Mission Delhi – Shree Kumari Pandey, DLF Phase 4, Gurgaon
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The lights of her room are off. It’s half past ten at night and Shree Kumari Pandey must have fallen asleep by now. From her apartment on the 21st floor, the world already feels distant. The battering of an unprecedented pandemic outside doesn’t make things much different. Even though she probably hasn’t seen anything like this in her long life.
Ms Pandey is 93.
“Maa lives moment to moment, she knows a fever infection is going on these days but she probably doesn’t realise the scale of it… at her age she is largely concerned with the immediate,” says Ms Pandey’s daughter Jayanti. In her 50s, Jayanti is talking on WhatsApp from the isolation of the Gurgaon apartment in DLF Phase 4 that she shares with her mother, daughter and husband. Jayanti runs a travel company—she laughs ironically while giving this information, perhaps anxious about the immediate future of travel business following the pandemic. Her husband is a corporate executive, presently stuck in Dubai due to the lockdown.
At this late hour, after putting her mother to bed for the night, Jayanti is free to chat. She opens her drawing room window and shows the glittering night of the so-called Millennium City. It’s as if stars had descended down on the earth. The sky itself, though, is totally starless due to the cloud cover.
Her mother also enjoys the panorama, sitting down every evening in the drawing room to stare intently at the fabulous view.
These days Jayanti has fears for her mother because the pandemic can be fatal for the elderly. She’s relieved the two caregivers as well as other household staff for the moment, “and now I’m alone looking after all the needs of Maa.”
This means helping Maa wash up and dress every morning. And later massage her with a mixture of lavender oil, lemon juice, glycerine and rose water after a late morning bath.
It’s remarkable that a woman as old as Maa lives in a township teeming with the young, who’ve come from across India to build their future. Born in Benaras to a schoolteacher, she married a civil servant at 18, with whom she lived through the partition riots in Calcutta. Together they spent many years in various UP cities until her husband retired as a district magistrate in Allahabad. Eventually they moved to Delhi to be closer to the children. Ms Pandey’s husband died in 2002, and her son passed away two years ago, prompting her to settle permanently into her daughter’s apartment.
In the days of pandemic, the elderly woman’s routines remain unaltered. In the evening, she reads books by her beloved writers like Sadat Hasan Manto, RabindranathTagore and Premchand. “At night I have to virtually snatch the book from mother’s hand to force her to sleep,” says Jayanti. Ms Pandey is also fond of classical music. The previous night she was listening to Sufi qawwalis on Instagram Live, performed by the singers of the Hazrat Nizamuddin shrine.
A few years back, Ms Pandey confessed to her daughter that she had always wanted to travel to Kashmir at least once in her life. Soon afterwards Jayanti took her mother to Srinagar for a dream trip. They stayed in a hotel beside the beautiful Nagin lake for four days. “Maa was thrilled, she would ask me to take her pictures against various flowers… tulips were in the season.”
Sometimes when she closes her eyes, Jayanti imagines the touch of a hand on her arm. “It’s my Maa. She wants me to sanitise her clothes. She wants to get dressed, and sit on her chaise and read a book… my mother, my reason for being.”
PS: The evening following this interview, Jayanti called The Delhi Walla on WhatsApp video to take a portrait of her mother, who was sitting on her favroite sofa with a Krishna Sobti book, and dressed in a cotton kaftan embroidered with the patterns of a Kashmiri pheran.
[This is the 296th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Self-isolation at 93