November 08, 2007, 12:31 am: I was away when my phone rang. When I had a look at it, it showed one missed call and a voice message. It was Dad - 'Call back quick. No emergency. But call as soon as you receive this message.' My heart sank, expecting something ominous. Dad calls me after midnight, sounds frantic, asks me to call him back immediately, and no emergency? Ever since I left for the US two years back, there have been far too many accounts of bad news; deaths, illnesses and accidents of relatives, family friends or someone we've known, and some of my friends who came here with or after me have had to undergo severe trauma after the loss of their loved ones. And being away from home when you hear about or go through all this doesn't help matters.
So with a shaky hand and trembling fingers, I dialed home. And after a painfully long five seconds, Dad answered - 'Aseem, a little Diwali gift for you. Here, speak.' The receiver at the other end changed hands. 'Aseem, kasa aahes?' were the next words I heard in unmistakably gaavthi Marathi. And although the voice itself had changed drastically since the time I had last heard it, there was no question about who it belonged to. I still pretended not to recognize who was on the line. Lest my little 'happy guess' turn out to be far-fetched. I wanted to hear it in that gaavthi tone. I did. I was right. It was Lakshmi...or 'Lak-su-mi' as she (mis)pronounced it.
Lakshmi was my family's domestic help since before I was born. Right till about four years back. The one person my family could never dispense with. The one person they were overly dependent on. The one person they could unhesitatingly trust with keys to the house when they were away, as they could with a toddler me instead of hoisting me away at a day care. Staying and working in our house every day from early morning to late night, what with her own house being hardly five minutes away from ours, she was as good as family. And to me, as good as a grandmother.
She was my first friend outside my immediate family. As a toddler, she would haul me up and show me the view from our balcony, and we spent the time counting crows perched on the tree. I could never complete the task; the damn birds kept flying in and out. And it didn't help much that I couldn't count beyond ten either. A little later in life came school. And Lakshmi's duties included taking me across the street to the bus-stop in the morning and waiting there till the school bus arrived and I was safely in, after which she would turn around and head home again. No...wait. There was this mandatory waving I had taught her to do, and say 'tata'. That was a must, every morning after the school bus picked me and every night before she retired to her house.
I found it impossible to fathom that she did not know the alphabet. Even little kids knew it. I made it my job to teach her. So I would take my slate and chalk and ask her to repeat after me, simultaneously showing her the symbols I drew on the slate. 'Aaaaa'-'Aaaaa', 'Beeee'-'Beeee', 'Ceeee'-'Sheeee'. That was it. I could never go beyond C, for at this point, my mother, sympathizing with the look of distress on Lakshmi's face, would promptly drag me away.
Later, as I grew more 'knowledgeable' and 'worldly wise', she had to adapt to new kind of roles, including playing an utterly confused Skeletor to my He-Man and a surrogate underarm bowler to my swashbuckling batsman when my friends were not around, though I must admit it was rather annoying to come down the pitch (read 'the corridor outside our flat') almost to where the bowler was standing so as to hit the ball before the second bounce. Lakshmi loved cricket, never mind that she did not quite follow it. It was enough for her to know if 'we' (the Indian cricket team) were winning or losing, a question she asked me every half an hour since the beginning of a match.
But times change. And so do people and the things they do. Counting crows gave way to shooting them in TV-video games. School buses made way for BEST. ( School buses were for kids, I was now older you see!) School was over in flash and I was in college. And while all this was happening, with every passing month, Lakshmi's health was deteriorating. She couldn't work any more. The most major setback was her back problem, which worsened to the extent that she could barely manage to stand. The medics declared that the only way for any improvement might be a surgery, but were not sure that at her age, she would be able to take it. Her family then sent her away to their native place to live with their relatives. This happened about four years back. I was wistfully hoping then, that it wouldn't be the last time I would see or hear about her. After I came to the US, I've been regularly asking my mother about Lakshmi's health, and she has been telling me what she hears about her from her family - that her condition hasn't improved and that she is simply living because she is still alive. And I would try not to imagine the worst.
Cut back to the telephonic conversation. Honestly, all I remember is that I was ecstatic, and that I asked her about a dozen times how she was doing, a dozen times she told me she was perfectly fine, we wished each other a Happy Diwali and she asked me to plan a visit to India soon and come see her. My mother then told me that she seems to have recovered completely, can stand erect, walk and also climb stairs. Miraculously. I didn't think how. Maybe the medics had been wrong. Maybe it wasn't as big a problem as it had appeared to be. I didn't care. All that mattered was that she was okay.
Over the years, I have become a bit more detached from people, other than my closest relations and friends, and the people who matter at the moment. I haven't really made any specific attempts to stay at home when my relatives come visiting. Nor taken any special efforts to track, trace or keep in touch with long lost childhood friends. All that has mattered to me has been my career, my enjoyment and my current friends. Everything I do has been about me. And of late when I have reflected over this, I have inferred that I am now so full of myself that there isn't much space for too many emotions any more. That I have turned myself into some kind of robot, oblivious to reminiscing about good old days and good old people, unmindful about what people might think or say about me, not caring if I wasn't being particularly gentle to someone who was knowingly or unknowingly invading my personal space. And I have been thinking that this change is irreversible. That there is no going back. Some of the emotions and innocence I once had in me have been lost forever to time. Maybe this is how everyone...well...mutates. Maybe this is how it was supposed to be.
So, after hanging up, as has become my nature, I tried not to think of the joy I was suddenly feeling and the reason for it. I tried to close my door to the memories that I've described above. I tried to stop that emotional lump from forming in my throat. I failed on all accounts. I couldn't help thinking. I couldn't close the door. The memories came gushing through into my mind. The lump did form. And I was happy. Happy that not all has been lost. Happy that I can still feel when I ought to feel. Happy that in a time punctuated with tragedies, I can still expect some miraculously good news. Like my little Diwali gift.
Hang in there Lakshmi. Stay healthy. Time flies. You know it. You've seen it. In a few years , you will be in the balcony again , helping my kids count crows. They will be needing someone to hold their hand and take them across the street to the school bus stop. And yes, I shall make sure they resume teaching you the alphabet from where I left. You are not going anywhere before you learn D to Z.
(Photo Courtesy Google Images and www.quirkworks.com)