I am Anaida. People call me “Ida.” Blossom auntie and Percy uncle call me “An idiot.” I live alone in a flat on the first floor of a building in Bandra’s East Indian quarters beside Andrew’s bakery and cake shop and Bhatlekar’s betel-and-tobacco shop. I have lived there all my life at the intersection of two meandering narrow streets with buildings like mine on either sides dating back to the British times. The buildings are all greenish with age and mine is the only one with a lot of bougainvillea tumbling out of it. My bougainvillea. You will recognize them easily. I also have dandelions and some chrysanthemums.
I have lived among the bustle of the cries of trinket vendors, the clang of ice cream sellers’ bells and loud cries of the bread and pastry vendors all my life. From the balcony of my flat I have a good view of the intersection. I sit on a high stool in the balcony and look at the world passing by. I don’t go out and play with Margaret like I did. Margaret is my friend from St Andrews Convent School, where I studied.
I am alone because dada and mamma died two years ago, one after the other. Dadda died first of a heart attack and mamma immediately after that because of some viral infection. When dada died mamma wept a lot. After that she stopped eating regular meals and started wasting away. Blossom auntie brought her food, but she never ate. I know she was going to die. Cunning Percy uncle wanted her to die because being dadda’s only brother he could claim the flat for himself. But I am my dadda’s daughter. I wouldn’t let go of my beautiful flat with the bougainvillea and dandelions in different colors of the VIBGYOR spectrum. I studied that in school, about VIBGYOR, which then seemed like a nice word to know.
I work for a publishing company in Colaba. I am a typist. I type envelopes for the company whole day. All I do is type envelopes and addresses. I am surprised there are so many people to send these envelopes to. But Baretto, my supervisor, tells me the company’s income comes from these envelopes. If these envelopes don’t go we don’t get subscriptions and if we don’t get subscription the boss can’t pay us salaries. So I type and type and type till my fingers ache and ache. But I don’t mind as long as they pay me a salary that will pay my milk and bread bills.
I board bus number 81 to work. The bus route is long. But I take a seat by the window and watch people, my favorite pastime. I like to watch people. I like to watch the gleaming cars cruising past the dingy buildings of Mohammed Ali Road and the racket the drivers make by honking their horns at traffic intersections. Sitting in a bus I feel alone and at peace with the world, just like I feel peaceful when I sit in my balcony with my bougainvillea and my dandelions.
When I reach my office Mr Baretto is ready with the addresses I have type.
“These addresses are live people. Consider them people who eat and breathe. We depend on their business. They are givers of our food. Don’t make mistakes. It is easier not to make a mistake than to correct mistakes. I may not check an address and it may go to the wrong address and we will lose business. Right? Agreed?” He would say.
I would nod my head.
But I make mistakes and Baretto would get angry.
“Can’t you do anything properly, men? How many times I tell you to be careful. You don’t listen only.”
He is like Uncle Percy. Only uncle Percy is worse. Uncle Percy looks like the wrinkled and dour gremlins one sees in movies. He owns a community newspaper and is a compulsive gambler. He also drinks a lot and his face is red and florid like a ripe tomato.
In the evening I take the same bus back to Bandra, waiting with office workers like me for the crowds to thin so that I can go comfortably. Well that is my life since dada and mama passed away leaving me all alone in this big world. Dadda had warned me several times to be careful about the “big world” outside. He said “big world” with a roll of his eyes and pursing of lips below his Clark Gable moustache, as if the world was a frightening place. I am not afraid of anyone not even the “big world.”
Actually mama was sicker than dada and would have died sooner hadn’t she been blessed by her Wednesday Mahim novenas. She offered novenas for five full years, that too without a break. She would be there every Wednesday at Mahim Church praying for dada and me.
But when dada died she lost all interest to live. It was like she had no purpose in life. She became like a vegetable you buy from the market, getting up only to go to the toilet. She died in the toilet and neighbors had to break open the door to remove her still body. He face was all contorted and wet with sweat. I felt her hand and it twitched once, that was all. She was suffering from a viral fever for many days and hid it from me.
Soon after the funeral uncle Percy and aunt Blossom came with Fr Alphonso of St Andrews church with so much concern on their faces. I knew their ploy very well. Uncle Percy has very narrow eyes and mama told me never to trust people with narrow eyes.
“Anaida, we will take care of you, no, girl? You can live with us, like our own daughter,” Uncle Percy said.
“See, we are the only ones you have got,” aunt Blossom said.
I said I wouldn’t leave my flat with the lovely bougainvillea and dandelions. Who will water them if I left? If I don’t water it for one day it looks all wilted. Uncle Percy wouldn’t water it. He would sell the flat and then put the money in his loss-making community newspaper and pay off his gambling debts.
“Who will take care of my bougainvilleas,” I asked them.
“What men, bougainvillea, bougainvillea, as if bougainvillea is more precious than your blood relatives.”
“To me it is.”
I didn’t go with them because I would have to live with cousin Martin. Cousin Martin is drug addict and a rough man. He also drinks. I know I won’t be safe anywhere with him around. And when Uncle Percy and aunt Blossom get drunk what ill I do. They fight a lot when they are drunk. All three of them are capable of being rude and abusive when they are drunk.
No baba, I am not going anywhere leaving my balcony seat, the one beside the creeping canopy of bougainvillea stems that looks so beautiful as it tumble out from my balcony. Sitting behind them I can watch people and they would never see me looking at them. Only Margaret knows I am there behind the bougainvillea and waves to me. I wave back.
The next time uncle Percy comes visiting he has Fr Alphonso and Fr Pereira who used to teach us religion at St Andrews school. Fr Pereira is the one who said the funeral mass for mama. I like him more than Fr Alphonso, perhaps because he looks a little like dada with his Clark Gable moustache.
“Anaida, child you need some family, No? Who will look after you when you are sick? You become sick often, often, no? You get these stomach cramps no, painful, painful, then what you do?”
I think for a while. I know it is all uncle Percy’s doing telling Fr Pereira about my stomach cramps. He has no right to. He can rot in hell for doing that and I am not going anywhere leaving my bougainvillea and my dandelions and my balcony. They are my best friends and these people are my enemies.
Like that, like that it went on and on. Sometimes Percy uncle would come along, sometimes he would come with Fr Alphonso and sometimes with Fr Pereira. So many priests came and went with uncle Percy trying to rid me of my precious flat with the bougainvilleas.
My work suffered, Mr Baretto became short tempered and angry.
“Anaida, your productivity is falling, I don’t know how I can recommend you for a bonus this year.”
All I do is type his envelopes, envelopes, and envelopes all day. Still he brings me more and more envelopes and addresses.
“Anaida you are absent minded, you typed ‘Gorey’ for ‘Morey’. Look ‘Gorey’ and ‘Morey’ are two different people. If they get angry they won’t give us business. If they don’t give us business....” his voice trailed off into a very ominous silence.
That day on the bus I thought and thought a lot. What can I do to get that Percy uncle and Blossom auntie off my back? My work was getting affected and if I lose my job, I won’t be able to keep my flat and look after my bougainvillea and dandelions.
That day when I reach Bandra I didn’t go to my flat but went straight to the evening service at St. Andrews church. The church was where both dadda and mama were buried and I looked at their graves from far, I didn’t have the time. The church had gravestones in the courtyard and I walked carefully so as to not disturb the souls resting in them. The beautiful church was full of people and Fr Kenneth D’Souza, head priest, was celebrating mass.
After mass I went to the priests’ chambers and asked to meet Fr. Kenneth D’Souza. Fr D’Souza was preparing to go to the confessional. He saw me and stopped, his eyes wide with surprise and recognition.
“Anaida, what brings you here, child? How are you?”
I wished him good evening and said I was fine.
“Everything okay, baba? I know it has been a terrible loss to you, child. What to do both dadda and mama gone. That too in such a short time. What a terrible, terrible thing to happen, no?”
I was silent.
“Is anything wrong, Anaida? Why are you so quiet?”
“It is uncle Percy, father and Fr Alphonso and Fr Pereira. They have been visiting me regularly asking me to go and live with uncle Percy. I know their intentions aren’t honorable or honest, father.”
Fr D’Souza became silent and thoughtful. He adjusted his belt around his protruding girth.
“How long has this been going?”
“Ever since dadda and mama died.”
“Really? And they didn’t tell me a word,” he looked thoughtful.
“I thought you knew Fr D’Souza.”
“No. I don’t. I am hearing it from you only.”
“I know uncle Percy will take me to live with him and then sell my flat. He is already heavily in debt.”
“ I know, I know. I have been hearing stories of his gambling debts. Card games.”
“Go Anaida. God will bless you and protect you. I will see about Percy and the priests.”
That ended the visits of uncle Percy, aunt Blossom, Fr Alphonso and Fr Pereira to my flat.
I, Anaida, have saved the day, at least temporarily, for me and my bougainvilleas and my dandelions.