To love is to receive a glimpse of heaven ~Karen Sunde
The year was 1997. I was living in a girl’s hostel in Pune, established by the Army for the daughters of defence personnel studying in local colleges. The hostel was a charming old building, neat, functional and well maintained. It had a huge two-acre compound dotted with innumerable trees and was fronted by a lovely sprawling garden complete with a thickly carpeted lawn and bordered by rows of beautiful flowers, in multi coloured hues. A string of Asoka trees marked the outer edge of the garden, giving the hostel an air of elegance and grace. Indeed it was a luxurious setting for us hostel girls. Dedicated staff was employed to look after the garden, but a few times a year casual labour was also employed for a bit of weeding. That year our warden employed an old needy Maharashtrian couple for the task.
They were not young lovers…
The woman was wrinkled, bent and always came to work draped in a worn-out but neat cotton sari. She could not have been more than four feet five inches in height. The round rimmed spectacles and the maroon bindi that she wore made her look even smaller. Her husband was of a similar appearance; small, bent, gaunt and wrinkled. It was difficult to say if they did any work at all or were even aware of their surroundings! But they must have done, as after each day’s work we could easily distinguish the patch they had worked on by its neatness.
They arrived together each morning at 10:00 and weeded till 1:00 pm, after which they would have their lunch.
Related reading: Rekindling romance in a 31-year-old marriage
Under the lemon tree
To my surprise, the couple never sat under the innumerable shady trees in the compound to have their meals. Instead, they chose to sit under the shade of a small scraggy lemon tree on one side of the lawn. Its scanty growth of leaves gave little shade, but nevertheless the old couple invariably sat in the limited shade it offered, to eat their lunch every afternoon. They would open their tiffin box and sit together to eat their plain dry roti with cut onions. For many of us, this simple camaraderie and warmth seemed strange. Somehow, we associated love and affection with youth and beauty. After all, wasn’t romance for the young and wasn’t it to be celebrated with roses, candles and wine? Such a tender gesture from a poor and old couple didn’t quite fit in.
Inevitably, the old couple became a subject of ridicule for some of the hostel girls who found the sight quite amusing. Sometimes, when passing by, they would see them and break into a girlish titter. At other times, girls peeping out from the hostel windows would call out to their friends and say, “Look! Look… The old couple is sitting together again!” and their eyes would twinkle almost as if they’d spotted a young couple in the throes of a passionate embrace.
Related reading: The older couple and physical intimacy
It took new eyes
One day it so happened that as one of the girls beckoned the others to look at the couple, a girl new to the hostel came by. Seeing the old couple sitting beneath the lemon tree in companionable solitude, “Isn’t that beautiful? If I could get such wonderful companionship in my old age, I’d consider myself exceptionally blessed,” she blurted.
There was a hushed silence. The giggling and staring ended. And at that moment a deeper realisation dawned on us of what love truly is about. Maybe love has a broader definition. Perhaps it is not all we think it to be in college. Maybe there is something to learn from everyone; even if it is an old shrivelled couple oblivious to the commotion around them, an old couple in love. Perhaps in our subconscious we had this awareness but were too inhibited to admit it to ourselves and chose ridicule as a mask.
After all, love can also be about a couple in their 70s sitting under a scraggy lemon tree, eating out of a tiffin box.