The Gift Money Can't Buy
She had been a great favourite, this aunt of mine. She hugged a lot, which was not that usual in our family. She also offered beer or whisky when you went to visit, which was not very usual in our family either. Even in her 80s she went up and down four flights of stairs, always on the way to something or the other-an Inner Wheel meeting or an evening at the Club. The last time I saw her, however, she was house-bound, shuffling around in a nightgown in her bedroom. A fall had left her shaken, one hand had developed a tremor. But she was as hospitable as ever.
'Do you want tea? Or something cold?' she asked and then added archly, 'Or would something a little hotter work better?' She was not talking about coffee. 'But I don't think we have any bottles in the house anymore,' she said wistfully. Friends visiting from abroad would bring one by occasionally, she said, gifts from the duty-free shop. But the friends had dwindled and, with them, the bottles as well.
I told her I didn't want tea. Or brandy. Or sweets. I was merely there to drop off a package. The car was waiting downstairs and I didn't want to incur night charges. I was on my way somewhere else. But she insisted. The cook appeared with the tea and snacks. I demurred and protested. I didn't want her to trouble herself. But then I gave in. Later I understood I had given her, if only for a little while, something that money could not buy-my time. "So much time he spent with me," she told my mother delightedly. It was probably only half an hour.
Time is one of the hardest things to give anyone anymore. Children live far away, sometimes on different continents. When they come home they are still on the phone-talking to a client, Whatsapping with a friend or playing Candy Crush.
Instead of time we gift technology. Smartphones, Skype, Facebook. Money, we think, can do a lot of things. It can take care of aging parents with a day ayah and a night nurse, a senior citizen health plan, knee replacements. Money can buy pleasure and family fun. When I lived abroad and visited home, I too would plan elaborate family outings to new restaurants, blockbuster films, the just opened mall with its Gucci store.
Even now when I go to the fancy buffet restaurant at the mall I see families just like mine, laughing, taking selfies, exhorting each other to eat more. And somewhere in the middle there is often a grandmother, looking a little lost, but gamely trying to keep up because she knows this is the new family time, bought for the price of a buffet, drinks extra. It is not the same as the children piled on top of each other on the grandmother's four-poster bed with the afternoon sun slanting in through the slatted window, but that was from another time and it's no use hankering for sepia-tinted memories.
My aunt's son, my cousin, a doctor, lived far away on another continent. He did the best he could, visiting every year, adjusting her prescriptions over the phone. The last time he came, he was researching old age homes for her. It was getting too difficult at home. Her other son who lived in Kolkata did not want to be saddled with the responsibility of a frail mother. He wanted to rent out her flat, perhaps build another storey. Relatives like us shook our heads and commiserated but could do little that was of practical use. No one had time.
My cousin researched different homes. He didn't want her to go somewhere too far away even if it was spacious and comfortable with a soothing river breeze. He wanted her friends to be able to visit. A researcher in such issues told me about visiting one of those homes. An old woman there had showed her a pashmina shawl. Her son had given it to her, she said proudly. She had not seen the son in over a year, perhaps two. He was busy in America but she could run her fingers through the shawl. It was an expensive shawl but time was even more precious.
We heard later a booking had been made for my aunt though she was on a waiting list. But they were sure it would all be worked out in the new year. An advance was due. The son returned home hoping he could organize everything via technology. We are decent sons and daughters, we hope, because we will do the needful, pay that advance even though we do not have the time to sit and listen to old, faded stories one more time.
My aunt told me about their days in a great sprawling North Kolkata family. Even the watery dal and the indifferent fish curry they had day after day for lunch had been romanticized into a great communal experience with all the cousins sitting down for lunch together in one long row. "And we would go up to the roof and light these Chinese lanterns," she said. "And watch them float away into the night sky. How beautiful they looked."
I don't know how stressed she was about the impending big move. We didn't ask. "My head isn't working anymore," she would say. "Ask my son." Perhaps we were afraid to know the answer. But four days before it was scheduled, my aunt pre-empted it all. She died in her own home, among her own things, where the patch of the sky she could see from her window was still a familiar patch. Neither son was there when she went. One was a continent away. One was downstairs. She just left quietly, like a Chinese lantern floating away at its own pace, in a world where time did not matter any more and money mattered even less.
Sandip Roy is the author of the novel Don't Let Him Know.