||Thirty Years Later
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|| Sunil had still been unmarried. Suddenly Uma was truly alone in a country with no social safety net, where your sons care for you when you are old and unable to work. Yet Uma now has no sons. I felt the weight of my words of thirty years before and asked myself for the first, but not the last time, how much of her situation resulted from my own words to her, however well intended at the time.
As we crammed thirty years of history into our first excited minutes together, the others in the group that had come with Uma were gathering around, staring, smiling, and generally fawning over us. Uma introduced us her sister Jaisri was there, whom I had also known thirty years before. Uma explained that she now lived with Jaisri, also a widow, along with her son, his family, and Jaisris mother-in-law. Various friends and neighbors had also come to share the day. I could see that they were wearing their best clothes, their faces full of smiles and curiosity. All the while, the young man, Sunil, continued translating their Marathi into excellent English for us.
Gently, Uma put her hand on Sunils arm. This is now my son, she said. That is why I call him Sunil. I saw the warmth of the smile that passed between them. Yet had I not just been introduced to Sunils real mother? I saw her there now tall for an Indian woman, in a bright green sari, smiling through the crowd with pride at her son. Sunil went on to explain that he and his mother lived near Uma, and that they had been very worried about her after losing her only son. Sunil had begun to check on her every day, to see that she was eating and whether she needed anything. Soon, Uma was calling him Sunil, and they began to grow close. Now, he said to me, I visit her every day. If I ever missed, she would worry that something was wrong. But it is OK, because I never miss. She has had enough worry and sadness in her life. Where there is no safety net by the government in India, their rich cultural fabric holds strongly together. Needs are met. People are not left to suffer alone. They fill in the gaps for each other, and life moves on. I was very impressed.
A visit to Umas home
At this point, the entire entourage proceeded to load themselves into the two government jeeps that stood waiting. Pat and I were pushed aboard, and off we went, through the streets of the town. People were hanging onto the sides of the jeeps; colorful saris were blowing in the wind. The excited drivers honked their horns as though they were escorting a maharaja, warning everyone to get out of their way. Uma and her family laughed, waved, and shouted for joy. It was a glorious moment for them, these hard-working people from the lowest class of their society, riding jubilantly through the streets of their town in the jeeps of the Superintendent of Police, celebrating their moment of glory.
We arrived at a small, clean compound. The walking areas were built up, so the drainage ditches cut into them actually worked and the walkways were clean and dry. The houses with their shared walls had been recently painted a faded whitewash of pastel blues and pinks. Umas unit consisted of a small living room, an adjacent room with a table, a tall wardrobe, and a color TV set, much to my surprise. A kitchen off the back had shelves lined with colorful brass and stainless steel pots, and a washroom had running water for several hours a day. The community toilets were behind the housing units. I could see the bedrolls stashed here and there around the house, and it was clear that at night all of the floor space was taken up as sleeping space. The house had a wonderful smell onions, curry, spices and they had a feast ready to be spread. Gone, however, was the smell of a dung fire, as they cooked on two propane burners. That meant that gone, too, were the constant eye infections of the women as they labored over the relentless smoke of the dung fires of the past.
We were brought into the dark kitchen, where Uma, laughing, had both of us making chapattis to go with the chicken curry meal they had prepared. Pat and I ate alone, while what seemed like the entire population of the housing compound stood at the door and watched our every move. We looked through her photo album, seeing pictures of Sunil and her daughter, Sarika, as they grew up. The last photo was that of a handsome young man with dark eyes, staring out at us, taken just weeks before the accident that took his life.
Uma opened the wardrobe and removed a bright orange sari, which she handed to me as a gift. I was overwhelmed at the amount of their giving out of their poverty. We talked, laughed, took photographs, shared memories. The afternoon passed.
Finally, it was time to go. According to the plan we had made with Mr. Roy, only Uma, Pat and I returned in the jeep to his residence. The three of us were escorted into his living room and were offered Coca-Cola. Uma at first refused the glass offered to her by the servant, thinking it was not meant for her. Mr. Roy, however, spoke kindly to her, and told her she was a guest in his house and to please accept the refreshment. She blushed and took the glass from the tray.
A gift for Uma
At this point I took the watch off my wrist and put it on Umas slim arm. She smiled her thanks. This was my time to talk about how to give back to Uma. I asked Mr. Roy to ask her what she needed, or what I could do for her. I didnt know how, or in what form I could meet her greatest needs.