Her giggles changed me…


October 8, 2011
The father of modern technological revolution passed away this week. As cancer cut short his journey, I join global netizens in mourning his death, but no eulogies as I know Steve Jobs only through Apple. However, the few speeches I read of the man makes me believe he will rest in peace as he lived a life – his life – in faith.

That’s the one main reason he touched scores of people. In fact, any soul that fulfills even a part of its purpose in earthly life will leave an impact on at least a few mortals before it leaves the body. One such person touched me, too…

My family knew her for the last about 26 years. They had rented a house opposite ours in Secunderabad towards the fag end of 1980s. She was a rolly-polly short woman who perpetually giggled. With two toddlers in tow, she soon became a regular at our gate. I didn’t like her spending time with mom, especially in the evenings when we returned from school. On weekends, when we were at home I believed I didn’t get to see enough of my mother because of her. She was constantly yapping away– that’s what I called her conversations then. If it was not to speak of her siblings back home, then it was her house owner’s tantrums, or her neighbours kids, or it was to borrow some tea powder or sugar or sweater and a reason for the same always ran into an hour-long monologue. Come winter or summer, while in mourning or celebration, she didn’t need a reason to laugh and talk. If her constant presence irritated me, her giggles snapped at my nerves.  Why can’t she speak with a straight face, I wondered on several occasions.

If she had to buy anything new, she turned to my mom for advice, if she received a letter from her parents, the contents were shouted from across the compound. My mother, meanwhile, took the role of a counsellor, an elder sister and advisor. In short, my mom developed a soft corner for her in no time. Soon she began keeping aside her chores to attend to her needs – and I kicked up a ruckus at home. Looking back, I don’t think there was a single instance where I let my mom help her in peace.

We were regularly treated to ghee rice, mutton stew and kheer – her specialties. On Eid, we were invited over and I hated that even further. I refused to go to her place. So a parcel would be duly sent. In fact, she only needed a pretext to bring food. My mom sneezed and she would lay a spread on our table requesting her to take rest. And I muttered and sweared around. I just hated her presence and loathed her dominating maternal instincts at play. I said her show of affection was for her to fulfill her own needs.

Soon her kids grew up and the little girl was admitted to my school. There followed another request. I was to take the child along. A four-year-old tugging along meant I couldn’t run and jump into any bus along with my friends. I had to wait for the rush to subside, which delayed me by 10-15 minutes (it was humongous period of time and unacceptable then). There were days I literally dragged the girl along in anger. That was enough reason for me to completely ignore her mother, who would invariably be at our doorstep when we returned home. I would walk-in in a huff with an annoying pout and be reprimanded for the same until one day when my mother just gave up. Luckily that ordeal lasted just two years as I completed my 10th and moved on.

Shortly afterwards they shifted residence to the next street and I began to see less of her. Only the weekend visits I was privy to as most meetings took place during college hours. But the mention of her name was enough trigger for me to put up my dirty side on show.

Apparently my mother found a friend and younger sister in her and I had failed to see that then. All that I saw was my mom sharing with her the time she ought to have spent with me or so I believed, which was totally unacceptable. Her presence in our house I considered a compulsive invasion. Her non-stop jabber irritated me and her perpetual giggle was fanatically unbearable. I would close the door of my room as she walked in lest I hear her giggles and imagining her whole upper body moving in rhythm made me mad.

Years passed…as I joined university and spent more time on studies and things more constructive, the irritation on seeing her lessened. I later moved to Dubai and forgot all about her. During my short annual trips, when my mom updated me of community news, she did figure, but I was unaffected. I had moved on. She was totally out of my world.

But this July – July 7, 2011 – when I landed in India, my mom told me, “Naseera is here. She wants to see you.” And I said so very casually with absolutely no feelings, “So let’s finish it now.” Because going home and visiting her later was not advisable – my home is 170kms away from the airport, while her accommodation just a 15km drive.

My parents, though, had visited her several times during her 45 days hospital stay – never considering the distance covered on each trip.  There’s no math in relationships!

I walked into the room, to find a frail frame – yes, the rolly-polly woman whose upper chubby body mass shivered in rhythm to her giggles was reduced to a skeletal frame holding a bald head.

The moment she saw me, she tried getting up. Her aged mother helped her.She was wheezing hard while she tried helplessly to independently cover her legs with a bed sheet. She wanted to set her sparse hair right, but couldn’t manipulate her fingers to her whim. Her old mother helped with that, too.

But all through this arduous exercise of helping herself up and trying to decently present herself to the guests, she was giggling.  I now saw how even her hollow cheeks and darkened skin couldn’t soil her giggles – her trademark expression that once irritated me no end. Though her flow of speech was affected, she started off.

In between bouts of wheezing, coughing and holding for breath, she said: “You look the same, Nisha. Put on a little weight. But you are the same girl I knew when I first came to Secunderabad.” She turned to her old mother and said, “She was this tall even while in school. She used to take Suneera to school  (Suneera is the little girl I dragged in anger on most days). Oh, now you cut your hair. She had long hair…” and so she went on, as I stood blankly.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Soon it was only some sound that I heard, for I couldn’t arrest the thoughts that barged into my head – those of the hatred I nursed almost two decades ago. It was for no substantiate reason. Why did I hate her? I couldn’t think of even one reason?  It was my personality trait – of not being accommodative. Period. But that had no effect on her. As I trailed back into the room, she was still on…”your daughter looks like you only, Nisha. Even she is so thin. You were very fussy with food. Is she also like that?…” Oh my, she remembered my eating habits, too.

A short while later, we had to take leave because my little girl was getting impatient. Life is cyclic! For the first time in our long-acquaintance I was beginning to bond with her and my daughter was playing the spoilsport.

When we got up to leave, she held my mother’s hand and said, “ I’m so happy, chechi, you brought Nisha and her daughter. Now don’t delay. You’ll have got a long drive ahead.”

She then looked at me and said, giggling as always, “I’m happy to see you. This is the first time I spoke for this long in months. I become breathless off late. So I just don’t attempt speaking. But today I’m ok. I’ll improve now. Will get back home and call. You must be tired, the packing and the flight you must not have slept last night, too, isn’t it?…”

And so we took leave of Naseera aunty.

On August 1, 2011 when I returned from shopping late in the evening, my mother was still in her working saree, looking soiled and worn out. “Naseera died this morning,” she said. Three weeks after I first bonded with her – she was gone.

That night though I was extremely tired after a day-long outing, sleep eluded me. I couldn’t put off Naseera aunty’s giggles. Am sure she would have sensed a teenager’s feelings for her, but she never once showed it. The positive character that she was she treasured her giggles on her deathbed, too, even when the ugly tentacles of the disease spread to her insides.

Only after I promised myself not to ‘hate’ people; only after I made a resolve not to use that word ever again; only after I decided that even if I were to have an earth-shattering reason to abhor someone, I would only ignore them or dislike them at worst, could I rest that night.

My faith in relationships has been strengthened by someone’s innocuous giggles. Her death may not have made news, her deeds may not have altered the destiny of thousands, but her life has definitely changed me.

PS: A tribute to an aunty who I will always remember.

Nisha Sanjeev

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