I didn’t know blue could have ever looked the way it did in her eyes. I hadn’t seen a more spirited set of eyes either. She let the pallu of her handspun sari slip from her head and seemed delighted to discover that it matched the shade of her hair. Her mouth widened with joy. She was still smiling as she looked around and unearthed lovelier things -like the sequin covered butterfly on her slippers, ribbons curling out from her gifts, and (she turned left) the fancy bracelet that adorned my hand.
“That thing is marvelous!”, she exclaimed, still enchanted. Every head in the room turned towards me. I gawkily held out my hand for a display, but no one was interested anymore. She was still staring at my bracelet.
If it could be called quick thinking, I swiftly removed the bracelet and said, “You can have it, ma’am.”
She returned it with a sense of shock,“ Oh. I can’t take such a precious thing away from you, dear!”
“It’s alright, ma’am. Take it as a birthday present”. “Is it your birthday today?’ she asked mildly surprised, her blue sparklers directed towards me. Her mouth took an oval shape.
"Um, no.. I thought it was yours.." I began. I looked at Geeta, demanding for an explanation. Geeta was my genius neighbour, pursuing Mathematics from a reputed college. She had been visiting STM Old-age centre since she was twelve, and had tagged me along this time.
“Well, Mrs Annie is.. sick. Dementia.”, she whispered almost apologetically.
“Oh.” I felt a sudden spasm of pain when Mrs Annie touched my hand and handed the article back to me.
The ayah came to her and took her by hand. “Chalo, madam. You have to cut the cake now. Don’t you want your cake?”
Mrs Annie, apparently, took offense and whispered to me, “I don’t like her. She puts me in cold water and grabs me like this” She demonstrated by clutching me by my shoulder.
I realized that I wasn’t very good at dealing with situations like these. Before I could drown the moment in my series of Er-s, Geeta decided to take charge.
“Yes ma’am. She tried the bathe me too, in cold water!’
“Oh, poor darling.”
“But she won’t come near you now. Here, take my hand. You like blowing birthday candles?”
“Oh, yes. Very much.” She beamed. Then as an afterthought, she added, “Is it my birthday today?”
“Yes! Look at those presents! Aren’t they lovely?”
“Oh.” She put her hand on her chest and smiled gratifyingly.
While we sang her the birthday song, she too joined in. Finding me, a new face in the crowd, she came over and said “Happy Birthday, dear. I wish I could stay longer but my back really hurts. May I take your leave? I—”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you for coming over.”, intercepted Geeta. She turned towards me and said “I think Mrs Annie likes you.” She smiled, and left me in a state of bewilderment. This was probably the first time I was conversing with somebody as old as her. It wasn’t certainly a good feeling not to know how to act. I seated myself opposite the fish tank and began taking interest in the golden one.
The clock had moved a quarter more before Geeta announced our departure. I parted with the golden fish and got into her silver Indica. Though I kept trying to concentrate on the alt rock songs that blared out of her newly installed music system, the image of the old lady wouldn’t go away. Those eyes, I thought. There was something mystical about them. I realized that we weren’t moving very fast owing to the traffic jam, so I took the opportunity to ask Geeta about her.
“Well, her story.” She drew a long breath. “Her story isn’t very different from the rest of the twenty two living there. Abandoned by her only son, it was her lawyer who brought her here...
She used to be a well known painter and an activist. Single parent, yet happy and contented. Unlike the usual painter-lot, she was rich. A heart of gold to make her even richer. But aging wasn’t a gracious phase for her. Sickness, memory lapses; it must have been difficult. Now, although Mrs. Annie still speaks very highly of him, I don’t know what to make of a son who tries seizing his mother’s property. He managed to trick her into signing some documents which would grant him full access to her accounts. Her lawyer friend detected a foul play, and fought her case on medical grounds. She managed to retain the house, but lost everything else. On the final day, she looked at her son and said- But you could have just asked for it, beta.”
Geeta paused, and added “ She doesn’t remember all this anymore. She thinks her son’s still in the boarding. I know it’s not an apt thing to say, but sometimes I feel glad for her illness..” She broke off. It had started pouring by then, providing no respite from the traffic block ahead. Geeta gave me a gauche smile and turned up the volume of her music system.
A week after, Geeta phoned me to inform about Mrs. Annie’s demise from pneumonia. Her ayah had tried to stop her from going out in the rain, but she just wouldn’t listen. She had wanted to dance in the rain.
Later that day, we gathered at the STM to pay our respects to Mrs. Annie. Geeta sobbed incessantly. A prim-looking woman came and sat beside us.
“You knew mamma?” She asked Geeta.
“Oh. Well, yes..ah.. I’ve been visiting her…ah.. You are..?..oh, I’m sorry, but I didn’t know she had a daughter too..’’
“I..used to work at her house. Before .. all that.. happened. She was a kind lady.. Gave me whatever she had left.. asked me to use it for my education..” I could see a teardrop rolling down her face. “You know”, she added, “She even gave me her bed, because I didn’t have one for myself."
I could see Geeta's brow rise up.
"Ah! I used to come and see her initially, but she grew so sick.. I just couldn’t bear to see her like that …”
At this, Geeta screwed her face and excused herself. Before I could react, the ayah called for our attention. She wanted us to see a video Mrs Annie had recorded on the night of her birthday.
The video rolled. Mrs Annie was as animated as ever. She was singing the birthday song. There was purity in her voice and mannerism. As she started speaking, the room fell silent.
“Happy birthday, dear. I know I should be whipped for forgetting! My memory is strange. But then I saw the presents. So many presents! Beautiful ones! And that’s when I realized that it was my son’s birthday! Oh. Forgive mamma. I hope you get this on time. The wretched woman here” (pointing at the ayah) “would just not let me do anything! But I’ll sing it again for you..”
And she sang again. And again..