At first glance she looked like any other beggar woman.
A barely there bare boned bedraggled figure in tattered clothes-a half torn saree, its edges frayed, and her dignity barely covered.
Yet, there was something in those sunken eyes that made me stop and give her a second look.
I had just given some necessary instructions to Bose, my Man Friday, and alighted from my car, when my eyes fell on her.
Hers was a face that was emptied of all human emotions.
She lay on the dirt laden ground abutting the railway platform, her deeply lined, pockmarked visage turned upwards as if in supplication to the Almighty.
It was a disturbingly vacant expression that sent cold shooting bullets of sheer pain run through my veins.
My feet froze; I stood there in the afternoon sun, oblivious to the merry flotsam and jetsam that floated past me.
Though a mere ten seconds had elapsed, I was caught in a dilemma.
What should I do? Should I extricate my wallet and give the beggar woman a few rupees. Maybe, even buy her food. Or,…
I looked at my watch.
Two minutes for my train to leave.
I heard the announcement on the loudspeaker.
Train No. Trivandrum-Chennai Express is arriving on platform…
I don’t know what got into me. I turned around, retraced my steps towards the woman.
In hindsight, it was the best, most fulfilling decision I had made in my entire life.
Sighting an eatery a few feet away, I strode purposefully towards it.
“Moonu vada, pazhampoori, oru chaya…”
A few minutes later I was back at the corner just behind a SBI ATM kiosk.
The old woman lay near unmoving where I had found her.
I bent down, squatted on my knees, and very gentle turned her face around.
It was then that I saw her clearly, at close quarters.
There was something in those grey eyes, in the way her mouth opened, and her lips quivered that sent me hurtling down memory lane.
Some three and a half decades back in time.
As I struggled to make sense of this mirage; to comprehend and clear the cobwebs that hung like an albatross’s wings over my beguiled semi- comatose mind, I heard a voice.
At first I wasn’t sure I had even heard anything, so quiet and near indecipherable it was.
As I hunched forward and cocked my ears, I heard it again.
The words this time were lucid.
“Are you Bala?”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
What had I just heard?
This old beggar woman, who looked as if she hadn’t had a good meal for weeks, who smelled of slime and filth and disease, as sickly and emaciated as she were, who looked at least a 150 years old, was calling out my name.
Yes, you…you’re Balu.
Utterly bamboozled, I looked at the old beggar.
At her face, at those quivering lips, at the twinkle in her eyes.
And then the penny dropped.
OMG! Mrs Anna Mathews!
She was indeed Mrs Mathews.
My English teacher!
My favourite…the favourite of every single student of Springdales Convent School, Ooty.
My heart melted, copious tears streamed out of my eyes.
I reached out and hugged my teacher.
My dear teacher too held me in a tight clasp.
There, that hot July afternoon, right outside Chennai Central Station, oblivious to the world, we connected—teacher and student.
The next five minutes we wept like little babies, laughed like young kids, and hugged like long lost souls.
‘Good morning. Welcome to today Good News Bulletin.
Meet 71 year old Anna Mathews. She’s a beggar woman who has been living on the pavement just outside Chennai Central Station for the past 19 years. Call it serendipity, but yesterday afternoon, Anna, a very well respected retired English teacher was united with her Class 6 student, a certain Mr Dinesh Balachandran aka Balu. Fifty year old Balu is the owner of the eponymous Balu’s, a very successful saree brand that operates over fifty showrooms all across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Our investigation has revealed that the said woman, a divorcee, was forced to sign away all her property and assets by her only child. Soon after, the son dragged her by the hair, pulled her into an auto, and dumped her outside the railway station. She is currently…’
“Madam, here have some apple juice”.
So saying the middle aged man gently lifted the old woman, and drew a soft pillow behind her back.
Then, cupping the glass, he slowly eased the liquid into her mouth.
As she drank, her eyes welled, and she began to cry uncontrollably.
The young man sat beside her, and kissed her on the forehead even as he whispered, “Anna ma’am, I am your student and this is your own house. Here, you will live like the queen that you always are”.
That moment time stood still, and for a very long time, all that one could hear was the beating of two hearts.
After what seemed an eternity, the elderly lady cleared her throat and replied, “Yes, but that won’t stop me from scolding the naughtiest student of my class.
As the night sky rose even higher, and the stars twinkled even brighter, the two once again held hands, hugged and kissed.
But this time it was not a student showing affection towards his teacher.
It was a ‘real son’ showing his undying love for his ‘real mother’.
pazhampoori: a South India delicacy prepared from ethekka, which is the extra long banana that is specific to Kerala region.
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