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April 2005


As the orange hue disappears behind the high-rise buildings in the west, a sickle moon drops down on the skyline. As if on cue, a cold misty breeze sweeps the small park, and the old woman sitting on one of the concrete benches secures the shawl around her tightly. Reason tells her she ought to get up and go home, but she feels lethargic. She hails a passing jogger and asks for the time. ?Six thirty, auntyji!' the young woman answers with a smile.

She ought to go before Raju's call comes around seven. But she doesn't feel like moving. She's been here since the afternoon, toasting in the winter sun, while eating peanuts and chatting with other folks and watching people come and go. Mothers with kids, old men with monkey caps, mufflers and bulky jackets, shopkeepers from the market behind the park who come to take their lunch in the sun, even stray dogs ? lazing and lolling around in the grass. Here time flies as the sun swings in its curve.

No, it's getting late, she mutters to herself and slowly rises, loosening her arthritic limbs from their inertia and taking small steps towards home. Home is a first floor apartment in one of the buildings facing the park. In her slow, dragging gait it takes her a quarter of an hour to get there. Of course, discounting the minutes she spends exchanging pleasantries with the security guard, the press wallah and two neighbors who are returning from work.

?When are you making gajar ka halwa, auntyji?' the guard asks, tapping tobacco in his palm.

?Soon, very soon,' she replies with a smile. ?Just waiting for the sweet carrots to come to the market.'

Inside the house, she puts on the television first thing. The booming voice of a newscaster fills the small flat, bringing in the happenings of the rest of the world. She then lights the lamp in front of the tiny shrine and, eyeing the telephone, goes to the kitchen to prepare her dinner. As if by telepathy it begins to ring. She reaches it by the eighth ring. ?Hi ma, what's up?'

?Raju!' The sound of his voice warms the cockles of her heart. Raju is her only son and the apple of her eye. Now he's himself a father of two bonnie boys and settled in the United States. ?Sab theek hai, beta. I was just going to heat dinner.'

?Did you take the medicines? Did you check your blood pressure today?' She knew what he would say next. But it still felt nice to hear his voice. The love and longing of forty years came flooding back and seemed to choke her every time she heard him.

?Are you sure you don't want to come this winter? I can still send you a ticket. The kids would love to have you over for Christmas.'

?No, beta. I am nicely settled here. The cold will be too much for my bones.'

Liar, her conscience said. The cold never bothered her before. Heated rooms, electric blankets, hot water bags ? Raju never left any stone unturned to see to her comforts. ?Don't worry about me. You have a nice holiday. ?I'll be seeing you in summer anyway.'

?Ma, I don't like you staying there all alone, when you can easily stay with us. You know we'd look after you well?'

?How are Bunty and Shaan?' she cut in.

There was a pause as Raju sighed. ?They are fine, Ma. Do you want to talk to them?'

The conversation went on for half an hour. Raju called every other day. She had no complaints whatsoever against him. He sent her money; he visited her every year and did whatever he could do to make life easy for her. He had even had her over to the U.S. a couple of times hoping that she would stay permanently.

She did make an effort. It was heartwarming to watch him relish her cooking, hungrily lap up everything she made and say ? nothing like ma's cooking. Even her grandchildren liked her special dishes like kheer and puri bhaji. She would tell them stories at bedtime; tell them about her childhood, about their grandfather. She loved moving around in that beautiful country ? so neat and organized. Life was straight out of a picture book. She loved riding in his fancy car and her heart brimmed over with love and satisfaction on seeing her child successful and happy.

So why didn't she stay on?

She hated reflecting on it. It swamped her with guilt. "Won't you be lonely in India?" he had asked. Not really. With a television that chattered away the whole day, making her laugh and cry, and so many friends, relations and acquaintances, she never felt a moment's loneliness. "What if you fall sick?" "At my age sickness is a roommate. And in an emergency there's always the telephone. After all, you are just a call away, son," was her pat reply.

But that was not the real issue.

How could she tell him that his world had everything, but it was alien to her? It was not her world. In the park here, she met scores of men and women her age. They shared a bond and spoke the same language. This was where her roots were. The dirt, the crowds and chaos were all familiar. Back there she couldn't even think of walking to the store on her own. She'd be flattened on the road within minutes. She couldn't bargain the price of muli and gajar with the sabjiwala. She couldn't take her leftover chapattis and feed the stray cows. She couldn't look out of the window and relive her youth as she watched life around her unfold in its myriad patterns. She thought about this as she cleaned the kitchen and put everything away. Then she glanced at the clock and her usually labored movements became swifter as she realized her television show was due to begin in a few minutes. Propping up pillows behind her, she took the TV remote in her hands and felt the familiar thrill pass through her veins. It was like the steering wheel of an aircraft taking her to exotic destinations, a world of beautiful people, music, dancing and emotional roller coasters.

As the signature tune of her favorite serial began, she spared a glance at the bedside picture of her son and muttered guiltily, ?Forgive me, son, but this is where I want to be.'

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