"My village in Palakkad was old-world and quaint. Mud roads and bullock carts were all that connected us to the outside world. A friend escorted me from Varanasi to Palakkad and took leave of me at the railway station. From there on, I was in the care of my mother.
I was just 17 years old then- playful, flippant with no cares in this world! There I was in my mother's place with a 1 year old kid, with no belongings, my husband still in strife-torn Burma, no ideas about the future but my life was laughter-filled. Youth does tell, no?"
She laughed softly, nodding her approval at her younger self.
"My mom used to bemoan my fate. She would beat her head and cry, 'What is going to happen to you? Your husband is somewhere. God knows if he will return. Even if he does, will be accept you again? What if he leaves you here for life? And here you are, laughing and playing without any responsibility. All this is my fate.' She would chide me severely and cry. But all those scoldings never bothered me too much. 'Amma, tomorrow is always uncertain. Who knew that I would return to India as a destitute? You didn't know that a couple of months back. But here I am. I mean to be happy in this present day. I shall face what comes tomorrow when it arrives!' This served to annoy her even more but child, what was the point of being upset?
Meanwhile, I contracted an eye infection (Trachoma?). It was severe and it was blinding me slowly. We had no doctors in that little village of ours. My parents tried all known local medications but it was getting worse slowly. My dad had gone on a journey somewhere. While he was returning, he met a country physician on the train. The physician was going to Trissur. My father told him about my eye problem and asked if he could help. He was reluctant but my father offered him money, transportation and shelter for the days he'd spend at the village. The physician consented.
The doctor had two bottles of salt water. In each of those bottles, he had live leaches."
I was reminded of the scene in 'Anniyan' and I shuddered...:) I told her about this and she laughed out aloud. She hadn't seen the movie.
"Each day, he would pin my eyelids open and put one leach above and one below my eyes."
I really was feeling nauseated when I heard this.
"Didn't it hurt you?"
She smiled and said,
"There's something to be said for youth. I was young, careless and fearless. I didn't know what was going on. And anyway, it wasn't that painful. The leaches would have their fill of my blood and fall off. He would then put them in salt water and soak them till they threw up all the bad blood they'd sucked out of my eyes. Then he'd repeat the same procedure. He told us that this had to be continued for a month with intervals in between.
Meanwhile, he had to go to Trissur and he insisted on leaving immediately. My dad wanted him to be by my side till I was cured. He was adamant and said he didn't have the time. Meanwhile, there were others in the village who suffered from the same disease. My father pleaded with him and asked him to treat all these poor souls who would otherwise become blind. My dad promised him lots of money. The doctor finally relented and said that he would come back after 3 days and shuttle back and forth between Trissur and my village after that. And he did keep his promise. However crude or unbelievable his treatment was, the leaches sucked all the bad blood near my eyes and I was fully cured. I could see again.
The doctor came for a month and cured so many other people in my village. We were thankful! After that, my husband returned from Burma after 4 months. To have a husband abroad and not knowing whether he will return or not is one of the worst possible punishments for a woman! I suffered through it silently. There were days when I thought I'd never see him again. But he came back to me. We settled down in Trichy after a few years."
She beamed at me.
"You know, life is not a bed of roses. Thinking back to those days now, I wonder how I survived. I've been through a lot of hardships. To live through them is one thing. But to survive them and live to tell the tale to young people like you is something remarkable, I think. And I haven't lost my enthusiasm for life yet."
I have heard of resilient people before but this was the first time, I was in the presence of one. I don't care if this seems stupid or exaggerated, but I was in awe in the presence of that frail, old lady. She looked straight into my eyes for a few moments trying to read my heart. I looked down after a while. I was a bit troubled about something and I didn't want her to read it in my eyes.
"Kuzhandhai (Child), I repeat: Life is not a bed of roses. Don't ever think that life should be perfect. You may have problems and some may seem more insurmountable than others. Time solves all problems. At my age, when I look back, I find most problems trivial. But think about it. Someday, you will be in my chair and another young kid will be sitting where you are sitting right now. Without all those problems (or what you think of as problems), will your story be as interesting when you tell it to her?"
I looked up. Her eyes had a twinkle. I took my leave of her but I don't think I shall forget her that easily. She narrated everything partly in Tamizh and partly in English. I haven't written down many other by-stories and details she furnished during my talk with her. It would take a couple of more blog posts to detail everything. What I had earlier dismissed as a routine meeting with an old lady turned out to be really memorable! Perhaps youth is more dismissive of old age than it should be?
"Come back some other time, child and I shall tell you some other stories."
Her words are still ringing in my ears.