I was in seventh grade when I met her for the first time. The doorbell rang, I raced to open the door and there she was, looking back at me with a toothless grin. Not a single tooth to be seen in that wide smile she gave me. She was hungry and was wondering if I could give her any food to eat. The request for food was made in an empty stomach, but the smile that accompanied the request was one of pure joy. The smile reached her eyes.
She was an old woman, probably early to mid seventies, short, very thin, and as I said earlier, toothless. She had an old saree draped around her thin frame. The saree must have been white at some point but had turned gray with wash and use. I had watched Satyajit Ray’s movie ‘Panther Panchali’ recently and there was Indir Thakrun (a tragic character from the movie) right there in front of me. Her story wasn’t unusual. A childless widow with no money, no support, all alone in old age. She didn’t beg on the streets, but got by somehow with the help of her neighbors. She woke up that morning to find there was nothing to eat so she went from house to house to see if someone could give her food.
The connection was instant. She must have touched some chord in my young heart. I ran in to get her some provisions. Our relationship started that day. She didn’t come everyday, maybe once or twice a week. She wiped her forehead with her gray saree and rested her bony legs as she told me stories of her life. What I found wondrous about her was despite being in terrible poverty where she had to depend on neighbors to survive, she had an inner light, an inexplicable joy surrounding her. She laughed while telling her woeful tales and never forgot to thank the lord for letting her witness yet another day. And she had the most beautiful smile that I ever saw. She blessed me – every time we met. Instead of saying goodbye, she said, ‘May you be a queen one day, my girl! May you get a lot of love in your life!’ Being a queen was not on the top of my list those days, so I simply said, ‘Mashi, (aunty) come again!’
I tried to be sneaky while getting rice, dal, vegetables for my adopted aunt, but it was more of a game between my mother and I. She knew how much I was giving, yet she was indulgent and looked on quietly while I hid cups of rice from her. I still remember how the old woman’s eyes lit up in anticipation of a good meal if I could produce an unexpected vegetable or a seasonal fruit once in a while. One time, my mother bought a saree for her during Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis. I remember, she cried.
She came to us regularly for almost three years, and then suddenly, didn’t. I thought about her sometimes, my family asked me where my adopted aunt was but I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t go looking for her. I didn’t have a clear idea where she lived. Also, youth is probably a bit self oriented. I was heady with the feeling of being young, growing up and just life. Priorities changed. I can’t say I forgot her, but she definitely slipped way down the totem pole as I moved on.
The elderly woman in my past embodied the spirit of old India, in its best and its worst. She represented the widows of India, uncared for, cast aside. Yet she remained accepting, joyful, thankful. In those days, she could ring people’s doorbell and ask for help. She wasn’t kept out by the security guards of modern-day gated communities. In those days the neighbors actually took care of her in the way they knew best. I seek for this warmth among the glittery malls and glass and concrete corporate houses in the big metros when I go back. Sometimes I get a whiff of the India I left behind, but often times, I don’t.
I think of her often now. I wonder how her end was. If death was kind to her, or she died alone. I think she came in my life at that particular time for a reason. She came to teach me empathy. She taught my tender, young heart to feel the sorrows of another and to try to help in whatever capacity. I also question who was truly helped in that situation. I gave her some food for sustenance, but what she gave me in return is invaluable. The lesson of kindness.
I later read Mother Teresa’s quote ‘If you can’t feed a hundred, then just feed one’, and I thought of my adopted aunt. As Albert Einstein said ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. My cups of rice were indeed countable, her blessings and lessons to me, were not.