An Old Woman By Arun Kolatkar – Summary and Questions

An Old Woman By Arun Kolatkar

About the poet
Arun Kolatkar was bilingual and wrote in both English and Marathi. He seemed to have believed his skills were equal in both, which is no small thing. Through his poetry, Arun Kolatkar deals with many themes, obstacles, religious dogmas, blind faith, superstition, religious practices that prevalent in society and he also shows how common man is easily deceived and affected by these. So it is very much true that Arun Kolatkar is really the poet of common man and society. It is very much true that the impact of tradition, culture and blind faith turn the Indians religious minded. But the youth like Arun Kolatkar sees everything in light of reality, logic and scientific explanation. So society is now turned into mix culture, tradition and thoughts. Kolatkar with his trans-historical and cross-cultural images wants to show the society and culture in his poems. Some of the poems from his famous and eternal poetic collection ‘Jejuri’ show these.

Summary of The Poem

The Poem ‘An Old Woman’ shows the society and surrounding place of Khandoba temple at Jejuri. Here an old woman tries to earn something from the pilgrims. She wants only fifty paise and if anyone shows disinterest in giving the paise, then the old woman shows her some places like horseshoe shrine. She also takes the help of religion and takes the opportunity to use the pilgrims’ blind faith. The woman is very eager to earn and does not want to leave the pilgrims. Really this is the picture of the society and social surroundings and the poet portrays these very beautifully. It is such a society that if anyone fails to do something it haunts him or her. The pilgrim’s inability or disinterest in giving fifty paise to the old woman haunts at such extent that he feels like a very minor person like that minor fifty paise. Sop it is the society for the commercial, money minded people and inability to cope up with these can make one alienated. Few lines from the poem show these:

“she wants a fifty paise coin.
She says she will take you
To the horseshoe shrine
…what else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?
…and you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.” (An Old Woman)

The old woman the poet has tried to create is the one who represents our culture, our heritage and our natural beauty. Initially, it seems that she is a little adamant when speaker refuses to give her any money. But, it also shows how she does not resolve to beggary. She wishes to take the speaker to the horseshoe shrine; in return, she demands a mere fifty paisa coin.

Poverty and old age are two curses that can cripple a person and make him utterly helpless. The old woman is shown as a helpless woman who laments saying “What else can an Old Woman do on hills as wretched as these?”

The Speaker looks into her eyes and realizes she is right. Her helplessness because of her old age moves him. He is also touched by the fact that she wants to earn the fifty paisa coin by showing him the horseshoe shrine rather than demanding it as a charity. All this brings about a change in his approach and attitude.

Word Meanings

Tag – follow closely

Burr – force his/her company on others

Farce – deal

Wretched – miserable

Crone – an ugly old woman

Clatter – the sound of the hard objects

Air of finality – the impression that there is nothing more to be said or done.

Plate glass – glass of fine quality used for doors, mirrors.

Important Questions

COMPREHENSION I

Q. What does the old woman offer to do?

Ans. The old woman offers to take the visitors to the Horseshoe shrine in exchange for fifty paise coins. She asked a fifty paise coin for doing so. She stands to be an ideal person for everyone who does not want to do the job.

Q. What does she expect for her service?
Ans. She expects fifty paise coin for her service.

COMPREHENSION II

Q. How is the plight of the old woman depicted in the poem?

Ans:- The poet depicts the condition of an old woman as a helpless woman. The woman’s age is very significant and fact that the problem is more pronounced in the case of the old. The poet asks us to know the reason for her pitiable condition and how old age women are neglected by everyone. People have no space for old and they are not aware of their predicaments. If the people do not give space for old, they would come to streets and they reduced to the level of beggars. In the poem, the woman depicts all those who live in poverty and homeless. Hence the poet wants to take up this social problem of the old and take necessary measures to ensure that they live a life of dignity. Poet has a definite purpose in talking about the cracks on her face extending to the hills, temple, and sky. When speaker has this realisation, he has changed perspective and he finds himself reduced to the position of being a person of significance. Her suffering is indicated by the description that eyes she has are lifeless bullet holes. Thus the poet tries to awaken in us a sense of responsibility towards our fellow brethren.

Q. The Old Woman in the poem is a self-appointed tourist guide, not a beggar. Do you agree? Give reasons.

Ans:- Certainly, the woman is a self-appointed tourist guide because she pesters the speaker to avail her services even when he intends to get rid of her. Her persistence is seen in the fact that she hobbles after him and goes to the extent of stopping him by tightening her grip on his shirt. The speaker is more and more annoyed and he wants to get rid of her by being firm in refusing her offer. If we compare the interaction between the speaker and the old woman, we see that it isn’t much different from the transaction that takes place between tourists and a beggar. The beggars also follow people around pestering them with a demand for alms. But the difference is that if the tourist guides offer their service, the beggars don’t. This immediately introduces a world of difference between the two categories of people. It shows that even if the tourist guides can be as annoying as the beggars, they are people with self-respect.

Q. How does the Speaker’s attitude undergo a change?

Ans:- In the poem we see the speaker getting annoyed with the old woman for pestering him for fifty Paise with the offer of taking him to horseshoe shrine. The speaker wants to get rid of her as he has already seen the shrine. When he hears the question “what else can an old woman do on hills as wretched as these?”makes him realise her condition and look at cracks of the woman, the cracks in our homes and society that no longer care for the old. He is ashamed of being a part of the system which doesn’t value the old. The speaker who had until then considered the old woman insignificant because he has not seen the kind of struggle the old woman has witnessed in her life. At the end of poem, he finds himself getting reduced in his worth and in his own esteem.

COMPREHENSION III

Q. “The Old Woman reduces the self-esteem of the speaker and makes him feel that he is nothing more than ‘so much small change’. Comment.

Ans. Arun Kolatkar is a bilingual Poet. The old woman he has tried to create is the one who represents our culture, our heritage and our natural beauty. Initially, it seems that she is a little adamant when speaker refuses to give her any money. But, it also shows how she does not resolve to beggary. She wishes to take the speaker to the horseshoe shrine; in return, she demands a mere fifty paisa coin.

Poverty and old age are two curses that can cripple a person and make him utterly helpless. The old woman is shown as a helpless woman who laments saying “What else can an Old Woman do on hills as wretched as these?”The Speaker looks into her eyes and realizes she is right. Her helplessness because of her old age moves him. He is also touched by the fact that she wants to earn the fifty paisa coin by showing him the horseshoe shrine rather than demanding it as a charity.

All this brings about a change in his approach and attitude. Thus an arrogant, unconcerned tourist is moved by the self-esteem of an old woman. Initially, he tries to ignore her by paying less heed to whatever she said and by claiming that he has already seen the shrine he wanted to escape from her clutches. The woman pesters him to give her that little job so that she can earn a bit to fill her stomach. Her willingness to work for a living has reduced him to the small change in her hands.

Q. What is the Speaker trying to convey through the lines ‘and the hills crack, and the temples crack, and the sky falls’?

Ans. The speaker had associated only ugliness and annoyance with the old woman until he had the awareness of her strength as well as her helplessness. With this realisation, she becomes the very symbol of the Indian heritage, and the other things, which had until then been considered monuments of heritage, begin to crack. The poet seems to suggest that it is the Indian heritage in flesh and blood that we have to value. The reference to the hills, temples and sky cracking and falling could also mean the radical change in the hitherto held opinion of the speaker. The shock the man receives in looking at the sky, perhaps as blue as the woman’s eyes which are like bullet holes leads to his enlightened perception of the woman and her connection to this old land. The man notes that as he looks at the woman, and the cracks around her eyes, the cracks seem to spread to the landscape around her: to the hills, the temples and even the sky. But he sees that even though the sky may fall and shatter around her, she is untouched: ‘shatterproof’.

Q. How do you relate the ‘cracks around her eyes’ to the cracking of hills and temples?

Ans:- Cracks around the eyes are ordinarily signs of old age. But in the case of the old woman, they signify much more than mere physical features. The old woman’s eyes are just two gaping holes filled with empty air, with the hills and the sky. Then the cracks begin around her eyes, spreading beyond her skin and then the hills crack, the temples crack and the sky cracks and the sky finally shatters and falls like plate-glass. The old woman herself is shatterproof and nothing happens to her.

Age is an important factor. As the age passes by it starts leaving its ugly impact on the body. With time even the hills and temples which were strong earlier develop cracks. It is a natural process. The ‘cracks around her eyes’ are symbolic of her old age and rich experience. It also talks about the wisdom that comes with age. The hills and temples represent the same wisdom and dignity that a woman stands for. The old woman and the hills have been around for centuries. Despite being old, the woman is able to carry on and find means to keep her life going just like the hills and the temples.

The poet, Arun Kolatkar brings a social issue through a commonplace. At every tourist place, we meet a self-appointed tourist guide like the old woman in the poem. They need money and pester us. They even promise to give us some service instead of money we give them. Generally, tourists give them something to get rid of them and some tourists don’t. Here we must understand that they have no other means of earning their livelihood. Hence the only option left for them is to beg. The very fact that they don’t beg but offer their services shows that somewhere deep within them there is some self-respect. At temple, their acts seem to be very irritating but one should remember that it is the circumstance that has reduced them to that condition. Especially in the case of an old woman like the one found on the hills, they can’t do anything. When the speaker realizes that he has no answer to the question of what she asked him. After observing, his perception of the old woman undergoes a sudden change. The cracks on her face become symbolic of the cracks in the society. At last, the speaker has a newfound respect for the old woman and feels ashamed and reduced rob the small change in her hand. In a moment of realization, the narrator finds himself reduced in his self-esteem. His awakening to the real world makes him feel small as insignificant as the small coin in her hand.

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