He was there for the third day in succession, peering through the iron bars of her gate.
She couldn’t ignore him any more. She’d have to chase him away.
“Hey you there,” she shouted, “Don’t expect anything from me. Get off with you.”
“I’m not a beggar, Ma’am,” the boy answered, straightening out to his height of four feet and six inches. “Your garden is a disgrace. Look at the place, overgrown with weeds. The plants are drooping for want of care, and the rose bushes are a thorny mess. You need someone to tend it.”
She noticed that he was clad in a fairly clean shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. His oily hair was plastered to his scalp. He also carried a school satchel.
“Get out, I said. Who ever asked you for your opinion on the state of my garden? I won’t waste more time chatting with every urchin who comes begging.”
“And I’ve told you that I’m no beggar,” he said boldly. “You are in need of a gardener, and I’m offering myself for the job.”
There were very few callers at her house, and little children would break into a run whenever they crossed her gate. She was thought to be eccentric, even a little mad. Parents called her a witch who could wave her magic wand over mischievous children, and change them into monkeys or mice, whatever her mood. In a way, these people were doing her a service. The children gave her a wide berth, and let her get on with her life in peace.
Now, here was this young fellow who refused to cower.
“I told you I’m not given to charity. But if you’re hungry, I’ll ask the maid to hand you a slice of bread.”
“I’ve got magic in my fingers. I could change this wilderness of a garden into a thing of beauty.”
He stood there stubbornly, his large eyes looking up at her, unafraid and determined to make her change her mind. When she looked up from her morning paper a quarter of an hour later, he was still standing there.
“This is surely an importunate young man,” she thought, “Perhaps I should try him out. He’s averse to begging, and seems to want the job desperately.”
Even before she could say, “Okay, let’s see what you can do,” he pushed open the gate, and came bounding to her side.
“An hour in the morning before school, and an hour in the evening. You will need to pay me five rupees a day, and I promise you’ll never regret your decision to hire me.”
He hung up his satchel on the branch of a mango tree. He took off his shirt and draped it over the satchel. The shorts came off next. Except for his miniature briefs, he worked bare bodied. He went into the garden shed and helped himself to the tools he required. The old lady watched him from the patio, as he systematically dug up the weeds and piled the rubbish in a basket. He whistled a merry tune as he worked non-stop, completely unaware that he was being watched.
Once, he shouted in the direction of the house, “Tell me when the hour is up. I don’t want to be late for school.”
At the end of the hour, he replaced the implements in the shed, dumped the weeds in a corner of the compound, and then had a good wash with water from the garden tap. From his satchel, he took out a small towel and dried himself. After he had donned his clothes, he waved to the woman on the porch and went on his way, whistling his merry tune. He was back that evening none the worse for his day at school.
“I’m here,” he said, “Please tell me when the hour is over.”
He now watered the patch of ground he had weeded in the morning, and set to work on the flower beds in that area. Then with the shears, he expertly snipped off the dead branches until the rose bushes took on pretty shapes. Work over, he stood waiting for his wages.
“I’ll pay you at the end of the week,” the old lady said.
“Five rupees a day, to be paid every evening,” he insisted.
So she had to comply. He smiled and surprisingly, she smiled back.
Then he was gone again, whistling his merry tune.
The boy was there every day, always at the same time. Under his care, the garden took shape. The rose bushes blossomed, and even the birds began to sing in the trees.
After a week or so, she offered him a cup of coffee and a biscuit.
“Not in the bargain,” he said, “Only five rupees.”
“It’s over and above the bargain, Man. Has no one ever given you anything for free?”
She marveled at his shrewdness. She had never seen such a confident, determined fellow in a long time.
“Then it’s okay. Thank you.”
He drank the coffee but put the biscuit in his satchel, collected his wages and was gone.
Between the boy and the lady, there developed a silent bond. He was like a breath of spring in her drab and lonely life. He not only brought color into her garden, but into her heart. They rarely spoke to each other. But she watched him with delight, as he dug and watered and whistled, feeling young herself. He bent over each rose bush, whispering “sweet nothings” to them, as he worked. He mimicked the birds in the trees. Occasionally when the plants were overladen with flowers, he would pluck a few and hand it over to her. His visits became the highlights of her barren life.
Then one day, the gates didn’t rattle in the morning. There was no sign of the boy. The lady pricked up her ears at every sound. Her eyes remained glued to the gate. But the boy didn’t appear. Neither did he come the next day or the next.
The flowers began to droop for want of water, the weeds sprang up again, and the birds remained silent in the trees. And in the heart of the woman on the porch, there was unspoken desolation. Reluctantly, she went indoors each evening, only to begin her vigil again the next day with hope anew in her heart. But the boy did not come, and the old lady fell very silent.
Then one day, she could stand it no more.
“Call for a taxi,” she told her maid, “I feel like going for a drive. The air is stifling in this place.”
The maid’s jaw dropped. Was the woman losing her mind? She hadn’t stepped out of the house for nearly five years.
“I’ll come with you,” she offered, “You can’t go alone.”
“I want to be alone, and I’ll manage by myself.”
She had no inkling where the boy lived, but she knew he must be from the poorer quarter of town. She was not even sure if it was safe to wander about in that area.
“But find him, I will,” she resolved, as she bade the driver park some distance away from shanty town, and began her search.
They glared at her as she walked past the line of huts. Women stood in the doorways, tittering among themselves.
“Has the Madam lost her way?” they wondered. “Who knows if she’s planning to buy this land and demolish our huts.”
“That will be criminal on her part. What will we do?”
“She has been known to do strange things. And we certainly won’t get any sympathy from her.”
The woman walked on, peering into each hut for signs of the boy. She could not inquire of anyone as she didn’t even know his name. She had walked the length and breath of this slum twice, with no luck at all. Now the people were looking at her curiously. She was too dejected to care, and dragged herself to a stretch of water she saw, a little distance away.
As she was wondering what to do next, she saw him. He was sitting on a rock all by himself, staring across the water, oblivious of every thing else. Now she was near enough to see that he was crying. She sat on a rock close by.
“Why haven’t to come all these days? The garden is such a mess.”
“I don’t need the money anymore,” he answered. “She’s left me and gone. So why do I need the money?”
He began to sob his heart out. She wanted to take him in her arms and console him. But knowing what a proud little fellow he was, she hesitated.
“Who are you talking about?”
“My mother. She was ill for a long time, but the doctor promised that she would get better if she had a glass of milk everyday. My father couldn’t afford it. He could just about provide us with food and her with medicines. So I took up the job, and faithfully brought her a glass of milk every evening with my five rupees.”
He let the tears flow unashamedly, as his young shoulders shook with grief.
“Only a few days before she died, she told me that she felt better…… But she went away, and home is not home without her.”
For a long while, they sat in silence. No words of comfort would ease his pain. She realized he would have to work through his own grief, his shock at losing his mother, his anger at her betrayal! It was as though she had rejected his offering of love. He was still a long way from accepting his loss.
As the sun set in the sky, old woman got up to leave.
“Look my Boy,” she said kindly, “I know you’ve lost your mother. But have a care for this lonely old lady. I need you too. The garden is once again, a wilderness. The flowers are drooping, and the birds have forgotten to sing. May be some day, when you’ve gotten over your grief, you’ll come back to your job. You brought sunshine into my life again, you know…..”
She could not say anymore. There was a catch in her voice, as she walked away.
It was a long wait. Each morning, she lingered on the patio, listening for the rattle of the gate. Each evening, she pricked up her ears for his whistle, and each night she went to bed despairing that he would never come again. The ache in her heart, and the sense of desolation, grew with each passing week.
But one fine morning, when she had given up all hope, there was a rattling of the gate as of old. He threw it open, and darted towards her. She didn’t realize that she had dropped her paper and was rushing down the steps towards him. His little arms went around her expanded midriff, and then she gathered him up in a great big embrace.
“I’m back,” he said, “I’ll tend your garden again and make it the loveliest in the lane.”
“I’m glad you’ve come. I’ve really missed you. I’m sorry you lost your mother, but you’ve got yourself a grandmother. I know it’s just a band-aid to your broken heart, but it’s something.”
“Will do,” he said, “And now, let’s take a turn in the garden and see what needs to be done.”