-Ai ladki, why is it dark in here? Saving electricity? Has it come to that?
- All the lights are on, Ammi. Even the table lamp.
- So, you think that I see darkness where there is light, is it? No, no, I havenít taken leave of my senses yet. But yes, it is a different matter if you people can see silver snakes in the dark.
Why are you silent? Afraid of saying something?
Even Susan canít see.
What are you people afraid of?
- Ammu, relax. Arenít you suffering enough?
- Youíre right. But donít forget, I havenít let illness depress me. Otherwise, it wouldíve sucked me dry by now.
Tell me, why are you looking away?
- The door of my cage is already open. One knock and out Iíll fly. But listen to me. I am holding on. Disease and sickness are great enemies of man ó they can shatter the relationship between the mind and the body. Even oneís own body has no odour. Medicines get into the blood and shrink the body to a dry reed. I donít know whatís got into my head.
Ladki, this reeks of illness. All that I had, seems to have disappeared...
- Should I burn some incense?
- No. Have you taken leave of your senses? This is a patientís room. Not a prayer room. You may put some roses in the flower vase; they are fragrant.
Where did I see so many big red roses? Just canít seem to remember? I hope my brain cells arenít dead!
- Ammu, donít worry about all that. One sees flowers everywhere. Itís not important to recall each and every place.
- The medicines are playing havoc inside. Iím confused. But tell me, what has come over you? Your voice doesnít have the same timbre. It is losing its mellowness.
- Ammu would you like to drink something cold?
- Youíve changed the topic! All right, go ahead. Anything will do ó anything from the generosity of your heart!
Ai ladki, listen to me, our roles have been reversed. You were my daughter, now you are my mother and I... But forget it... That patient of mine...
- Who, Ammi!
I can understand my illness, but he canít. The soul has to leave the body somehow or the other.
Dozes off. Telephone rings. Ammu, startled - Who called?
- Someone from Chachaís house.
- Ai ladki, be specific, your chacha or mine?
- Chhotey Chacha called.
- Oh! my devar! You shouldíve put him on to me. Now he is more your chacha than my devar. You talk about him as if heís unrelated to me. Iím still alive and alert.
- Chacha asked about your health.
-I hope you are not exaggerating my illness to everybody. When I came here as a bride, he was very small. Maybe four or five years of age. Some mischievous girl placed him in my lap.
- Were you embarrassed?
- I was the bride, but he was just a child. My little devar! I fondled and kissed him. It was a charmed moment. The girls and the elderly women collapsed with laughter. My lap was filled with gifts ó coconuts, almonds, dried dates...
Itís enough to ask about an old personís health once a week. Iím going to be here for quite sometime.
Iíve worked hard to toughen this body. It will take time to give in. Are you listening?
- Ladki, there is no place for old people either in someoneís heart or in someoneís house. And here am I, occupying an entire room. After I am gone, spread a carpet and play your music here.
- Ammu, why must you say such things?
- No. Iím just beating my wings in vain.
I am glad you have looked after me in my last days. As your mother, I had to suckle you and as my daughter you had to drink my milk.
Ladki, our relationship is not merely one of flesh-and-blood, but of the soul. Both are intertwined. I donít know why you turned out to be so different.
Where are you going? Why have you got up? Sit with me for a while.
Ammu begins to doze. After a short nap - I dozed off. Your naniís face kept flickering before my eyes. I donít know how many years have passed since I dreamt of her. The same olive green dress and peeping through her odhni, her breasts.
I was wondering why I didnít suck a little more milk.
I was still young when my sister was born. I was entranced by the sight of my mother suckling her.
One day, mother finally asked ó hey you, why are you staring? When you were a baby, you too lay in my lap and sucked at my breast.
I asked ó May I have it once more?
Ma didnít get annoyed. She touched my chin and said ó Munniya, once a child stops drinking her motherís milk, she never does it again. Now itís your little sisterís turn. Donít crave for it. That is the law of nature. Youíll understand it all when you grow up.
Ladki, it seems as if it was only the other day. Mother was suckling my little sister.
With a child at oneís breast, all the three worlds seem steeped in ambrosia! Yes, a mother has to eat nutritious food. The child sucks it all.
Suddenly glaring at her daughter - How can you understand this miracle? Books canít tell you about it. One canít paint pictures by staring at walls. If that were possible, you wouldíve created so much. No ladki, apples canít grow on semal trees.
Irritated, the daughter rises from the chair.
I am not trying to hurt you. Surely friends can talk freely.
- I donít say such things to anyone nor do I listen to them...
- How can you? It is all blank. Vacuum. I donít see anything else. Do you?
The daughter leaves the room in a huff.
Ammi, to herself - First, one makes things. Accumulates them. This is mine. That too is mine. Then slowly, the grip loosens. Everything begins to slip away.
The body is a cloth. Wear it and enter the world. Take it off and go to the other world. The other world ó the world of others. Not oneís own.
Who knows how many planets there are in this Universe. One for the living. Another for the dead. And one for people who are ill, like me.
Susan, listen. Old age robs one of dignity. Itís hard for anyone who enters it. Operations, doctors, medicines, injections, oxygen. The doctor probes the whole body ó jabs hundreds of needles. What is left of this body now? Only my voice remains.
What is a patient supposed to do ó lie in bed and stare at the ceiling or gaze at the past with closed eyes?
Sometimes it seems as if I have descended into a dungeon. I am haunted by shadows from the past.
Why be afraid of the past? Smoke always precedes fire!
Nature made the body to last for a hundred years. I was fine till I slipped and broke my leg.
Susan gives her the dose of medicine and turns down the light.
- Ammiji, sleep for a while.
- Susan, you have served me so well ó how will I repay you? Sometimes I feel guilty.
Seeing her daughter looking into the room - Come. Come in. Sit with me for a while.
Listen, I am walking through bushes and brambles. Have you seen that thorny bush on the hill-side? It has sprung up in my head too.
- Ammi. This is the effect of the sleeping pills.
- Ladki, it seems as if itís raining dry leaves inside my head. Not water. But dry leaves.
Listen, ladki, in the beginning parents hold their childrenís hands and teach them how to walk. But, when the parents grow old, they become the children of their children.
I understand your burden, Are you exhausted? Why donít you go out for a few days?
- No, not exhausted Ammu! I feel caught, entangled.
- Ladki, you are worried about my illness. I know you well. Sorrow and happiness ó neither suit you. Pray for an early break and release for your mother.
- Ammi, why must you think like that? Have courage and get well. Even the doctors admire your will power!
- Youíre right. As a child, I could fly. I was physically strong. We all have a fire within. The body draws its energy from it. But both my doctors are determined to extinguish it.
After sleeping for a while - You people have seen me only in my old age. Not as that girl who was about to be your mother. It happened so long ago. In another epoch! Yes, a different age.
Neither the sky nor the earth has an end. Only our race comes to an end.
Suddenly, self-conscious - Ai ladki, am I talking nonsense? Please stop me if I am.
The daughter makes a move to leave.
Donít go yet. Sit for a while. What is there in that room? Is there something? I must know.
- No, there is nothing.
Ammu, talking to herself - God has created a miracle out of the head, forehead, face, eyes, nose, ears, cheeks, hands, feet and waist. And fitted it with a time-machine; wound to the minutest fraction of a second. Neither a breath more, nor a breath less. But those who build houses in this world, have to move out of them.
- Ammi, letís talk about something else.
- You seem unconcerned. Why be annoyed with someone who will soon be out of your life? Irritated! The patient is in bed, let her be. If she calls, respond; if she asks for something, give it.
- Ammi, you put me through hard tests.
- No ladki, itís not my dharma to test or judge anyone. I call to you, again and again, because I draw strength from you. Seeing you, I feel I am still there, still alive.
- Ammi, what is it thatís troubling you?
Ladki, thatís something I canít describe. Suffering. So intense that one has to experience it all alone.
- Ammi, is the pain too much?
- No, not that much. All sorts of things rise before my eyes. Ladki, divert my attention. My brain seems to be jumbled. Strange phantoms haunt this room day and night.
- Ammi, Ietís talk about hill-stations. Shall we start with Shimla?
- My first hill journey was indeed to Shimla. That was the first place I went to after my marriage.
I sat at the window of the narrow gauge train from Kalka and gazed out of the window. Mountain ranges and tall trees. Brush flowers fluttered by like streamers.
Entreatingly - Ladki, can I see those places once again? Can you take me there?
- Why not? Once you feel better, we can think about it.
- Youíre kidding. But itís nice to hear that.
Krishna Sobti is an Akademi Award-winning Hindi novelist. Ai Ladki is also a successful stage production. Translated from the Hindi by Shivanath