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The Name of that Woman— Dr. Ila Prasad

Jan 26, 2024 | Fiction | 0 comments

TRANSLATED FROM THE HINDI BY AYUSHEE ARORA

 

 

The film was truly excellent.

“Such a short film, and yet it conveyed such a profound message, and that too in such a beautiful way; as if it was not a film, but poetry,” Shalini exclaimed.

“Now, when you go home, you should also try writing poetry,” Rajesh teased.

The crowd was dispersing.

Suddenly, a woman appeared in front of them, “Where are you people headed?”

“We need to go to the North, Northwest.” Rajesh clarified.

“Then give her a ride. She wasn’t aware the film was so short. She had given the metro the time of 9:30,” Shalini turned and looked. Standing beside her, an elderly lady with a shining black cane was waiting.

Rajesh agreed hesitantly. Not saying anything would be inappropriate, and helping people was often counted among Rajesh’s admirable habits.

“Where are you from? Delhi?” The elderly lady, now walking beside Shalini, asked.

“No, I am from Patna. My husband is from Delhi.”

“So, you must be traveling to and from Delhi quite often.”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Recommend a nice boy for my daughter if you know one, dear. She refuses to get married. Says my brother is in America. I have to be there as well.”

“Yes, and you are also here, in America,” Shalini smiled, thinking to herself that old people were always worried about their kids. This lady also talked in the same vein as soon as she had met them.

She opened the back door of the car.

The elderly lady got in.

Rajesh was waiting. As soon as they got in, he started the car. 

“That movie was wonderful. The protagonist reminded me of myself. I too, would fight with anyone for my children. My children are very dear to me. I used to work in Delhi. I used to teach in a school there. The retirement age is 58 there.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Shalini sitting beside him, acquiesced. 

“I presume you have a cell phone. Should I inform the metro to cancel my ride? Oh, I didn’t ask your name.”

“I am Shalini, and this is Rajesh,” Shalini extended her cell phone behind.

“Nice name. Your husband is also very handsome. Your name is beautiful too.”

Shalini looked at Rajesh. She expressed her displeasure with her eyes, that he was beautiful, and she wasn’t. Rajesh squeezed her hand, trying to hide his mirth. In the meantime, the old lady was busy telling the Metro to cancel her ride.  “Yes, my number is eight-one-six to eight-nine. I have gotten a ride. Cancel my ride, please”

Shalini’s cell phone was handed back to her.

This is a facility in America. There is a separate bus service for the elderly and sick or disabled people. The bus needs to be booked in advance. The bus comes to your designated location and then, at the scheduled time you have chosen, it will drop you back home. However, Shalini knew from the experiences of many elderly acquaintances that this was not always the case. Sometimes, this arrangement boded long waits. Ultimately, the decision to give up out of sheer exhaustion was also often adopted by the people dependent on this facility.  In such situations, Rajesh has helped many people. He would often drive people to the hospitals and back, or to places of religious worship, while Shalini waited for his return, stewing within at being confined to an unfamiliar home. When Rajesh did not have an independent business, he didn’t have too much time to engage in community service. At that time, he and Shalini neither went to the temple much nor to the movies. Rajesh would leave home at seven in the morning for five days a week and would come back home at eight in the evening. During those five days, Shalini took care of the household chores. She gave tuitions at home to children, and spent time oscillating between the house and the market. On the weekends, Rajesh just wanted to sleep. Not that there was anything wrong with that. Then there was someone’s birthday, someone else’s party. Time was just passing them by like this.

But now, they had time for each other. 

“How many children do you have?” The question emerged from the rear seat of the car.

“We don’t have children,” Shalini replied.

“How many years have passed since marriage?”

“Three years.”

“It hasn’t been much time. It will happen. In the beginning, everyone wants to enjoy life.”

Shalini did not like it. These old women have a habit of meddling in other people’s matters. She remained silent.

 “You have my blessings. May you be blessed with children,” she had now descended into blessings.

“Thank you.” – What else could one say!

Perhaps Rajesh felt it necessary to reciprocate with some small talk of his own. 

“Does your son live here?” Rajesh asked.

“Yes, yes, I have two sons. Both are here in San Antonio. Have you heard the name Somendra Kapoor?”

“No.”

“Oh, he has a big business. Real estate. Can’t manage it. Spends all his time at work. Says, ‘Ma, I can’t handle so much work. You are also in the real estate business. Don’t you know of him?”

“No,” Rajesh admitted with complete honesty.

“It’s a huge business.”

Shalini did not turn her head and look behind, but there was an evident sense of contentment in the old woman’s voice. The parental pride came so naturally to her. After all, Indian parents live for their children and find vicarious happiness in their children’s prosperity. 

“Oh, I was in India. Took voluntary retirement. Somendra started pleading, ‘Ma, come here and stay with me.'”

“I see.”

Shalini began to recall the movie again. The son came home beaten from school, went to his room, and started crying. The mother saw that the son hadn’t eaten. Went and asked him. He didn’t say a word. She understood by looking at his face and then went out to seek revenge for the injustice done to her son.

Nadira Babbar had acted so beautifully.

What intensity. It felt like she would set the whole world on fire. Like Kali Ma!

The face of Nadira Babbar as the mother from the movie still swam before her eyes.

“Somendra doesn’t get any rest. Always busy. The more you work, the more the business grows. He buys houses in auctions, renovates them, and then sells. He has taken me to such auctions many times. Asked me to bid too. Until finally I put my foot down and said, ‘You go. I don’t want to go.”

Shalini understood. Real estate was something she understood. After coming to America, she also took a course so that she could understand Rajesh’s line of work better and be able to give insights, whenever needed. Rajesh, however, used to claim that Shalini would not do anything useful ever, and would just be butting in and meddling unnecessarily. 

So, her son was a big businessman. Was he married? Did he have kids? Those who were established in this field for many years were truly wealthy. In Texas, the largest state in America, there was still a lot of vacant land, and as the population increased, people connected with various businesses settled here. The number of buildings, big and small, increased all over the state. Even in this city, they were cutting down jungles rapidly, and in their place, concrete jungles were growing. But the difference was that everything was done in a very organized way here. Trees were in front of every house. There were trees along the roads. In other words, even the trees had to grow according to human will. They couldn’t grow wherever they wanted. You were like God here. Even then, how dissatisfied one was within!

“What’s the use of money, son. No matter how much you earn. What’s the benefit? Life has to be enjoyed.”, the old lady said.

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Since you stay at home, you must be free only. Give me a call once in a while”, the old lady urged.

In the meantime, Rajesh had stopped the car at Walmart. Gas had to be filled. He went inside to get a card made.

“No, I’m very busy. I’m taking an online course. Then I take yoga classes. Household chores. There’s no help here. You have to do everything yourself.”

“You teach yoga. You have talent. You are a very good girl.”

Shalini thought she would tease Rajesh when he came back. He wasn’t the only one who looked good. There was quality in her too!

“Relax, relax. I’m not in a hurry. You can stop wherever and whenever you want,” she told Rajesh upon his return.

“No, it’s done. Just had to get gas in the car. Do you have to go to Sugar Land?”

“Yes, I will tell you the way. I keep coming and going. I’ve been here for so many years. Somendra had urged when I came to New America, he said many times, ‘Ma, learn to drive. I’ll buy you a new car. You learn.’ But I couldn’t do it.”

“Yes, it becomes difficult after a certain age.”

“But I used to work. Once I fell in the office. So, there was an investigation. Then it was found that I can’t stand for a long time. Since then, I retired. This is a disease. Can’t stand for a long time constantly.”

Shalini kept quiet. But it seemed like the old woman couldn’t stop herself from speaking.  Again, she started off – “Dear, suggest a boy for my daughter.”

“Yes, sure.” 

“If someone wants a very beautiful girl, then they should marry my daughter. She has a good job in Delhi and earns twenty-two thousand a month. She sings very well and can handle all household chores. The only thing is that she is five feet one inch tall. She has just turned forty-five. She has never liked any boy. “

“Put an advertisement in India Abroad or Bharat Matrimony. Our marriage also happened through an advertisement.”

“Oh, we did that. Many proposals came, but she did not like a single boy from there.”

So what guarantee was there that the girl would like a boy proposed by Shalini? She just said, “Yes, for sure.'”

Shalini was thinking. Perhaps everyone became like this after a certain age. Perhaps even she, when she got old, might speak to everyone in the same way. She might feel so lonely that without even being familiar, she would start telling her story in the first meeting itself! God forbid! Or maybe she was just too self-centred, to be thinking like this. She had become unsocial after coming here. Otherwise, if a daughter remained unmarried for too long, every parent worried! It could have been that the sons were careless about this. Anything was possible. Why was she fretting about this? They would drop the old woman at her house, and then forget all about this interaction. Custom anyway dictated that her son should have come to pick her up.

“Where to take the turn? Right or left?  We have reached Fondren Drive”, Rajesh asked.

“Take a right, dear.” The signal was still red.

“Do you read magazines?”

“Yes, I read a lot of magazines.”, Shalini acknowledged.

“I have a stack of magazines- Sarita, Manohar stories. I read a lot. Borrow some from me.”

“I receive many magazines too. From India and other countries as well.”

“Okay.”

“How old is your son?”, Rajesh’s curiosity about her son was evident. 

“He’s turned fifty-five. Now his kids are grown up too. They’re all in college. The elder son is a doctor, and his daughter-in-law is also a doctor. What a life these doctors have. They should just marry amongst themselves. They don’t have time for anyone else.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Earning money just becomes mechanical, eventually. No quality of life is left.”

After a pause, she said, “I got married at the age of fourteen. Everyone pampered me in my in-laws’ house. No one called me by my name; they called me Rano. My husband was very handsome. Very fair, looked like a Russian. Had a big job, in the railways.”

“When did you come to America?”

“I told you, when my son insisted. I was working in Delhi even after my husband’s death. Now only my daughter is there. I worry about her. If she gets married, she’ll come here too.”

“Yes, that makes sense.”

“I suffer from depression. Will doing yoga help me? But I can’t stand for long. I won’t be able to do the asanas.”

“Why don’t you go to satsang?”

“I go every week. By metro.”

“Doesn’t your son come?”

“Where does he have the time? He’s always busy with work.”

“Then, daughter-in-law?”

‘Oh no, they are all busy. Life in America is like that.’

In silence, Shalini agreed with her. But sometimes, daughters-in-law and sons should tag along. Who knows if they even liked going to the temple? Atheists are to be found aplenty in the world. Even she herself was not a person with devout faith. The temple was a good place to socialize though. It also eased the burden of cooking on a particular day, because of the snacks and prasad served there.  Every day, it was not possible to go to every friend’s house, nor could she invite them all every weekend. So, the temple became a convenient meeting place. But for the old lady’s daughter-in-law and son, there might not be any reason for such a thing!

America is a country where everyone lived according to their own will. Look at this old woman, taking the metro to various places. Satsang, cinema. What difference would it make to her son-in-law and daughter-in-law? They lived in their own worlds. The mother in hers. And Rajesh, in his customary style, would straight away say, “We are young; we’ll go to the Asha Bhonsle show. Let these old folks go to the temple.” So the temple just became a way to make plans with friends. 

The cell phone rang. Shalini saw it was a call from the producer of the radio show.

“No, I’ll be busy this week,” she said briefly and hung up.

“Do you host a program on the radio?”, the old woman asked, quick to comprehend. Shalini smiled to herself.

“Yes, occasionally,” she replied.

“Tell me too. I can listen to your program.”

“Sure.”

She thought, the old lady was trying to force a friendship, because perhaps, there was nothing left to say anymore. Rajesh paused again, anticipating the next direction.

“Just in this lane. That tall building you see, it belongs to a lawyer. There’s always a crowd of cars around. If there’s no parking space, people park on the street. Must be earning well. What will he do with so much money!”

“Does he earn well or provide free consultation?” Rajesh chuckled, “Maybe he provides free advice, that’s why everyone goes to him.”

“Oh no. My building is right behind that one, you know. I can see it from my window. I know. Not for free.”

“All right.”

“He earns so much. What will he do with so much wealth?” Shalini mused to herself that the elderly had this problem. Keeping track of the entire world. How does it matter what a lawyer does? Why did it matter to her how someone lived his life? She had lived her life. Now in old age, she should take God’s name. Live peacefully. Her world was full of grandchildren. Shalini pondered a little irked.

“Just take the gate here. The six-story building in front, that’s where he lives,” she said.

Shalini was taken aback. It didn’t look like someone’s home. Those were apartments. Her wealthy son lived in an apartment!

“It’s a condo. The government covers all the expenses. I’ve been living here since I retired. I only have to pay 33%. Electricity, water, all free. It’s like the retirement homes for the elderly. That’s what it is. I live here. Just stop by the side of the road.” She was explaining.

Shalini returned to reality as if coming back from a mysterious place.

“How will you go up? Rajesh asked.

“There’s an elevator. You two come along as well. We’ll sit together a bit.”

“No, maybe some other time. It’s late today,” Rajesh said hesitantly.

“Sorry, I delayed you two.”

“No, nothing like that. We need to go to Fiesta today. Grocery shopping,” Shalini took charge.

Now, at this late hour, nothing else would be open except Fiesta. Shalini didn’t like going to Walmart for vegetables, even if it stayed open 24×7. Shalini didn’t lie. And that’s what she liked about herself. That she never lied.

Under the building’s portico, there were some Spanish, Chinese, Mexican elderly people sitting. A young boy, who had probably come to meet one of them, was smiled at by the old woman as she got out of the car. Shalini gave her cane to her, and helped her walk to the portico, and then came back.

On coming back, she exclaimed to Rajesh, “She lives here!”

“Probably that’s why she was telling you to call her.”

“But I didn’t even take her phone number.”

“But you’ve given yours, right?”

“But I also don’t know if I have time to share everyone’s sorrows. When the son and daughter-in-law can’t take care of her, despite calling her here themselves, why should I?”

“There must be something. She might have come on her own.”

“Who knows… she was perhaps working when she came.”

“You don’t know when she started working.”

Returning home, Shalini was thoughtful. Where is the boundary between life and story? The movie was good. It felt real. A mother’s protective attitude towards her children, worrying about their comfort and well-being. Sometimes Kali, sometimes Annapurna! But after that? When the children grow up, establish their own world, what about the story after that? The movie was too short. So much remained unsaid in that movie.

She would rewrite the last scene of that movie. Again. The movie shouldn’t end there. She would make a big film. A woman goes by many names- Saraswati, Lakshmi, Durga, Kali, Shama, Swaha, Swadha… But what is the name of this form of the Goddess, the woman who is sent to the old age home, helpless and vulnerable, witnessing the lawyer earning money from her window, waiting for her son’s call, seeking help from familiar and unfamiliar faces and unable to tell even her own story properly. Shalini vowed that she would find out.

 


Also, read Two Italian Poems by Piergiorgio Viti translated from the Italian by Rebecca Lundin and Andrea Sirotti and published in The Antonym:


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Dr. Ila Prasad

Dr. Ila Prasad

Born and brought up in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Ila Prasad is a teacher and researcher. Completing her doctoral programme from Benaras Hindu University, she has worked in IIT Mumbai under the CSIR research grant. Many of her research papers have been published in national and international journals. Her literary career started while she was still in college and published her first anthology of short stories soon after. She has many poetry and short story anthologies to her credit and has also delved in editorial work. Presently, she is located in Houston, Texas and works as a professor. 

Ayushee Arora

Ayushee Arora

An Assistant Professor of English and an internationally awarded debater and writer, Ayushee Arora, finds her creative conduit in public speaking and writing. Her areas of interest include Cultural Studies, Greek Mythology, Eco-feminism, and Literature of the Subaltern. She rejuvenates by spending time in nature and reading.

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