Joe Gallagher was a rotund man. A white unkempt beard
that was braided at the bottom, balding head, thick glasses, and big
paunch -- Joe could barely see his feet if he glanced down.
No wonder, thought Joe. His otherwise predictable day of watching M.A.S.H re-runs and walking around the malls for exercise just got interesting. It was generally considered rude to stare, but because it concerned this particular house, Joe wasn't too bothered. He could take a small detour on his usual walking route. It would seem as if a usual morning senior resident just stopped by and kindly enquired if everything was fine .After all a little neighborly concern never hurt anyone.
Joe felt a whiff of air down his legs. Paula, the resident manager whizzed past him in her golf cart, dressed in green slacks and matching cap. Joe toyed with the idea of asking her for a ride to the scene of the incident. He snorted to think of how ridiculously ill-equipped these carts were, to accommodate oversized people like him. He would remember to whine about this at the upcoming Tuesday night poker games with fellow residents.
At the distance, by the cul-de-sac, there was commotion.
Joe could see an old, fragile old woman draped in an off-white and red
sari. A big red oval dot adorned her forehead. Her graying hair was
braided into a tight knot and her big gold earrings caught the sunlight,
and gleamed. It almost blinded Joe's vision. Her middle aged son was
trying to pacify her, and was talking animatedly to the burly firemen
at the same time.
Today, she had tried to light incense sticks in prayer and the matches accidentally set some nearby papers on fire. Why would someone drape in multiple layers of fabric on this sweltering summer day? Joe wondered. The firemen left after her son convinced them that this was not a daily occurrence.
In the following weeks, the old lady often caught Joe's eye on his daily walks. They politely smiled at each other. They even exchanged a few words. Joe had learnt that the lady's son was a professor at University of Missouri, Rolla. He learnt that the exotic smells from their kitchen were Kamala's own doing. She loved to talk about her cooking and her prayers. One day, as he walked past he heard her beautiful voice:
That night, as Joe slept, he found himself wondering about what the Irish, his own forefathers meant about home, and friends. Joe's wife had died many years ago, and his only daughter was now away in New York, as an investment banker. They met each other about once a year. Joe smiled to himself thinking of her, all important in a business suit and black rimmed glasses, rushing to work on the daily subway, sweating in the heat too. Joe realized the irony and smiled. His thoughts drifted to his friends. A lot of his work buddies had died over the past few years, leaving his Tuesday poker nights a mere roll-call exercise to spot survivors. How long would it take before someone got to his dead body when Joe would be gone? Joe felt uneasy at this thought.
As he walked by Kamala's house the next day, he decided
to go in. She treated him to some strong Malabar tea and home made samosas.
He observed a long, wooden stringed instrument at the corner. "This
is called the Veena
" she said, and proceeded to sit on the
floor, and play it. She sang:
By now Joe figured out that this was a continuation of
the verse which she sang daily, about a powerful female goddess. "It
means, may you have an untiring heart, love, wealth, unfailing words,
a just ruler, and a heart that worships Thee" she explained loudly.
By now, she was no stranger to Joe's hearing problem. Joe also learnt
that the name Kamala was named after a deity, and her name meant "one
who sits atop a lotus".
The old lady's son entered the room, and touched her feet.
Her face contorted into an innocent smile. As if reading Joe's thoughts,
she remarked "He is very caring and thoughtful. It was difficult,
at first, living in a strange country. But gradually I made friends.
I have my prayers, cooking and the Veena. Most importantly, I have my
Maybe the Irish were right, Joe pondered that night. Maybe everyone needed to believe in something bigger than them - to write verses, to bless people, and pass on good will to the future generations. Were his Gaelic forefathers watching him right now? What did his own name mean?
He spent the rest of the night in front of his computer. Although old, and slow, this machine was his window to the outside world. Browsing through Irish names database, coat of arms and other historical information, he finally found that "Gallagher" meant someone who "liked foreigners."
It was around six in the morning. Bright red lights whizzed past his bedroom. Joe got dressed and stepped out. He could see a fragile, exhausted frame of Kamala in the stretcher. Two days later, he saw same groups of families, men, women and children dressed in pristine white, and a sea of slippers outside by the door. A shaven-headed, bare-chested professor stood outside the house, ready to perform his mother's last rites. "My mother was fond of you. She wanted you to have this..." Kamala's son said, as Joe walked by the house hesitantly.
Joe was at a loss for words. It was a piece of monogrammed
paper, with Kamala's own calligraphy in it. The last verse of her daily
Joe stood there, outside the patio for a minute. Steadily he walked towards the door and paused. Slowly he bent down, to take off his shoes and walked into a warm, full living room.
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