Chellama was playing with my five-year-old daughter while I entered my home. They heard my footsteps and looked up. My little Kithi came running towards while Chellama got up and headed towards the kitchen. Five minutes later I was served some hot ginger chai and onion pakora. It was a routine that started four years back. I sat down on the little-cemented corridor of my single bedroom house and watched my two beautiful angels play. Tears kissed my eyes as I watched them play, my mind drifting back to that rainy day, four years back
Four years before:
I stood at the bus stop holding my little one close to my bosom. She snuggled up to me as I tried to infuse all the warmth left in me. There was nothing much left. I stood shivering as the cool breeze showered me with an occasional drizzle. Maybe the chillness was within me. I waited at the bus stop with nowhere to go, looking at the buses, trying to figure out my destination; and that's when I met her. She looked at me with a curious smile. Her unkempt white hair looked sticky and caked with portraying years of abandon. Her skin looked parched, and the wrinkles were pronounced. She wore a dirty striped white shirt that hung about her knees. It had hidden most of the soiled and torn yellow cotton saree. She had an equally dirty little bundle of what I assumed were clothes. There was small hand pouch tied around her waist.
I looked away from her. My daughter kept sneezing now and then, and each time it happened, the old lady's tuft white eyebrows rose up in concern. I moved a little away from her with apprehension. Her shoulders drooped down a little. My daughter started shivering, and her coughs became incessant. All I had on me was my little girl and a hundred rupees note. Taking my daughter along with me to the pharmacy without an umbrella would be suicidal for my baby. Hot tears trickled down my cheek
"Paapa!" I heard a hoarse old voice near me. I turned around and froze in shock as the old lady stood beside me. My hands tightened around my baby convulsively.
"Am not going to take away your child!" the old woman said. "I bet I can't run as fast as you" she chuckled. A tentative smile touched my lips. Common decency made me respond.
"Tell me, um... amma " I replied. The old woman's stance changed when I uttered the last word. She turned away from and wiped a tear.
"Looks like your baby is ill!" she said.
"Yes," I replied, "I can't go to the pharmacy now; not carrying her along with me!" I murmured.
"If you don't mind" she hesitated. "Can I give some medicine to your baby?" she asked
"I ...ah... I don't know" I equivocated. She gently touched my hands.
"Trust me!" she said and gently nudged me forward.
She fumbled with her hand-string pouch and produced a tiny bottle that had a murky looking dark green liquid. She opened the stopper, drank a little from it and looked at me. Had she made some gesture I would have run away. She just kept looking and waited patiently. I gently handed her my baby.
"She shifted my daughter to her lap in a swift yet delicate motion. She started murmured sweet nothings as she gently tipped my daughter's head down and poured the liquid down her throat.
"There...there," she said, as miraculously made a spoonful of sugar appear before my daughter. She fed it to the little one while I watched it with ill-concealed fascination.
"First baby?" she enquired.
"Yes" I nodded my head
"I have handled many children in my lifetime," she said with a small smile.
"You don't have a place to stay?" she said
"I...ah... How?" I stammered
"Because no woman in her right mind would carry a little child outside without an umbrella in this weather and you were crying" she stated in a matter-of-fact tone. There was no condescending or judgmental octave note in her voice. I told her everything.
"It was a brave decision to walk out of your husband if you can call that bastard that" she spat "He bloody doesn't have any rights to sell your body!" she said with passion.
I cried as watched my daughter nestle close to the old woman.
"Good riddance I say!" she said. "So what are you going to do now?" she asked
I gave her a hysterical laugh "I have no idea!" I whispered, and tears started flowing afresh.
"shhh...!" she commanded. "Crying isn't gonna solve anything," she said.
"Here!" she handed my daughter to me with gentle care and turned around and started rummaging her cloth bundle. A moment later she whirled back with a small green velvet case. She thrust it in my hands.
"What is this?" I questioned.
"Open it" she commanded
There was a thick gold chain of about ten sovereigns and two diamond studs. I looked at her taken aback.
"What is this?" I tried thrusting it back to her hands
"Take it!" she commanded. "They're of no use to me. It has been sleeping in this bag for the last five years" she pushed it back to me fiercely.
"You could live a pretty decent life if you sell this!" I said, "Why are you living in the streets then?" I asked her in a harsh tone
She didn't look intimidated. "I've lived all the life I could live," she said in a firm tone.
"This child on the other hand" she gestured towards my daughter, "hasn't even started her life; you have more need for this than I do!" she said. I was shell shocked; behind the mask of caked mud and carefully constructed negligence, I could see a woman of authority that usually came with money and power.
"Who are you?" I whispered
"Just another old lady!" she said curtly
"Who are you?" I asked again
"Am a woman who has lived her life, and knows when to stay away from other's life when my need for them is over!" She said with emotion. She revealed so much about her in that one sentence, and it was the just the needed spark that ignited my rock solid decision.
I kept the jewel case safe in my blouse. I bent and picked her cloth bundle.
"What are you doing?" she asked with apprehension
"Come let's go!" I said in a firm tone.
This time she was intimidated. "Are you doing this because I loaned you some stupid jewels?" she whimpered, her tone betraying her hurt
I turned around and gently took my hand "No!" I said "Am doing this because I need a mother" and I realised my voice ringed bright with sincerity.
The old woman's skin turned moist with her tears "Will you promise me one thing?" she asked
"Anything!" I replied
"Please don't ask me anything about my history," she said.
"Oh, I know who you are," I stated with a smile of absolute conviction.
"You are my Chellama!"