The Five Rupee Note

Most people think that an inheritance and a legacy are the same thing. In a way they perhaps are because they are bequeathed to us by our parents, but there is a significant difference- an inheritance is the tangible part of what our parents leave us and is soon subsumed into our lives, perhaps improving it a bit, and is soon forgotten. But a legacy is the intangible – the “soft”- bequest and stays  with us forever. It connects us with our departed parents till we too go to join them. It consists of memories and regrets, it is both sweet and painful.

I am a bit of a minimalist, a frugal consumer of resources (nowadays known as a “nonsumer”), and continue to wear, or use, something till it falls apart in despair. And so it was that the other day I had to buy a new wallet because the old one had padded my posterior for thirty years and could no longer contain the dozen or so testimonials an Indian citizen needs to carry these days lest he be locked up under the NSA or UAPA (the cash itself Mr. Modi had taken away long ago). Emptying the deceased wallet in the manner of a fisherman gutting a shark, I came upon a crumpled, faded five rupee note nestled in one of the leathery folds. It took me a half second to recognise it for what it was, a memory from 26 years ago. It was both an inheritance and a legacy from my mother.

She passed away in 1994, to the end a simple, God believing woman for whom her family was the universe of choice. She was content to live in a dilapidated old bungalow in Kanpur which my dad had bought in 1964, and which his meagre pension did not allow him to renovate. He valiantly tried to sell it (it was valuable real estate by the 80’s) but my mother would have none of it, the one subject on which she opposed my father.  But she did keep one secret from my Dad: she would save a few rupees every month from her shopping budget, a rupee at a time, and give it to her children when we visited her. Nothing substantial, you understand, maybe ten or twenty rupees, but it was HER money, to do with as she wished. When we checked her cupboard after she left us, I found that five rupee note beneath a saree. I have kept it with me ever since, I dare not spend it because for me it is both a precious inheritance and a legacy.

Unlike inheritances, legacies come with memories and regrets attached. And the memories here are of a woman with simple wants and no interests beyond her family. My mother had only two indulgences: cheap Hindi detective novels which invariably began with a woman shrieking in some dark alley, and “zarda supari”. As long as my Dad could fund these minor vices, she had no use for money: her two sons were well settled, her only daughter was married, she had her extended family in Kanpur: what did she need money for? She had set the bar of life quite low and saw no need to raise it- an instinctive piece of wisdom, long before COVID 19 reminded us of it.

That humble five rupee note is my continuing bond with my mother, every time I touch it I touch her, sometimes I like to think that I can even smell the fragrance of her perfume on it, nothing expensive or new fangled, just the time- tested eau de cologne of yester years. It is also a vicarious repository of fond memories of her: how she would bring me innumerable cups of coffee when I was preparing for my IAS exams, her staunch belief that one day more people would know of me from my writings than from my administrative skills, the honest and trusting warmth with which she embraced Neerja into her household without the usual mother-in-law type of sparring. She was an ailing woman from her thirties, with multiple medical conditions, but never imposed them on us: she and my dad handled her condition quietly by themselves. She never complained, she trusted everyone to the point of gullibility, her life was an understatement.

But these memories come with a whole baggage of regrets, too. Could I have spent more time with her? She refused to move out of Kanpur and I was allover the place in Himachal and could visit my parents only once a year on my annual leave. But was this just an excuse to console myself, or could I have made more of an effort? Should I have brought her to AIIMS (when I was posted in Delhi) for better treatment, even though she was unwilling to be subjected to the rigours of a sarkari hospital? In the early 1990’s I was travelling all over the world, but never took her with me because these were official visits. Could I not have tempered my code of ethics a bit and taken her to just a couple of countries, shown her a little bit of the world beyond Civil Lines of Kanpur? Why did I not make it to her bedside two days before she went into a coma and passed away, unable even to say good bye to the person who had given so much of herself to her family, unquestioning and always believing in us? I can’t even remember when was the last time I told her that I loved her. Of course, I have a rational explanation for all these doubts but of an evening, when I am sitting alone with a drink in my hands, they sound hollow. But not to her, I’m sure, because for her I could do no wrong.

I know that all mothers are special and I’m not stating anything new or unique, but sometimes it has to be said, for all too often we leave it till it’s too late, as in my case, and have to live with the consequences of the silence.

In her last years my mother had only two wishes. One, that when the time came she be spared the traumatic hospitalisation that is the fate of so many in their final days. Two, that her mortal remains be taken for the last rites from the house she clung to so fiercely, which my dad had named after her and which was her only fiefdom. God likes short bucket lists, because he granted both the wishes.

There is a lot of data embedded in that faded five rupee note, you know. It’s not just a piece of legal tender, it’s worth a fortune to me in remembrances and remorse, a legacy which keeps renewing itself every day, a reminder of what I had and what I’ve lost.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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