Her cot stood in front of a low, one-story residence, the interior of which was dark yet full of chattering voices. The woman in the pale-green sari who brought her meals and tea was undoubtedly her daughter-in-law, dutifully serving the family matriarch. Two adolescent girls continually went in and out of the house, and sometimes sat near their grandmother. But for the most part, the old woman sat alone.
I can’t recall ever seeing her stand or walk. Perhaps she couldn’t by then. But she always had her hookah nearby and smoked frequently.
As I passed her she would greet me with a light touch to her forehead and a throaty “salaam.” A fleeting smile would cross her face, then fade. I didn’t try to speak with her. There seemed to be too much distance. Yet, she looked steadily at me, and I sensed that she was comfortable with me—and also, curious. I had come to know, from other neighbors’ questions, that I, a foreigner living in their midst, was as much a curiosity to them as they and India were to me. In the old woman’s case though, the chasm of age, gender and culture seemed unbridgeable, and I chose to show my respect by a simple verbal greeting and a gentle nod of my head. During those times when our eyes met for more than a couple of seconds, I knew that we were a distant window for each other, a window to a world neither of us could expect to enter fully.
One day, a young man sat near the old woman, reading to her. She made her usual salaam to me, and I to her. The young man, in his early twenties and presumably a grandson, looked up and added his greeting in Hindi. “Hello sir, how are you today?” I replied with the usual, fine thank you, and, are you well today? After his nod and smile, I walked on.
The grandson soon became a regular companion at the woman’s bedside. As I would come upon them, he would be either reading to her, massaging her feet, or sitting quietly on a straw mat placed on the ground. He invariably wore a fresh, white kurta—a long-sleeved, hip-length, flowing shirt—and thin cotton pants whose cuffs dragged in the dust. Noticing his broad shoulders and quiet presence, I began to think of him as her anchor to this world. She seldom spoke to anyone else.
The old woman gradually greeted me only with her gesture of salaam, hand to her forehead, and direct eye contact, leaving verbal greetings to the grandson. The young man, whenever present, continued to ask me how I was each time, and I would reply with the usual pleasantries, occasionally adding a phrase I had learned in Hindi class that day. One day I ventured to ask him if he was a student. I had expected a simple yes or no response, for indeed that was about all I would understand. He said yes, then added, “Sahib, baitiey aur chai lijiey.” Please sir, have a seat and take tea. I squatted on the mat next to him while he clapped his hands and his sisters scurried to bring us tea and biscuits. What all he said that day, I am not sure, but from the corner of my eye I could see his grandmother smiling proudly and fondly on us. I felt I had had tea with both of them.
Her cough began slowly. More and more her hookah was at her mouth, and several people I hadn’t seen before gathered around her cot. One afternoon she could barely touch her hand to her forehead to greet me, and she stared absently at the ground instead of looking at me. I asked those standing nearby if she needed medicine or anything at all. They said no. I persisted. Surely, I said, I could buy her some medicine, or get a doctor, for she was clearly very sick. But no, they told me, there was nothing to be done. I did not see the grandson.
The next day the grandson was again not there so I asked her directly if she needed anything—the first time I had said more than hello to her. Her face showed pain and she asked for two rupees for medicine. Two rupees! Of course I could give that, much more if needed. But somehow that was the one day I had not a single rupee in my pocket. “Tomorrow, tomorrow!” I cried. “I’ll bring it tomorrow.” She smiled and sank back onto the cot. The semicircle of onlookers said nothing. Standing a respectful distance from the cot, they only stared.
The following day I made certain I had money in my pocket, and headed down the road. At the shade tree on the corner, I looked expectantly for the old woman on her cot. The bed was now occupied by a middle-aged man whom I had not seen before. Those gathered near the cot looked at me with expressionless faces as the grandson came to me.
In a few Hindi words and gestures he let me know that the old woman was gone forever. He said it with little feeling, and the group did not appear to be in mourning.
I held the grandson’s hand for a moment, mumbled something, and walked away with my own private sadness. The late morning sun felt hot on my neck as I headed for the riverbanks. Fewer people than usual milled near the temples, and the area was quiet. In the stillness of the morning, I felt a twinge of something unfamiliar. Was it shame? I should have returnedimmediately the previous day with the rupees the woman had requested. Had I not accorded the situation its actual urgency, or the woman her importance? Was I that removed from life around me?
My rational mind told me that a few rupees for medicine would not have changed the course of the woman’s life at that point. But my heart reminded me that I would have been responding to her!
The feeling of sadness in me increased, and I slowly wiped my eyes. The sadness was about the woman’s passing, and it was also sadness for myself. For that is what shame really is—a sadness evoked by seeing one’s own insensitivity.
The two rupees lay cold in my pocket, and I finally gave them to an insistent temple beggar, quite against my custom.
Years have passed since that day, yet the old woman still appears in my mind, like a chiding phantom, when I am tempted to rush past that soul who looks searchingly at me. I have learned to pause, to respect wishes, and to never, never, say “tomorrow” when only today will do.
James O’Hara lived in India and Nepal for seven years doing social work. His memoir of those years is currently being offered to publishing houses. These days he lives in Berkeley, California, where he writes, teaches Zen Shiatsu, and guards a rent-controlled apartment. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.