I still remember the first time I reached the gates of the home for the destitute and dying run by The Missionaries of Charity. I must have been nine or ten. A relatively big enclosure located on the outskirts of Pune city, guarded by tall red painted walls.
“How much longer papa?”
I asked my father as I did not enjoy being awoken early on a Sunday morning.
We drove about an hour from home to reach those red gates. As we approached , the gates were opened by a seemingly old flail figure with dark glasses and a bent posture. And on his face was that one singular expression of satisfaction, and hands folded in a Namaste . An expression that I probably have never had since I grew up from being that ten year old boy falling asleep on the car seat.
As went further inside, more and more people came with that beautiful smile. Some couldn’t walk, some did not have a hand. Some just watched from their wheelchairs. But all of them had that one gracious expression. The kind that resonated with the innocence of a child or the kind that you see a virtuoso musician have after playing the most difficult of pieces. That feeling of being completely at peace with yourself and all the facts of life.
And then walked out the sister who was in charge that day. An almost motherly figure, clad in a blue bordered saree, she came to be the figure I associate with selfless service. In those two large and impeccably clean rooms with about fifty beds, the sisters took care of those who were dying and did not have anyone to take care of them. In those rooms were scenes of pain, of joy and most of all, of dignity.
She asked us to put the clothes we had brought for the inmates in the nearby pile and asked us to come into the office to sign for them. I walked into that small office and my father filled out that register of donations which always seemed to be empty.
Sister asked about me.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”, she asked me.
Like any Indian boy I could say doctor or engineer.
“Doctor.” I replied.
“Then when you grow up, you can come help us out with the patients.”, she said.
“Okay but not on Sunday. Sunday’s I sleep.”, I replied as much innocently as sleepily.
Sister laughed and said,” All right help us on the rest of the days. May you get what you want.”
Turning to my father, she said ”Next time can you please bring in some soap for the inmates? We are really running out and we need to keep them clean to avoid diseases.”
“Yes surely, we will bring it in the next month.” , My father replied.
As sister walked us to our car, many of those poor , abandoned and terminally ill patients waved us good bye and thanked us as though we had cured them of illness. Those faces of contentment were the happiest faces I have ever seen.
Years passed and going to the sister’s home for the dying became a monthly practice. Each month we would go with whatever the sister asked us to bring in. Sometimes it was rice, sometimes dal, sometimes bandages.
A lot of those faces wouldn’t be there the next month. And gradually new faces came in.
When I was about fourteen or fifteen , one new face came in. Sometimes we would go in and talk to the patients. Sister said that sometimes a kind sympathetic ear can be a great medicine too.
There was this relatively old man whose body seemed to tremble in this rhythmic, almost dance like motion. A long receded hairline, a sparse white beard and trembling hands. He called me towards him. He was sitting up on the bed with his back to the wall.
He folded his hands and said” Namaste “ just as the sisters had taught him.
I too responded with a Namaste.
He began talking to me and asked me my name .
“You look just like my son.” He said as I sat on the stool next to the bed.
“ I have three sons .” He said , ”But no one comes to visit me .”
I was at a loss of words. I had never really known what real pain looked like. I just could not find in my head nor heart , a suitable reply to give to that frail , trembling figure whose words seemed to have rendered me quiet.
My mother came to my rescue. “ Don’t worry baba, we will visit you every month and the sisters will take care of you.”
And I just couldn’t say anything.
Our monthly visits continued and I always went first to that old man. By now I just referred to him as ‘baba’ By and by in that progressively incoherent speech of his , he told me of his home , his family and life. One day he pulled out this dusty looking box of sweets and offered me a piece of it.
“No ,no!! that is for you baba !!” I said.
“ But I asked the saved it the for you . I know you come on the first Sunday every month. I saved a piece for you . It is for you.” He replied.
I reluctantly took that one last piece. And if that was not the sweetest thing I have ever had!
Time flew and I finished school. I had to leave Pune and go to medical college. I visited the place once before leaving .
I finished my first year and was back home for the vacations. I had by now grown up and seen some of the world. And in that grown up world of backstabbing and problems was another world behind the red gates where one is always greeted with folded hands and smiles of satiety. I had in my own way experienced pain and sadness. And somehow that is what I found myself thinking of.
And once again I found myself at the red gates of the sister’s home. After filling out the registers I asked the sister about baba. She said he was getting worse. These were perhaps his last days. He was losing much psychological function. Some delusions and a lot of depression. Huntington’s disease I was told. I reached that still impeccably clean ward. I spotted baba still seated with his back against the wall and walked towards him. There were so many new faces but he was there, slowly moving towards that singular fate that awaits us all. I sat on the same bedside stool as I had when I first met him.
He was trembling even more now. His whole body shook like he was in some great pain.
In a slurred speech he said. “ I have three sons . No one visits me.”
And yet again I found myself at a loss of words.
Somehow, I managed to say,” I am here baba , remember me? You saved me the last sweet that day? You remember?”
“I have three sons. No one vists me.” He repeated.
Memory had betrayed my baba.
I tried talking to him, but I could not get him to remember me.
“ I had three eggs today.” He said waving three fingers in my face.
He said it with an expression of amazing grace and satisfaction that I too had when I was a ten year old visiting that place for the first time .It almost felt that death could not dare touch that face of satisfaction. The same child like happiness betraying the age old trembling.
I was not sad that he could no longer recognize me anymore. After all, a sympathetic ear is a powerful medicine. I was company to him. And happiness loves company, and it follows us. Whether we acknowledge it or not , whether we can physically remember company or not, happiness somehow always follows company. If we just gave up trying to find reason’s to be dissatisfied, to be miserable we could be so happy. Maybe that is what pain really does. It makes us even more susceptible to life’s little joys. The little joys that we otherwise take for granted. Maybe that is the big lesson behind these red walls.
I rose up to leave and baba’s trembling hands once again went into a Namaste .
I too folded my hands , knowing well that there may never be a next time.