Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Old Couple

Retirement. After having worked for 40 odd years. Ajay Thakur looked forward to this phase. He looked forward to the time he could spend on his garden, crossword puzzle, visit to the nearby temples, puja at home... And help his wife Sarala in the kitchen. Poor woman, she has seen no holiday or taken a break from the kitchen all these years, he thought fondly.

The shifting from Mumbai to Jaipur took some time, but he was glad to be back in his home town. His relatives were in and around. That will keep Sarala occupied as she loved to visit her sisters and niece and the hoards of relatives that she had been kept away from because of his job. And she also wanted to be in a different city from her son. It hurt her that Jeet had moved to a flat of his own after his marriage to Namita. Nothing Ajay could say soothed her.

Their married daughter Prabha too had moved to the US with her family - her husband and two adorable twins.

What was there to hold her in Mumbai? She had jumped at the opportunity to return to the city she loved. Now they could spend their sunset years visiting relatives, enjoying leisure and travelling to nearby pilgrim centres. Maybe even Tirupathi.

"Baba, Namita is due in January," Jeet called one evening, sending the old couple in a frenzy of joy.

Prabha too called with news of her own. "Maa, I have got a promotion in my job!"

What more could the parents want? Just these blessings to keep the smile on their faces.

"Maa, Namita needs bed rest according to the doctor. Some complication. Her parents are in the US visiting their son. Do you think...?"

"Of course!" Sarala said without batting an eyelid. She made arrangements for Ajay and left for Mumbai. Three months later, when Namita's parents arrived for the delivery, she returned to Jaipur, promising to be back whenever her son needed her.

"Maa, since my promotion, I have been commuting two hours one way. It is killing me and the twins are falling sick often... Can you please come?"

It took the couple a few days to get the right papers. But a month later, they left for the US, to be with the daughter and her family. What bliss, the twins, all over them, loving them... doting them.

But when they were at school and after Sarala had finished all the housework, she was bored. Ajay was bored. There was precious little they could do. As winter set in, they felt hemmed in and were glad to return home, Jaipur was cold too, but there was the warmth of the people around.

And then, Namita needed to get back to work, her parents needed to return to the US to their son, and Sarala and Ajay went back to Mumbai. Ajay felt on edge, always, as if on borrowed time, waiting to get back to do all that he wanted to do.

His sister fell sick and Ajay and Sarala returned to take care of her. A widow, Chanda lived alone in Jaipur. Sarala was fond of her sister-in-law and the moment she could, she made her way back. Chanda's son Bharat came home for a few days. He was grateful to his uncle and aunt for taking care of his mother. "I have to get back to Delhi, mamu..." he said one day, hesitantly. "I am worried about leaving ma alone at home..."

"Why should she be alone here? Delhi has better medical facilities. Take her there and get her good treatment," Ajay advised his nephew.

"Right now she seems fine... Once she is better, she wants to return to her house... My wife has not been keeping well...My children have exams. I will take her during the vacation, mama..." he said politely but firmly.

Ajay's temper flared. "She is not a holiday project! She is your mother!" But as the harsh words had no effect beyond making Bharat hang his head in shame, Ajay declared, "She will live with us. She is not going anywhere!"

"How can you take this on your head, baba!" Prabha asked indignantly. "It is Bharat's responsibility, not yours!"

"Baba, this is unnecessary headache for you," sympathised Jeet. "At your age... If something happens to you?"

"She is my sister," he silenced them.

"But that means you can't travel freely!" the children echoed each other with concern.

"Don't worry. Whenever you need, your mother will be there."

Placated, they stopped pestering him about it.

That restricted his travel severely, but a price he was willing to pay as his wife traveled to the US and Mumbai alone as and when the children needed them for the next three years. When Chanda passed away, Prabha, Jeet and Bharat said, "Poor woman. She suffered so much. I am glad god ended her suffering."

Ajay and Sarala shed tears, thinking of the many years Chanda could have lived had she not died of a broken heart. Knowing that age and illness had nothing to do with the desire to live.

Time seemed to fly even as the couple flew around for their children. He was 80 now. His wife, 75. He walked erect, ready to run when his children called, if his relatives needed him. His wife, his shadow sometimes, leading him at other times, complained rarely though her aging bones protested.

Age is only in the mind - it was fashionable to say. As he thanked god for a good health and even better fortitude, he thought of the many times when he was tormented watching the malady his children suffered from - the need to run with the hares and hunt with the wolves, never a moment of peace as they tried to grow higher and higher at work, feeling weighed down by personal responsibilities, glad that their parents could take their place in the family at least for the children. Though happy to be of use to them, he wished they could have mental peace even if that meant being away from them.

He reached the door of the house and saw the neglected front yard. He crumpled the list he had made of pilgrim centres. Till their bodies remained, they would be there for their children. What greater joy could they hope for? 

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