[email protected] Hush Post: Every wrinkle, every indelible line surfacing and ending in their soft skin tells the distance of experiences they have travelled, every freckle on their face is like a destination, and white strands of hair tell not just their age but the grey matter that resides inside. Their mind is a reservoir of sweet and sour experiences, tales, lessons learnt, mistakes made and also an impression of the child hidden inside.
The best story-tellers are the old ones who tell tales of self fought wars, fighting the deadliest of diseases, stories of contemporaries, gossips, affairs of the elderly, of the ones two generations older than you. They are great philosophers, psychologists, and even profess good amount of folk sense of science. They know what is going on in the mind of a child, a teenager, a married couple, a retired man, because they have already crossed these hurdles and are sitting at the fence and observing others run the same race. Some might run better than them, some might just give up halfway through, some rant over the roadblocks, some overcome and many just disappear.Among the many stories of the elderly, there is a story of Radha, my grandmother-in-law. She lived more than 100 years and had countless moments of joy and sorrow to share. I am scratching just the surface of the calm sea of emotions, experiences, losses and gains of her life. Married at 15, then separated, she then married my grandfather-in-law. This must have been in the 1930s. Four infant mortalities later, Radha fought the toughest battle of her life. She got afflicted with small pox, called chechak. Small Pox was a devastating disease back then. Those who survived never fell ill again, the local folklore held it. She became a perfect case study. For over two years, she and her husband were physically quarantined together which means socially ostracised too. Living in separate quarters on the outskirts of the village, not being able to move out in the open with fever rising and dropping each day, feeling sick for days together with nobody attending to them, food would be slid through the door from as far as 12 feet. Those who bought the food would cover their faces and make a vanishing act within seconds. The husband-wife duo isolated for close to two years, just in case the contagious disease spreads, left her scarred physically and emotionally for the rest of her life.
But then the two years of quarantine ended. Finally, she gave birth to a child. And then two years later during India’s independence and partition, she helped a Muslim Gujjar escape the wrath of the villagers and sheltered him for six months in a cave like dwelling and convinced everyone that he be treated as human being. For a woman, with a two-year-old son to stand up for a cause at the time she had just hit her 30s was what made her a woman of extraordinary courage.
She went on to be a mother of six children, she was still beautiful and smart, went about her daily jobs with indomitable will and finesse. Without any formal education she learnt to read, and would recite verses in Sanskrit, Urdu, Awadhi from Kabir, Ramayana, Mahabharata, other literary works till her last days, and specialised in repartee. “Bada hua to kya hua, jaise ped khajoor panthi ko chhaaya nahi, phal laage ati door.” It means it’s of no use to be huge like a date tree, which gives neither shade to travellers nor allows its fruit to be plucked with ease. This was one of her favourite jibes full of love when she would not get to see her children for a long time. One of her grandchildren, who is now over 40 years of age, learnt her one-stanza concise Ramayana which she muttered in the mornings. Back in the 80s, when the Ramayana of Ramanand Sagar was broadcast on TV, she would tell the coming Sunday story in advance to the entire village. She would independently manage her chores even in the twilight of her life. You could read stubbornness, complaint, fulfilment, satisfaction, angst, pride, fun, anger every human emotion on the innumerable lines on her face. And sometimes the parting shot was packed with such wisdom that people had a hard time to comprehend.
Hers were not some extraordinary achievements, but the deep lines cutting across her face were an impression of the courage, grace and passion with which she lived her life. And all those impressions captured in the photographs during her last decade are an inspiration of a hard life lived with extraordinary courage.