With it’s deafening siren, the ambulance approached the Chayya home for the aged and destitutes.
Helpers Pralhad and Dinesh swung into action and lifted Tara Kaaki gently from her bed in room 101, and shifted her onto the stretcher. In a few minutes, she was inside the ambulance.
“Divakar, aren’t you coming along with us?” My wife Shraddha touched my shoulder.
My heart felt heavy all of a sudden.
“Let us hope for the best,” Shraddha assured me as usual and gestured to me to accompany her in the ambulance.
A look at the fragile frame of sixty-nine-year-old Tara Kaki, and I recollected my conversation with the doctor.
“Divakar, let us have some tests performed. Her poor appetite and dwindling weight are causes of concern. In case it is something serious then we may have to consult the doctor from the city.”
It would look weird if a forty-five-year-old man shed tears. I tried holding my tears back with difficulty praying that all should be fine with Kaki’s reports.
When I say I am forty-five-years old I also assert that I know Tara Kaki for that many years.
She was amongst the first few inmates who had taken shelter under Chayya that my father established nearly four decades and eight years ago.
I had heard from him that my mother had passed away upon giving birth to me.
Tara Kaki who had been abandoned by her family for not being able to bear a child in her womb had just then taken shelter in Chayya.
She was married for nine years when she came to the home. My father told me during my formative ages that she had come with burn marks and other scars that stood testimony to the fact that the twenty-six-year-old female had endured terrible torture. She was disowned by her people too.
It was she who raised me like her offspring, enabling my father to dedicate his full self to the administration of the home.
It was under Kaki’s loving care and the adoration of two other lady inmates that I grew up never missing my mother.
Chayya, a charitable institute is situated in a small town away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Seeing Dad’s selfless work many philanthropists offered to donate money to run the home.
When Dad passed away nearly two decades ago, the home hosted 13 inmates. Today it boasted of giving shelter to 37 men and women all from different walks of life.
Each one had a melancholic tale attached to their lives.
On one hand, Braganza uncle and aunty came here looking for warmth and care since they had no offspring to take care of them. On the other hand, Mr.Gurubax and his wife who had three sons landed here when all three of them betrayed their aging parents and usurped their property.
Vanita tayee* as the eldest daughter amongst seven children had been so engrossed in lending a helping hand to her mother in raising her siblings, that she never realised when all of them found their own life and flew away leaving her to fend for herself.
Hardayal uncle’s tale was something similar. He dedicated his life to taking care of his ailing brother’s family only to be kicked out by his nephews and niece.
Irrespective of caste, creed, religion, or financial status, any one who came seeking shelter was welcomed with open arms in Chayya.
Some like Prashant uncle who had amassed a decent amount during his lifetime, but had to leave home as after his wife’s demise he just could not adjust to his son and daughter-in-law from a different culture, wholeheartedly donated money to the home.
But all of them were treated equally in the home.
I sometimes wonder how I would have carried on with the administration of Chayya if not for the strong support of my better half Shraddha. If it wasn’t for her encouraging words and moral support, I would have let down my father, shattering his dreams of continuing his service to mankind.
I vividly remember the day when Dad was nearing his end. He had held my hands earnestly.
“Divakar, will you carry on with the administration of this home? Left with no one to care for, all these inmates will become homeless.”
As a twenty-seven-year-old man with a bright future on a golden platter, I stood there fumbling.
I was just married to Shraddha after completing my Master’s in Finance and had landed a lucrative job in the city.
I stood at a place where two paths diverged. One promised to give me loads of money and a secure job, yet another beckoned me to donn the attire of a samaritan and requested me to dedicate my life to caring for the destitute and elders!!! But in that path lay my father’s hopes.
It was a most difficult phase in my life and if it hadn’t been for Shraddha maybe I would have taken the lucrative path, and repented years later for having been instrumental in crushing my dad’s dreams.
I still remember Shraddha’s strong words that changed the course of my life.
“Will you be able to sleep peacefully knowing that you have dislodged thirteen inmates of Chayya? I am not denying they won’t find shelter elsewhere, but they have been like a family here together. They will be scattered.”
She spoke about the inmates but I was in a dilemma. Dad hadn’t left me any inherited wealth.
He was a philanthropist by nature. Working for the upliftment of the poor and needy had always been his priority. The establishment of this organisation was a result of his relentless struggle with a view to provide a shelter for aged men and women and destitutes. He named it after my mother who stood strongly by him in this venture.
Dad’s modest salary as a clerk in the postal department made both ends meet for the family.
Fortunately, the home received some money from the government and kind-hearted people.
“What are you contemplating, please give your consent, and assure your father that you will take care of his Chayya.” Shraddha had coaxed me.
“You are his only progeny and I am sure his philanthropic blood runs in you too.” She added.
When I voiced my concern, she looked unperturbed.
“You can find a job here too in this town. The salary may not match the one you have been offered now, but you can keep caring for Chayya. I can assure you my full time for the administration of the home.” Her radiant smile gave me the much-needed courage to take a firm decision.
I still could not give my word to Dad for something else kept irking me. As if she could read my mind, Shraddha said,” Looks like you are worried about the future of our children. Look at yourself, having been raised in this small town, have you not acquired good education? Everything is possible if we have the will,” she summarised.
I was in awe of her prudence and there was no question of looking back.
Many of my contemporaries laughed at my decision.
“You are inviting a recipe for disaster,” they guffawed.
Most of them moved to greener pastures, as they termed it.
But I had made up my mind. Nothing would now deter me from treading on this path of service to humanity
I trod on the path less taken and stepped into the shoes of my father. I am sure his departed soul would always rest in peace knowing that the inmates of Chayya are safe under the same roof.
I soon found a job to match my profile and though it offered me almost half of what I would have earned by moving to the city, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact I was happy to dedicate my evenings to the inmates of Chayya.
Shraddha was right about our children growing up here. Varun, our son who was born three years later, was the apple of the eye of all the inmates. At fifteen, today, he is a bright student studying in the same school from where I passed out.
Shraddha took extreme care of the day to day affairs of Chayya.
She followed all rules laid down by my father meticulously.
A register book was maintained with everyone’s name and the contact of the nearest kin. However, many refused to leave any contact details thereby indiscreetly stating that they weren’t interested in getting back.
Somewhere down the lane, I felt that couples without children were in a better position than those who had children because they never looked forward to anybody’s visit.
My eyes filled with tears whenever I saw the elders waiting eagerly for their children on special occasions like their birthdays or marriage anniversaries.
With disappointment writ large on their faces, they would finally retire for the day with heavy hearts.
Shraddha would meticulously arrange for a small party to celebrate such kinds of occasions, but the elders missed their own dear ones.
The ringing of the phone disturbed my chain of thoughts.
I moved away to answer the call from the ward of the hospital where Kaki’s tests were being conducted.
It was from Deepa, one of the young inmates, who had run away from home as she had faced physical molestation from her drunkard father and taken shelter in Chayya recently. She was an able young girl and worked as a helper in the town school.
“Divakar dada*, we have got a new entrant. A gentleman in his early seventies. Someone has just left him outside and dropped a letter and some cheques in the box.” She informed.
“Please ask Pralhad to accommodate him in room 105 along with Chaitanya uncle. And what does the letter say?” I heaved a sign almost guessing the contents of the letter.
“His son has written that his father has become a burden to the family and would appreciate it if we keep him here. But he has specifically written not to be contacted for anything and has left enough money he says to last till his end.” Deepa summarised the contents of the letter.
How disgusting!!! I thought. If a son cannot take care of his father then who will? But then this is not a stand alone story. We had other aged couples with similar stories.
Other than Gurubax uncle and aunty there were Mr. and Mrs. Moorthy whose only daughter left them in Chayya refusing to accept the responsibility of taking care of them.
“Divakar, we can take kaki home,” Shraddha said breaking my chain of thoughts.
“When are the test results expected?” She enquired as we sat in the ambulance.
I tried to gloss over the subject and just fidgeted with my handset.
“Don’t look so depressed son. No one is eternal in this world.’ She smiled tactfully camouflaging her pain. “If at all the reports suggest something ghastly, we have to accept the truth.”
I closed my eyes and recollected all those loving moments that I had spent under her care. A silent prayer escaped my lips for her. I sincerely hoped the tests would give negative results, though somewhere in the corner of my heart I knew I was asking for something that God cannot grant me.
“Kaki we have got a new inmate in Chayya,” Shraddha strategically steered the conversation sensing the uneasiness.
“It is an elderly gentleman whose son has left him.” She informed and an agonizing sigh passed Kaki’s lips.
She threw a glance filled with gratitude at both of us.
“Look, a boy abandons his father while it is his moral duty to care for him, and you both share no blood relation with me still you care for me. Am I not blessed?” She clasped her palms and recited a silent prayer.
The ambulance stopped at the entrance of Chayya. Kaki said she could walk to her room. Dinesh fetched the walker and she slowly took steps.
As we walked through the corridor Kaki stopped outside room 105.
“Is he the new Inmate?” Kaki enquired moving towards the second bed in the room.
Since she was the only surviving member of Chayya from amongst the first batch to come, she had made it a custom to welcome any new inmate.
When we entered the room, the elder man was lying motionless on his bed.
I guessed he must be in his mid seventies. His features were pretty sharp. He must have been a handsome person in his youth. However, his shoulders had dropped down and he looked very sick now. Intermittently the elder man pouted his lips as if in agony.
Upon reaching his bed, Kaki felt suddenly weak and requested to be taken to her room.
She had turned pale and her legs got wobbly.
Shraddha and I felt a bit mystified by her behaviour. Kaki had always been cheerful and enterprising. She would never let go without her customary welcome to a newcomer.
Suddenly a spark lit in my mind. I ran towards the office room and asked Deepa to pull the first register of the home and also provide me the latest entrant’s details.
Just as I had anticipated, the names were the same in both. The person who had admitted Tara Kaki here, her spouse, Ramniklal was the new inmate!!!
I shared the news with Shraddha and both of us went to Kaki’s bed. She was crying.
“Kaki we have come to know that the new inmate is your spouse,” Shraddha said warmly hugging her.
As if her old scars were still hurting her, Kaki caressed them. It was obvious she was recollecting all those tortures that her husband had inflicted on her.
“He wanted a son and look today what that son has done to him.” She cried and none of us made any effort to stop her. The tears needed to cascade and with that, all the agony that she had buried in her heart too spewed.
After composing herself in a while Kaki requested to be taken to room 105.
We slowly wheeled her chair towards her husband’s bed.
“Kaka, look who has come.” Deepa made him sit.
He looked at Tara Kaki for a long time. His eyes were already moist. Kaki’s eyes were brimming with tears. There was a long silence as if it lasted for eternity. And then breaking the deafening silence Ramniklal spoke, “Who are you, sister? Do I know you?”
The earth shattered beneath our feet. I was not sure how the others deciphered his words, but it became quite clear to me that the poor old gentleman was an Alzheimer’s patient. No wonder his family termed him a burden and left him.
Tara Kaki was shedding copious tears probably assuming that her husband refused to recognise her.
I looked across the room at Shraddha. The befuddled expression on her face gave away the truth that even she was assuming the same.
I gestured for her to come out of the room and spoke out my fear to her. She held my hands in shock.
“As per the rules laid down by your father we will have to take him for a medical check-up tomorrow. His state of Alzheimer’s will be confirmed.” She avered.
Both of us decided to keep the aged couple in this room and walked in to request Chaitanya uncle to take Kaki’s single bedroom. We both were taken by surprise to see Chaitanya uncle already packing his belongings.
“I will clear this bed for Tara.” He said bringing tears to our eyes. Only he knows the agony of being separated from a spouse. His children had forcibly evicted him from home and kept back their mother to save their money on a maidservant.
When Kaki came to know about her husband’s ailment she cried as if her heart would break.
How can a woman love a man who had brutally assaulted her and disowned her?
I felt vexed but given Kaki’s soft nature, her tears were nothing surprising.
Though he would never recognise her, Kaki found solace in his company.
Both their days were numbered but they got to spend the last few days together under a roof.
I stood before Dad’s garlanded photo with Kaki’s reports in my hand. She would be gone soon but Dad’s smiling countenance gave me the much needed respite.
Somewhere I heard these words
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Yes, taking this path had made all the difference.
I am glad I took it.
The blessings of people like Kaki and many others was the wealth I amassed and it is priceless.
I hope someday Varun too reads these lines and takes the path less travelled and that would make a difference!!!
Tayee—- Elder sister in general a term meant to address an elder woman.
Dada—— A term to address some elder male. Elder brother.
Note: The story is based on the famous poem ‘The road not taken.’ by Robert Frost.
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