I would like to call it an idyllic Srirangam morning. The Sun God was struggling to pierce through the hazy skies. The air was heavy with humidity. The devoted were making a beeline towards the Srirangam temple tower unmindful of the heat. It was late morning when I set out to pay a visit to an 82 year old lady I hadn't met before. I hadn't paid any thought to this appointment. I had this vision of a frail, demure, soft-voiced lady who would perhaps be a bit incoherent and wander during her conversation. So I was rather jolted out of my complacence when a sharp, old thing opened the door to my bell ring.
"Who is this?"
I introduced myself and immediately the lady came forward spryly to open the door.
"You've come a long way from the US. I see you've been to the temple. A rather humid day, no?"
She spoke in crisp, fluent English tilting her head a little to the side as she asked the question. She, obviously, expected an answer.
I acquitted myself rather clumsily. After all, this certainly wasn't the 82-year old I had envisioned!
"Make yourself at home, dear. I have a bit of asthmatic trouble. So you may find my breathing a bit laboured when I talk."
After some mundane conversation about the recent rains, my life in the US and local news, I asked her if Trichy was her native place.
"No, dear," she replied in Tamil "I was born and brought up in Rangoon, Burma."
I was a bit surprised by this but I nodded my head.
"So, how did you-?"
I suppose she saw the unasked question in my eyes because she continued.
"17 years of my life I led in Rangoon. I was married at 16 in Rangoon and I had my first child there. The second world war was on. On my child's first birthday, I left Rangoon for a long walk to India. They were evacuating us."
She paused, her eyes wandering amongst the ghosts of the past.
"I left with my mother-in-law, brother-in-law and my young child. It was a long, exacting trek through forests, hills, rivers and roads. 35 long days we trekked till we reached the soils of Varanasi. We went till Imphal before some sort of help reached us. We had packed rations to carry us through the exodus. The British helped where they could but again, they were partial to their countrymen. We had a separate route and the white men had a separate, easier trail. They hired elephants to carry their women and children. We didn't have that luxury. We trekked 8 hours a day and then we would rest in small shelters. The shelter was just a raised, mud platform with a thatched roof. They had put up temporary dividers to afford some degree of privacy to each family. These were the dwellings of the Nagas (tribals inhabiting the north-eastern forests of India). They were a rough people, clad in almost nothing, but they helped us out in many ways."
She paused. The old lady whom I thought would be incoherent not only turned out to be sharp but also had my complete attention.
"How did you manage with your kid?"
"Ah, yes. The British gave us rations every few days. A packet of beaten rice, some milk and water. But the rations were of poor quality, always left-overs from what they gave to their countrymen. We couldn't eat much of it. We used to cook at the end of each day. I couldn't feed such unhealthy food to my child. I used to give him condensed milk which we had packed from home. There was one designated person from each household who would carry the milk. In our case, it was my brother-in-law."
She chuckled softly.
"You know, my brother-in-law used to drain the milk bit by bit and we used to have nothing left. Poor boy. He was just 14 years old then and he felt the pangs of hunger more than us, you know."
She laughed again and then became serious.
"It was a cruel trek, though. So many died. We used to step over dead bodies as we walked. There was no one to even dispose of the bodies with due respect. They were left to the wolves and vultures of the forests. There were entire families that were wiped out. The young were left to fend for themselves. I remember there was a 12-year old girl whose family had all died during the trek. She was clutching her infant brother and walking. She used to often moan that her baby brother didn't open his eyes, cry or eat anything. We discovered that the baby was dead. Had been dead for sometime. But the girl was holding on to him tight. So, at night, when the girl was asleep, we threw away the baby into the forest. When morning came, we told the girl that the crows had taken away her kid. She cried a bit but then she believed the story. She was, after all, just a child herself. I took her under my wing and escorted her to India. It was cruel, child."
She paused for a moment gathering her thoughts.
"I am wandering. You'd asked about my son. There were days when we thought he wasn't going to see the daylight. The child was under-fed and totally dehydrated. There came a point when my mother-in-law decided that we couldn't carry on like this. We hired a hut from a Naga and stayed there. My mom-in-law took the baby in her arms and walked to the trail. She sat down by the side and started chanting, 'Are there any doctors amongst you? We need help for this baby'. So many hours she shouted her throat dry but none came forward. People kept walking. At last, one doctor she had known from Burma passed by with his mother. She called him by name and asked for help. But he said that he had to escort his 92-year old mother home and couldn't stop. My mom-in-law literally fell at his feet and begged for mercy. At last, he decided he'd stop for a few minutes and tend to the baby.
He told us that the baby was dehydrated beyond hope. I begged him to do something. He boiled a large pan of water with a huge syringe. God knows why he was even carrying such a big syringe. I had never seen anything like it. He filled it with water and directly injected it into my baby's stomach! The treatment was rude and crude. Yes, rude and crude. Glucose is injected into the body only drip by drip. This was a brute force method-injecting to the stomach. I have never seen such treatment before nor after that day. But, child, it worked! My baby survived and we marched on!"
She nodded her head and her eyes twinkled with pleasure.
"We went on and on. When we reached Imphal, Ramakrishna Mission volunteers took over. We were put on a train. And every day, they used to give us one bun to eat. Finally, we reached Benares after 35 long days. From then began my long journey to my village in Palakkad, Kerala."
She stopped to offer me something to eat. But I was more interested in her story...
I shall continue this resolute old lady's story in my next post....:)