Updated: Aug 9
Pre bedtime rituals followed the usual sequence of activities for eighty year-old Martha, living on the 13th floor in a one-room studio apartment.
The low-cost housing society is mostly occupied by pensioners like her and the student community from across the world. For students seeking a foreign degree in medicine, Ukraine offered a very good education at affordable prices.
Starting with switching off the living room lights, checking the entrance door bolts and latches are securely placed, she moves into the kitchen. Post-it notes are stuck at the appropriate places... ‘Switch off the gas stove’; ‘Close the fridge door’; ‘Close taps’ serve as reminders. A few days back, a resident had forgotten to switch off the gas, which had the concierge desk staff call up the gas company to cut off the gas supply, for all the apartments, to avoid a major disaster. The offender was brought to book and let off lightly, after paying the penalty amount. Thereafter, all residents were handed over the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ notice.
The ‘don’ts’ carried penalty for non-compliance.
Once in her bedroom, Martha takes off her dentures, places them in a glass of freshly changed water, pulls out her hearing aids, folds her glasses into the case, turning blind and deaf to the living world. Not that it bothers her anymore. She prefers the silence to the noise outside that has been a source of concern for many. The whirring blades of enemy helicopters flying low over Kyiv, constant shelling, does little to disturb her sleep. Residents are confident the warring nations will arrive at an amicable settlement, sooner than expected.
A well-known pianist, her recitals at the National Philharmonic of Ukraine had audiences enthralled by her performance. Ex-students, music lovers, the rich and famous never gave a miss to her concerts.
Nobody stirred in their seats when her slender fingers ran over the black and white keys of the Steinway & Sons, Grand Upright Piano, occupying center stage. She rarely referred to the notes, playing from memory. All her adult life, her passion for playing never abated, even while raising a family, putting in eight hours of work at the department store, and cooking meals for her two growing boys. A single mother, she attended to all this and gave private classes in the evening to music students. There was never a dull moment in her life. And then life threw her a curveball. Her sons, at eighteen, were conscripted to the army. That was the last time she waved them off from her apartment, pride swelling in her heart. And two years later, both arrived in coffins and were laid to rest in the Cemetery for war veterans, with full military honors.
Overtaken by grief, she lost the will to live. The Grand Piano in her living room gathered dust for years, till her retirement. Friendly, well-meaning neighbors, urged her to give private tuitions to their children and grandchildren. “My fingers don’t move as swiftly as before” was her excuse to dissuade them. They persisted. She accepted.
Flaying her legs and hands in protest, she screams “No…No…I’m not leaving home without my Piano. Go, if you want, but I’m staying”.
Martha had not heard the latest news broadcast. Residents were told to evacuate and take shelter in the underground bunkers outside the city limits. A few students had rushed to her door, late in the night. Failing to get a response, they broke open and found her fast asleep, curled up under several layers of blankets. “Madam, we have to leave NOW before we are bombed and our apartments reduced to rubble.” Without her hearing aids on, Martha has difficulty lip reading. They forcibly bundle her up, carrying her down the lift to the vehicles waiting on the curb. Hearing impaired and without glasses, she is weak and helpless to put up a fight with the boys. That was the darkest of nights in the history of her beloved city. Shaking with anger, tears rolling down her wrinkled face, she keeps on muttering “leave me alone…leave me alone”.
The elderly residents are the first to be evacuated and taken to the bunkers outside the city precincts. Beds, food, water, have been arranged for civilians. The younger students arrive later, taking charge of managing the crowd, holed up underground. Martha sits in one corner, refusing food and water, her hands preoccupied playing the keys of the
piano mid-air. With the sudden turn of events, she had lost it! Disoriented! Disheartened leaving her Piano behind. Meanwhile, the bombings continue unabated. During moments of lull, the students venture out to grab food from the Stores nearby to replenish the depleting stocks. Under the cloak of darkness, some crawl out, making the long trek to the bordering nations. Squeezing herself in amongst them, hooded, no one notices her leaving the bunker. She is not headed to the border. Her life is here and where she intends to stay and be buried, next to her heroic sons. Her piano lessons will continue.
The next morning, armed guards find an old lady sitting near the rubbles of a building that had been bombed the previous night. She seems to be searching for someone. Approaching her, they ask “Madam, may we help you?” “Please, please sons, take me home. I’m on the thirteenth floor. My students will be arriving at any moment for their tuition classes. I have never let them down before. I can hear the doorbell chimes. That must be Christina, the girl from next door. She is very punctual. With her potential, she will sail through the admission process, in Pyotr Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine.
Exchanging looks of concern, the guards assure her they will take her home. A home that lies near her feet. Dispossessed of her possessions. “See…there’s my piano”, she points to a faraway object closely resembling what once was a grand piano. It needs a bit of tuning but otherwise performs very well”. The men in uniform are moved to tears at the plight of this old lady, shifting through the rubble of what was once her dwelling and home for many elderly citizens. They pick her up and move her into the military van. She needs treatment. But that can wait. They have still to fight the war and hold onto their sovereignty, at whatever cost.