By: Lindsay Boyd
Lakshmi was peeved to think several months had elapsed since she last put together a newsletter. Time was very much at a premium some days, she had to admit, and more often than not it was all she could do to squeeze in her regular duties in the allotted hours.
As a rule the newsletter came together quickly. Those she had prepared in the past required no more than a morning or afternoon’s work on the computer, once she had in hand the text and photos she intended to use. She was not a computer genius by any stretch, yet basic layout and design were aspects of the process she mastered.
But as the wearer of two hats, which had been her lot since she and Ravi started the little community, even relatively short periods of time were becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Her principal job these days was coordinating a shelter for abused women. She and Ravi left an intentional community, located in another part of Bangalore, where they had lived and worked as full-time carers for disabled people, specifically in order for her to take up the post.
What a change the move had brought about in their lives. Sometimes Lakshmi pined for the less complicated existence of the recent past. It was largely in response to that nostalgic yearning that she first floated the idea of establishing a home for disabled kids in one of the slum neighbourhoods of the city.
She had been absent-mindedly fixing her hair in the bathroom at home. Ravi smiled at her reflection in the mirror. He thought the concept honourable but did not want to appear too enthused given they were about to become parents for the second time. Their first-born, Anita, was almost three and their boy – they would name him Dev – was well on the way. Uncanny, he thought, how his wife read his deepest wish – to carry on the spirit of the past but in a different way, more attuned to their evolving needs as parents.
“If you think we could … We’d need a lot of help.”
Lakshmi continued to comb out the knots in her abundant black hair. She returned his smile. “Many people will help us.”
They found the ideal premises, a gated house, in the heart of a slum in the northwest of the city, sure that with some scrimping and saving they would be able to meet the rent. Thus the community of Samya came into being.
* * *
She stressed the point time after time: though the idea to found a community might have come from her it would never stand a chance of succeeding, or continue to be viable, without the support of others. Without the members and staff who worked so hard in the vocational unit on the upper levels of the building, for instance, or the companies and retail outlets that exhibited their goods, the beautifully made candles above all, but also the paper mâché and other items the disabled youngsters expended hours making – coaxed and / or chaperoned as necessary.
They amassed a broad network of friends remarkably quickly. Of course not all could back the community materially, with cash or the type of donations that were integral in helping boost the stock of monthly provisions. But the people whose ‘help’ was limited to prayer or an occasional visit were just as esteemed.
The preceding Christmas and prior to that Diwali entailed the expected rush to prepare a huge consignment of candles. But all went well. The members, staff and volunteers worked doubly hard without so much as a quibble. Others dropped in unexpectedly and played a part in assuring that the orders were filled on time.
Lakshmi took a moment at the Christmas gathering to laud everyone. Among the faces assembled in the courtyard on that sunny afternoon a couple of weeks before Christmas Day were several people vaguely familiar to her at best, or who she could only recall having met fleetingly. They were, she knew, friends of the folks who had been with them in their endeavour from the outset, or friends of their friends.
She stood a moment quietly marvelling at this subtle ripple effect that swelled, little by little, the numbers concerned about them. “We’re growing, aren’t we? And it’s a sure sign that God still loves us. He loves us just as much as when we started. He shows that He cares through you.”
Her words were met with respectful silence. All venerated this woman who was the ostensible reason for their being here listening in this way. But for her vision and courage where would the children have gone? Their mothers – many of them young women with abusive, drunken husbands – would have seen no surcease in sorrowful days spent in an apparently never-ending search for a place where their son or daughter might receive patient love and care.
To prevent her from yet again rapping herself on the head, Manju grabbed her eighteen-month-old daughter Sabitha and with a smile begging Lakshmi’s pardon carried her horizontally in her arms across the courtyard and into the house. Sabi, without doubt, would have remained in the full-time care of her mother. Here, at least, Manju’s burden was lessened. While she worked as a volunteer in the community the care of her daughter was shared.
“Who did we welcome this year and who did we say goodbye to?” asked Lakshmi.
Assorted names popped up. Among those welcomed was Sharmistha, a quiet girl with a fetching smile who lived at Sunshine Orphanage. She was going to need time to trust everyone and feel at home. Then there was Sunil, as keen on cricket as anyone in the community, and Sumaya, whose passion was watching cartoons. Another indispensable cog in the machine who Lakshmi took care to mention was the foreign volunteers. That year no less than seven had travelled from their countries to join the community for a while. Two of the disabled members had been farewelled, Naveen and Joshwa. Naveen’s family had relocated to another part of Karnataka state, Joshwa’s to Maharashtra. Last but not least two of the paid staff had gone on to other pastures.
Lakshmi had announced to the group at large, at a special event commemorating Diwali, that Samya stood at a crossroads. Nothing had changed since then but she thought it best to reiterate the fact in finishing her brief oration, if only to forestall any latent anxiety on the matter. They would not resume work as a collective till the first week of the New Year.
“The search for a place where we can continue our activities goes on,” she explained. “This building will be put on the market just after Christmas and it will probably sell quickly.” She paused long enough to gather Dev, who had wandered over to her from another part of the courtyard, in her arms. “We’d like it to be close so all of you who’ve been with us for the past three years can keep coming.”
* * *
Because she reckoned it would require a miracle, she said nothing about the prospect of staying in the same place, arranging things with the new owners, whoever they happened to be, so that they might use part of the premises. It was not that she downplayed miracles, but there were occasions when she believed it best not to unjustifiably build up the hopes of the staff and members.
“Am I a fraud?” Lakshmi asked her husband as he drove beyond the rust-coloured gate at the side of the big house. A sprightly boy who lived with his family in the much smaller abode in a corner of the same property appeared out of nowhere and closed the gate behind them. Hinges squeaked. Then came the sound of the bolt being shot in the lock.
Watchful for potholes in the road leading through the slum, Ravi shot a puzzled glance at his wife. The usual scampering, half-naked children wandered willy nilly in every direction, to the front, behind and beside the slow moving vehicle. He had wound up his window on climbing in the vehicle, ensuring they would not be besieged with requests for rupiah.
By the broken down gutter near the intersecting road several of the ragged ones were down on their haunches doing their business. Sore, scarred and mangy dogs roamed in prodigious numbers, either among the kids and their families or through the vast mounds of trash to the side.
“Mummy, what’s a fraud?” asked Anita from the back of the car. An inquisitive girl, her questions came at a rapid rate and often cut directly to the core, flummoxing her parents.
Lakshmi ignored her this time. “Why couldn’t I have told them what I really feel is going to happen?” she added. Instinctively, she held Dev, then crawling on her lap, tight.
Understanding her concern, Ravi wobbled his head and made quick to reply. “Samya won’t fall apart. We’ll find somewhere. Eventually.”
For the entire time they had been married Ravi had been good at telling her what she needed to hear. What he had just said was what she needed to hear this time too. But she found scant solace in his assurance. The fact that she so often fudged her feelings concerned her too much.
“Mummy, what’s a fraud?”
“Someone who hides behind a mask,” answered Lakshmi, half-turning toward the girl.
“Oh, goody! Can I hide behind a mask too?!”
In one of the first year newsletters Lakshmi had extemporised on the subject of masks. The thought of the masks people resorted to in their daily lives had preoccupied her for a long time. Typically, she did not spare herself and after a few lines she shifted from the ‘we’ to the ‘I’.
Every morning I think about what mask I will wear today, she had written … boss or friend, humble or egocentric, sad or happy, angry and victimised or at peace with the world … the choices are many. The danger, she pointed out, was that people would lose touch with their true selves. Then she tipped her hat to the members, whose fearlessness was such that they never hid their feelings behind masks. This was why she felt she had done them a disservice earlier.
* * *
“I forgot to mention Kamala.” They were near home. Dev was asleep in her arms. Sounding the horn, Ravi swerved around a slow moving vehicle, looking daggers at the offending driver as he did.
“She left us this year.”
“She may be back.”
“That’s like saying we’ll see Naveen and Joshwa again.”
“You should never definitively say goodbye to anyone. Ever.” Lakshmi gently pounded her husband on the left arm as if to say ‘bosh’. “Kamala’s a special case.” How true that was, Lakshmi thought. Had she not vanished into thin air but returned, as if from the dead, eighteen months later?
Gridlock in the vicinity of the women’s refuge – they resided in a three-bedroom house diagonally opposite – reduced them to stop-start progress. Nevertheless, agitation continued all around. Cars, tuk tuks, motorised scooters, cyclists and other engine driven transport endlessly jockeyed for position.
Resting her chin atop her sleeping son’s head Lakshmi emitted a sigh. “I still don’t have an idea for the newsletter.” Seconds later Ravi pulled up behind the Japanese-made car in front of them. He drew so close that both of them were able to read what was written on the sticker on the rear bumper.
In large, bold lettering were the words, ‘God May Say Wait, But He Never Says Worry.’ The words ‘wait’ and ‘worry’ were highlighted in a colour different to the rest of the text. Ravi and Lakshmi glanced at one another and burst out laughing. “See, it’s possible to wait without worrying yourself sick,” he said, pointing at the sticker. “There’s your topic. Waiting!”
Of course. How had this not occurred to her long ago? She had ad-libbed on gratitude, masks and patience, among other themes, but never waiting, which was the seed or flip side of patience. What better time than now, bearing in mind what the community was going through and all that she and Ravi were dealing with on a personal level – first and foremost Dev’s impending eye surgery.
* * *
Straight after dinner, with the kids snug and quiet in bed, she cocooned herself in the room that she and her husband designated as office space and set to work. In tried and true fashion she brainstormed for several minutes, before beginning the task of tweaking her phrases into coherent sentences.
Well aware that there were two sides to every coin, she first emphasised the pain and difficulty, the sheer onerousness, of waiting. No one born into this world was spared it, she wrote. People could learn much from the experience of nature in that regard. Dry, parched earth waited for rain to quench its thirst. Sightly butterfly wings waited to be freed from the tightness of their cocoons. What a slow process this could be and yet when the fulgent colours were revealed … !
By the same token the expectant mother patiently bided her time in anticipation of the birth of her child. She knew from her own experience that there was no more agonising an undertaking in a woman’s life. But how the pain was forgotten once the newborn was placed in her arms. Everything in creation needed time to flourish, so waiting was vital.
Warming to her theme, she went on: The world is becoming so fast-paced and everyone is expected to keep up. In such a society the art of waiting has been lost; waiting for others has become a waste of time. But what does this mean for those who are slow? Who will wait for them to explore and realise their potential? Will anyone extend a hand to them and say, ‘Take your small steps. I’ll wait for you.’
Lakshmi put down her pen and rested her chin upon her interlaced fingers. How to sum up? A moment’s reflection solved the conundrum. She took up the pen once more and wrote: Life at Samya continues to thrive and it is a beautiful journey. Waiting is critical as it brings security and trust and bonds us. I am loved the way I am and not as society dictates I should be.
Next, she listed in point form many of the notable activities of the past few months. Upon adding pictures, the second of the projected three pages was completed. She began page three with ‘thank yous’ to volunteers, following up with ‘welcomes’ – she was astounded to realise that since the last newsletter ten new faces had added life and zest to the community.
She then appended Vasavi’s contribution. With each newsletter she asked one of the staff to write a summation of their experience. Everyone asked was touched to be given the opportunity to express what they felt, Vasavi, who was the physiotherapist in the vocational unit, no less than any of the others. She had handed in seven simple sentences, about 100 words in all. Lakshmi left them intact.
She then faced the problem of the last third of a page. She could not leave it blank and wondered how she could close the discussion on waiting on a positive note. Waiting brings joy, she said aloud. She repeated the words to herself a number of times until her remembrance of the overlooked Kamala offered the ideal resolution.
As the story went, the tall, rangy woman with the crop of brown hair, while waiting for her auto ride to Samya one morning, wandered away from her mother and boarded a bus bound for northeast Karnataka. The shock for her mother, who was her principal guardian, and everyone in the community was great. When none of the attempts to discover her whereabouts succeeded they fell back on prayer. It would be eighteen months before those prayers were answered. But what elation when they laid eyes on her again. The smiles! Joy! Proof that waiting could bring joy.
Pleased with the result of her evening’s labour, Lakshmi saved the document and shut down the computer. An hour later, lying in bed next to her sleeping husband, her conscience began troubling her. She chastised herself for, again, not having painted the whole picture. She had not mentioned that Kamala, cutting a pitifully sorrowful picture in a bus shelter at her accidental destination in the north, was taken in hand by a woman who worked at a refuge.
It served as her home away from home and would have gone on functioning in that capacity indefinitely had a friend of her mother’s, leafing through a newspaper one day, not stumbled across an article about the group, together with a photo of its members, including the serious, unsmiling Kamala.
Truth be known, Samya had struggled with her from the start. Her taciturnity owed not to an inability to communicate in words, as was the case with many of the others, but rather something undefinable. No one knew for certain why she appeared so lost in her surroundings, present physically but far removed mentally.
Was she, essentially, of the same mould as her elder sister, the beautiful Edwina, who travelled to Mumbai in pursuit of a dream but committed suicide days after being raped and left for dead in a gutter? So much for Bollywood fantasy. Whatever her default community did for Kamala, any positive effect did not translate to her demeanour.
If anything she was worse on her return, more gloomy and introverted than ever. There had been signs in the weeks before she scrambled aboard the fateful bus that she was at long last adapting to the environment, coming out of her shell and learning to do more for herself. At her recent birthday celebration she even smiled and took pleasure in sharing sweets with the others.
That she had taken an enormous backward step became clear within days. She met the simplest requests with blankness. If she did not want to do the things asked of her – and history had shown that she had no wish to do nearly all the things asked of her – she simply walked away, as if stone deaf to all entreaty.
The paid and unpaid staff found it hard to keep track of her, literally. They were busy enough as it was without overly concerning themselves with the non-compliant Kamala at any given time. They often located her sequestered in one of the bathrooms on the upper level. Accessed by a narrow steel mesh staircase, few ventured there. Not uncommonly, her distant, anguished cries delineated her location. They tended to let her be when she howled like that, knowing the plaintive cries could upset the others if too big a deal was made of them. She was heard to cry out more frequently in that manner after the eighteen months absence. So the situation continued until the day Kamala’s mother decided, because of her own deteriorating health, that henceforth she would require her only surviving daughter at home full time.
Sighing, Lakshmi knew she could no more write about this side of Kamala’s story than she could tell the members of her doubts as to the community’s practicality beyond the forthcoming sale. Everything was out of their hands. She hated revealing only half-truths to ones so free of guile, but because she loved them she wanted to spare them anguish.
It was important for her to be, for them, a person of unwavering faith and good cheer. Was she not right in this? She turned on her side so that she lay facing Ravi. She would have asked him if she was justified had he shown any sign of life. But he lay dead to the world, lightly and peacefully snoring. Careful not to wake him, she draped her left arm across his chest.