Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lalla: the Eunuch



He wakes everyday to toll of temple bells, ring of church bells, and call of Azan in the valley. He doesn’t know if he is a Christian, a Hindu, or, a Muslim. But he prays at all these places. He knows the pujari of the temple, the reverend father of the church and the kazi at the Masjid. Nobody knows how Lalla came to the valley. But he appeared one day at his master’s door asking for a job. His master is a retired civil servant living in a bungalow with a small garden in the valley. The valley lies in the outskirts of the great city and is free from the hubbub and turmoil of its streets. His master is a kind man. It is the master’s second marriage after his first wife died and the mistress’ second one, too.

Lalla looks majestic as he is tall and has an erect posture. His long hair is tied into a bun at the top of his head. Apart from this he has little body hair, hardly any facial hair. His body is muscular and strong having strong musculature around the chest, thighs and calves. Looking at him anyone would assume he is a wrestler or a boxer. He can always be found watering plants in his master’s garden, or, washing his car, light tasks he did diligently. He is not paid a monthly salary as other servants but a weekly allowance. He says he has had primary education and can read and write. He is often seen reading a Hindi newspaper.

In the morning he brushes his teeth with a neem stick and then eats the breakfast which the cook keeps at the door in an aluminium plate. Then he waters the plants in the garden and then he washes the car before he has a bath. His bath is situated in the garden behind a few bushes. At night he is the bungalow’s guard watching over his master’s house. In the night there are intruders from the slums, a short distance away. The bungalow stands in a cluster of similar houses in a valley formed by two knots of hills. They call it the Parsik Hills. The slum had sprouted on the outer side of the valley, and was making a steady growth up the hills on one side. The slum people come and take whatever is left outside the house: the garbage bin, the car tyre, the music system of the car, and sometimes, entire patches of tiles from the sidewalk. The car is usually parked outside the garden as the gate isn’t big enough to let it enter.

“Lalla have you washed the car? Have you watered the plants?” His mistress would shout from the first floor bedroom dressed in her crumpled house clothes. He thinks she looks haggard in the morning without a bath and make up. But when she is made up and properly dressed she looks nice, even, pretty.

From as far as he knows he has been called Lalla, meaning little child. He has no surname. When his master asked his name he said “Lalla.” The eldest person in the eunuch’s colony had called him Lalla. Only he knew who Lalla’s real parents were because he had brought him to the colony. His name was Lalloo and he died one day. With that hopes of finding Lalla’s real parents waned. Soon after Lalla had to leave the colony where he lived, as he wanted to work for himself and not beg for alms.

Thereafter, he kept no score of his age or the years he has worked for different masters. He doesn’t know the names of his masters and mistresses and only knows them from their appearance. Though he knows six languages in their colloquial form – Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Bengali – he only knows how to write in Hindi and English.

When he had first come to the valley his master had immediately recognized his gender. He was getting on in age and wanted somebody as a guard of his house and of his young wife, the mistress, when he was away. The master owned a Skoda Octavia vehicle and Lalla maintained it in a spotless condition washing it every day. The driver of the car was young, a not bad looking youth, and bossed over him. When the master would ask the driver to fetch the morning newspaper, or, milk, he would tell Lalla to do it. He would do it with some resentment. “Why can’t he do his own work,” he would say.

The driver is a devious man and would scold Lalla for petty reasons. He assumes the role of the manager of the house and would send him on errands to procure grocery and vegetables. Sometimes he would be absent for days during which he would be driving tourist around the country for travel agencies. This he told Lalla as a secret and admonished him not to tell anyone. Once he had shown him a computer which he said a tourist had gifted him.

Lalla is given a small watchman’s cabin made of waterproof material. This cloistered and dingy place is his home and he lives and sleeps in it. He doesn’t sleep much except a few hours in the afternoon. In the evening he empties the garbage can, waters the plants, and then sits in his cabin for the long vigil of the night. His toilet is in the forest that surrounds the valley.

On his long watch that night he falls asleep. He usually doesn’t sleep at night but that particular night he did. May be, he was too tired, or, he was drugged. In the morning he is awakened by the mistress’ shouting.

“Oh, God, what happened, oh God why did this happen to me?”

He could hear a long monologue from his master, which seemed as if he was trying to pacify her. But she isn’t calmed and keeps wailing and blabbering.

When Lalla enters the house to see what is wrong she showers him with curses and abuses.

“Oh you inauspicious one, where were you, what were you doing?”

“Mistress I fell asleep.”

“How could you? How could you be so careless?”

All the gold jewellery the mistress keeps in the ground floor cupboard has been stolen. She has many tolas of jewellery which she keeps in the unlocked cupboard so that she could change them often, for reasons only known to her.

His master gestures to him to go away till she calms down. The cook who sleeps in the kitchen says he hasn’t heard anything.

Then Lalla, quite disturbed, goes and sits on a park bench under a tree in the neighbourhood. It was about time he watered the plants and washed the car. But he does neither. He goes and prays at the temple, the church and the mosque. People in the valley begin accusing him of theft saying he was responsible; after all, he is an eunuch. The accusation of theft is one Lalla cannot stand. Never in his life has he been accused of theft. He weeps holding his head in his hands. People begin looking suspiciously at him.

The driver comes later that day and drives the master to the police station to lodge a complaint. Lalla remembers the master asking the driver to make two duplicate keys of the bungalow’s front door.  The driver had said then:

“Lalla, give these keys and the balance money to master, I got to go to pick up mistress from her Yoga classes.”

He had looked at the bill and noticed that the driver had made three keys. He probably thought that Lalla was dumb and uneducated and wouldn’t notice these things. But Lalla reads all bills delivered at the house and even the Hindi newspaper. What did he do with the extra key? Lalla’s suspicion grows stronger. He knows his master doesn’t remember these trivial things and would not even look at the bill.

He tells his master about this and advises him of its importance in the investigation. The police enquire with the local jewellers. A man fitting the description of the driver had walked into a jewellery shop in the valley wanting to sell some gold which he said belonged to his wife. The jeweller had declined to buy the jewellery.  He identified the driver from a photograph.

Then the police goes to the driver’s residence to arrest him. He is nowhere. He has escaped knowing that the police is after him.

News spread in the valley that the driver has run away and that Lalla is innocent. From the neighbours police get the name of the driver’s friend who lives a few kilometres away. He doesn’t know about the crime but knows the driver’s address in a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh. A police team is sent there to arrest him.

Meanwhile Lalla tells his master that he wishes to move away to another place since he has lost the right to show his face in the valley. The mistress has also doubted him and he would never be able to forget it when he speaks to her. The master being a kind man says:

“Lalla, forget that all this happened. You are a member of this family. I would like you to stay on with us.”

“No master, you are very kind but I want to go away, somewhere.”

“I will talk to my wife. I will convince her of your innocence.”

He does as he said. His wife, an uncompromising, wronged woman who had gone through a divorce, initially disagrees. She says Lalla shouldn’t have slept on guard duty. In the end the master convinces her to keep him as the guard once more and to forgive him.

The next day the mistress shouts from her room upstairs to enquire whether Lalla has washed the car and has watered the plants. But nobody replies.

Lalla is nowhere to be seen. Nobody in the valley has seen him leave. His cabin, where he kept his things is empty.

Lalla had moved on.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Death of a Novelist


The Death of a Novelist

“I can’t write, I can’t write, I can’t write,” Bernard Barboza woke up thinking the words that appeared in the nightmare of last night. “No, not at this age. What would people say?” The sun was risen outside his window and he had spent a sleepless night after having stayed awake till 1 a.m. trying to write. He lay on his bed listening to the sound of birds and thinking, “I think I should give this up, it’s not working. Hopeless. Why am I doing this when my wife and my whole bunch of friends are against this? They say I am mad to write, that I will waste a lot of time and money which they could have selfishly desired for themselves. After writing will I get published? Even that is not sure. But what could I do when a story has already formed in my mind and is constantly needling me for attention, pricking my conscience, pushing me towards my laptop, making my throat grow dry in irritation at doing nothing to tell my story. Or, is my story important when there are more traumatic and horror-inducing stories in circulation? Am I relevant at all? What makes me think I can write when so many talented writers have failed?”

He was a clerk in the railways making reports and statements for his boss the chief commercial superintendant of Central Railways for the past thirty years. He liked the Central Railways; working in it gave him the satisfaction of being in a secure job with many days of leave and the company of good friends. When he was a child – in the days before independence – he had undertaken a journey on the then The Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) to Karachi, now in Pakistan, because Karachi was from where his father Diego Barboza originated. It was an arduous journey wherein he had to change trains several times. It was this story he wanted to write about. Diego Barboza worked in the railways as a guard and he was able to explain in minute detail about how the railways worked: how the train made crossings, how the signalling system worked, what exactly were a guard’s duties. He even took him to the engine of the train and had the driver explain the working of the old steam engine, which had men shovelling coal into a furnace that generated steam.

“But I am old, I don’t know if I have the energy left in me to write about all this. But I grew up believing my story had to be shared, that it is important to tell my story to the world.” He retired a few years ago at the age of fifty-eight and his body had been going slow since then. He had difficulty waking up in the morning, spent long hours in front of the television watching inane games and reality shows. He had plenty of time and nothing much to do except buy groceries and pay the bills. His wife Piedade was against his new pursuit, resenting him spending a lot of time on a laptop he bought with his provident fund money. She saw him type (he could type very fast for he was a typist before he became a clerk) and then sit back and look blankly at the ceiling. He created a desk for himself from an old discarded table, which creaked when he leaned his weight against it. A retired English teacher, Piedade wanted to visit churches: Velankanni Church, Nasik Church, and the healing centre at Pota, Kerala. But he spent most of his time hunched on his typewriter writing. “God alone knows what he is writing, hope it is nothing about me,” she would mutter. Their only son was an engineer and had migrated to the US, so they lived alone in a small flat in New Bombay.

At school he was good in English composition. His teachers praised him and told him his writing had flow and a voice. “A special talent to be nurtured, my son,” Fr. Boniface Dias, his principal, had said. But then getting into a government job killed all that. The daily drudgery, the travel to work, the need to keep up with his office friends, the weekly drink parties at the nearest beer bar all kept him from writing and before he knew it he was fifty-eight and about to retire. He went into a panic. Feverishly he started reading again, a collection of the world’s best short stories. He attended literary meetings and book launches, and became a fixture in the books and poetry circuit. He brought out some moth-eaten suits and wore them above his shirt to hide his paunch and took to wearing a fedora to look the literary type. In a literary meeting he read out his short story, “The Train to Karachi,” a shorter version of the novel he intended to write. It wasn’t warmly received. He knew it wouldn’t be because all those who attended were writers themselves and ardently jealous of each other. There were the usual comments, “It lacks crispness and is long winded,” “the ending is not good, you should change it,” “The beginning was nice, but will need a lot of re-writing.” All standard, all very pat, all said because the writer wanted his voice to be heard in a group of writers, without giving specific examples. A pretty young thing named Neha Murjani met him after the reading and said that his story about a journey on the old GIP railways moved her. Her parents were Sindhis from Karachi.

“Did they tell you stories about Karachi, how travel was in those days?” he asked.

“Yes they did.”

“Well I was there myself, before the partition of India into India and Pakistan; I travelled to Karachi on a train through the now Atari border.”

“That’s the border of India and Pakistan.”

“You must remember India was one then, there were no check posts or visas in those days.”

“And how did you find Karachi?”

“A lot like Bombay.”

“You mean it’s as crowded?”

“Yes, it was in those days.”

He liked to say “in those days” because none of the people he talked to knew of the days of the forties in which he was born. He considered himself to be privileged to born in that age. He was a freedom man, a midnight’s child.

This short interaction with Neha Murjani made him want to write his novel. Nobody knew anything about rail travel in India in those days: the steam engines, the coal furnace, the hoot of the engines as it approached, the sudden expulsion of steam. It was all very romantic. And besides the journey through arid Rajasthan and then through the fertile Indus valley was filled with sighted he had enjoyed as a small pre-pubescent boy. “I must write this novel,” he told himself. But how? He read a lot of articles on writing novels. He joined discussion forums where the work-in-progress was read out and critiqued. There was no time for creative writing courses, so he had to make the best use of the books he could borrow from the American Centre Library.

Piedade got very angry when she was left out from all these activities. She became quite lonely and stopped talking to him.

When he asked for hot water for his bath Piedade wouldn’t say anything. She didn’t prepare hot water for his bath through she knew he would catch a cold if he bathed in cold water. She wouldn’t warm his food when he came home late from a literary meeting or book launch. In fact, she wouldn’t even stay awake for him to come back; she would close the door, loop the chain across it so he could unchain it from outside and go to sleep.

“What’s wrong with you woman? This is what I wanted to do all my life. I wanted to be a writer, writing novels and holding a mirror to the society, celebrating its joys, decrying its shortcomings, its grossness, its injustices. Now what have I to lose? I have a pension which is enough for both of us and our son sends us money. Why shouldn’t I do what I have wanted to do all my life? Besides if the novel sells well, we will be rich and then I will take you to London and Paris not Nashik and Velankanni.”

She wasn’t pacified by all this. Like all women she considered her husband with contempt about his ineptitude to get even a vessel of water heated on the gas stove. “Then what novel will he write? Hehn? As if he is Shakespeare and Tolstoy, they were people who dedicated to writing all their lives, not like him, a clerk in a government office, writing nothing but notes to his bosses.” She being an English teacher before she retired knew a bit about literature to understand what Bernard was up against. While he sat bent over his typewriter she had to take over the jobs a man had to do: going to the market to buy groceries and vegetables, paying the electric and phone bill, and paying the property tax. All this tired her.

“Tell me when will this novel of yours get over?”

“I have to finish writing it and then I have to edit it so that it’s perfect before it reaches an agent or publisher. These days they expect the writer to do all these.”

“That means it will never get over,” she muttered as she went back to chopping her vegetables, “watch it, he will go crazy or ill writing it. Then I will have to run around.”

He did fall ill. He didn’t know how. He considered himself a healthy man who will never fall ill, but suddenly the doctor said he had high blood pressure, and diabetes. He couldn’t believe it. The world of his dream crashed around him like some of those buildings felled by explosives he had seen on television. “I knew it will come to this,” Piedade said. For days he couldn’t write anything. He spent his days lying on bed contemplating his fate and what would happen to the novel. Time kept on marching inexorably unconcerned by his affliction. His voice became a croak, he couldn’t bring himself to sit on his desk for even fifteen minutes.

“God, what happened to me, I was such a healthy person. I never smoked, I gave up drinking after I retired, I never had all spicy biryanis and tandoori chicken like my friends in office do, yet I am sick and they are enjoying life. God, God, save me, this is unreasonable, rescue me God, I will go to mass every Sunday and say the “Hail Mary” ten times at the grotto. I will say my confession too, like the short fling I had with the stenographer Maria Carvalho from the office. God, I only took her to a movie once and held hands, is that a sin? If it is, forgive me God.”

Piedade heard all these lamentations and muttered, “Now he is going crazy. I knew it. I knew it.”
Obviously he was. His room was cluttered with clothes. His desk was overflowing with various drafts of his novel, corrected proofs, the coffee stains on his desk were not cleaned for days, his hair was growing wild and long, his beard likewise was not trimmed. He presented a grim picture. She was ashamed when relatives visited their house. As such she didn’t go anywhere with him and let him handle the appointments with the doctor himself. She was ashamed of being seen with him.

Days passed, so did the years. Bernard was sixty-five and yet his novel hadn’t come out. He had done a total of ten years of writing but there was nothing to show. His life was looking bleaker than ever: sick, depressed, demoralized, demotivated, and unable to get up and do his own chores.

Then as if by force of will he stood up tottering, and in another great act of courage made himself sit before the computer for an hour each day, writing. He somehow pulled at all his resources, the veins and sinews of his body, his every aching muscle to complete the novel. Then he set about editing it with fiendish concentration. He re-wrote parts he was not satisfied with and deleted whole irrelevant chapters.
“There he goes again, the idiot. The fool I have for a husband. This time is the final time before he pushes himself into his own grave,” Piedade muttered.

Bernard heard this and said, “I heard what you said. Don’t you know, you a teacher of English, how important novels are in the development of society, culture, of young minds? How can you speak disparaging of what gave you such a good livelihood? You ungrateful woman.”

Then he began making submissions to publishers and agents. One by one rejection letters started trickling in till his desk was filled with rejection letters, written on fancy letterheads of publishers and agents. One rejection letter he remembered because on the first three chapters they had returned to him were written the words, “what crap.” This pained him. Mostly they said that they would let it pass as their list was full. They also said a novel is subjective, so submit it to another publisher who might like it. This offered no consolation. He was distraught and wept over these rejection letters. He received offers from vanity publishers saying they can publish his novel if he agreed to buy a hundred copies of the novel for a price. He knew this was a trap and had read about it. “They would then print a hundred copies and pocket my money, the crooks.”
“That man is stark raving mad, look at him, the fool, look how he weeps over those letters he gets, shedding crocodile tears for nothing,” Piedade said without compassion.

A new British publisher was beginning its operation in India. Bernard eagerly submitted his novel “Train to Karachi” to them. The publisher liked the theme of railway journey in British India and showed interest. He was overjoyed. But the print run would be small and there would not be any advance, the reason being that they are just testing the market. This disappointed him, because he had thought he would get a big advance and a lot of royalty after that. He signed the contract not knowing all the clauses and conditions it contained, assuming that he should be lucky to be published at all. As a clerk he had gone through all words in documents minutely, but in this great incident in his own life he signed and gave away his novel to the first publisher who showed interest.

The novel took another year to be published. By now Bernard was seventy. Doctor said his diabetes and blood pressure were under control. But Bernard wondered if he would ever write a novel again. The day of the book launch was announced and he dressed in his best three-piece suit and put on his fedora. He made Piedade wear her best silk sari, the one she wore for her son’s wedding.

At the book launch a Bollywood celebrity, Imran Khan, a screenplay and story writer himself, was present. Neha Murjani, who had triggered his interest in writing the novel, was also there. All the media’s attention was focused on Imran Khan and they took his pictures and not Bernard’s. Bernard was ignored and sat with his head on his chest as if he didn’t belong there at all. The fedora hid his face from public view and he was glad to have its cover. It was his book launch and they – the publisher and the Bollywood celebrity – hijacked it. They got all the publicity and he and his book didn’t. Bernard fumed to Piedade later, “I don’t believe this! I am the reason he was there in the first place, but they kept photographing him. What’s the sense in all this madness? Are those people crazy? Don’t they know I am the author of the novel? Do they know I spent fifteen years writing this book? What was the point in inviting him to my book launch?” The next day’s newspapers carried pictures of Imran Khan in the society pages with the caption, “Imran Khan at a book launch in town.”

He read an excerpt from his novel and then the floor was open for questions from the audience. Most of them were want-to-be writers themselves who asked him stupid questions like, “Sir, I too want to be a novelist, it’s a good profession, isn’t it? But I don’t have really hard-hitting content. Where do I get it? Can you help me, sir?” So they call writing fiction as content these days, eh, Bernard wondered taken aback by the question and the abrupt way in which it was delivered. He was a content writer, perhaps, in one of those twenty-four-hour call centres. And they want hard-hitting content and wondered if what he wrote was hard-hitting enough. To this mere boy sporting a goatee beard, whose combed-straight-up-and-gelled-hair looked like uncut grass, he replied, “I didn’t write content, in fact I don’t write content, I wrote a story, a novel. As for getting your stories, stories are always around, look around you.” Then he signed copies with a flourish, always remembering to address the book-purchaser by name.

On the way home in a taxi he said to Piedade, “See, I always told you I will be a novelist. Now what do you have to say, my dear woman?”

She turned around to him fixed him with an incomprehensible stare and said, “See if you remain a novelist for long.” Prophetic words.

The publisher arranged for him to tour Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai, major Indian cities, for book launches and readings. The reviews from newspapers and magazines trickled in. All of them didn’t have anything positive to say about the novel on which he had spent fifteen years of his life.

“The author somehow can’t take the story forward, add those little details that are so important to a novel are somehow missing, you read it with a sense of incompleteness,” said a north-Indian newspaper review.
“The author and his style are too old fashioned to suit the needs of the modern generation brought up on television and Chetan-Bhagat-style novels, the pace is slow and humdrum,” another rag said.
“Don’t waste your money on this piece of bad writing. The author can’t get his story going, which is bad news for all of us,” wrote a books editor of a magazine.

“This novel should be thrown with great force, into the fire or out of the window. It’s that boring and unreadable,” a bitchy author-socialite wrote in her newspaper column.

“Oh, God! Oh God! Oh God! I can’t believe this, I really can’t.” Bernard groaned and despaired as he read the last review when he was in Calcutta for a reading. “Is it for this that I worked hard for fifteen years? Don’t they have any respect for writers who spend so much time and energy on writing a work that documented a forgotten time; held a mirror, however unclear, to what a railway journey on the Great Indian Peninsular Railway was then – the excitement, the fervour, the novelty? Do they care for history, insensitive as they are even for the present, here and now?”

The reviews upset him. The tour kept him busy through the day and he had forgotten to take his medication on some days feeling too tired to do anything. He came back from his book tour sicker than he was. The next day he died of a heart attack in his sleep. He was seventy one.

Some kind people from his literary forum organized a condolence meeting where they were all praise for his novel and writing style. “Train to Karachi is a sensitive portrayal of a troubled era when freedoms were curtailed and India was on the cusp of its freedom struggle,” one of those present said in a burst of eloquence. “He was a true friend, a noble human being, a great writer,” another who didn’t know him too well said.

The bitch author-socialite whose review triggered his decline wrote in her column, “Not many tears were shed for reclusive author Bernard Barboza. He went unsung, unheralded, his talent unrecognized. He preferred anonymity rather than rarefied atmosphere of authordom. He died a recluse. May his soul rest in peace. In his passing we have lost a writer who had great potential, a true master of the craft as it was practiced in gentler days. The ways of the literary world are cruel, indeed.”

“I told him, I told him, I told him, writing a novel will kill him. But, he would never listen. Now, look what he has gone and done, leaving me all alone,” sobbed Piedade Barboza hugging her son after the funeral.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Roads of Artist Village


I came to live in Artist Village somewhere in the beginning of the eighties. At that time it was conceived as a commune for artists, writers, actors and, well, anyone of an artistic persuasion. The chief attraction of living in Artist Village, to me, was that it was set in a valley and was surrounded by hills. The houses were designed by the renowned architected Charles Correa and had tiled roofs. The rafters were made of rough unpolished wood and the eaves were fashioned out of similarly unpolished planks. There was a pond from which an artificial stream coursed through the Village giving it the proper look of an Indian village. The village was created on the model of clusters of huts opening on to a central courtyard as was the custom in Indian rural areas. The houses were so positioned that residents couldn’t see inside each others’ homes. It later became an embarrassment when sound couldn’t be similarly banished. Due to some strange acoustics and, may be, because Artist Village was situated in a valley, what was spoken in homes could be heard by the neighbours.

The design was good from an architect’s point of view. However, when the harsh rain hit the valley like a deluge of hail, the tiled roof started leaking and the rafters became wet and soggy. The eaves all but disappeared, falling down by bits. Moisture hung in the air like a thick blanket cordoned by the hills on either side and rain fell like sleet. Swarms of mosquitoes converged on the village from somewhere and people fell sick including me. The months of monsoon were feared in Artist Village. After all, nobody wants to live in a house that has a leaky roof. I realized I will have to make changes to the house to protect my family and reconstructed a two-storey structure, after obtaining the requisite permissions from the Corporation.

I particularly like walking and hiking and perambulating every morning in the open. It keeps me alert and in good health. My preferred time for walking is early morning and late evenings. On weekdays before going to work I would walk around the pond and return home invigorated by breathing the fresh air. The Village offered immense hope for exploring the nearby hills, which became my preoccupation on holidays and Sundays. However, the roads of Artist Village were not laid when I came to live there when my son Ronnie was aged one.

As was my habit I wrote letters to the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (I will call it the Corporation from now on) detailing the state of the roads. This was the only letter to which I received a reply. It was typed on cheap government stationery and had the signature of an Assistant Engineer of the Corporation. As a consequence, so I believe, the Corporation laid the roads and fixed the paths between houses with rough tiles of what provenance, I don’t know. They are popularly known as Dholpuri stones, may be, because they are mined in a place called Dholpur.

x-x

Then came the elections to the Corporation when my son was in Class I of the local school. The roads were now cratered by four rains and were resurfaced. A lot of the aggregate were left behind and weren’t cleared. The Dholpuri tiles also became crooked and broken. The new Corporator in his enthusiasm raised the level of the paths and relaid the tiles. However, the debris was not cleared and it lay there along with the aggregate left behind by the road resurfacing. I wrote to the Corporation about this, as it was becoming an impediment in my daily walking. My shoes became coated with dust and walking had become arduous and not at all a pleasure. I explained all this in my letter, but received no reply. I contented that all was being done in the name of progress and dismissed it as such.

x-x

When my son was in class III the roads were dug again to lay storm water rains. Overnight multi-armed JCBs converged on our roads and tore them up day and night with monster-like whining and screaming. The persistent sound of the mighty machine echoed in the hills and I became disoriented with its insistent caterwauling. I sighed in relief when the work was over. But more travails were to follow. The roads lay devastated as if a giant leviathan had run his fingers through it. Again, I wrote letters to the Corporation. After three months the roads were laid again.

x-x

The second Corporation election came when my son was in Class V. By now I knew the Corporator. He was a genial and rather pudgy-looking individual who dressed as the occasion demanded. If Id-ul-fitr was being celebrated he would wear a skull cap and white kurta and pyjama. If Ganesh Utsav, the festival wherein idols of Ganesha were worshipped, was being celebrated he would wear a white garrison cap and white clothes according to the local tradition. When I met him one evening – dressed in a garrison cap and local traditional dress – I told him that the debris left during the digging for storm water drains was not cleared. These were creating unseemly mounds on the road and I had lost all hope of seeing an Artist Village that had nicely laid out roads and pathways.

He told me that ‘the needful will be done.’ Indeed, it was done. The roads of Artist Village were cleared of debris and as a bonus a playground was leveled and given to the children of the Village. This was good news! Ronnie now had a place to play football and cricket with his friends. Children created a big racket in the evenings when they played on this ground. I didn’t mind that as long as my son was one of the people who was enjoying himself.

x-x

When Ronnie reached Class VIII, the Corporation, out of the blue, decided via ducts had to be created to empty the water collecting in the residential areas into the artificial stream. Again, the JCBs got into action and a barrage of sounds started offending me at all times of the day. On my daily walks I had to skirt many mounds of dirt and stones. The tar and aggregate would lie around as if no one was responsible for them. I wrote letters to the Corporation, received no reply, and was, in general, disappointed by the way things were going. I decided that the Corporator, though an amiably man, wouldn’t get my vote in the next Corporation election.

This seemed of no consequence because a slum sprang up on a strip of forest land on one of the hills. Apparently the sponsor, or, guardian, of this slum colony was the Corporator himself. On my morning walk I would see this ugly outcropping of huts on the slope of the hill through the early morning mist as the sun cast blue shadows on the massed trees of the hills. Men and women in a vivid spectrum of coloured clothes would be walking to their places of work most of them carrying their tools like mallets, trowels and planers with them. I had nothing against them but they were occupying the land illegally and paying no taxes. This chagrined me. I wrote a letter to the Corporation with a copy to the Corporator pointing out that the rubble from digging for the storm water drain was still not cleared and that a slum had come up in Artist Village, which had to be uprooted without delay. Slums have a habit of proliferating and this slum was growing day by day into around forty hutments.

x-x

In the Corporation election I didn’t vote for the Corporator. I didn’t vote for anybody. Still the Corporator won because he had the vote of the people living in the slum sponsored by him. Soon after he was elected the Corporation decided the storm water drains were not big enough and set about removing the old pipes and replacing them with newer and bigger ones. Rumour was that the Corporator had spent ten million rupees to entertain the slum-livers with liquor and food to gain their votes and had to regain this amount as soon as possible. The new contract was a means towards this purpose.

One day, I met the Corporator as I was coming back from my evening walk and, somehow, all my complaints poured out in one litany of grouses. At that time he was wearing a Mundu and shirt as he was returning from a function of the Ayyappa temple. I had harboured my complaints for long and I wanted to be rid of them and who better than the Corporator himself? He listened patiently to my spiel, smiled, and assured me that ‘the needful will be done.’

Days later, during the Christmas season, a man came and delivered a cake at my residence. This was the Corporator’s way of buying peace. A bribe! I returned the cake to the man and said I didn’t want it. I also pointed out that I had bought enough cakes for Christmas to want his measly offering.

Now my son is in Class XII. Several heaps debris mar the road leading to my house. The playground has been dug up for laying some new set of drainage pipes for the people living in the slums. They pay no taxes to the Corporation, use stolen electricity, and now, are given drainage pipes too. At my cost! My tax money paid for all these! My umbrage didn’t find a suitable outlet so I shut up.

The Dholpuri stone tiles that were laid when my son was aged one had disappeared beneath these mounds. In places where it showed it was chipped and broken. The dirt that was dug up to lay the storm water drains still lay and obliterated the stone dividers on the side of the roads. There was aggregate and stone lying around everywhere. By now my dream of seeing a serene, foliated, debris-free Artist Village had faded and I began taking life as it comes, without much expectation, without any preconceived notion. Garishly constructed concrete bungalows were replacing the old tiled-roofed huts. I was becoming old and my health didn’t permit me to write long-complaining missives to the Corporation. I had decided that writing letters to the Corporation was of no use and stopped that habit. After all, why waste money on stamps and stationery when ‘no action was being taken’? What I had thought of as progress hasn’t been progress at all because, I think, progress also means a betterment of the quality of life.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

A Harbour Line Love Story



A Harbour Line Love Story

I don’t know why he made my life impossibly hard. The last few months had been hell. I didn’t know a loving man could have such violence in him. I think love and violence are two sides of a coin. That’s why a lover strikes when denied love. Or, he or she thinks of revenge. Violence is the reason why I left him and went to live with my father in Vashi. Violence that could happen any time in your own house, without warning. I can’t believe he is the same person I once loved, the boy who proposed to me in art class, the man with whom I rode the harbor line train, the man for whom I waited endless hours at Marine Drive, and, eventually, the man who called me a bitch, a rand, a word man often uses without thinking.

This account is just to unburden my sorrow. I write my story in the train because that’s where our affair began. Though I work in Vashi I have to meet clients and that gives me a lot of time to introspect and put things down. I look out as the train sweeps past the city’s cluttered stations, insignificant, except for the colourful expanse of humanity that sweeps past, dressed in casual clothes, not particularly caring how they looked. There are always new sights to be seen and people to be observed, which is why I like a train ride.
It all started so casually. I met Swapnil in an art class where they teach graphic designing. Swapnil means “one with dreams” and Swapnil was full of dreams. He talked of his dreams all the time. He wanted to be so good at designing, he wanted to win awards, and he wanted to be somebody whose photographs and busts hang in the portals of colleges and libraries. He is sharp and good at graphic designing. But truth is a different matter, which I learnt later. Well, that’s for later.

We used to travel to class along the same route, Bombay’s Harbour Line. I lived in Vashi with my parents and he lived in Andheri with his parents. As a middle class family our parents were very protective of us, their children. When I would travel from Vashi to Victoria Terminus (VT) for art class I would get down at Wadala and wait for Swapnil. If he was early he would get down and wait for me. Then we would travel by train together to VT. It was during these daily travels that love happened, just like that. On looking back, it seems a stupid thing, but it happened. The trains were crowded. But we found corner seats near windows and talked and compared notes.

One day he asked me with his strange sense of ambiguity:

“Does the possibility exist, if I ask you now, for you to accept my invitation to see a movie?”

How can anyone possibly say no to a request like that? I liked the ingenuousness of the request, the innocence. His eyes shone with sincerity.

That weekend, on a Saturday, we students went for a movie at the Sterling, after art class. It was a late night show. During the movie – I forget its name – he cupped my palm in his. I sat there bewildered, my body motionless, not knowing what to do as a rather sexy actress began gyrating to the insistent rhythm of a bawdy Bollywood song. I observed that he too was moving to the rhythm. I sat there still, unable to move, not being able to figure out what this gesture from him meant. I didn’t object to it because I could feel something happening between us. However, in the darkened theatre, where the coolness of the air-conditioner, the loudness of the music, and his body pulsing with the rhythm; he seemed a different man.

“Did you like it?” He asked as we came out of the movie.

“Not much.”

“Why?”

“I like original films, not films made on a formula.”

“But this had an original twist in the end. Usually, boy meets girl, flirts, fights, then they get married, is the plot of most of our cinemas. Here it’s the girl who proposes.”

“It’s all the same.”

“Come on, it’s not the same.”

“Same.”

“No.”

That was our first argument.

It’s 11.30 p.m. when we reach VT station and the platforms are deserted. There are a few tired people stretched out and sleeping; a weary, exhausted sleep. We board what must be one of the last trains of the day. Our love train.Swapnil comes with me all the way to Vashi. I say no need, but he insists. Then he takes a taxi to Andheri.

-x-x-

“Because you didn’t like that movie, I will take you to another one.”

Then the session of movies started. Those were Bollywood movies which were noisy and in which the middle-aged hero and heroine tried to be the cutest and most modern teenagers. They wore colourful clothes and in the span of a song, changed a several costumes. They also would sometimes dance with their retinue of background dancers in the Swiss Alps and then in the mountains of Machu Pichu, all in the course of one song. For me these antics became very difficult to digest after some time.

I used to like the English movies, more sophisticated, less colourful and gaudy. After the movie we would board our Love Train and Swapnil would drop me back home. My father, a retired art professor, grew suspicious and asks me why I came home late every day. I told him that we have special practical classes. His father asked him who this girl is whom he is seeing, because some people reported having seen us together. Since middle class Maharashtrians constitute the majority of Bombay’s population, word got around fast. There were sly whispers behind our backs. There were meaningful nods and pokes in the ribs. I had outraged the feelings of my community. I realized then, painfully, that the city hates lovers.

Then we stopped meeting. We were still in art school but took different trains. I would scan the platforms for him, wait for a fleeting glimpse of him through the crowds, watch for somebody with his walk, and his mannerisms. Sometimes, my heart thudding, I would get a fleeting glimpse of a man with his walk and mannerisms. My expectations would go up. Then it would turn out to be somebody else and my misery knew no bounds. I don’t know how, but I am amazed at the number of people who look alike in this city. We would sit in the same class but we wouldn’t talk. We didn’t go to movies or to Marine Drive after class. I go home to Vashi and he to Andheri. I began to miss him and longed for him. I pined him as only a woman can pine for a man. I didn’t know if he felt the same.

Then one day, when there was this photography class going to click the heritage buildings of Bombay we talk.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Fine.”

“No phone calls, no messages, what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Have you taken photography as your option?”

“Yes.”

Monosyllables that don’t say anything. My heart is screaming, “Talk for God’s sake, say something.”

“We will meet after class and talk,” he says.

“Okay,” I say happy that I am able to establish contact.

x-x-x

The excitement at our first date after so long is magical. He hugs me and kisses my cheek for the first time.  I can feel the softness of his touch, the lips hesitant at first then exploring boldly. I succumb to his warm body, I am so overcome I could have done anything. I missed him so much. We have sex in a shady hotel room behind Victoria Terminus train station. From the window I can see trains parked beside the platforms. It is a furtive kind of love both of us being novices. Awkwardly, after making love he proposes to me.

“Can you and I tie the knot of nuptial bliss take the seven rounds of the holy fire and lead our lives together?” he asks.

He is so sweet. How could I not be taken by surprise?

I consider his proposal in the grimy hotel room. A cockroach advances, hesitates, and then scrambles for its life. It’s difficult to make a decision so soon. I hesitate. The room is warm as there is no air-conditioning and the fan is inadequate. Then I make up my mind.

“Yes, if you promise to keep me happy.”

Back home I implore my father to go and meet Swapnil’s father and talk about it. In our community it’s the woman’s father who asks for the hand of another’s son. He agreed to do his best and make Swapnil’s father understand.

x-x-x

Our fathers – Mr. Sawant and Mr. Patil – meet  and somehow they click. They have common friends and hail from the same district of Maharashtra, Solapur. My father Patil and his father Sawant worked in the railways before retiring. I know these sort of things count a lot in relationships.  They both agreed that this is a good match from conservative Maharashtrian middle-class families. The wedding was a dream. It passed in a whirl of colourful events, food, clothes and general merriment in which I participated with enthusiasm. It was the best time of my life, a time that, I think, will never come again.

x-x-x

Then the time came to make a break with the past. All my clothes, books, laptop, toiletries were packed and moved to his flat in Andheri. That became my new home. There was no end to my tears when the time came to leave my father and my sisters. I cried and cried and cried. I have not known happiness since. Grief became a part of me in my home in Andheri. The first week was hell. I became tearful when I thought of my father and he couldn’t take it. He wanted me to be happy.

We went on a dream honeymoon to Thailand where we lived in Bangkok. We travelled to the sea-side resort of Pattaya. I was abashed to see near-nude women in bikinis; he told me that it was their culture. We went to various entertainment shows (basically sex shows) and ate in Thai restaurants. We lived in swank hotels which had swimming pools and Jacuzzis.

After returning from Thailand the fights started.

“Why don’t you come early so we can go out to do some shopping?” He would ask. I was secretly visiting my family in Vashi after work. The office was near my residence and I was tempted to go there often.

“Come on Swapnil, I work in Vashi and it takes time to get a train. I have to change trains at Wadala.”

“You know I used to wait for you at Wadala for our love train? What happened?”

“You have changed. You complain all the time. About the food I make, about my cleanliness.”

“That’s not true. I do it because I want to improve our lives. I want everyone to be happy including father and mother.”

His mother was understanding and did most of the work of cutting and cooking vegetables and preparing non-vegetarian food. Swapnil loves non-vegetarian food and I don’t know how to make it as we were strict vegetarians at home. That gave me even lesser work in my Andheri home. Of course I would help her to cook vegetarian food on Sundays when I had a holiday.

x-x-x

One thing led to another and the arguments didn’t stop. Swapnil took to drinking heavily and would come home late. Then the hitting started. He would catch me by my hair when no one was present and hit me across my face. Then one day after he came home drunk, I took him dinner to our bedroom.

He flung the plate on the floor and asked me to get out.

“Swapnil, you are educated, you are sensible, why are you behaving like this?”

“Because I want to.”

“Because you want to destroy my life? Tell me?”

“Yes, bitch. Yes I want to destroy you.”

Actually he called me “rand” a Marathi word meaning bitch. The next day I went to work with bruises on my face and a black eye. My father was alarmed and asked what happened, though he knew what happened. When this became a regular occurrence, my father, Patil, met his father, Sawant,  and told him that he can’t let his daughter live in their house anymore.

“Mr. Patil, these things happen. Why take this extreme step.” He spoke as if hitting a woman was an everyday thing.

“Mr. Sawant, I have brought up my daughters like gold. After their mother’s death I have taken care of them. I can’t bear to see them being hit on their faces.”

I bundled my clothes, my books, and my laptop and moved back to my Vashi home. It was as if a chapter in my life had ended.

x-x-x

It’s been a year since I have been living in my Vashi home. His father calls my father and asks for a meeting so that there can be a reconciliation. But Swapnil never calls. What I need is for him to call and tell me he is sorry. I want him to tell me that he misses me. He is too proud to do that. I long to hear his voice, feel his touch, hear his sweet nonsense. Every time my cell phone rings, I imagine it is him and put on my sweetest flirty voice. But my face falls when it is a telecaller or a colleague from the office. My father became sick and my worries made him sicker. I nurse him and buy medicines for him and take him to the doctor for check-ups.

Meanwhile, I keep waiting for his call.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Story of Heer Ranjha

The Legendary Love of Heer and Ranjha

(This article appeared in a publication in U.K.)

Few stories that are recounted from generations to generations can command the pathos and poignancy of two folk icons and Jat youths Heer and Ranjha – the story of the beautiful Heer and the youthful Dheedo Ranjha. Legends have been spun around the story and it now stands as a tale that unites people on either sides of the Punjab – the state that was divided between India and Pakistan after the partition in 1947. The story at once has popular mass appeal and romantic allusions of undying love. Understanding the story of Heer and Ranjha also means understanding the social underpinnings of Punjabi society, and Punjabi culture to be specific.

Beautiful Heer is born into a wealthy Jat family of Sayyal in a village called Jhang. Dheedo Ranjha (Ranjha is his surname) is also born to Jat parents in Takt Hazara by the Chenab (one of the rivers that give Punjab its name, which means land of five rivers). Jats are an enterprising and strongly traditional clan of people who live around Punjab.

Dheedo was his father's favourite son, and the youngest of eight sons of his landlord father. Unlike his brothers who had to cultivate the lands, he led a life of ease playing the wooden flute (Wanjhli or Bansuri), and legend has it that he had bohemian looks and long hair. When their father died, a dispute arose between Dheedo and his brothers over the distribution of land. The brothers had taken possession of the best land to themselves and gave Dheedo only the barren land. He, after a heated argument with his brothers, left home in protest and headed aimlessly southward along the River Chenab until he reached somewhere near the present day Jhang where Heer lived and her tribe the Sayyals ruled.

The chief of Jhang was one Chuchak Sayyal who had an extraordinarily beautiful and headstrong daughter, namely Heer. On meeting Dheedo, Heer is instantly taken by his wild and romantic looks and the soulful tunes of his flute. She persuades her parents to hire Dheedo as a cowherd for their cattle. He is hired, and thus begins the legendary romance between Heer and Dheedo. The two lovers often meet in the forestland along the river where he takes the cattle to graze. While the cattle graze he plays his flute and she listens by his side. The days and months pass in total bliss — one of love and eternal happiness for the lovely couple.

However, Heer’s uncle, Kaido, becomes suspicious and starts spying on her. He gathers sufficient evidence to report about the romance to her parents. The parents admonish her and warn her to stop meeting Dheedo. When she is undeterred they call in the village Qazi, or priest, to advise her.

The Qazi tells her that good girls, when they come out of their home, keep their gaze lowered; that they always keep their families’ honour uppermost; that she should spend time in tiranjans (places where village women gather to spin yarn on spinning wheels and chat). He also reminds her that, being from a higher caste and a renowned family, it is unbecoming of her to mingle with family servants like Dheedo.

Seeing that Heer is committed to her love for Dheedo the Qazi threatens her with a fatwa of death. But Heer is undeterred by his threats. Exasperated by her behaviour, her parents decide to marry her to a man named Saida Khairra from village Rangpur. The wedding ceremony, or nikah, is arranged and the Qazi is invited to perform the ceremony. According to custom, the Qazi first asks the bridegroom if he would accept Heer as his wife, which, the bridegroom readily does. Then the Qazi asks Heer, still very much in love, and her answer is a loud No. When the Qazi insists for an affirmative answer, Heer says, “My nikah was already made with Ranjha in heavens by no less a person than the Prophet himself, and was blessed by God and witnessed by the four angels, Jibraeel, Mikael, Izarael and Israfeel.”

The Qazi goes ahead and solemnizes the marriage, anyway. After the ceremony Heer, in tears, is sent to Rangpur amidst great celebrations. Heer languishes in Rangpur, pining for Dheedo. Meanwhile, Dheedo is heartbroken. He is left to walk the quiet villages on his own until eventually he meets an ascetic Baba Gorakhnath, the founder of the "Kanphata" (pierced ear) sect. He becomes a Jogi, pierces his ears and renounces the material world. Reciting the name of the Lord, "Alakh Niranjan", on his travels around the Punjab, he eventually finds the village where Heer has been married.

Heer also comes to know through her friends that the young handsome jogi in town was none other than her lover. The two meet and, with the help of Heer’s friends and her sister-in-law, Sehti, manage to elope one night.

The two returns to Heer's village, where Heer's parents, convinced about their love, agree to their marriage. However, on the wedding day, Heer's jealous uncle Kaido poisons a sweet Laddu to prevent the marriage from taking place. Heer eats the Laddu. Hearing this unfortunate news, Dheedo rushes to her side full of concern for her, but he is too late, as she has been affected by the poison and dies. Brokenhearted once again, he takes the rest of the poisoned sweet which Heer has eaten and dies by her side.

Thus ended the tragic love story Heer and Dheedo Ranjha.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Susamma's Story

Nobody knows how Susamma died. Some say she was killed, some say it was suicide, some say it was a natural death – a heart attack. Her husband was not at home. So a murder was ruled out. She had a red mark on her neck. People interpreted this as suicide by hanging. But then how can she die if she tied the knot, changed her mind, and decided not to kill herself? I knew Susamma wouldn't kill herself. Even though she went through many hardships she always bore it with a smile and a kind word. No, Susamma can't kill herself. She is not that type.

Then how did she die? Nobody was at home. Her brother telephoned her twice the previous night and didn't get a reply. He got suspicious and went all the way to Thiruvalla, where he found her lying on the floor of the living room. In the big bungalow that was built with the money she earned as a nurse. She lay supine in her Mother Hubbard, her face a ghostly grey, her mouth dry. The bungalow was a two-storied one with four bedrooms for them and her daughter and for guests. It was done in the most modern fashion of the day. But then she went through many hardships before she started earning all that money. Many were the years she spent doing overtime on night shifts in operation theatres in the Persian Gulf city of Muscat to earn enough to make the bungalow.

I know her as a promising student in my class scoring the best marks. She was from a middle class Christina family, the sort who read the bible and prays every day. Her faith was a source of strength and pride to her. She was a good sportsperson and won the school championship trophy five years in a row. Teachers praised her as a model student who will succeed in life, will be an asset to the school and the community and society. Everyone praised her. She was the debating champion, the keen athlete, and nobody could beat her in running and long jump. She was goodlooking with her head full of curly hair and had a graceful walk. All my friends - Chako, Athiran, Chathukutty and Varghese lusted after her voluptuous figure and personage.

"Everybody should learn from Susamma. She is the house captain of the Green House even before she has reached the tenth standard, in the nineth standard itself. Everybody should emulate her hardwork and her application. If only we had more students like her," Basanti-teacher, the teacher assigned to our class said.

Then we graduated and I lost touch. I went away to my job and raised a family in distant Bombay. However, I kept hearing news of her whereabouts whenever I would come on vacation to Thiruvalla. She was married. Her parents – rustic farming people – thought they had a good match because the groom drew a good salary. Then her problems started. Her husband – Thankachen – was a salesman in Bangalore and she shifted to Bangalore to be with him. Thankachen, being a salesman of plastic briefcases travelled on business quite a lot. He had the practicality and easy charm of a salesman and could talk very well. On the rare occasion he was in town he would drink too much and abuse her, beat her. Soon Susamma came to know why. Thankachen had a girlfriend in town and most of the time was spent in her company. He also spent most of his money on her. He found Susamma ordinary and not urbane enough. He got mad when Susamma couldn't use a fork and knife in a restaurant and couldn't use the western closet when on vacation in Goa.

Small differences became great fissures and then chasms. After a fight over the taste of fish curry, Thankachen beat her and left her with a puffed eye and then sought the company of his girlfriend. Susamma packed her bags and went back to live with her parents in Thiruvalla. She lived with her parents for seven years. She made use of this time to apprentice herself in Pushpagiri Hospital as a nurse. She learnt fast, as she was a good student, punctilious in acquiring knowledge and perspicacious in her studies. She soon got a job in the same hospital. She was also declared the best student and scored the highest marks in theory and practicals. During these seven years Thankachen never visited her even once. She is supposed to have said once to my sister Babykutty, "I am a woman who has suffered great emotional turmoil, you can't even imagine what I have been through."

Her next ambition was to go to the Persian Gulf. She got herself a passport. She was soon selected to work in the Royal Hospital of Oman. She did well there, rising fast to be a matron. Her salary induced Thankachen to re-establish contact with her again. He wrote her and asked for forgiveness. The reason was that his girlfriend had left him. He had become an alcoholic.

"I am sorry for all that I did to you. If you take me back I promise to be good to you and mend my ways. I am sure you will consider this in Christ our saviour's name."

Susamma forgave him. He soon got himself a passport and joined her in Muscat, Oman. He got a job as a salesman there. However, his ways hadn't changed. He drank heavily even in the country where drinking of liquors was prohibited. However, he didn't beat her. It was during this time that their daughter Sheena was born. Both Susamma and Thankachen were happy together for some time. Then Thankachen started doubting her and accusing her of being unfaithful. He even went to say Sheena wasn't his daughter.

Again the chain of atrocities against her started. Though Thankachen didn't beat her he was cruel in his words and accused her of being unfaithful. With his drinking the accusations got worse. He accused her of having affairs with doctors. It seemed there was no end to Susamma's tears. That's when she decided enough was enough and decided to come back to live in Thiruvalla.
She bought a plot of land. She built a big bungalow with the money she accumulated in Muscat.

Thankachen, too, gave up his job and came back to live with her. Their daughter started studying in a residential school in Thiruvalla. Their fights would occur even in Thiruvalla. Susamma would go to her ancestral home where her father and mother lived and relate to them about sleepless nights and Thankachen's increasing demands for money to drink. The neighbourhood also came to know of what was happening. They then got used to the nightly shouting matches and to Susamma crying in the night.

Anyway, it was a sad end to such a promising life. A wrong choice of a man had made Susamma's life miserable. But nobody knows how she died. Neighbours said that the night before her death there was a big fight and Susamma was heard crying. The next day Thankachen left for Bombay to see his sister. There were all sorts of stories about her death. People said he killed her with his cruel words. Some say he strangled her before he left, in which case she would have been lying dead in the bungalow for a day. However, her body was warm and had not decayed. Suicide was also ruled out. The police was not summoned as her people didn't want an enquiry. Thankachen came back from Bombay and pleaded innocence.

I attended Susamma's funeral. So did my friend Chako, Athiran, Chathukutty and Varghese, all classmates of hers. We met for tea at my house after the funeral. We mourned the passing of a promising and talented classmate. That's Susamma's story.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

P.K.Koshy’s Daily Routine

As I, P.K. Koshy, sip my morning tea I look out to see if Waghmare is anywhere around. Question is: Do I want to even see his face on the way to my morning walk? No. He has a car and he has a dog, and I dislike both. And I loathe him. Problem with the dog is it shits everyday before my door and I suspect Waghmare (In Marathi – the killer of tigers) has taught him to do that, I am sure. The sly bastard, I know he is a cunning and crafty man. He works for some life science company and is home most of the time pottering around in his chuddies. His sole aim is to give me a lot of headaches, which I can feel digging its monstrous fangs in my head right now. I know he is around, I can hear him shuffling in the row-house next door. I time his morning walk, which may be over by now. Then he takes his dog out, which too has been completed now that it’s 8 a.m.

The car is another possession of his that I detest, indeed hate. It’s a Maruti Swift, his proud possession, a symbol of his prosperity. I don’t have a car; neither do I have a dog. He parks it right outside my door as if it’s his father’s road, just to make me jealous as I don’t have one. I shouted at him many times. The bastard, he won’t listen to all my ranting, and continues to park it at the entrance of my row-house. I had complained to Oondirmare (literally: the killer of mice) who is our row-house association’s secretary, but he is too much in awe of Waghmare, the killer of tigers. It so turns out that the killer of mice is afraid of the killer of tigers because of reasons I needn’t mention, but then why he is the association’s secretary? Killing rats is not such a big deal, nor tigers, for that matter. His grandfather’s grandfather might have shot at a tiger and missed, and now he carries the name of Waghmare. Doesn’t “mare” mean “act of killing” and not “marnara” meaning “man who kills.” Next time I speak to him I will say this, only to embarrass him a little.

I read the newspaper that has just arrived. A few months back I used to subscribe to two newspapers, but Marykutty told me to cut down on expenses. Now I only get the Hindustan Times to read as I sip tea. Marykutty asks me if I need more tea. I say, “Why you want my tummy to protrude even more like a chakka, a jackfruit?”

My tummy, like all Malayalis’ tummies protrude a bit, no, in fact, more than a bit. It has grown in size since I had retired, last month. They say, the Malayalis I mean, that it’s a sign of prosperity. I think the eating of a lot of carbohydrate-enriched rice – the Malayalis’ staple diet. And, what if my tummy protrudes, whose father’s goes? Like they say in Hindi, “Kiska baap ka kya jata hai.” Waghmare’s tummy also juts out. But he is a pathetic sight in his striped chuddies, jackfruit tummy hanging out, and the exposed thread that holds it to his waist. “Chee, no shame, this man has,” Marykutty would say watching him walking his dog and scratching his arse. And he called me a “besharam” when we had a fight over the dog shit.

That’s why I avoid him during my morning walks. We have fought many times. Over dog poo, over car parking, over overflowing gutters, over hundreds of silly trivial things which he doesn’t have the civility to acknowledge, the illiterate. He has connections and is all the time glued to his phone, talking in the entreatingly cloying voice of his, the moron.

x-x-x

At last, I finish tea, throw away the paper to be read later, and peering carefully through the window to make sure Waghmare wasn’t around, step out. His dog is sitting on his steps panting, and wagging its tail, glad to see me, the abominable creature. But my quarrel is with his master, the chuddy-wallah. I have nothing against you koochi-koo, may you and your master rot! I never wear chuddies like your master does, what an insult, can’t you do something to stop him showing his hirsute legs?

I am dressed in polyester trousers, my checked shirt, and my branded walking shoes. Today I have to visit the office from where I retired after 27 years of service. They are giving me a send-off party, they said, sort of after thought. I am an employee of Bard, no, nowhere related to the poet, but BARD as they call the country’s nuclear research program – Baroodwala Atomic Research Department. I don’t believe in parties, but I think I will go and meet my colleagues, though it might make me teary eyed to see my desk being occupied by a new chokra boy who succeeded me.

I walk along the road that connects to a nature park in Belapur, a road that cut into what they say is a tropical rain forest. The road is full of puddles from last night’s rain, and I avoid dog shit, cow shit, and little puddles that are everywhere. There is garbage lying around thrown by lazy people in the night when no one’s watching. I think this country needs strict laws. They will break laws when no one’s watching. So opportunistic are they! My friend Joseph, the only person I speak with on my walks, says Singapore fines 500 dollars for littering. We should do the same. I meet some of my usual friends, the old man who tutors students, the retired man who is always humming a carefree tune, the yoga freak who does breathing exercises, and the Old Geezer’s Gang (OGG), as I call them.

The OGG consists of retired chootiyas, too far gone to redeem their failing bodies. They spend their morning time gossiping about other walkers, laughing, huffing and puffing their tottering bodies. They don’t get any exercise at all, the way they talk excitedly, badmouthing their former employers, this minister or that, or even the haggard women who come for a walk to escape the drudgery of cooking, washing and cleaning.

I dismiss their jollity as frivolity and only exchange a few polite “Good mornings” with them. They walk so slowly that I feel their bodies would disintegrate and die in a few days. If I become one of them then I would be discussing cardiac arrest, arrhythmia, blood clots and a host of other diseases with them, and would lose my teeth and my confidence. I walk fast and leave them behind. The OGGs are there in practically every part of New Bombay, indeed the world, old men without any meaning in their lives, their minds having been eaten by the moths of mediocrity.

x-x-x

Leaving the OGGs behind I walk to the top of a hill that overlooks the highway to Bombay. There’s the constant roar of traffic and the rainforest is alive with the sound of birds, the echoes of which reverberate in the trees. I shut my eyes, relax my body and sit down to my meditation session. The OGGs have caught up and are teasing me now.

“Kya Koshy-saab, ithna medition math karo. Kuch duniya ke barre mein bi socho.”

(What Koshy, stop meditating and start thinking about the world.)

I tremble with anger, but I hide it. It’s said: do not pick a fight with people who have nothing to lose. Besides I have to come here tomorrow too.

“You booddhas, you with your gossip and bitterness, you will die fast.”

They laugh.

I didn’t say it in jest, but seriously. It was a curse. I leave them, the old farts, feeling a throb of pain in my temple. I then begin my descent down the hill and the songs of birds grow thicker and louder, a symphony of sounds, which soothes me. I like bird songs. They are so natural and beautiful, their every note so pure. I am more relaxed now. What do those old geezer’s think?

x-x-x

As I near home I see Waghmare looking at me from the terrace of his row house, a sarcastic sort of look. I don’t greet him, the dog. If I greet him, I am sure he will come wagging his tail like his cur. I used to be friendly with him when we had come to live in Belapur, twenty or so years ago. But then there came the fights and I stopped talking to him.

“Who will talk to such a fellow, no manners, keeping dogs that have no sanitary sense?” I ask Marykutty. She has grown fat over the past few years. I tell her to come for a walk in the morning but she won’t listen. Even since Benny, our son, went away to the USA she has been like this. Not talking much, only doing what is necessary. Her hair is white and unkempt, her ways slovenly. I can’t help it. I go for a long walk in the morning and evening to escape from the ruin that is my wife.

x-x-x

I take the 9 a.m. morning train from Belapur. It is crowded and though it originates in Belapur I don’t get a seat as the commuters from Nerul have travelled back to Belapur so that they are assured of a seat. So I stand in the cramped space between two seats. This is the most coveted place to be in the first class compartment, because whenever anyone in those two seats gets up, by the fact of being first in queue, I get to sit down. I know these things. I have travelled on this route for 30 years. It is my routine, rather, was.

But my turn doesn’t come though we have crossed the Thane Creek Bridge at Vashi. There’s too much rush of people, perspiring, their wet bodies sticking to me in the heat. I can make out the regulars, the Sardarji in his usual seat by the window, the bald man who is a nodding acquaintance who works for a cigarette company, the company secretary with a shock of black hair which he claims he doesn’t dye, the bank manager with his usual bunch of newspapers.

When Kurla comes, a lot of young fellows get down. I get a seat vacated by a young chap with a heavy knapsack which almost knocks me down as he swings it on his shoulder. Wonder why they all carry knapsacks these days like menial labourers. They are the people working in the new economies – software, hardware, the outsourcing units – coolies all of them. They dress nattily; listen to pirated music on their iPods, or imitation music players, talk incessantly on the phone – probably to their girlfriends. What’s there so much to talk about, I don’t know. I and Marykutty hardly talk a few words everyday – sometimes, nothing at all. All we have to say have been gone over and exhausted. Now, silence speaks. One such executive type is saying on his cell phone.

“Total weirdo, men, my boss, men. So much like that only, no? Like that mad old uncle deLima, exactly. I feel like giving him two tight slaps, phat, phat. Har, har, har. He tho, I don’t know what to say, [listens] tell me what you did this morning? Had a head bath? What the f*** for? Tell you no, men, you will get a cold and be paying for medicines and stuff. [Listens] That’s cool, men, so, so, nice I feel, whaddappen, no, it’s, sort of, sort of, aaah, heee, hummm....”

What sort of talk is that? This teeny-weeny impudent fellow is talking of slapping his boss. What’s the world coming to? I am glad to be out of their rat race.

x-x-x

At the office everyone gathers around me. As expected, a chokra is sitting on the assistant’s seat that I had vacated. My boss, the director of the nuclear research program, has gone to a meeting with his boss, so I wait in the reception. Everyone is extra nice, which they weren’t when I was working here.

The new assistant apologies profusely. The sort of words I used to employ only a month ago.

“So sorry sir, he will be back soon, sir, will you have some coffee, sir, I am told you like coffee, sir,” then to a shabby individual in a khaki uniform “saab ke liye coffee lana.”

x-x-x

In the conference room they have put a fresh bouquet of flowers, they make me sit beside the boss, Mr. Rao, the man I tolerated with all my patience the last so many years. He is all jolly good manners now. The young assistant – yes, I remember, his name is Krishnakant Sharma – keeps a wrapped rectangular thing before his boss. On it is a card with messages from all my previous colleagues in vivid colours. Krishnakant has brought his cheap digital camera and is clicking pictures of me – of me! I can’t believe it. They are taking pictures of me!

Then everyone troops in and the boss gives a speech in Indian English praising all the qualities I never knew I possessed. Too late! He says I always had a smile on my face, even when he was rude. What to do? So bad no? He couldn’t help it, part of his job. The hypocrite! He doesn’t know what Herculean effort I had to put up, just to listen to his insults, because I had a family to feed, and a job to keep.

Then he takes the rectangular gift and gives it to me. He smiles and asks me to turn towards the camera held by his assistant. Resourceful chap, he is, this Krishnakant Sharma, smart dresser, too. “Smile” he says, and I smile. Only a few front teeth show in the picture, which Sharma comes and shows me on his camera. It’s the age of instant photography; you can see the results in seconds.

Then there’s a round of handshakes and some refreshments are brought in – sodden samosas from the canteen, tea in plastic cups, and a few potato chips.

Is it all I am worth? Have I worked all these years, sacrificing my freedom, my self respect, my joy for this? My colleagues want me to open the gift. I open it and they watch my face. It’s a picture of a waterfall with a wire attached and they say if the wire is plugged in, the waterfall will come alive with the sounds of birds in the background.

“How did you know I like the sound of birds?”

“You told us, didn’t you? Don’t you remember?” A friend, Mr. Muthuraman, who will be retiring next year said, “You said it brings out the poet in you.”

“Oh, so you write poetry, Mr. Koshy, I never knew. What a talented person we have had in our midst. It will be a complete loss, will miss you, really,” Mr. Rao said. The hypocrite!

I felt like telling him, none of my poems are published, all of them were rejected by a world, which is no longer in need of poetry or poets.

A murmur, a titter goes around. “Ah, I never knew he wrote poetry, in Malayalam, it seems, he is from a tradition of poetry, ah, murmur, murmur, titter, titter....”

I eat the soggy samosas, drink the tepid tea.

x-x-x

It’s 1 p.m. I have begun my journey back having had lunch in Swagat Restaurant in what was once the fort area of Bombay. I stumble several times as I walk with the rectangular picture under one arm. Several people jostle me as they pass me in a hurry. Bad mannered, all of them, no respect for elders. To think that this would be what I will be up against for the rest of my life, makes me nervous and jittery. I step over puddles, I side step gobs of spit on the street.

With difficulty I make it to Victoria Terminus train station and choose the train to Belapur. Trains are less crowded at this time. There are a lot of women, children, and petty traders in dhotis, kurtas, lehengas, some of them carry big loads on their heads and under their arms.

I, too, am carrying this load, this picture, this burden of my past, the thing that had divested me of my life, my writing, sucked the blood out of me with its dreary routine chores that needed to be done for my boss, which had in turn developed into a habit. Now I had to consciously get out of the habit every day. It sits in my hand, unwieldy, incongruous, obstructing the flow of people. They dash against it, turn and stare, even curse. It nauseates me how they couldn’t think of a better gift. All they could find was an artificial waterfall with artificial bird sounds whereas I like natural bird sounds. How dumb!

The 1.45 p.m. local to Panvel is empty. It passes through Belapur. I climb inside the deserted compartment and sit holding the packet in my lap. I am not sure what to do with it. I hate what it represents, the repression I felt, sacrificing everything for a government job, the dreariness of the function in the morning in which people were so cloyingly sweet. But I could sense their impatience. It was as if they wanted to get rid of me and go back to their work and get on with it. Mr. Rao had looked impatiently at his watch several times, the man who had said, “Mr. Koshy you are too slow with letters, you need to learn to manage your time, speed up, you know. I have no patience for your slowness.” He had the sarcastic look Waghmare sometimes has when he speaks to me. I hate them both – one my former boss, the other still my neighbour. Two unpleasant people who dominated my life these years.

The picture grew heavier as the train progresses on the Harbour Line. Masjid, Sandhurst Road, Dockyard Road, Reay Road, Cotton Green, Sewri, Wadala, Koliwada, Chuna Bhatti, Kurla, Tilak Nagar, Chembur, Govandi, Mankhurd, all pass in a sudden flurry and clatter of metal. It seems as if I have passed these stations a million times, but in the haze of the monsoon afternoon, when drops of moisture on my shirt seemed like swords stabbing me, I feel a strange oddness, as if I have never seen these stations. My daily routine has become alien to me.

I was sweating profusely. Is a stroke coming? Why am I feeling so funny, prickly all over? As the train passes over the Thane Creek Bridge I go and stand near the entrance to get some fresh air. The sea breeze calms me, I breathe in deeply, then tears streaming down my face, my face contorted into a hideous sob, I fling the picture over the railing into the sea. I have got rid of Mr. Rao for ever.

I look back. It lies there floating for a few seconds, then it slowly sinks into the brackish water and mud. I feel light, as if a burden has been lifted, I smile. I will take care of Waghmare when I reach home.