We were waiting for Bombay Tikki Chaat…not by the side of some street cart in India, with the right sights and sounds to accompany the taste, but at the table of an eatery adjoining the Indian store in our little American town. It was our weekly grocery shopping day. We had just stocked up on our Indian groceries – The daals, the masalas and the vegetables that hold more memories than nutrition…karela, drumsticks, methi, kundru, lauki, gilki, munnga – and were indulging in some Indian delicacies that were rare in our part of the world.
It was during this time that my eyes were aimlessly ambling around the place, taking in what I had seen so many times for the want of anything better to do, and I spotted her. She seemed new in the kitchen. I knew that the eatery had lost a young employee, who used to man the counter, to marriage; she had been around the previous time, when we were savouring our Bhel, saying her goodbyes to the aunties who had taught her so much and working with whom had been so much fun…she would try and come by whenever she was in the area. The fall in numbers seemed to have been made up for by bringing in this clearly experienced older lady.
I saw her peeking out from the kitchen once, walking up to the counter another time. She was looking curiously at a special child and her family, who were waiting for their food. The next time she came over to the counter, with no warning and no consideration for the place or the people around, she asked the mother of the special child aloud, “What has happened to your daughter?” The only response she got was, “Nothing at all!” She smiled in embarrassment, the mother looked away uncomfortably. She returned to the kitchen.
It is common for parents of special children to be harrowed by questions, mockery and snide remarks. Some people are plain curious, but not concerned. Some have no understanding. Some are uncomfortable to be around them and ask questions or end up making inappropriate remarks because they don’t know what else to do. Her question sounded like neither of those. It did not seem to carry any mockery in it. Her tone was not that of someone looking for some cheap kicks or trying to make small talk out of pity. She did not seem to mean harm. There was something deeper that one could sense in her question.
That sense took us back to the eatery later that evening. It was closing time and the lights were out at the front. We feared the door might be locked and we might not get to speak to her but the door opened when we tried. A ghostly glow from the fluorescent lights in the kitchen dimly lit the eatery. There were chit-chatting voices and close-of-business noises coming from the kitchen. We called out and an elderly man came out. We explained that we wanted to speak to the new lady; we had heard her question earlier in the evening and were curious why she wanted to know.
The lady came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on the apron as she walked. We didn’t know how to even start the conversation; just that it was one that needed to be had. So we asked her why she was asking about the special child in the evening. She seemed to hesitate, as if we were trying to incriminate her. We tried to make her comfortable by asking our question differently, respectfully. And then she told us.
She had had a husband once. They were set to migrate to the USA from Punjab. The visas had been stamped and the bags had been packed when her husband died of cardiac arrest a day before their scheduled flights. They had sold everything. They had packed up and closed the India chapter of their lives. With no husband by her side, what was she to do in India? So she travelled to the USA anyway a few months later to start a new life.
Her daughter was with her. Within a few years of being in the USA, around the age of 15-16 years, her daughter developed a condition that rapidly incapacitated her. Within a shockingly short period of time, a teenager that was full of life was reduced to a disabled person completely dependent on her mother for everything. The girl couldn’t walk, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t eat by herself and she was completely relegated to the bed, nearly a vegetable. The lady cared for her daughter for nearly 3 years before the daughter died at 19 years of age. The doctors never had any answers and nobody ever found out what had ailed the girl.
She saw her daughter’s face in the face of the special child that evening. She was happy to see that this girl was around, alive and happy. And she was looking for answers, for why her daughter might have been taken away from her.
She was looking for comfort. For a clue. For closure. Maybe some compassion.
I see the lady sometimes at the Indian store or the eatery now. I do not know her name but I know a part of her story…one that has taught me to look beyond my own pain, to show compassion and to choose life in the face of great loss. And for that, I will always remember her.