I started to write this note about another woman that I met recently …. She is 90 plus years old, lives in an ashram in Haridwar … all by herself. Her children live in India but away from her. She has been living in that Ashram for the last 28 years. While going to the ashram, I was expecting to see someone who was old, withering and waiting to somehow spend the last days of her life …. instead I met someone who was old alright, but boy, oh, boy, was she feisty! Her energy, memory and zest for life hit right at some of the sterotypical ideas I was holding about being old and about old women.
Her name is Santosh Rani … She was born in Peshawar in the early twentieth century, came to India after the partition, is the eldest of six siblings. Got married, borne six children, four of whom are alive. After her husband passed away, she chose to stay at this Ashram as she valued her freedom and her own way of living.
After she met me for the first time, she asked me about my family, my daughter, as though she had known me for ever. In fact, she had only heard about me and my family from her daughter some months back.
As she sat there talking about her children, I could not help but notice the utter pragmatism with which she approached life … she weighed pros and cons carefully, believed in choosing that which made most sense, even if that meant having to give up some immediate gains and losses.
After chatting with her for a while I gingerly asked her whether she wished to come with us to Hrishikesh but it would also mean 4 to 5 hours drive? Her face lit up and she said “Main to chal padungi”! (I would gladly hop in and come along). First layer of my stereotyping of older women peeled off at that moment.
Not only did she come with us and enjoyed the journey, she also chatted about her life, every detail intact in her memory, where all she stayed, which year were her children born, how was life then, everything. The second layer of forgetful, old women picture peeled off.
While we were at Hrishikesh, she insisted that we should keep her seated on a wheelchair at a corner of a fairly busy road, and go down and visit Lachhmanjhula (the famous hanging bridge over Ganga at Hrishikesh). I was petrified at the idea of keeping her seated on the wheelchair at a corner but she insisted … “Go, go, have a good time, look around, I will be fine”. While we went down to the river and visited the bridge, I felt very anxious and wanted to come back as early as possible. When we came back, she was calmly sitting there and exclaimed that we had come back rather early! She wanted us to spend some more time but we declined. I was amazed as to how calm she was and that there was no sense of anxiety at all in her voice.
She came back to the ashram …. laid down on her bed and rested for a while. We waited for her domestic help to return to be with her. She talked about needing someone to be with her as it gives her some sense of comfort …. she said if she was as fit as she was earlier, even this would not have been needed! As though if she could, she would have taken care of herself, and of others, all by herself.
She peeled off the last layer of my imaginary stereotype as she suggested that next time I was there she would “take” me to Shimla for a trip. I loved her!
Santosh Rani helped me to believe that helplessness and lack of courage is learnt and are not associated with age or ailments, and that being a woman is a celebration of life.
happy womens day to all of you!