfortably. But the main reason was, her Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t bear the pain of my mother not being able to recognise me. Yes, my motive was mostly selfish.”
With that, she swiftly wrapped her saree around herself and walked away.
Next day, a new English teacher joined the school. All the students wondered why, but I knew that her pride had been hurt a bit too much, when she showed me her scars. But, I concealed my knowledge and pretended my ignorance.
I often wonder, what happened to her after that. Did she get another job? How long did she live? Did she tell her story to anyone else?
But today, I ponder over my own fate. As I write this, my nurse, a spitting reflection of the fifteen-year-old me, is calling me to the dining hall to have my dinner. Yes, it’s the same place, almost fifty years later. Karma has its own wonders.
My life has since, witnessed a lot – marriage, abuse, divorce et al. But I shall not forget my first major sin – the murder of an old lady thanks to my vanity and ignorance. I certainly doubt my capacity to continue in this miserable home with its careless attendants and insipid meals. I also often wonder about my son and how his kids are doing in The States. I am extremely depressed and I miss them a lot.
Did you read my story? Should I continue it?