#9 That Encounter with the Miracle

It wasn’t easy for me to keep my eyes off him. His eyes, however, were fixed on a book, unaware of my stare. I don’t have a name for him, but whenever I think of him, I think of the word ‘Miracle’. My mother needed a cataract surgery and I was in an eye hospital with her to get it done.

My mother and I, along with other patients and their relatives were waiting for the doctor to arrive. The hallway leading towards the operation theater had benches on either side and he was sitting on the bench right across mine. I was convinced I had never seen him before. However, I was also convinced that I had lived for five years of my life with the feeling of his presence.

When the doctor walked in, he looked up and noticed me looking at him. Nonchalantly, he went back to the book. He probably got a little uneasy when he noticed me, but I just couldn’t help and kept looking. The lady with him appeared to be his mother and was the first one to go in for the surgery. My eyes followed his movement as he got up to walk with his mother to the operation theater.

The moment he reached back to his bench, the lights in the hallway went off and the noise of the ceiling fan made way for the silence. There was a power cut. Only two lights at either end of the hallway were on. It got slightly dark. He stopped reading the book and looked at me again. I already had tears in my eyes by then.

“Are you alright?” He asked.

“Yes,” I sniffed and wiped my tears through my dupatta, “sorry I've been staring you for a long time.”

“Yes, you are…?” He was seeking an explanation.

“Please don’t think that I am mad, but,” I hesitated, “you remind me of my husband.”

“Separated?”

I shook my head.

“He’s dead.”

He didn’t utter a word for a few seconds. His struggle to make an eye contact gave me a hint that he was uncomfortable with my sitting posture. I wasn’t aware of those etiquettes then. I tried to change it and sit like other ladies around.

“I am sorry about your loss,” he said after a while, “so… you’re saying that I look like your husband?”

“Not the look. But, you remind me of his presence,” I said.

He looked dumbfounded, but also intrigued. I knew he would need more explanation.

“You know how when people die, they leave behind so many memories. And then gradually, those memories too begin to fade. The only thing that you eventually retain a few years later is the memory of the way they made you feel. It’s been two years since he’s gone. The moment I sat here and saw you, I felt his presence out of nowhere. As if he’s here and I feel safe just like I used to when he was around,” I said and he tried to process what I was telling him, “It’s like you emit an aura that’s borrowed from his soul.”

A staff member of the eye hospital interrupted us. He needed signatures on some formal documents from the relatives accompanying the patients. Signatures made me conscious then. Every time I was asked to sign, I used to feel like a kid who’s forced to appear in an exam without preparation. I somehow managed to write my name at the bottom of the document and noticed him observing my struggle.

“What was he like?” He asked while signing the document.

“A kind soul. Someone who makes you feel that everything will be okay. He would always put his family ahead of himself. You know, I am uneducated, but he taught me how to write my name. He always wanted to empower me.”

He gently smiled, knowing about my husband and then gave a once-over to my mother who was sitting next to me. She was old and too tired to take interest in my conversation with him.

“Is she your mother-in-law?”

“Mother,” I said.

“Her eyes look too cloudy. Have you been avoiding her cataract surgery for a long time?”

“Yeah. It was quite expensive for us. This doctor does surgeries at a minimum fee for the poor. God bless my mamaji who gave us that minimum fee.”

“What do you do for a living?” He asked.

“My mother and I, along with my younger sister do the job work of cutting areca nuts. Day before yesterday she hurt her finger under the cutting blade due to lack of vision. That’s when we realized we can’t afford to put her fingers at risk anymore. It would not just be a loss of a finger, but a loss of daily income too,” I said.

“Do you no longer live with your husband’s family? Do they not help you?”

“Husband’s family,” their faces appeared in my head, “the in-laws!” I said and scoffed.

A few people walked past between us through the hallway. The power cut seemed like an internal problem and they were trying to fix it. I wallowed into my thoughts and everything that I’ve been through flashed in my memories. I hadn’t talked much about those painful events for two years but lived through their outcome every day. That feeling of my husband’s presence, that feeling of being secured again made me talk to him more.

“I was their daughter-in-law and was treated like one until my husband died. Post that, I was their dead son’s wife and mother of their two grandchildren. The day my husband died was also the day they decided to disown me. Refused to keep me in their home,” I said.

“What about the kids? Are they with you?”

“When they threw me out, they told me they were only interested in keeping the kids and not me. They gave me an option to not claim my stake in their property and the custody of my children. In exchange, they’ll give them a good education and a comfortable life.”

“…and?” He uttered softly and tightened his fist.

“That was the only option they gave me,” tears appeared in my eyes again.

“Are you saying that none of your kids live with you?”

“I got to keep one kid – the youngest son. The one who was born three months after my husband died,” I said, “he was too young and wouldn’t have survived without me.”

He kept looking at me, but it seemed that his thoughts began to wander.

“You should have fought for your children in the court. You shouldn’t have given up,” he said.

“Do you know how much we earn per day? After an entire day of cutting areca nuts, we’re paid Rs. 50 for the job work. After the day’s work, we carefully gather the discarded crumbs of those nuts and sell it to a nearby paanwala which is the source of another Rs. 50 every day. What possible life I could have given to those two with Rs. 100 per day?”

“You can claim the stake and money you deserve from your in-laws and use it to give your children a better living,” he said.

“I am not educated, but I know how the law system in this country works. It can take my kids’ entire teenage for the case to have some kind of conclusion. The days I would spend in court trials and around those lawyers, I would miss out on the daily income. Also, I don’t have the fee to pay a good lawyer. I did my best by making police complaints to ensure I get to meet my kids once a week and they go into a good school,” I said and kept fighting my tears while talking to him about this.

“Have you signed any documents to give up your stake?” He asked.

I shook my head. He went into a thought process while people trying to fix the power cut walked past the hallway between us.

“If I am the guy who emits an aura that’s borrowed from your husband’s soul, I would say exactly what he used to make you feel,” he paused, “everything will be okay.”

There was a sense of surety in his voice when he said that. It was as if he was concluding something after processing all the information I gave him. I, however, thought otherwise.

“It’s going to be anything but okay. The worst days are still ahead of me,” I said with as much surety in my voice.

He waited in silence for me to explain.

“My younger sister is the only one who’s a little educated among the three of us. She’s the one who goes to the market, maintains the account, negotiates and gets us the work. She’ll be married soon. I don’t know how we’ll manage to get work and make sure we’re consistently getting the right money,” I said, “it’s like I am about to touch a new level of helplessness.”

“You’re not a helpless person. You’re choosing to be one. Just like many other women in this country who accept their circumstances and decide to be helpless. They always have a choice to get up, take matters in their own hands, disappoint a few people if necessary and help themselves,” he said.

“It’s easy for you to say that because you’re educated. You don’t know what it’s like to hold a book in your hand and not know what’s written in it.”

“I can imagine what it’s like. Trust me, I can. But here’s what I want you to imagine – a year from now, you’ll be able to handle the work you do. You’ll be educated enough to have a better life for yourself,” he assertively said.

I shook my head, “I don’t see it happening.”

“This hallway that we’re sitting in right now – it’s full of patients who need a cataract surgery. You would say you’re not one of them. But here’s what I’ll say – there’s a cataract surgery that you need too,” he said.

I wanted to believe in what he was saying but still had my doubts.

“I have three questions for you. What’s the name of the market and those vendors your sister gets work from? When is her wedding? And what’s your name?” He asked.

“Fiza. The wedding is in three months. The vendors…” I tried to recall but couldn’t come up with any name, “there are only two major areca nut vendors in the market. She gets the day’s work from either of them. The vendors are in Siyaganj. Have you seen that narrow lane opposite --”

“I am not from Indore. I don’t know,” he said.

“Where are you from then?”

“It does not matter. What matters is this – you’re going to make a promise to yourself. For the next three months, you’re going to accompany your sister to Siyaganj and you’re going to observe. Forget about you being educated or not, if you have any business sense or not – just look what she does on a daily basis and once you get some sense, start replicating her. Let her assist you whenever you go wrong, but keep trying every day. Can you do that?”

I nodded.

“I know you’re a widow and you have a kid to take care of, but from today -- from this moment, I want you to be one more person. I want you to be the person who has begun her education and will one day be as educated as anyone who holds a book and knows what’s written in it.”

“…and you think it’s possible?”

“If this is not possible, nothing else is,” he said and then moved forward to the edge of his seat and leaned in to look into my eyes, “take this leap, Fiza. Get up, take matters into your own hands and help yourself.”

I had never been looked with more positive and hopeful eyes.

“What makes you believe in me so much? You’re a stranger; you have no reason to listen patiently and take interest in my life like you did?” I asked.

“I have my own quirks, let’s not get into that,” he said, “just keep this in your mind – the day you’ll choose to not be helpless and help yourself enough, the solutions will show up at your doorstep. It’s my promise,” he said.

I nodded. He was still looking at me when the lights in the hallway went on and the noise of the ceiling fan pushed the silence away. The power had returned. He moved back and without saying anything, he went back to reading his book.

Sometimes, the answers are scattered right in front of you for years. But you need someone to gather them all and present them to you. That encounter and that conversation with that unknown guy was that present to me. Soon, his mother came out of the operation theater with a white eye patch on her right eye. He took the instructions from the junior doctor and left without looking or saying anything to me.

I didn’t try to say bye to him either, but here’s what I did – I took his present, unwrapped it and began walking on the path he had shown me. I began accompanying my sister to the market and began observing everything she did. The way she talked to people, negotiated, looked for more work and handled the finances. Soon, I began to replicate her and started doing it all by myself while my sister silently checked if I am doing it correctly. In a month and a half, I learnt it all.

Simultaneously, after a bit of searching, I found a retired school teacher near our home. I told her about my situation and she agreed to teach me. At the completion of the first month, when I asked her for the tuition fee, she refused to charge me anything. She was too happy to see my efforts and as a reward, she decided to give me the gift of education. My sister got married and left behind memories, not worries.

Sounds like a miracle, right?

The miracle, however, didn’t end here. There was more in store. A couple of weeks after the wedding, on an early morning, I heard a few knocks on the door. I got up and opened the door with the sleepy eyes to find nobody outside. I stepped out into the chilly December breeze and could only see a stray dog scratching himself while shivering. While closing the door, I noticed a big envelope stuck on the front door. It read ‘Fiza’ in big English and Hindi letters. I pulled the duct tape and opened it carefully. It was full of cash and a printed note, again in Hindi and English.

“You’ve bravely fought the battle for yourself. Now go battle it out for your kids.”

I managed to read the note and didn’t take long to understand who had sent it. For the longest time, I did not know who he was and what his name was. All I knew about him was that he was the guy who told me that I could be so much more in life. Thanks to him, I did file the case for my rights and my kids.

He left behind a lot of questions. How did he know about my efforts? How did he know my address? Why would he give me all that money? I had given up on the idea to ever find him and answers to all these questions, but I got to know about his identity. One day, someone else showed up in my life and gave me all my answers. But then, that story will have its own day.

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