The old woman lay on a cot of wrought-iron, her eyes fixed on a spot outside the window where green life sparkled from the fresh rain of a few minutes past. Her face was expressionless. A young girl of twenty three stood by the foot of the bed, silently weeping. An older lady, identifiable by her face as the mother of the girl, sat in the cane chair by the cot, her face set. Her eyes were wet, her whole aspect that of one who had cried for hours together and was too exhausted to emote any further.

The girl paused to wipe her eyes.
“Is he sure?”
“Yes, dear. He said anytime now. ‘Nothing more I can do’, he said,” Her mother’s eyes squeezed tightly shut.
A tear rolled down the girl’s fresh cheek, coming to rest at a spot on her chin. Absently wiping it with the heel of her hand, she leaned back against the wall, her head raised, eyes closed.
“She must be in such pain…”

On the bed, the old woman lay, her mind dulled to most of the outside world. She knew she was dying. What she did not understand was why her daughter and her child were crying incessantly. The sound disturbed her. Why, if she had stood around fussing like this, her mother would have had sharp words to say! Her mother had been a fine woman, bringing her children up as best she could. Slowly, the old woman’s thoughts began a silent flashback, moving past seventy six years of a long life to her childhood, slow motion black-and-white memories of a small child in pigtails posing stiffly for a portrait, longing to run away; the girl racing around a tree shrieking like a banshee with her taller brothers in tow, as mother called out from the house; stealing a guava from the kitchen, smacked on her tender pink palm by Father, a stern man whom the little girl hated intensely at such moments and loved dearly at others.

Slightly older now, shyly dressed in a new skirt and blouse, her hair beautifully oiled and plaited, singing for her relatives and family friends who had come home on a holiday. Blushing at the hearty compliments, receiving instant cash gifts; a time when men’s hearts were as large as their fields. Twelve: her first cooking lessons from dadima, measuring spices, laughing whenever the aromatic froth bubbling in the pot turned out to be a tad too spicy or salty, afterwards, lying on dadima’s lap and listening to one of her stories, running her hands over the soft cotton of dadima’s sari.

Fourteen: talk of marriage in the house, instantly protesting, the child in her scared at the forthcoming separation, fits of crying and peevishness. Fifteen years old; the ‘groom’ arriving with his family, her refusal to serve sweets, pushed into the room, sullenly offering the platter to a old man sterner than her father, a smiling woman with a round face, the colorful hem of her pallu covering her head, and then a few other men and women. Then to him, waiting for the sweet to be taken, looking up startled after a few moments, locking gazes with a pair of merry, brown eyes in a rather handsome face, catching her breath. Her first full, warm blush – knowing laughter from both families; mortified and excited all at once, she had run off into the kitchen and fiddled with something or the other, checking for whether the well-warmed lunch was hot enough, until the laughter she had left behind her had subsided. The young woman in the child suddenly prodded to unknowing life.

Marriage. How it had felt to slip her hand into his, sure and strong! Like warming her hands over a coal fire in the middle of a winter night. The old woman shifted, her eyes glazing over ever so slightly, the slightest semblance of a smile on her parched lips. The marriage itself had been almost terrifyingly quick, a series of rituals that she barely understood. All through, she had been grateful for the pressure of his hand on hers from time to time. She had not dared to look at him again, even when she knew the liquid gaze was fixed on her face- what if the entire hall burst into laughter once more?

Leaving home: the tears they had all shed! Even Father had cried, his black eyes softened, his face at once full of pride and joy and sorrow. She had gone off with her new husband in his shiny car, an Ambussader it seemed. Her first ride in any vehicle at all. Things ran dizzying fast backwards outside the window and she had clutched his hand tight. The wedding night: nerves, her mother in law trying to explain things to her, patting her reassuringly. More nerves as she sat waiting with the glass of milk, the fruits by the bedside. Relief and inexplicable disappointment when he had just smiled and patted the bed by his side, and asked her to talk to him. Talk? This was what happened? Why had mother been so worried for days earlier?Apparently, as she discovered the next night, that was not all that happened; her husband had been a decent, caring man, giving her a day to get to know him. She had grown rosier in the weeks that came, slightly plumper- and her mother in law was well pleased.

Her first child- the suddenness and joy of conceiving; how startled she had been at the natural way she took to pregnancy! Growing closer to her husband than ever- long conversations by night, discussing their beautiful baby boy or girl, secretly wishing for a girl. Finally, a little over nine months later, a small, pink baby girl, her own child. The family had rejoiced, but she had sensed the tiny sighs wishing for a boy- who came along the very next year, joined by three brothers and a sister.

Motherhood- parenting, the joy of holding her babies, suckling them, growing adept at doing a thousand and two things at the same time. Watching her children grow up at a frantic pace, one of them-the first one- die of fever at the age of two. The worst time of her life- having to carry on for there were five more to care for. The pain had never quite left her, she had wept hot, inconsolable tears over the pale body of her tiny daughter. Her husband had been there to help her tide over the worst, but a mother’s pain, the emptiness, the ache in her breast…

The pranks her boys used to play! The old woman’s hand moved slightly, as if she were asking one of her sons to climb down the tree in the vivid memories swirling around her head. Her daughter’s brow furrowed.

“She’s having dreams…”
“Perhaps she’s trying to say something!”

The two women stared at the figure on the bed, hope warring against reality.
“No”, the girl conceded disappointedly after a while. “She must be dreaming. I wonder what she’s dreaming about…”

Watching her first son get married had been beautiful, choked her throat, her little boy old enough to marry and take care of his own family! One after another, all of her sons had been married- three sons to girls whom her husband had chosen; her last son married against her wishes – the neighbours’ daughter, a demure good-natured girl. Her husband had sent him out of the house.

The world around her had changed too. They could now copy memories onto a black and white card and now even a colour card- a phuttograph. She was scared of the box that made them, though- she had once fiddled with something and a very bright light flashed onto her face, scaring her into dropping the box. Her son had been kind and made little of it, though her daughter-in-law muttered all through in a nasty undertone. The girl was not to her liking, but she had come from a good family… Sixty sovereigns of gold, too. Unfortunately, they had not known how to bring the girl up; she was forever rubbing creams from boxes onto her face and buying, buying, buying! Something or the other. And watching all these serials on the TV day in and day out: girls cheating on their husbands, girls no older than fifteen falling in love in schools! The old woman did not approve, either of the love or the schools. She had gone to no school after she turned eight. And she was none the worse for it.

Her husband had died when she was sixty. A dirty fight had broken put between her sons, and she had had no place to go. She had had a small room to herself in her son’s house, then she had shared the room with a grandchild, looking after the wee girl of six. Now, while they battled over snuff boxes and handkerchiefs, they had no place for their aged mother. Mercifully, her youngest son had taken her in, his sweet-faced wife was now a capable, strong woman with good sense and a better heart. And here she had stayed. She had spat on her sons’ faces when they came shamefacedly later, to ask her if all was well. She had stayed until her accident with her youngest son, slightly embittered, mostly vague, worried and unsmiling.

Life had come full circle for her… from child to girl to woman to wife and mother to grandmother now. And she was well content. She would never know how the different boxed plugged to current worked that the entire family used now. She knew of the TV, the radio, the phuttograph box with a unusual name. She had no idea of what other places there were in Bharat – she had lived all her life out of two neighbouring villages. She had never gone out of her home much, and in the last few years, almost never. But she had never longed for much. She had always been content with three meals a day and caring for her family. Not for her these powders by the mirror or the colourful bags her grand daughter carried each day to her school. She had lived all her life with two necklaces her father had gifted her, never more than four sarees and a smile. They had been enough then, and in her opinion, were enough now for any woman, old or young. The more they bought, the less space the had for themselves, these children of hers! More money, more this, more that – and what would they carry with them to the gods? Jewels? A new house?

Contentment, a gift she had in plenty, came from the mind. And she knew that- oh, yes, she did. Today, they pressed a button and a voice sang children to sleep! Then, she had sung herself, her voice sweet and clear and the child had slept to the sound, the timbre of her mother’s love.  Then, they had had no machine to grind grain – she and the other women had ground them themselves, the rhythm of the pounding a familiar background to their chatter and laughing gossip. She had lived a real life with hands, fingers, caresses, mind, heart and soul, no buttons or boxes. And she had been happier than the children today were. There were uses for the boxes – they could move up and down floors without moving a muscle, but then they would pay thousands to go to a place where they could move their muscles! She would have chuckled, but her head felt woozy…

She had left the two necklaces to her grand daughter, a sweet child of fourteen with ample good sense and a wisdom beyond her years. And now she was ready. To let go of it all, to rest. Enough. It had been a long life… and a good one. Simple, and content.

It was becoming harder to think by the minute… What had she wanted to tell her daughter-in-law? Let it lie… She wanted to clear her head a little. The pain was getting worse, yet it seemed as though it were coming from far away… from another world… images of her grand daughter merged with those of her mother… the same smile… what if they-

The doctor came in and examined the reclining figure for a few moments. The girl studied his face silently, a line between her brows. He lifted a frail, wrinkled arm and studied the pulse. Then he let the arm drop gently and looked up at the women.

And they knew.


The Little Orchid

The flower sat there, pouting.

“Of what use am I?” he demanded of the old birch tree. “No one uses me- I don’t really serve any purpose. To be sure, I smell good, but what of that? How do I make a difference to anything of significance?”

The birch smiled sagely.
“Wait. And watch.” That was his answer to every impatient question the little orchid posed.

The orchid took no notice of the reply, and turned on his side, bobbing his tiny head indignantly. He yearned to be important. It was hours since he had blossomed, and not a soul had taken any notice.

What this to be his fate then- a wayside flower who bloomed by day only to perish, having lived a useless life?

An hour later, he was rudely wakened by prying fingers. For a moment, he felt the sharp pain of separation as the umbilical stem connecting him to his mother plant was severed, and then he was free. Delighted, he wondered where the owner was taking him. She was a pretty lass, he could see as she screwed his head up and looked at her past his petals. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her face, set. The orchid’s heart twisted with pity- the poor one!

The girl lifted him up in the air and carried him. The flower opened his mouth wide as the wide world opened up to his curious gaze. Almost an hour later, he found himself suddenly deposited on a perfumed letter. Twisting around while she moved away, he began reading the letter.

Dear Brennan,

How my heart breaks to write this! I begin not with the usual pleasantry- what use is it? It had to be done sometime- and I shall do it now- hurt though it shall.

My country goes to war again against yours… And I will have to choose. I will have today to choose, between love and duty; affection and allegiance; between my heart and my honour. How many times? How many painful times have we met in secret, to plan our lives, knowing full well the futility of it? All I wanted was to love you for life, to bear your children- and today, cold as the winter morn, I know that will never be.

For, Brennan, my heart, Papa has fixed my wedding! It is to be with Charles- as you suspected from the start. And I will not go against it. I know. I know how you must ache, the shock, the pain – I can imagine it as though it were happening right in front of my eyes this minute… but forgive me, forgive my betrayal, I cannot go against my country now- when Papa himself goes to command our men against yours!

On the morrow, I am to be married. Forget me- and forgive this broken wretch, if your heart will be so generous: for you know not how I burn here this instant. You wage a war: you may die for a soldier’s death or live with honour at the end of the war- but I will live all my life, the wife of a man I do not love, condemned in my own heart by a guilt that will for ever burden my shoulders- the guilt of crossing an innocent man’s love… the price of a terrible choice that I will pay every living, breathing moment.

I remain yours in the depths of my heart,

A single teardrop, glinting perfectly in the sunlight, fell upon the parchment and the orchid, his own petals bedewed with his tears, turned to look up into the girl’s tormented moist eyes as she scanned her letter to her beloved. Picking the orchid up and gently pressing his petals together, she inserted the flower into the fold of the letter and sealed it in an envelope. The orchid could barely make out what was happening- he was blinded by the thick envelope.

He could hear noises all around him, people, dogs barking, then silence. Eventually, he fell into a deep slumber, aware that in a matter of hours, he would be dead- but wondering sleepily what was to become of him after. What would happen to the man receiving the letter?? What thoughts would race through his mind?

“Brennan, this letter is for you!”

The man on the bed shifted weakly, his eyes brightening slightly. He was bleeding from multiple wounds and knew death would be a welcome visitor any minute now. It had been two months since the war began and though his men had fought hard and fought true, the English simply had wider coffers- and more men and arms.

Every day, he had waited for a letter from his beloved Esme. He knew she faced a terrible choice- to choose him and desert her country in its hour of war, or choose England over him and his love. Pain darkened his eyes at the thought that he’d never love his sweetheart with his words and lips again, but he willed himself to wait for the last words, as his brother held the letter- what had she chosen?

It was all important that he hear her choice before he breathed his last- was he to die alone, or was she by his side, sharing his burden? Could it be that she had given up her love? The pain of such a decision was almost too much to contemplate and yet- he desperately had to know. Sudden weakness and a very severe bout of coughing dimmed his vision, and he knew for a certainty that he would last barely a few moments longer. The coughing had turned bloody now…

“Open it, Seamus, let me hear what she has to say to me one last time before …”, he rasped weakly, urgently, anxiety tainting his last few thoughts.

His brother struggled with the envelope, urging, “Wait, Brennan, a moment to pry it open!”

It was almost too late and Brennan’s eyes began to dim when the envelope at last slit open – and in a slow dance, a dried, brown flower drifted out of the envelope. Moving in small spirals, it finally landing on the soldier’s parched lips. He could smell the fragrance and as his eyes shut one final time, he managed a trembling smile and edged out in a whisper, “An orchid… she must love me still, Seamus… she must love me still…”, unable to see the growing shock in his brother’s expression as he read Esmeralda’s true intention in the letter.

And in the next second, Brennan breathed his contented last, a slight smile lingering on his lips, underneath the orchid.

The orchid lay on the soldier’s lips- a dead, dried, crushed wisp, unaware of the drama that had played out around his withered little body, unaware of the weeping man by the side of the bed. But had the orchid survived, he would have lifted his tiny petals and shone with modest pride at his magnificent contribution: for in that small, cramped room, unknown even to himself, he had transformed one man’s anxious suffering and laid him to sweet, eternal sleep with the promise of hope, the promise of everlasting love.

The little orchid had at last made a difference.