“Beti, mujhe tumhara phone chahiye.”
I turned and saw a diminutive lady, bent with age, standing just behind me and looking expectantly at the phone in my hand.
I was sitting on a bench at Burhanpur station, waiting for the 5.45 pm Pathankot Express to take me back to Mumbai. Though it was the end of June, the monsoon had not yet reached Burhanpur and the evening sun was still just hot enough to be uncomfortable.
I had just finished a day and a half of hectic reporting, following a case police in Burhanpur district had filed against 15 young Muslims for allegedly bursting firecrackers after Pakistan defeated India in the Champions Trophy cricket final. Just that morning, I had met the main complainant in the case, a Hindu antenna repairer from the same village who had asserted vehemently that the police had fabricated the entire case. I filed a long report by 5 pm, checked out of my hotel, and scrambled to the station.
Now, to my consternation, the train was delayed. I had settled on a bench to email photographs that I had taken through the trip when the lady’s words, at once a command and a request, cut through my thoughts. I immediately agreed.
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “Tell me the number.”
The woman beckoned me to follow her further down the platform. To her bag, I thought, but she only led me to a spot where the shadow of a wide water fountain shaded us from the sun. She sat down against the wall, patted the floor beside her companionably, inviting me to join her. I did. Then she extracted a bundle of scraps of papers from inside her blouse and riffled through them.
“This one,” she said, handing me a slip of white card paper, worn thin from the number of times it seemed to have been folded and unfolded. “What is the name on it?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” she said. “Now call him and tell him to pick me up from Khandwa. I am going there right now.”
Mahesh, she said, was her daughter’s husband, presumably living in Indore. There is no direct train between Burhanpur and Indore. The nearest station between the two is Khandwa, from where one needs to take a bus onwards to Indore. She wanted her son-in-law to pick her up at Khandwa railway station and help her board the bus to Indore.
This was hardly an unusual request. I dialled the number. Almost on the last ring, Mahesh answered the phone. The line was crackly, but I relayed the message dutifully. Your wife’s mother is at Burhanpur station and is going to take the evening train to Khandwa. Will you go to the station and pick her up.
“What! Tell her to stay in Burhanpur. I am in Indore right now, I can’t go to Khandwa.” Mahesh hung up.
“Call him back now!” the woman said, agitated after I told her what he had said. “Tell him to send his son if he can’t come instead.”
I did, this time taking care to put the call on speaker so that the woman could conduct the negotiations herself. Her voice, surely, would carry more weight than mine.
Mahesh yelled the same thing to his mother-in-law and cut the call once again. We then called her grandson. He too flatly refused.
Concerned now that this frail woman, who must have been in her late 70s, would have nobody to receive her at her destination, I asked why she did not return home tonight and perhaps go the next day so that someone would be free to pick her up.
“I am not going back there,” she said firmly. “I will go to Khandwa.”
Her daughter-in-law, she was convinced, had tried to poison her food the previous day. When she had brought this up with her husband, he too had turned on her.
“You are only a beggar,” he had told her. “Go live on the street if you don’t like this food.”
So she had left.
She had two daughters. One in Indore and another in Pune. It was her Indore daughter’s family she wanted to live with. If they did not want to take her in, then she would still go to Khandwa, no matter the consequences.
Until then, my mind had still been full of my disturbing conversations with the arrested men’s families from Mohad. Their sons and husbands and fathers had been accused of violating a narrow sense of nationalism where loyalty to their country was even now determined by the outcome of a cricket match many of them claimed they had not even watched. The old woman’s distress reminded me that in the backdrop of the big changes in India are daily upheavals in the lives of countless people.
The woman had left her bag near the staircase at one end of the station platform, quite far from where we sat. She asked me to help her take it up the bridge and to the next platform. The carpet bag was as she had left it, stuffed to the brim with the zip gaping open to reveal a pair of new chappals still in the plastic wrapping they seemed to have been bought in. It was heavy, even for me.
I still had another 15 minutes before my train was supposed to come in. I sat with the lady on the other platform. Now reunited with her bag, she kept anxiously patting it, as if to confirm everything she had packed was in it. I offered her some of the bananas I had bought for dinner that night.
“If I go to Indore, I will be all right,” she said, evidently hungry as she peeled the banana. I sat on her bag to zip it shut. “Even if my daughter doesn’t take me in, I can still earn a lot of money on the road, can’t I? How much do you think these religious ashrams will charge to take me in?”
I had no idea. What can the elderly do if their family deserts them in India? The only old age homes I knew of seemed to be unaffordable private enclaves. Senior citizens get only Rs 200 per month in national old age pensions – hardly enough to make ends meet – particularly if the person in question is destitute and does not have a bank account or an Aadhaar card. It might turn out that an ashram would indeed be the most secure place for her.
Just as she finished telling me all this, Mahesh called back. The connection was still terrible.
“Take down this number,” he said. “This is Gaurav in Pune. He is her other grandson. Ask her to call him. We can’t come tomorrow.”
Relieved at the family’s sudden change of heart, I called Gaurav immediately and put him on speaker phone.
“But nani,” he pleaded. “I am in Pune. I can’t come so quickly, don’t you understand? I will definitely come tomorrow. Just go home tonight.”
She would not go home.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said encouragingly to me and to a woman sitting on another bench who had turned around to hear this conversation. “My Gaurav is a good boy. He will definitely come to pick me up tomorrow. Until then I can sit in Khandwa railway station. Nobody will bother me there.”
Slightly less troubled now, I wrote out Gaurav’s number for her on another piece of paper, and gave her a fistful of poha I had bought outside the station, also for dinner. Then since the woman on the other bench was waiting for the same train as the old woman, I enlisted her support to see the woman safely on board.
My own train was just about to pull in and I crossed back to board it.
The next evening, I was filing a follow up report to my first one when Gaurav, the grandson who worked in a bank in Pune, called me in a panic. He had reached Khandwa station but could find no sign of his grandmother.
My heart lurched. Had I made a mistake in leaving for my own train without first ensuring her well-being?
“The thing is,” he said, after I relayed a list of possible places she might be in Khandwa – or if not, in Indore – “we are all anxious about her because she took all the jewellery at home with her when she left. And even new things from home.”
That explained her anxiousness about her bag, I thought, remembering the way she had shushed me when I began to ask the other woman to try her hand at convincing her to go home. Perhaps not just the jewellery either, when I remembered the slippers, which seemed to have been for a foot several sizes larger than her own.
“Call me back the moment you find her,” I told Gaurav.
An hour later, he called again. “We found her,” he gasped. “She was at the station. The police had found her on a train going to Mumbai.”
They had found her bag too and all was well. I could not help but feel uneasy at the idea of her going back to her husband and daughter-in-law, who seemed to have mistreated her and made her miserable enough to want to run away. I imagined her distress as she stuffed her bag with whatever she could find at home and their angry reactions if she returned home.
I do not know what happened to her after that. I did not note down Gaurav’s or Mahesh’s number and a few days later, when I thought to speak to her again, I could not find either.
Read Mridula Chari’s story from Burhanpur on the controversial arrests of 15 Muslim men after an India-Pakistan cricket match here.
Scroll reporters look back at 2017.