“Hiraeth” is one of the outstanding stories of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2018 written by Riya Bansal, Springdales School, New Delhi, India.
She unpacked her suitcase and when her trembling fingers ran over the photo-frame, she could feel her world shattering. It was a slightly faded picture of her happy family. Her face looked tired and empty, void of all emotions. Tears welled up in Amina’s eyes, seeing the cracked walls and the empty room of the old age home. Her trance was broken by the tinkling sound of a bell; she was confused what it was for. Outside her room, she saw a group of people heading towards a big room. She kept the photo frame on the bed solemnly and started following them. When she reached the room (which was the lunch hall) she sat beside a friendly looking woman. The steel plates were already set up. When the food was served she didn’t eat anything. The woman beside her stared at her and enquired “Are you okay? Why aren’t you eating?” She remained silent as her repressed emotions threatened to choke her. The woman beside her patted her back understandingly and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.” Gradually, she started finding consolation with this new friend- Indu.
Few weeks later, Amina, with an atypical and inexplicable smile, went to request the in-charge of the old age home if she could get a bowl of kheer for her, but his room was locked. A dejected Amina headed towards her room where she found Indu waiting for her. Indu sensed that something was upsetting Amina. “What’s troubling you?” Amina replied, “Today is my daughter’s birthday and every year, on this day, I used to prepare kheer especially for her. I thought of asking the in-charge but he was nowhere to be found.” “Oh! Well, don’t worry, we can give some money to the cook and tell him to prepare kheer.” Amina unhappily looked at Indu and said “But I don’t have any money.” Indu smiled at her and took Amina to her room. She took out a small box covered with dust. Amina looked at it, mystified. Indu dusted off the box and told Amina that she only used it for emergencies. They went to the kitchen and requested the cook to make some kheer for them, after telling him the reason why. He gladly agreed but denied the money offered.
While the kheer was being prepared, Amina, for the first time, mentioned why she was brought to the old age home. She started off, “I have two daughters- I lost the elder one to cancer and my younger daughter sold my house and took me to live with her. I agreed to this as my maternal instincts and blind faith in her compelled me to do so. Initially, everything was fine. She used to tell me about her day and we used to attend the evening prayers together. I was very happy and felt secure, being with her. But then, I noticed changes in her behavior towards me. At first, I brushed it off thinking that she must be worried about her work. Things started unraveling, pretty soon. She started demanding money from me- sometimes for shopping, the other times as my “blessings” to her. Now, to keep her and her family satisfied, I had to buy them stuff, routinely and naturally, my savings started to reduce. When my health started deteriorating, she thought of me as a burden.
One day she confronted me, saying that she can’t keep me anymore. She didn’t have space for me, her own mother! But was I the one who told her to bring me with her! Finally, she decided to send me to an old age home.”
Amina let out an empty, emotionless laugh, “Is this why we raise our children with love and affection? Giving them the best of comforts, so that in the end, when it’s their turn to take care of us, they ill-treat and abandon us, instead?”
Occasionally, she thought of her past- a happy and flourishing family where she was loved and respected. Recognizing the fact that this might’ve been a façade she began to embrace and accept the old age home for what it truly represented- a home where the abandoned and old seek comfort and shelter, protection from a world that is, otherwise, too busy to even acknowledge their existence.