Scene 1 : My bed
Winter break. A customary day at home.
“Razai chhod, Bunty,” Mumma says affectionately, with her hand in my hair.
“Kya mummy, Gyarah bhi nahi baje yaar…”
“Uth ja, bank mein paise jamaa karne hain…”
Knowing the hypothesis of “paanch minute” like the back of her hand, she won’t give in this time. The quilt is wrenched off in a sudden jerk and I do a Jim-Carrey act from Bruce Almighty – banging my legs, hands and everything possible on the bed.
“Zulm kar rahi ho maa. Ghar chhod ke chala jaunga. Fir banati rehna jalebi.”
“Jalebi” refers to a famous ad-film around 10 years back. A kid of eight or so runs away from home and is lured back by jalebis prepared in a certain brand of refined edible oil.
“Haan paise daal aa. Fir chale jaiyo.”
“Sabse gandi meri maa…Sabse gandi meri maa, ” I dance on my own tune in front of the television, blocking her sight.
Scene 2 : Punjab National Bank, Kandra branch
“Beta tumhare paise gir gaye hain.” It’s a lady’s voice from behind and the language is Bengali. My power of comprehension of the language is decent. But the exact words are not reproduced here owing to my handicap in speaking the language.
I had accidentally dropped a 100-rupee bill while counting. Wearing a smile and thanking the lady silently, I pick the note up and start filling up the deposit form. She returns a smile, too. It’s a grin rather, for I notice the absence of one of her incisors among the other tobacco stained teeth.
“Chheeta Devi,” screams the cashier.
The same lady gets up and goes to the counter.
“(translated from Bengali) Pachaas rupaye kaise nikalegi? Tumhare khate mein paintalees hain,” the cashier said in an icy tone.
This is the first instance when I see someone making a withdrawal of an amount as low as fifty bucks form a bank, and that too unsuccessfully. I notice the old lady returning to her seat where her bag is. The tanned, wrinkled face with a couple of freckles still wears a strange smile of embarrassment. The hollow eyes, almost closed because of the wrinkles on the sides, are wet – or at least, they seem so to me. She dons a white sari with navy blue borders – a typical dress code for widows in this part of India. The piercings in the earlobes have almost vanished leaving behind tiny marks and the lobes don’t hang down either – meaning that she has been widowed for ages.
I make the deposit.
She dumps the bank pass-book back in her bag with her seriously wrinkled hands and turns towards the exit. I watch, still unsure of everything.
Scene 3 : Outside the bank building
I have been talking to the lady for the past few minutes in Bengali and I’m amazed at the frankness with which she tells me the titbits of her life. I call her “Dadi”. I come to know that she’s fifty bucks short of the sum needed to make a purchase of prescribed meds. She shows me the prescription with the chemist’s handwritten cash memo. The total bill is fifty seven – twenty five and she has less than ten rupees with her right now!
I come to know about her family. Her husband passed away the same year as Nehru(in her words). I believe it was 1964. She has two sons and four daughters – all of them married. Her sons have refused to “keep” her with them and she stays, as a result, with one of her daughters. Her son-in-law worked in a sponge-iron industry shut down a couple of months back. There has been no source of income since then. Life has been extremely hard and healthcare has been an unaffordable burden. Her cough has now been unbearable, forcing her to visit a drugstore(and not a doctor). Her continual coughing bears testimony to her abject condition.
I’m appalled. The sponge-iron industry where her son-in-law worked is one among half-a-dozen industries of the area shut down owing to exponentially declining demand. The friggin' greed of the Lords of the Wall Street has made this family – thousands of miles away – incapable of making ends meet. A striking example of globalization, indeed!
I take out my wallet and offer her a hundred rupee note. That is the maximum I can offer. Times have been tight for the last four months.
She refuses to accept any aid but I insist. After many rounds of insistence, she accedes to my requests. Not a penny more than fifty is her condition. I try to make her understand, but in vain. She thanks me profusely. I console her that everything would be all right and ask her to hang in there. I know the consolations are as hollow as her cheeks but that’s the only thing I can say.
Staggered by the sheer sense of honesty (“Beta tumhare paise gir gaye hain.”) and self-esteem (not a penny more than fifty) in such dire straits, I bid her farewell.
Hats off, Dadi!!