Of Vag/Wagh (Tiger) Shenoys and Pishvi (Bag) Sanjeevi

The Amusing Amchigele (Our own) Art of Naming People

I write this piece with malice towards none and love for all. It’s about how some of our Konkani people got their names, and the Amchigele art of choosing some intriguing ones. What’s in a name, you ask? Then perhaps you don’t know about this village in South Karnataka, where there were so many Rams that a wise old woman wrote a song to identify each one of them. It went thus: Gal gal matey halaiyta Vithal Kamatilo Ramu, which loosely translated would mean, ‘Shake shake shakes his head, Vithal Kamat’s Ram’. So on it went, with each Ram’s characteristic forming the lyrics. I am told there were about a hundred Rams. (I regret I don’t know the whole song).

If you are born in a Konkani family, as I was, you would be familiar with the way people are identified by their native place. My maternal grandfather was Kotekar Krishna Kamath, Kotekar being the name of his native place. You would have people refer to friends and relatives with the name of their native place preceding it, as if without it, they would lose their identity. So it wouldn’t be a Narasimha who would be visiting you. It would be a Bolar Narashimu, or a Tirthale Vithalu or a Panvel Pandu, the last syllable of all short names inevitably transformed into a ‘u’, pronounced ‘oo’. So, Kiran became Kiranu, Navin – Navinu, Shyam – Shyamu, Nitin –Nitinu. Get the drift? Abhishek and Shantanu were spared – the former had too many syllables to be tampered with, and Shantanu had managed the ‘oo’ for itself. The youngsters, of course, have dropped these forms of identification, but some with the surname Mallya, have begun to write the name of their native place before their names in capital letters to clarify that they have nothing to do with the hometown of a certain (sur)namesake dorko (Konkani man), who has fled the scene.

I remember a friend deciding against naming her son Kuber, despite the prospect of raising the God of Wealth himself in her home and being the beneficiary of whatever bounty the name brought with it, just because she didn’t want to anger his divine counterpart, when her earthly relatives would address her son as Kubera or Kuberu. She chose what she thought was a safe Venkatesh. She didn’t know then that Konkani tongues are prone to changing the ‘oo’ into a wider ‘aa’, quite glibly. She fumed when Venkatesh responded to Venkatshhaaaaa, happily, unaware that his carefully chosen name had failed to safeguard itself from being altered.

If I had thought that it was only the native place that preceded Konkani names, I couldn’t have been more off the mark. I chanced upon an interesting honorific when my cousin got engaged to a Vag Shenoy. Now, Vag or Wagh or Waghu, means tiger in Konkani. The gentleman (who is my beloved bhavaji (brother in law) now) I was introduced to was a quiet, peace-loving person, who spoke softly, and who, I knew, wouldn’t hurt a microbe, leave alone roar or display any of the ferocious characteristics of the predator. I knew for sure that he hadn’t killed a tiger (not even in self-defence) or tamed or fought with one. So how did the honorific Vag get attached to his name?

Lore has it that when bhavaji’s great-grandfather, Sarvottam, was a toddler, he was carried away by a tiger. Horrified, the child’s mother raised an alarm, and villagers chased the tiger and blocked its way, as it was about to enter the jungle. They went down on their knees, joined their hands reverentially and pleaded with the tiger to let go of the terrified, wailing baby. ‘We promise,’ they said, ‘we will take your name as our own, and generations will know of you, the benevolent one, who spared our child.’ Appeased and moved by their entreaties, the tiger let go of the surprisingly unharmed baby, and the honorific Vag got attached to the Shenoys’ names. To this day, the descendants of the rescued Shenoy baby are referred to as ‘Vagatanchi’ or ‘those from the house of the Vags’. My nephews, not impressed by the tiger-human pact, apologised to the entire tiger clan, nevertheless, when they decided to drop the honorific from their names; they do their bit quietly for the ‘Save the Tiger’ project, now that the feared one is the endangered species. We have indeed come a long way.

It’s not just the tigers who have been honoured thus. Insects, objects, human flaws and failings, and even rags have been chosen as appropriate honorifics for the purpose of convenient identification, often to the chagrin of those thus decorated. I have heard of a Bhanshire (kitchen rag) Narasimhu (the half-man–half-lion god seems to be quite a favourite), probably because he dressed shabbily, a Belta Wamanu (a man who wore suspenders) to distinguish him from a Paala-moola (roots-and-shoots) Wamanu (a gentleman who propagated naturopathy, always carried a bag full of herbs, and gave a demo of their efficacy to whoever cared to listen), a Jalaar (mosquito) Mangeshu (who probably belonged to a place swarming with blood-sucking insects of the anopheles variety), a Paaykhilo (latrine) Madhu, who would never have suspected that in the pre-Swachch Bharat days, his pioneering initiative to build a toilet inside his house would earn him such notoriety, a Kuste Sanjivu, the wrestler who created quite a dangal in his hometown, and a Pishvi (bag) Sanjeevi, who never ventured out of her house without a cloth bag dangling on her arm.

Then there were those who were a trifle insensitively, but certainly with no intention to hurt, referred to by their conspicuous physical characteristics or their habits or traits. So, there was a tambiya bodacho (a man whose head was shaped like a round drinking vessel made of copper or other metals), a sokni (lizard) mhantaro (old man), a thin seventy-year-old man with a penchant for fitting into the narrowest of spaces, a Totli Tilottama, who lisped, a Rulaavu (semolina) Mhaav (elder aunt), who relished upma and ate it every day. That’s not all. If you are the kind who gets up in the middle of a meal to visit the loo, an elder might reprimand you for being a ‘Manjula’, the lady whose this very habit got her name to become a form of reproach.

Do I have an honorific too? Yes, I do, and not a very flattering one at that. I am Bob Archu. No, I’m not a Marley fan but I earned this name for being a bit of a yeller. Ironically, ‘Bob Marlee’ in Konkani means ‘Shouted’. Here I am, shouting out loud, reiterating that this name-calling is always done without an iota of spite. In fact, over the years, I have come to know that these honorifics, however weird and seemingly offensive, are in fact, terms of endearment.

What’s in your name, may I ask?

Some names have been changed to protect identities

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Mr Rao and Mrs Ruia

I have never met Mr Rao. Nor have I had the privilege to meet Mrs Ruia. Both names are sharply etched in my mother’s childhood memories. As she ages, her memory seems to grow sharper. Mother lived opposite Ramnarain Ruia … Continue reading

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Different Strokes: P. K. (Joe) Kamath, Cricket’s Unsung Man

Dadu in stance

P K (Joe) Kamat

He was a man of few words. I learnt to gauge from the force and intonation of his monosyllabic answers, whether he was happy or cross, though with him, I could get away with blue murder. He rose early. The cricketing grounds beckoned him. From opening the Mumbai Ranji Trophy innings with Vinoo Mankad, he had begun to coach the cricket team at Ramnarain Ruia College, where Ajit Wadekar was the captain. We lived bang opposite the college. Some or the other cricket tournament was always being played on the maidan opposite the college. It was dotted with men in white. There were no sponsors then, and it wasn’t the era of designer gear. Students from Ruia and Podar College, and passersby sat on the concrete fence bordering the maidan, to watch the game, and applaud them wholeheartedly. The emotions even local cricket matches  generated, were palpable. Soon, Dadu (to me) or Prabhakar Kamath, nicknamed Joe in cricketing circles, was coaching the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team. Dadu was the first cricketer to be appointed coach of the Bombay Cricket Association to look after the Ranji Trophy boys.

In fact, he has many firsts to his credit. He was the first Mumbai coach to go to the then Madras, at the invitation of The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. He was also the first Indian coach to visit Sri Lanka officially. Mr Shelley Wickremeshinge, the then Vice-President of the Cricket Board of Sri Lanka, who later went on to become the Chairman of the Sports Council in Sri Lanka, has gone on record to say that not only had Dadu brought about dynamic changes in Ceylon’s cricket, but also that after being trained by him, those Sri Lankan cricketers who were not in the consideration set before attending the coaching camp, were making their rightful claims for inclusion in the Sri Lankan team. What’s incredible was that he didn’t charge a penny for his services. His passion for the game drove him day after day to the grounds, toiling with the boys, and exulting when they piled up runs on the board.

Soon after waking up at dawn, he placed a thick steel pan on the gas, cracked a few eggs into it, sprinkled the sizzling half-fried eggs with salt and pepper, wolfed them down with a few slices of toasted bread, topped it with a tall glass of filter coffee, and headed out. I had no idea then that he walked from Matunga to Kurla and back, to increase his stamina. He was known for his impeccable fielding, and his adroitness in the slips, and his insistence that the boys he coached trained themselves to be ambidextrous fielders. I remember my mother telling me how, taking a full-blooded catch off the unorthodox right-handed batsman Budhi Kunderan’s bat, had split his palm, and how, after getting the gash stitched up, he was back at his favourite position in the slips. My grandmother worried for her son’s well being after that, often talking about how injurious the season ball could be. Helmets were unheard of in those days.

Many are the stories of his discipline and strictness. How the cricketer son of Dadu’s contemporary was made to run extra rounds, when he came to know that the India hopeful had guzzled beer the  previous night. How the intense fielding practice exhausted the boys, who were later grateful for the punishing regimen at the nets. How he had got Ajit Wadekar, known as his protege, to perfect his one-eyed stance. I remember seeing young cricketing hopefuls sitting on the steps of Kumkum Laundry and Central book Depot, opposite Ruia College, rise as he walked by, as a mark of respect to this unobtrusive man, who went about doing his job with quiet passion. I also remember how young cricketing hopefuls visited our Matunga home to take some advice from him, and how he heard them out patiently, reassuring them and offering them tips. Often, as the boys in our neighbourhood played cricket in our building, he stood for hours watching them, playing umpire, and settling any disputes that arose out of controversial deliveries, doubtful LBWs and issues of whether the ball had hit the outside edge of the bat or not. Whether it was gully cricket or a test match, it was sacred to him.

Dadu was a zealous letter writer and was among the few who held a record of sorts for being a regular. He wrote a column on the sport, in the Free Press Journal, under the byline Hooker (coined after the hook shot), often sitting at the tiny desk in his room, at night, writing longhand. An avid reader, he was a frequent visitor to Strand Book Stall, and the library in our house was stocked with books ranging from Chaucer to The Complete Works of Shakespeare to Dickens to The Autobiography of a Yogi. He had a habit of signing his name on the first page, a quirk I have picked up, much like I have, the reading habit. He loved music, and had an enviable collection of long-playing records, from the soulful melodies of Talat Mahmood, Lata and Kishore to those of Sudhir Phadke, and Marathi Natya Sangeet too.

Dadu was my maternal uncle, my mother’s elder brother, but a father to me. I lost mine to a rheumatic heart, at two months, and grew up in my maternal grandparents’ home, lovingly supported by my two uncles – Dadu, the cricketer, and Kishore (Kandu), the shuttler. Even after retiring from active cricket, and coaching the Ranji Trophy team, Dadu coached the under-19 team for some time. Then age caught up, and athlete’s veins too, a condition that left him in great pain, making him reclusive. He remained a bachelor, wedded only to cricket and books. And, every morning, he sat in the comfy chair in the balcony, reading 3-4 newspapers, sipping from his tall glass of filter coffee. Then, inhaling a pinch of snuff, (an inheritance from my grandmother), he sneezed, and retired to his room to read or rest. When he passed away, he was a shadow of his former self, but his eyes never failed to light up, when he watched a new young cricketer dive to take a difficult catch. His close friend, Vasu Paranjpe, and his best buddy, Vithal (Marshall) Patil were there to bid him goodbye.

Dadu had played his innings well. When the time came, he returned gracefully and quietly to the pavilion. It was a privilege and blessing to have been brought up by him. He played straight. So do I:).

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The Father I Did Not Know

I cannot truly say that I do not know him. I have his blood running through my veins. I know from a couple of black and white, dog-eared photographs that I look like him. My eyes, I’ve inherited from Mother. Otherwise, I’m quite unlike her. I laugh a lot. Aloud. Drawing disapproval from Mother. She would be happier if I were more mellowed. I know that my raucousness is a paternal inheritance. At least, I like to think so.

Other than my flesh and bones and the genes, which are constant reminders of my connection with him, and the very few sepia-toned photographs, I have no memories of Father–none whatsoever. Not even of the affectionate kiss (which Mother told me about) he planted on my cheek, as he battled a rheumatic heart condition in a suburban hospital. Even in his condition, she said, he asked to see me and sat up to hold me in his arms. She wants to reassure me, I think, that in the two-month relationship we had as  father and child, he did his bit. It makes me feel good to know that he loved me, short though our association was. I have had to visualise this description in my mind’s eye to create a memory, and I have done so umpteen times, all through these years. It has now assumed the character of actual recall and I can feel the warmth of his breath and the tender brushing of his lips on my cheeks.

I think of Father often, of what I have missed. When I see a young father walking with his little daughter, her tiny hand held firmly in his, I wonder what he is saying. And when she looks up at him, secure in his love, I mourn the lack of that security, in my early life.  What is it to feel sheltered by a male parent or admonished by him? How different is a father-daughter conversation from a mother-daughter chat? I guess I shall never know. At least not firsthand.

So, I gather anecdotes about Father, from Mother, my uncles and aunts and my relatives who knew him closely, who breathed the same air as he did, who have heard his voice and laughter, and who have touched him. They have seen him live, and leave too. Prematurely. The snippets about him are like pieces of a jigsaw  puzzle, with one significant piece missing. That leaves the picture incomplete. I try to shape the missing link, to paint a portrait, but it eludes me. My quest, to get to know Father, continues. As I write this, I can’t but marvel at the fact that  he lives on, through me.

Here is a poem I wrote a few years ago:


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Embracing Wellness

I was told that she didn’t mince her words, that what you saw was what you got. I was told that she was straightforward and honest, sometimes brutally so. I like people who wear no masks. I was looking forward to meeting her. As the editor of a women’s magazine then, there had been some interaction with her through one of my colleagues. We had also featured interviews of two women, who credited her with saving their lives and who were deeply grateful to her. One had battled severe diabetes and the other was a breast cancer survivor. Both had given up hope, and so had their doctors, when they decided to consult her. Under her guidance, not only had they survived but they were also glowing with good health.

So, when I was diagnosed with GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disorder) brought on by a diet of junk food and late nights while attending a demanding theatre workshop, a friend advised me to consult Dr Vijaya Venkat. It all started with a severe throat-ache, which a local ENT surgeon diagnosed as a throat infection and prescribed antibiotics. The three-day course only worsened my condition and I was sicker than I had ever been before. I took a second opinion and was diagnosed with GERD. Now, there were other medicines to take and antacids to dunk into my system. These left a thick coating on my tongue and made me queasy. It was as if my whole system was on fire. I was a dishrag. I had no appetite for food or work. Just lifting my head from my pillow required such effort that I thought I had contracted something incurable. I approached Dr Venkat with great hope in my heart. Many were the people I knew who had turned to her in despair and returned with a life-giving blueprint in hand.

When I met her at The Health Awareness Centre (THAC) at Elphinstone Road, in Mumbai, she was sitting on a low cane stool, a diminutive figure, her fingers interlaced. The large bindi on her forehead and the stunning coral necklace with a striking Devi pendant that she wore with panache caught my eye. She beckoned me to sit, her printed silk sari making a swishing sound as her hands moved. Before I could open my mouth, she said, “Go off wheat and wheat products. All the redness on your face will go away.” I had been brought up on a diet of roti-sabzi. Bread, sooji and other derivatives of wheat were regular fare on our dining table. Wheat was staple. How could I give it up? As for my skin, I had attributed the redness to sensitivity and a tendency to break out. Not even remotely had I associated it with the wheat in my diet. I nodded meekly. As we went through my history, she paused and looked me directly in the eye. “You are an editor, aren’t you?” I nodded, not knowing what I had done wrong. “You should be more responsible. You drink three litres of water every day? Whatever for? Are you a bathroom? Are you a labourer working on the road in the hot sun? You work in air-conditioned environments. Why are you overloading your kidneys?” she chided, as a mother would her errant child. I could see the anguish in her eyes about what she perceived as unthinkable. ‘How could people do this to their bodies?’

I thought of all the articles I had read and even edited, where some expert or the other had recommended drinking 2-4 litres of water every day. I thought of all the times when I drank water even when I wasn’t thirsty just to complete the recommended quota, and moved around uncomfortably with a full bladder, often thinking that at this rate I would probably have to carry a portable toilet with me. One size didn’t fit all. How could I not have seen that? How could we subject our bodies to these excesses so blindly? I cringed, and listened intently. Dr Venkat was imparting new life lessons and I was an eager learner. Every word she said made so much sense. By the time my session with her ended, I was ready to “throw the antacids out of the window” and with it all the tinned and canned food in my larder. I was all set to review and renew my life–my food habits, my rest periods, my time out, my sleep patterns, my interaction with my loved ones, my exercise routine, my relationship with nature, the way I looked at my body, and the way I breathed.

Innocuous-looking lemon shots doused the acid in my body, like no antacid had done. With her recommended life changes, I was back on my feet in days. “Listen to your body. Pay attention to its signals,” she said, emphasising time and again not to undermine the body’s intelligence to heal itself and to rely on nature to provide us with whatever we need. “Eat local, eat seasonal,” she insisted, opening my eyes to nature’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. “Nature never looks back,” she pointed out, reminding me that when we cling to the past, we stagnate, not allowing the forces of nature to take us forward. She was refreshingly different from the dietitians and weight management consultants I had met. She was a woman with a vision. She believed that self-care was earth care. She wouldn’t tire of stressing upon the fact that we were all connected, that our every action could create harmony or discord and impact the environment.

She cared. For every person who sought her counsel, and returned with a loving hug, a broad smile, an invitation to have lunch with her, some caring, maternal scolding, a blanket open-door welcome to her centre whenever one felt like visiting and a new, vibrant outlook towards health. She was committed to wellness, not as we see it–the absence of disease-but as a state of high energy, vitality and happiness. In a world, where the cosmetic industry goes blue in the face recommending sunscreens, she taught me to befriend the sun, to meet its gaze through a green leaf. She taught me to look at my body as a whole entity and not in parts. She taught me to switch off every two hours, to let go. She taught me to stand and stare when I was struggling to achieve work-life balance. She taught me to simplify my life, to declutter my mind, to make peace with my hormones. “Hormones are for harmony,” she said. She put me in touch with my own self, a magic machine I had never paid much attention to. “There’s a Universe in us,” I remember her saying. “Follow your heart.”

As she familiarised me with the natural way of living, she also insisted I relax and not be too rigid. “God has made things for our enjoyment. Don’t feel guilty if you eat junk once in a way. Life is all about balancing,” she said. It was the most practical philosophy of life I could adhere to. Today, I’ve come a long way from the days when acid corroded my body. My life is simpler. I listened to my heart and decided to slow down. Now, I have the time to gaze at the stars, to listen to the call of the cuckoo, to watch my breath. I live with far more awareness and can’t stop wondering at the miracle that my body is. I’ve moved from curing to caring. It’s been a challenge at times, but worth every little change I made. I do go off kilter, but I always return home. I know the way back now. Today, I can enjoy a spicy vada pav without beating myself up about faltering, but I’m aware that I can’t follow it up with an orgy of fried food.

The last time I met Dr Venkat, she was at her Worli centre for a short time–Earth Mother, crusader, visionary, Amma–engaging her brood in a friendly chat. She had traversed a long journey. She had transformed innumerable lives with her healing touch. I could see that it was her turn to have some time out. Little did I know that she was listening closely to her body and that she would leave it soon. Dr Venkat leaves behind a valuable legacy, a treasure house of wisdom. It is there for whoever wants to explore life to the fullest. All it takes is an open mind, a free spirit, some discipline and commitment, and a heart full of love.



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Krishna of Konkan

I didn’t notice him as we checked in at the reception, at a resort at Kudal, in Konkan. He was standing behind us, waiting patiently for us to complete our formalities. It was only when the manager beckoned him saying, “Krishna, take their luggage to the cottage,” that I turned around and his eyes met mine. They were grey-green, like two lasers cutting through my skin and bones, right up to the core, to scan and capture what hid underneath. Taken unawares by the intensity of his gaze, I felt defenceless and exposed, but strangely, not violated. He scanned the rest of us too, as we stood still, immobilised by his scrutiny.

I couldn’t judge whether he was old or middle-aged. His wizened face had braved many seasons. It was as if he had seen all that there was to see and accumulated the wisdom of the world inside his being. Whatever he had been through had left deep creases on his forehead, and a criss-cross of lines on his face, which was more of a give-away of his journey than his palm. At the corners of his mouth, his skin formed three pairs of parentheses, which swelled into three folds, when he pursed his lips. I smiled at him and he nodded back, not saying a word. I concluded that he was around sixty years of age but as he extended his hands to lift our luggage, I saw that he was sinewy and tough, like men way younger than he looked, whose bodies are tautened by hard labour and innate ruggedness. His russet, reddish brown skin was stretched tight over his flesh. It glistened with his sweat. It was as if he was two people at the same time, what with age sitting on his face and youth surging through his blood. Not a muscle twitched on his face, but I could almost hear the turbulence raging inside him, waiting to streak his body.

He wore a weathered light blue cotton shirt, which had two bulging chest pockets, receptacles for tiny menu cards and other odd stuff, which I couldn’t see. He had folded his sleeves right up to his elbows, leaving his forearms bare and free to work without any obstruction. Below it, he wore a pair of once-white pyjamas, which rested ten inches above his ankles. He swung two of our hand bags over his shoulders and lifted two suitcases, one with each hand, with the deftness of a weightlifter. As he straightened up, the salt-pepper curls on his balding head bounced wildly. We followed him, Krishna of Konkan, half running to catch up with the man who hardly reached our shoulders, but whose strides covered incredible distance, in spite of the weight he carried.

Keeping the suitcases on the ground, he opened the cottage door with a pair of keys which hung around his neck on a thick red thread. As we settled in, I asked him, “Can we have some tea, please?” The clerk at the reception had informed us that Krishna was the one-point contact for all our needs. “Now?” he asked, irritated by my audacity to request a warm beverage when the kitchen had closed. It didn’t matter that I had reached the place after almost a 12-hour drive. I had heard about the abrasiveness of the Konkanis, but was at the receiving end of it for the first time. “No,” he said brusquely. “At 4.30 only,” he added with a finality that broke every rule of basic hospitality. I was left gaping, preparing myself for more than an hour’s wait for a simple hot beverage, which I would have prepared in my kitchen in a jiffy. It angered me to be at the mercy of a man who seemed to have no compassion for human beings with parched throats, and my holiday had only just begun!

Fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the door. I opened it to see Krishna standing with a tray holding three steaming cups of ginger tea. “I made it myself,” he said, as I took the tray from his hands and thanked him. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and I admonished myself for judging him too soon. Later, as I sat on the swing outside the cottage, I saw him uncoil a long blue pipe, attach it to a tap in the adjoining garden, and open it to water the plants. Not a drop emerged. He looked at the mouth of the pipe for only a moment and began coiling the pipe with the equanimity of a sage. He returned with large buckets filled with water and splashed it on the plants with a plastic tumbler. Soon, the garden came to life, as drops of sunlit water danced on the foliage. He disappeared for some time, and within minutes, was running from cottage to cottage carrying trays holding cups of steaming hot tea, returning to collect the emptied cups. Later, he swept the paths leading to the cottages, and collected dried leaves and the garbage littered by uncivilised guests, into a wicker basket.

“Krishnamama,” I called out. “Have you had your tea?” He looked up, surprised by my overture. Then, contemplating whether or not to answer, he waved his hand to indicate that he hadn’t. “Oh, but you must be so hungry. You’ve been working non-stop. Take a break,” I said. He looked away, hoisted the basket over his head and headed towards a large garbage bin. I couldn’t focus on the book I was reading. It was getting dark. Soon, I would be ordering dinner but I couldn’t take my mind off this human machine that chugged along with no fuel to recharge it. When he came with the dinner, he looked freshly bathed and had changed his clothes. Placing the tray on the table, he looked at me and smiled. “When will you eat?” I asked. “Later, when all the work is done,” he replied. “Krishnamama, we are early risers. Will you serve us tea at six tomorrow morning?” I asked a trifle hesitantly.  “Six?” he roared. “A man needs his sleep,” he said. “Okay, I understand. Whenever you can,” I said apologetically, guilty that I had expected a tired man to wake up at the crack of dawn. I abandoned my plan to go for a morning walk in the thickets that surrounded the resort.

At 5.45 am, the next morning, I was woken up by a loud knock on the door. There he was, Krishna, his eyes sparkling, the night having erased every trace of weariness from his face. I smiled, overwhelmed by his considerateness, amused by his oscillation between defiance and submission. In the evening, my family and I returned after a short drive, with piping hot bhajjis. Krishna was nowhere in sight. The greens were moist, the paths were clean. Then, I saw smoke rise from behind a bush and the strong smell of tobacco hit my nostrils. I could see the smoker’s shadow on the ground, the crazy curls, the jutting chin, the bulbous nose, in profile. It was Krishna enjoying a quiet moment with himself, the bidi his sole companion. I waited for him to take the last puff and stub out the bidi. “Krishnamama,” I called. “Come, join us.” He emerged from behind the bushes, surveyed the scene, a bunch of tourists sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a mound of bhajjis spread on a sheet of newspaper in front of them. Slowly, he walked towards us.

He sat on his haunches, as I offered him the bhajjis, picked a few and started chomping on them noisily, savouring every bite. He ate so fast, I could see that he had braved hunger pangs all evening while completing his chores. “Nobody asks,” he said. “Nobody. You are the first one,” he said, almost choking. “Have more, Krishnamama,” I offered. “My son, Keshav, he loves bhajjis. He lives with my wife, a hundred kilometres away. He’s studying. He’s in the tenth standard this year. I want him to be a big man. Not work like a donkey all day.” “You work really hard, Krishnamama. I haven’t seen you rest.” “What else can I do? How do I kill time? Someday, Keshav will relieve me. Saheb is good. Who else would have given me work?” he said. “Tai, at the end of the day, I have to just rest my head on the pillow and the next minute, I am fast asleep,” I remembered his words, as I tossed and turned in bed that night.

We were to check out the next morning. I tipped Krishna generously. “Buy something for Keshav,” I said. As we sat in the car, he said, “Tai, phone number.” “No, how can I give you my phone number?” I said in jest, as I wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to him. It was June, when the phone rang, one afternoon. “Tai, it’s me, Krishna,” the voice said. “Krishna, what a surprise!” I exclaimed. “Hope everything is okay,” I said. “Tai, Keshav has passed his SSC exam. He’s scored 85 per cent,” he informed me, his voice filled with pride. “That’s wonderful. Please congratulate him on my behalf. I’m touched that you’ve called,” I said, thrilled at the promise of a better life for Krishna. “Tai, I knew that you would be happy. Please tell Dada also,” he said, referring to my husband. “I will tell the whole world, Krishna. This is great news,” I said, as I ended the call.

I haven’t seen Krishna for years now. I don’t know if I ever will. Maybe, his son has managed to erase the lines from his face. Maybe, the storms raging inside his body have been stilled. Maybe he was younger than I thought he was. Maybe he’s aged since. For all his troubles, I still envied Krishna. He had the one gift that eludes so many of us. Krishna of Konkan slept soundly at night.

PS. Krishnamama passed away a couple of years ago. Last heard, his son had completed his graduation and found a job.

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Behind the Closed Door

We lived cheek by jowl in bright, roomy houses, as tenants who rented them under the then prevalent pagdi system. A weathered, wooden door separated us, and had it not been kept bolted from both sides, our houses would have merged seamlessly into one large abode. Often, I visualised myself walking into her house unannounced, the common door having been left ajar by mistake in my fantasy, a possibility that was not just remote but well-nigh impossible. I wanted to rob a slice of her brilliance, because P-maushi, as I will refer to her, was an ordinary woman, who did extraordinary things and was way ahead of the times in both thought and action. It was a feat, considering that we all belonged to the middle-class. We flaunted our outdated values and puffed our chests out proudly while clinging to obsolete ideas. She was among the few of us who questioned, who spoke out, and who sprang into action, while we allowed our unquestioning acceptance of the customary to keep us afloat or be our undoing.

As a child, I suspected that there was some secret force that made her so dynamic, something unknown to me that gave her the dash of a warrior. I clamped my ear on the door to listen to the sounds and voices that were created behind it and tried to make sense of what I couldn’t see.  Apart from gathering that there was something revolutionary going on, I couldn’t make much of the garbled utterances. The door, though not impregnable, played censor, allowing selected little to escape through the fissure in it. Once, I heard a male voice scream followed by a woman’s desperate sobbing. It prompted me to try to unbolt the door to assist P-maushi in any rescue that I surmised would ensue. Mother caught me in the act, tweaking my ears and ruing that despite all her efforts to groom me into a proper, well-mannered girl, I had turned out to be a shameless eavesdropper. She wasn’t perturbed about the crying, which had grown louder now. “It’s her actor friends rehearsing a play,” she said dismissively. Though disappointed that my furious attempts to unbolt the door in a rush of blood were in vain, I apologised for my misbehaviour. But, despite Mother’s warnings, my misconduct continued for I wanted to know how, while we were busy propitiating the Gods, P-maushi was out on the streets playing saviour.

She wasn’t always like this. Mother never tired of telling me that for all her erudition as an academician, P-maushi had never been devoted to scholastic pursuits. Mother knew. She and P-maushi were classmates. Both P-maushi and Mother lived in their maiden homes—Mother, because of her early widowhood and P-maushi by choice, even after her marriage to a handsome, bearded Brahmin professor, who I addressed as B-kaka. Her flouting of convention became fodder for gossip.

This memory surfaced the day her name appeared in every leading newspaper. “Social activist withdraws case after futile battle,” the headlines screamed. P-maushi had filed a criminal writ petition in the Bombay High Court against the rabble-rousing nephew of a self-styled saviour of a regional community, also the founder of an ethnocentric political party, christened by his fawning followers as the ‘Emperor of Hindu hearts’. Months earlier, the mysterious death of R. K. had rocked Bombay. R. K. was a gentle, ordinary middle class man, who lived as a tenant with his wife and only son, in a building that was diagonally opposite the one where P-maushi and I lived. When asked to vacate the premises by the landlord, he had refused. Unfazed, the furious landlord had approached the goons in the regional political party to browbeat R. K. into submission. R. K. was later found dead in a cinema theatre in Pune, and his wife alleged the hand of the nephew in what was now suspected to be murder. Moved by R. K.’s widow’s plight and her lone struggle to get justice for her slain husband, P-maushi had incited the neighbourhood and approached a local doctor to conduct a second post mortem on R. K.’s body. Armed with the report, which conclusively proved murder, she had taken on the political powers of the state. Her efforts had led the court to direct the government to hand over the investigations to the CBI.

The withdrawal, which came after the CBI’s clean chit to the nephew, was most unexpected, given the conviction with which P-maushi had filed the petition. I’m not sure whether it was her helpless acceptance of a corroded system that made her retract her militant stance or some merit she saw in the judgment. I hope it wasn’t the former, because if I ever wrote an intrepid word, it was because I had watched P-maushi from the side-lines, and fought many a battle vicariously through her. It was P-maushi who awakened me to the mutinous in my being and any such resignation on her part was unacceptable to me.

P-maushi’s house was out of bounds for most. She hung handwritten boards outside her main door that said in Marathi, “Kaamashivaay bell vaaajvu naye,” which meant, “Do not ring the bell, if you have no specific work with us.” Sometimes, it only said, “Do not disturb”. The message was loud and clear: “Stay out of my hair”.  Neighbours took it as a personal affront. They felt that by cordoning them out of her house, P-maushi was suggesting that they were lesser mortals. Being Mother’s daughter, P-maushi was affectionate towards me.

Every vacation, when her niece, Kamini, came to stay with her, she craned her neck over the wall that separated our adjacent balconies and called out to Mother. “Kamini is arriving tomorrow. Do send Archu over to play with her. The child gets very lonely, otherwise,” she would request. Mother would agree and even remind me before going off to work that I was now duty-bound to entertain her friend’s niece. Not that I minded. I liked Kamini, and being invited to P-maushi’s house made me feel privileged.

Two more factors made the visits alluring. One was the tall glass of chilled coffee P-maushi served us along with freshly prepared savouries. P-maushi’s culinary expertise matched her aptitude for rebellion. She could make a mean crab rassa with such spice-sorcery that it could make a master chef look like the cook you had in your college hostel mess. The other was P-maushi’s overflowing library. Works of English and Marathi literary giants occupied the top shelves along with tomes on politics, philosophy, history, theatre, poetry and various other subjects. Copies of Aesop’s Fables, Akbar and Birbal, The Panchatantra, and other children’s books stood in neat rows on its lower shelves, making it easy for Kamini and me to sit cross-legged on the floor and browse through them. Once, P-maushi allowed me to take home a hardbound copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that had a bright yellow cover. I did not return the book. Neither of us mentioned it, and I conveniently read her temperance as permission to keep the book.

Over the years, P-maushi acquired the reputation of being an atheist. She lambasted those who propagated superstition and castigated religious zealots in her powerful articles. Her rationalism was an attribute she acquired over the years. I was awestruck at her will to discard what she must have come to regard as dispensable, after weighing her conformation to the beliefs she held against her experiential knowledge that egged her on to abandon them.

P-maushi was childless. During the month of Chaitra, around March-April, she invited me and other girls in our neighbourhood over to her house for Kanya Puja, the worship of Goddess Durga. She took us through an elaborate ritual of washing our feet, applying haldi-kumkum on our foreheads and showering rice on our heads. Though I was a patient ceremonial candidate, it was the food I waited for—a plateful of chana, puris, sweet sheera and a glass of green panha, a sour-sweet beverage made of raw mangoes and flavoured with cardamom, which cooled my body and healed me in some unknown way. P-maushi also gifted us bright chunris, colourful glass bangles, some money as dakshina and a coconut. The money was a bonus in days when I had none. I spent it on buying jeera golis and chocolates. Mother once remarked, “I hope God fills her womb with a child. She’s been performing this puja for years now.” I concluded as I grew up that P-maushi’s uncharacteristic acquiescence to perform the appeasement ceremonies may have been a result of a close one’s pressure; or she may have turned her back on God, as she began changing gradually, discarding the unwanted and unsavoury.

I remember, she wore only printed silk saris then and her matching, well-cut blouses were almost always sleeveless, a fashion statement that was nothing short of audacious, during a time when covering up was mandatory. Her hair was styled into a short bob; she painted her lips mauve, wore low-heeled sandals and striking accessories. I would be playing with my friends, when she would leave for work. She taught Marathi Literature in a reputed college. “P-maushi,” I would call out. For all her aversion to small talk, she would smile, cup my chin with her right palm and ask, “How are you?” Sometimes, she enquired, “Why were you crying last night?” and I lowered my eyelids, embarrassed and angry that the door between us wasn’t guarding my privacy, as fiercely as it was preserving hers.

At some point, P-maushi stopped cutting her hair. It started growing longer and longer and with such haste that within months it snaked right down to her buttocks. She started twisting it into a tight, functional bun. She stopped applying lipstick, making her full lips look dry and dull. She replaced her resplendent silk saris with coarse white or pastel cotton ones and switched to wearing white, sleeved blouses with them. The only accessories she wore now were a red bindi, a simple black mangalsutra, two tiny pearl earrings, a thick glass bangle and a wristwatch. She had stopped performing the Kanya Puja years ago and the reminder of her pampering made me wistful, when the month of Chaitra arrived. I moved to the suburbs after my marriage, and all but lost touch with P-maushi. But, I followed her life closely—through her fiery speeches against regional parties, her radical political ideology, her scholarly reviews of Marathi plays and books, her scathing articles against the Devadasi system, her condemnation of the criminal-politician nexus and her feminism—all of which found a mention in local newspapers. Her activism ensured that she constantly rubbed those in power the wrong way. The victims of her wrath raked her over the coals in public, particularly, the leader whose nephew she had taken on. She grappled with threats from known and unknown quarters with a nonchalance that only the fearless can muster.

As P-maushi began to grow in stature, Mother stopped referring to her past academic setback. I could see whole-hearted appreciation of her classmate’s achievements in her eyes. I met P-maushi a couple of times in the later years. They were chance encounters at women’s empowerment seminars. She pulled me close to her chest and hugged me. A few years ago, I ignored the board outside her main door and rang the doorbell. I needed her opinion on an issue I was writing on. B-kaka opened the door and led me inside to the familiar living room. P-maushi was lying down on a chatai, reading a book. She looked up, frowning at the intrusion, but in an instant, the tension on her forehead eased and she smiled warmly. “It’s been so long,” she said, and asked me about my family, Mother and my work.

We chatted for some time. I looked around the room, at the peeling plaster on the walls, the bright curtains, the library which was sparsely populated now and the wrinkles on P-maushi’s face. This was the very room in which P-maushi had planned the escape of one of her friends who had become a fugitive during The Emergency. Had it gone according to plan, the friend would have escaped through the common door that separated our houses. After a while, P-maushi got up, using her hands for support, and excused herself. She returned from the kitchen with a tall glass of cold coffee. I took slow sips, inhaling the aroma. Some things never change.

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