Read a tale of endurance, will & a daring fight against Covid. Click here for "The Stalwarts" by Soni Shalini.
Read a tale of endurance, will & a daring fight against Covid. Click here for "The Stalwarts" by Soni Shalini.

Ayona Chakraborty



Ayona Chakraborty


The Woman In Flat 503

The Woman In Flat 503

17 mins

I had recently shifted to a house in Thane, Maharashtra, with a friend. It was my first job in a big city like Mumbai and I moved here to make my dreams come true. At least so I came here with that belief. Soon within a month, I realized Mumbai is less of a land of dreams and more of a land of survival. The traffic, the insanely high priced utilities, the rents, it was all too much. Survival was important here and that’s what I was learning to do.

After an exhausting day at work, I was taking the lift to come up to my floor, a lady entered the lift with me. She looked older than me, very well presented and seemed like she was coming back from work just like me. She looked at me and smiled. Hi! She said. I replied with a smile. “Have you moved in here recently? Don’t think I have seen you around much!” I replied, “Yes, just recently so”. She smiled and looked away. She got off on the 5th floor while I was due to getting off at the 9th floor. “See you around!” she said, smiling warmly at me and getting off the lift. I instantly liked this woman. There was something very warm, friendly, inviting and loving about her. She did not have any signs of marriage on her, so I am assuming she was unmarried. She probably lives with her family here. I went to my floor and got off.

There were several other such lift interactions that I had with that lady. Eventually, I got to know her name, which was Rupal. In the mornings I used to notice Rupal, leaving for work with a child whom she would promptly buckle down in her Alto 800 and drive away. She was always well dressed for work unlike me and always warm and happy. One day on the way up in the elevator, Rupal, asked me, “ Hey do you live here on your own?”. “Yes, I live here in rent,” I replied. “Oh cool, me too!” she replied smiling back. I was a little puzzled. “ I thought this was your permanent residence,” I asked her, “Well yeah I mean, I have lived here for more than 10 years, in the same house, so I guess its more of a permanent residence. The owners of the house live in the USA and have no plans of coming back, hence I got to stay here for longer than I had expected of course!” she replied. “Oh that’s really nice, otherwise shifting houses from one location to another is such a pain” I replied. She smiled at me and got off on her floor, “See you tomorrow again I guess?” she asked before the elevator doors shut. “Yup!” I replied as usual.

This elevator conversation went on for months in which my opinion of Rupal had changed a lot. Aunties in the building would gossip about her activities. My neighbors told me that she was a divorcee, whose husband left her and went away. Another lady in another building told me she has multiple boyfriends, hence her husband left her. Another told me, she was secretly lesbian and many wilder conjectures. The reality of Rupal still remained a mystery in my head, as our conversation never went past the small talks.

Something about Rupal’s innocence did not convince me of any of the rumors. Yes, looks can be deceptive, but eyes cannot deceive, right? Still I never really got the correct picture. I knew she had a 10 year old son whom she drove to school, picked him up from school and they went out every weekend. The boy was a nice healthy kid named Aditya and he seemed a happy and content kid. One day while coming up the elevator, I took a step ahead and asked Rupal whether she would like to come to my house for tea anytime, she replied with an excited yes. I told her to come on a Saturday evening when I had no plans whatsoever. My boyfriend was out of town and I did not have many friends, and I guess I really wanted to get to the bottom of who she really is. Is she the same woman, the society aunties describe her as, or is there anything more about her?

It was a warm and balmy Saturday evening. My tea was ready and I had laid out the snacks for her. My flatmate informed me that she was going to get late, so I had the place all to myself.

Rupal came without her son, and I greeted her at the door.

“Hi, come inside.” I welcomed her in. “Your house is really beautiful” she replied looking around in my living room. “Oh well the owners did furnish it well, before putting it out for rent” I replied. “So this was a fully furnished 2bhk house?” she asked me. “Oh yes, I did not have enough furniture’s with me so just decided to move into an already built setup replied. “Yes of course this makes more sense that way. Mine was completely unfurnished when I rented it. Over time I bought things and set it up as my own home” she replied. I suddenly realized we were still standing in my living room.” Why don’t you sit, I'll get some tea and snacks for us, and why did you not bring Aditya along?” I asked while going to my kitchen. “Let me help you “she offered.” Not at all, please sit and make yourself comfortable!” I replied. My kitchen had an outward-facing towards the living room, so I could see Rupal while making tea. Rupal sat down on the sofa and spread out a bit. “I couldn’t bring Adi along, he has a play date my friend Jessica’s house, that’s why I had to drop him off there before coming over here” she replied, picking up a magazine from my center table.

There was some silence while the tea was preparing. After a while ones the tea was made, I took my tea and snacks to her and placed it in the center table for us. She took up a cup from the tray and sipped on her tea, and I got the customary “Wow, the tea is so good “comment. I smiled and thanked her. I took my tea cup and sipped as well. ‘So Rupal, you never told me who all is there in your family. I mean I only ever saw you and your son, in fact, come to think of it I don’t even know where you work” I replied. She smiled and replied, “ I guess that’s because you never asked”. “True, that’s because we never really went past the usual hi hellos “ I answered. We both laughed at it. Rupal sipped on her tea some more, “My family is exactly what you saw, that is me and my son and I work as a doctor in the nearby hospital. I am a gynecologist” she replied.

In a moment I felt as if she indicated, that the father of the son is no more and my expression went somber. I could see she felt a bit uncomfortable talking but I was in splits mind between probing her and not probing her. If I probed her more, she may find me no better than the aunties in the society and if I did not probe her I would never get to know what the truth is. Ultimately the bad side of me won and I decided to probe. “ So if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to the father?” I asked. “ There is no father of Aditya, I mean I am not married, Aditya is adopted” she replied. I was confused and was trying to understand her. She sensed my confusion and responded “

Before I started working in this hospital, I used to work in another hospital as a training doctor. I was fresh out of medical school. While working in the night shift ones, I overheard the nurses speaking to one another about how a kid was abandoned by a mother and she ran off after delivering the baby, without paying anything. Although the hospital authorities had started a police search for her, she seemed to be a local woman and it was easy for her to disappear. Nobody claimed that baby for days, and the hospital was about to suspend any treatment for that child and was planning to hand it over to a government-run orphanage. The problem was, the baby was too weak in its early days and would probably not survive if the medical treatment provided there stopped. I went and informed this to my medical adviser in the hospital. He informed me that there are millions of such cases of babies born from unwed mothers who are either rape victims or have been abandoned by their family and husband. Quite a significant amount of these babies don’t make it alive after a few months, as adequate care cannot be provided to them at the hospital, as it would require funding, which often charitable trusts cannot provide for many such cases. Hence the child dies, with nothing and no one.

The facts disturbed me. The thought of millions of abandoned children on the roads/hospitals etc dying because of lack of proper care gave me a horrible feeling in my stomach. I had to ask “ What did you do then, after hearing all this from the medical adviser?”. She replied, “ The medical adviser told me to keep away from this matter and keep doing my job, which I was doing, except the thought of that baby was haunting me. I felt horrible knowing that the baby would not be taken care of and could eventually die. In my night shifts, I used to take a while to go visit that baby, take it in my arms and look at it. I had never seen something this fragile and small, in my life. After talking to the nurses there, I got to know that the baby would be discharged in a few days’ time. Something in me wasn’t being able to let go of the baby. It was too small and too fragile, it needed me and my attention. Every time I looked into Aditya’s eye, I knew he was desperately calling me silently for help. I got attached to him instantly and knew I couldn’t bear the thought of letting him go. “So what did you do?” I asked. “Nothing, I went to my medical adviser and told him, that I had decided to adopt the baby myself” she answered. “ Just like that?” I asked, “Did you not face any obstacles?” I asked again. “Many more than you can imagine. The night I decided to adopt Aditya, the following morning was the time I took to absorb the effect of the decision I had just made. I was 28, single and unwed, and my parents were from Indore. My parents were looking for a groom for me and we had almost decided upon a really nice man named Atul. I really wanted to get married to Atul. I was sitting and doing the math on how I would break this news to my parents and my fiance.

“The night before that morning was a rough night. I sat up all night thinking about possibilities. What kind of a mother would I be? Can I handle the demanding schedule which will come with a child? Can I bring the boy up? Can I manage to raise a child who isn’t biologically mine? Can I be a good mother? How would my fiance take the news? What if he leaves me? What if my parents abandon me? The thoughts were troubling, the possibilities did not seem positive. It hurt me to fathom the fact that I may never hear from my fiance again after this. It killed me within to know my parents would abandon me when I stand by my decision. I decided to leave these thoughts aside and go for a run.

The thoughts just would not go away. The roads were filled with mothers with their kids, and the thoughts kept coming back. I put on music while running, tried to look away, but the thoughts wouldn’t go. I felt as nervous, anxious and paranoid like an eloping bride. On one hand, I knew this was the right thing to do, the child had nobody, the child needed me, I was destined to be his mother but the sacrifices I would have to make to have this child would be painful. With tears in my eyes and pain in my heart, somehow I taught myself to feel that pain even before the pain happened. Something like a prophylactic shot. With a heavy heart, I jogged for a while and ultimately walked back home. I was preparing my responses in my head, while returning. A devastating weight of the judgment which I would receive from the society was weighing on me. What would people say? How would I feel when people found out? The gossip would spread, people would alienate me. Lot of people live in this impression that Mumbai is a very forward city, but in reality, it's filled with the same set of judgmental people. It's just harder to catch them in the act of judgments as it’s a city of millions of people. Back then I used to be living with a flatmate as I was still young and just started off as a doctor.”

She paused for a while. She realized she had spoken much beyond what she expected to. She drank some water from the bottle on my table and then took up her tea mug to drink her tea. It was a long pause. I was soaking the information in. I realized this was much more than she had planned to divulge. In my mind, I could connect the dots and realized what would have happened. In my heart, I developed empathy for her. She took a brave decision at an age where she wasn’t prepared to make that decision. She was faced with uncertainties. A single truly independent woman in our country is a label magnet. Before she does anything the labels keep getting stamped on her body. Nobody sees how much, it scars that girl. Nobody cares about how it wears her down. All people care is about their opinion and idea of what’s right.

Being from a small town, I realized this more, when I made the decision to move to Mumbai. When I chose to live here and work while I was still single and just about accomplished. I remembered the judgments, I felt the harsh words, I realized how it wore me down. I thought it would be different when I moved here. I faced the same issues here as well. The owner of the house required a parent figure to be present while the signing of the rental agreement, to validate the credibility of this single woman staying here. The owner of the house was a woman which is all the more ironic don’t you think? When a man comes to stay alone in a city and work, people don’t question him, but for a woman, even getting a rental house is a painful affair till date. There are so many sexist things which happen in our personal, professional lives that after a point we forget how much it has worn us down. It’s the society and their constant judgment, which corrodes the indomitable spirit of the of a single India working woman and then they expect these girls to hold on and not sink into despair. I guess this is just another tiny speckle in the great Indian tamasha which we have in the name of society. I had to bear this like a million other girls like me, but I did not have a child. I could at that moment feel Rupal’s pain and console her.

I broke the silence. “I figured the end part of your story, but I still can’t help but ask, what led you to finally make that decision and go through with it, and how did your family react?” I asked.

“ A family of poor” she replied.

“ I did not understand” I replied

“When I reached my building, I came across a sight. A woman with her three children was sitting by the roadside. It was a warm summer night and the woman had no means. She had laid tattered clothes under her to use as a rug. She very ingeniously did the same thing with some more cloth pieces and hoisted it up using a few stick poles. It looked like a house except with poles from all sides it was open. The mother and her children were sitting underneath it, I figured they made that to beat the direct summer sunlight. One child was a baby, and she was curled up in her mother’s lap, and the other two were playing on the side. One was a daughter and two others were boys. The father was nowhere to be found and she didn’t care. She was content and happy, taking care of her children under this shelter. I guess at that moment I realized it wasn’t about the world around me. She had no means, no hopes and no expectations but her heart was content just watching her children play around her, I realized it’s not about people, it’s not about the society, it’s not about family, it’s really about what is the right thing to do, and what genuinely makes me happy. I did not give it another second thought” she said

There was a pause after which she continued. “ I went the next day boldly to the orphanage, filled out my application forms. Came home and informed my family and fiance. My parents were extremely disappointed with me and my fiance left me, despite that I am extremely happy. I see my son grow up in front of my eyes. I see him laughing, playing and learning, what more could a mother want? I still remember when they handed me the baby in my hand, it seemed overnight I had transformed from being a lady to a mother. My responsibilities changed, my lifestyle changed, my way of perceiving things changed. I had a lot to teach my kid, but with my kid growing every day, I end up learning a lot. Today my world revolves around him”.

“Do you think, you’ll ever get married in your life, I mean you must be having needs as well”, I asked.

“Yes I have needs, but if a man has to embrace me in his life then he has to accept my son and treat him like his son. I need us to be a real family.” She replied smiling.

“So does your parents ever visit you?” I asked

“Yeah sometimes, they can’t completely wash their hands off me but yes I have to say, I have seen a lot of progress in the way they handle my son. They have started accepting him as our own.” She replied

“Good for you. I am really proud of what you did. I hope your son realizes what sacrifices you made for him on the way of your life” I replied

“ I don’t really care about what my son realizes and doesn’t. I love him and I made the sacrifices for him, and I couldn’t possibly be happier. I wouldn’t want my son to live with the burden of repaying me for everything I do for him. I want him to be a normal kid. I want him to study, play, and enjoy his life. The only way to make him learn to do so is by emulating the same qualities.” She said

“How would you get him to emulate those qualities?” I asked

“ Nothing. I start by living my life. Work hard throughout the week and enjoy over the weekends. I do take a break from being a mother by going for a night outs, clubbing with my friends, etc” she replied

That was unexpected. I would have thought she was all son focused. She did not seem like a person who would want a life apart from her child.

“I wouldn’t expect that from you” I replied.

She smiled and said, “Did you think I was a sad single mom in her thirties not living her life, because of a difficult choice I made?”

“I guess not,” I thought in my head.

“I may be a mom, but I am every bit young like you are. So I am going to have fun and do the same things you’ll do, the only difference with a bit of responsibility, as I have to come back to my kid” she replied.

She sipped her tea. I stared at her with earnest respect. I would never be able to make the choices she did and be able to hold my head through the choices. It truly takes a woman with strong grit and character to make the choices she did.

After a while, it was her time to leave. I saw her off at the door.

“You are right Rupal, you are every bit a youngster like I am, the only difference is not your responsibility or having a child, it's that you are a lot stronger than a lot of us can ever be. Please remember that. “ I said.

She smiled and then hugged me.

“ Thanks for thinking that way. Looks like I have made a friend in this building” she said looking at me with eagerness.

“Yes we both have” I replied smiling.

She smiled and then turned towards the elevator to leave.

Since then we have grown closer, and now her and my tiny Mumbai family grew by one, to include a great friend.

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