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The Distant Relative
|by Shekhar Misra|
With the cup of tea kept on this belly, Hari Om Trivedi was almost lying on the couch and watching television. He was in fact not watching TV; it was simply turned on. This helped to lessen the quietness of the household. Though 8 in the evening is no time for tea but Hari’s routine was like that. He would return home after trying to sell water tanks and then just lie there in front of TV. His wife, Swati would serve him tea and he would spend close to an hour sipping it and waiting for the clock to strike 9 when he would move to the next routine - of having dinner. As a Regional Sales Manager for Central India for a company manufacturing plastic water tanks, his job though important was not challenging. He was required to travel once a month to various districts to meet distributors and keep a tab. Being in the same job for 12 years now, he knew everyone and everything, so things were smooth. Salary was not much but at 44 Hari did not have much appetite for adventure or much ambition. Whatever he earned was enough for his quiet household - at least Swati never complained.
Lying on the sofa, Hari’s thought wandered - perhaps he could himself become a distributor. Being in the industry for long it should not be too tough for him and would allow him to earn some more money. But he neither had 15 lakhs to invest nor the energy to generate the funds. Without much immediate family, Hari realized he didn’t have too many options to borrow the money either, so he gave up. The mixer in the kitchen suddenly buzzed, destroying his future plans. Hari took it as a signal from the Gods. But it was good that something was making a noise in the house. Hari strained his neck to look around their one room flat. There were a sad tube light, a recluse stained mirror and a gloomy flower bed smiling back at him.
At the dinner table that day Swati told him about her day, though not very enthusiastically. It was one of their another routines. At least after 14 years of marriage they owned each other this much. The dinner was lukewarm with a familiar spread of lentils, breads and veggies – as unimaginative as their lives had become. Though Hari has been in Baroda for close to 10 years but he did not have many friends. Swati had her group of friends, but Hari never liked to mingle with people outside his work. Even on weekends Hari would tend to the small and congested garden in the house but would seldom venture out, except for buying the necessities. Not having children meant that they never felt the need to socialize for their sake and instead it allowed him to follow his natural inclination. The routine also followed them in the bed. They slept with their feet towards each other. This helped them avoid facing each other even in dreams. The heavy quilt came in handy - during these winter months - to keep their distance, acting as an impregnable wall between two disenchanted bodies.
Next day Hari drove his old fiery red Maruti 800 to office; the only reminder left of exciting beginning of his union with Swati. Job offered little more excitement, particularly because of the distributor in Dhar who has decided to move to a competitor. It fell on Hari to go to Dhar immediately to try to persuade the distributor to change his mind or to recruit a new one. He returned home early that day as he had to catch the bus later in the evening. Hari honked vigorously at the group of cows sitting outside his gate and munching garbage from the dump that had appeared in front of his house in the last few days. He noted to talk to the municipality ‘Zamadar’; he was not happy with the ‘Diwali Bakshisk’. Hari observed the inordinate quantity of crumpled rolls of toilet papers discarded in dump - indicator of changing Indian habits and reminder of the years of his life gone by. Finally cows took mercy on him and moved away but not before registering their protest.
Swati’s two friends from the neighborhood were sitting in the living room and talking about the apples of their eyes. It always irritated and bemused Hari - the display of this civil competitiveness. The 10 year old of Ms. Tyagi had come second in the school race, to which Ms. Srivastava replied “My Shanty didn’t study at all for his half yearly exams but even then he scored highest in the history test. I told his father only if we could get him to pay little more interest he will surely do wonders.” “Only if these ladies would know what these cherubs will do to them when they grow up”, wondered Hari. Swati seeing that her husband was back bid her friends a hushed good bye.
Swati asked Hari to contact ‘Badi Buaji’, one of her aunts - a distant relative who lived in Dhar, when Hari told her the place he was going to. Hari just grunted, which did not mean anything, but Swati took that as an acceptance. She further added on the top of her voice from the kitchen, preparing an early dinner for her husband, “I will SMS you her address. Though I have not spoken to her in ages but will be good if you can go to her house once your work is over. You can also stay with her if you want, as she lives alone. She is very old you see; must be in her mid-80s. I do not have any ‘Mayka’ left; she is one of the last attachments that I have with my former life. I will call her and tell her. She will be expecting you”.
Hari realized his mistake but it was too late. Thinking about Swati’s ‘Mayka’ he remembered the anticipation he felt when his in-law’s visited them the first and last time just after their marriage, not long before both of them died in quick succession. The trip was more of a reconnaissance mission. It is not easy being an Indian damad - Hari had realized. ‘Damad’ needs to respectful of his in-laws but can’t afford to get too close and comfortable with them. Such “closeness” would have damaging effect on ‘Damad’s’ long term solvency. Wives, specially the newly wedded ones, also behave differently with their husbands in front of their parents. Swati had suddenly become much more commanding and authoritative in those days. He almost wished she had stayed that way.
The work in Dhar did not materialize to Hari’s satisfaction. He almost wished leaving his job, moving to Dhar and becoming a distributor himself. He knew his manager would be happy to help with this but without money he had no chance. He smiled at the opportune moment at which fantasy strikes. Hari was about to check into a hotel for the night but his mobile beeped. Swati had messaged the address to Buaji’s place. Since he had some time to kill, Hari decided to finish this task before moving to hotel for the night. When Hari’s rickshaw reached the area, he asked the driver to stop, few meters before the house. He felt like walking to the place and soak the evening atmosphere of this locality. The population and the density of houses had thinned. A bunch of boys were standing on their bicycles with one leg on the ground and another on the small “Puliya” for support. They must have been returning or going to the evening tuitions as they had their notebooks tucked between the wires around the handles of their cycles. Hari asked them for the direction to the house and they pointed straight ahead.
Perhaps due to the tricks of light at that time of the day, the row of houses looked very strange and ghostly. Houses were arranged like a horse shoe – is it an omen. A big old banyan tree stood in the middle and a row of Ashok marked one of imperious house in a corner. One lone bulb hanging from the Banyan tree fought on bravely. On the other side of the tree there was a temple like structure. Might be a Hanuman idol or a Shiva linga – Hari did not check. Buaji’s house was on the first floor, ground floor being occupied by a tenant – an advocate – as announced by the name plate. A congested flight of stairs took Hari upstairs. Stairs opened in a verandah. An old ‘Deewan’ was sitting there accompanied by two tea cups. Apparently Buaji was done with her evening tea. The door was opened by a strange girl with deep eyes placed wide apart, before he could ring the bell. The girl was around 7 years old. Her hair were undone and she donned a jersey proclaiming her to be ‘Princess’. She said nothing and kept staring at Hari. When he realized that onus was on him, he simply said “Swati has sent me to meet Buaji”. Even this could not move the girl but Buaji’s voice came to the rescue – “Mithoo, who’s there”.
Hari said ”Buaji, I am Swati’s husband. She asked me to meet you since I am in Dhar”. Buaji was at the door by that time and seemed to be surprised by his visit but nevertheless asked “Come, in. How are you?”
“I am good Buaji, how is your health?”
“It’s as good as it can be at this age. Do not mind me asking but which Swati you are talking about?”
Hari, swore under his breadth and resolved to get into a big fight as soon he gets home, something he had not done in many years for now. He said “Swati from Baroda. Her father’s father was your father’s elder brother. That’s what I was told.” He added meekly. Buaji’s eyes flickered “Oh you are ‘Bade Dada’s Damad’. I am sorry could not recognize you. Do you know I was at your marriage?” Hari was visibly relieved but still angry with his wife, almost complained to Buaji “Swati is very forgetful Buaji, she told me she will call you”. Buaji dismissively replied “Oh! Our phone is not working and I keep forgetting where I have kept my mobile. Not sure if Swati will have my mobile number even. It has been very long you see - since your marriage perhaps”.
The way Buaji took command after the introductions it was clear to Hari that he would not be able to go to the hotel. She presumed that he would be staying with them for the night. She immediately went to the bathroom and placed the immersion rod over the bucket to warm the water. She took out an old but fresh towel for Hari and asked him to take a bath before settling down to talk and for dinner. Buaji also whispered something in Mithoo’s ears and gave her few rupees, who still staring blankly, ran down the stairs. As Hari was about to enter the bathroom, Buaji came upto him and whispered looking over the front door, “Mithoo, poor kid, my second son, Vinod’s daughter. Her parent’s died 3 years back in an accident. Now I look after her. She behaves strangely but is a sweet child.” Hari was shocked not so much at this pronouncement but at the matter-of-factly tone in which Buaji spoke about his son’s demise.
Seeing the old stainless steel buckets and cemented floor and the stained Indian styled toilet, Hari yearned for the cleaner and brighter toilet of his home. The soap was multicolored – leftover slices of used soaps were stuck together to create a round object. He was not having a clean feeling and decided to finish bathing quickly.
Though old, with difficulty in movement Buaji was in good spirits. She talked to Hari about various things – asked about his household and his job, told anecdotes from her earlier life when they lived in the joint family. She also told Hari that her elder son was settled in Indore, which was not far away, but seldom came to meet her. She again spoke about this bereavement with a strange aloofness as if it had happened to someone else. She was not bitter about it and accepted it as it is without any resentment. Hari wondered if she had passed the stage of sorrow, as a long-timer accepted his life in the jail as an usual course. Buaji did not look to be wealthy. Her house was sparsely furnished. Hari could not locate any washing machine or microwave or computer. Though there was an old refrigerator and ancient TV which was placed in a wooden box with the lids closed. Hari felt that her state was very similar to his in a strange way - a melancholy existence, a stage free of both content and contempt. Both of them were just living without any expectations; though secretly longing for a different life, the inertia was stronger than desire. He felt an unusual bond with this old lady who he barely knew and was meeting for the first time, in an unknown city. He wished he could just sit there munching on the soft “Phulkas” eternally, nodding his head as an understanding of their situation, as the price of these delicious “Phulkas”. He did not know how may Phulkas he would have had but realized they must be many when Buaji asked “More”. He simply replied “Food was very good, Buaji. I know this is not the time for tea but can I have some”. He felt necessitated to once again ask about her health as he sipped the tea. Buaji replied “You are on a dangerous path “Beta”. You do not know how much oldies enjoy talking about their health. I do not want to bore you to death by talking about my health”. She went on “This is a very tough stage in life. I definitely do not want to die but cannot find any purpose to live either. You must have realized that no one ever comes to my house. There is a strange silence here even in the day. That is why I was so surprised to see you today. There is such a vacuum on some of the days that I get scared of myself. But for the little girl I would have already died”. Not knowing how to reply Hari said nothing. He saw Mithoo, peeping from the corner of the door. She ran away when she realized he had seen her.
Buaji asked Hari to drag the Deewan that was there in the front verandah inside while she arranged the bedding. When Hari was about to sleep after the trying day, Buaji came and placed a glass of water by his bedside. Hari’s sleep was broken at 2 by Mithoo. She was shaking him vigorously and crying “Uncle… Uncle”. Hari woke with a start and was shocked to see horrified expression on Mithoo’s face who just pointed to the other room and said “Something is happening to Buaji”. Hari rushed to the room to see Buaji lying unconscious. It was not tough to conclude that something terrible has happened to her. Hari, still fighting the stupor, was finding it hard to think. He almost wished he had not come to this wretched house. He did not have much options – he had to take Buaji to the hospital. Hari knew he would not find any transport at this hour of the morning. Hari finally rushed to the lawyer staying downstairs, banged the door hard and shouted at the top of his voice “Open”. After repeated attempts Hari sensed some movement. The voice from the inside asked him who he was, to which Hari simply replied, “Buaji is very ill and we need to go to the hospital immediately”. When the door finally budged, Hari told the lawyer in a single breadth that he was a distant relative of Buaji who was visiting; she was very ill and would die if something was not done. The lawyer blinked fighting to keep his eyes opened. The lawyer said he would ask for someone’s car from the neighborhood while he asked Hari to bring her downstairs. Hari lifted Buaji on his shoulders and rushed down, Mithoo followed him. Hari unsure of what to do with her said nothing.
Hari paid for Buaji’s admission into the hospital and patiently waited outside the ICU. He must have fallen asleep sitting on the bench. When he woke up, he found Mithoo sleeping on his lap. The young sun was up and the early day light had formed pattern of shadow and brightness in the long corridor. Seeing the lawyer still there, Hari went up to him. They chatted for a while waiting for an update on Buaji’s health. Their conversation drove off in a different direction, perhaps they intentionally did to keep their mind off the weariness of the situation. Hari talked to him about his job and what he wanted to do. The lawyer also told him about how slim his practice was. At 9 Hari went to see Buaji. Hari could see Buaji from the glass door lying on the bed but could not find any doctor who could tell him about her situation. Hari thought of calling up Swati to tell her about tumultuous last 12 hours but postponed it as he had to attend to something more pressing. Hari got the number of Buaji’s eldest son from the lawyer and called him up. Hari explained to him who he was and about the situation. After listening to the entire account, the son gave a poignant response – “Oh!”. Once Hari realized that nothing more is coming he asked him when he could make himself available, to which he replied “I am currently out on a business tour and would only be back in another 4 days.” he also added hurriedly “Do not worry Uncle. Mummy has sufficient funds to cover for her expenses. You can ask her once she recovers”. When Hari put down the phone his eyes were wet, first times in many years. When Hari reached the ward he saw the doctor coming out. The lawyer and Mithoo were standing near the door, her face plunged between the legs of the lawyer. Seeing Hari’s eyes Doctor presumed that he knew and simply said “I am sorry, but she died peacefully”.
Of what happened afterwards Hari has no clear memory. The rest of his day till the journey back to Baroda went by as a haze. Sometimes Hari spoke, gave instructions, sometimes sobbed and sometimes looked vacantly. He went through the motion without feeling anything. He wanted to get over the formalities as quickly as possible and head back to home. What had to be done was to be done. There was no time or place to ruminate. He offered no reason to Swati why he brought Mithoo with him. He just could not have left her. Swati also did not ask much but cried a lot with Mithoo but that was much after he had come home. Perhaps it took some time to sink in. Hari knew all the tears were not of sorrow.
Around a month later when Hari was still trying to settle with the new reality of the life and changes it brought, the lawyer paid him a visit on a Saturday. He said that he is executing Buaji’s will and came for final settlement. Though he did not offer to pay back the amount Hari had spent on Buaji’s treatment and cremation, he did tell him that Hari would need to take guardianship of Mithoo legally. He also added that Buaji had deposited Rs. 20 lakhs in Mithoo account which would be hers when she turns 21. Seeing the look of bewilderment on Hari’s face the lawyer explained “Hari, though Buaji was not rich, but her expenses were also very less. She only saved. By the way as per the will you will get 20 lakhs. Buaji had set aside the money for Mithoo’s guardian after she was gone.” The lawyer just added before departing “Do meet me when you are in Dhar next time. Maybe I can help you setup the business there”.
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A. P. Panda
01/24/2013 08:44 AM