What price, happiness?
Yesterday, I discovered the price of happiness. Music and dance. Two sets of bangles, and the promise of a ‘badaa seating stool’. Oversized clothes and food three times a day. Happiness, it seemed, could humble you.
Let me tell you just how.
On the 27th of September ’09, a motley bunch of XLers from the senior and junior batches set out at 2 in the afternoon, armed with flags that announced the Joy of Giving week festival and assorted daily use items including soap boxes, a bag of rice and small seating stools. All the way, some of waved the flags from the autos right in face of interested passers-by and a puzzled cow. And we reached the destination some 20 minutes later. We looked up at the small, unpretentious board in front of the gray building.
Missionaries of Charity- Nirmal Hriday.
A home for the elderly- most of whom had lost all they had- money, a roof over their heads, the love of their children.
I walked in with the rest of them, feeling slightly discomfited. the grayness, the ordinariness of the building, the rows of shapeless clothes hanging- they made me uncomfortable, though I should have expected them, and guilty at my discomfort. A sister welcomed us and asked us to wait. We moved about slowly, looking at the framed photos on the wall, pictures of a visit by Sister Nirmala from Kolkata to the Home.
Ten minutes later, a small boy walked out from a side entrance shyly. He must have been about ten years old, and his eyes were big, bright and interested. Manoj had brought his guitar along and was strumming it. He offered it to the boy, who eagerly ran his fingers along the strings, plucking hastily at them. Helped by Manoj, he played a little, the tunes haphazard, but his eyes lit up like two stars, and his smile was the sweetest thing that I have ever seen in my life.
There was a sudden movement- The inmates of the Home had started joined us, one by one.
What shocked me the most was the disconnect they seemed to have- mostly women, around 50+ years old, wearing mismatched old clothes: nighties coupled with salwar pants, two shapeless shifts over one another. They sat on the chairs and either gazed into the distance or stared at us wordlessly. I had never so uncomfortable in all my life. What was I to do now?
Meanwhile, Sugat asked Manoj and me to perform a song for them, to loosen the atmosphere. We moved to the side and hastily practiced a song from Jhankaar Beats, which we presented to them, a group of four ‘performers’.
There was no reaction. I sang on, dispirited, wondering if the even understood what we were singing. Most likely not, most of them could not hear well.
And then it happened.
The old woman sitting next to Manoj burst into song, even as we were singing. She sang joyously, the words tumbling over another, as though it had been too long since she last sang. Our mumbled tunes faded as we let her take over and for the next two minutes, she sang with abandon. i could not understand one word of what she sang, but then who said you had to understand something to appreciate it? It was beautiful, her singing. When she stopped, Manoj egged her on to sing some more. she blushed, and grinned and broke into embarrassed sentences. Then she sang some more. The other women slowly began to stir, some smiling, some staring and muttering.
Suddenly, one more woman joined us from inside.
She couldn’t walk, her legs were bent sideways, she moved using her hands, leaning them on the ground. She stopped excitedly in front of the home, where the rest of them were sitting, and gesticulated wildly.”Didi!” she called out. “Bhaiyya!!”
And we went forward to meet her outstretched hands.
She grabbed Risha’s hands and laughed, throwing her head back. My first reaction was: ‘This is not the way a normal person laughs.’ My second reaction: ‘But, God, she is just so HAPPY!’
She was specially abled, and her special ability, if you ask me, was the gift of happiness. She was, quite simply, the happiest person I have ever met in all my life. her name was Mala, but I think of her as Pyaari. Because that was what she was: a lovable spirit, full of life and happiness.
Mala’s eyes sparkled as she showed off her plastic bangles, six or seven on each hand. I was at first puzzled. They were hardly eye-catching, just normal bangles, and different ones on both the hands, as well. But they seemed to be her fount of happiness: the more we admired them, the greater her laughter grew. She would simply toss her head back and laugh in an unrestrained manner, the like of which I have never seen before. I could only watch dumbly. She caught my hand and grinned with so much love, refusing to let go. “Didi!” she said, clearly having difficulty with her speech. “Didi!”, indicating her bangles, and then herself, saying they were hers. “Mala!!!”
My breath caught in my throat, and I could see everyone else was just as emotional. Whatever I had been expecting, it had neither been to see boundless joy from mere human company, or instant love for a stranger such as myself.
She taught me a lesson in love, my Mala.
As she beckoned to the other “Bhaiyya”s and “Didi”s to join her, I moved on, much shaken, to the other side of the courtyard. There sat a small child, a girl of four or five, in a pink frock. Her eyes were fixed on a spot in the distance. She stiffened when I approached, then stared harder at that invisible spot. I smiled, and pinched her cheek gently. No reaction. I kissed her cheek. No reaction. I pried the chocolate we had given her from her hand. No reaction. her eyes remained fixed on the horizon, her body clenched, her fists clenched, her face blank. My smile disappeared. What was wrong with this child?
A grinning boy on a chair waved to me. “She never responds”, he remarked in Hindi, having been watching my efforts. “Never moves, that one. She’s new here.”
“Do you know her name?”
He shook his head, and shrugged. “She never talks. No one’s seen her talk.”
And after twenty minutes of fruitless cajoling and affection, I left that strangely silent child, chilled to the bone. What must have happened that a such a small, soft girl must turn so emotionless? As I turned to the right, I spotted her eyes on me, watchful eyes in one so young. I felt close to tears, I don’t know why.
And then I spotted The Princess. Two of the Sisters in charge were playing with a tiny angel in a puffy yellow frock. I swooped down upon the lovely kid and scooped her into my arms. She came without a fuss, pouting a little though. The head Sister smiled. ‘She’s eight months old”, she answered when I enquired about the child. ‘No one knows where she came from.”
The bundle in my arms shifted slightly, her snappy black eyes moving from me to the colorful scene in front of us, and I followed her curious gaze. Someone had started dancing, and Madan, a resident of the Home suddenly joined in, full of enthusiasm. As XLers clapped and sang, laughing and nodding, Madan rocked the dance floor- honestly. He danced with vigor, pairing with Risha and anyone else who would dance with him. I felt a smile blossom on my face as I watched the group in the middle of the courtyard, singing and dancing, enjoyment on their faces and in the movements. Elsewhere around us, young men and women from XL moved about, distributing sweets, sitting and listening as some of the old women and men shared their experiences and feelings, talking to them, holding their hands. Two of the boys played catch-ball with little children, and their occasional laughter rang out in the lazy afternoon sun. The entire place had come alive in less than an hour.
Suddenly, with that beautiful child nestled comfortably in my arms, looking at the love, life and joy around me, I felt more content than I ever have in all my life. This, then, was the Joy of Giving- giving love, giving warmth, giving some time, giving oneself.
As I handed the child over to adoring Xlers, I walked into the Home, and found the head Sister tearing bits of cotton to make swabs. She smiled and handed a lump of cotton to me wordlessly. I joined her and we worked for a moment in silence, laying the swabs into a box on the table.
Sister gestured at the humble gifts we had brought. “When did you get all this?”. she asked excited, her eyes grateful. ‘We could use all of this… so sweet of you all. God bless, my dear.” She moved in, and i continued working, looking at the photos of Mother Teresa and Jesus lining the walls. The other lady who had been dispensing medicines beckoned to me.
“There is a lady here who speaks Tamil. You know Tamil?”
I nodded. “Yes, Sister”
“Talk to her for sometime, no?”
“I’d love to.”
And that was how I met Poorni. Seventy years old, her eyesight failing, wearing a huge night shift, Poorni hobbled towards me, frowning slightly. In her broken Tamizh, Sister introduced me.
Her eyes lit up, and she asked me hesitantly,
“Do you speak Tamizh?”
“I’m from Vellore. Have you been to Vellore?”
Poorni had had five siblings who were no more now. Childless, she had despaired of life when her husband died as well. Deciding vaguely to “go somewhere and die”, she left home without a rupee and boarded the first train she spotted at the station which, as fate would have it, brought her to Jamshedpur. She somehow made her way to the St. Mary’s church in Bistupur, and sat there till dusk, when the priest in charge realized she was not a day-time beggar and called Nirmal Hriday, asking Sister what to do. ‘Bring her right over!” Sister had demanded, and Poorni had come to stay.
She put an arm around me, held my hand with her free one, and asked me what I did here, about my family, whether they were all fine. “They feed me for free here”, she exclaimed, her eyes widening, “and they give me free clothes- but they’re oversized for me. I am content, though. I chose to run away, Lord Muruga has brought me here.” She paused. ‘All Gods are one and the same, I pray to Jesus as well. I get lonely sometimes, no one else speaks Tamizh, and I don’t understand any other language… I’ve been alone for one whole year.” She looked at me, sadness etched on her face. Then her brow cleared swiftly.
When i got up, she tugged at my hand. “Take care, my dear. God bless you. Study well. Tell your sister to study well too!”
I nodded, and hugged her lightly.
I met Mala again as I left and she frowned and pushed away one of the small stools lying ext to her that we had brought. “Badddaaaa!” she exclaimed and Risha and I promised her a baddaaaa stool. Overjoyed at the promise, she grabbed my hand and kissed it fervently, to my shock. Tears began to gather in my eyes. Blinking them away, I took my leave.
As I left, Sister smiled at me and nodded briskly, going back to the hundred and one things needed to run the Home. I left early- another group of us were going to present a small nukkad natak at two Societies later that evening, as part of th JGW festivities, and I needed to practice.
I walked out of the gate, smiling a little, wondering about the price of happiness.
To Mala: her bangles and the promise of a big stool to sit on.
To the boy: strumming a guitar.
To Poorni: talking to me in Tamizh.
To the children there: playing throw ball.
To Nirmal Hriday: Two hours of our time.
I had all of these things they each wanted, and yet I had never been so happy. Giving it to them created the happiness, the priceless joy- of caring, of sharing and giving.
What are you giving? Celebrate the Joy of Giving with us this week, and spread the happiness.
After all, there can never be too much joy in your life, can there?