Mobile rang and I woke up with a jerk. In the fuzzy state between waking and sleeping, I fumbled for my mobile.
“Suresh uncle had a heart attack in the night. He passed away” my sister Latha from Hyderabad rasped, swallowing a sob.
I stumbled, almost falling off the bed searching for my response and glasses at the same time. Switched on the bed light.
“How is aunty? Where is she? Is she in the hospital?”
Aunty was Latha’s neighbour and over time had become a very close friend of our families. Relationship of two decades had made the boundary between family and friend fuzzy. I first met her when we visited Latha’s family in Hyderabad two decades ago.
Once my glasses were on my nose, I felt slightly more in control and started comprehending a little better.
“No, his body is still in the hospital. Aunty is in shock. She froze when they announced that he was dead. She wasn’t even believing them. She was mumbling again and again, “They are lying Latha. Suresh will be fine. He is very strong. They are lying Latha, they are lying” and I was unable to handle her. I can’t see her shattered like this” Latha told me, crying.
“She was the one who rushed him to the hospital, but now they have sent her home.”
Fair with a round face and even rounder bindi, aunty looked stunning. With deep, wide and calm eyes, long curly hair in a neat braid reaching her hip, at forty when I first met her, I instantly liked her. She always had a soothing effect on everyone. She wore cotton sarees neatly draped with an amazing warm smile.
Over the years, all our visits to Hyderabad had her as a part of our lives. Latha’s children and my children adored her. She was the most loved aunty for all. Graceful, with loads of affection to share. She took us to the cotton saree shops, the museums, the jewellery shops, the nice biriyani corners. But she always rushed back home by seven, stating that uncle would come home.
“Who sent her home? Doctors? Why?” I was confused and unable to understand.
“They don’t want her to be around when the press comes. Slowly the news is spreading” Latha was stuttering.
“Who are they Latha? What are you talking? For heaven’s sake are you with Aunty?”
“Who else? The other family!” she screamed in frustration.
Uncle was a cinema producer. He met her at a wedding many years back, and there was no turning around. He asked her for her hand, and she agreed knowing he was already married with three children. The most conservative society of Andhra never blinked or frowned on polygamy in the film fraternity. It was almost as if they had sanction from society and were exempted from the bind of monogamy.
“I was with her when she drove uncle to the hospital. Minutes after we admitted him, he took a turn to the worst and they pronounced him dead.
Aunty called his secretary. He informed the other family.”
Aunty lived in the upper middle-class neighbourhood with her stunningly beautiful and academically brilliant daughter Priya. In many ways, she single handily raised Priya. Priya was a surgeon and was married. She was now living in Delhi with her husband. Uncle’s first wife’s children were well known in Andhra and in India. One son was a producer, the other was an actor and the daughter was a fashion designer.
Aunty, with a big smile always on her face had always been cooking, serving the family, mainly Uncle. In her free time, she used to tend to her beautiful small terrace garden. From Thursday to Monday Uncle spent time at her place, if he was in Hyderabad. He was diabetic. Aunty was always preparing various podis (powders) to mix in rice and eat, for his problem. She used to read books to understand how she could control his diabetes through diet. From selecting his clothes to medical check-ups to taking care of him during his sickness, aunty was always there. When he was sick or not happy or troubled, Uncle would always come home to her.
“Once the wife, sons and daughter came in, they took over. The entire hospital was talking to them only. The administration, doctors, nurses, no one was even looking at us.” She stated, crying almost chocking.
“The other family didn’t even bother to talk to aunty. No questions about what happened or how she was” she wept. “It was almost like we were discarded.”
Except for her small group of close-knit friends and family no one visited her. Her parents had died in an accident a long time ago and she was their single child. Her only companions were Latha and a childhood friend. Uncle’s doctor of course, knew her well. But to the larger society, the press, the crowds of which uncle was part of, she never existed. No one talked about her. Uncle was a doting father and loving husband. But that was within the four walls. In all these years I had known her, she never talked about how invisible she was.
I called Priya to check on her. She cried as soon as she heard my voice.
“Akka, What will happen to Amma”? She sobbed. I had no answer.
She told me that she was on her way to the airport to fly home to be with her mother.
“I will bring her back with me” she cried. I was not sure. Will Aunty go? But that was too far off from where we were.
I was by then in the airport on my way to Hyderabad. As I looked at all the people crowding, shoving, it felt surreal. I was not sure whether people were coming or going.
I was feeling cold and detached.
Priya called “Akka I’ve reached the airport. I am so grateful you are rushing to Amma’s side. She has no one” she sobbed.
I told her that Aunty was special to all of us, what she was couldn’t be named as friend, sister, ally, but she meant a lot for all of us.
Priya was talking about how drained she was feeling. I told her to hang in there and be brave for her mother.
I called Latha to know what was happening. She told that she and Aunty were sitting on the cold floor of the living room feeling shattered and spent. They were watching the television trying to know from various Telugu channels when and where the cremation was. Aunty was simply staring at the screen, ashen faced with a dull empty look in her eyes.
We all felt weary, cold, detached and spent. We were there with her in the side-lines of an act, feeling lost, depleted…….holding on to each other, grieving for her. For others, as always, she was invisible like yesterday, today and probably tomorrow – in life and death, cheated of existence.
Illustration – Priyanka Patil