by Kiran Jhamb
Everyone meets some characters in life who are difficult to forget. They leave a permanent impression on your essence. They teach you a lesson which is imprinted on your mind forever. Om met his nemesis in 1979. So, it has been forty years and he still remembers the incident as if it had happened yesterday only.
That day he was very happy as he had had his roka (a pre-engagement ceremony) a fortnight ago and was going to meet his fiancée. They were supposed to meet outside her office building at Pusa Road. He felt as if he was floating in a sea of happiness riding his scooter and humming under breath. He saw an old woman trying to cross the road, trailing after this woman was her ‘mundu’ (a young servant boy) carrying a basket full of vegetables. He slowed down; the woman too stopped. He thought she was giving him a go-ahead, he speeded, and the woman too decided to cross the road at the same time. He braked, the woman too tried to turn away and she fell. He was sure that his scooter had not touched her, but she started shouting, “You want to kill me, God damn you. May your ship get heavy stones and sink!”
Om too had a mother of her age at home and he was a properly brought up young man – polite, thoughtful, considerate, honest. He parked his scooter on the roadside and went to her. She seemed unhurt but when ignoring her curses, he tried to help her to get up, she could not get up. She screamed as if with pain. Thinking that she was a drama queen – yes, she seemed a proper drama queen - because she had started calling the passersby loudly, “This boy has killed me, he is taking my life, help, help!” He helped her to sit on the pavement.
“Mataji, let me take you to the hospital.”
The few onlookers, who stopped realized that he was helping the old woman and there were no wounds; they hailed a three-wheeler and helped him to load the old woman into the auto, she was still raising a hue and cry wailing, “Oh, my God, help me. He has killed me!”
He asked the driver to take her to the nearby hospital and told the mundu to sit in the three-wheeler assuring the old woman that he would ride along with them. She insisted, “No, no you ride ahead of us, and driver, you follow him. Don’t lose him.” She was giving orders to all of them. Then she had a better idea. She told her mundu to get down and ride pillion behind Om.
Om was still sanguine. The drama queen must not be seriously hurt because she still had her wits about her. His fiancée would have to wait for him, he would meet her definitely. He was grateful that he had extra cash in his pocket intended for hoteling but now for hospital maybe.
As the three-wheeler started, the old hag issued another order, “I won’t go to any hospital, take me to the Railway hospital near Connaught Place.” Om had no option but to go along with her orders. They reached the railway hospital. She told him to go and get a stretcher.
He protested, “Mataji, I will bring a wheelchair, you sit here.”
“No, no I need a stretcher. Mundu, you go with him, don’t lose him otherwise I will send you back to your village.” She was in full command, controlling both of them.
Om and mundu, still carrying the basket of vegetables, went into the hospital. The hospital orderly came out with Om to the entrance of the hospital. A nurse too came out to assess the situation. And the moment the nurse saw the old woman, her demeanor changed, and she went forward with alacrity, “Oh Gupta mummy ji, kya ho gaya?” and she loudly called for help and help immediately materialized and they shifted her onto the stretcher. Mrs. Gupta was now in her element guiding the hospital staff shifting her but did not
forget to order nurse, “Sheela, don’t let this man go. He hit me with his scooter.” Mrs. Gupta was obviously someone important because Sheela had the over-my-dead-body expression now. Om even lost the urge to protest “Mataji, my scooter did not hit you; you fell on your own.”
The ER nurse took her for X-ray because she was complaining of pain in her leg. She threatened her mundu, “Don’t let him go or else! Shout if he tries to leave.” The mundu struck to Om’s side like a limpet. The X-ray showed a hairline crack in her thighbone. Two-three doctors arrived, and consultations went on.
By now all that poor Om could think of was of her fiancée standing forlorn by the roadside, deciding that he was not going to turn up, that he had stood her up at their first date. It was more than an hour past their meeting time.
There used to be no cellphones, even the landlines were not that plenty. He cursed his ill-luck and resigned himself to wait for that witch’s plastering to be over. She was now amongst her known people; she could have let him go. “No, no you stay here. Nurse, keep an eye on him.” Feeling as if he was a criminal, he sat in the waiting room. By now he had gathered that her son was some big shot in the railways but not posted in Delhi at the moment.
After an hour she ordered him to call a taxi. “Mundu, go with him. He will drop us home now.” They brought a taxi and she was helped by the hospital staff and Om to sit in it. She gave her bungalow number in the railway colony. The taxi driver refused saying it was very near and he did not want to go, “You have made me lose my turn for such a small fare!” His raised accusing tone irritated Om but because he had tasted disappointment in the last two hours, he tried to understand the cabbie’s disappointment and pacified him, “I will pay you whatever you want.”
Within five minutes they reached her bungalow. A woman in her early thirties was sitting in the porch picking rice in a thali. The moment she saw the old woman with her leg in plaster, she shrieked and came running “Haye, haye - what happened, Mataji? Are you in pain?” she wailed.
Mrs. Gupta scolded her, “Hold on. I am hurt, not you. Keep quiet. Help me. Has Babloo come back from school?” It was the tone of a strict MIL showing the DIL her proper place. The focus must remain on MIL. She was helped into their living room. Thinking now was the time to get away from this drama queen, Om asked her permission to leave. And she barked, “NO, no you cannot go.” His heart plummeted, “Now what is she going to keep me here for the next fortnight to nurse her?”
And then she ordered her DIL, “Make an omelet of two eggs, bring a glass of milk with dry fruits. This boy has been helping me.” Then she turned to him, “You cannot leave without having something to eat.”
“No, no Mataji, I don’t want to eat.”
“Oh, how is that possible. Young men have good appetites. You have to eat.”
“Ok tea will do, not milk.”
“This is the problem of your generation. You want to drink tea,” and she became chatty, started asking him about his family, whether he was married or not. Om scratched his head, now she looked like a benign old aunty and not a harridan.
He gobbled the omelet with difficulty itching to get away from her overpowering personality. The moment it was politely possible, he scooted from there like a bat from hell.
Her idea of fair play has remained with him throughout his life. Never give mixed signals because this may hinder in getting your orders carried out. He learned not to waste politeness when you mean business. And the most important lesson if your conscience does not permit otherwise, then only stop to help.***