Hira’s Earrings

There was a time when you could travel by local train, in Mumbai, during non-peak hours, without having to resort to dazzling devilry or to employ the speed, strength or agility of a long jumper to hurl yourself inside the compartment, before the train halted at the station. During one of my commutes to my college to attend afternoon lectures, I managed to find a seat near a window, the perfect setting to open a book and get sucked into an unknown world with the breeze teasing my hair. There were the usual distractions—the vendors peddling cheap goods, outshouting each other, their voices mingling to form an incomprehensible chorus. It was as if a street-side market had gate-crashed the urban serpent’s den, with its smells, wares, quarrels, colours and sounds in tow, and let loose its unrestrained disorder to test your endurance. Whether the peddlers sold oranges or clips or pins, they ended their pitch with a hiss that settled deep inside your ears. A lady selling hair pins would go, “Aa pinaa le bai…pinakssssssssss…” and the one selling oranges too would end her pitch with a similar fizz, “Santrakssssssssss…..” The hissing, I concluded, was a time-tested buyer magnet, applicable to all and sundry goods, irrespective of the concluding sound of their syllables. Then, there were the urchins, with their snot-filled noses, cracked bare feet and earth-caked faces, whose songs rose from their guts, and had lyrics which assured you that if you gave them a paisa, the Almighty would give you 10 lakh rupees. They also sang other devotional songs with their eyes glued to the fans whirring on the roof.  With dexterity that comes from practice, their fingers tapped two flat pieces of stones on each other, producing a rat-a-tat-rat-a-tat sound that grated on the nerves. But, the hope on their faces made the rattling tolerable, if not pleasant.

Soon, the cacophony faded into the background as the book captured my attention. A page into the book, and I felt a shadow slide on the seat opposite, which had been empty till then. I continued reading, but had a distinct feeling of being watched. I was averse to any possibility of being lured away from the story. “Tai, pina legi? Will you buy my pins?” a voice disturbed my focus. I looked up, my face frozen, unwilling to respond. “Bahut padhai hai kya? Do you have a lot to study?” she probed. I would have looked away, had it not been for her smile. It was a warm, ear-to-ear stretch that could soften the sternest, and I proved no exception. She’d probably gauged that my reticence was a mask. “I don’t need hair pins,” I replied politely. “But, you have thick hair. Look how it’s flying all over. See how dishevelled it looks,” she remarked, as she opened the box that was placed on top of three other cardboard boxes, that rested on her lap. She was sitting cross-legged on the seat, her orange printed sari bunched up between her legs, and her pink plastic slippers lying at odd angles to each other on the floor. Her skin was chocolate brown, her lips were full, and her hair was twisted into a bun. Her eyes darted here and there looking for potential customers. Her wrists were filled with green glass bangles that made a jingling sound, as her hands moved. Rummaging in her box, she brought out three pairs of gaudy hair pins that I knew I wouldn’t wear. She insisted that I make her first purchase. “Bhavani karo na!” By then, I had shut my book. “How much?” I asked and bought a pair. She beamed and kissed the money. As she turned towards the window, I saw them—five earrings, tiny golden tops that lined her outer ear, from the earlobe to the helix, the largest one adorning her lobe and four identical ones, with different coloured surfaces, embellishing her outer ear, at intervals. The needles of light they flashed beckoned me to stare unblinkingly at them. “Acchche hai na? They’re lovely, aren’t they?” she asked. I looked away quickly, embarrassed at being caught. “They’re beautiful,” I replied. “But, your ears are punctured at so many spots! How did you bear the pain?” I asked, remembering that the possible agony had prevented me from following the multiple earring trend. “Yes, it did. But, I ate all the right things. I didn’t eat dal. So, the pain went away soon. Besides, I love wearing them. I wear them even though my ears bleed when my husband beats me up,” she revealed.

“Your husband beats you? How dare he? How do you allow it? Go to the police. They’ll lock him up,” I thundered. “Kuch faida nahi. It’s of no use,” she said with an air of resignation. “Where do you live?” I asked. “In Mulund, near the highway,” she answered. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Hira,” she replied, and flashed the smile that had ensnared me. As she got up, I noticed the soft swell of her stomach. “Pet se hoon. I’m pregnant,” she confided. By the time she moved along the aisle, luring other commuters, I had warmed up to her. ‘What if her husband beat her up again?’ I worried, wondering how to help her.

I met her on my subsequent train journeys to college, and ended up buying a dozen pairs of jazzy clips, which never held my hair together. Her stomach was growing and I cringed as I watched her squeeze herself through the sometimes crowded aisle. One fine day, she disappeared.  I knew that she was three months away from her delivery date. ‘Where had she gone? Was she alive? Where would I look for her?’ I saw her after a month, her face gaunt, her skin robbed of its sap, her eyes large black wells, and her hair poky and dry like straw. She managed a weak smile. I reached out to hold her hand and invited her to sit next to me. She waddled towards me, the child-woman, her face lined by creases I hadn’t seen before. Something was very wrong. Then, it dawned on me. Hira’s earrings were gone. They had left bloody impressions of the screws that fastened them, behind the inner groove of her outer ears, where they had been embedded by brute force. Her husband had beaten her again. “I will find out where you live. I’ll lodge the police complaint myself,” I threatened. “Tai,” she said, sobbing. “I don’t care if he beats me. I‘m used to it now. But, my earlobe tore when he beat me, and I can’t live without my earrings,” she mumbled, breaking down. Her vanity, in the face of a threat to her very existence, stupefied me.

I didn’t meet Hira for months after that and managed to read a few books in the train. I thought of her often. One day, she walked in, her hands balancing the usual four boxes. Curled up inside a cloth sling carrier that she wore diagonally across her shoulder snuggled her new-born, its tiny feet with its ten perfect toes peeping out. On spotting me, she hurried towards me. “Careful,” I cautioned. I peered into the carrier to find a sleeping angel, oblivious to the hissing in the train. “Ladki hai, it’s a girl,” She informed me. Congratulations! She’s lovely,” I said. “He wasn’t happy, my mard. He wanted a boy. But, I’m happy. Laxmi… Her name is Laxmi,” she informed me, laughing. As she turned, there was the familiar flash. The earrings were back! That wasn’t the only reason for Hira’s joy. While gazing at Laxmi’s face, I had noticed two golden dots on her tiny earlobes. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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A Tall Story

The doorbell rang at an unusual hour that day. In a house that followed a rigid time-table, a visitor at that hour was a cause for much speculation and some alarm. Running to the door, a child then, and raising my toes to reach the bolt that secured it, I opened the little window on the main door to see who had arrived. Three white buttons stared at me from the starched canvas of a milky white garment on which rested two hands clasped together, with the fingers—long drumsticks—entwining each other, in expectation. Craning my neck through the grill that separated our worlds, I peered at a figure whose maleness I could make out from the shaved skin and a prominent heavy jaw. I could see the man’s oval nostrils, the network of tiny hair inside and the shadow of a pair of spectacles perched on his nose. By the time I contemplated on the identity and antecedents of the visitor, Grandmother arrived, pulled me aside gently and verified his credentials. “It’s you,” she exclaimed. “What a pleasant surprise. Please come in, Achyutbhavaji,” she said, not sounding very welcoming and making every effort to mask her unintentional frost. ‘Bhavaji’ is a term of kinship generally used for a brother-in-law and otherwise a semi-formal form of address for male acquaintances who are not related.

I waited in anticipation as I saw a Gandhi-cap-clad head bow under the door with care and a human tower enter and straighten its spine. When he stood erect, I had to throw my neck back to take in his face, a geometrical framework that had more angles than arcs. His head almost touched the ceiling. When he smiled, his cheeks formed triangular projections. What dazzled me was his skin. It was as if the sun had lingered long on his face to illuminate it. His black vertical caste mark divided his forehead into two equal halves, and disappeared into his hair like a smooth tar road venturing into a thicket. It was punctuated by a dot just above the bridge of his nose, sitting there like a third eye, a passive witness. His hands now held the snowy folds of his dhoti, as he stepped into the living room, where Grandfather, whose afternoon siesta had been interrupted, had sat up to greet him. “What brings you here today? All well, I hope?” he asked, as Achyutbhavaji lowered his frame on to the sofa, his bones poking the Rexene upholstery where they made contact. I lowered my chin which had been poised in the air till then, relaxed my eyebrows and rubbed the nape of my neck. Achyutbhavaji’s radiance ignited the room.

Pausing, he closed his eyes. “Its my son,” he said, as I saw his body contract into itself, the bones shrink, the stomach fold in, the shoulders droop and the cheeks sag. His voice was a whisper. “He’s wasting away. Does nothing. He’s ill. Needs surgery. You know my condition, Bhavaji. Though he’s troubled me ever since he was born, I have to save him.” “How much money do you need, Achyut?” Grandfather asked, even as silence greeted him, and went to his room, returning with an envelope. “Can’t thank you enough, Bhavaji! You are most kind,” Achyutbhavaji said, his words gushing out, as if energised by the donation. After seeing him to the door, Grandfather promptly made a note of his benevolence in a diary that was a mathematical maze.

Over the years, when winter set in, Achyutbhavaji visited us, waxing and waning on our sofa, sometimes a half moon, and at others, a proud crescent. Grandmother didn’t take too kindly to his visits, chiding Grandfather for his recurring generosity, though both knew it was a charade. After every visit and every note, two pages of Grandfather’s diary carried the numerical footprints of Achyutbhavaji’s needs. One day, Grandmother, rather perturbed about some considerable imminent expenses, despite which Grandfather had made one more donation to Achyutbhavaji, told him off, “The rate at which you are giving money to this man, we’ll have nothing left. He’s come at least six times in the last two years. Hasn’t returned a paisa yet, and you keep giving.” “Calm down, Radha, he is a God-fearing man, troubled by life. What can he do?” Grandfather pacified Grandmother.

Years passed. Winters came and went. Grandfather’s donation page saw no more additions. I was taller and older. One early morning, the bell rang. I opened the little window on the main door and was greeted by three white buttons. It took me just a second to recollect who they belonged to. I opened the door and announced Achyutbhavaji’s arrival. “How are you my child?” he asked and I smiled at him, strangely happy to see him again. He was in his usual spotless dhoti-kurta. There was one addition. A cloth bag, a jhola, that hung on his right shoulder. Grandmother was cooking. She turned and knitted her eyebrows, her face a mixture of surprise and caution. As Achyutbhavaji sipped the coffee that Grandmother served him, I noticed that the plastic buttons on his kurta looked different. They were emitting a golden light. Savouring the dregs, he emptied the large steel glass, and placed it on the peg table, standing next to the sofa. Slowly, with a deliberation uncharacteristic of him, he brought out a weathered diary. Nesting between its pages sat a long, brown envelope. As he pulled it out and offered it to Grandfather, his spine stretched, his neck lengthened and he grew taller and larger. “What is this, Achyut?” Grandfather asked. “Please take it. I should have returned it long back, but what can one do against misfortune?” he replied. As Grandfather opened the envelope, Achyutbhavaji leaned forward, his torso folding into two bony segments, and held the open diary before Grandfather’s eyes. “Every paisa I took from you, it’s all written here. You are a kind man. Like God, you helped me,” he sobbed and wiped his eyes with the corner of his dhoti. By then, Grandfather had checked the contents of the envelope. Before he could react, Grandmother said, “Bhavaji, we cannot accept the money. Please take it back.” Grandfather thrust the envelope back into Achyutbhavaji’s bag, even as he tried to stop him.

“I won the lottery. Twenty-five thousand rupees,” he explained. “I was tired of borrowing and begging. One day, I bought three tickets from the Maharashtra Rajya Lottery stall. I prayed hard. God took mercy on me. This was the last debt I wanted to repay. I can die in peace now,” he said and rose. The sun shone brighter on his face. “You should have taken the money,” he repeated, as Grandfather saw him to the door, and Grandmother waved him goodbye. We had no visitors that winter.


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The beggar who left me speechless

It was Thursday. I was at my study table in the balcony completing my homework. The clock on the wall, which my grandmother set half an hour ahead of the actual time, displayed 9.30. It was a regular morning at Matunga, where I grew up. The sour aroma of dosas being cooked in several houses in the neighbourhood permeated the air. Kolams (decorative artwork drawn on the floor in front of deities in puja rooms or in front of houses), made of rice flour, sprang up outside the main doors of the neighbouring apartments, their intricate patterns livening up the locality. At a neighbour’s house, M. S. Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam was playing a trifle late in the day, on a turntable. In the predominantly South Indian, Tamil Brahmin locality, rising after 6 am was unbecoming. If M. S. would have known that her rendition was played so many hours after sunrise, she may have objected to such deviant behaviour.

Despite the buzz of the diurnal activities, stillness settled upon the locality, punctured sporadically by the cries of hawkers on their daily rounds. There were Batlibais (two old women who bought your old glass bottles for a nominal price and who had timed their respective arrivals in the locality in such a way that their interests didn’t clash), the Chaaku-dhaarwala (the bearded man who walked with a manually operated knife-sharpening machine on his back and who restored the sharp edges of blunt knives), the Chana-sengwala (the middle-aged migrant from Uttar Pradesh, who was always clad in a spotless white, starched kurta pyjama, and who slouched under the weight of a large deep blue Rexene sack filled with puffed rice, peanuts and chick peas), the Phoolwala (vending a basket full of roses, white ginger lilies and asters), and other nomadic merchants.

Then, there were the beggars. They were so punctual and organised it seemed they held secret meetings to time their arrivals and departures to avoid a clash of interests. This, in spite of the fact that they were competing for free food and essentials. They showed up on their appointed day at the appointed hour, stood under the balconies of the houses and announced their arrival. Housewives waited for their calls to dispense with the leftovers. The large-hearted ones also added a portion of freshly cooked food to the donation. As I began filling up my school bag that day, I heard the familiar, “Aaaaaaaaaaaa”, a prolonged pronouncement of the sound of the alphabet ‘a’ as it is pronounced in the word ‘apple’. It shattered the morning calm. It was followed by similar pronouncements, each one louder than the previous one. I got up from my seat despite grandmother’s warning: “What is there to see? That fellow comes every Thursday. Haven’t you seen him before? Interrupting your studies like that!” I ignored her admonishment and looked down.

The moment he saw me he let out another “Aaaaaaaaaaa.” That’s all he could speak. Everyone knew him as the mute beggar. He was thin, his arms almost touching his knees, his fingers curling inward to make a bowl of his palm. He raised the palm to his mouth, joining the tips of his fingers to form a cone and touched his lips repeatedly to indicate he was hungry. I saw the toe of his right foot peeping out of the large hole in his shoe. On the other was a rubber slipper whose straps were held in place by a thin rope. He wore a muddy, sleeved vest and what looked like a lungi that had been pulled up and secured at the waist to resemble a pair of shorts. When his gesticulation had no effect on me, he looked around to check if people in the neighbouring apartments had responded to his call and come out to the balconies. Disappointed, he let out another “Aaaaaaaaaaaa” and resumed his miming. Straightening his palm and holding it parallel to the ground, he pulsed it first at the waist level, then at the hip level and then, bending low, at the level of his knees. He joined the thumb and forefinger of his other hand, stretched out the remaining three fingers and waved the hand in front of my eyes. The other hand touched his lips again. This was a regular feature and it never failed to provoke me to act.

I ran to my grandmother, pulled her arm and cajoled her. “Please, Mamama, give the beggar 10 paise at least. His three little children are hungry.” Ten paise may not have been a princely sum in those days, but you could buy a loaf of bread with it. “The rate at which we give money to these beggars, they will get used to all the pampering and never work,” grandmother chided, but handed over the 10 paise to me. “That lout is lazy. So what if he’s dumb? His hands and legs are perfectly fine. He just doesn’t want to use them. This is the last time I’m giving him alms,” she warned. I threw the 10 paise coin down and the beggar caught it with both his hands, touched the coin to his forehead, and joining his hands in a namaste, walked away.

A week passed. Thursday arrived again. Realising that we needed bread, grandmother gave me some money to fetch it from the Irani café down the road. I knew there would be some change left after buying the loaves. I decided to save 10 paise from the leftover money and give it to the dumb beggar when he arrived, as I was sure grandmother would not be goaded into being generous, now that her mind was made up about not encouraging the beggar’s sloth. When I reached the café, a familiar figure was already at the counter, where the owner sat on a tall stool either directing people to the tables or handing over bread, chocolates, biscuits, toast, and other confectionery, on demand. The man stood with his back to me. I saw him remove a coin from a bag I had seen for years and which I recognised, and hand it over to the owner. “Baad mein mat poocho, paisa hai kya. Pehle hi de raha hoon… (Don’t ask me later if I have the money. I’m giving it to you in advance),” he said, as he kept the four-anna coin on the counter. “Ek pechhial chai aur brun maska… (One special tea and buttered bread),” he ordered.

It couldn’t be, I thought. How could two people look so similar? Maybe they were twins. But, as the man walked towards the table, I saw his toe peeping out of the shoe, the black nail taunting me. I saw the rope that held his slipper together on his other foot. His clothes were thickened by layers of dirt. So was his skin. He was a mass of grey. He settled down on a chair and placed his bag on the floor. Raising his arm, he called out to the waiter. I forgot that I was on an errand. I vacillated between disbelief and realisation. To think that I was going to steal a coin from the leftover money and invite my grandmother’s wrath and betray her trust to help a cheat!

“Baby, kya chahiye? What do you want?” the owner, who knew me well, asked. I stared at him dumbstruck. “Haan, baby, bolo, tell me,” he repeated. Shaken out of my stupor, I mumbled something, my eyes still on the beggar, who was breaking pieces of the hard bread, dipping them in the tea and wolfing them down. Suddenly, he looked up and our eyes met. They were the same grey eyes that had implored me into being beneficent, a week ago. Fear gripped me. ‘He knows that I know’, I thought. Either he hadn’t recognised me or pretended that he hadn’t. He held the saucer in which he had poured the tea with both his hands, lifted it to his lips and slurped away. I ran out of the café holding the brown paper package that held the bread loaves, and didn’t stop till I reached home. I filled my schoolbag and sat at my desk to read. “Aaaaaaaaaaaa,” I heard the beggar ululate, after a few minutes. I froze. He howled again. I continued reading, trying not to pay attention. Surprised at my seeming composure, grandmother asked me, “Why are you so quiet today?” “I’m studying, Mamama. What is there to talk?” I mustered, as I pressed my lips tight, and felt the colour rise to my cheeks.

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The masseuse with stars in her eyes

She waddled in, as she’d promised me, a day after Ira was brought home, a week-old mewling with vocal cords which, when stretched, could beat the decibel levels of a siren.  Ira and her mother needed a masseuse for post-natal recovery and my inquiries had revealed that she was the best in the neighbourhood. “Book her immediately. She is in great demand,” a neighbour warned. “Just tell the watchman. He will know where to contact her. Don’t haggle. She’s worth every rupee you will pay. Her hands work like magic,” she added. The reverence with which she spoke of her convinced me that the masseuse was an other-worldly creature, who went by the earthly name of Maalan. Everyone called her Maalan Maushi (aunt).

My doorbell rang the day Ira was born and was still at the maternity hospital. Outside the door stood a mountain of a woman. She had covered her head with the pallu of her sari. One would have expected a larger head, considering that I couldn’t have measured her girth by encircling both my hands around her waist. Her breasts rested on her stomach whose layers settled on each other with ease. She looked like a woman who had borne and nursed a hundred children. Her feet would have attracted many a Chinese man. They were like those of a little child that hadn’t taken its first steps yet—unaffected by the weight of her body. Her eyes conveyed mixed messages. They were sunk deep into their sockets and the half moons under them cast shadows that stretched down to her cheeks, creating an aura of sadness. But, her pupils emitted a strange light that seemed to hold the knowledge of the world and that made you want to look deeper. She could be an enchantress, I thought, as I opened the door and welcomed her, relieved that the lady had sought me out while I had spent restless days thinking of how to trap her before the competition did. The watchman had kept his word: “I’ll send her, madam, don’t worry,” he had promised.

“Water,” she said, before I could ask her to sit. “It’s too hot outside.” “Sure. Will you have some juice?” I ventured. “No, no, no, no,” her words looped, as if I had offered her poison. “Some tea, then?” I asked, expecting a tirade. “Yes, tea should be good, but do add enough milk,” she instructed. ‘So, this is how her magic works,’ I thought, as I hustled inside to brew some tea. As she sipped the ginger tea from a sunny, yellow mug that held a generous quantity, she smiled. Never have I been prouder of my tea-making ability. “I charge but I deliver. You won’t find a masseuse like me anywhere. Ask around. All the new mothers will tell you how I have firmed their sagging stomachs. Fat just melts under my hands,” she declared, slurping away. “Yes, of course,” I acknowledged. “You will soon see,” she seemed to threaten. “I’ll be there the day the baby and mother arrive home,” she assured me. Grunting, she heaved herself up, cupping her knees with both her palms, bracing herself for the discomfort that showed on her face, before her knees experienced it. I heard them creak and pop. She was, I surmised, around 64 years of age. “I’m not young any more. I’ve crossed 60. My knees have started giving me trouble,” she informed me, grimacing. I was right. As I extended my hand to help her, she stretched out her palm to stop me. “I will manage. Nothing has affected my work. You will see,” she assured me, and swaying from side to side, her buttocks creating their own rhythm, she thumped her way to the door.

A week later, she sat in the nursery scrutinising little Ira’s face. “She’s dark. But, don’t you worry. Three months in my hands are enough to change her complexion,” she declared. “It’s okay, she takes after her father,” I remarked, annoyed at the masseuse’s colour prejudice. “What do you know?” she thundered. “Men want fair wives. We can’t take chances,” she struck me down and asked for baby oil. “You’ve got this brand?” she thundered. “Doctors don’t recommend it anymore. It’s got a chemical that ruins the baby’s skin. I’ll use it today but it’s risky. Get olive oil tomorrow. If you don’t believe me, ask the lady paediatrician at the hospital. Dr Kane. She is the best. She also knows about me. It’s because of the two of us that the babies in this complex are healthy,” she boasted. I know when not to argue. Nodding my head, I handed Ira over to Maalan Maushi. The infant howled and wet her sari. “Ha, ha, haaaaa! Maalan Maushi guffawed. See how clever she is! She knows her mother will gift me a new sari. This is a good omen,” she said. Ira went on protesting as Maalan Maushi’s hands glided over her tiny, hairy little body, arching it like a little dolphin. The bath was an ordeal, punctuated as it was by Ira’s cries and Maushi’s ha-ha’s.

As she wiped Ira dry, Maushi fell silent. I didn’t know what to expect. “You know, I love massaging little babies. I was born to do this. I’m sure it goes back to another life. I know every muscle, every nook and every crevice of the human body so well. My hands move on their own. My mother used to tell me that, as a child, I would go to neighbouring houses and massage and bathe newborns,” she boasted. Instantly, she kindled my interest in life after life.

Then, taking a deep breath, she said, “I smile, but my heart cries.” Her voice was a whisper. She was powdering Ira’s body now, after reprimanding me to replace the brand of the talcum powder I had bought for the baby. I waited. “You know, every time I massage a little girl’s body, I remember my eldest daughter. How I held her gently and massaged her with love pouring out of my hands. My husband was a useless alcoholic. I brought her up with no support, got her married,” she revealed. “Where is she now?” I asked. The light in her eyes dimmed. “Tai, her husband turned out to be a monster. The day I went to fetch her home, she immolated herself before I could reach her house,” she wailed, wiping her eyes with the edge of her pallu. I placed my hand on her arm. By now, she had clothed Ira and was swaddling her. The infant was already puckering its lips, wanting to be fed. Handing her over to her mother, she said, “After my daughter’s death, I decided that I will not be an ordinary masseuse. I will use my hands to make girls strong. My massage will give them sturdy bones and nerves of steel. They will never suffer at the hands of their husbands,” she bellowed.

I looked at Maushi with new-found respect. Here was a masseuse whose craft had a larger purpose. Who would have connected a regular massage with social activism? As Maushi wiped her feet, I asked her if she would have lunch with us. “No, no. The food is ready. My son’s eldest daughter cooks for all of us. Six of us live under one roof. My son, his wife, and their three daughters. The eldest is a graduate,” she informed, her face lighting up. “That’s wonderful Maushi,” I remarked. “Yes, I want to educate them all. They won’t become masseuses like me or cook in other people’s houses like their mother. Not that these are bad jobs. God knows that they feed us and keep us alive,” she said looking up at the ceiling, expressing her gratitude. “One must move up in life,” she advised me, the light in her eyes, shining bright now. I nodded, tongue-tied in the face of Maushi’s wisdom. I saw her to the door. As she slipped her feet into her rubber slippers, she spoke. “I have bought a moped for my daughter-in-law. It saves so much of her time and energy. She manages to cook in more number of houses that way. My granddaughter manages the house in our absence. The moment I reach home she will heat the food in the microwave. We will eat and I will have my afternoon nap. I’m done for the day. Have been out since six-thirty.” As the doors of the lift closed, Maushi waved. I waved back, admonishing myself for being so taken aback by her revelations, especially her initiative to harness technology to make her family’s life easier.

A week later, having come to know that I was a journalist, she threw a volley at me. “Do you know Aishwarya Rai? You are a paperwalli na?” “Maushi, I’m not a paperwalli. I edit a women’s magazine,” I corrected her. “And, I know of Aishwarya Rai. But, I have never met her. Why do you ask?” I replied. “Can you please find out when she is due? She is expected to deliver soon. So beautiful she is! What an actress! I have seen three of her films,” she said. “But, how does that concern us, Maushi?” I asked. Her eyes flashed. She looked at me with the scorn reserved for the dim-witted. “Why don’t you understand? I would like to massage her and her newborn. It is unfortunate that I live here, so far away from her house. She lives in Juhu, doesn’t she?” she asked, her face reflecting her disappointment at the distance between her and Aishwarya Rai’s abodes. As I gaped at her, she said, “If you can get her phone number, I will call her up and speak to her. I tell you, had I been living in Juhu, Amitabh Bachchan would have definitely called for me to massage his grandchild. God knows who will massage them now, the poor souls.”

I think I was turned to stone for a moment. I remember not being able to blink or open my mouth or breathe. I didn’t know whether to laud the lady’s cockiness or strike it down. I wasn’t sure it wasn’t her faith in the magic in her hands that was making her want to reach the stars, in this case, literally. “Well…er…ahem…I cleared my throat, took a deep breath and struggled to find words. “I won’t promise you Maushi, but I will try,” I ventured, knowing well I would do nothing of the sort. No, I did not want to come between Aishwarya Rai and Maushi. Nor did I think that the meeting was improbable. In a world of infinite possibilities, anything can happen. My motives were more sinister. I did not want Aishwarya Rai to come between Ira and Maushi. If Aishwarya and Maushi discovered each other, the latter would abandon us. Where then would I find another masseuse who would strengthen Ira’s bones and give her nerves of steel?

Ira is a three-and-a-half-year-old dark, wiry, lovely little bundle of energy now. Maushi has massaged many more babies and their mothers since. The last time I met her she had moved to a newly-bought apartment. “I got it cheap, for just a few lakhs. A proper flat it is, with three rooms. It is now under the Gram Panchayat. In a few years, it will come under the jurisdiction of the Thane Municipal Corporation. Then, its cost will go into crores. It is a good investment. The three of us—my son, daughter-in-law and I—we will pay off the loans soon.” “Great to hear that, Maushi,” I replied, as I watched her limp on to yet another house. “One must move up in life,” she had advised. I raised my hand to salute her. Only, she didn’t see it.

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The proud father

He is not the regular cabbie who ferries me to work. That day, he was standing-in for his friend, the cabbie who drops me to work every morning. When he greeted me, his words tumbled out all together, and as his body sank into the driver’s seat, his stomach almost touching the steering wheel, I swear the cab shook. His hair stood up, as if pulled against gravity by a magnet. His thick glasses added an owl-like expression to his face, as he looked into the rear-view mirror while conversing with me. I don’t remember asking him anything. I wanted to be left alone. But, when a reckless biker intercepted us dangerously from the left, I heard a volley of abuses spewing from the cabbie’s mouth. Embarrassed that his tirade may have revolted me, he was quick to apologise: “I’m a decent man, Madamji: I’m a Jat. I never speak like this, but didn’t you see how the biker drove? What if I hadn’t applied the brakes on time? He would have died, and I would have been jailed for no fault of mine.” “I understand,” I replied, and started checking my phone. “Actually. Madamji, my sons don’t want me to drive a cab anymore. Both of them want me to sit at home,” he continued. “Then, why don’t you?” I asked. “You see Madamji, it is always better to have your own income. I have had a hard life. When I first came to Bombay, I lived in a shanty in Mazgaon, at my sister’s place. Today, my sons have bought a two-bedroom apartment for us.” “That’s great,” I remarked, curious to know how his fortunes had changed. “What do your sons do?” I asked, moving forward in my seat. “The elder one is in Canada. He’s married. The younger one is in ICICI. He’s single. We have a lot of relatives in Canada. They helped my son immigrate,” he informed me. I smiled. “Madamji, you have no idea how long it has taken for me to reach this stage. God knows how I managed to educate them.” “How did you do it?” I asked. “Madam, my sister’s husband was an alcoholic, who used to beat her up, every single day. I did manual jobs to earn whatever little I could. One day, I was so incensed by my sister’s plight that I beat up my brother-in-law with whatever my hands could find. I beat him to a pulp. I thought he had died and started howling and apologising to my sister. What had I done! But, God saved him and me that day. Of course, I had to leave their house after that, leaving my sister to her fate.” “Oh! What did you do after that?” I asked him, impatient now to know the whole story. “I shifted to another shanty, did some more odd jobs, till, one day, I started driving a cab. To this day, I’m doing it. I have lost count of the years.” I nodded, the cabbie’s life flashing past my mind’s eye.
He paused before telling me, “You know Madamji, I decided that my children would not go through what I did. I decided to educate them. See where they are today. I am proud of them,” he said, in a choked voice. “Naturally Gobindji,” I replied. Midway through the conversation, he had told me his name. “Today, by God’s Grace, we have everything, but I cannot forget the old days. Driving a cab keeps me grounded. I still wear the same clothes, except that my wife now washes them in a washing machine,” he revealed. I saw that his white shirt and trouser were spotless. He wore a steel ‘kada’ on his wrist, which he kept pushing back towards his elbow, whenever it slipped down and hit the steering wheel. “I’m so happy for you,” I said. “Madamji, that is because you are a good human being. It is not so with my relatives. They are very jealous. They keep passing snide remarks. You have no idea how many of them are now lining up outside our house to borrow money. If we refuse, they curse us. I am very scared of their curses. We have earned all this the hard way, Madamji. Nothing has come to us on a platter.” “But, you don’t have to lend money to everyone. Just put your foot down. And Gobindji, stop worrying about people’s curses; they won’t work, ” I suggested. He touched the photograph of a deity, which he had stuck on the dashboard, three times and touched his chest. “Madamji, pray for us. This is all like a dream, you know. Sometimes, I can’t believe it,” he said.
By then, we had reached my destination. As I paid him the fare, he said, “Madamji, my wife and I are going to Canada for two months, next week. Our son has sponsored our trip. I shall tell you all about it when I return.” “That’s so wonderful,” I remarked and as I alighted, wished him a happy vacation. “Hope we meet again, Gobindji,” I said. “God willing, we will, Madamji. Do pray for us,” he implored. “Of course,” I said, as I watched the proud father take a U-turn and drive away. Some day, when I meet Gobindji again, I’m sure he will show me some selfies that he will have taken from the sleek new phone his son will have gifted him. His son was going to buy him one!

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Vending Wisdom

There was something about her. It drew people to her little open vegetable stall just outside a Shiv Sena Shaka in Mulund East, a Mumbai suburb. The way she displayed the vegetables, it was nothing short of art. I suspected she whispered something into their ears making them look so enticing that you couldn’t but seek them out.The manner in which she arranged the tomatoes, checking them for firmness, holding each one in her palm, turning it around, scrutinising it and then placing it on a slowly forming little hill of tomatoes, you couldn’t doubt her passion for vending or her love for these gifts of the soil.

She knew a thing or two about colours. She placed the purple brinjals next to the yellow peppers that sat beside perky green lady’s fingers that brushed shoulders with red tomatoes, creating a collage so visually pleasing that it would entice a hardcore non-vegetarian to introduce his palate to herbivorous pleasures. Even as she picked the vegetables from each little mound and placed them on the weighing scales, she did it so carefully, that when one slipped, it did so noiselessly and settled on a lower tier, its body fitting effortlessly into the space available.

I called her maushi (aunty in Marathi) and she called me tai (sister). Every evening, I made my way to her stall after work, straight from the railway station, joining several other women who would already have formed a circle around her, each screeching at the top of her voice of make herself heard. How she remembered who wanted half a kilo of bottle gourd, who needed two bunches of fenugreek leaves, and who demanded to have 100 gm chillies and one-fourth kilo of yam and 10 lemons and a dozen other varieties of vegetables in various quantities, beats me. She had mastered the skill of deciphering individual voices amidst the cacophony.

As I stood quietly behind the women waiting my turn, watching fascinated as she lowered the iron scale plates into the gaping mouths of cloth bags and plastic bags, she smiled and acknowledged me. “Come here. Don’t stand there, where I can’t see you. Come this side,” she ordered, with a familiarity and fondness that had grown between us over the years. While I hesitated, knowing well her commitment to extend her services on a first-come-first-serve basis, she pulled me with one hand, as she weighed the vegetables on the manual balance scale with the other, and instructed her husband, (a tall, mousy, bespectacled man, who was kaka (uncle) to everyone) to find out what I wanted.

“Take her list,” she would say. “Tai always comes with a list,” she would tell the other women. “He can read,” she said, pointing at her husband, who busied himself with picking the vegetables on the list and placing them in plastic bowls and aluminium containers, ready for his wife to weigh. He looked at her with admiration, as she lifted the containers deftly, emptied the contents on the scale, weighed them and deposited them in the waiting bags, all in a jiffy. He didn’t mind hovering in the background, doing his bit silently, allowing his spirited wife to take the lead in running their business. He knew that his wife’s warmth had made her a winner, despite the tough competition in the area. She was the soul of the stall.

I never asked her her name. It didn’t matter. Maushi was apt, the kind aunt who asked after the women, enquired about their children, examined their faces for signs of fatigue or discomfort or unease or grief, advised them to look after themselves and added a carrot or a cucumber or a radish to their buy for the youngest in their houses. Every week, I received a new recipe from her without asking for one and several invitations to visit her house for a simple jhunka-bhakri lunch, which I gladly accepted but never managed to follow up on, which I regret deeply.

Once, as she sipped cutting chai noisily, during a short break that kept her going, she summoned the chaiwallah and held a glass before me.”Sit,” she said pointing at a sack of potatoes. I obeyed.  She sat opposite me, on an overturned wooden crate, and gestured that I should start drinking the tea. I took a sip, trying to keep my balance on a rather wobbly perch and watched her, as she enjoyed every drop she tasted. She was a woman who embraced life wholeheartedly.

As we chatted, her two sons arrived and took charge. The younger one, Umesh, had clearly taken after her and the elder one, Shantaram, true to his name, had taken after his father. They played their respective roles efficiently,as maushi looked on fondly, emptying the new sacks of vegetables that had arrived.

I have relocated now and no longer meet maushi. I order vegetables on the phone now or buy them at a mall. They are displayed conspicuously but do not exude the joy that maushi’s cared-for vegetables did. I get a lot of bargains now, sometimes even a kilo of free vegetables for a certain quantity bought. But, what I miss the most is the worldly wisdom that spilled out of my bag with the vegetables that maushi chose for me.Yes, I miss my agony aunt.

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Goodbye BT


Sena supremo Bal Thackeray passed away last afternoon after days of speculations and wild guesses about his deteriorating health and rumours about the announcement of his inevitable demise. I was at work in our Wadala office. By the time the news reached us and we packed our bags and rushed out of the premises, Mumbai had almost shut down. The only cab driver who agreed to ply and ferry me to my house in faraway Thane made it clear that he was risking his life and limb to do so and that he was obliging me only because I am a woman. It didn’t help that he belonged to the community that is currently being targeted by the Sena and the MNS. He was careful not to express his opinion restricting it to one comment: “It’s going to be tough the next three days. Everything will shut down. Some parts of Mumbai will burn.” He seemed sure of the last.

As a kid, naïve and impressionable as I was, I thought of Thackeray as the saviour of the Marathi manoos and Marathi culture. Though born in Mumbai, I am a Mangalorean and though I spoke chaste Marathi having been brought up on the outskirts of the very Maharshtrian Hindu Colony at Dadar, I worried that Thackeray and his clan would oust me one day for not being born into a Marathi family. I got a firsthand taste of Thackeray’s brand of communalism, when, my maternal uncle, dark as he was, and who didn’t look like a Maharashtrian, was brutally assaulted by Sena workers as he alighted from a BEST bus, at the peak of the Sena’s anti-Madrasi campaign, for being what he wasn’t. He nursed a severe head injury for days and worried about venturing out of the house, not to mention looking more Marathi, blending in with the sons of the soil and making himself inconspicuous as he eked out a living in the Maharashtrian capital. Mumbai was Bombay then.

When Thackeray called for a bandh, you knew not to venture out of the house as his loyal followers would without doubt be on a rampage. He had to just raise his hand, and his wish was their command. Somewhere down the line, as I grew up, Thackeray shifted his gaze from the Madrasis to the Muslims. From being the protector of Maharashtrians, he was now christened Hindhridaysamrat. Most came to believe that it was only because he and his Sena were around that Hindus were spared the horrors that would otherwise have visited them, courtesy the minority community. The owner of a shop I frequented at Mulund where I stayed then, told me in hushed tones that the protection came at a price. But that, he said, was acceptable. After all, he wanted to be spared if ever a situation arose, where establishments like his would be attacked.

I must confess though, that I admired Thackeray’s oratorial skills. If you were not on your guard, it was easy to get carried away by his vitriol and then at the end of the speech realise that you had almost been conned into agreeing with him, when you were clearly not in sync with his views. What I also appreciated was that he didn’t give a damn when he called a spade a spade and though his remarks on other political leaders would be unsparingly personal and often not in good taste, I couldn’t deny his quick wit and sense of humour. As he aged and greyed, I saw his personal style change. The beard grew longer, the clothes acquired a saffron hue and he began wearing rudraksha beads. Despite myself I came to believe that he would always be around. Just as I thought that J R D Tata and Pu La Deshpande would be. Invincibility is thrust upon those who are placed on a pedestal. When he talked of being an admirer of Hitler, it amused me, because he was too emotionally fragile in his personal life to be as dictatorial or authoritarian as he would have liked everyone to believe. From ‘insiders’ I heard stories about how he wept easily, how attached he was to his family and friends, despite the many differences he had with them, and how generous too. A couple of Sainiks I know swore that he had supernatural qualities – that if you were lucky to be blessed by him, you would be on the path to prosperity.

A few years ago, we had planned a feature on ‘Childhoods’ for the women’s magazine I edit: New Woman. My team jotted down a lot of names, people whose childhoods we thought would interest our readers. I came up with Bal Thackeray’s name and we realised that we knew very little about his childhood. What was it that shaped his thoughts and life? What memories did he have of his childhood? My colleague Indrani took up the assignment. When she called his residence, she was politely given her first lessons in the Sena brand of protocol and expected behaviour. When she asked his secretary whether Mr Bal Thackeray would agree to the interview, he admonished her gently in Marathi: ‘Balasaheb mhana. Say Balasaheb.” When she inquired further when he was out of Bombay at that moment, he was quick to correct her, again in Marathi: “Mumbai mhana. Say Mumbai.” When she met the man himself, she expected to be intimidated but was pleasantly surprised at his warmth. After going through an issue of New Woman, which he chose to call Navin Bai, the literal Marathi translation of the title, his eyes took on a faraway look and he told Indrani: “I have forgotten that I was ever a child. That was so long ago, but now that you’re asking me about it I shall even crawl for you like one.” The date and time were set for the interview which unfortunately, never happened because Balasaheb was summoned to attend to more pressing political matters. I myself never met the man but whenever he made a controversial statement, I couldn’t help but smile at the way he seemed to enjoy being a rabble-rouser, stirring the hornet’s nest, whenever life got a bit boring.

My septuagenarian mother is a huge admirer of the Sena chief and is mourning at the moment. It was at her behest that we subscribed to Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece though I cringed every time a friend who spotted it looked at me disapprovingly. Lest I be branded a saffron soul, I took great pains to clarify that its presence, in fact, emphasised my secular credentials and that we had a democratic household, where everyone was entitled to his or her own views. As I watch the weeping sea of humanity that has gathered to pay its last respects to the departed leader, it is obvious that the man touched innumerable hearts. Who will inherit his mantle? Only time will tell. Love him or hate him, there can be no other. I shall say Jai Maharashtra, Jai Hind to that!

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