The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

Life Ties

When strangers become a lifeline
Taru Bahl

CITY life, with all its intrusions, makes one wary of striking up conversations with strangers be it on a walking trail, in a flight or on a train. However, there are times one is willy-nilly drawn into a continuous process of social interaction in a park, gym or golf course.

One may not have believed in the life-giving positivity which walking companions are capable of unless one met Ms Verma. An octogenarian who moved from Chandigarh to Delhi after her husband passed away about five years ago, she knows everybody from the gardener, to the young expectant mothers down to the old men who come in groups and after their walk sit huddled together animatedly discussing the latest political developments.

Blessed with impeccable social skills, she is good with names, doesn’t forget faces, is sharp when it comes to picking up threads of a previous conversation, is liberal with her compliments and does not engage in long-winded conversations. She knows why a walker is in the park in the first place and lets you maintain your pace. Her only demand is, "Beta when you are through with your walk, just spend five minutes with me." She wants no help in crossing the road or alighting from a step or walking across to the fruit or flower-seller at the corner of the road. She feels that it would spoil her. She uses a stick and prefers to walk alongside the hedge. It gives her a feeling of security. She values her independence and has faith in people who always step in to help her when she needs them. Her only demand from you is, "Just stop for a minute to say hello to me. Let me hold your hand and bring it to my lips and bless you. Touch is reassuring. We old people are very lonely. Your one minute of love is enough to bring hope and sunshine into our otherwise dreary days."


The stiffness with which you cloak yourself vanishes as you find yourself warming up to an old lady who amazingly has all her faculties in place. Thanks to her, you get introduced to your fellow walkers and you find yourself smiling throughout your one hour of morning and evening walk. Where have your apprehensions gone? No one asks you embarrassing questions. No one wants to probe and find out who you are, what your family history is, what you do for a living or how you could be ‘of use’ to them. There is genuine concern when they inquire after your health or mention that you have been missing, checking if everything is alright. They may occasionally pay you a compliment or share concern over the upkeep of the park, for this is something they presume you would be willing to pitch in for. When the haarsingar tree was invaded by street urchins who would come and pluck at all its delicate branches, everyone stood up to drive them out, even paying the gardener extra to keep a vigil.

Ms Verma’s uncomplaining demeanour make people respond to her in ways which they too find amazing, for most of them would not offer a helping hand to their own family members, leave alone a complete stranger. The flower seller allows himself to be gently bullied into offering her a discount on her standard purchase of orchids and tuberoses. The fruit seller keeps the freshest pieces of papaya for auntyji, insisting on sending his helper to deliver the packet to her home. She can engage him for the daily delivery but it would rob her of the sense of purpose she feels when she makes that little excursion in the morning to check on her fruity breakfast.

Fifty-year-old gentlemen, whom she refers to as "young men", offer to help her out with her electrical and plumbing repairs and occasional fittings. All the drivers and guards emerge out of the shadows to escort her, drop her packages and walk her home. More than the physical help she values their company, their respectful namaste and their "kaise hain maataji?"

She recounts how the group of oldish gentlemen found out her address and visited her when they got to know that she had undergone a knee transplant surgery and had been missing from the park for over a month. She gushes like a teenager as she tells you that they came with a bouquet of flowers. Like a headmistress, she gives them a pat on the back, complimenting them on pooling in donations to buy some benches for the little oasis which serves as the park and walking track. She tells you how she has guided the gardener in maintaining the rich velvety lawns, drawing on her years in Chandigarh when her garden used to be the pride of many flower shows during the rose festival.

If you have the time and are willing to listen, she will fill you in on a lot many interesting nuggets about life, culled from her own experience. Living in a household where four generations of single women live (she being the great-grandmother, followed by her widowed daughter, recently divorced grand-daughter and her two-year-old baby girl) she belongs to one of Delhi’s old business families. She is quick to share her knowledge and let you know that she too "chews up the business papers." She has faced her share of heart-breaks and acute loneliness but the beauty is that she is not bitter or unhappy. She neither indulges in self pity, nor does she lament her fate. She is reconciled to old age. Thus, the motivation to be fit and financially secure is of paramount importance.

Readying herself for her morning and evening walks requires a lot of preparation and effort but she feels it is her lifeline. It gives her the positive reinforcement which helps her take on the day without getting remorseful. Looking at her you are reminded of a quote "beautiful young people are accidents, it is beautiful old people who are works of art." There are times when you want to be left alone, at times like this, she senses your withdrawal, magically waves her hand and frees you from what you were avoiding. By the time you encounter her in the next round, you find your irritation gone and you surprise both her and yourself by giving her a genuinely warm hug.

You enviously hope to be as mentally agile, physically fit and emotionally sound by the time you are eight scores of age.

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