With my Dad’s return to the US and Masiji’s return to her own children in Delhi, our lives have become simpler to orchestrate – at one level. But, as my Mom used to say: you can’t be busier than 24 hours a day. And if you have one person who can’t be home alone, you might as well have two. Or four.
But two is easier.
These days, it’s Moy Moy and Mummy. Although both are little dreams of cooperation and simplicity (Mummy still has all her wits about her – far more than either Ravi or me, in fact – and Moy Moy will never move from where she is placed), neither can be left alone. Moy is like an infant in her awareness and understanding and Mummy could be knocked over in a moment should an intruder arrive. Moy could have a seizure; Mummy could have a fall.
We make arrangements.
Like every family with elderly or disabled members, we have complex systems set up for every eventuality. Here in India, those systems are truly incredible – a spider’s web of tenuous yet surprisingly strong connections. Backup for backup for backup – necessary because everyone here lives on the edge – and having a reliable babysitter you would trust with your life is absolutely no guarantee that she will turn up on any given day.
Her roof has caved in; her next-door neighbor’s daughter has committed suicide; her mother has cancer. I’ve seen it all. Backup for backup for backup. Essential.
Yet even then, every now and then, every single system collapses.
Last week, Cathleen returned to the US (and how quickly we had become dependent upon her presence!) and Ravi went to Mumbai for his 50th high school reunion (a not-to-be-missed event and I was genuinely glad he was going). No problem!
I had Vikram and Sarita, our live-in helpers. Padma, our housekeeper. Naina, Moy’s babysitter. Maya, the lady who washes the floors. What more could I possibly need?
Then Vikram’s Chachi died and the whole family had to leave immediately for the village to attend the funeral. Padma called in sick and I could tell by the sound of her voice that it was genuine. Naina, the new bride, got word that her in-laws were coming for an overnight visit and she couldn’t possibly come in. Even Maya didn’t turn up – and didn’t say why.
Home alone! House arrest! What if we run out of Moy’s medicine? What if Mummy gets sick? What if something happens to me? Who would take care of them?
The worst of it was over in two days. Padma recovered, Naina’s in-laws came and went, Maya returned. But the brief panic I felt couldn’t be denied or made pretty. Our life is a house made of cards. The slightest or smallest of wrong moves and the whole thing could come tumbling down. It very nearly did.
And yet, it didn’t. One of those two days where there was nobody in our system on hand, I did have to go to the store to buy diapers for Moy Moy. Who did I depend on?
Mummy’s students. At 95, Mummy the Valiant is still teaching a small army of neighborhood children. They troop in regularly, starting at noon and continuing with clockwork precision until 6:30. I waited for the 5:30 boy – a strong lad with enough akal to be left in charge.
He helped me lift Moy into her stroller, then he locked the door carefully behind me. I went at a fast clip to the shop where the diapers could be bought, but though I was hurrying, I was no longer stressed. Abhishek knew the drill because I had trained him (and all the other young students). He would fetch anything Mummy might need. He would open the door to NO ONE he didn’t know, no matter how persuasively they supplicated from out on the verandah. He would wait for me until I returned.
Backup for backup for backup. I was back with the diapers well before his time was up. But had I been late, I knew he would have waited.
This is how we do it here. Our systems are all about people; people with lives as complicated and precarious as our own, people for whom we will also go out on a limb for frequently and without judgment. This is how we do it. Here.
We live on the edge in India, all of us. Our systems are dependent upon other people just like ourselves, and Lord, if we know anything, we know how precarious we ourselves are.
Except, what else have we got? We wait on each other; we depend on human beings because, at the heart of it, that is what systems are really about. Dress them up with paychecks and job descriptions and protocols all you like – in the end, they are about trust and commitment and the clear and human understanding that today it’s you, tomorrow it’s me.
It’s that simple.
Abhishek was waiting for me when I got back, diapers in hand, Just like I knew he would be.