Story Contemporary: Old Slippers: Shail Agrawal

He could see her, as always; standing at the same spot near the window in the kitchen. A glass full of water hung between her lips and hand, as if it has lost the way to her mouth. Omu felt like that himself, lost and confused, his casualty bag and stethoscope still clinging to his tired hands after a constantly busy night at the hospital. That window, facing the back garden frames his mother now almost twenty hours a day every month of every single year. She was standing there at that same spot, her shoulders very tense, a tired nerve in her neck twitching frantically. Yes, she was upset ..It must be his wife, leaving the kitchen work top untidy or sink full of empties.

Silently Omu tiptoed, ” Mum, these azaleas are coming up nicely…” Before he could finish his sentence, to his utter horror, he noticed how sad and miserable she was, just like those tired drooped flowers , just a shadow of their last evening’s glorious display. Those kittens have chewed them all. The pink and white cascading flowers, lush green leaves, everything was gone and the flower bed, an ugly and dirty sight with a freshly done job by cats. That fence of the garden on the right side, wasn’t done, will never be done, for god knows last how many years. It was a stale mate between these two neighbors. And Mum’s garden, a convenient , accessible play-ground for their bombarding footballs, their unruly cats and kittens and their foul irrigating litter. Or may be it was undone because it was simply planned that way.

Their neighbors were keen cat lovers. Four, five cats scraping in the house alongside with a rowdy robust teenager was their normal house hold. After all it is an animal loving nation and who could stop? Mum has put up with it all for a good long time, twenty years at least. Advancing age has made her a little bit more agitated now, lets say, less tolerant. Omu remembered when she was young, nothing used to upset her. Once fed up by these boisterous neighbors he complained,
“Why life cant run smoothly and peacefully Mum ? Why out of all these people in the world, we have to get these insensitive neighbors?”

She smiled and replied, ” So our days don’t turn flat and boring my dear boy.”

That was mum, twenty years ago, taking every challenge in her stride. Fighting all alone in this big bad world with only a seven year old son by her side and enjoying every moment of it, defending each and every little bit of her own corner. But today she just turned around and said wearily, “You know Omu , I’m going to take a shot-gun soon and shoot these nasty kittens. If I can’t find a gun, I will strangle them with my bare hands. They are playing on my frayed nerves.” Omu noticed how her voice was still very soft and hands very delicate. It was just that steely determination in her greying eyes which had scared Dr Amiya Choudhary. ” You shouldn’t get upset on such small matters Mum. Just tell me what is bothering you and what you want?”

Amiya felt a little helpless and inadequate. Mum always knew what he wanted.” Don’t worry, Mum ! Straight away I will ask Peter to put this fence up.” “No”, Mum’s voice was stern , “It is there job .It is their side of the fence. why should we incur this expense!” Omu exactly knew what she wanted. It was a declaration of war. The battle was on. Since when she has started counting these pennies?

She was brought up like a princess, lived like a princess. Only her loved ones took care of those financial side of the things. Money was never an end in her life. Only a means to make life more comfortable and enjoyable for her and everyone around her. Even rainy days could not have disturbed her calm because she always covered herself and everything she cared for, with a sturdy and thick umbrella of love. But things are different with Tara, she is a practical women. “We need somebody strong and sensible like her in our family”. After Omu’s repeated resistance, one day Mum just declared; “Only Tara is going to be my daughter in law.”

Omu surrendered, what else could he do, can not upset his Mum. Anyway it was Mum only, who took all the decisions for him. Knew exactly what is best for him, what he wanted or liked, -down from his necktie to food, music or even his friends and he was happy with his life. He even forgot about Kate who was exactly like his Mum and him in nature. Gentle, loving and always caring. Both he and Mum got along fine with her, just like a house on fire, infact even better then that. Then why did Omu let her go? Is it that bliss is always too hot to handle?

It is nearly two years now since he has married Tara. Omu remembers the dismal fact clearly. Like two wild cats it didn’t take the two women very long to be on each others nerves. Omu kept himself painfully out and apart. Though it often wrenched his heart to see his mum sad and he often withdrew himself into his own shell. Infact both of them have understood it and accepted their plight. They all were living together under a dark shadow of anticipation with their eyes closed… praying and still believing , one day … one day hopefully every thing will be all right. Every person in the family will exactly know what the other wants, exactly how it used to be in his childhood !

To be precise both Omu and Mum were living on a hope that one day Tara will understand. But a relationship grew between them exactly like that of their next door neighbors- dangling between dismay and hope of a better and elusive tomorrow. Omu knew right from the beginning that this relationship was different, a little bit more complicated, too close for comfort and he was saddened by the looming dark clouds on his horizon. After all he was a cautious chap, always ready for every eventuality, always avoiding risks. His thirty years of existence had been a happy, loving and peaceful one .

“Mum and dad are coming from Tanzania, they will stay with us for a month”, thumping that flat cushion Tara declared rather in an aggressive and decisive tone.

“Why are you so upset then ? Its good news, isn’t it ? ” Omu teased her lovingly .

“No, not really. How can they live in such a crowded house ?” her voice was shivering cold.

“Crowded ?” Omu couldn’t understand, we are only three in this six roomed house. ” We can manage.” Omu cleared his throat and tried to clarify the situation, remembering that though there were six rooms in the house, there were only two bedrooms.

” Their luggage can be put in our room and the sleeping arrangements can be done on sofa-bed in the sitting room.”

“No”, Tara announced in a hurried tone, ” they are coming only for a month . Your mum has to go!”

” Where?” Omu almost lost control of his voice.

“In a home or hostel.”

“What?”, gasping for air Omu grabbed the arm-chair.

Looking at his tense face ,”You know what I mean.” ,she replied sheepishly. “We will call her back on Christmas. By then, Mum and Dad will go back. Haven’t I got even this much right in this house? ” she stamped her foot in authority.

Omu was too numb to reply. Words were just slipping than shattering. Only one thought was persistently hammering his tired un-slept, overworked head, how someone can talk like that about mum, that also in her own house? It is his Mum’s house, has always been Mum’s house, even Dad knew that. They all knew that. He left for work that morning puzzled and sad, without breakfast and with untied shoe laces . Things were dull and grey again, a storm was looming and Omu was frightened like his own pensive heart… Somehow he always knew that this will happen one day. Mum’ s room was empty… a sad, big, helpless space and Tara was re-arranging it. There were fresh flowers and a welcome home card on the bed side table, where Mum kept their old childhood photographs. He silently slumped on Mums favorite easy chair.

Tara was talking fast as if she wanted every thing done and over with, sooner rather then later.

“Oh! she is a little angel. Didn’t say ‘ no’, not even once, to anything . Didn’t even pack anything, just said, ‘Everything, I will need, will be there.’ Any way Grange-Hill Nursing Home is such a lovely place. She will get used to it. Lot of people of her age are there. I am sure she will have a lot of company, she will have a lovely brake, away from us all.” Wiping the sweat from her forehead, Tara spoke fast and in one breath and then bent over him to open the window to clear the damp and frosty air of the room.

Mum ‘s old slippers wrapped in polythene were ready for a redundant broom cupboard. Clutching them close to his chest, Omu shot out like a person possessed or touched by an electric volt. He didn’t know how he managed to drive upto that nursing home with those blurry eyes and steamy windows . On every turn of every corner, only one thought was persistent in his head, ‘Mum must be very uncomfortable without her slippers.’ She can never walk bare-foot. And she certainly cannot wear those pointed pencil heels twenty four hours.

It was ten o’clock in the night when he reached there. Those big sad unfriendly doors were locked. Visiting time was over. Frantic Omu was buzzing the doorbell again and again. No light, no movement, as if everything was dead ins… no, just sleeping inside. Omu couldn’t even finish that dreaded thought. After-all his mum was also inside. Omu knew she could never sleep early. He remembered how she always read for hours and hours before she could fall asleep. Tomorrow he will definitely bring some good books for her and some latest music-releases too. They will listen together. Let Tara’s parents stay there in that house.

Suddenly Omu felt his house wasn’t a friendly place anymore. He buzzed the doorbell again. At last a head popped out of that locked front, “Please come in the morning. We open around seven, until unless its an emergency.”

“Yes, Its an emergency.” Omu was almost distraught with pain. “You see my mum can’t sleep anywhere else except in her own bed and I have come to take her back .”
“Oh, are you talking about the old woman who came this morning ? Yes she couldn’t settle nicely at first. The problem was she wouldn’t say or ask for anything, like all the other old people. She is very quiet and gentle, almost withdrawn within herself. Won’t ask for anything. But don’t worry we have managed quite a few old bags like her.” He laughed like a villain with his old yellow broken teeth. “We have given her some sleeping pills for tonight. Bless her little soul, she is sleeping peacefully now.”

“You mean you doped her” Omu couldn’t hear anymore . His eyes were open wide in disbelief.

Let anyone come and go, even Tara can go if she wants to or if she can’t handle this. One thing was finally decided now and forever… Mum will stay in her room in her own house, where she belonged, where both of them belonged. There were still ten more hours to the morning. Dragging his feet, he managed to reach the car and with a heavy heart and thumping head slumped on that cold indifferent back seat, still clutching those slippers to his chest. He didn’t know what to do or even think now. Omu was tired and his mind totally blank . This fear and guilt was so new to him, he has never waited for his own mum before, not so long anyway.

Omu wanted to cry, only if he knew that to be a grown up will be so painful, so villainous ? An obstinate sob gushed up his throat and got stuck there… totally choking him.. He knew if he won’t cry now he will die, here in the back seat of his own car. And he didn’t want to die, not till he had seen his mother comfortable throughout her life… he should not cry loud, after all he was thirty years old and a grown up man. And that night Dr Amiya Choudhary cried to his hearts content, undisturbed, uncomforted and uncared, like an abandoned, punished five year old.

A gentle tap on the car window woke him from his solitude. It was morning at last.

“Omu, when will you learn to look after yourself?”

Yes, it was his Mum all right. Same affectionate eyes, same loving smile, same old familiar house-coat but those pointed heel shoes underneath looked very uncomfortable, ugly and villainous. He sprang out of the car and hugged her with a painful urgency. After making Mum comfortable on the passenger seat, Omu started to take those hideous shoes off from her feet.

“Remember Mum, life should always be very comfortable and familiar like these old slippers. Nobody should be allowed to change this simple fact. How did you forget this mum, how many times you yourself have told me this?” His tears were flowing unashamedly. He didn’t even wipe them… gently and soothingly soaking him, running all over his face now, his shirt, everywhere, quenching the fire which burnt inside him for the whole of the last night. Suddenly a few tiny tears slipped silently somehow straight to his heart burning a big hole and straightaway Omu recognized them .They were softer, smaller, gentler yet very painful, very disturbing tears. The warmth of these tears told him they were not his. Almost sobbing, he whispered,

“No mum don’t cry, I am here now !”

Silently she looked at him. Her legs were not hurting anymore. Her old slippers were there with her now, in her own feet. They were comfortable and very reliable like her own son. At last she can rest now. She just looked at him again and smiled. Words never came too easily to her and anyway there was no need for them anymore.

Shail Agrawal

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