Life At Neralu
Life At Neralu
Today is her mother’s birthday. Twelve years ago on this day was the last time that she thought she had a family. Radhika stood in front of her mother’s small photograph that she had put on her table, as tears rolled down her cheeks. She could not stand for long because of her knee pain. So, she went out of her room and sat on the stone bench in the little garden. The early morning sunrays were very soothing. Though she had her little prayer book with her, somehow, she could not concentrate on chanting the prayers. She closed the book and sat thinking about yesterday’s events in the Ashram - Neralu Ashram, which has been her home for the last five years.
Godha had been sick since last year. She was admitted to the nearby hospital thrice during one year. Her diabetes and hypertension were troubling her a lot. She came into this Ashram just 18 months ago. But from day one, she was depressed. She was missing her son and daughter and grandchildren a lot. Her son admitted her here, saying, “Sir, I lost my job and have now got an offer from Kuwait. I am going there, leaving my wife and son with her parents for the time being, as I do not have the resources to maintain a family right now. My sister lives with her in-laws and they too are financially very weak. They are not ready to take care of my mother. That is why I am admitting her here so that she will be safe. I will make some money and come back. I will then take her home.” Of course, the grounds were genuine but Godha could not take it so lightly. She cried for days on end. All others tried to console her. Every time she went to the hospital, Rajagopal Sir contacted her daughter and daughter-in-law. Her daughter visited her just once but her daughter-in-law never came. The son, who used to call her once a week, gradually stopped calling her. Yesterday, Godha was admitted to the hospital for the fourth time but breathed her last within a few hours after that. When Rajagopal Sir called her daughter, she cried over the phone but expressed her inability to arrange for the funeral because of her sickness and financial constraints. She stayed very far away from the Ashram. Godha was bid goodbye by Rajagopal Sir and a few of the inmates.
Going twelve years back, Radhika remembered that unfortunate day. It was her mother’s 80th birthday. Her elder brother had invited her younger brother with his family. He had organized home and a grand feast. He had invited a few of their family friends too. Everything went on well until lunch. Immediately after lunch, her mother suddenly collapsed. Everybody was shocked. Radhika brought the doctor from the nearby clinic. He came and confirmed that her mother was dead. By evening the funeral was conducted. After the funeral, her brothers sat in the backyard with their wives, The two children of her elder brother and younger brother’s daughter were playing on the terrace. Radhika was preparing dinner. She could hear her brothers and sisters-in-law talking.
“Now that Amma is gone, Radhika is alone. She cannot stay alone here. And she does not need this huge house.”
“Yes, but where can she go? She has no job. She dropped out from the ninth standard. She is not street smart too. Maybe one of us could take her along.”
“That is not possible Ravi. Radhika has got used to staying on her own. She is so bossy and loud-mouthed. She doesn't even understand that children need to be handled very gently. She yells at them if they are naughty or noisy. If we do not let her cook, she will feel ignored. If we ask her to cook, she will feel exploited”, this was her elder brother’s wife Malathi.
“I agree with Malathi. I too cannot adjust with Akka (that’s how she addressed Radhika). Spending a few hours once in a way itself was so irritating. Of course, she took care of Amma. But, she has no patience or civility. Maybe we can put her in some senior citizens’ home”, said Sandhya, her other sister-in-law.
“Sandhya, are you mad. She is just 54 or 55 years old. No Ashram will admit her. But we cannot waste such a huge property. We will sell the house so that we both could buy our own apartments and maybe lease a small tenement for Radhika, where she could stay on her own”, said Prakash.
“Who will provide for her maintenance?” asked Ravi.
“Let us both contribute a bit and pay her”.
Radhika was very upset. Why was she so dumb? Had she also completed her studies and got into a decent job, she could have stayed on her own, like Vanaja, her aunt. She had helped her brothers so much and all the while took care of her parents. Her father died four years ago. Why did he not think of her future and provide something? He did try getting her married when she was of marriageable age. Was it her fault that she was not beautiful or intelligent? The few eligible bachelors who came to see her rejected her outright. “She is not educated. Neither does she look beautiful.” This was the general description of her. After she turned 35, her father stopped scouting for grooms. It turned out advantageous for the parents, as they got a full-time maid! They did not want to go live with the sons and lose their independence. Radhika served them whole-heartedly, without ever complaining about their selfishness. ‘What can they do? It is not their fault that I was not interested in studies or I was not born beautiful. I took after my father, who had a large capsicum nose and teeth that seemed to be double the normal number and hence protruding out. He was short, dark, and fat. I wonder how Amma, who was wheat-skinned and quite good-looking, though not ‘beautiful’, agreed to marry Appa!’ These were Radhika’s thoughts. She, of course, knew that in her Amma’s days, nobody would wait for the girl’s approval. Her grandfather was a poor farmer. Amma went to school only up to the fifth standard. She was the eldest of six daughters and two sons. When Appa’s proposal came, all that her grandfather thought was, ‘the boy is a graduate and works in the Postal Department. He will earn a pension after retirement. He is the only son and his sisters are settled down. Of course, one of them did not marry but she is on her own in Mysore. Bharathi will lead a comfortable life.’
Of course, Radhika’s mother Bharathi did lead a pretty comfortable life, except for the taunts and hurtful comments of her in-laws, though she served them very sincerely. Radhika’s father was a good man but had no guts to advise his parents. Instead, he pacified Bharathi and assisted her as much as he could. His parents lived for six years after his retirement and died within a gap of three months in the same year. They were affectionate to Radhika and would advise Appa, “Naani, your sons are married and settled down with their wives. This poor girl is all alone. She is not educated or employed. What have you thought about her future? You should plan something for her.” But Appa thought he was immortal and did not bother about that.
On the 13th day after the death of their mother, Ravi and Prakash were relaxing in the living room. Malathi mooted the topic and Ravi said, “Radhika, this house is very old and huge. You cannot live here all alone, as it is not safe. Instead, we have decided to sell this house off and buy you a small tenement in a friendly locality, where you can live peacefully. What’s your opinion?”
Radhika was silent for a few minutes. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She said, “I am a beggar. How can I choose? Do as you wish”, and ran into the room. Everybody was silent for a few minutes. Then, they quickly discussed the next step in the process of the sale. Within the next five days, they found a builder, who was interested in buying the property. The sale was completed in a month. Prakash had returned home but came back for the registration. After the registration, Ravi and Prakash took Radhika to a small room on the first floor of an old house in the congested Malleshwaram area and told her, “Radhika, for the time being, we have rented this room. You can stay here. The landlord and landlady reside downstairs. They are very nice people. As soon as we get a decent house for purchase, we will finish the process and take you there. Keep this money for the time-being for your expenses. We will shift all your belongings along with the stove and vessels tomorrow. The landlord and landlady have gone to their daughter's house and they will return after a couple of days.”
They shifted her clothing, a cot with bed, a small cupboard, a plastic chair, and the kitchen stuff on the next day. “Ravi, I want that photo of Appa and Amma, the picture of Venkateshwara and the pair of silver lamps.” Ravi happily let her take those things. Ravi and Prakash left with their families on the same night. Radhika felt very lonely and cried her heart out throughout that night. She never imagined that her life would change so much in such a short time. She was very hurt by the attitude of her brothers and sisters-in-law. They could not let her stay with them even until some arrangement was made! Was she so bad? She was not educated but she was not dumb. She knew she could demand some share from the property as their sister. But she never spoke because she did not feel like it. Anyway, they agreed to buy her a small house. She would wait patiently.
Radhika had a shock after the landlord and landlady returned home. She ran down to meet them. She helped them with the bags from the autorickshaw. Once they entered the house, the lady asked, “What’s your name?”
“Oh! Yes. They did mention. Get the broom and clean up the house first. You shall then start cooking. After cleaning up, go to the nearby vegetable shop and buy some vegetables.”
Radhika was confused. “Maami, should I …...clean….. the house?”
“Of course. Why? Were you not instructed about the work here by your earlier employer?”
“I think his name was Ravi. His brother too had come with him. They said, since Ravi was going abroad, he wanted to make some arrangements for you, as you had worked for them for more than 25 years. They responded to our ad in the newspaper, for domestic help.”
Radhika was stunned. Her whole body started shivering. Anger, sorrow, and disappointment engulfed her. She silently started sweeping the floor, as tears dropped on the floor. She did not say anything.
Radhika felt cheated. Could her own siblings be so heartless? Maama and Maami were nice to her. But she had to slog from morning tonight. Ravi or Prakash never turned up. They did not even bother to enquire about her welfare. How could they face her after what they had done? She too stopped thinking of them. Her age started giving her trouble. She stayed with Maama and Maami for five years. Then Maama died of a heart attack. Maami was also very old and weak. So, her daughter somehow convinced her and took her away.
“Thank you so much, Radhika. You have served my parents relentlessly for five years. They were very happy with you. I am sorry that I now have to sell this house. You have to make your own arrangements. I have credited fifty thousand rupees to your account. This is my phone number. If you need any help, contact me. You can stay in the room upstairs until you find some other place.” The daughter bid her goodbye.
Once again Radhika had nowhere to go. She remembered Patel, the grocer down the street, who was very friendly with her and told her that he required a cook for his house. She went to him. He was too happy to employ her but he had no space for her to live. He suggested she hire a room for rent. It took her a week to zero in on a very tiny room nearby. She had to shell out thirty thousand rupees for that room, as the lease amount for three years. The room was literally the space below the staircase, converted into a room. There was a small bathroom-cum-toilet in the backyard of the house for her use. The owner’s family lived in the main house, which too was not a very big house. It was a double bedroom house built on a site measuring just 15’ by 20’ and six members lived in that house. The owner was a vegetable vendor and his wife was a domestic maid, working in six houses nearby. She got Radhika jobs in 3 houses - cutting vegetables in one house, making rotis and sabzi in another house, and cleaning and bathing an old woman in the third house. Radhika managed all four jobs efficiently, though her health started deteriorating. She started feeling very weak and tired. She was 62 years old. One day, she felt giddy and fell on the roadside. She hurt her left foot, as it got stuck between two stone slabs that were jutting out of the footpath. When she gained consciousness, she saw a small crowd around her.
“What happened Ajji? Are you okay? Your foot is bleeding a lot. We will take you to the nearby doctor”, said one good samaritan. Three of them helped her get up and put her in an auto. They went to the nearby nursing home. The doctor washed her wound and dressed it.
“Are you diabetic? Do you have hypertension? Are you on pills? Your BP is a bit high. We have to get your sugar levels checked. Come back with the test results”, the doctor handed over a prescription.
Radhika thanked the three young men who helped her. They insisted on dropping her home and were shocked to see her tiny room.
“Ajji, you live alone? Where were you going?”
“I work in four houses around this area. I was going to work.”
Amir was one of the men. He was a born activist. He told his friend Manoj, who stayed closer to Ajji’s house to keep a check on her health. Somehow, he was very sad that an old woman had to fend for herself in this condition.
Radhika could not go to work for the next ten days. When she went to the doctor for dressing her wound, he said, “Madam, you are highly diabetic. You have to start taking medicines to control your sugar levels. You need a tablet for your BP too. Take care of this wound.”
When she went back to work after ten days, she realized she could no longer work as before. She felt very tired. She became slow and two of her employers started showing their irritation, as they were getting late to their offices. The wound was not getting healed. The two employers fired her. Now, she had very little money, as she had to spend on medicines and consultations. She could not control her emotions. After seven years, she thought of her selfish brothers and sat crying one evening. Just then Manoj came by.
“What happened Ajji? Why are you so sad?”
“Son. Why am I still alive? I am unwanted on this earth. I have nobody. My wound is getting worse by the day. All my resources are drying up. I am unable to work as much as I did earlier.”
When Manoj shared this with Amir, Amir came along to check personally. He feared the wound must have developed gangrene. He, therefore, shifted her to the hospital, where he volunteered. His fear was true. Radhika lost two of her toes. She was weeping bitterly.
“Don’t worry Ajji. I have made arrangements for your safe stay. I will take you there when you are discharged. Now, you rest and take care of your health.”
That’s how Radhika reached Neralu five years ago. Amir and Manoj became her sons. They visited her at least once a month. She was comfortable. Amir admitted five more inmates after Radhika came there. Each inmate had a story. Radhika was very happy to be with so many people and was friendly with everybody. She lent her shoulders to them.
Godha was not the only person who was ignored and neglected by family members. In the last five years, Radhika had witnessed at least twelve people die and only three of them were given a dignified farewell by their family members. All the rest of them were bid goodbye by the family of Neralu. People who died suddenly had no issue. But those who fell sick were hospitalized and waited for their end invariably expected that their children or grandchildren or caretakers would visit them and take them home. They went into a deep depression when their expectations went in vain.
When Radhika was hospitalized for her gangrene, Amir told her “Ajji, if you sign this form to donate your body after death, your hospitalization expenses will be halved. Would you mind signing?”
As it is, Amir was running from pillar to post to arrange for the funding of not only her hospitalization expenses but those of so many other destitute that he had admitted in various hospitals. After death, what if her body was used for a good purpose? After all, nobody cared. She did not even know where her family members were. She signed the form.
There was now another new and unexpected fear that had engulfed the entire world. It’s been almost eight months since the deadly Coronavirus decided to teach humanity a lesson, an unforgettable lesson that human beings are just a small part of this universe and they cannot control everything all the time! The inmates of Neralu were shocked to see the kind of stories shown on television. Millions of people were losing lives and millions of them were suffering in the hospitals. Not just that, billions of people had lost their livelihoods and were facing unprecedented challenges. As it is, hardly anybody visited Neralu. Just a handful of people in a whole month visited their family members. But since the outbreak of the pandemic, even those few visitors stopped coming. Rajagopal Sir was very cautious and took all care that the inmates did not get infected. Three of the five employees had left for their hometowns. Thus, the few healthy inmates had to pitch in to help Rajagopal Sir. Radhika and Mariam assisted Udupa, the cook.
After dinner, all the inmates were sitting in the TV room, watching the news. Radhika addressed the inmates aloud. “Depressing news. We have nothing interesting happening. Can we all sit and chat?”
“What to chat? What’s new to chat about?” That was Robert.
“I have something to discuss. It’s important”, said Radhika.
Murthy switched off the TV. Parvathi and Aisha were upset that their limited TV time was disturbed and showed their irritation. All of them turned towards Radhika.
“Friends, before I came here five years ago, I was admitted to a hospital for my gangrene treatment and Amir suggested that I donate my body so that the hospitalization expenses would be reduced by 50%. I, therefore, donated my body.”
“What? Donated your body?”
“According to the Hindu Shastras that is not right.”
“What if your kith and kin do not want to do that?”
Many of them had questions and reservations.
Radhika continued, “After coming here, I have seen quite a number of deaths. Except for two or three people, nobody came to claim the body of the others who died, though they were informed. That was so hurtful. Rajagopal Sir waited for a couple of days and then conducted the funeral. When there is nobody to check on us when we are alive, do you think they will come to conduct our funeral? We saw how sad Godha was that her children did not even visit her during her last days. Instead of going through all this, it is better that we take charge and leave clear instructions to Rajagopal Sir. If our body is going to be used for a good purpose, I felt it is better that we donate our body. I was told it will be used for research and teaching. Let us accept life and stop having any expectations. We can be happy for the rest of our lives this way, instead of getting disappointed and depressed. Amir said he would get the forms tomorrow. I request you all to think over and sign the forms. Hope you all do not mistake me for suggesting this to you. I am doing this only to save you all from pain and despair.”
There was pin-drop silence for a few minutes. Nobody spoke anything about the issue for a couple of days. Amir had left the forms in the office. On the third day, Mariam and Murthy went and signed the forms. The rest of them too followed suit in due course.
“How could you do this Radhika Madam?” Amir was surprised.
“I just spoke to them once. Later some of them did come and discuss the matter with me separately. Eventually, they all felt that is the best solution because it helps them to not live in an imaginary state of expectation causing stress and disappointment to them. These days, they are more lively and at peace. If at all somebody is visited by his or her son or daughter, it is considered as a bonus.”
Amir, of course, knew all about Radhika’s life. He did feel bad that her brothers did not make any attempt of knowing her whereabouts. He was so happy that Radhika had accepted life so gracefully and was leading her life peacefully.
“What’s the noise at the gate?” asked Rajagopal Sir. Udupa, who was relaxing with the newspaper, went to the gate. He was shocked to see a small crowd near the gate around a dead man. He informed Rajagopal Sir and he too came to the gate. He was shocked on seeing the corpse.
“Arre, this is the man, whom his son brought yesterday evening to admit to our Ashram. I told him that we had no vacancy and we are also running short of funds. And also this pandemic. Thus I advised him to take him home, as he looked really sick. I said he could try after a few months”, said Rajagopal Sir.
“So, that stupid son has abandoned him at the gate and vanished. What kind of children are these? Last night it rained cats and dogs. We had no power too. Nobody walks on this street after it gets dark. God knows how much this man suffered in his last hours”, said Udupa, as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Rajagopal Sir called up Amir, “Amir, can you please come down for some time. I have a problem. Someone has died at our Ashram’s gate. I have nobody to help me. Neither do I have funds”.
Amir rushed to the Ashram. He immediately took charge. Manoj too joined him after some time. He called up the police. He also called up donors and arranged for some funds. The police came. Meanwhile, Amir called up one of his cousins, who is a doctor, and asked him to come over. The doctor too came in.
“This is surely a death due to natural causes. He was already sick as per Rajagopal Sir. The rain has only added to the problem.”
“But the body has to be tested for Covid 19. Only then can it be cremated”, said the police. Amir arranged for that also. All this took the entire day. Amir and Manoj could not go home. They stayed back. At night, Murthy, who had gone to the bathroom collapsed there and breathed his last. The inmates were all very shocked. Rajagopal Sir called up Murthy’s son, who lived in Delhi.
“Uncle, how can I come now? There are no flights. Please cremate the body. I will deposit some money for the funeral.”
Once again Amir had to arrange for a Covid-19 test for Murthy. Thankfully, both the dead persons tested negative. Amir then went to the nearby crematorium and fixed up an appointment. He came back and said, “Sir, let us prepare the bodies. We have to change their clothes.” Manoj had gone to attend to some other urgent call from an orphanage.
Rajagopal Sir hesitated. Nobody else too came forward. Some of them were scared while some were too weak.
“By the way, Murthy has donated his body”, reminded Radhika. Amir immediately remembered and called up the hospital. Before the ambulance came, he coaxed Rajagopal Sir to help him and washed and prepared the body. Thankfully, he always carried a couple of PPEs in his bag. So, both of them wore them.
In no time, the ambulance arrived and Murthy’s body was taken with dignity. Amir and Rajagopal Sir then prepared the other destitute’s body and took that in another ambulance to the crematorium.
“This pandemic has made so many lives miserable. This man’s son pleaded with me yesterday. ‘Sir, I have lost my job. My wife and daughter have tested positive and are in the hospital. My father is very sick. I have no money. I am not able to take proper care of him. The hospital would not admit him, saying that it is not a case of Covid-19. I cannot afford private hospitals. I fear that I may also get infected soon, as I have been going to the hospital to check on my little daughter. Though they do not let me inside the ward, they want me around.’ But I was helpless. There is really no unoccupied bed in the Ashram. Already, I have converted the storeroom into a bedroom for Udupa. All my staff members have left either out of fear or because I could not pay them regularly. The stock of rations is also very low and I have no funds. Therefore, I had to say ‘no’ though I understood the poor son’s condition”, Rajagopal Sir burst out. Amir too could not control his tears. He had been getting calls for help from so many people every day and he was doing whatever he could through his friends and some generous individuals and organizations.
“Sir, don’t get disheartened. I will somehow arrange for rations and medicines for the Ashram in a day or two. You are doing your best. We cannot help the whole world. We can do only this much.”
Every evening, all the inmates gathered in the TV room. They first meditated for some time, prayed, and then watched the TV for an hour. All the inmates these days prayed for the general good of humanity. They prayed that the world is rid of Corona and life gets back to normal.