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"The next thing you know, I will be going ping-pong between two houses. It’s ironic how we raise two children with ease but taking care of one parent is hard."
“The next thing you know, I will be going ping-pong between two houses. It’s ironic how we raise two children with ease but taking care of one parent is hard.”
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Lalitha Ramanathan is one of the winners for the August 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Madhulika Liddle commented, “The senior citizen, alone and neglected, forgotten by their offspring: a trope that’s turned on its head here, in a heart-warming and hopeful interpretation.”
“Amma, you are all alone. It’s not safe. The daily COVID statistics are giving us anxiety. If you don’t want to fly to the US, consider traveling to Mumbai to stay with Rajesh. It will give us all some peace of mind.”
Ranjini begged her mother, Parvathy Amma.
“It’s OK. I’m comfortable where I am. Don’t talk about COVID. It’s so depressing. That’s all that the news channels are broadcasting, ten times a day.
How is my son-in-law doing? Tell me about my grandchildren. Has Gopu started to walk yet? Is Gita speaking some Tamil at least?”
“Amma, don’t change the subject. What will people say? That we abandoned our elderly, widowed mother? At least will you give it some thought?”
“Stop the drama. I will think about it and message you.”
Parvathy cut the call. Her eyes fell on the framed photo of her late husband, Narayanan. She smiled fondly.
“That was Ranjini. She says I must live with her or with our son, Rajesh. She says I am all alone!”
Parvathy sighed. It wasn’t as if the photo could answer back. She looked at the walls of their house, the home that they had saved for, and built brick by brick. The paint was peeling and would need a new coat soon, no doubt. Perhaps when the pandemic settled down.
Each corner of this house was special. There was that big armchair on the veranda, where her husband would relax, after a hard day at work, fanning himself with a straw fan. She would serve him his favorite black tea while the children did their homework by the light of the hurricane lamp.
She remembered the day they had moved into this house. Her husband, her mother-in-law, Ranjini, an energetic five-year-old, and Rajesh, a toddler whom she had carried into the house on her hip. How excited they had been! How had the years flown by?
Parvathy’s heart filled with pride. She and her husband had raised two children, educated them, and made sure that they lacked for nothing. They had done well. The elder one was in the US, working as a Finance Manager. The younger one was doing his doctorate, at Mumbai. Both were married and settled.
Her husband had been her rock throughout. He had stood six feet tall, a man of action who could barely sit still for five minutes. He had been her tower of strength. She had fallen in love, the day she had set her eyes on him when her parents arranged their match. Thirty years of marriage. He had never raised his voice against her, not even once.
And then, three years ago, one terrible day, he crumbled. Stroke, followed by partial paralysis. The children had rushed home, leaving behind their jobs and families. They had taken turns to spend time with their ailing father, hoping he would recuperate.
She had sent them back, saying that she could manage. After all, they had their lives too. Thankfully her husband had been prudent, and they did not lack financial security. Not that it mattered, because her children transferred money every month, despite her feeling embarrassed. She felt proud that they wanted to take care of her. Not that she would accept their offer.
Parvathy was good at taking care of people. That’s what she did. All her life, she had taken care of others-first of her ailing mother-in-law, the one that taunted her and made life difficult by accusing her of enchanting her only son. Then she took care of her children. And finally, when her husband’s stroke rendered him an invalid, she took care of him like a child.
The stroke took a toll on all of them. His body became thin and frail. Her once raven-black tresses that she was so proud of turned white overnight. The house no longer sparkled as she had other priorities. And finally, the garden. When she turned all her strength towards the care of her husband, the plants wilted away, and the once lush garden became barren.
When her husband died six months ago, of a second stroke, she had felt deep pain, an emptiness, and then relief. She could not bear to see him like this. At least he was free. But where did that leave her? Did someone have to take care of her now?
Before he died, his speech was slurred but his words came out clear.
“Paru. Whatever happens, do not leave this roof. This is your house, your home. Our children are good. They will take care of you, but you will be at their mercy. Be independent till your last day.”
“‘Perhaps there is an advantage in being alone,” she remarked. “One is spared the worry. I need worry only about myself.” She shook her head. “And I have learnt not to worry overly about myself. What is the worst that can happen, after all?’’ She looked up.
She addressed her husband’s photo again.
“If I go to the US and live with Ranjini, they will expect me to take care of their children. I love my grandchildren to bits, but this is the age to mollycoddle them, not to be a caregiver. Both she and my son-in-law work long hours. She barely knows the names of the neighbors. And what about life in the US? A country that I barely understand, cooped up in a small apartment with no friends, and the nearest temple a car ride away.
If I go to Rajesh’s house in Mumbai, it’s pretty much the same story. Only it gets worse here because I have my beliefs and traditions and my daughter-in-law may or may not appreciate my interference. She is nice, but then again, we have always maintained a respectful distance.
The next thing you know, I will be going ping-pong between two houses. It’s ironic how we raise two children with ease but taking care of one parent is hard.”
She reflected on the months following her husband’s death. The house was filled with calm and quiet. Life had been peaceful. She had fallen into a routine. Every morning she woke up at 5:00 AM listening to MS’s Suprabhatam. She would cook and eat what she liked. No special diets to follow anymore. She would clean the house, listen to music and sing along.
She would lean across the wall, sip her tea and chat with her neighbors. Neighbors whose names and lives she knew everything about, whom she could count upon, who valued her opinions. She would spend the rest of the evening gardening and hoping her jasmine garden would bloom again. In its heyday, she remembered plucking jasmines and weaving them together into gajras that her daughter would adorn on her hair and garlands for the Gods in her prayer room.
It was amazing how tightly knit the community in her hometown was. If she needed medicines or help, one phone call and members of the resident’s association would materialize. Perhaps that was the advantage in staying in a small town over a big city-you could never be alone. Even with the COVID situation, people dropped by, leaving masks and supplies and checking on the elderly.
But most of all, this was the house where she had known her husband’s love. The house, whose every nook and cranny spoke of his memories. She thought to herself. How can I be alone when I feel his presence continually?
She made up her mind and shot a text to her children on the family WhatsApp group.
Children, I appreciate your concern. I am safe here. You go on with your lives. I have cared for many people in my lifetime, but I neglected myself and a lifetime sped by. I now want to take care of myself, to spend time doing the things I have always wanted- whether it is listening to music, gardening, or learning the Bhagavad Gita. I know you will be there for me when I need you. I will definitely plan for visits once the pandemic is over. But for now, I’m happy where I am.
Decision made, she got to work on the garden, humming a tune and watering her potted plants. She noticed something that she had not noticed before. For the first time, a tiny bud had emerged on the Jasmine plant. After so long. This was a new beginning.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Madhulika Liddle, a novelist and award-winning short story writer. She is best-known as the author of the Muzaffar Jang series, about a 17th century Mughal detective, though she also writes other novels and short stories in different genres and across themes ranging from black humour to social awareness, crime to romance.
Madhulika’s next book, due for release in September 2021 is The Garden of Heaven, the first novel of the four-book The Delhi Quartet, which covers the story of a group of interconnected families against a backdrop of 800 years of Delhi’s history, beginning with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and ending with Partition. Madhulika lives in Noida, India, and blogs—mainly about classic cinema, food and travel—find her here.
The cue is from her upcoming book The Garden of Heaven.
“‘Perhaps there is an advantage in being alone,’ she remarked. ‘One is spared the worry. I need worry only about myself.’ She shook her head. ‘And I have learnt not to worry overly about myself. What is the worst that can happen, after all?’ She looked up.”
Image source: a still from short film Everything is Fine
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Lalitha is a blogger and a dreamer. Her career is in finance, but writing is her way to unwind! Her little one is the center of her Universe. read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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