A young woman asked a lady in her early fifties, reading the Bhagwad Gita on a bench, how she was. She stood with mogra flowers in her palm. She smiled like she has found someone she lost in a crowd.
The old lady was fazed and slightly confused. She adjusted her spectacles, frowned and looked up from the holy book. ‘Are you talking to me? Sorry, beta. Have we met before?’
The girl with a smile sat next to the lady.
The lady shifted in her seat, closed the book and touched her forehead with it. ‘God bless all,’ she murmured, kissed the book and placed it on her lap. ‘It’s embarrassing, but I don’t think I know you.’
‘Please don’t be. I understand. I am here to meet my mother.’ The young woman pressed her lips. She knew the old lady would be intrigued. ‘The tragic part is…,’ she swallowed saliva before continuing, ‘she has dementia, and she does not recognise me at times.’ Her lips drooped as she chuckled ruefully.
‘I am sorry.’ The old lady patted her shoulders. ‘God give you strength.’
‘I got these for her.’ The woman opened her palm.
They sniffed the sweet scent of white mogra. ‘This fragrance is so familiar; it is like, it is like…’ The old lady looked for words. She pressed her eyes with her fingers. ‘You know, we had a garden filled with beautiful flowers back home. Such white mogras and yellow marigolds. Also, I would pluck the red hibiscus and offer them to Kali Ma in my home temple every morning. Then, I would put incense sticks in the tulsi pot.’
‘And did you also make hair bows and gajras out of these mogra flowers for you and your daughter?’
‘I think I did.’ The lady went quiet. She refused the flowers the young woman offered her. ‘These are for your mother.’
‘It is ok. I will get more for her.’
The lady sniffed them and breathed in the fragrance loudly. She felt lost again, drawn in another world. ‘You know, my daughter loves mogra. When she was small, she would ask me to make small head bows out of these flowers, and I would pin a small bunch in her ponytail.’
‘You love your daughter a lot, isn’t it?’
The old lady’s eyes glowed as she spoke. ‘I do! Which mother doesn’t? She is going to come today to meet me. So if you are around, you meet her too.’
‘I would love to. I am Arpita.’
The two women sat quietly for a few minutes, gazing at the clear sky, specks of clouds floating in it. Then the old lady spoke. ‘Arpita, where have I heard this name?’ She muttered to herself, her eyes rolling in distress. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘Please, don’t stress. It’s a common name.’ Arpita calmed the old lady’s rising anxiety. ‘So much strain on your mind is not good.’ She held the lady’s wrinkled fingers and caressed them with her thumb.
The old lady sniffed the mogra flowers in her palm. It seemed to instantly relax her. ‘Arpita, who else is there in your family?’
Arpita closed her eyes and exhaled a long breath before she answered, ‘I have no one else. I live alone.’ She turned to the old lady. ‘My husband and three-year-old son died last year in a car accident. Look at my bad luck; I was driving the car that day, and I am still living. God kept me alive so that I could die each day reproaching myself. Sometimes, I feel like I killed my family.’
‘Don’t say that, Arpita. It is not your mistake.’
‘My mother doesn’t even remember her grandchild. It kills me even more every time I have to tell her who I am, who her son-in-law was, how much she loved her grandson.’ Arpita wiped a tear.
‘I am sure she must be feeling your grief, too.’ The old lady caressed Arpita’s head.
‘I don’t know how long I can survive like this. My life feels empty.’
‘Listen, Arpita. God gives only as many problems to those who can endure the pain. You are a strong and brave woman; you will be good.’
‘How would you know?’
‘I just know. I will pray to Kali Ma. I will offer some extra red hibiscus tomorrow during my morning prayers. Kali Ma always listens to my prayers. She will bless you with a good future from here on.’
‘I hope so.’ Arpita watched the old lady sniff the mogra flowers again as if it was a drug, their fragrance intoxicating her.
The two fell silent again. The white clouds disappeared one by one, like the memories of someone with dementia. As the sun started to set, the sky blended into a mix of colours and layered gradients like Arpita’s haunting memories combined with her agonising present.
‘Can I ask you something?’ Arpita spoke suddenly. ‘Do you remember making any promises and not fulfilling them?’
‘I don’t. Why do you ask?’
‘My mom broke a promise she made to me.’ Arpita sighed. ‘I just wish she remembers it someday.’
‘I hope she does, but you can talk to her. Maybe she will recall,’ the old lady tried to reason.
Arpita looked at the sky.
The old lady opened her Bhagwad Gita and started reading again while adjusting her spectacles. After she read the open page, she lifted her fingers to turn it, and the mogra flowers fell out of her hand. She bent down to pick them up. She sniffed them again. ‘Where did these come from?’ She touched the tiny white petals.
‘I gave them to you.’
‘Who are you?’ The old lady looked at her, astonished.
Arpita shook her head in despair and with irritation. ‘I am Arpita, your daughter.’
‘No, you are not.’ The old lady screamed in horror. She looked around. ‘Is this some kind of a joke? Nurse! Nurse!’
‘You forgot, isn’t it? You promised you would never leave me alone, but now you stay here with nurses to take care of you 24/7. You left me to fend for myself. You left me alone in this big world. I didn’t want to get married, but you forced me to. Then you sold our house. It was my house too. I had grown up in it. I was attached to it, to the white walls, to my pink bed, to the white mogras, to the red hibiscus, to the whole garden. Dammit! I planted those tiny seeds when I was a little girl, and the plants grew along with me. The flowers bloomed as I blossomed in that lovely house. And you destroyed everything. Why?’ Arpita leaned over the old lady, her face just an inch away.
‘Please let me go. I don’t know what you are talking about. I am not your mother. I didn’t sell your house.’
‘Just shut up! Aren’t you ashamed, Ma? Baba left you for another woman, but I was there with you. I still remember those days; I was just four. How you cried and begged, but Baba didn’t stop. I was afraid you would leave me too, but you promised never to leave me alone. Yet you did.’ Arpita’s eyes were red, blood racing through her veins. She was fuming with rage as she snatched the flowers from the old lady’s hands and entwined them into a tiny bunch.
The old lady gasped for breath, trembling. ‘I am sorry, beta. I don’t remember if I did anything to you. If I did, I apologise. I am sorry if I put you in any kind of trouble.’ She exhaled loudly. ‘Is there anything I can do now to fix your problems?’
‘You will fix my problems?’ Arpita crushed the flowers between her fingers. ‘You selfish woman. Now you are feeling sorry for me after destroying my life.’
‘Please, beta, stop cursing me like this. I really don’t remember what I have done. I have faint flashes of a little girl playing in a flower garden and calling for her to make hair bows. We were plucking some flowers, and I taught the little girl how to interlace the tiny stems of mogra to make a hair band. What can I do?’
‘Give me my house back.’
The old lady looked around in anguish as if looking for the house that she could give back. ‘I will help you; I…’ She shivered. ‘I will talk to my daughter and get you the house back.’
‘I am your daughter!’ Arpita threw the crushed flowers on the ground. ‘Why do you always forget your daughter? You are so selfish.’
The old lady started to shake like a leaf. ‘I am sorry. Why are you so furious?’
‘“Sorry.” This is what you say all the time.’ Arpita was angry, but suddenly, her lips stretched into a smile. ‘How about I kill you like you killed my dreams? And then I will say, “Sorry.”’ She laughed. ‘Right? Sorry.’ Arpita moved closer to the old lady, her palm moving near her throat, when a voice interrupted them.
‘Mrs Banerjee. It’s time for your medicine. Let’s go.’ A nurse was standing behind the bench, holding a wheelchair.
‘But, my daughter?’ The old lady looked at Arpita and then at the nurse, who seemed confused.
‘Erm. Your daughter called; she won’t be able to make it today.’ The nurse helped the old lady get up from her seat and settle in the wheelchair.
The old lady turned around to look at Arpita, who was talking to another nurse. She could not hear them. She requested the nurse call her daughter.
‘Arpita,’ a nurse called. ‘What are you doing in the garden again?’ Arpita was plucking mogras and did not respond. ‘She is going to get me in trouble. I will lose my job one day because of her,’ the nurse grumbled to the accompanying nurse. ‘The other day, she scared off a dementia patient with some story of a sold house; her daughter complained to the authorities about how we let a schizophrenia patient linger around freely in the rehab. How do I tell them she is not an animal to tie her up in a room?’
The nurse looked at Arpita. She was smiling, a bunch of white mogras in her palm, cupped like a bowl.
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