Tuesday, June 9, 2009
The Happy List
The doorbell rang. Two short buzzes, followed by a gentle knock. I smiled. This had to be Mrs Nair, my neighbour. We had this little code between us so that you could open the door on an 'as you are’ basis. Considering that we were two single women, each of us living alone, it worked out best for us.
While I had moved out of the comfort of home and hearth in the North to strike out on my own in Mumbai, Mrs. Nair’s solitude was not chosen by her. Her two children had grown and migrated abroad and about two years ago she had lost her husband. Although desolate for a few months, Mrs. Nair soon began to adjust to her new single status. Part of a reading club and several other senior citizen’s associations, she kept herself in good spirits, soon becoming the one person everyone turned to for help. Me included.
They say, God gives us relatives but we choose our friends. I’d go a step further. I think God even decides who our neighbours will be. Heaven knows, the Almighty was in a generous mood, when He deemed that I move next to Mrs Nair. A day after I moved in, the doorbell rang. Tripping over cartons and bundles of mattresses, with my hair full of cobwebs I opened the door expecting the carpenter. Outside stood a small, frail woman in a silk saree, holding a bowl covered with a napkin.
“Mrs. Nair”, she said smiling warmly, “I am your neighbour. I just made some hot idlis and sambar. I thought since you had just moved in you mustn’t have had time to cook.”
The rich smell of South Indian sambar wafted into my nostrils, and to me that small dark lady seemed to suddenly grow wings behind her back. That was the beginning of our relationship, strongly based on a variety of South Indian ‘tiffin’. With the aroma of upma and idlis, our relationship grew stronger. We came to depend on each other for a variety of small and big things. My Saturday morning breakfast was with Mrs. Nair. She’d thoughtfully allow me to sleep in late then ring the doorbell: two short buzzes, followed by a gentle knock. Then she would quickly step in with freshly prepared breakfast, whiz into my kitchen, take out the plates and lay the table. My part of the deal was to get the coffee maker on. She loved the filter coffee that my coffee maker made. To me it was the laziest way of making good coffee. She thought every South Indian family should have one, and give away the traditional decoction utensils.
I really admired Mrs. Nair. Although she was my mother’s generation, and a retired school principal, she was amazingly modern in her outlook. I felt that we shared a bond more as friends than neighbours, and never did the age gap seem to come in our way.
Then one Saturday morning, the doorbell did not ring. I got up at about 10:30 realising that it was way beyond Mrs. Nair’s time. Alarmed I rushed next door. She opened the door tentatively. Her eyes were swollen like she had been crying. “NairAuntie!” I exclaimed, “What happened?”
“You remember the doctor’s appointment I had?”
I could have kicked myself. I had known she was going during the week. But the weekdays had flown by so fast, it had just completely slipped my mind. Now my heart sank.
“What did the doctor say?”
She broke down now. Between sobs I heard the dreaded word. “Cancer.”
I put my arms around her. That was all I could do at the moment. Then regaining my composure, I straightened up. It seemed the right time to take charge.”NairAuntie, what’s for breakfast?”Quickly wiping her tears with the end of her saree, she looked embarrassed, “Dear, I haven’t made anything today. I just could not think straight!”
“Fine then,” I said, “today we’ll have a lavish breakfast of burnt toast, butter and your favourite brand of coffee.”
Over coffee, Mrs Nair told me that she had noticed a small lump in her breast a couple of weeks ago. Thinking it would go away she had ignored it. But later decided to go to her family doctor, who had immediately asked her to undergo some tests.
“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” I asked indignantly. But she just shook her head. “You have so much to do, and you are so busy with your work.”
I sighed. For once, I wished I had not been working and had been by her side when the cruel diagnosis was disclosed to her.
“Ok… what’s next”, I asked.
Step by step, I went through the next few procedures that were required. A biopsy, more reports and maybe surgery. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy. The best part was that the doctor said that the prognosis was good.
“But,” she exclaimed, shaking her head in confusion, “there’s so much to find out and whenever I go to the doctor, I forget everything that I wanted to ask him.”
“List” I said absently.
“What?” asked Mrs. Nair, puzzled. Somewhere at the back of my mind was this article I had read about cancer and how to cope with the diagnosis. One of the things suggested in that was to go to every doctor visit with a list of queries one might have. “Everything you want to ask the doctor, goes into a list. That way you don’t forget anything and you make the most of your time with the doc.”
Over the next few weeks, I made it a point to come home from office and check on Mrs Nair. And her list. She seemed to be doing well. Our Saturday breakfast sessions were restored. But over a couple of weeks, I saw a change in Mrs Nair. She seemed to be sinking into a depression.
I set up internet chats on my computer so that she could speak to her children more often. We started going for an odd movie together. And sometimes our breakfast would extend to a lunch or an evening snack together. But nothing seemed to help. I often wondered, what made her happy. What could I do to cheer her up?
“A happy list” I said, one Saturday morning over a plate of kancheepuram idlis.
“Happy list?” Mrs Nair had been very successful with her lists on her doctor’s visits. “Yes, yes” I said, snapping my fingers, thrilled with my idea. “That’s just what you need, a list of all the things that make you happy. Let’s start right away”.
Mrs. Nair gave me a bemused look. Every day, Mrs. Nair was to pick one item from the happy list and do it. I would help wherever I could. The idea caught on. By next Saturday, the list was a page long. Chatting with her children, going to the reading club meets, even the movies we went for together found their way on the list.
Saturday morning. The bell rang. I opened the door. Mrs. Nair walked in with a mischievous smile on her face. On a pretty silver tray was the most lavish South Indian breakfast I had had in ages. On top of the lace napkin was an envelope with my name on it.
I looked at it. As Mrs. Nair watched, I tentatively opened the envelope. Inside was just one sheet of paper. Titled, “the Happy List”
The entire list of twenty items consisted of just one thing: a cryptic, ‘Saturday morning’.
(c) Vaishakhi Bharucha June 2009