She's lying down on the bed in the room down the corridor, and I can smell her even as I walk towards her room.
It's a smell I've come to associate with old age: a putrid mix of medicines and urine, of foul breath and incense sticks. It invades my nostrils and I'm startled for a bit, resisting it's strength and the need-to-escape that it brings, all in the same moment.
The floor tiles are cool beneath my bare feet, and my black toe-nails seem ominous. Her room's less than 10ft away, but I'm already reliving words I've heard dozens of times before. If I could run away now, I would, but there are several pairs of eyes following me, and they anchor me down.
She coughs as she sees me enter, a frown creasing her proud and wide forehead, then a momentary lapse of a smile, as she sees the grandson-in-law behind me. She shifts a bit in the bed, adjusts the bedcover over her, clasps her hands on her abdomen: 'how are you', she asks him, pointedly ignoring the girl who has sat down next to her, in four measly inches of urine-stained bedsheets.
'How are you', I ask her, gingerly reaching out to her now-lined but beautifully fair hands. 'Just surviving', she says, 'you finally found time to ask how I was doing?' It's the patent first jibe as always, and I can feel the husband's uneasy eyes on my face, I know he's asking me to keep my armours up. This looks like its going to be a long afternoon, followed by an evening of tears as I will try and salve my wounds. I wait, a sigh of resignation escaping me, for more word-lashing.
None follows. In that word-less few minutes, I'm pained by how grayish her eyes appear: a decaying spirit that shows itself in the spots around her pupils - and how strong this smell of despair is around her. I caress her partly grey hair, without thinking my act through, and she turns to me, startled I think by this act of affection: there is no one who has the courage to come this close, or perhaps there is no one who feels this affection for her, a mothering feeling of wanting to protect. She has always been the indefatigable one: the towering loud-voiced woman who braved straying sons and 'exotic' daughters-in-law, who raised her fours son and two daughters on nothing more than pittance and raw nerve. She was the protector, the hunter, the procurer, the final word, the chieftain. She knows she no longer is, and she will never forgive time for that.
Her chin shakes with the tears her ego won't let her shed, there are a few stray grey hair there and I'm suddenly in need to hug her, with the abandon that is characteristic to my love: reason has no place in it, neither does memory no matter how painful. 'What's wrong', I ask her. 'Why won't you get up from the bed?'
There's the back that hurts, a right leg that won't listen, a swollen ankle. 'Remember last year', I prod her. 'It was the same thing, you just need to start walking, you need to get up and get about', I say. She pushes my hands away and turns on her side: 'No one tells me what to do', she says. 'You don't know what I'm going through'.
I joke a bit, telling her about Nino's crazy antics, some real, some made to seem more funny. I know she's listening, I can see her smile. 'Is he eating properly', she asks me. 'Yes, Ba', I say. 'He's eating just fine'.
My aunt comes in and we discuss what the doctors have had to say, and she tells me, in a voice that I know is meant to carry its message to more ears than mine, how difficult Ba's been, how she screams viciously everytime they try and take her to the loo. 'She throws all her weight on me and I can barely walk with her nails digging into my shoulders', my aunt says, 'I'm too scared to be with her alone'.
Fear. I can smell it in Ba's breath. In my perspiration. In my aunt's constantly flitting eyes. It's a feeling that's at home with my grandmother. Her tales of oppression are legendary: there is not a single person in my family who has not been afraid of her, who has not been subjected to her rage, at some point in their lives. Rebellions were squashed with a force so brute that a few damaged specimens in the family are still trying to piece their lives together.
There is talk of how her sons have no time for her, the daughters-in-law are good and serve her well, but hell, they're someone else's blood at the end of the day. The stench of bitterness is so strong, remorse has no place here, nor does nostalgia. Does she ever wonder if they will cry after she has departed? It's a thought that has no place in this time and circumstance, and yet, I can't help but marvel at her. There are reasons for this version of her: I know the hows and whys that my father patiently explained to me once, his words perhaps echoing those that a little boy and then a young man must have said, over and over again to himself, as he searched for a little love and a mother's soothing touch.
I can't help the words of advice that occur to me: I'm driven to frustration by a situation that I know a few answers to. 'Wriggle your toes', I tell her. 'Try and sit up and move the right leg a bit.' 'She only needs to keep herself occupied', I tell my aunt. She gives me the knowing 'empty mind is devil's workshop' look coupled with helplessness.
I know Ba hates to read: I think she went to school only for a bit, and the written word has always irked her. Perhaps it was among the few things she was unable to conquer with the brute force of her tongue or the bitterness of her heart. I see the marble devghar right next to her bed, lined with fresh dust, no fresh water or fruit in front of the Gods, as is her customary offering.
The answer to the need for religion is something only old age offers. At that time, as you grapple with a body that is giving up and a mind that is no longer in control of its place of residence, religion becomes less of a ritual and a name, and more of a spirit-building and will-strengthening exercise. The old turn to chanting and praying sometimes out of fear of the outcome of death, but there are also some who truly discover a meaning and sub-text to life through it.
'Why don't you chant His name', I tell her, 'count the rosary beads a hundred times over'. Just another routine to take her mind off her pain, both real and spiritual, I think to myself.
She turns around with a vengeance that scares me. 'I will never take His name,' she says, in a half-scream. 'I walked 400 miles barefoot for him. Fasted half my life. Bought Him new clothes and beautiful jewellery even when I din't have enough to spend on me,' she seethes. 'And look at me now. He doesn't even look at me, doesn't even ease my suffering. I walked 400 miles and I can't walk a step now.'
'All my life I prayed to Him, I sang His songs, made Him the food He likes. For what? For this pain? For this humiliation?'
Ba makes a brushing-away movement with her arms, looking at the devghar. 'Take Him away,' she tells me, as her tears finally begin to flow. 'I can never forgive Him. I don't want Him now.'
3 hours ago