|An end always denotes a beginning.
When life ends in one form it begins in another. So death is the beginning of life.
What happened next was an enigma. Presumably she took birth again in this world. Would she exist in a kind of limbo till summoned to re-enter the world?
When one is dying, time means nothing – in one sense. In another, it means everything, for the precious hours and minutes and seconds are speeding by, and one has the feeling of so much left undone.
It was about a year ago that Amba began to decline slowly. There was no illness to pinpoint, just deterioration in all her faculties. She also fell ill frequently, with some ailment or the other – a chest infection, fever, attacks of dizziness and so on. Each illness left her just a little more weak.
Her memory grew erratic.
She often forgot things in the immediate past, yet remembered with strange clarity events and people and things she had known years ago.
So many memories, disjointed, unrelated.
She was married when she was twelve. In those days of the matriarchal joint family in Kerala, the husband stayed with the wife’s family. Till she attained full womanhood, a girl met her husband only when others were present.
Amba and her husband would play hopscotch and other game together. Often he would tell her stories. The two were not supposed to see each other alone, but they managed it somehow, posting an obliging servant outside the room to warn them if anyone was coming. It was all quite innocent. She would lie on a couch, and he would sit on a chair nearby and tell her stories.
Each day he would bring her a small garland of jasmines, hidden in his clothes, and she would present him with different things, sometimes a piece of sweet, sometimes a lime, sometimes a glittering piece of rock or stone that had caught her fancy. ‘What have you got for me today?’ He asked one day. Her face fell. ‘Nothing. I couldn’t find anything.’
‘Then will you give me what I ask for?’
‘If I can get it, yes.’
‘Then give me a-a-kiss.’
Her fair face flooded with colour, and she fled from the room.
It was after she was fourteen that a good day was fixed by the astrologer for herself and her seventeen-year-old husband to share a room together.
Nobody had told her what it was all about. She thought they would just share the same room to sleep in and he could now tell her stores without anyone interrupting, or they could play games like dice or pallankuzhi. She was not at all shy, therefore. She went on giggling and thought it a nice adventure. Raghavan, her husband, was nervous and shy.
Years later, they would remember their first night together and laugh.
A young Amba sat decked in silks and jewels, very much pregnant. It was her pumsavanam, the function performed during the seventh month of the first pregnancy. So many glass bangles were slipped on to her wrist. One broke and cut her hand deeply. What a fuss there was!
Her brother poured tamarind water into her mouth. What was the significance of that? Was it that tamarind was good for pregnant women? Or was it simply to satisfy the craving they usually had for sour things? Or had it some esoteric significance? She delivered her baby at home. Being her first, it took a long time. But the rule in her family was that not a sound from the delivery room should reach the ears of the males waiting outside.
Except the cry of the new-born child. So she gritted her teeth and bit her lips and allowed only soft moans of agony to escape her. It had been a terrible time.
In those days, no anesthesia was given for deliveries. When the final thrust of pain burst upon her, and she felt as though she were being torn into two halves, the head struggled through, and then the rest of the baby slid out like a slippery piece of soap. One of the most beautiful experiences of life is the sudden cessation of pain, and then hearing dimly the first wail of one’s child.
A single entity becomes two. A seed, and a piece of one-self has nurtured into an individual, handed on to posterity.
The midwife laid the baby on her suddenly flat abdomen.
Sudheer – her first-born.
Later, when she looked at the red, wrinkled face of her child, eyes closed, puckered mouth fumbling inexpertly at her breast, her motherhood rose in a surge of protective tenderness.
Mohini came next. No, no Mohini – who was it? Her memory failed her.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a recent event slipped into her mind. She had become hard of hearing, and a son-in-law had presented her with a hearing-aid. She hated using it but, now and then, mostly to please him, she tried it on, especially when she wanted to converse with the family.
The house was in her name, and she had willed it to her fourth daughter who stayed with her to look after her.
Husband and wife were arguing in the next room, which they often did. When Amba, feeling bored, put on her hearing-aid, she heard her son-in-law’s voice. ‘So our daughter can’t get married as long as your mother is alive!’ ‘Sh – sh – sh, she’ll hear you!’ came her daughter’s frantic protest.
‘Oh, she won’t hear a thing! Anyway tell me this. We’ve promised the house as dowry. If she lingers on like this for a couple of years more, what do you propose to do?’
‘Can’t we get her to gift the house to Suma now? Then the problem would be solved,’ came the daughter’s suggestion.
‘And supposing Suma’s husband wants to sell this house, or if they propose to live here and they don’t want the old lady around?’
‘Well, we shall be shifting to a flat of our own anyway. We can give her a small room there.’
‘I’m not having her in my house, that’s for sure. Once Suma gets this house, let one of the other daughters or sons look after her.’
Amba thought of her husband Raghavan. He had told her, ‘When I die, see to it that the money remains in your hands.
You have a tendency to bestow gifts lavishly on all and sundry. It is all right to be generous, but generosity should be tempered with wisdom. Even your own children won’t look after you if you have no money.’
This philosophy had seemed unduly cynical to her. Did everything depend only on money? Was everything for sale?
Now Raghavan’s words came back to taunt her. Not for years had she cried as she did that day.
There had been another incident not long ago. One of her grand-daughters, aged ten, was brought to see her by the child’s elder sister. Little Leela had been fingering many of the knick-knacks scattered about the room. She was particularly fond of a translucent, blue-green glass globe with six, delicately-made glass leaves surrounding it, the whole resting on a water-green glass base. There was a bulb inside the globe which, when switched on, emitted a truly beautiful glow.
Leela loved to watch the fairy-like effect; she had got a promise from her grandmother that one day she would get it.
‘Grandmother, when will you give me this?’
‘You will get it when I die, my pet.’
‘When will you die, grandmother? Will you die soon-before school closes, so that I can show it to Uma?’
‘Leela, you little horror, shut up!’ cried her elder sister in a scandalised tone of voice.
‘But why? She’s promised to give it to me. I only want to know when I can have it.’
‘Don’t you love your grandmother? Is this silly old lamp more important to you than your own grandmother?’
‘But Mummy and the aunties and uncles were all talking about what they were going to take when grandmother died. And
Aunty Lata said if she died before Deepavali, she could get the sofa covers cheap. She wants that sofa and those two chairs, you know.’
There was one memory Amba held to her heart like hoarded treasure. Seetha, another grand-daughter, had kissed her and whispered, ‘May I get into bed with you, grandmother?’
She slipped in beside the old lady and lay gazing dreamily at the ceiling. Suddenly she turned on her side and clasped her grandmother tightly in her arms, and buried her wet face in her neck. ‘Grandmother, don’t ever go away. Promise me you won’t leave me,’ she sobbed in a choked whisper.
Amba stroked the little girl’s hair tenderly. She asked, ‘why, darling, where would I go? What made you think of such a thing?’
‘The-they are saying-they are saying that you will die and go away. Will you? If you do, will you take me with you?’
Amba thought of her own grandmother. She had been a stern disciplinarian, inclined to lay down the law on every occasion. She could never remember being petted or cuddled by this forbidding person. Her mother had been a timid, harassed woman, badly browbeaten by her parent. They had lived in the usual joint family. Amba’s father had been a detached, non-interfering man, who concerned himself little with family matters. He was something of a scholar, and his whole interest lay in translating Shakespearean plays into his mother tongue, Malayalam.
The only person who took a real interest in her had been her mother’s oldest brother, a bachelor, who was very fond of children, and who found his affections heartily reciprocated.
He would dandle her on his knees, tell her stories from the puranas, as well as folk-tales, ask her riddles and play with her. She adored him. Though she did like playing with the other children in that large family, she liked being with her uncle the best.
She was not sent to school but, as was the custom in those days, she, along with the other children, was taught Sanskrit and Malayalam by a gentleman whom they addressed as ‘aashaan’ and English and arithmetic by a teacher from the local school, referred to as ‘Sir’.
There was also a bhagavathar who gave lessons in music to the musical ones.
Amba was one of those.
She was passionately fond of music, but musical exercises bored her. She wanted to be able to sing, without going through repetitious scales. When she was asked to sing before adults, she always held back, face downcast. But when she was alone, she would pour out her heart in bits and pieces of music. Sometimes she would sit on the swing and sing to singing songs from musical plays or kaikottikkali songs or kathakali padams.
She was a dreamer. In that strict household she was not allowed to wander at will away from the house. But there were some favourite corners, near the large sprawling cluster of buildings, where she could be alone. One of her favourite places was a deep depression on a rock-face which was almost like a small cave, where she could sit comfortably and watch everything without herself being seen. There she would sit and dream the hours away. She loved to watch the fleeing shadows cast by clouds, temporarily darkening the ground. The clouds themselves fascinated her, appearing in so many different shapes.
Memory was a long thread on which were strung beads; some shining and shimmering, some dull and faded; beautiful ones, ugly ones. How did one particular bead come to be selected and another discarded? Some stood out bright and clear, for no apparent reason. Others, though more important in content, blurred around the edges.
In those days in Kerala, the members of the joint family had to bathe daily in family tanks segregated for the sexes– even in the cold, cold rainy season and in winter. Every Tuesday and Friday, the females had an oil bath.
One Friday, during the southwest monsoon, Amba had a prolonged oil bath— applying a special, cooling, medicated oil for the hair, and another one for the body. The oil in her hair was removed with a preparation made from thaali leaves, very cooling, and that from the body with the bark of a tree, called eencha made into soft rounds. The first dip in the cold water of the tank was a sort of breathless torture, but that utterly refreshed feeling after the bath was worth it.
It was drizzling, with occasional bursts of sharp showers. After her bath, Amba, along with others in the family, went to worship the family deity. Only then could they take their breakfast.
Amba sat near an open window, a long line of holy sandal paste from the temple on her forehead, and a dot of kumkum below that, and watched the fresh greenness of nature, moist and verdant. The rain fell on the large plaintain leaves in globules of silver, then splashed down into the wet grass below. She felt herself one with nature, cool and fresh and rejuvenated. They were moments of utter, unalloyed bliss. This unimportant event in the life of a thirteen – year old was still fresh in her memory, seventy years later.
It was a couple of years before this that her grand-mother had bought an expensive foreign soap with the most heavenly smell.
Now and then Amba would sneak into the bathroom and hold the soap reverently in her hands, and inhale its fragrance again and again. The old-fashioned toilet, which was actually just a hole in the ground, built with granite all around it, was near the shelf where the soap was kept.
One moment the soap was in her hands, the next it had fallen down into the hole.
Amba fled from the bathroom, pale and fearful.
‘Where is the new soap I bought?’ asked grandmother that evening during dinner, her gimlet eyes piercing holes in each of them. No-one answered, they just looked at each other.
‘Amba, I saw you come out of the bathroom this evening. Did you take it?’
The glittering eyes fixed the little girl immobile in her seat, like a lizard an insect Amba was normally a truthful child, but fear made her desperate sometimes.
‘N-no, grandmother,’ she said in a small voice.
‘Don’t lie to me! Did you take it? Did it fall into the toilet hole? Answer!’ cried her grandmother harshly.
Amba started to tremble, she swallowed. ‘I-I-d-didn’t—’ she whispered.
‘I am sure you did. You are telling lies. Now, tell me the truth.’
Amba started to cry.
At this juncture, her favourite uncle, Madhavan, interposed, ‘Mother, can’t you see she’s badly frightened? She has told you she didn’t touch it. So stop harassing her.’
‘No. If she says she didn’t then she didn’t. She won’t tell lies.’
With a hard glare at her, her grandmother swept out of the room. Amba’s heart started to beat uncomfortably. Her uncle’s trust in her burnt a hole in her conscience. That whole night she couldn’t sleep. Next morning, after she had bathed and worshipped the family deity, she sped to her uncle’s room. He was playing dice with some other members of the family. She stood hesitating at the doorway. Madhavan looked up.
‘What is it, Amba?’
It would be highly presumptuous for a little girl to tell her uncle she wanted to speak to him alone. Madhavan sensed something of her predicament, and came out.
‘What is the matter?’ he asked kindly.
‘That — that soap —’ she began, and gulped.
‘You did handle it, did you?’
In a choked voice she told him what had happened.
‘Never mind. It isn’t such a big crime, after all.
The only wrong you did was in not telling the truth. But you were too frightened, weren’t you?’
She never knew what her uncle told his mother, but the subject was never mentioned again.
The years rolled back again. A small, gap-toothed Amba crouched in her uncle’s lap, clutching him. He held her with one arm, while the other hand held the rope of the swing he was sitting on. There was a prematurely aged-looking family retainer, who was strong in spite of his deceptive appearance. He could push the swing up to unimaginable heights. He ran backwards holding on to the seat of the swing. Then he ran forward and flung it up with all his might. Amba was soaring up into the blue sky like a bird. Oh, it was a wonderful experience, thrilling and a little scary. Even years later, when she looked up into the vast expanse of the sky, she could relive this experience of ‘flying.’
When Amba was young, death seemed remote and unconnected with herself. Now it loomed near. How would it come? Would it be the culmination of a long, painful disease, or a quick, sudden end? To whom could she talk about such things? Who cared? Who had the patience to listen?
Nowadays, each time she felt ill, be it a fever, or a sudden stomach-ache or whatever, she wondered whether it heralded the beginning of the end. But if she spoke of it to others, they accused her of fussing, of being a hypochondriac.
Lying in bed, what could she think about all day long? She prayed a lot; she recited the names of all the gods and goddesses, and all the sthothras she could remember. She slept in snatches. Then what? How to spend the hours till she could officially go to sleep, often to lie awake, thinking and remembering?
If she could only die in peace, without her own people squabbling and fighting all around her! When one was old and weak and helpless, dependent on others, that was when one most needed peace and the love and care of one’s own. Instead, it was often then that one was troubled, and harassed about money and possessions.
And left severely alone at other times.
A lonely existence.
She often felt she had forgotten how to talk. Only rarely did anyone come to see her, and then it was mostly to ask for something. Or, on occasions when the family members gathered together, they would sit around her bed and talk rapidly amongst themselves, and she wouldn’t be able to understand a word. Even the hearing – aid was not of much help then.
How vulnerable an old person is!
At the whim and fancy of the young and able.
Death, the journey into the unknown, all on her own— How could she cope?
The trauma of birth was perhaps somewhat similar, but there, there was no precognition. One was just thrust out. Here, however, there was the knowledge that this was going to happen; the fears regarding the mode of going, the journey itself and the destination. And yet she wanted to die. The thought of prolonging this existence indefinitely tired her terribly. It bored her. Day-in and day-out, lying in bed alone and unwanted, thinking, remembering, sleeping.
Going over the same ground again and again.
There was nothing new to think about, only stale memories and old thoughts, repeated till they lost all meaning.
One of the tragedies of old age was that all the people who constituted one’s memories fell by the wayside one by one.
Those of one’s own generation, those who shared generally the same memories as oneself, were no longer there. And the younger generation was not interested in an old woman’s rambling about events and people they never knew.
The loneliness of that! To have only oneself to talk to; to walk down memory lane as a solitary traveller! She had always been something of a loner, like most dreamers. But aloneness is not loneliness.
It was as she approached her eighties that her sense of hearing became impaired. But it worked in strange ways. Sometimes, even if a person shouted at the top of his voice, the words appeared garbled and indistinct. Yet, at other times, when the voice was pitched in a certain way, she could understand conversations clearly, even if it was not particularly loud.
One evening, lying drowsily in bed, she was started awake by a voice speaking directly below the window near her bed. ‘When a person reaches the age of sixty, he should die. Go gracefully, not linger on, a nuisance to others and a source of discomfort to himself.’
Reproachful? Accusing? Oh World, forgive me for existing!
Amba was very tired. Her sporadic illnesses became more and more frequent. A few times she fainted, and everyone thought the end had come. But she recovered. Even so, her strength was slowly draining away. She lay, drowsing and waking, drowsing and waking. Even when she was awake, everything appeared hazy and dreamlike. Often it was difficult to distinguish the real from what she was dreaming.
People crowded round her bed, and hazy faces bent over her, saying words which seemed to come from a great – word & now and then coming out clear, but most of them just an indistinguishable murmur.
They were all her own, flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood. But at this moment they were aliens. She was alone in a crowd.
Death draws a circle around the dying, keeping at bay the outside world.
The insistent voice, fading and becoming clear gain, prodded her awake. She gave a weak smile at the blob pendant over her, tried to say something, then closed her eyes.
Vatsala, her youngest daughter, had come hurrying from the States, where her husband was a scientist. Amba has not seen her four-year-old grand-daughter till now, a child born after her daughter had lost all hopes of becoming a mother. ‘Mother, this is Madhuri.’ said Vatsala, gulping down her tears, and pushing forward the child, who hung back, clutching her mother’s sari.
But she had come too late. Amba was alive – but just. She was in this world, but not of it. In the last two days she had developed a bad cough. She held on to someone’s hand most of the time. That seemed to give her some comfort. Once she opened her eyes and said, ‘I feel as though I’m going to have convulsions.’ It was a strange feeling. She felt as though she were sliding into a sort of feverish, jerky coma, from which she would not able to struggle back.
In her lucid moments she had a sense of disorientation. All the familiar things seemed to have changed. That night Vatsala stayed with her. She sat in a chair near her mother’s bed, holding her hand. Amba was talking in a rambling manner. Suddenly her fingers tightened on Vatsala’s hand.
‘What are all those ghastly creatures?’ she whispered, her eyes staring beyond her daughter.
Vatsala turned around. ‘There is nothing there, mother.’
‘Yes, yes, there is. There! Hold tight to my hand!’
Vatsala did so. Amba drowsed on, but she was restless and seemed to be in pain. Suddenly she opened her eyes and looked fully at her daughter and smiled.
‘You are a good girl,Vatsala. You have always been good to me.’ She said clearly.
She sank back into her former state of drowsiness. Now and then she moaned softly. She went on repeating the various names of gods, her eyes closed.
Another time she glanced around the room. ‘Are all my children here with me?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ lied Vatsala.
Suddenly, Amba’s eyes went to a corner of the room. The sickly look vanished from her tired face, and a glow overspread it. Her eyes widened in amazement.
‘She – she is there! Devi!’
Her hand left Vatsala’s and tired to join the other in a gesture of obeisance.
After that she slept.
The next day dawned.
The Dark One urged his buffalo forward swiftly.
INDIRA VARMA. Is a writter settled in Chennai. She loves reading and writing
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