by Vidya Panicker
That her longevity would be extended by 5 days and 13 hours because her children could not find a 25 paisa coin would have amused the woman, had she been alive.
‘Find’, not ‘afford’, because by then, her children were willing to part with any amount (under 1 lakh rupees) to see their mother depart to the next world. Such were the state of things.
The woman mothered 3 sons, all married off, well settled and with their responsibility towards adding to the burgeoning Indian population duly fulfilled. Having been widowed at a rather young age, the woman had remained unmarried for the rest of her life, taking care of her children, attending her daughter-in-laws’ delivery, cleaning the babies’ poop and piss, guarding them for years and finally reaching an age when she was as useless as a discarded furniture which could not even be put up for a yard sale.
Lately, she had acquired an annoying habit of coming in the way everywhere. The Gods were apparently on the side of the children; she fell seriously ill around the same time when they were considering abandoning her in a movie theatre or a railway station or near the river side during the annual boat race. All was well, the entire family had dutifully gathered to attend to the woman’s final moments, listening with interest to the diminishing lengths of her labored breaths, but the ultimate end was unwilling to descend upon their mother.
She was dead, 70%, as the doctor said. But of course, you could not bury or burn a 30% living person. As it was, the children might have agreed to it, but then there was this unwritten moral code by a wretched society that was watching. As they waited, the mother -in-law of a second cousin of the wife of the third son came up with an idea which was so typically Indian.
“Let’s consult an astrologer”, she said.
An Indian astrologer, as it goes, has the solution to almost all the problems a human being would or could face, irrespective of his gender, age, nationality or race. These would include marriages, child birth, poor marks in class, weight loss or weight gain, black eyes of the jealous neighbors and in this case, a much awaited death.
So the younger son and his wife went to the most talked about astrologer of the land, with the zest that was solely reserved during their monthly trips to the city when they watched movies in air-conditioned theatres and ate chicken biryani from air-conditioned hotels.
The astrologer, as it befits him, spent minutes contemplating the time of birth of the person under scrutiny, the position of the stars and the broken bridge between this world and the other world for her.
Ah! He finally came out with the diagnosis.
The woman, it seems, had made several offerings to the Gods in the 73 years of her life, some of which she had forgotten to fulfill. Apparently, the Gods were unwilling to stamp her visa to the other world until and unless she settled the dues in this one.
Fair enough, the children thought. Their mother was adept in making such offerings whenever one of her children, grandchildren and their spouses was ill or had their exams or just didn’t feel good.
“So how do we clear all this? How do we know what were and where all she had pending promises?”
Now, our incredible astrologer had the solution to this dilemma too. Since in their lifetime, most humans promise and forget, the Gods had struck a deal with us mortals long ago, undocumented in the Vedas or any other scriptures, yet familiar to and accepted by either parties. In case of impending death, if the dying or the dear ones contribute 21 rupees and 25 paisa to their family Gods, easy passage to the other world is assured. Otherwise, one would rot on Earth, with each of the body parts slowly detaching itself from the body and yet death would evade you until you relent. Clearly, some God, who didn’t at that point fully appreciate the time value of money had negotiated this deal centuries ago and so the amount remains unchallenged, unrevised and unchanged to this date. The astrologer also warned them that after six days, the stars would change positions and then the woman could stay alive for up to 20 years.
Twenty one rupees and twenty five paisa. That simple, or so thought the children as they drove home with the happiness they hadn’t experienced since the partition of the family property 10 years ago.
21 rupees is an amount that even the least ambitious Indian beggar can make in less than 21 minutes. The sons raced against each other to bring out this money from their pockets. The loudest one won. Two ten rupee notes and a single rupee coin. A 25 paisa coin, almost 2.5 cm in diameter and o.5 mm thick and happiness would prevail!
But that was where they were stumped.
None of the rich sons or their wives or children had a 25 paisa coin in their leather wallets bulging with plastic and currency money. Someone pointed out that a few paisa extra would not hurt the Gods and suggested using a one rupee coin inside, but considering the sensitivity of the action and gravity of the matter at stake, that suggestion was vetoed. The search that lasted for 5 days and 12 hours ensued from this moment.
The children tried everything other than robbing a beggar. Even that could have proved futile since Indian beggars no longer deal with currency under one rupee.
The sons, their wives, cousins and in-laws rang up everyone in their call lists, approached a few banks, rummaged their houses and old, discarded bags in the basements, sought advice from a couple of numismatists, but nothing could get them a single 25 paisa coin. The last moments to their sought after happiness was fast approaching and prospects seemed grim.
That was when the second child of the eldest son decided to hide in his grandmother’s shack as the kids played hide and seek. Over the years, by the arrival of new members, the woman’s position was relegated from the bed room to the hall to a little broom cupboard, which she occupied without complaints. Behind the moth eaten trunks and cloth sacks, was a clay piggy bank in the shape of Lord Ganesha, which the woman had saved for God knows what or how long. The child, in all his anxiety, held the piggy bank in hand for a while before it slipped down and shattered, scattering with it numerous coins. The eldest daughter in law who was trying to clean up the mess discovered with unprecedented elation that one of the coins that had rolled under the steel cot had the magical 2 and 5 stamped on the tiny brass body. She shouted in joy. Everyone in the family who came running at the noise saw it gawked at the sheer beauty that something as small as a 25 paisa coin could emanate!
Without wasting another moment, the children rushed to the family temple with the money, prayed earnestly to the God and deposited 21 rupees and 25 paisa in the offerings box.
An hour later – the woman- their mother, died.
Had someone bothered to count the contents of the shattered money bank, they would have discovered that it contained the exact amount that the Gods had negotiated for, 21 rupees and 25 paisa. The woman had fed it to her Lord Ganesha and had kept it ready for her children, but they didn’t know.