Today was my father’s 58th birthday. It was a different sort of celebration compared to the usual fancy dinners with cake. He had decided that he would sponsor a dinner for 50 women at an old age-home called Ashraya in Bangalore and he wanted us to go with him and personally help serve the food onto their plates. Pretty heart-warming stuff right? He did however have a hidden agenda as well. He wanted to take his mother, who is one of the fussiest people you will ever meet and constantly complaining about being neglected, to show her the plight of other women her age so she could perhaps learn to be grateful.
The Ashraya Home was initiated by a lady called Rani who was keen on working to help aged women. I was under the impression that the women here were abandoned and rescued, but it turned out that it was a place where children or other caretakers came and left them and paid a monthly nominal fee as contribution. There are two floors with 22 to 25 women on each. The area is crammed with metal cots on which they sleep. These cots are the centre of their lives. The corners are littered with their medicines, pictures of their children or grand-children, their plate, a water bottle, towels and shawls. Underneath they each have metal trunk in which they store their clothes and other trinkets collected over years.
As I entered I could feel the stares on me. Blank, indifferent, questioning. I smiled and one of them returned it so I went and sat beside her. She took my hand in hers and started talking in Kannada. It took me five minutes to get her name – Rukmini amma. Her hands were so thin and leathery, and her face wrinkled like an old apple but somewhere there was a smile. She then pointed to another woman sitting on a bed nearby and said, “Tamil.”since she had understood that I was Tamilian.
Her name was- Meenakshi amma. She had been at Ashraya for six months. Her smile was a different one. A bright twinkley one that radiated when she had company to talk to. She told me all about her grand-children, which ones were married and which ones were struggling with their careers, which ones she was proud of. Then she spoke of her children- her two sons and daughter. “They were all busy working and it was getting very difficult for them to take care of me so they sent me here. I actually like it a lot here, the caretakers are really good to me. My family visits me all the time and they get me things.” Through her glistening eyes I could see her lie shining through.
As we had dinner of chapathi, cabbage porial and radish sambhar, Rukmini amma shared the chutney powder her daughter-in-law had made for her with me. I watched her eat slowly from her plate which she laid down a small plastic table-mat on her bed. When she was done she cleaned it meticulously and dusted her bed. Meenakshi amma was chattering on about the other women at the home. She told me all sorts of stories. About the women who were left and never visited, those who didn’t get along with their daughter-in-laws, those who were slowly having their memories torn apart. About how the biggest problem they faced was having only two bathrooms and having to wait for an hour sometimes as their fellow mates struggled. About the important people in their lives now- Shweta and Chellamma who took care of them and shoved medicine down their throats and knew what they each needed and feared. For the fifty women here, this was their world.
In every thing there is a yin and yang. At one end there is the blackness of being deposited at the hands of strangers to take care of you as you have now become a burden to your children. Then the pure white luminous kindness you receive from the person sleeping on the bed next to you, a passenger on the same train as you – who helps you to the toilet, brings you your food when you’re having a sick day and you can’t move, listens to you and holds your hand. This is the purest, most unadulterated form of kindness, with no expectation, no ulterior motives; stemming from hearts that know and understand each other’s pain,
Years ago I had been to a home for abandoned women called ‘Banyan’. Most of them had gone half-mad from being left on streets or on trains from different states. They never had any visitors or any connections with the outside world. Their faces were filled with a resigned acceptance. Now I wonder. What is worse- the look I remember on those faces, or the looks I see on the women at Ashraya, who are filled with the hope that one day their children will take them back? I really wonder..