The water was very cold in the summer dawn. The air smelled of camphor from the temple across the fields. The sky was still lit with distant twinkles of stars. She could feel the hair on her legs stand up when she stepped into the temple pond. Her father and brother were undressing themselves at the steps. It had always been funny to see her little brother wearing only his langot. She was wearing her white shimmy as she always used to, while coming for the bath. Today it seemed to be exceptionally cold like it would have been during a winter morning.
“Acha, are we early today? The water is very cold”, she shouted out to her father who was helping Ananthu, her little brother, walk down the stone steps.
“No you little idiot”, he said, smiling.
“Acha, will I catch fever?” the squeaky voice of Ananthu seemed worried.
“No. Only Ammu will” he said, winking at her. This seemed to make him happy as he burst into giggles. She only stood there with her hands on her hips, rolling her eyes.
“One dip in the water and you’ll feel how warm it is” said her father and stepped down into the temple pond. She could hear Ananthu shiver loudly at first and then giggle when he was half covered by water.
She knew her father was right. He always has been. That was one of the reasons why she loved her father. When she took a dip in the water of the temple pond, she felt fresh again. It was warm. In the northern side, she could see the temple from where she stood. The sky was still dark.
By the time they finished with their bath and got out to dry themselves, they were shivering. The temple was slowly being lit by the lamps that surrounded the walls of the temple. The air was now filled with the faint sound of the bell that the priest rang inside the temple. They could also hear the old woman sing praises to the Lord. She had always been the first person to visit the temple every morning. Once the priest opens the door, she would start singing and this would continue till later into the morning.
Ammu had always seen the old woman in the temple when she went in after the bath in the temple pond. She used to sit leaning on one of the wooden pillars at the porch of the temple. Her eyes either closed or looking straight at the idol of the Lord, illuminated by the lamps. The atmosphere in the temple was something that somehow had the power to bring peace in your minds. May be that was the reason the old lady used to sit there most of the times. She didn’t look like she had any relative who would actually worry about her, or wanted her home. Ammu was suddenly scared at the thought of what would happen if she were an old woman without anybody to look after her.
“Acha, what will happen if I were to become like that old woman in the temple when I grow old?” she did not hide the obvious worry in her tone.
Her dad smiled, through the thick moustache and beard. “Ammu, when you were born, I was the happiest man in the world. Your mother had cried when she heard you make a grumpy noise the very first time. When your brother was born, I was still the happiest man alive. Only your mother wasn’t there to hear Ananthu’s little grump. Now, all I have in my world is you two. Am I complaining? No.
Sadness is obvious. It is a part of our life. Else we aren’t humans. I know that this is too much of advice that I am giving to you at this age, but Ammu, we are always alone. We meet different people when we begin the journey called life. Few choose to stay while others decide to take a different path than yours. Few have to leave given the circumstances, but we should learn from each person we meet. We should learn that we only have ourselves to depend on and nobody else. The old lady has learnt that. She is strong. You must learn from her that you too can survive alone if that were to happen.”
The mind of the eleven year old was not ready to accept the facts of life narrated by her father. She held onto his hand and walked quietly. She missed her mother.
By the time they reached the door of the temple, there were many others standing there and praying with folded hands, chanting the name of the Lord. In a world of ecstasy. The old woman was one of them. Now, her father too.
“Krishna…” the air echoed.
That day when she was returning home from school, the sky seemed to grow dark. The sun had completely disappeared between the darkening clouds. The rains were not far away it seemed. She had to walk faster, else she would get drenched by the time she would reach the middle of the fields.
“Didn’t you bring your umbrella?” came a voice from behind her. She turned back to find a boy of seemingly her age, standing next to her, with a wide smile on his face. His thigh length knickers looked clean unlike his shirt which had a smudge of dirt on its right shoulder.
“Who are you?” she asked. She had never seen him before.
“Hye… You don’t know me you say?” he asked, the smile had disappeared from his face.
“No and sorry, I don’t talk to random boys whom I don’t know” she said and turned back to walk.
“But I see you every day” he said. “I’m sure you have seen me too”
“You wanted to know whether I have got an umbrella right? No I haven’t. So now you can walk away. I’m not talking to you” she said in an irritated attempt to shoo the boy away. She was sure that she had never seen that boy before.
“But look at the sky, it’s going to rain” he said, still walking along, smiling.
The lane that led to the fields was narrow, covered by trees and bushes on either side. She could hear Gopi uncle talk amidst the trees. He used to cut the long grasses to feed his cattle.
“What’s your name?” she asked, making haste in her sole attempt to not get wet in the rains. Her exams were not far and she couldn’t afford to fall sick.
“Narayanan” he said.
“Why haven’t I seen you, even though you say that you see me daily?” she was curious. “Wait a second. Are you the kind of boy who hides and peeps at girls?” her face was turning into a big frown.
He laughed, and she knew he wasn’t, from the innocence and naughtiness that was mixed in his voice.
“Do you know an old lady who sings in the temple?” he asked.
“The old lady? Well yes. But I don’t know her. I just know her” she said, trying to not confuse him.
“Well, great. I happen to be her grandson” he said, with a faint smile.
“Wow. I thought that she did not have any relatives or anyone” Ammu couldn’t hide her surprise.
“You just said that you didn’t know her” he snapped.
“I meant that is what everyone says, because she’s always alone” she replied.
“How can people make up stories even without knowing her” he seemed irritated. “Judgemental pricks”.
“You trying to act too matured for your age” she frowned and walked faster, holding on tightly to the satchel that hung on her back. The stones on the uneven path was pricking her little feet.
“You are her daughter’s son? Where’s your mother? Why haven’t I seen you earlier?” she asked unable to hide her curiosity anymore.
“I am not exactly from around here, though I am her grandson. I just ran from home today to see her. Keep this a secret. Nobody knows” he lowered his voice all of a sudden.
“Okay” she said. She knew that she was great at keeping secrets. She had never told a single soul when her friend Anjali had told her that she stole a rupee from her father’s money box the other day.
“So I need your help” he said, increasing his pace to keep up with her.
“What is that?”
“Please come with me to her house. I don’t know the way and I don’t want to get lost here” he said. She could feel the genuine sense of request in his voice. “I just want to see how she is doing and I will run back home soon after that” he added.
They were almost nearing the fields and she didn’t want to deny his request to see his grandmother, the old lady. The sky had grown dark and there were distant roars of thunders. She didn’t think twice.
“Fine, come with me” was all she said and walked along the lane instead of getting down into the fields.
They walked quite a distance. After they crossed the grove of bamboo trees, the little hut made out of coconut leaves was visible amidst the bushes. They walked towards the hut and saw the makeshift door open ajar. There was a Tulsi plant just a few feet from the door. They slowly walked upto the door.
“I don’t think she is here” Ammu said, hesitant to make another step towards the hut.
“Why will she leave her door open if she isn’t at home?” he asked and it seemed like a genuine reason to her. “Call out to her”.
“You do. She’s your grandmother” the hesitation was eminent in her voice.
“So? I have throat problem. Can’t shout” he complained.
“Okay fine” she agreed. “Grandma…” she shouted. “Are you home?”
There was no response from inside.
“I told you she isn’t here” she said. “Let’s go. You can come back another day.”
“You stupid girl. Call for her again” he scolded.
Somehow she didn’t feel like ignoring what he said. “Grandma…” she shouted again, with a louder voice. “Are you here?”
Both of them heard a noise, more like a wailing grumble from the back of the house. Without saying another word, they rushed towards the back. There was an old well behind the house and there lay few steel utensils and plates. Two of the pots that lay there were filled with water while the third one had fallen, spilling the water around the well. When they reached closer to the well, she saw the old lady lying on the muddy ground, beside the bucket used to draw water from the well. She ran towards her and when she brought her face closer to hers’, she was relieved as the old lady was breathing. She gently took the old lady’s head and placed it on her lap. Her forehead was smeared with the sandalwood paste from the temple. Her white saree had now become dirty with the wet mud. Ammu reached her hand and took some water from one of the pots and sprinkled it on her face. The old lady struggled to open her eyes, but did. She looked shocked to see her lap resting on a little girl’s lap but was too tired to show her expression.
“Water… Wa…” she mumbled.
Ammu took some water in her palms and let the old lady drink directly. She seemed to gain some energy after a while and could stand on her feet while Ammu still held her. The old lady wasn’t that tall she realised. When they got up and started taking little steps towards the house, she realised that Narayanan had run away. That stupid boy.
She helped her till her wooden cot inside the hut and help her lay down.
“Thank you little girl. What is your name?” the old lady asked.
“Ammu” she replied.
If you weren’t there today, I might’ve suffered down there. Especially when it is just about to rain” the old lady said. There were tears in her eyes.
“You don’t have to thank me grandma” Ammu said, smiling.
“How did you happen to come this side? I have not seen you around here”
“Yeah. I came along with your grandson. He wanted to see you, but then ran away. He got really scared after seeing you that way I guess” she said. “But that’s okay, I’ll bring him to you the next time”.
“My grandson?” the old lady gave a surprised smile.
“Yes. Your daughter’s son I thought”.
“Little girl. I do not have any children, let alone a grandson. You must be mistaken” she said, still smiling.
“But..” Ammu was sceptical.
“Now you must run away home. It’s getting dark and the rains are also coming” the old lady said, the smile beautifully adding on to the wrinkles on her face.
“Okay Grandma. I will see you later in the temple” she said and ran home. Luckily for her, it only started raining after she reached back home that evening.
The next day when she went to bath along with her father and brother, she explained the incident to him.
“Ha ha. Som kid just fooled you” her dad said, laughing. “But, it did result in something good didn’t it? You could help the old woman. If it weren’t for the boy’s prank, who knows what would have happened to that poor old lady? Thank god that you were there. I’m proud of my little girl” he said and gave a kiss on her cheek.
Ammu smiled even though her father’s moustache poked her face, but she wasn’t just satisfied with the fact that the boy ran away. The next time he comes over, she decided that she was going to hit him with a stick.
In the temple, the old lady sat beside the pillar and was singing her songs praising the lord as usual. When she saw Ammu , she smiled and waved at her. Asking her to come over to her. Ammu obediently walked towards her and her father walked behind her.
“Your daughter saved my life yesterday” she said and hugged Ammu. The affection was something that Ammu had never received from anyone except her father. She smiled.
“She just told me” said her father. “I’m proud of her”
“You should be. Not everyone are lucky to have daughters like you” the old lady said.
The bells of the temple then started ringing continuously and the doors were opened. People held their hands together and prayed to the Lord. Few were chanting while few others were singing praises. Ammu took a glimpse of the illuminated stone idol of the Lord and closed her eyes. Praying.
“I told you, that I see you everyday” said a voice followed by an innocent giggle.
She opened her eyes. She was sure she just heard the boy from yesterday but he was nowhere around.
“What is it?” asked her father, surprised at his daughter looking around.
“Nothing” she said and closed her eyes, praying.
In that atmosphere which was filled with the chants of people praying and the infinite music of the bells, she could still hear a distant giggle.