When my wife and I decided to visit an old relative in Dubai, we never gave much thought to it except that we would not be there more than 15 minutes. It did not occur to us that we set a time limit to see her. We carved out a slice of our "busy schedule" to squeeze her in.
Of course, she did not know of our plan and had she known then the horrible truth would not have gone down well with her. Though we could not admit it to ourselves, we thought we were doing her a big favour by going to her house. We turned up at her doorstep and the sheer delight on her face melted us down.
She treated us like royalty in her humble house and made all the fuss to go along with the honour. Her flat reflected the unprivileged fortunes of her life. A quick look around caught a few sticks of furniture, an old rug on a bare floor and dilapidated curtains.
Everything there was on its last legs but the eyes also saw a woman, in her late seventies, sitting up proud, radiating warmth and a zest for life as if she was occupying a palace. I think she saw us struggling with words when we first entered but she quickly put us at ease. She guided the conversation so that words poured out from us smoothly and coherently. Soon, I forgot the pain caused by the bare and protruding springs that I was sitting on that worn out sofa. But not everything stuck out painfully in that room.
I looked at her closely. Perhaps just a couple of years away from eighty but there were no wrinkles on her face that usually ravage a woman of her age. I know for a fact she had been leading a life that was always less fortunate in terms of material comforts but that it has never blunted her enthusiasm. To her, being poor is a way of life and an acceptance that has opened many other doors. The doors that lead to riches other than monetary. We stayed with her close to an hour thoroughly entertained with the great wealth of her conversation. We laughed a great deal, remembered fond moments and were touched by her generosity.
One thing I noticed was that her telephone rang a considerable number of times and many people came in and out of that little flat. She just had a few words with the visitors and callers since she wanted to devote maximum time to us. As we were leaving, we passed a couple of women entering the flat as the telephone shrilled once again. It was then we realised that she led a very busy life. We butted into her hectic routine and took nearly an hour of her time. But she showed all the skills of a hard-pressed executive to entertain us, receive guests and answer calls.
We were curious about her full schedule and other relatives solved that mystery. The neighbours depended on her to arrange social functions from weddings to religious events.
She even acted as a mediator to end disputes between friends or relatives. She was the pivot of the small community and that made her the chieftain of the backwater where she lived.
The great irony was that we felt we were too important to give her more than 15 minutes. We were sadly wrong. She was kind enough to carve out an hour from her very important timetable to receive us in her royal court.