During last summer, I always found Aji, meaning grandma in the Newari language, under the shade of a house on the pavement. She would be either smoking ‘Bidi’, a kind of cigarette in the market rolled in a plant leaf, or lying on a small mat out there.
Aji had disheveled grey hair that would be loosely tied at the back with a rubber band. She wore an old ‘Choli’, a blouse, and a cheap ‘Saree’ with ‘Patuki’, a band of long rectangular plain fabric wrapped around the waist to keep the body stable and to avoid back pain while working and walking around, smudged with dirt. Her face with squinty eyes was a land of wrinkles and creases of old age. She kept on moving her tongue inside her toothless mouth as if she were munching something.
“Aji sanchai hunuhunchha?” meaning ‘Are you fine, grandma ?’ I often asked her walking past her.
“Sanchai chhu, babu” would be her usual reply meaning ‘I am all good, my boy.’
Then, her expectant eyes would fall on me. I would grab my purse and take out a bill of 50 rupees to give her. Sometimes, I would give her a packet of biscuits or noodles. Her face regardless of a treat or the money but both I guess, would brighten up with happiness.
It took me almost a month to know that she was not a homeless oldie. Her house was almost twenty feet north of the place where I would often find her. She was famous among the local people as Aji. Somebody would give her money. Others would give her things to eat. For this, she was detested and disgraced by her one and only son and his wife.
The neighbors well knew Aji’s plight. However, they could not do anything for her because her son was a power-manipulator being an aide of an influential local leader of a political party. All they could do was expressing their good heart feelings towards her by offering such a small help of money or things.
Aji, would also often try to speak out about the improper treatment to her by her son and daughter-in-law. She would also sometimes cry in the public. The people witnessing her tears and sorrows would watch her sympathetically but helplessly.
There were many different stories people in the neighborhood knew about Aji and her son and daughter-in-law. In some stories, even her grandson and granddaughter were included. Most of them were horrifying and ill-suited stories about how an elderly senior woman was treated by her children and grandchildren.
Aji’s grandson loved her a little, people said. But he lives away from home somewhere in the Arab country as a migrant worker. Her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter often ill-treat her by a number of means.
A heard story is like this: one of her relatives had bought her a sweater to protect her from the nasty wintry cold, but the next day her daughter-in-law and granddaughter snatched it away.
“You oldie, you don’t need this.” Aji’s granddaughter reportedly said, “You can do with your Barki, meaning a blanket scarf.”
When I heard about this, I felt my blood was boiling. However, I could not do anything for her except pitying her. Our society is apathetic towards senior citizens like Aji who suffer from being forsaken in their own families. The family takes it as a matter of hard-hitting on their ‘fake’ social pride if somebody else wants to take charge of looking after them and keep maltreating their elderly family members on the other hand.
Once I found Aji well clad in a Sari and Choli. Her hair was oiled and well-made. She was not wearing dirty ‘Patuki’ as usual. Instead, she was wearing a clean and new one. She was also wearing ‘Tilhari’ on ‘Pote’, traditional gold jewelry of Nepali women mounted on a necklace of Pote, small tubular beads of glass, and gold earrings. Her hair had been braided in two plaits. She was not the usual Aji that I used to meet on the pavements every morning; meek and humble. However, she was sitting at the same place in the same posture. She was smoking the same ‘Bidi’ in the same manner of fashion. As soon as she saw me, she welcomed me with her toothless smile as usual.
“Aji, you look like a young lady today,” I teased her, “What’s the secret behind it?”
“Do I?” she said softly and smiled. Then she puffed in the smoke from her Bidi and blew it into the air. The smoke wafted in the air gently before it was swept away by the wind.
I was on my way hurry to work. I kept heading my way but thinking about Aji who was surprisingly changed with her outfit. That evening when I was my way back, she whispered in my ears, “My son and daughter-in-law took me to an office today. They got some cash support for my good care.”
She grinned at me toothlessly. I perceived an irony hiding in her grin. I remembered all those past days when I often found her in a condition of a tramp on the same pavement and gave money or food out of pity. I didn’t even know she had her family for many days. Her pathetic condition always implied to everyone around her that she was helpless and uncared.
I was convinced that day that Aji’s life was going to transform now. I might not meet her there anymore. She would have a better and happier daily routine ahead. But the very next day, I found her in the same condition as before. I was so sorry for her.
Days passed, and my walk by the pavement continued. Aji had gone missing for a few days. I wondered where she might have gone. My memory of her gradually faded out.
Around the same pavement when I heard a nearby voice saying, “Poor Aji! She has been bed-ridden due to stomachache, but her son and daughter-in-law are not ready to take her to hospital.”
I understood why Aji had disappeared for all those days. I thought I should visit her that evening. Unfortunately, I could not manage time to.
“Do you know Aji?” Ramila, my flatmate asked early in the next morning, “She died last night !”
I could not believe my ears. Aji came to my imagination and shot me the same cutie toothless smile.
Her body was being prepared for the funeral. Her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter were in a corner of a room, sitting quietly. There was already a huge crowd of people. At that moment, I could overhear some neighboring men’s and women’s whisperings.
“She would not die so soon if she had been taken to hospital in time.”
“She had begged her son to take her to hospital yesterday afternoon” another voice whispered.
“She had been complaining of her stomach burn frequently” another and another…
A white car approached and the crowd raised their sight towards it. A well-built man in a cream suit got off the car. He was a leader of a political party with which Aji’s son was associated. Two other men came out of the car producing a flag of their party. They covered Aji’s body with that flag, an ill and notorious practice of the society to show that the entire party line is shocked by her demise. Then, the leader called for a moment of silence pretending they pray for the peace of Aji’s departed soul. The crowd followed and things got done.
The funeral moved on. The sound of a blown conch sounded as depressed and as gloomy as the penniless death of Aji itself.
Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash.
The writer Parshu Shrestha (1981), a lecturer of English language and literature and a creative writer, lives in Itahari, Nepal.