Everyone said the same thing. The watchman guarding her house whispered it. The girls in her college tweeted about it. The boy she liked mumbled something about it. And her family gave voice to it. Something is wrong with Maya.
Now Maya started feeling the same way. What was wrong with her? What was happening to her? Why did she feel, think and act differently from other girls of her age?
"Maya, you are 28, educated, and have a good job. Why can’t you be happy? Why don’t you marry Rishi?" they asked her.
... can face any dilemma, by looking for answers in a place deep down where all are connected, big and small, rich and poor ...
The question resonated in her mind. Yes, she liked Rishi. He was the most eligible bachelor in town. Rich, handsome, and having his own business at 29, he was much sought after. Yet, she had her reservations. Rishi had not approached her even though they knew each other since childhood. It was his mother who approved of her and that too because she was quiet and could cook well. “Nowadays,” said his mother, Sunita, “girls are more interested in careers, rather than taking care of family, children, husband or his relations. But beti, you are one in a million and the only person who could make Rishi happy. What do you think?” Maya nodded, said something about the weather, and made a quick exit.
Maya and Rishi grew up in the same middle class neighborhood, went to the same school and at one time really liked each other. People in the neighborhood thought that it was just a matter of time before they tied the knot. Maya too waited expectantly for Rishi to pop the question. At that time, Rishi was working in a small outfit making precision tools and she was working in the bank. Together, they could have afforded a comfortable middle class life. It seemed like a perfect “made in heaven” match. But, his mother had other plans. One day, Maya overheard Sunita talking to her mother “Behenji, if only someone could assist him with starting his business, I am sure, Rishi would become a millionaire and the most eligible bachelor. And then,” she dropped her voice to a whisper and Maya did not hear the rest of it. She did not have to worry about missing anything as her mother approached her the next day and conveyed in a few words the gist of Sunita’s thinking on the subject. Even though, Sunita did not openly say the politically incorrect word, “dowry”, she had wanted an advance to start a business and the money was out of reach for her family. Sunita seemed to have convinced Rishi to move to Bombay as her great uncle’s grandson would provide a loan to start his own industrial tools business and to postpone the marriage. It seemed to make sense to Rishi, who came gushing to her and said excitedly, “Maya, listen, I got a great offer. Just think, Maya, I have a chance to be my own master.” “But, what about us?” she asked. “Sweetheart, just a matter of time, don’t you see, I am doing this for us.” He looked so happy that she did not have the heart to plead her case. Soon after, Rishi moved to Bombay and she nursed her broken heart and broken dreams in silent despair and withdrew into a shell.
In the meantime, Rishi prospered. The struggling business took off in the fertile entrepreneurial environment of Bombay and he became a millionaire. Along with money came perks and lifestyle changes. He became enamored of Ratna, a market-savvy finance professional working for a prominent bank and saw himself in a Mercedes cruising through Lonavala with her. However, his mother had other ideas. “Ratna will not be suitable for our family,” she opined decisively. And like a dutiful son, Rishi ended his budding romance with her. Unlike Maya, he received an earful for his manly attitude, “I’d rather live alone than marry a mamma’s boy like you,” she spat with sneering contempt.
The energetic Sunita wasted no time and soon the proposal with Maya materialized. This time Sunita demanded nothing. She even offered to pay for the marriage and all the food and decorations. Her mother was happy and her father too agreed as he did not have to shell out any money. Maya, however, had moved on. The hole in her heart seemed to have become smaller and smaller as the days passed by till one day she woke up and felt she was “Rishi-free”. But now life brought her back to the same fork on the road and everyone was expecting her to marry Rishi. “In the arranged marriage scheme of things, these things are considered normal,” they said, “ and everything falls into place once they are married.” During one of his rare visits to her modest home, Rishi pressed his case, “We will be happy, like we were in school,” he said. “Remember, how we used to run along the beach, getting wet, and I gave you all my beautiful sea shells. We could get it all back, Maya,” he said tenderly. At this moment, Maya would have said “yes” and be done with all the hoopla, speculation, and anxiety, but she could not. Maya had found another passion, a passion that would make her spirits soar to unknown frontiers and brought meaning to her colorless existence. She did not speak about it to anyone, neither Rishi, nor Sunita, or her very dear parents, for she felt they would never understand her love for a little orphan girl.
She named the girl “Pinky” and had first met her when she was a little girl, barely four years old, begging in front of her bank. She wore a frock which was so big that she seemed to be a big piece of fabric moving around with tiny arms rattling her tin can. Her big eyes looked at her in expectation as she held her little box up. The silent appeal of that innocent face haunted her memory and tore her conscience till she felt she had to do something. One thing led to another, and she managed to take care of feeding and raising the 15 children of “Apna Ghar,” an orphanage where Pinky belonged. It was a steep, uphill task to find the money especially since she put a stop to the children’s begging. Society was indifferent and sometimes even hostile. “They are lazy children from lazy parents, who stoop to begging because they do not want to work,” was the general opinion. Surprisingly, this was from an educated, affluent middle class who spoke little when politicians rob them blind, but vented their frustration on the little orphans who begged for bread. A banker, who promised to give her money, made her wait almost for 3 hours, gave a lengthy sermon about getting married and then gave her a measly 25 rupees. She held the money in her palm for a long time, forcing herself not to cry, and left clutching it. “At least, I can feed them today,” she thought optimistically. Yet, when she read in the papers, that this man had given a hefty 20,000 rupees to a temple to ingratiate himself with the Gods, she felt hurt, very hurt. “Has our society lost all humanity?” she wondered. But in spite of all the struggles, failures and anxieties, she held on, and even lost all her savings in order to keep her dear children happy and flourishing.
At one point in her desperation, she considered Rishi’s proposal seriously. “At least, my money problems regarding Apna Ghar would be solved,” she thought. But the next day, she backtracked. “Rishi may know how to earn- but giving back?” She thought about Sunita, the brain that runs Rishi’s life, and decided it definitely will not work. “Giving back to society is an alien concept,” said Meera, a firebrand volunteer at Apna Ghar. Meera was her right hand woman. She was equally , if not more, passionate about preserving Apna Ghar and fought multiple missionary organizations from taking over.
On a frustrating day at Apna Ghar, where the plumbing needed repairs, Maya had gone to the mall to meet a student club member who was willing to raise money for charity. Suddenly, she heard a booming voice, “Maya! What a surprise! Beti. How are you? Looks like you disappeared from the horizon. How thin you look,” and then in a low voice, “have you decided anything about Rishi. Lots of girls are approaching me every day. But I tell them, only one girl, Maya, will make my son happy,” she said effusively.
“Yes, auntiji, thank you. Auntiji, I have a question and was afraid to ask before and it is important, very important for me,” she replied diffidently and with a lot of hesitation.
“What, beti, tell me, just tell me, I am all ears,” said Sunita all eager and expectant.
“I have to spend a lot of time, I mean a lot of time at Apna Ghar, and I use up most of my earnings there. My parents do not mind but -, after marriage - uh—will I, can I—“, and she stopped in her tracks as she saw the horror in Sunita’s face.
“What,” you going to that place every day? What will people think? What will happen to our izzat? she said with a look of horror.
Maya had no answer to that. She had honestly not thought about it. Family honor, pride didn’t enter her mind when all that she could think of was the price of onions or the cost of plumbing. She made one more attempt. “Can you please think about it, Auntiji,” she asked in a hopeful tone. Sunita looked aghast as if bit by a scorpion and walked away.
“Meera was right,” she thought sadly.
The next day, her mother came and told her that she needed to make a decision. “A boy like Rishi is hard to find and will not be available for long,” she said in a gentle, coaxing voice.
Maya was torn between her passion for Apna Ghar and duty towards her parents. They had sacrificed many necessities to get her an MBA degree. Being the only child, they were expecting her to be happily married and settled. Her mother’s health was deteriorating and her father needed assistance in managing the house and running errands. She knew she had to take up more of the responsibilities at home, both physically and financially. But she could not also forget Pinky and abandon her to the vagaries of a society with very little social conscience. But what could she do? Her brain whirled round and round and all she could see was the little girl with big eyes expectantly holding up her tin can.
She went up to her terrace to clear her head up. The huge tamarind tree near her house had a couple of branches which reached the terrace. The branches swayed to the gentle wind, along with the murmur of the leaves which moved with a slow beat. As she lay down in the cot and watched the rustling leaves, she felt a soothing tranquility seep through her. Slowly her eyes closed and she was drifting into a sea of green leaves and beautiful houses and lush meadows. She ran on the wet green grass feeling as if she was in paradise when suddenly a big wall stopped her. It was an ugly wall, tall and broad and stood there as if it was constructed with the sole purpose of obstructing her view. Try as hard as she could, she couldn’t get past the huge wall nor find any cracks through which she could see the other side. Suddenly, she saw a pair of huge eyes looking at her mournfully. They looked bright with unshed tears. The overwhelming sadness of the eyes seemed to penetrate her inner core and enveloped her whole being. She felt as if she was drowning in dark waves of melancholy and tried very hard to shake it all off. But, no matter what she did, she could not escape the awesome power of those mesmerizing eyes that seemed to rouse her soul and rattle her conscience. Slowly, she recognized those pleading eyes and when she realized that they belonged to none other than Pinky, she woke up with a start.
The next few days, Maya kept thinking of the dream that seemed to warn her. It showed her secure, beautiful world walled off by people’s attitudes from the world of a deprived Apna Ghar. If the wall stays, pinky will eventually die and she will go back to a lifeless existence, a useless burden on this beautiful earth. Even her mother would not want that. “I cannot give up Apna Ghar,” she said with resolve and felt a euphoric surge of confidence.
Six months passed. There were small successes. A neighborhood restaurant donated unused vegetables and food, a trash picker was handy with plumbing and saved a lot of money, a childless couple adopted two of the orphans, a school teacher pledged 200 rupees a month and even the rickshaw driver gave the children and her, free rides around town for any errands. But Rishi gave nothing. The orphanage survived on the large hearted kindness of common people. She got used to her life and her family made the best of a “bad” situation thrust upon them.
Maya’s confidence gave wings to her ideas. She started a small theatre in the orphanage and recruited Pinky and a few of the orphans to perform in socially relevant plays in neighborhood schools. Pinky won many hearts with her talented singing and acting performance. A struggling new director, Aakash, chose Pinky to act in a new documentary depicting the plight of orphans. Pinky’s acting was so impressive that a businessman from Bombay recruited her for an ad for baby products. Donations poured in from the documentary and from the sponsors of baby products. A trust fund was set up for the children’s future. Aakash joined as a volunteer and the momentum built up by following a path least taken defied the laws of inertia and catapulted the team of Apna Ghar into the public consciousness.
Maya was happy with her new family, Aakash, Meera, Pinky, the trash picker, and the children. She felt a strange comfort and peace. For she knew she can face any dilemma, by looking for answers in a place deep down where all are connected, big and small, rich and poor, a place where there are no walls and the vast unknown beckons with its timeless knowledge...