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I passed at the turning of the road. I had to. My heavy breath and tired legs needed a break. Ronnie was a few steps ahead of me. My sudden break made him turn around.
“What’s wrong ? Tired?”, he asked.
“Hmm….”, I could barely answer him.
“Ah, now what should I do with you Grana ? Do you want me to carry you?”, he queried. He seemed to expect an answer in affirmative.
“Won’t be a bad idea. Would you be able to?”, I asked.
His lips broke into a mild grin . “Why not! Wait there, I am coming”. He retraced his steps back to where I was standing. He inspected me – probably deciding on the right posture to pick me up.
“Hold my neck tight with both your hands Grana, it will be easier for me to carry you”, he instructed while encircling his arms around my waist. Arms that had barely witnessed six birthdays!
I could not help smiling. Thankfully he did not notice my smile. Rather with a serious tone he commanded, “Now, keep walking Grana! Don’t worry, I am carrying you safely”. I kept walking, as commanded, setting aside the scientific impossibility of walking and ‘being carried’ – all at the same time! A lone cyclist who was passing by laughed at this strange image of a conjoined grandmother and her grandson trying to walk in that fashion. Ronnie stared back at him with crossed eye-brows, just the way his father used to whenever he was annoyed. “Stupid man! What is there to laugh?”, he muttered angrily.
“You shouldn’t use such bad words Ron, he is much older to you!”, I chided him gently.
By now he had begun to realize the immense hurdle of walking in such conjoined manner. Moreover his patience was giving away. He cleared his throat and said, “Ahem…well, Grana, aren’t you feeling better now?”.
“Are you already tired Ron ? Am I too heavy for you?”, I teased him.
“No, no it is fine. I am too strong…I can easily carry an old person like you. Just that I was wondering if…..”, he began to sound helpless.
I suppressed my laughter and said,” Of course I am feeling better my love. In fact I think it is better if we walk down the rest of the road. If you hold my hand that should be okay”, I assured him, much to his relief. His face bore a huge grin as he let go of his tiny arms around my waist . He slipped three of his fingers into mine and held tight.
Last night there had been a short spell of Norwester and the road now wore a moist-red look – having been carpeted with gulmohar flowers. It seemed as if we were walking on a bed of red velvet. Ronnie picked up a Gulmohar bud and looked amused at the green tubular bud with an orange hue.
“ What’s this Grana? A fruit?”
“No love, it is a bud.”
“ What’s a bud?”
“It’s a baby flower”.
“But I can’t see the baby flower Grana!”
I took the bud from his hand and peeled-off the outer green casing of sepals – one by one. A burst of vivid orange greeted us from within. “Here’s the flower Ron”, I pointed to the crumpled, yet-to-bloom petals.
“Aha..so here they are – hiding inside”, his eyes brightened as he examined the bud closely..
“They are being protected till they grow up”, I tried to explain to him.
“Like Mum and Daddy protects me, right, Grana?”, he rattled off, his voice moist with I-know-all pride. I nodded and ruffled his hair with my hand. “And who protects the grown-ups Grana?”. His box of curiosity was not full yet.
Out of breath, I took a pause and said, “Well, God protects us. And sometimes even small children like you do”.
“Aha..just the way I did now when I carried you, isn’t it Grana?”, he was thrilled.
“Yes darling, just the way you did!”, I smiled back at him.
By now we had come to the end of the road and the gate to our house was beckoning us. I could see Nita standing at the gate. Her anxious eyes were looking for us. Having sighted his mother Ronnie waved at her. Nita waved back at him but I did not miss the hint of annoyance in her looks. Really, I should not have taken Ronnie for such a long walk, it has been quite a while now!
“What’s this Daddy?”, Ronnie screamed out – loud enough for us to break our chain of concentration. We shifted our glance from our packing activity to look at his prized possession – a wooden car with broken rear wheels.
“ That’s my car”, Amod answered, his eyes glistening at the sight of his childhood favourite in the hands of his son.
“And where is the motor?”, Ron tried to discover the non-existent engine of the car. His father laughed out loud.
“Well, those days we did not have any motor in our cars. They were made of wood or plastic but none had a motor”.
Disappointed, Ronnie kept the car to one side and continued to rummage through the old card-board box that his father had kept aside. Nita and Amod went back to their packing spree. She held tight the brown, leather suitcase while he tied a rope around it. The lock just wouldn’t work!
“I still don’t understand why we should pack all the photo-albums. Anyway we won’t be taking them and it would be difficult for Ma to maintain all these old pieces”, Nita tried to place her practical advice.
“ Forr mmmy ssson to ssee”, Amod spoke, amidst his trysts with the rope and the suitcase.
“Nita is right Amod, they do not allow too many suitcases or boxes in the home”, I tried to reason with him.
Amod was about to say something in defence when Ron’s excited voice made us look at him yet again. “ And what is this Daddy?”
Three pairs of eyes glanced at his hand. Pinched in between his index finger and thumb was a worn-out ribbon- a little less or more than three inches – the matted copper look bore witness to the fact that it was once golden in colour. Amod looked at it with bewildered wonder and then whispered in a hushed tone, “ Golden Bond….thats my golden bond!”.
“Golden Bond?” Ronnie was curious.
Amod pulled his son to himself and made him sit on his lap. He cleared his nearly-choked throat and said, “ There is a lovely story behind it Ron. Those days we were staying alone in this house – ma and I – your Grana and Daddy. Your Grandpa had just died and only both of us were left alone. It was a rainy day. Not just a rainy day, a bad rainy day. The rain just wouldn’t stop. I had high fever and there was not a drop of medicine in the house. To buy a medicine those days we had to go to the city side. Grana wanted to go and buy the medicine but I was too scared to let go of her. So Grana found this little ribbon that had just been lying around. She tied it around my wrist and said, “Son, this is our golden bond – the bond between you and me. As long as you have this ribbon tied to your wrist, remember your mother is there with you – no trouble, no fear can touch you.”. With the ribbon round my wrist I was not one bit afraid. Grana could go and buy the medicine and come back. It was a magic bond. I did not feel afraid at all. From that day on till I grew up I used to make sure that I wore my golden bond whenever I was afraid or uncertain – somehow my fear would just vanish”.
Amod concluded his story. His eyes were already moist and I was afraid of making an eye contact with him lest my eyes too betray me. I pretended to be busy with the rest of the packing while Ronnie went back to his treasure hunt.
I knew I would find him there. I tiptoed my way to the corner of the terrace where he was standing . His back turned towards me he was staring at the darkness outside. He didn’t notice my presence but didn’t shudder nevertheless when I placed my hand on his shoulder. It was almost as if he was longing for this touch.
“Ma, what is that smell? I know the smell but somehow can’t remember the name of the flower.”, he said without looking at me.
“That is wild jasmine Ammo”, I answered, somehow stressing too much on the word ‘Ammo’. It had been ages since I had called him by his pet name. My Ammo was now Ronnie’s Daddy and Nita’s Amod but I never regretted this. Having been widowed very early in my life I had come to accept the realities of life with alarming calmness. So much so that many my close relatives call me “stone-hearted”. The nickname which was once a hushed whisper is now a loud wonder but I have not let myself change. I know, only by accepting the reality I can make Amod’s life easier.
“ Ma, do we really have to do this?”, Amod turned to look at me. His eye-lids were swollen and rimmed with a reddish hue. I knew he had been crying. He was always the soft one – just like his father.
“Don’t be silly Ammo. You both are there in Bangalore and I cannot possible continue to maintain such a huge house. Moreover the place isn’t as quiet as it used to be. Isn’t it wiser to sell it?”, I tried hard to reason with him.
“ But..but why on earth should you stay in an old-age home, Ma? You can always sell the house and come and stay with us in Bangalore”, he sounded desperate.
Yes, yes, yes Ammo, I want to go with you, I want to stay with you. I was tempted, I was willing to be not so stone-hearted. But my lips took control of the situation. “ No Ammo, that is difficult. I am old now. Even though I don’t stay with your aunts or uncles I need to be in touch with them sometimes. Moreover I am used to being in this state….”, I was losing my circle of reasons.
Amod was adamant. “ That’s not done Ma. If you stay in an old-age home your loneliness will not go…Moreover, what will people say?”.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. They all know about your Ma, Ammo”, I tried to laugh away the heaviness that was getting built up in the atmosphere. I patted his right palm and lifted it to plant a small kiss there, his cheeks were way beyond my reach now!
Thank God we made it on time! The announcement of the incoming train was blaring through the loudspeakers at the station as were entering the platform. Of course there were still some minutes left, the train had just departed the previous station. As we placed the luggage on the concrete bench of the platform Nita made a last minute check. Satisfied at not having left any luggage behind, she turned towards me and smiled. “I know I have this fetish for making everything prim and perfect…..”, she sounded apologetic.
“Don’t worry, that’s the story with almost every woman, “ I smiled back.
She bent down to touch my feet. I placed my hand over her head to bless her.
“You take care of your health Ma. This time you look unnaturally frail and tired. Thankfully most of the packing is over. The sale is also through. Now all you have to do is to move in to the old-age home this weekend”, she tried to assure me.
“Don’t worry Nita, I’ll be fine. Remember you have an early morning flight to Bangalore tomorrow. Don’t miss it. You’ll reach Kolkata from here in about an hour. Do give me a call once you reach your brother’s house there’, I tried to shove in as many instructions as possible because the train was already chugging in. I turned around to kiss Ronnie. And that is when it happened.
I was stooping down to kiss him when mid-way he stopped me. He put his hands into his pocket and pulled out the worn-out, almost-discoloured golden ribbon. With tiny fingers which had barely learnt to tie a knot he tied it around my frail wrist. He then stood on his toes to reach upto my ears and whispered, “Grana, that’s my golden bond! As long as you have it tied to your wrist, remember I am there to protect you and take care of you. You’ll be fine Grana”.
For many nano-seconds, seconds or perhaps minutes I stood there – dumbstruck. Mechanically I led them to their coach, I even waved them a good-bye but I knew my senses were numbed. And then as the train merged away into the dusty oblivion a warm tear-drop rolled down my sunken cheeks.
For all these days I was in two minds about showing my biopsy report to Amod – I wanted to tell him but the practical mother in me held me back. I just couldn’t tell him the real reason of selling the house and the real reason why I completed all the nomination documents in such a hurry. I just didn’t want to burden my son, I wanted to die a dignified death by just surrendering myself at the hands of disease and death.
But now, at this moment, I felt an irrevocable urge to live on. My life was no longer mine, it was entrapped in the half-tied knot of a discoloured ribbon. I wanted to survive – at least give a strong fight to live on – for the sake of the belief of a six year old boy – for the sake of my golden bond!