Meera Singal lived in the apartment on the second floor of my building with her son, daughter-in-law and two their two children. Everyone from the milkman to the maid and vegetable vendor called her Daadi Meera or simply Daadi. My busy office hours and the extreme Delhi heat had left me exhausted everyday, giving me little or no inclination to talk to my neighbours. Daadi Meera was very different. She was the first one from her family to greet me as soon as I moved in, a pot of tea in hand and some cracker biscuits. Her reason for the interaction was simple; she wanted to put a name to my face.
Daadi Meera had an unusual routine. Delhi suffered severe water shortages during the dry summer months. Only the monsoons towards the beginning of July brought some much-needed respite from the heat. The local authorities regulated water supply in the summer, opening the service pipes for a three-hour window in the mornings between 6 am to 9 am. The switch for the motor pump was in the basement and had to be manually switched on. The four families on each floor had agreed to alternate among themselves to switch it on every day.
As time passed, it was only Daadi Meera who woke up each morning to complete the task. She never complained and assured everyone that she liked doing it. It was good exercise, she added. I left for work at quarter to nine. The office was a mere ten-minute drive from my place. I ran into Daadi almost every other day. She was on her routine excursion to the terrace to check if the tank had filled enough for the day. There was no staircase to the top. A narrow wooden ladder branched down a small opening towards the side of my balcony, which led to the terrace. The first day I saw Daadi climbing down the ladder I was terrified for her safety. I readily volunteered to do it for her but she would not have any of it. Despite her age, Daadi Meera showed remarkable agility, scampering up and down the stairs in no time. She would often tip-toe her way past my balcony, not wanting to disturb me, occasionally watering my dried flower pots.
One balmy evening in May, it rained in torrents. Pre-monsoon showers during that month in Delhi were a rarity, the occasional thunderstorm aside.It was as the weatherman called it – freak weather. I returned home completely drench; my rain suit was nicely tucked away at the back of my cupboard awaiting July. There was a lot of commotion on the second floor. A sizable crowd had gathered on the porch outside Daadi Meera’s apartment. I strained my neck to see what was happening, but just managed to glimpse the television in their living room. I had heard reports of severe flooding in the eastern part of the city. Everyone was probably watching the coverage. Wet and shivering, I hurried back upstairs to avoid catching a cold.
The sun was beaming down the next morning. The large pile of gulmohar leaves was the only trace of the downpour from a day earlier. Daadi Meera was climbing down the ladder. I wished her good morning and enquired about the crowd from yesterday. She dismissed it as a minor scare. She had suffered a small heart attack and the neighbours had rushed in fearing the worst. Seeing the shocked look on my face, Daadi assured that she was fine. She even climbed the ladder twice to prove me wrong. I chuckled it off warning her that I would check the tank from tomorrow, in return for an evening tea. She smiled as I waved goodbye.
From that day onwards, I used to get ready ten minutes ahead of time so that I could help Daadi. I never stopped for tea in the evenings on my way back. I was still to mingle with the rest of her family. This went on for more than a month. Daadi Meera and I hardly talked during that time. I used to wish her everyday, climb the ladder to check the tank and dash to work. She always stood at the same spot, on the last step of the staircase, as if drawing an imaginary boundary that she was determined not to overstep.
June had arrived with the smell of rain, bringing the monsoons early that year. It had been pouring through the night on Friday and the drizzle trickled into the following morning. I woke up exactly at half past 8 and was surprised to see Anita Singal, Meera’s daughter-in-law, descending the ladder. She saw me and awkwardly climbed down, explaining that the tank must have overflowed last night and she was checking the shut-off valve. I told her I could do it instead, like I had been all those weeks. It was not a problem, I wanted to help out Daadi Meera. Anita’s eyebrows furrowed and she looked at me intently. I clarified that Daadi had agreed I do the task instead, ever since her heart attack. Anita hurried down the stairs, stopping midway to look at me again, before running back indoors calling for Mukesh, her husband.
After a while, they confronted me on my balcony, half of Mukesh’s face still smeared with shaving cream. They wanted to know about Daadi Meera. I was taken aback at their haste, but explained my deal with the grandmother. Anita was crying now and Mukesh was looking at me with a vacant expression, blinking heavily. Daadi had passed away that evening after the heart attack, he said and left. I stood glued to my spot, Mukesh’s words repeating endlessly in my head, like a broken record.
I realized I was shaking and turned to head back indoors to make some tea. Something caught my eye as took the first step. Standing on the last stair was Meera, smiling brightly, asking me to hurry up and complete my inspection. Be careful, she said. It’s wet, so don’t slip and give me a heart attack. I’ll die again.