Mayank stood in the centre of the living room, his eyes on old Mrs. Malathi Mukherjee seated on the divan. Please her say yes was the refrain in his mind.
Malathi was from the same village as Mayank. She had moved to town after the death of her husband ten years ago. Malathi’s bitter nature and acidic tongue were legendary in Mayank’s village. But Mayank needed a place to stay in town while he took coaching for exams. Thus, he had come to Malathi to ask for help.
“Sit!” Malathi ordered with a frown on her face. “This is my house, not a Dharamshala. If you want my help, you will follow my rules or be thrown out. You can’t have friends over, and I want you back in the house every night by eight. You will do chores around the house. That will count as rent. The rest of the house is out of bounds for you, including this room. You will stick to your room or the kitchen. Moreover, you will address me only as Mrs. Mukherjee, not auntie. Understood?”
Mayank bristled at Malathi’s peremptory tone. Mayank wanted to retort that he was twenty-three years old, not a child. But then remembered he needed her help. His mother always counselled honey could catch more flies than vinegar. Mayank would have to use honey against Malathi.
Mayank nodded, “Yes, Mrs. Mukherjee. Thank you for your help.”
As Malathi dismissed him with a nod, Mayank heaved a sigh of relief. His dream was within reach. He just had to tolerate the old woman for a few months.
Knowing that he needed to be in Malathi’s good books, Mayank started slipping in a few words of praise and compliments while interacting with Malathi. He would praise her cooking, the elegance of her sarees, her kindness in helping him, the beauty of Malathi’s pride and joy, the garden. Adulation from unexpected avenues can bring back zest like magic. Initially, Malathi was sceptical of Mayank and his words. But she soon fell under their spell.
Mayank’s words added sparkle to the drudgery of Malathi’s lonely life. Ignored by her family, who had settled abroad, Malathi had turned bitter and angry. But now she started taking comfort from Mayank’s presence. Her usually acerbic tongue turned sweeter. She started preparing delicacies, taking joy in Mayank’s delight and praise. Malathi would look forward to dinner when Mayank would tell her about his day. Breaking the rules, he had started calling her Badi Ma. Secretly, Malathi realised she liked it.
Both fell into a comfortable routine.
A few months later, Malathi was watching a Hindi serial when Mayank came in. “Badi Ma! I cleared the entrance! I will leave tomorrow to join the training”, he said, bending down to touch her feet. Instinctively Malathi placed her hand on Mayank’s head to bless him, but fear gripped her heart.
Malathi had forgotten that Mayank was a temporary house guest. Tomorrow, Malathi would be alone. Again.
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