Aritri sat on the couch and picked up the day’s newspaper. The 11 am sun streamed through the large glass window in their sitting room. Through it, she could see the other multi-storied apartment towers nearby. She often wondered what went inside those homes. Were their lives similar to hers?
The skyscrapers of the IT Park dotted the distant horizon. She had been to one of them some years back when her husband’s office had celebrated family day. It had been embarrassing. She had gone to get coffee and didn’t know how to operate the machine. In the hustle, she had spilt coffee on her herself and the floor. Her husband had simply ignored her that time, leaving her to seek help with the attendants there in her broken English. That was many years ago. She’d at that time eagerly looked forward to experiencing an office environment, but since that day the sight of formal attire and businessmen made her nervous.
Brushing aside her thoughts and memories, she began glancing through the headlines on the first page. She’d barely read a paragraph when her eyes fell on the messy table. The children had left their books and stationery strewn after last night’s activities, and the whole place was disorganized.
“Can’t keep back a single thing that they take. I’ll show them today”, she muttered to herself as she put the newspaper aside and started sorting out and shelving the books. And as she was getting up from the floor after stacking the books neatly, she saw the cobwebs under the sofa.
“Komal is also like that”, she muttered referring to the house help, “always in a hurry. I’ll make her clean up every inch of the house thoroughly tomorrow.” Picking up the broom from the work area, she swept aside the cobwebs and put the dust in the bin.
She had lost half an hour of her time doing these chores. That meant the newspaper had to be just glimpsed through (that had become the norm these days) before she once again entered the kitchen to make the kids’ lunch.
Their school bus would reach their housing society gate at 12:30 pm and she would need to pick them up from the society gate.
An hour later, she half-ran, half-walked to the bus stop. She always missed the deadline that she set for herself to leave the house to pick up the kids. Mrs Sharma was already there, engrossed in her phone.
“Office work”, she smiled as she saw Aritri approach. Aritri smiled back. Mrs Sharma was a working woman. She worked from home. No, not in the way Aritri did. She worked for some company from home and she had maids to do cooking, cleaning, and babysitting work. Aritri on the other hand too worked from home, but for her family on an unpaid basis, and her skills were in cooking, cleaning, and raising kids. Even these skills, her husband often drily remarked were not up to the mark.
Aritri had always wanted to be financially independent, but she couldn’t remember when she succumbed to the pressures around her and fell on her way to her dreams. Early marriage and motherhood left her replete of skills that the modern world demanded. It took her twenty-five minutes to type a paragraph. Both her children and her husband had outdone her in the typing test they had made her take at home last week. She cringed at the memory.
She looked at Mrs Sharma as she continued peering into her mobile phone and wondered what her speed of typing would be. 100 words per minute?
Mrs Sharma looked up at Aritri and both the ladies had an awkward moment of silence. Aritri was spared the task of initiating a conversation as the school bus arrived and the kids started getting out.
Back home, after lunch, Aritri tried getting Rohan and Mira to sleep for some time. But the hyperactive kids only managed to disturb her afternoon nap. She soon sent them away to do their homework. A fight between Rohan and Mira forced her to get up mid-way through her nap and go and box their ears tight.
The kids often exhausted her. She wanted to be a good mother. But was exasperated by the 24/7 attention they sought and having to resolve their constant fights. The kids were still in kindergarten and primary school and needed help to go to the toilet, do homework, do craft activities, and go to sleep.
Over it, she also had to ensure hot, nutritious food was served at the table, medicines were given on time, and things were arranged neatly to make the house looks spick.
It was a monotonous life, waking up every day at 5:30 am, cooking food, putting things away neatly, and beaming at her husband’s corporate success.
She wanted to break free, maybe go on a solo trip, free from the kids and the husband, far away from the hustles of home. She wanted to be able to exercise freely without taunting comments from relatives. She wanted to breathe free.
And as the kids grew older, the longing to do all this only increased. But the more she got stuck with the house and its chores.
“What an ordinary life I have”, she moaned into her diary. That was the only thing she had managed to maintain in the last few years. A diary into which she emptied her feelings and love.
“Today Rohan won the chess tournament at the district level. I can’t be prouder of him. It wasn’t that long a time ago that I taught him to place the pieces and make the first moves. Today he was the best under – 11 player. Wow, success at this age is huge. I hope he continues on the same trajectory and wins more laurels. I wonder when I strayed from my trajectory or has this life always been my destiny?”
“Ronit got his second promotion in two years. He’s super happy and I’m happy for him. But I wonder how happy can one get with promotions if they come every year? I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to know. Appa (dad) got promoted only once every five years. And I’ve never got promoted.”
“Mira’s arangetram performance (first dance performance on stage) was today. She looked resplendent in her dance costume. Her teacher is very proud of her. So am I. The tiny little girl who wanted me to dance with her every day after she came from school is officially a dancer now. Nine years just flew past. And what did I do for myself during this time?”
“Komal was late today as well. I had thought of scolding her. But when she came, I instead asked her the reason first. And she burst out crying. Her husband had stolen all her money and gold and ran away. She is now left with her two young kids. She didn’t know what to do. I tried giving her consolation and hope. Also, gave her some money that Ronit had given me last week. I’ve said she can bring her kids here while she does the work. They can play with Rohan and Mira’s old toys.”
The quest to find her path, to do something worthwhile continued to perturb Aritri even as she carried on managing the household as perfectly as could. She applied for random jobs, the data entry ones, that promised money in thousands and flexibility to work from home, but either didn’t get selected or chickened out at the last moment.
She approached a few schools and daycare centres for children nearby for a flexible job. She joined one of them, but could hardly stick for 2 weeks.
“Why do you have to work? Is there any dearth of money?” Ronit questioned her.
She looked at volunteering opportunities in the development sector. Most of them required her to travel out of the city and she dropped the plan.
“Nothing will help me come out of this ordinary woman mould. I’m stuck, just stuck”, she wept into the diary.
Her kids had started college by now. Both of them got admitted to prestigious colleges. They were following their passion. One studying biotechnology and the other law. They were on their way to chart successful careers and life. Again she felt proud about it. But with the pride also came a void, a depression that made her feel like she’d wasted her life.
For several years, she had managed to keep the feeling of depression to herself. But the bottled demon came out often these days. She was left disoriented. She refused to leave home and often got into a state of tears and wails.
Ronit had to take her for therapy. Initially, they kept it a secret from the kids and the other family members. But eventually, her absences from family functions and in picking up phone calls forced Ronit to reveal it to the family.
“Why should she have depression? Her kids are so successful, her husband has enough money!”
“Maybe her sex life isn’t interesting!”
“Hormonal issues. Ladies of her age face it.”
Relatives were quick to come up with comments, observations, and jokes. Aritri felt worse than before meeting with family members even though most jokes were cracked behind her back.
Fortunately, her kids, for whom she had set aside her life, were more understanding. They came back home more often. They went along with her to the therapist. They tried to put her at ease. They started talking to her more often and strived to see what might help her resume normal life as before.
They took her with her to the cities they lived, to their workplaces, and to their volunteering activities. They went on tours, tried their hands at different hobbies, and read books. Slowly she came back to be her former self.
“Now, you should get married and start a family”, she said one evening after Mira and Rohan returned from their offices.
“Mama, don’t start again. I don’t it’s the right time”, her daughter cried.
“What if I die or go back into that depression? I want to see you both settled in life. You have a career, now a family is the next on the list.”
Though it took her almost three years, she was finally able to see both her children have their life partners.
Since both Rohan and Mira stayed in the same city, she could easily divide her time between her son’s and daughter’s family. But she always took care to stay out of their private lives, while providing them with all the support needed.
There was no better joy than when the grandchildren came. This time she had all the time and energy she could gather for the children.
“I’m an old woman, on the way to the grave. I don’t care if I have lived a fruitful or proud life. Life is done and dusted now. Let me just enjoy the last few years of sunset”, she thought to herself.
But that was not to be. Her grandma years were proving to be more hectic and challenging than her motherhood days.
Mira was almost always at work and that meant that the kids were around with her almost all the time. Rohan too was busy with his cases, and so was her daughter-in-law. So, she had another pair of kids to take care of too.
Since both of them lived close by, they used to drop the kids where she was staying.
“The kids are an absolute delight. But running behind them and feeding them is a task. They love and adore me unconditionally. What other delight should an old woman like me have? I wonder what they’ll become when they grow up. Will they be more successful than their parents? They’ll be better off than me, I’m sure”, she wrote in her diary.
“Aunty, can you take care of Samarth for 2 hours?” Aritri was amused when the girl next door brought her three-year-old son to her. “I need to go out urgently. I’ll be back in an hour or so. Just for an hour, aunty, please?”
“Okay. No problem!”, she smiled, though her heart calculated the extra effort needed to manage another kid.
Such requests multiplied as there were many double-income, no-grandparents-at-home families in the apartment complex. Word-of-mouth news about a grandma available at B/47 to take of kids spread. And most parents were happy to leave their wards with Aritri aunty while they went about their office work and other errands.
“Mama, maybe you should make this babysitting a more formal thing. We are planning to buy another apartment in the same society. One two floors downstairs. Maybe you can run a daycare there. I can give you all the initial money required. We can hire a couple of maids as well”, Mira, otherwise uninterested in kids, was enthusiastic about the idea.
Aritri wanted to object, tell them that her arthritis knees and asthma problems will not help her do it at this age. That, while she’d always wanted to do something in life, now was not the time. It was time for her to go.
But no one asked her whether she could do it. To everyone, she was already doing it. Why not just make it official and more systematic?
And so started her daycare centre, Grandma’s Hut Children’s Day Care.
The first enrolments were from the children who had already been under her care for some time, but soon a lot of new kids came along. Aritri also became enthusiastic about the whole thing as it took off.
But at 70, her body was not up for all the activities that running a daycare required, even when there were two maids to help. Aritri was tired and would have liked to lie on the couch all day, but had to force herself up to open the daycare centre and get the students admitted.
“Mira, I can’t do it any longer. Let’s stop it.”, she said
“No Ma, you are doing well. We can hire more helps. Maybe a teacher too.”
And so she continued going to her Grandma’s Hut for another six years, till she had a stroke and had to be admitted to the hospital. She was detected with multiple haemorrhages. A cardiac arrest six days later ended her life.
The whole housing society was sad to learn of her passing. Parents reminisced how she had made their lives easy and wondered what would happen to Grandma’s Hut now. Kids missed their grandma who told them stories and helped them with their homework.
Memorial services were held in the society auditorium a week after her passing. Almost everyone turned up since they had interacted with her at some point or the other, an extraordinary fact considering that often even neighbours didn’t know each other in the cities.
“She lived an ordinary life. She always wanted to do something extraordinary. But in ways unknown to even her, she’s left an irreplaceable mark in our lives. She not only raised two human beings, my brother and me, in an extraordinary manner but also played a critical role in nurturing our next generation”, Mira said in her eulogy. “This is the tale of most mothers who burn like a candle in raising their kids and grandkids while trying to figure out their own dreams and destiny. Like theirs, hers too was an extraordinarily ordinary life.”
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