Sangeeta and Manoj were married since nearly 40 years. They made a living by collecting and ironing people’s clothes in a residential colony in Delhi. The residents shared a warm relation with the couple that had been working in their locality for close to 40 years. Some remembered them from as early as their childhood. Their dearest memory was that of the couple giving them toffees as they distributed them to the neighbourhood children on either of their son’s birthdays. The aged ones remembered them from their very first day at work. Sangeeta, a slim, meek but beautiful and elegant newly wed, and Manoj, tall and lean with broad shoulders, a young man of honor and full of humility. From their very first day, their simplicity and honesty mixed with passion and assiduity was not hidden from the residents. All in all, the couple’s journey had been a long one and both were admired by the residents for despite the natural corporeal transformations taking place over time, there was no change in their disposition.
Every morning, Manoj, now nearly 70 years old, rode himself and his wife, who recently turned 63, to work on his bicycle. They had built a concrete platform for themselves to work on against the west wall of the locality’s park and under an old banyan tree which though planted inside the park, it’s long leafy branches offered them shade even outside. After parking their bicycle, Manoj would take out an old ancient iron from under the platform and start it off with coal. In the meanwhile, Sangeeta took a round around the neighbourhood, collecting the clothes to be ironed for the day. Sangeeta then sat next to Manoj while he worked, chatting with him simultaneously so as to keep him company. After a laborious 3 hours, she would take out a long lunch box and the two would have their lunch in the park. Sitting on the cool grass and surrounded by the scent of a rich and watered flora, the couple enjoyed their lunch of chapattis, lentils and vegetables prepared by Sangeeta. After finishing it, Manoj would spread a sheet on the grass in the shade of the same banyan tree that had kept the direct rays of the sun away from him as he worked, and took his afternoon siesta while his wife went to chat with the househelps, free after finishing their day’s work. She would then start ironing the remaining pile of clothes while her husband took some rest. Once awake, Manoj would bring two glasses of chai from a tea stall nearby, and ask his wife to take rest and sit with him for a cup of tea. For the remaining part of the day, the two took turns to finish the remaining clothes and worked till twilight fell.
Such was their routine since years, as the residents had observed. Even though they had both begun suffering from health issues as they progresses in age, the wife from a heart disease and the husband palpably feeling the pain of years hardwork in his back and shoulder, yet they supported each other urging one another to go on, not letting age abate their spirits. The residents of the area thought perhaps they had financial hardships that forces them to work with such ardor. But one fine day, one of the housewife’s, Mrs. Kapoor, watched as the couple got off a Maruti WagonR and warmly bid adieu to whoever was seated on the driver’s side.
Curious to know who the humble workers’ acquaintance was, the lady approached them and inquired, “Namaste Sangeeta ji! You both didn’t come on your bicycle today?”
Sangeeta replied with pride, “We were stepping out this morning but our son said he had work in this area and offered to drop us. We declined at first but agreed later, not wanting to hurt his feelings.”
The lady, surprised, asked, “Oh, was that your son driving the car?”
Manoj replied, “Yes, that was Karan, our youngest son. He works in a multinational company.”
And so the lady discoverd that the couple wasn’t infact financially tied. They had an elder son who worked in a pharmacy, and the younger one held a respectable post in the MNC. Both were doing well, by God’s grace. Then why, she wondered, did Manoj and Sangeeta find the need to press other people’s clothes.
Sangeeta, shared a smile with Manoj and explained, “We have been coming here together every morning ever since we got married. At first it was a necessity to support our family and assure our children a bright future.”
“Once our children grew up and became independent, we were already habituated in our routine,” continued Manoj. “Also, at our age some activity is necessary so as not to fall in the arms of any terminal illness. But by and by we realized it wasn’t just health and financial reasons making us wake up every morning to the same day since years. It was infact the fact that we had an activity to do in each other’s company every day, an activity allowing us to spend some quality time without any hassles or interruptions. That was the reason behind our willingness and what kept us going.”
“The period during which I took to bed after my heart attack, Manoj used to leave home late for work and come back as early as the first ray of sun retiring for the day. Everyone thought it was because he was unable to manage all the work on his own, but I know it was the weight of the presence of my absence which made him come home early. But even the hours we spent at home weren’t enough because we were always surrounded by someone or the other : our grandchildren and daughter-in-laws during the day, joined by our sons in the evening. Not that we mind. We love them immensely and they us. We are a family. But we got used to spending hours in the company of one another,” said Sangeeta with a twinkle you only see in the eyes of a teenager in love.
Manoj giving a loving look to his wife continued, “Even if she doesn’t speak to me, just her presence is enough to keep me going all day long. We are comfortable even in each other’s silence. There are days when we fight, we snap at each other, we get irritated with each other and are miserable in the company of the other person. But we are so used to being together all day long that even being miserable is something we prefer doing together. There are times when we have a big fight and she says she won’t sit with me till I understand my mistake. But when she leaves, it feels like a mountain is weighing on my heart, and I’m slowly getting crushed beneath it. She knows this and feels the same way so she comes back every time after 15 minutes.”
His wife laughed, “Our children don’t like seeing us labour all day long and insist we stay home so they can look after us. They try to make their point by pointing out that they are earning well and enough to not only take care of themselves, but also of us. What they don’t understand is that money isn’t what we seek, but time with each other even after all these years.”
Mrs. Kapoor was profoundly touched by the couple’s story, and narrated it to her neighbours. They all saw Manoj and Sangeeta in a different light and they felt a respect towards them deeper than before. It amazed them to see that even after years of companionship, the flame between them, far from being extinguished, its luminosity only got brighter each day. In a world where people allowed minor misunderstandings and uncompromising hardheadedness to ruin their relationships, where baseless day to day arguments and discord lead to divorce, there was this couple who longed to be with each other, whether happy or sad, on good days or bad days, annoyed or loving, even in sickness as in health, they yearned for each other’s company.
Several months had passed, the neighbours smilingly observed the couple as they arrived each morning on their bicycle and began their day’s work. Instead of only seeing their hardwork and exhaustion, they now saw profound affection in the couple’s demeanour. Every action manifested the love the two felt for each other, whether it was when Sangeeta sat beside Manoj as he ironed clothes, asking him to rest and allowing her to take over from time to time, getting upset if he overstrained his aching back from bending downwards, but serving him an extra chapatti on days when the pile of clothes was mountainious, fanning him with a newspaper as he napped post lunch. Or when Manoj, tenderly passed her a warm cup of tea before anyone else as they sat for a session of gupshup (chit-chat) with their friends, made sure she took her afternoon medicines, scolding her if she had been ignorant, but napping in her lap the days they had had a fight, as she fanned him with a newspaper. Every action, demonstrative or simple, exhibited their love.
One monsoon day, as the grey clouds loomed in the sky, the couple was nowhere to be seen. Mrs. Kapoor thought it was perhaps the rain that prevented them from coming. But as the monsoonal rains hit the ground incessantly, day and night, night and day again, the days progressed, but there was no news of Sangeeta and Manoj. Finally on the tenth day, Mrs. Kapoor asked her househelp to pay them a visit on her way back home from work, and inquire about the couple’s absence.
The following day, the clouds were thick and the sky was dark with thunder and flashes of lightning. When the househelp came to work, Mrs. Kapoor could tell just by looking at her face that something was not right and asked her what had happened. She told her employer, her voice low and full of pain, that Sangeeta had passed away. It turns out the last day they both came to work, Sangeeta had been complaining of nausea all day long which is why they had left early from work. Once home, she went to bed without even having dinner. But she never woke up. Doctors said she had suffered from a cardiac arrest. They found an open but uneaten tablet in her bag. Turns out she had taken out her medicine after Manoj’s reminder, but had somehow forgotten to eat it. She also sadly informed the lady that Manoj, after the demise of his beloved wife, did not wish to come to work anymore. Now that the purpose was lost, his willingness to go to the place he spent all his days with the person he cherished most, was also dead.
The lady couldn’t wrap her head around this devastating news and couldn’t stop the tears coming out of her eyes. It broke her heart to realize that the best and most loving souls are at the centre of life’s worst tests. But sometimes it’s that void, that pain, that emptiness, that feeling of nothingness within us that pushes us to discover the most beautiful and unexplored corners of our heart. She prayed for the same to happen with Manoj.. While she was lost in her reverie, it began to rain heavily outside and the sky roared. It was as though it were also shedding tears and mourning for the separation of the lovers.
When the other residents learned of this heartwrenching news, they decided to visit Manoj and his family and pay their condolences. He was a different man altogether. He used to speak of how even misery was something he and his wife could take on, but only in the presence of each other. Otherwise, he had said, it was as if a mountain were weighing on him crushing him little by little. The residents witnessed this when they saw their dear clothes-presser again. It seemed as if he were getting crushed under not only one mountain, but a whole range. And he only spoke of reuniting with his darling wife.
“Until then, he said, my love will only grow stonger and deeper, as will hers as she awaits my arrival in God’s land.”
He also informed the residents that, although he didn’t have the will to continue working, he had spoken to one of his nephews. Henceforth, it is he who would take his place as the locality’s ironer. With heavy hearts, the residents asked him to come and visit them any time he deemed fit, and bid him adieu.
The next day, as the sun came out shining brightly, leaves and flowers glistening as they bathed in it’s rays, everyone was eager to meet Manoj’s nephew. Soon they saw a tall young man, in his late 20s with a muscular built riding on a bicycle with a young lady, about 25 years old, seated behind him. They halted before the platform built by Manoj and Sangeeta, and parked their bicycle next to it. From underneath the platform, the man took out Manoj’s ancient iron and began to start it up with coal. In the meanwhile, they saw the lady, presumingly his wife, heading towards Mrs. Kapoor’s house. Mrs. Kapoor, hearing her doorbell, went to open the door to this simple young lady. The lady introduced herself as Shalini, Manoj’s younger brother’s daughter-in-law. She and her husband, Satpal, had taken up Manoj and Sangeeta’s job, and would be ironing everybody’s clothes henceforward. Mrs. Kapoor also learned that the couple got married 2 years ago. Until now, her husband had been working for the Public Works Department, but following his aunt’s demise, decided to help out his uncle, who he loved and revered dearly.
After collecting the Kapoors’ and other households’ clothes, Shalini returned to her husband. While he worked, she sat beside him, keeping him engaged in light conversation. At 1 o clock, Satpal took out a lunch box from a satchel, and the two walked towards the park. They looked for some shade to sit and have their lunch. They chose the shade of the old banyan tree, under which Sangeeta and Manoj had been enjoying their lunch since years. After lunch, Satpal helped his wife clear the waste. Then he spread a sheet on the freshly cut grass, lay in his wife’s lap and fell into slumber as she passed her fingers through his hair. Once he was asleep, Shalini slid from beneath him and returned to the platform. While he slept, she met the househelps, who were on their way back home, and got acquainted with everyone. Then she started ironing the clothes that lay untouched. Once awake, Satpal saw his wife had ironed a huge pile and that sweat had begun to drip down her forehead. He quickly brought a cup of tea for her along with biscuits and asked her to take some rest. While she reposed, he took over the work she had been doing, chatting with her simultaneously. Even as the sun began to dissolve into the darkness of the night, the two did not seem to feel the burden of a long and tiring day’s work.
What the couple did not realise was that Mrs. Kapoor had been observing them since morning. As the sun went down and as she saw the young couple, so simple so modest, wrapping everything up and getting ready to start homeward, she couldn’t help herself from smiling while thinking how everything changes unchangingly. Nothing stays the same she thought. The sun goes down and the moon comes up. A shoot grows a bud and the bud further blooms into a flower and then the flower withers and finally falls. Babies grow into adolescents and adolescents into adults. Happiness changes to sorrow. And one day life changes to death. But yet, even as this inexorable metamorphosis takes place each day, everything somehow stays the same, as if only circling around a hula-hoop. Dawn sees the darkness give way to light again, every day without cease. As the sun goes down in one country, another sees it’s first ray at the same time. Happiness doesn’t last. But neither does sorrow. Happiness finds it’s path again and so the cycle continues. Where the withered flower falls, another commences to bloom. Where one life ends, another begins. Where one couple separates, another unites. And so while everything changes, the universe always maintains it’s equilibrium. And amidst this chaos of unchanging changes, one thing that remains constant, providing support to the changes so they rest unchanged, that one constant is love.