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“People forget that older women are full persons who have their own hopes, wants and desires. You keep telling us that what we are doing is extraordinary, but to us this is routine. We don’t know how else to be.”
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Just Living Is Not Enough…”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The third winner of our August 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Vijayalakshmi Harish.
Meera’s eyes flew open with a sense of urgency that the rest of her body did not share. It took a couple of seconds for her drowsy mind to compute that she was in a tent, that it was pitch dark outside and that the sound that had intruded her sleep was her satellite phone.
“Hello,” she croaked
“Hello. This is Dr Anushree calling from Shlok Hospital. Am I speaking to Ms. Meera Vaidya?”
“Meera, I’m sorry I have to tell you this over the phone, but I regret to inform you that Ms. Kaveri Krishnan is no more. She took a really bad fall and was brought to the hospital earlier today. There was some trauma to the brain and we did our best to try and save her but she did not survive.”
Meera wondered if this was a nightmare. Was she still asleep? But her sleep had gone. Every inch of her body was now suffused with the perverse alertness that sorrow brings. With one hand, she massaged her chest, which felt sore.
“Meera…are you still there?”
“Ye..yes. I’m here.”
“Ms. Krishnan has you listed as her next of kin. She has pledged her organs for donation, but we need your consent too. Can you come over to the hospital to sign the papers?”
“I’m not in Mumbai right now. I’m in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. It’ll take me a while to get there.”
“We have her on ventilator. Do try to get here as soon as possible.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Terminating the call, Meera stepped out into the vast, crisp night. Though everything looked the same as it had a few hours ago, it now felt stirred up; disturbed. The wind was weighed down with memories, happy and sad. The tears on her cheeks reflected starlight—tiny drops of brightness, inconsistent with the literal and metaphorical dark place.
Her first thought, irrationally enough, was that she wished she had got this call when she was doing something special. That would have been a fitting tribute to the extraordinary woman who had taught her to live without boundaries. But then, as Kaveri aunty would say, life is made of ordinary moments that have to be made exceptional.
Come to think of it, the moment when she first met Kaveri aunty could not have been more commonplace, but that meeting had changed the course of her life. She had just started her career with the Times of India and had moved into a rental apartment in Thane. She had gone to the terrace one evening to read. Kaveri aunty was there at the same time to gather up some vadams that she had left to dry in the sun. They had shared a smile and some small talk, which soon turned into an invitation to tea.
It had surprised her then that this conventional looking septuagenarian was not the conservative, unremarkable person she had assumed her to be. Over cups of tea, she discovered that Kaveri aunty had been a scientist at BARC, was an artist in her spare time, and that at the age of 72, she still ran marathons and organized tree-plantation drives.
“Oh my God! Aunty, you are such a rockstar!” she had exclaimed.
“Pshaw. Not at all. I’m just an ordinary woman. There are so many like me. You should come to my book club,” Kaveri aunty had chirped enthusiastically, and that is how Meera had ended up meeting what she had later dubbed the “league of ordinary women.”
The League met once every month at a Naana-Naani park near the apartment complex, and consisted of five other women: Aditi Shah, a fifty-six year old school teacher; Anindita Chauhan, a sixty eight year old retired surgeon; Nafisa Ahmed, a sixty year old entrepreneur who ran a catering service from home; Meeta Banerji, a fifty seven year old banker; and Lizzy George, a fifty three year old lawyer. Aditi, Nafisa and Lizzy were married and had children; Kaveri aunty was widowed and had never had children; Meeta was divorced, Anindita had never married. Meera soon realized that this was no run-of-the-mill book club. These women not only read and discussed books, but also took up various social projects such as blood donation drives, sponsoring education for unprivileged children, counselling for domestic workers etc.
One evening, at one of the meetings, Meera had expressed her admiration for these women. “You are all so brilliant. I never imagined that a group of older women could be so driven!”
Anindita chuckled. “Meera, imagine if you didn’t know us at all and you saw this group of older women sitting around talking. What would you think then? The assumption usually is that we are gossiping about our health, our family, or others. People forget that older women are full persons who have their own hopes, wants and desires. You keep telling us that what we are doing is extraordinary, but to us this is routine. We don’t know how else to be.”
“Exactly, Anu didi,” quipped Nafisa, adjusting her dupatta. “Frankly, I doubt my own children know who I truly am. They are good kids –helpful and kind, but it’s as if they have an image of me in their heads that isn’t real. Anwar was asking me the other day that when his brother and he himself are earning well now, why I am still going through the drudgery of running the catering company. I don’t know how to explain to him that the company is like another child to me. That just as I can never abandon him and Wasim, I can’t abandon my work.”
“It’s not just the children, no. Even people my own age ask me why I travel so much. You have become old, do your bhajan-kirtan and stay at home. Why these extra ambitions in your old age? These are the sort of ridiculous things I have to listen to,” ranted Anindita.
“That’s the thing isn’t it? Women become so inured to their aspirations being ignored and sidelined that at some point we take ourselves for granted. So many women I know, who have sacrificed every moment of their life for their family, and who have now resigned themselves to being old women. We become the stereotype of an aunty,” Meeta said, curling her fingers into air quotes.
“And as far as our social projects go, honestly, how can anyone look at all the things in society that are wrong and not do anything about it? Earlier in life we had family responsibilities and careers that took up our time and energy. But now our children are grown, we finally have enough time to think about and act on things we have always wanted to do. ” Aditi said.
“Shall I tell you what motivates me, Meera?” asked Kaveri aunty. “The Universe as we know it was created 13.82 billion years ago. If we compress that 13.82 billion years into a calendar year, and consider that the Big Bang happened on the 1stof Jan, then humans first appeared on Earth in the last hour of 31stof December and our greatest achievements as a species have all happened in the last few seconds of the year! What I’m trying to say is, life is a very special and a very short gift—shorter than we realize. I think I can speak for these friends of mine, when I say that for us, just living is not enough. Life must have meaning and purpose. Look at the soil on the lawn. You will find small worms there. Even those worms have a purpose to life—they turn the soil, fertilize it and give something back to nature. We are supposedly the most evolved species. Isn’t our responsibility to everything around us that much more then?”
“Well said, Kaveri!” exclaimed Lizzy, “in my line of work, I see more than I want to of all the negativity that humans are capable of. I do what I can to shine some light, to create something good. That is precisely why Kaveri and I first started this club –we shared this passion. Eventually we met the others, and now we find an understanding and companionship in each other. It’s nice to have a younger person like you too, Meera. Age is hardly a barrier to friendship, is it? ”
Meera felt an intense desire to talk to her mother. She felt guilty. Although she had been really close to her mother and shared everything with her, she felt now as if she had neglected to really pay attention to her. So many times she had spoken to her mother about her own dreams and ambitions, but she had never asked what her mother dreamt of, if she had any unfulfilled wishes. However, her mother had passed away last year, and now she could not do anything about it. She burst out into tears.
Kaveri aunty had comforted her then, and helped her to deal with her regrets. With time, she grew close to all the members of the League, but was especially drawn to Kaveri aunty. For Kaveri aunty too, Meera’s presence was a pleasure. Meera gave up her apartment and moved in with Kaveri aunty. Outsiders assumed that they were mother and daughter, and while they never disabused them of this assumption, for Meera and Kaveri aunty, it wasn’t such a relationship. They were friends and equals, in spite of the huge age difference between them.
Inspired by the League (which kept growing and adding more members) and egged on by Kaveri aunty, Meera explored her interests. To her as well, just living was no longer sufficient. She realized that her work as a photojournalist could help her do more. She began getting involved with wildlife conservation projects that took her around the world. But she always came back home to Kaveri aunty.
And now, Kaveri aunty was no more. The world felt unbearably huge. Swaying on her feet, as the grief burst from her skin, Meera felt that she was no longer affected by gravity. That at any moment, a gust of wind would blow her away.
Despite the sense of loss that engulfed her, looking up at the star-studded firmament above her gave her a modicum of peace. It reminded her that Kaveri aunty had earned her place in the cosmic calendar.
Slowly, she began wrapping up her things. She had a long journey ahead. The League would be waiting to celebrate the life of their friend, Kaveri.
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the movie Nil Battey Sannata
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