Translated from the Marathi by Gauri Deshpande.
Grandma’s time was up. She was really much too old. There wasn’t another soul left that age. No one knew exactly what that was, because her birth was a matter of ancient history and there was no record of it anywhere.
She was now blind in both eyes. Deaf as a post in both ears, paralysis had taken away all muscular action and her speech was a series of moans, rising to screeches. If you fed her one spoonful of tea, half of it spilt on her pillow and mixed with the ever-running water from her eyes.
Everyone had given up on her. Each week the doctor would come and be amazed that she was still alive. He would then sing praises of the unaccountable power of the will and depart.
Downstairs, near the stairwell, sat my youngest uncle, muttering to himself and clad in rags. These he would tear into smaller rags as the fancy took him. He would also put away an enormous lunch and dinner, drooling all the while. This had made him a robust idiot.
When Grandpa’s estate was divided up, to my father’s lot came the house, a little cash, the aged Grandma and the idiot uncle.
Once a day, towards noon, one of us had to drag the uncle up to Grandma. Then with her withered hand she would feel him all over. That made her day. If we forgot to take him to her, her moans would rise to screeches. Then my mother would say, go on, someone, bring him up, and the uncle would be dragged up for the daily inspection.
So you see, we could hardly send him to the madhouse. I mean, she had to die first. Then we could have got rid of him and got rid of the eternal mourning of the house. It could, then, become a proper home with a family. But Grandma’s willpower was terrifying. Whether she was given her medicine or not, whether she ate or not, the life in her went on and on. It was there in her small claw as it felt the idiot every day.
My father had made up his mind that when Grandma died he would make many promises to her soul in front of the lump of rice. For instance: I will look after the idiot, give him all he needs, won’t throw him into the madhouse, and so on and so forth. That, he knew, would make the crow touch the rice at last.
“Grandma’s willpower was terrifying. Whether she was given her medicine or not, whether she ate or not, the life in her went on and on. ”
But what happened one day, the idiot while crossing the road, died under a truck. Though she was as good as dead, Grandma heard all the weeping and everything else that went on. His bloodied carcass at her insistence was then brought up for her to feel for the last time. And, at last, there we all were waiting for the crow to touch the rice. We said all kinds of things but the crow wouldn’t come; the soul’s desire was unknown. Then my father said: “I’ll look after our mother (that is, Grandma) and give her all the medicines.” And there within a moment was the crow at the rice mound.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Penguin Books India
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta