‘Ma, I’m busy. I’ll call you back.’
Okay, she began to say, when she realized that he had already hung up.
Seema sighed. Navin never had time for her anymore. When had he ever had time for her anyway? She couldn’t recall the last time he’d spoken to her at leisure. It had been this way ever since he had moved to his own apartment at the other end of town.
What had he told her when he had bought the place? That it was a mere investment; he’d no intention of staying there at all. He practically cleaned out their life savings and the gratuity that Rishab had received during his golden handshake, a few years ago. But then, he’d been transferred to Jalahalli by his company, it was a promotion, no less. He couldn’t have refused such an offer. And then, it only made sense that he would move to the apartment which was only a stone’s throw away from his office.
Seema picked up her glasses and wiped them carefully in the pallu of her soft cotton sari. Her mind flew to his childhood years when Navin couldn’t go a day without his beloved mother.
Rishab coughed raucously from his perch on the sofa. His cough was getting worse. He’d refused the antibiotics that the young doctor had prescribed for him. Rishab held a deep mistrust for doctors, especially the young things that inhabited the nursing homes these days.
‘What do they know about our ailments?’ Rishab would grumble. He’d lost almost 11 kilos in the last three months but refused to follow the advice of any the doctors they visited. He’d never got over the demise of their longtime friend and family physician, Dr. Batra, who’d passed away from a sudden heart attack a year ago.
Seema knew that Rishab would never admit the real reason for his endless ailments. She knew that his ego would never accept the fact that their only son had abandoned them to their own devices and moved on to greener pastures that didn’t include caring for aged parents, although their son had had no qualms about soliciting their assistance to achieve it.
A twinge of guilt made its presence felt in Seema’s heart. Rishab had refused to part with his gratuity fund, especially since Navin had already lost all the money they had given him after selling their only house. It was Seema who’d insisted that they had to support their offspring in all his endeavors, however far-fetched or foolish they may be.
Thirty-three years had passed since Seema had entered Rishab’s sprawling bungalow as a shy bride from a small town of Arasikere taluk in rural Karnataka. It took her almost two years to adjust to the hustle and bustle of Bangalore. She’d been awed and charmed by the handsome young man, who was a successful architect with inherent ancestral wealth.
How easy, oh, how easy it had been for the girl from a family of limited means, to settle into the affluence of the lifestyle wealth could offer. They would never have dreamt during those days that they would end up with no roof to call their own in only two and half decades from then.
Navin insisted that they sell their bungalow to fund his penchant to study medicine abroad.
‘I’ll earn it back within a year after I graduate, dad,’ he insisted to his father. ‘I’ll buy you a new bungalow, a much nicer one; this house is so old anyway…’
Rishab finally relented to his only son’s compulsion and for the first time in their married lives, Seema and Rishab had begun to live in a much smaller rented home.
Seema was jolted out of her reminiscence by the sharp barking of a dog on the street. This house was so small that they could hear the honking traffic on the busy ring road nearby. They had to keep the windows constantly shut to avoid the dust and pollution that made its way into their living room.
It hadn’t been easy. They’d gotten rid of most of the heavy furniture for stuff that was more compact. The housekeeping staff had to be relieved one by one and Seema understood how much she’d relied on the fleet of maids to keep her home functional.
The second blow was when Navin quit his studies during the final year of medicine.
“Sorry, mom and dad. Very sorry. I can’t do this anymore.’ His curt email to them read. They barely got over the shock when he flew back to India and insisted that he would start his own garment business.
Seema gave up most of her jewelry and then some, to fund her son’s latest fad. Two years was all it took for Navin to end up with losses that took a further toll on their lifestyle.
Navin finally settled into a regular job as a counselor in a pharmaceutical company. It seemed like a fresh ray of hope for the weary couple that their son had finally found his calling and would set them back on the road to the affluence they had previously enjoyed.
What a wasteful exercise it had all been. And now, their son had nonchalantly moved on to his own three bedroom apartment, with no intention of including his parents in his new-found prosperity.
‘Get me some water,’ Rishab’s brusque voice broke into her reverie.
Seema got up slowly, taking care to place her small feet neatly into the hawai chappals before she began to walk. The coldness of the bare floor seeped through the thin soles of the worn-out slippers and stung her feet. Her arthritis had gotten worse over the weekend and she stopped her daily morning walk in the park because she was unable to keep up with her walking partner, Alamelu. Alamelu suggested Seema to visit a bone specialist she knew, but Seema recalled with a sardonic smile, how she’d dilly-dallied after she found out that the man charged only an arm and a leg for his consultations.
She had just poured the water from the jug into Rishab’s steel glass when he was engulfed by a fresh coughing spree that made Seema wonder if his lungs would finally burst under the pressure.
‘Hot…hot water,’ Rishab managed to sputter before he began to cough again. Seema poured the water into a pan and lit the stove under it. It was a full two minutes before she realized that the water had boiled and almost evaporated.
She’d just been standing there lost in her thoughts staring at the pan, which was almost empty now. She became aware of her wet cheeks just then and realized that somewhere along the journey into the past she’d begun to weep softly.
She poured a fresh glass of water into the pan and wiped her tears away. It was then that her unseeing eyes focused on the ends of a brochure that she’d absent-mindedly tucked behind the tin of sugar last week.
She reached for the brochure and frowned in concentration, as she read it thoughtfully.
‘Beautiful surroundings nestled in the heart of nature…hospital a stone’s throw away…doctor on call…safe and secure…like-minded company…’ The keywords jumped out at her.
A host of pleasant images played upon her thoughts. A ray of hope, reluctant but persistent, began to wheedle itself into the dark contours of her mind.
‘Seemaaa, how long will you take to get me a glass of water?’ Rishab’s voice roared from the living room.
‘Coming,’ she called. She poured the water meticulously into his cup and placed it on a tray. Holding the folded brochure under the tray, she balanced it with care and made her way slowly across the tiny kitchen.
Rishab sipped the water noisily and smacked his lips in appreciation. How easy it is to make him happy, Seema thought, as she gazed at her husband’s wrinkled face with affection.
She waited until he had emptied the water, retrieved the cup from his hands and placed it on the stained glass tea table with a little clunk. She then sat down on the sofa next to him, handed him his reading glasses and placed the brochure in his hands.
‘What’s this?’ He put on the glasses and peered at the cheap paper, trying to decipher the words on it.
Seema said nothing, but watched him intently.
A host of emotions played across Rishab’s face: Enquiry, confusion, comprehension, anger, and then slow resignation.
‘Is this what we have been reduced to now?’ He asked after a very long time. The pain in his eyes tore at her heartstrings.
‘It is the best thing for us to do now, Rishab. At least we can be independent and happy…besides we will be very comfortable and well taken care of…’ Her voice began to break before she could complete the sentence.
Three weeks later, an aged couple got out of an OLA cab and made their way haltingly on the dirt path, towards the slightly dilapidated building, with a faded board that read ‘Sai Baba Ashram for the aged’, on the outskirts of Hosur.