“Mashima, how are you feeling today?” greeted Sharmishtha.
Mallika, dressed in a crisp white saree with a blue border and sparkling pearl earrings, greeted Sharmistha with a toothless smile, the wrinkles sitting beautifully on her old face. She was busy searching for something on her table.
“Oh dear, I am not able to find my dentures. Thank God you came!” Mallika said, staring at the mess on her table which was filled with boxes of medicines.
Sharmistha smiled. “Here it is! You had kept it on this shelf.”
Mallika fixed her dentures and sat on her bed. She waved her hand and then patted on the semi-hard mattress. Sharmistha picked up the medicine-box and handed over the morning pills to Mallika. “Mashima, I am very happy today! The doctor said that Saakshi, my sister, is doing better. Now we can take her out for short walks.”
Mallika took the tablets and swallowed all of them at once effortlessly. “You have dedicated your life to Saakshi. My child, both you and Saakshi have gone through a lot.”
Sharmistha had been working at that old-age home for the last ten years. When she joined, it was just a job that paid the bills. Fending for herself and her sister Saakshi, she changed several jobs, but Sri Nandan Vridhdha Ashram had soon become an extended family for her. Caring for the elders and for Saakshi back at home made her feel complete as a woman. She always wished to be a good mother and to have a child of her own. Eventually, life gave her the opportunity to mother many, even if she could not birth them. Her calm demeanour would soothe the ailing and impatient seniors. Sharmistha too had bouts of anxiety and anger, but she had learnt to gulp all of it down as her hair greyed.
Mallika was a resident of Sri Nandan Vridhdha Ashram. It had been five years since her children dumped her there and settled abroad. The moment she met Sharmistha, she held Sharmistha’s rough hands, and said, “My dear! You are my daughter from today.”
Mallika was always special to Sharmistha. She was the first one who held her like her own after many years of loneliness. In a long time Sharmistha had not come across someone who had cared for her this way. She could see reflections of her own ‘dida’ (maternal grandmother) in Mallika.
Mallika got along well with all the fellow elders - mostly younger than herself. Everyone was so pleased to have her around. She mothered her friend Radha and Radha’s husband like her own blood.
“Mashima, today Saakshi is insisting that I take her to the art exhibition at the nearby gallery on her wheelchair. Many artists from different parts of the world are participating in the exhibition. She heard about it on the radio yesterday. This silly girl I tell you! After twenty-seven years, she will hopefully be able to walk again, and she wants to go to a gallery? But all these years that I have been nursing her, the only thing I wanted was to see her happy.”
Mallika patted her back, paused, and slowly grabbed her walker. Like every morning, it was time for her to meet the elderly frail couple next door; her friend Radha and her husband. They reached Radha’s room and Mallika sat by the bedside.
Radha had a blank look on her face, as if she has lost the battle of life. She would not speak much but a feeble smile would greet them often.
Those lifeless eyes of Radha pierced Sharmistha’s memories and tiny droplets of tears rolled down her eyes. She went back to that frightful day which changed her and Saakshi’s life forever. It was the day when Saakshi almost was on the verge of losing her battle of life. Time rolled back to that exact moment in front of her eyes. Every small detail became so vivid.
Sharmistha, the young twenty-three-year-old girl, walked vigorously, dressed in a flowing yellow salwar kameez. The pace fastened with every heartbeat; she slowed down to grasp some breaths in between and finally reached the hospital where her sister lay still. She was breathless and could only whisper, “Saakshi.” She gazed at her comatose sister with fresh blood oozing from her head, drenching her pink salwar kameez after another episode of domestic violence. This time it was far more serious than she could ever imagine. Sharmistha came a step closer to see if her sister was still struggling to live. The confusion, while you figure out if your loved one is dead or alive, is painful. She stretched her hands to touch Saakshi’s lifeless face. The doctors took her in swiftly for an urgent surgery.
Saakshi married the love of her life when she was only twenty, against her parents’ wishes. Her husband, Deepak, used to work in an IT firm, and Saakshi was in her second year of Fine Arts. They instantly clicked and took the decision within a few months. Since then, Saakshi’s parents had disowned her. She dropped out of her college to please her husband and escape his beatings. Sharmistha would visit her after her marriage and notice bruises very often. When asked she would blame the slippery marble floor. Her unstable marriage and her husband’s unstable mental health was a well-kept secret till the day she almost lost her life. What was keeping her silent? Was it fear, love or shame? Who knows? When the police went in search of Deepak, he had a full blown manic episode publicly. He was transferred to the asylum to never be seen again.
After a wait of eight hours, the doctor said that Saakshi was in deep coma. The busy room came to a standstill. Sharmistha’s tears froze.
Her sister, Saakshi, is a fighter – she told herself. For the next twenty-five years, she nursed Saakshi, hoping that one day she will again open her eyes, reply to all her questions and walk with her again. A year ago, she opened her eyes and after months of physiotherapy, today was the day when finally she would walk outside her house.
“Come, my child! Radha needs a nap probably! Let us sit there,” Mallika said pointing at the bench facing the small garden full of blooming marigolds.
Sharmistha gathered herself and helped Mallika to the garden.
“I was like these marigolds when I was your age, bright, but always looking for appreciation. I worried how I would look with wrinkles!” and she laughed her heart out, remembering her younger self. “That did not stop anything. I was criticised, I aged, I wrinkled, and was left alone. You asked me one day why do I visit Radha, and why do I take care of the plants? I take care of my family here. I don’t wait for my children anymore. I see this world as my family now.”
It wasn’t a windy day, but the dry leaves could be heard rustling. The chimes on the porch made a soothing sound. The radio was playing in the distance, and Mallika started humming the tune of ‘moh moh ke dhaage…’. She knew the lyrics, word by word. The threads of love are entangled in your fingers, I cannot find a way to untie the knot of attachment of these worldly relations. My life is like a star passing through the clouds. In the fast flow of life let us stop for a while. My heart was never as carefree as now, like a letter that has found a new address. I am walking in the empty roads with closed eyes, ending up in a faraway place, aimlessly.
“Will you take me to the exhibition with Saakshi? I want to meet the garden you have nourished for twenty-seven years!”
Sharmistha hugged Mallika and added, “You are coming with us.”
It was a celebration. Saakshi was dressed in her pink and white saree, neatly done. Her short hair was tied in a tiny pony as she looked at herself in the mirror hanging from the wall, seated in a wheelchair.
“Beautiful!” Sharmistha added a small bindi on Saakshi’s forehead. Sharmistha was shining in her yellow and black saree, her braid flowing down till her waist.
With a big smile, Saakshi said in her slurred speech, “I love you sharmi.” The bright eyes were filled with excitement and happiness as they got ready to step out of the house, where she was captivated since so long.
Sharmistha hugged her and helped her with the wheelchair crossing her room, then the living room, and finally the porch from where the vast expanse of the evening sky was clearly visible. The colours of the sunset looked a little different on Saakshi’s face. Saakshi stared at the sky, like a child sees the first mangoes of the season. She was always a keen observer. As they crossed the porch, Saakshi’s body language changed. She held Sharmistha’s rough palms as tightly as she could. From excitement, to happiness; from happiness to amazement, and amazement to discomfort and fear, Sharmistha noticed every bit of Saakshi’s reactions quietly.
“So, tell me what do you want to have for dinner today? It is our special day right!” Sharmistha said as they sat on the back seat of the car they had specially booked for the occasion.
And the car moved. They went to the old age home, as the first stop for picking up Mallika Mashima. An attendant helped her with the wheelchair.
“I am going to sit in the front.” As Mallika sat next to the driver, she said, “I always used to sit in the front seat with my husband. But after he passed, my son never let me sit here. It was always his dog sitting in the front seat. Eventually he dumped the dog also somewhere I could not trace.”
As the driver started the ignition, she added, “Wait my child! I have brought sweets for all. Let’s eat and then leave. It’s auspicious, you know!”
The driver smiled and took one sweet. She passed on the sweets to Sharmistha and Saakshi. “Have, my child!”
The three women, two of them wheelchair bound, reached the crowded gallery, bustling with happy, excited, and thoughtful faces. Their driver proposed to help them out with the movement as a warm gesture. They were greeted by a warm smile and Namaste at the entrance.
They slowly moved across the white floored gallery. Each painting and sculpture painted a different shade on their face. Their movement from one art piece to another was consistent till they reached that one painting where they stood speechless. Saakshi lifted herself to stand, with the help of Sharmistha, leaving the wheelchair and read the name of the painting written above it. It was named ‘Tantidhatri’. The awe in their gaze, attracted the artist, Samuel. Samuel wore a simple T-shirt with a pair of jeans. He had deep eyes looking through his bushy eyebrows. His chiselled chin was covered with an unkempt stubble. His eyes mirrored his soul. So many emotions flowed through him, but the only constant thing was his smile.
“Good evening, ladies! This is my creation. My name is Samuel. Do you like my work?”
Saakshi pointed her index finger and said something. Her words were jumbled. Only Sharmistha understood, and explained, “She sees herself there, she says”
The painting had a hazy face of a woman on the pitch dark canvas with glittering eyes and a deformed cheek, which looked exactly like skin looks after healing from burns. The blackness of the canvas was accentuated with the splash of red and blue. The spotlight touched the glittering eyes of the woman.
“Thanks a lot. That is amazing that you see yourself here. This is my daughter, Rianna’s favourite painting too. She was overwhelmed when she saw this,” said Samuel.
“How old is your daughter Samuel?” Mallika asked.
“Rianna will turn twelve this November. You know she is obsessed with eyes of the lady in this painting. She says, it’s her mom’s eyes.”
Someone called out Samuel’s name and he added, “Ladies, please make yourself comfortable, I will just be back.”
“I was watching the news the other day when they were taking his interview. You know Mashima, Samuel takes care of his autistic daughter at home as a single parent after his wife passed away in a brutal road accident. He was asked the reason for the darkness in his paintings. He said darkness is the truth of life, that he didn’t see a reason to ignore it. He was right. It becomes easier to deal with darkness by accepting it, loving it, and facing it head-on.” Sharmistha pondered.
Mallika and Saakshi with teary eyes and a gentle smile looked at Sharmistha. They held each other as if they could see a mirror which reflected their lives.
Author: Haimanti Bagchi
Haimanti Bagchi is a communication trainer and a business storyteller. She is a free spirit, caught in the world full of complexities, dealing with the daily toil to keep calm while dealing with issues internally and externally, she keeps on travelling to let go her free spirit, and works for animal rights to keep her aligned with Mother Nature. She rants, writes and paints to put herself out there. She sees objects and situations through her translucent perception of reality.