I tiptoed round the house, collecting the things I needed to go out – shopping bag, the bills, cheque book, clothes for dry cleaning, the purse… and then I dropped the keys. I froze. I cursed myself for not having switched on the TV for some extra noise, something that could have masked that sound….
‘Ma, what are you doing? Some clandestine operation?’ asked the younger one.
‘Sh..hhhh,’ I shushed him. I was running late and couldn’t afford to be accosted by the old lady across the landing as I was leaving. That meant that I would lose at least half an hour of listening to her litany of illness, aches and pains and those of her sundry relatives and friends.
‘Just feel this spot,’ she would say, thrusting her arm into my face. ‘Look, how tender it is. It is so painful, I can feel the pain shoot through to my brain,’ she would explain graphically.
Or, ‘These days, when I walk, my foot just buckles under me,’ she would say and try to demonstrate it, to my horror. What if she actually fell?
Or again, ‘My niece called me from Chennai last night. It seems she has had an accident…’ and go on to describe the make of the car that had hit her, and how she had to undergo all the X-rays, scans, the plaster cast on her leg…
I mean talking once in a way about your illness is fine, but making it the sole conversation topic is something else altogether. She took the credit for coming up with a new illness or ache every single day of the week, month and year. Someone could have suggested her name for the Guinness book, for heaven’s sakes! I was the patsy, since I lived bang opposite her flat.
‘Listening to her, I start feeling some ache or pain in my own body,’ I told my family. I think I am going to become a hypochondriac like her, one of these days.’
They clucked their sympathy but offered no help.
It never failed to amaze me how she managed to come out at the precise moment I opened my door. Was she standing there all the time with her eyes glued to the peephole? No matter how quiet I was, she invariably caught me. At first, I indulged her; after all, she was an old woman and her husband had his own circle of friends and his TV. With her children away in distant cities, I fancied myself filling in for them. But then there was a limit. Soon, I began inventing stories, of how I was rushed for an appointment with the editor of some newspaper or magazine. The way I went, it would appear that I was the busiest freelancer in town. Also, I had to hide my bags and other shopping paraphernalia from her. It began telling on my nerves.
Then one day, my nerves finally gave way. I clutched at my head and sat down, close to tears. ‘Why me?’ I wailed.
That galvanised them. I must admit that the L&M and the Brats can be of great help, when they put their minds to it. A family council sat to decide on a course of action. ‘Tell her that you are busy and have no time to listen,’ said my practical older boy. ‘It is kinder to cut her off than avoid her.’
‘He is right, you know,’ agreed the L&M.
‘But I can’t do it. It would be rude,’ I protested.
‘Wait’, said the younger one. ‘I have an idea, one which will serve two purposes. Find out what her interests are and then divert the conversation in that direction,’ he suggested.
That sounded like a good and positive idea and the next time I was stopped by her on the stairs, I casually asked her about her interests in life and came to know that she loved classical music. That gave me an idea. There was a cultural society nearby that held regular music concerts.
The next time I went to the market, I bought a couple of cassettes of classical music and gave them to her. She was thrilled. When I helped her get the membership of the cultural society, her joy knew no bounds. I praised the younger brat lavishly for his insight into human psychology.
She was transformed; she dressed up and went off to meet her new friends and talked of the concerts she attended. She talked more about the saris people wore, the jewellery the singer wore, the snacks that the canteen served than about the concert itself. Still it was better than listening to her descriptions of her diseases, both imagined and real.
I stopped pussyfooting around the house when I was preparing to go out. I actually hummed and sang every time I left home.
But, I must have spoken too soon. Or the Gods must have thought that my days of punishment were not yet over. So one day, when I was noisily locking my door, out popped the lady. Still unaware that my days of joy were about to end, I greeted her chirpily.
‘Oh, it is so good to have caught you. The concert I attended last night was wonderful. That alap in Malkauns reminded me of the time this great singer had come to our hometown. I was about 12 at that time. I remember it exactly because I was down with mumps. You know, my neck had swollen to the size of a watermelon…..’ After about 15 minutes, she finally released me – reeling.
This became the norm thereafter. It was about a performance ‘the day I had this migraine,’ or ‘the day uncle had a bad stomach ache.’ And then, “she was singing so beautifully, when this stinging pain shot up my leg….’
When I told my family about this turn of events, they all laughed. And then looking at my stricken face, relented.
‘Have you heard of removing a thorn with a thorn, and treating poison with poison?’ asked the younger brat with a wise look.
‘But I can’t poison her, for heaven’s sakes!’ I said miserably.
“Oh ma, come on…said the brat and continued: ‘It is like this: when you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em,’ he said and outlined a plan for me.
So after dinner we began having this mini briefing session wherein I was filled in on sundry illnesses and gory disorders by my loving family, especially the Brats. The next day, before the old lady could get a word in edgeways I would begin, ‘Oh aunty, you know when I woke up this morning, I had this horrible constriction in my mandible and I thought I was going to faint…’ You see, the brats not only researched the diseases and disorders but also found the medical terms for body parts!
I couldn’t stop thanking the brat for his wonderful idea, because she hastily closed her door when she heard my front door open — even if she was outside. I happily hummed when I locked my door, for I hadn’t I beaten her at her own game?