It was on a sultry day in Mangalore some thirty years back my mom announced that our aunt would be visiting us that week and that she would be staying with us for a month’s time. We were very happy and excited about her arrival and did not worry about sacrificing the cozy atmosphere of our bedroom.
My father had planned a religious trip for good ten days and our aunt was to join us, a family of six with four notorious kids.
My aunt was a single lady who served as a nurse in some hospital in northern Karnataka for a very long time. She was the only working lady in the family. She arrived in panache with lots of sweets and gifts for us. We greedily feasted on the delicious pedas even as the elders recalled their old memories discussing when they last met, trying to figure out who had lost or gained weight and things like that.
We led her to our room and nicely stacked her baggage in a corner for which she generously thanked us and declared that we were the most responsible children she had ever met. We were truly elated and inspired to appease her more.
On the day of our travel the aristocratic vehicle of those days ‘the ambassador’ car landed in front of our house in style, the driver honked and reported to us. Each one of us kids dashed out to explore the best place in the car, all of them managed to get their window seats except me as the fourth window seat belonged to the driver. Disheartened that I was but refused to give up so I tried to negotiate with my brothers but in vain as they wouldn’t budge. Soon the journey began with four adults and four kids on board the ‘Ambassador. Being the youngest I was tossed from lap to lap and cramped in the back seat.
Everything was fine initially soon it was getting hot and stuffy. As the temperatures soared the tantrums were also rising. My aunt ‘doddamma’ as we fondly called her was no sweet saint that she appeared to be a couple of days ago. She got irked and easily lost her temper at the slightest noise. She fought childishly with us for the window seat which my parents readily obliged as she was our guest. She would get vexed and elbow us if we leaned or stretched a little on her. She was like a ‘touch me not’ in that little caravan. Yes it was like a caravan as we had carried everything from toys, transistor, blankets, medicine and of course loads of snacks that my mom had made to endure the journey since there were no dhabas or fast food joints lined up unlike today. But one thing that was scarce was the space especially for me.
Aunt was the rigid and finicky type who had no particular definition of right or wrong but constantly chose to contradict everything that we decided upon. She would refuse to eat at hotels where we stopped and announce that she would only eat fruits and snacks that my mom had got. But when we returned she would quickly ask us for a feedback on the quality and hygiene of food and then decide to eat there after we were all done. This annoyingly delayed and marred the trip schedule. We had to forgo seeing many places. This way she had grown healthy and very soon we ran out of our stock of snacks.
One day while I was heading back to the car I had stepped on some dung without my notice as I tried to get into the car my aunt shoved me out relentlessly sparing her seat from getting mucky. I lost my balance and fell down. I was badly bruised and wept bitterly. I could not understand why she had to push me when she could have simply alerted me before getting into the car but knowing her impudent insensitive nature nobody told her anything as she was a shrewd senior guest who could bicker endlessly.
Soon the ugly trip was over we were back home. It was time to see her off and end our vengeful cold war.
My father had a transferable job so we moved like nomads and finally settled down in Bangalore for the sake of our education but my father chose to do the travelling alone. He travelled across India and each time he returned he enthralled us with the customary gifts. I was 12 by now. He was leaving for Delhi mom packed his suitcase and we waved good bye to him. Little did we know that we were bidding good bye to him for the last time. The following night we heard in the news that my father’s train had derailed and that many hundreds of them had died. As luck had run out for us my father was one among the unfortunate many.
Scores of relatives and friends visited us trying to console and comfort us. I thought I saw a familiar face it was our dreaded doddamma weeping inconsolably beside my mom who sat there like a dead rock. Last time I had seen her I was six years old, time had flown really fast things had changed but not my aunt. She was about to retire from her work and hence offered herself to stay with us forever in order to support my mom morally even as I hoped against hope that she doesn’t stay with us. Surprisingly my mom declined it because of financial constraints as there was no earning member in the family at that time. Surely we could not depend on a meager pension amount to feed so many mouths.
A few months later dodamma retired and relocated to Bangalore. She rented a small room quite far from our place. Since she had been a working woman for the past 40years she probably felt suffocated if she didn’t head out at 8 in the morning, she would vehemently get ready and march out as if on an important mission perhaps even without a breakfast as she was lethargic to cook and boredom almost killed her. Age never deterred her robust that she was in mind and body she walked up the distance very swiftly and visited us almost every day. She never took an auto or a bus but instead walked every stretch trying to save every penny for her old age as she did not have any staple income. She spent time with mom all day and sometimes even decided to stay back. This became a habit we saw more of her more often. Of course now and then she did visit other relatives also but she was more inclined towards mom. My mother accommodated her at all times cooked and served her patiently without any petulance in spite of the many rows that they had at other times. My mom often advised her to stay independently but my aunt bewailed that her brothers did not take care of her. She belonged to a generation who believed that women should always be under a man’s custody be it brother, father, husband or son. No amount of counseling helped as she had her own prejudices and priorities.
We were growing teenagers and we did not like the idea of an annoying aunt sitting there like a spy watching our every movement. She would monitor our telephone conversations she would eavesdrop when a friend visited question when we stood a little extra in front of the mirror and reminded us that we returned home 10 minutes late on a particular day. I despised her at most times but strangely sympathized with her when the whole world evaded her with disrespect. I wondered why people eluded and dreaded her visits. Was it her financial instability or her extra inquisitive nagging nature that scared people away from her or perhaps it was her forced dependency on others and her awful mistrust on people? She shuttled between her siblings and relatives as though they were her only saviors. To conceal her fears of being left out alone she often bribed people with little tokens of gifts.
Years passed like this and she moved much closer to our home she had grown old and could no longer run the house and keep it functional. At this time we were grown- ups and hence my mom decided to accommodate her in our house but our sympathy and empathy lasted only a little while as she tore into our spaces and harassed us with bizarre unconnected arguments and criticisms sulking about everything that was provided to her accusing us of not obeying her so on and so forth. She had this bad habit of stealthily occupying the bathroom during prime time for hours together emptying all the hot water in the morning rush hour which made everybody go berserk. After a lot of requests, yells and knocks she would yield. Despite all the mayhem outside she would come out casually walking like Cleopatra with a look that told us ‘you paid for yesterday’s baseless blatant arguments with me’ gesturing us to move aside and not touch her without a bath. She was a staunch follower of religious practices which she conveniently adapted as and when she pleased. I was growing intolerant with each instance then suddenly one day fortunately for me she had to travel and stay out of town for some time to settle some formalities of her property. We were relieved and rejoiced the news.
Life got me really busy, I got married started a family and took to working. Soon my mom left for the US to visit my older brother.
My aunt had now shifted to an old age home run by a temple trust after returning to Bangalore. She frequented our home as the temple was again close to my place. This was one stage of my life where I had completely quit squabbling with her.
On one hot noon I had ventured into some detailed cleaning of our house and was in the middle of some shoddy mess when my aunt knocked at my door looking totally exhausted and weary, I withdrew from all that cleaning to attend to her. This was the first time in all my life I had seen my aunt so jaded and spent. I offered her to sit down and I hurriedly took a quick shower as I was skeptical that she wouldn’t accept lunch from an unkempt hostess knowing the kind of person she was. When I came out I was shocked to see her pick and munch a piece of colorful clay play-doh that my son had scattered. She must have been starving and mistook the clay to be some savory. I was overwhelmed in tears and tried hard to control them. I felt sorry for her I quickly took away the clay box and explained that it was inedible ensuring that she did not feel awkward. I served her lunch after which she instantly dozed off. Suddenly I felt very content. I remembered my mom saying treat young kids and old people alike. Just before she left I gave her a big chocolate and she smiled such a big smile that I had not seen in years. I wondered how little gestures could make a person happy. We only need an assurance that there is somebody out there who cares for us. It is not relevant who you are or how much money you have all that matters is love and care from your own people which my aunt missed throughout her life as nobody cared or took any kind of interest in her.
It was getting hectic at office so I decided to take a break and go on a holiday. We went to Kerala the land of coconut trees and beautiful backwaters. It was really refreshing and rejuvenating to spend time around the lush green beds of tea gardens under the crystal clear blue skies which was a thing of rarity in the city because of our hectic schedules. The holiday had to end as it was time to get back to work. We reached home late in the night and when we woke up we heard from our neighbor that our aunt had expired the previous day and someone from the temple had come to inform us. I felt a terrible unease within me and was gloomed for the whole day as none of us were present during her last minutes. She had died a silent death without any kind of ailing the one aspect that she constantly feared when she was alive as to who would take care of her if she fell sick. A strong lady that she was, she was upright and on her toes until her last days at the age of 80.
I informed my mom who was in the US about the death and there was a dead silence on the other end. Mom was just mumbling how could she go when I am not around? Gibberish…
A few months later mom arrived and we were all back to normal many of my aunts had come to visit my mom. They opined that doddamma’s death was destiny and some remarked that she had nobody to live for. Others quickly added that it was a good thing that she did not ail or become a burden to all. Some of them asked if she left anything in cash or kind with us.
I was upset and appalled at people’s reactions all those people who never came to see her nor entertained her when she went to their homes.
After they were all gone I asked my mom why aunt had chosen to be single. Mom slowly and huskily replied that doddamma in her youth was raped by a fellow doctor at the hospital after which she got pregnant. When she came back home for help people curtailed her movements and in the due course she delivered a baby. The baby was then abandoned at an orphanage in a hush-hush way fearing the society. Strangely enough years later she had gone back to the same hospital and continued her job, I do not know if it was to seek an answer to the gross injustice done to her or to facilitate her sibling’s marriage without any glitch.
I could not believe my ears even as my mother continued to narrate to me briefly in a whispering tone as if it was my aunt’s fault. My mother was totally uneasy discussing it with me as it was nomenclature in the family that we would not even watch a duet song on TV with the family.
‘Doddamma was raped’ these words kept ringing in my ears I felt helpless, angry and upset. I was unable to accept and believe that something as dastardly as this had happened to my own aunt yet she never let a drop of tear she fought it out all alone throwing her untold frustrations in the form of aggressions trying to make her presence felt by nagging and being nosy to seek attention.
She orbited around us with skepticism probably out of fear and concern for us but we had attributed it as interference. Mistrust it was that haunted her day and night. She wouldn’t believe anybody on this earth as society had played a cruel joke on her beliefs. I am amazed and ashamed of that society where her own people who knew all about her grievances had turned a blind eye to her agonies. They had let her down to suffer in loneliness. I felt handcuffed and miserable as knowingly or unknowingly even I was one among that insane society.
An ugly unfortunate incident in her prime youth had ruined her peace traumatizing her all life which only became more acute when people refused to warmly reciprocate to her subdued feelings.
With insecure feelings she craved for an assured protection but most of us discarded and brushed it aside thinking of it as too demanding. I could never relate to her when she lived as I failed to understand her emotions but now I could see clearly all she wanted was an assurance from somebody that yes I am there for you no matter what. I mused what if that abandoned son was here?
More brutal were those people who humiliated her and intentionally ignored her presence than the brutality itself. The constant elusion and ridicule that she was subject to had killed her self- respect and confidence that made her feel destitute. She silently sought for love and appreciation but was met with impudent and vile gestures which must have brought out the arrogant monster in her.
Tears rolled by as I kept walking pondering about this horrific incident I felt weak and suddenly realized that I had walked a really long stretch aimlessly. I decided to sit down and rest for a while. It was the longest tree lined avenue in Bangalore. It was dusk time and I had to head back home but even before I could get up I heard a cop yelling at me as to why the hell I was sitting there and ordered me to vanish immediately from there. I did not understand why but I frantically rushed to fetch an auto. I had only walked up a little as I saw some overly dressed girls with all that glitter on their faces emerging from behind the trees simply standing out at every alternate tree to woo their customers. I had goose bumps all over, my heart raced as I dreaded to be even spotted in that beautiful place which had just turned ugly under the cover of darkness. I had just succumbed to the societal dogma. Women were still susceptible to the many vices of the society. Things were the same then and now.