Mother, who createsWe must find joy in serving. That’s what my parents taught me.
It was that day in January, when my heart felt the weight of everything around me that I first met Bhargavi Adhikari Mua, and something shifted about the way I had been feeling. As she walked into the premises of the Tapasthali old age home, her walking stick leading her, she became the presence-- the rest of us, audience.
She made her way past the old women, greeting each one, making inquiries, and then ordered a set of plastic chairs to be spread across the lawn so the ladies could soak up some sun.
Just before Mua arrived, I had been chatting with Chandraa Maya Ama from Solukhumbu, who told me Bhargavi Mua is shristi garne Ama, the one who creates.
Mua founded Tapasthali in 1991.
Chandraa Ama, she had left behind a bickering home where she was no longer wanted to move to the quiet of Tapasthali, Budanilkantha. In the summer, she walks with her friends to the nearby Rudreshwor temple every morning. Winter has brought along a changed regime: “We live slow lives. We eat, sit in the sun, sing bhajan, drink tea, sleep.”
Tapasthali often receives visitors who bring along generous gifts to keep the kitchen warm. One Kapil Shrestha had come bearing a big bag of food for the elderly: “My son is 43 today and he lives abroad, so we wanted to bring some gifts to mark his birthday.”
Mua thanked him and said: “The world is a mirror. You receive what you give.”
Later, she turned to me and said I should visit her.
I step into Bhargavi Mua’s home, where she lives by herself, and she immediately sets before me a full plate for a vegetarian-- saag, cauli, aluachar and pancake. She’s been waiting, so we can eat together. At 84, she still cooks her own meals.
“I’ve never done an interview before. I don’t want that kind of attention,” Mua says. One of the pictures on the wall behind her is that of her receiving the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu medal from former King Gyanendra, in 2008. I tell her I just want to hear her story. Then follows several hours of conversation, during which she takes me back to her childhood, her youth-- several geographical and emotional landmarks.
Mua dropped out of school at 14 to enter matrimony and become a substitute mother to her husband’s kid brothers. And that role stuck, as she moved on to raising her late daughter’s sons and became custodian to many elderly women.
The process of securing land to build an old age home was a hard one. The energy that is Mua, she relentlessly pursued government permission, and while a land deed for the home was promised by the erstwhile government, eventually, only partial support was available.
Just above five ropainis were first allocated and Mua had planned a home for a hundred residents from across the country. But in the succeeding years, the local government split up the property to build a community meditation centre. Mua watched as 800 saplings she had planted were bulldozed.
She has had to stand up to layers of government officials to protect the home. She has even received threats. Sometimes, she has been asked for a bribe.
“Why would I offer someone a bribe for a home for old, homeless women? What kind of society does that make us? Shouldn’t it be the job of the government to support those who have nowhere to go, instead?” she asks.
It was when Mua saw her childhood friend being insulted by a family member that she decided she needed to build a home for mothers who were discarded. But even before that, she had taken under her care two disabled, elderly women, who had been released from their jobs. She already knew she had picked a path.
Simultaneously, she ran literacy classes at her home in Baluwatar for women, supporting 40 students. Her students in turn supported her first fundraiser, helping bottle pickles, which they sold to start collecting funds.
“I visited individual families in my neighbourhood and said, give me one rupee in donation, but don’t send me away,” she recalls.
This was followed by a fundraising activity in the US, where Mua was visiting her children. With the help of family and friends, she sold 150 bottles of nibuwa and khursani pickle, and managed to raise $1,500 which brought in the first real stash in the purse to build Tapasthali. Her enthusiasm was honoured by her (Late) husband with a 50,000 rupee top-up. And others added some more.
Tapasthali, built block by block, can currently accommodate up to 25 residents. The amas are attended by a cook, a cleaner, a helper and a guard. Other residents are two cows, two dogs and an occasional cat. At one end of the property is the bhajan hall. The cowshed is tucked away behind the trees.
Over the past thirty-three years, Tapasthali has laid to rest 28 of its residents. And while families hardly visit the waiting mothers, some bring their deceased bodies home for the funeral, so that legal requirements for property rights can be acquired. In the event that the families do not claim ownership, the committee overseeing the home ensures the last rites are performed.
Sushila Ama, an orphan, had spent all her life working as domestic help, until she started to age. When her employers were selling their cows to Tapasthali, they asked if she could also be taken in. In late 50s now, she is one of the residents, but is also paid a salary for caring for the cows. During my walks, sometimes, I see her by the clumps of trees, gathering fodder. She smiles, sometimes slaps my face and says, mero ghar aunu. Come visit my home.
“Most mothers become unwanted when they no longer serve a purpose at home. And that’s why we need to do something. We must find joy in serving. That’s what my parents taught me,” Mua says.
Only two residents are currently eligible for the senior citizen stipend. The rest, either they do not have citizenship or lack paperwork for their stipends to be transferred to Budanilkantha municipality.
“We need some sort of financial aid to fall back on as we age, you know?” Mua says. “Women toil all our lives, only to be discarded when we age.” Then she asks me what I’m going to do with my single life. Stay single, I say. Or maybe I will go live at Tapasthali, someday.
“Kathai!” she takes my hands in hers. “If you meet a like-minded man, you should marry. Otherwise, adopt a child. A girl. You’ll have a friend when you’re old. You don’t need a man’s money. You’re enough.”