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A Mask for ‘Dadima’

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By Savitri Narayanan
The children’s play area was bubbling with life. Young children on the climbing bars, slides and swings, indulgent mothers watching their little ones with admiration and a grandmother or two sitting around.

“A world of hope and dreams,” I thought as I paused near the fence to watch. On my brisk evening walk, often I slowed down my pace and paused here to take in the young energy. ‘Once upon a time I too stood around like these mothers, admiring Arun and Anisha,’ she smiled to herself.

“Auntyji aap bahut sundar ho.” I turned around wondering who was addressing me. A little girl in a printed maroon frock squatted on the boulder looking up at me. There was an air of purpose, expectation and yet a lost look about her. “Why aren’t you playing?” I said, “Go, get on that swing.”

“Auntiji, do you have a mask to spare?” the little girl had her own question, “It’s for my Dadima, she’ll need one to go to the temple, isn’t it? But she doesn’t have one!”

There was something about the little girl, something genuine, loving, trusting that I too sat down on another boulder nearby.

“Why is Dadima going to the temple?”

“When the baby comes, we’ll do pooja,” she stated, “A pooja in the temple and food for the poor in the ashram.”

“Tomorrow, I’ll bring along the mask for Dadima,” I said as I got up to continue my walk, “You go home now, it’s getting dark!”

“See you tomorrow!” the little girl sprang up and ran away with bouncing steps.

The next evening, I was out on my walk as usual. Today, the little girl was not sitting on the boulder on the roadside but waiting at the children’s park gate. There was an air of excitement, a sense of hurry about her. “You got the mask, right?” she extended her hand, “Come, we’ll give Dadima a surprise!” she said her eyes brimming with joy.

I was taken aback. The little girl and the mask were forgotten even before I reached home the previous evening. What to do now!

The little girl’s eyes, expectant and hopeful, met mine. There was no evading the issue. I had to find a way to save the situation!

Ruffling through my pouch, I said, “How careless of me! Dadima’s mask is in the other pouch! I could go back and pick it up in a minute, is it ok?”

“Come back soon, Auntiji,” said the girl, “If it gets dark, Dadima will worry.”

Since I stayed across the street, in a few minutes I was back with a mask. The girl was waiting impatiently but cheered up at the sight of me.

As we walked hand in hand towards the settlement beside the housing complex, I made conversation, “Who else is at home?”

“Dadima and Pitaji,” she said, “She must be knitting and he must be sleeping now.” There was love and concern in her voice as she said, “He goes for night shift, you know and Dadima cannot walk, so she knits.”

“And your mother?”
“At Rampur with Naniji. When the baby comes, she’ll rest and when the baby is this much grown up, we’ll bring them here. We’ll do a pooja in the temple and arrange food for poor in the ashram,” she said happily. All the plans were neatly chalked out in the little head.

“Who does the cooking?”
“Dadima makes roti–subzi. Pitaji sleeps as he is tired after night shift,” so saying the girl stopped outside one of the tenements. Signalling me to silence, she opened the door with the latchkey around her neck.

“Dadima, we have a visitor. She stays in that bungalow and she has got something for you,” she ran to the elderly woman in the wheelchair.

“Aao beti, aao,’ said the old woman with a welcoming smile. She put away her knitting and turned to me, “Nice of you to come. Munni has been talking a lot about you- how pretty you look, how pretty your dresses are, how you comb your hair….” Indulgently, the old woman patted the girl who shyly slid behind her wheelchair.

I was taken up by her air of dignity and the affection in her tone.
“Where’s her mother?” I asked signalling at the little girl.
A bearded man in lungi and shirt emerged from behind the partition.

“He’s my son, Munni’s father,” said the old woman, “Bahu is with her mother in Rampur, the baby is due soon.” Then she turned to her son, “Beta, have your tea before it grows cold.”

The man picked up his glass of tea and squatted down near the wheelchair. He looked fit but needed a shave. He could also do well with another shirt and lungi in better condition.

“You have night-shift, Munni was telling; what do you do?” I made conversation.

“Well, I am a clerk in that travel company but haven’t been paid for four months,” he said. “Now I substitute for the night watchman at that petrol pump. He is stuck in Garhwal, you know. When he is back I will find another job.”

There was a sense of hope in the air that somehow dispelled the lockdown gloom. My heart went out to the family.

“You know what, our gardener has not come back from Garhwal,” I said, “and weeds are growing wild all over our front and back yards. You are welcome if you know how to tend a garden.”

“That’s kind of you, Madam, of course I know how to tend a garden,” his face glowed as he got up to wash his teacup, “Tomorrow, by this time, there’ll be not a single weed left in your garden!”

“I need to go now, and walk a bit,” I got up to go. The little girl sprang up from the floor and came around to address her grandmother, “Dadima, Madamji has a mask for you. You’ll need one when we go to the temple with our baby, right?”

“Oh! Yes! I am glad it’ll be useful to you,” I took her clue and pulled the mask out of my pouch. The little girl glowed in the affection pouring from three pairs of loving eyes.