THE MYSTERIOUS OLD LADY

Ronita did not want to go to the park today. She was very tired and exhausted and did not want to step out of her house but she was pestered by her daughter, and had to give in. Her daughter said, “Maa, please take me to the park, please, I want to play with my friends!” Ronita told her that the weather was getting rough and it could rain any time. She finally had to relent as she had promised her to take her to the Lake Park in the morning and did not want to breach her trust. While they were going towards the park, Ronita realized that the winter was slowly creeping in as she could feel the chill in the air. There was so much to be done, winter clothes to be taken out, quilts, blankets, after all, she couldn’t take any chance with Amit’s health.

Amit, her husband, had bronchitis and Delhi’s weather was taking a toll on his health. She was still in her own thoughts when her daughter tugged her and brought her back. She said, “Yes, Sweetie?” “Maa, my friends are here!”The park was full of small children and adults. Ronita saw children playing on the swings and a few boys playing cricket on the field. She saw a group of ladies chatting and walking together. She also noticed a group of elderly people who came to the park for laughing therapy and a few of them was walking on the side tracks. There were a lot of new faces today in the park. Out of all the people she could see, she was searching for that one familiar face which she noticed almost every day. She was becoming anxious as she was not able to locate it.

And then she saw her entering the park through that newly painted gate. She saw her walking with the support of her stick towards the same rusty old bench on which she usually sat. She sat down and looked around at the children playing in the park. Today, she looked a little sadder than she normally looked. Her face looked pale as if she had grown ten years older in just one day, her face had lost its color and sheen.

The old lady was her own companion and Ronita had never seen her talking to anyone not even to the other senior citizens in the park or to the children, she just sat there on the bench staring at them. People feared to go near her as they found her to be strange. But, Ronita on the other hand, seemed to be a little attracted to that old lady and always had that urge to go and talk to her but could never gather that amount of courage.

There was something that pulled her towards her, maybe, she reminded her of her mother. She had felt a strange connection to her.  She was curious and wanted to know more about her as she always saw her sitting on that bench at this hour every day from the past three years. The old lady had a world-weary and a weatherworn face. Her face had lost its charm and looked faded. Her powder white hair was tied in a shabby bun as usual. Her eyes were watery and tired and it looks as if she is always searching for someone, someone who is very close to her. She, as usual, wore that same old and shabby blue cardigan.

Looking at her state today, Ronita felt sorry for her and could not resist going towards her. At the next moment, she saw herself sitting beside her on that bench.  She looked at the old lady’s face. She noticed her eyes, deep, dark, black eyes, full of sorrow and looked at her mouth and realized that she had not smiled in the past few years. She looked grim and grumpy.

To break the ice, she started with the usual greetings and then she said, “Isn’t it cold today?” The lady replied in affirmative. She again tried to initiate a conversation but the old lady always replied in yes or no. finally, Ronita gave one last try and started to talk about her family. Ronita told the old lady that she is a working woman and it becomes very difficult for her to manage both, her work and her house. She told her that she has a small daughter who loves coming to this park every day and play with her friends. She noticed that the old lady was paying attention to her and as a result, she kept on talking. She also told her that her husband got transferred to Delhi three years ago. Since then, she’d been visiting the park every day with her daughter.

This was the only place which reminded her of her hometown as this park had a fountain in between and beautiful white ducks waddling in it. The park was also full of several migratory birds. While she was speaking, the old lady’s attention shifted from the children to what Ronita was speaking. The old lady suddenly asked Ronita to call her daughter as she wanted to meet her. Ronita called her daughter, Kiara, and she came running towards her. Suddenly, the old lady hugged the daughter and tears of pain started rolling down her cheeks. Ronita was a little surprised by the lady’s actions but did not say anything and let her cry her heart out.

After some time when the old lady controlled her emotions and realized what she had done, she looked towards her and apologized to her. There was silence between them which was broken by the old lady’s feeble voice. She came out of her cocoon and blurted out her story to her and opened her heart out to her.

She told her about her own daughter and her family. She told her the story of how she lost her husband and her daughter. Her husband served as a commander in the Indian Army during the 1980s. They had a daughter. One day she received the news of her husband’s death and this completely broke her, she was completely shattered and did not know what to do. She cried for many days but at last planned to stay strong as she had to live, live for her daughter who was just an infant at that time. She planned to work and got a job in a bank has had to support herself and her daughter as she wanted to provide her with a bright future.

She was rising fast towards success. Soon she was also appointed as the Vice President of the company and with that came more responsibilities. She was unable to devote time to her daughter and as a result, she appointed a caretaker for her daughter. She took her to the school, made her do her homework and took her to the park during the evenings.  She did not face any problem during the first two years. She carried on with her work and started to rely a lot on the caretaker for looking after her daughter. Her daughter loved going to the park during evenings and loved playing on the swings just like Ronita’s daughter, Kiara. One day, when it was her off, her daughter who was three years old and asked her to go to the park with her.

As she was very tired, instead of going out with her daughter she asked the caretaker to take her out to the park. After two hours, she started worrying about her daughter as she still had not returned from the park which was very unusual. It had started growing dark and she was worried, she could not concentrate. She thought, “Where are they? Why haven’t they come back?”After some time, the doorbell rang and she went running towards the door but to her shock, she could only see the caretaker. The caretaker told her that while her daughter was playing on the swings, the caretaker started talking to one of her friends and after fifteen minutes when she turned towards where her daughter was, she was unable to find her.

She looked for her everywhere but was unable to find her anywhere. After listening to this, she cursed herself as she could not do anything to save her daughter. She should have gone to the park with her that day. She filed a missing complaint in the police station but the police were unable to trace her daughter. Since that day she has not been able to forgive herself, she regrets the day she let her daughter go out in the park with the caretaker. She said that it was this day, thirty years ago, when she lost her in this same park.

Since then, she’s been coming, to the park every day, day after that day, as she wanted to keep an eye on the small children who play in the park.  She did not want the same thing to happen to any other child that happened to her own daughter.

She also came to the park with the hope of finding her missing daughter some day and if she ever found her, she would never ever let her go out of her sight. Ronita was crying inconsolably, wondering how much pain she bore in her heart. How bold, how courageous!  She could not even imagine herself getting separated from her daughter. Even the thought of losing her sends chills down her spine. She told the old lady that she resembled her mother whom she had lost two years ago. She had the same face as her mother that is why she used to notice her every day sitting alone on this bench. She hugged the old lady tightly.

She told her that she had to leave as it was time for her husband to return and she had to prepare dinner for the family. While getting up from the bench, she said, “Goodbye, Maa! See you tomorrow!” and she left. A smile came on her lips that radiated her whole face.

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