In the years when I spent my second stint at Chennai, I became good friends with this lady. She lived by herself, in a breezy, lovely flat in the VaLLuvar kOttam area, with a full-time cook and a part-time maid for company.
She was very knowledgeable about music; my friend G says that another lady became interested in ThevAram songs after listening to P's wide repertoire. Certainly, I found her guidance useful and I have gone to her home to practice before concerts.
She was very fond of Sanskrit shlokAs, and not so fond of the TV, which was there for the cook's benefit! When I entered, some tape or the other would often be playing.
She herself ate very little (she was around 95 at the time) but she was most hospitable, and would offer me whatever had been made that day. She would often tell me to inform her beforehand, so that she could have the cook make something "better"!
She would play Boggle with me and G, and would enjoy the game just as much as we did. Once she told me I could use only words that she was familiar with: "Don't tell me that all these words are now there, I don't know them!" she smiled.
She was very good with her hands, too, and I still have the set of coasters that she crocheted for me...
Neatly dressed, I never once found her harking back too much to the past; perhaps I missed out, in this way, on the accounts of her life, which would have been very interesting indeed...pages of history come to life.
But now...everything is changed. She fell, once, but recovered; she had to move into a rented apartment from the breezy, cool one. Then, she broke her right arm, and this, somehow, seemed to break that indomitable spirit, too, G says. In the years that I moved to Bangalore, she still seemed fine, and was indepenedent in taking care of herself...but in the past few months, she has become disoriented to place and time; the always spare, lean frame has shrunk to skeletal proportions, and the words she speaks are either unintelligible, or are not relevant.
She hasn't been able to even recognize G, or the fact that her daughter (G's mother) died exactly a year ago.. perhaps she is spared the pain...
But...she now feels the burden of her age and existence, and G says she often asks if G can administer something to help her die...she has lost the will to live, and surely, she dislikes beind dependent on others for her daily tasks.
She's being cared for by an 80-year-old cook, who herself appears in need of care and is hard of hearing, and two or three ladies who clean her, bathe her and care for her, one full-time, and the others part-time. She is often irritated with them, as her frustration probably increases at her dependency.
She misses having family around; the lady who was so independent that she hardly liked being touched, now clings to my hand and G's...and sheds tears. She doesn't like it when G has to leave. G goes to spend time with her twice or thrice a week... a difficult enough task, as G has an aging mother in law to look after at home, and a full-time, demanding job as well.
The plight of dependent age is before me...stark and dreadful...and I remind myself that I am actually looking at a lady who is being reasonably well-cared for. Her son and daughter in law live in a tiny flat where they cannot accomodate her; G says they spend about 40 or 50 thousand rupees a month on maintaining the establishment, from the rent to the salaries to the food....
"dheerghAyushymAn bhava....( may you live a long life)" ...the phrase no longer denotes a blessing to me. My mother used to say, "one must die and have people say, 'sad, she died'...rather than living and have people say, 'sad, she's living'..." and now I see the justice of her remarks.
The MahAbhArathA chronicles the sufferings of Devavrata, who became Bheeshma....the man who could die when he wished to, but who could, in actuality, die only long after he *wanted* to. He lived to see values and customs changing and his own kinsfolk becoming his enemies. The last days of his life were spent on a bed of arrows...and that, to me, symbolizes the difficulties of those who have to live through a depenedent old age.
PattamAL mAmi....I pray for a painless release for you. You are already no longer the person I was friends with. That person...has gone, forever. All that is there now...is the husk of the body, and the remains of that wonderful mind and its repository of knowledge.
I repeat the mantrA even more forcefully:
"anAyAsEna maraNam, vinA dhainyEna jeevanam...kripayA pAhimAm shambhO...sharaNAgatha vathsala"
(let me lead an independent life and die very easily...have mercy on me, Shiva, the friend of those who surrender to You.)