At the furthest corner of the muddy lane she sits, huddled up like a cat in winter. Besides her lies her rag-bag, containing the motley collection of fabrics, and may be some of her memories. She is old and shrunken, her face more furrowed than the newly ploughed paddy-field. She sits there close to the rickety mud wall, as I pass by, many times a day. I find her sitting under thatched roof of someone’s house, whenever I return home—from work, from the market or from an outstation trip. Her forlorn figure has now got deeply etched in my psyche, something I cannot simply wish way.
I am often bothered by questions about her existence. Where she gets her food from: why does not she move out to a drier or cleaner open space of the city? There she may easily draw the attention of some charity. Why does not the administration provide her food and shelter, maybe the old age pension and the like? How can government come to her rescue when she has chosen this back alley to be her shelter?
She appeared in our locality one day from nowhere. Someone said her sons had shut her out. Someone else held that she was insane and pointed to the rag-bag and her knotted hair to support this view. Well, that suggestion was accepted widely, as that way her condition looked natural and justifiable. It helped easing the guilt conscience of every rational member of the locality, who didn’t want to do anything about her yet felt a vague discomfort in her presence.
I was also a member of this group which did not want to see her suffering, yet do nothing to ameliorate her plight. But can we impose lunacy upon her just because it suits our traditional thinking patterns and to wriggle out of our predicament? To me she looks a completely normal person, constantly reminding us about our hollowed civilization and progress. Her very condition reduces to naught all the high sounding ideas like social welfare, welfare state, responsive administration and so on. And when she mutters—as she occasionally does—I feel as if she is mocking at our high claims about safeguard of human dignity.
She also reminds me of the indomitable human spirit. Like Hemingway’s gallant old man she fights the harsh elements single-handedly, without aspiring for society’s succor. Society for her is a rude bunch of self-seeking individuals, absorbed in their own affairs.
As the monsoon rain lashes the whole world in the middle of the night, accompanied by the rolling thunder, I shudder in my bed haunted by the image of the wretched old woman. I know many others like me must be experiencing the same uneasiness inside the security and comfort of their homes. But the resolute character seems to reassure us all, “Sleep on, you sentimental fools, for I can take care of myself.”