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The Old Lady
by Rinu Antony, India

Evak climbed the stairs to his house on the first floor and opened the door. He let his office bag slip off his shoulder into a chair. Just carrying the cloth bag with bananas and a plastic container with lemon rice, he stepped out of the house and closed the door behind him.

After walking for a few minutes on two different lanes, he spotted her. The tiny, frail, old lady hobbled towards him. Evak didn’t move but waited till the old lady stood before him. For a few seconds, her face didn’t register anything. Then her wrinkled face lit up. She opened her mouth and Evak knew what she was about to say, so he held his hand up.

Her eyes lingered on the cloth bag he was holding. The childlike confusion with parted lips on an old lady of 89 years amused Evak. He lowered his hand.

“Your bananas,” said Evak.

“Oh! You brought it again without asking for it,” the old lady said. Evak felt proud of himself and smiled. He didn’t know why but he liked spending time with the old woman.

Perhaps, it had something to do with the fact that he never had a grandparent’s presence in his life, and he always longed for it. His maternal grandfather passed away before his mother’s marriage and his grandmother passed away when Evak was five years old. Evak possessed only a few precious memories of her. As for his paternal grandparents, his father’s mother died when his father was a teen and Evak’s grandfather was never interested in his least favourite child’s progeny.

Or it had something to do with the fact that Evak had once read a story about a friendship between a young woman and an old man. In the story, the woman struggled to break through the shield of the cold and grumpy man who had been neglected and abandoned by his children. Eventually the young woman wins over the old man’s trust, and they form a beautiful friendship.

Unlike the story, Evak didn’t know if he could call the old lady his friend. It was over a month ago when he first acquainted with the lady. One evening, while returning from his office, a few distance away from his rented house, the old lady had stopped him and asked him to buy her one dozen bananas and handed him the money. He did. Then she did the same the next day and the day after.

The old lady lived alone in her house. Her two middle aged children lived in the same city and visited her occasionally. She had rented the house below to a data analyst who would cook for her every now and then. Since cooking was not possible for her and her tenant seemed to be busy in his work most of the days, she relied on her neighbour who provided tiffin services. But mostly, it was fruits especially bananas that kept her satiated. Her bowels weren’t functioning properly, she had complained once. Since fruits were the only thing that didn’t disturb her sensitive stomach, Evak decided to buy her fruits from time to time.

Evak didn’t know what he expected from their moment together. Was he expecting her to treat him as a grandchild? Was he pretending that she was his grandmother? Every day after returning from office, Evak would accompany the old lady in her walk for about fifteen minutes. In the beginning, the old lady managed to tell him bits and pieces of her life. The old lady used to teach geography in a school in Delhi. She was born and brought up in Nagpur. She was half Jew and half Indian. She loved playing sudoku but often felt fatigued immediately afterwards.

“I bought something else for you,” said Evak lifting the bag again.

Again the expression of childlike confusion appeared on her face.

“The other day you mentioned that you wished to eat lemon rice, so I bought it for you,” Evak said.

A slight smile appeared on her face and she nodded, “Yes. Yes, I did. Thank you.”

Evak was disappointed. What was he expecting? That the old lady would jump with excitement? Was he expecting an avowal of love and affection or a hug? He pushed down the disappointment like a chronically ill patient gulping down bitter pills without complaining.

Sometimes during work his mind would drift towards the old lady. He would wonder about the world she belonged to. It was so different from the present one.

She would have been prettier in her younger days. Men would have swooned over her.

She had witnessed India’s freedom struggle and independence!

What does she think about the present world which was massively dictated by technology? Does she miss her old world? Does she know anything about social media?

Sometimes he would find himself getting jealous of the female protagonist of the story because she would have long conversations with the old man. Evak couldn’t expect the same from the old lady since she mostly preferred silence over speech.

“Where?” The old lady asked.

“Lemon rice? There’s a South Indian restaurant just opposite to my office building.”

They were walking slowly. Very slowly.

During their walk, Evak would spot a group of men and women around his age chatting together. Never did he feel the need for the company of his own age group. In fact, whenever someone would glance at them, he would feel a sense of pride and belonging. The idea that people would mistake him as the old woman’s grandson thrilled him. Sometimes he would eagerly wait for the office hours to end so he could meet the old lady.

“I never asked about your family,” the old lady said.

I never asked your name, Evak thought.

What shall I say? My mother is having an affair with a neighbour and my father is sleeping with his colleague. Both are very happy!

“My parents are a happy couple. They have a very good understanding,” Evak believed in what he said.

The old lady turned her head towards him. The yellow streetlight above them accentuated her wrinkles. She stopped, forcing Evak to halt as well.

“Then they are among the few lucky ones.”

Evak knew what she meant but he wanted to hear it from her to confirm he was right.

“What do you mean?”

The old lady turned her face and looked over a group of children playing outside a house. Slowly she turned to him, her face devoid of any emotions.

“How many couples do you see around you that are actually happy together?” She asked, hoarsely.

Evak didn’t respond to her. He was cherishing the moment. He was enjoying the idea that they were about to have a long conversation.

“Sometimes I wonder, what is the point of marriage? It doesn’t make sense,” said the old lady in a rasping whisper.

Evak was taken aback. He never imagined an old woman to have anti-marriage view. Shouldn’t she advocate marriage to younger generation than criticize it?

What could have been her story? Evak was intrigued.

Evak hesitated, not knowing how to ask the question. He kept his eyes away from her so that he should not see her disapproval or unwillingness while he asked her, “What about your marriage?”

He pretended that his question was casual, and he wouldn’t care if she answered it or not. But the truth was, no sooner did the words stumbled out of his mouth, he regretted it.

There was no immediate response from the old lady. The discomfort Evak felt was getting unbearable. But he was firm in his pretense and didn’t turn to the old lady.

“I never married.”

Evak was looking at her now. For a moment he was confused.

Didn’t she mention her children visiting her? Did she ever say that, or I imagined it? Is she suffering from dementia? Should I play along with her new story or should I remind her about having children?

“Your children…”

“They are not mine,” then she immediately added, “They are my children but I’m not their biological mother.”

For a fraction of a second, Evak seemed confused then it dawned on him.

“You adopted them?”

The lady looked at him with a pained expression. “Let’s go sit somewhere. My legs are hurting.”

“Oh, right.” Slowly they moved towards a bench near a house. A lone girl was sitting on the bench swinging her small, slender legs left and right. When she saw them approaching the bench, she scooted off and scampered towards the other kids.

“I cannot stand in one place for long,” said the old lady once they were seated.

“I’m sorry, I should have thought of that.”

They both fell silent for a moment.