The Flower Woman
The Flower Woman
It was getting increasingly difficult to string the flowers these days. Her deft fingers felt numb after she had made just about ten garlands. It was a different matter that no one bought them. Hardly anyone had the time to stop by and buy flowers from her. In fact, they rarely noticed the tiny deity nestled inside the dark recess of the small shrine, almost hidden behind the gulmohar tree. Occasionally, some college student or young office executive would lean against the tree while they were waiting for the buses to arrive. Amma would shoo them away, pointing to the inconspicuous little temple and they would join their hands in a quick prayer and move away, realising that it was sacred ground.
Temples are a part of the city. You could find a shrine in all innocuous places, under huge trees, on busy streets, on footpaths, in front of huge buildings, at street junctions, everywhere. Amma chose this one as it was nearer to her home. She did not wish to walk for miles with her flower basket, or station herself near the big Ganesha temple, two kilometres down the road. She could have done brisk business there but then she hated the sight of the beggars who made it their commercial centre. So she decided to set up shop at the Hopefarm junction, taking ownership of the small shrine and of the deity that was inside, silent and neglected.
Her shop was a pile of stones and a wooden plank that she had gathered from a construction site nearby, on which she lay the flowers, neatly arranging them in tiny wicker baskets and banana leaves. The scent of the flowers would keep her happy, reminding her of happier days gone by.
It was always crowded, this junction, from morning to night. The only moments of quiet was when she would arrive at her shop early in the morning. The stray dogs and joggers were the only signs of life, besides the newspaper vendors waiting for the papers to arrive. At times, a police patrol vehicle would be parked there, and the officer and driver lazily stroll around, stretching their tired limbs and looking like dead men walking.
By the time the first vehicles drove down the street, Amma would be ready with her garlands, waiting for business to begin. She enjoyed watching the humongous yellow buses, ferrying school children to and fro. Sometimes, she saw a few children looking down at her from their bus windows. She would wave at them and smile when they waved back. They would remind her of her own children, two boys and a girl, all three of them had died before they barely reached the age of five. For years after her children died, one after the other, Amma cried her heart out. She could not accept the cruel turn of fate. And then one day, her husband brought home his second wife, Padma, a delicate, fair girl, who was young enough to be their daughter. The poor girl was scared of her husband who had actually lured her from the village with promises of getting her the job of a house maid in the city. Many other women from her village had migrated to Bangalore with their families to seek various jobs. Padma’s parents were stricken by poverty after successful droughts which rendered their fields dry. The parched land had nothing to offer the poor farmers, some of whom had embraced death to escape the miseries of life.
Amma’s husband, Ranga, had a small business of fertilisers and crop seeds that he would sell the farmers at a wholesale price. Padma’s father, Srinivas, was a regular customer and he often bought seeds and fertiliser on credit. Due to the poor monsoon in two consecutive years his crop had failed and he was in a huge debt with Ranga. The only solution was for Srinivas to send his elder daughter, Padma with Ranga to look for a job in the city.
But the man had other plans in mind. For several days Ranga kept Padma in a lodge, outside the city. The girl was too scared to venture out as she knew no one who could help her escape. She slept through the day only to be tortured the whole night by a man who was consumed by his passion.
When she stepped into Amma’s house, Padma was already heavy with the child of the man who raped her and then married her. Amma was filled with disgust at her husband. She was still not over with mourning for her dead children and he was away gallivanting and had the audacity to bring in another woman…..hardly a woman….she was still a child herself. However, when Amma realised that Padma was pregnant, she mellowed down. She ignored Ranga but was tender towards his young wife. She overlooked the fact that the girl was her rival. All she knew was that the girl was pregnant and she needed care. Amma did not want Padma to lose her child the way she herself had. The pain of seeing one’s children dying was too unbearable for any woman and Amma had had her fair share of it.
She knew that Padma was not strong enough to take care of herself or the unborn baby so she decided to take matters in her own hand. Amma started cooking food that suited a young mother to be. She lovingly fed Padma and ensured that she slept well and did no such work which would be heavy for her. For the next few months she was engrossed with Padma. It seemed as if her sole motive in life was to keep the girl happy, healthy and safe. The only problem she could not tackle was Ranga. It was almost impossible for her to keep the man away from his new wife. The fact that she was in a delicate physical condition did not deter him and every night he was at her bedside.
In that tiny house, where the walls were paper thin, Padma’s moans would seep through and make Amma listless. She would cover her ears and bury herself deeper under the blanket but, it was of no use. The man was a beast as she could remember her own experiences with him. He was insatiable. She would pray fervently for the safety of the unborn child.
As Padma’s pregnancy reached an advanced stage, Amma suggested to Ranga that he should send her to her mother’s house for the delivery, as was the custom. He paid no heed at first then finally relented and asked the girl to pack her clothes. Padma looked pale in her yellow sari and even the fresh flowers that Amma fixed in her hair could not add a glow to her face. Amma silently blamed her ruthless husband for undoing all the labour of love that she had put in while taking care of Padma. She was genuinely worried for the girl, who seemed to be always lost in her own thoughts.
“Don’t forget to take your medicine on time. Eat well and sleep well. Don’t do any work. Just chant the shlokas I taught you. It will make you strong.” Amma’s last minute advice brought a smile to Padma’s face. “Yes akka…..I will” she said. Amma held back her tears which choked her throat. She recalled the day when she had gone to her own mother’s house so many years ago for the birth of her first child, Neela. Her husband had taken her to the railway station and they boarded the train to her village. The baby was born on Janmashtami, the day lord Govinda was born and hence she was named Neela, after the Lord who had a blue complexion.
Days passed by. Padma had been gone for almost a month. Her due date had also passed by, yet there was no news. Ranga did not seem to be too worried about it but Amma could not rest. She was worried about the girl and the baby. She tried to broach the subject with her husband but he was hardly home and whenever he was available he was either drunk or asleep or in a bad mood and Amma could not gather the nerve to approach him.
Two months flew by and Amma was at her nerve’s ends. Where was Padma? She wondered. Finally, she decided to face her husband and ask him about her.
“Why are you worried about her, woman?” bellowed Ranga. “She must be enjoying at her parents’ place. You mind your own business!”
“Why don’t you get her home?” asked Amma softly.
“Who’s going to feed two extra mouths? You? You are one useless woman that I have to bear as a punishment, and you want me to bring two more useless mouths to the house?”
Ranga shouted at Amma who stood cowering before him, unable to believe that this man was willing to abandon his new wife and newly born baby. She said nothing and listened to his ranting, strongly conscious of the chill that ran down her body making her shiver inspite of the hot weather.
That night Amma could not sleep. She sat on her bed until the first rays of the sun filtered through the thin curtains. Her mind was a puzzle of entangled questions and doubts to which she found no answers. Why did she lose her children? Why was God almighty so cruel towards her? Why did Padma come in to her life? Why was Ranga so reluctant to bring Padma back? Was he not curious to see his new born, his progeny? Since when did her husband change so much? Had he always been this way and she was too engrossed with her own work to notice?
All these questions and some more kept her awake.
Early the next morning, after Ranga went to work, Amma wore her best sari, put some fresh flowers in her hair, took out the money she had saved in the old rice dabba and stepped outdoors. She locked the front door and hailed an auto to get to the bus station. She boarded the bus to Chikkaballapur, and it was only when she sat down on a seat near the window and breathed in the fresh air did the enormity of her action hit her. She had never left town or even ventured beyond the premises of her house without her husband’s knowledge or permission. Now she had actually left the city and was headed towards Padma’s village. Amma was worried about his reaction but at that moment her focus was on meeting her.
Somebody guided her to Padma’s house, nestled amidst big neem trees, almost hidden from sight. Amma walked gingerly on the uneven path laid with broken tiles and stones that led to the small house. There was no one outside whom she could ask about Padma. The silence was broken by a shrill cry of a baby from inside the house. Amma smiled. Must be Padma’s newborn.
She was excited and moved towards the door calling Padma by her name.
A woman came out. She was almost of Amma’s age, but looked much older. Her face looked withered and eyes devoid of any emotion.
“Padma yelli?” asked Amma
The woman stared at her and asked, “Neenu yellindha bandhe?” [where have you come from]
“Bengaluru,” answered Amma. “I am Ranga’s wife,” she clarified before the lady could ask her.
At the mention of Ranga’s name, the woman’s eyes lit up, but she was far from happy. She looked shocked and sat down with a thud. Amma rushed to help her but the woman shuddered as she touched her shoulder and glared at Amma.
“Where is Padma?” Amma asked a second time. The woman began to weep, her face looked even more shrivelled and it seemed as though the tears poured out from the depth of her being.
“Padma is gone,” she said, barely audible.
“Gone? Where?” Amma felt a tightness in her chest as though she was unable to breathe.
The woman lifted her hand up towards the sky and began to weep again.
Amma was shocked. Her worst fears were coming true. She had been worried that Padma was too frail to handle her pregnancy. “What about the baby?” she asked.
The woman turned her face towards the open door but did not say anything. Amma went into the house. In the dim light of the room she saw a small bundle on a cot in the corner. Padma’s baby!
She lifted the baby in her arms. It was a girl.
She felt a rush of emotions overwhelming her. For years she had missed that feeling of holding her own baby in her arms. When her husband had brought in a pregnant Padma she had overlooked all other factors and focussed only on the child that was to be born and now here she was. Amma’s eyes filled with tears. She was sad about Padma but she was happy that the baby was safe. She would take care of it. She returned to Bangalore that evening taking the baby girl with her.
When Amma reached her house, Ranga was already there, sitting on the door step. He was drunk.
She tried to go past him and enter the house but he was strong and he pushed her away, not letting her go in.
“Where did you go?” he asked her in a steely voice. “What is that in your arms?”
“That’s your baby….your daughter….our daughter,” said Amma
“Why did you bring that lousy baby to my house? I have no place for two stupid females in my house!” he growled.
Amma and Ranga stood facing each other, one was silent and the other the image of a raging bull. She knew he was in his worst mood but she was not willing to let him win this time. She would do anything to save the child and herself. She also had to avenge Padma’s death. In her mind she held Ranga responsible for the sad end of that lovely girl who died at childbirth. How could she allow this man to take charge of her life anymore. He had almost abandoned her emotionally after her children died and then he abandoned Padma and his own child. The reality of his character was open to her now and also the fact that her life had changed. Amma gave him a last look and turned to walk away from her husband and from the place she had called home. It was an enormous decision but then there was no turning back.
It had been ten years since she had left Ranga and had started her life anew as a flower woman. She led a frugal life but was happy in the company of her daughter, Neela. Yes, she chose to give that name to the baby in memory of her first born child whom she had lost so many years ago. Padma’s mother visited her sometimes. Their situation had improved after the government took initiatives to help the farmers. They took up farming of flowers as it had a huge demand in Bangalore city and Amma became a small part of the system by selling the flowers she procured from them. She earned a small amount and it was barely enough to keep them going but she enjoyed this freedom of living life on her own terms. She hoped that someday Neela would be able to go to a bigger school just like those children she saw travelling in those big yellow buses.
The traffic was still congested but dusk had set in and it was time to go home. Amma lights the lamp before the deity in the temple and says her evening prayers. Then she wraps up the left over flowers in the banana leaf and places the basket on her hip. A street dog saunters towards her as she walks slowly along the dug up footpath and follows her home.