he sun rises against an overcast sky. Deep inside the Jawahar Nagar road here in Trivandrum, a tea shack near a bus-stand slowly gets crowded. What began as muffled mumbling has now grown into raucous noise. In one corner, on a creaky wooden stool sits an old woman — in mundu and neriyathu — sipping tea and silently watching the world as it goes by.
Her hoary eyes move from face to face; her ears eagerly listen to the lilt of the talk. At times she smiles with people who laugh at some joke. Not that she gets the punch-line, but she gets happy seeing others happy.
The smile on her wrinkled face radiates with a grace — a grace you see only if you have the eyes to pick it. Sadly, many don’t see her at all. With such heavy wrinkles, sagging skin, tousled and wavy white hair, she reminds them of a future shorn off its eyelids and staring at them. Throw in the extreme conditions of vitiligo — with her face and body covered with white patches leaving only a few dark brown circles in her face — the woman’s picture is complete.
I saw a few look away while they sip their tea.
But Lalitha, 75, will not go anywhere. She smiles affectionately at people who frequent the tea shack, rooted to that one spot until sundown. Only when shadows lengthen and darkness envelops the road, does she rise to her feet and walk unhurriedly to the house where she is allowed to spend the long, dragging nights.
“Orakkamonnum kittathilla,” she says, smiling.
How can she sleep when such poignant memories gnaw at her heart? As the only daughter of Madhavan Nair and Bhagavathy Amma, Lalitha had a happy childhood. Five brothers took care of her. “I don’t remember how we celebrated our Onam, but… yes, there were two or three special dishes during those days. But… I don’t remember much.”
Lalitha married Bhaskaran Nair when she was 17.
The 24-year-old husband, who worked in the Text Book office, was hardworking and caring. He laboured to rebuild the only house they had. But when they had seven children, (four boys and three girls) the couple found the going getting tough. “Many days we went to sleep without food. I couldn’t feed my children those days,” she says, sobbing.
An uneasy silence falls between us, and the cloudy sky could only augment the mood.
Lalitha wipes off the shining beads that roll down her craggy cheeks with the soft hem of her neriyathu. “I had to do something to help my husband.” But there was Bhaskaran Nair with his apprehensions.
“No, I will not bring shame to our family. I promise you,” Lalitha had assured her husband. Lalitha had decided to work as a maid in two houses to get things going.
But her wages were not money. She told them: “I don’t want any pay. But please get my eldest sons some jobs.” By that time, the eldest of her children, who were twins, had turned 20. She was happy like a lark when one of them got a job in a bank and the other in the Life Insurance Corporation.
Marriage bells rang. In came two daughters-in-law. Things should improve, Lalitha and her husband wished.
But they didn’t.
The new daughters-in-law could stand anything, but a mother-in-law who went to other houses for work. The sons talked, pleaded, threatened and at the end sighed. Lalitha smiled. How could she break what she had promised to the people who had found her sons these jobs? She good-naturedly heard their requests but said she had a promise to keep.
Lalitha’s large family soon began to shrink alarmingly, and fall apart. “It is always good that children once they get married should go independent,” she defended her children who were moving away. Lalitha was by that time toiling hard to marry off her daughters.
When the time came to share family property, Bhaskaran Nair had become considerably weak, heading steadily towards his last slumber. Just before he died at 69, he had only one advice for his wife: “Don’t squander the money you get as your share. In life you are only as important as the money you have.”
But after his death, Lalitha had to weigh all options. She was not ready to depend upon her children in her old age. Lalitha’s youngest son came with a proposal: why not buy a car and run it as taxi? She thought it long, hard and deep.
Lalitha was briefed in detail about the prospects of becoming a taxi car owner. She nodded her head, turning down the voice of her husband thinly echoing inside. She withdrew the money from her bank — the one mistake she still rues. The vehicle was bought, but the owner could hardly see it outside the workshop. “At last he told me it was sold,” she says. By the time, Lalitha’s other children were incensed at their mother for giving all her share to the youngest son for this gamble, without discussing with them.
She was left alone without a shelter. “My daughters… now when they see me somewhere, they turn away from me.” Tears well up in her eyes. More tragedies were awaiting the old woman. Her youngest daughter committed suicide at her husband’s house. Lalitha was devastated. The tragedy triggered off a set of physiological changes in Lalitha — she found her skin changing tone in patches; an extreme case of vitiligo.
She rushed to a doctor. Lalitha had only one fear — whether her condition would affect other people. By that time she was the milkmaid for many households in Jawahar Nagar. “I wanted to know whether the milk I bring would harm the children who drink it,” she says, dabbing her wet cheeks with her already soaked neriyathu. The doctor smiled, and put his arms around the old woman. Lalitha was relieved, but in that relief she still doesn’t know why she broke down into tears. She imagined herself stranded in a street, surrounded by strange faces sympathising at her.
Come to Jawahar Nagar. You will see the haggard, frail figure moving towards houses with packets of milk, like an elf, in misty mornings.
At eight in the morning Lalitha reaches the tea shack without fail and spends the rest of the day watching, listening and smiling. Not that she has nowhere to go. Occasionally she packs a few sweets and goes to her sons’ houses. Her old spindly fingers still itch to fondle her prattling grandchildren; and she desperately wants to regale them with tales only a grandmother can tell. “But my kunjungal (grandchildren)… they don’t come running to me,” says Lalitha, with a smile soaked in tears.
Lalitha doesn’t spend much time with any of her sons. “When I hear the husband and wife quarrelling inside, I understand,” she says. Lalitha gets up and walks towards the next son’s home. By evening, the old woman would reach where she had started, the room she was allowed to sleep by the kind people who are not her children.
She still calls her children “ente kunjungal”, even though they have considerably grown up leaving her small nest. Lalitha doesn’t like anyone thinking ill of them. “Last month, when I fainted, my eldest son came and took me to the hospital.” She bubbles like a child who believes to own the moon, but her face soon crumbles. “But, to stay at there houses… no… I don’t want them to quarrel because of me.”
Lalitha gets a family pension of Rs. 2,000. She earns a monthly income of Rs. 50 each from the four houses where she brings milk. “Isn’t that enough to sustain an old woman like me?” she asks. A cup of tea will do for Lalitha in the morning. Noon, she throws in a couple of pappadams to the tea and calls it lunch. When darkness falls she washes down a handful of mixture with yet another cup of tea. That goes for supper. “I’ll never eat from a house anymore,” she says.
When Onam comes and all her kunjungal rejoice in different parts of the city, dipping their hands into yummy adapradhaman and plantain fruits, this amma joins them from here, soaking another pappadam in hot tea — Lalitha’s Onasadya. “I am not sad,” she smiles. Her toothless gums glisten in the gloomy light of the day.
“I only have to close my eyes to go back to my lost home, where I can see myself feeding my children with whatever I had.”
You can’t impoverish a woman who thinks herself rich and content.