Story: Matu

By: Malini Misra

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Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rainwater had puddled under the lamppost. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back to look for her once again, but she seemed far away in the corner of the room on her rocking chair. The chair had started creaking and our quiet little home in the outskirts seemed noisy just with the sound of a creaking chair.

Hessarghata is a quiet place in the outskirts of the city, with little or no activity. It has a beautiful lake that is drying up rapidly these days. Alok my husband decided to move here about five years ago. We sold our old bungalow in Malleshwaram, Bangalore and bought a spacious place here in the outskirts. He did not want to compromise on owning a garden and a sit out. We found a house with a vast empty space around it, and that is why he chose this place.

The lake on the other hand had seen it’s hay days, it use to be a flourishing waterbody with life in it. It had a boat club where surfing also took place. In those times, weekends to him meant the ‘boat club’, windsurfing in the lake. Now, during the weekdays he would travel to the city to coach young people in Kabaddi and diving.

Back in Bangalore, after the children moved out, I would volunteer with NGO’s who worked with abandoned children. When we moved I left behind a life, I had built with great intent, and suddenly here I was, amidst the beauty of nature and all of that; but I couldn’t imagine what else was there to this lakeside almost rural life. One can really get bored to death here.

My children Rama and Vasu, moved to other cities in search of greener pastures for their studies and jobs. But now they have come by to see us in pretext of their holidays.

My mother in-law stays with us, she’s been with us since my grandfather, died. Of all the eight children she decided to live with us. I still don’t know what made her choose us.

Time is slipping by; I have so many questions, to which I need answers. She can’t go away without answering them. Maybe within a week’s time, I must ask her everything. I don’t know what the hurry is, but my mother in law who is fondly called ‘Matu’ by half the world is growing really old, quite fast; and I must ask her. Though I knew in a corner of my heart, that I must enjoy the questions and not run after answers, I had to know.

My own grandmother was not as beautiful as this lady is. There was something else about her. From the time the matching Bindi’s adorned her large forehead, to the time when there was none, she looked pristine in every era. I had never seen her in make up and everyone knows one such person in his or her life, who doesn’t try too hard but looks flawless; for me it is ‘Matu’.

I could see her through the window of my verandah, as she sat outside in the garden drying her silvery grey hair, I thought to myself, how would I be at her age? I already seem to have too many strands of white, and they are not even as thick as they could be. What did she do to have such lovely hair and skin. She washes her face with milk or yogurt everyday, but apart from that I don’t see other beauty routines. Maybe it’s the food she’s eaten. But from more than two decades, I have been cooking her meals. Maybe I ask her soon.

I want to go to the garden and sit next to her and ask her so many things, about her hair, her complexion, about her other children, about the food I make, is she happy, is she sad, is she doing alright. She keeps humming songs all the time, I wonder how is she so happy and what keeps her going. She always asks me to sing her favorite song from the modern numbers.

“Mein ek sadi se baithi hun,
is rah se koi guzra nahi,
kuch chand ke rath to, guzre the,
par chand se koi utra nahi.”

I translate it in my head.

“I am sitting here from one whole century
No one crossed this path,
some chariots from the moon came by,
while nobody really got down from the moon.”

While I sing the song, I see my eight-year-old self. I was in my shimis on stage, and I couldn’t reason why I would wear my underclothes for a performance. It was my turn to sing next. If that weren’t enough, I forget my song, every time it is my turn. I go blank, as if I forget the most important thing in life, like brushing or cleaning after toilet. For some reason I kept repeating this every time I was on stage. As I kept singing I saw her moving her lips to the song, but couldn’ t hear her sing.

I want to join her in the garden, maybe we sing the songs again, maybe she tells me the same stories of her marriage, his affairs abroad, maybe her tryst with making round phulkas at the age of 13. How her heart skipped a beat when she saw him the first time. He was in a match then, playing football. Maybe she repeats the story about her first night at 16. Maybe she asks for some sweet again. There is some Mishri with many medicines, in her precious personal cane-basket, which she keeps beside her. I take some of it and go towards the garden. The sun is harsh, I want to tell her to come in; that her hair is dry enough. I reach the garden crossing the pots in the way.

“Rama, where did she go? Did you see matu? She had come out here as usual,” I asked. Rama usually nonchalant says something but all I could understand is she gestures me to help her in the kitchen. Rama is an engineer and a brilliant one I hear. When she was growing up I was tensed about my husband and thought he should earn more, he should spend more time at home, he should protect me all the time, he should stand for me, even if it was against his mother. Maybe this resulted in me being really tough on her and Vasu.

I am still puzzled about Matu, I look back to see she has gone back to her room. Still wondering how she has become so fast at walking, she never could have a fast pace due to acute arthritis.

Whenever we sat outside in the lawn, Matu asks, “Is there a river there? I see those boats, maybe they are going back home, isn’t it?”, since our house faced an empty ground, I assumed she sees things she wants to see, like you see an oasis in a dry desert. Maybe it’s the age, could also be her old spectacles whose power is rising with every passing day. She refuses to wear them, and then sees strange things. I laugh and tell her yes, that we expect a storm too.

It was windy and rains were predicted. It was getting darker and cloudier. With the lake drying up sooner than ever, I prayed for mercy, as I knew the lake was home to not only many aquatic and wild lives but also a resource to so many villages near by. And then where would my husband take his white surfboard? I was worried for him, the lake had been a big motivator for the family to shift there and if that dried, I was afraid, it would be like loosing direction of life.

I went into the kitchen after Rama and Vasu retired to their rooms. Rama would usually read and Vasu would play the guitar. But today I heard their lights go off in sometime. I had told them I would be waiting for their father to get home as it was getting increasingly windy and it had started to drizzle with slight thunderstorm accompanied by lightning. Usually the crawlies and other pests, and oh yes, snakes too, do the rounds at this time of the evening. So, I got busy shutting the doors and windows to keep everything at bay. I wanted to sit down with Matu and ask her a few things and tell her what I really wanted to say.

I went into Matus room and found it empty. The usually untidy room was unusually neat. The bathroom light was on and I assumed she’s there. Her spectacles were in front of the mirror and her cane basket in one corner of the room. Everything was neatly arranged and there was no trace of her dirtying the room. I asked if she was in a mood for some chat, which she usually is. When I got no answer, I stood at the door and spoke loud enough for her to hear. “Ma, when you are done, come out, I am in the sit out. It’s going to rain, we can chat”, I said. I think I heard an ok, so I came back into the sit out. There was no trace of my husband as of yet.

I was reminiscing how to ask Matu everything that I wanted to ask her. How would I start? From where would I start the questions?

I could say, “when I was young I must have been a little arrogant, or maybe really arrogant, not that I wanted to, maybe I was unaware and actually ignorant. Maybe I mistook a lot of things you said.”

“Once there was a major fight, and there was a push by accident and you even fell to the floor. How did you forgive me? Or did you forgive me at all?”

We had our fights like every daughter in law and mother in law fight. But, she loved her elder son more than anything in the world, and I was always curious to know, what made her stay with her youngest son, and his family whom she didn’t think much of.

I must have dozed off waiting for Matu and my husband. I heard noises from the kitchen; I was sure she was looking around for her Mishri there. But when I went closer it was my husband. He must have used his keys to let himself in. He was in the kitchen boiling some milk for him and me. He looked at me with a tilted head, and asked me how I was. He put his hand on my head and then hugged me and gave me my favourite glass of hot chocolate.

“What about Matu’s glass? She also likes it hot chocolate, you know that better than I do.” He looked at me and smiled, there was a sigh, of what I couldn’t really make that out.
“Lets go in,” he said. His arms were still around my shoulders, one hand holding the mugs for both of us.

As I followed him, I looked behind at Matu’s room, the curtains were blowing up down due to the wind, and there was a faint light from her room. She had asked for a bedside lamp as she got up too many times in the night for a leak.

Usually she didn’t reach the toilet and in the morning I ended up grumbling and cleaning the mess. But like any of us adults, she denied, held her head high and always said, “the cat dropped all the water from my jug last night, don’t you clean it, the maid will do it. Please don’t bother.”

I really tried hard to have one last peak at her before I went to sleep but couldn’t see her, maybe because she was on the other side of the bed, but I thought to myself, “I would ask her everything tomorrow morning.”

 

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