The Cab Drivers of Kolkata

It was my first visit to Kolkata. My friend Sangeeta who was accompanying me was familiar with the city, having lived there a couple of decades ago, for close to four years. As we walked out of the surprisingly deserted airport that morning, I spotted a yellow Ambassador taxi. “No Refusal”, it proclaimed in bold, black, capital letters. I squealed, inviting a quizzical look from my friend, who had clearly not been infected by my enthusiasm. An Ambassador! It was like spotting a dinosaur. “It says, ‘No Refusal’,” I informed Sangeeta, who had obviously seen the proclamation but had the wisdom to not take it seriously. She looked at me with a deadpan expression, amused at my naivete, and convinced that I would know better soon. Hers was a different kind of optimism.

We hired a prepaid taxi and waited for our turn. When the Ambassador stopped for us to board, I couldn’t conceal my excitement. The cab driver, probably not used to the infantile behaviour that I displayed when I slid into the tattered seat, grunted. With great reluctance, he heaved our bags into the boot, banged the door shut and started the ignition. As Sangeeta waited for me to calm down, I noticed that the door to my right had no handles. “Where?” he grunted. “Ballygunge Phari,” we chorused as my friend handed over the receipt to him. “I can’t drive through so much traffic. Why didn’t you ask for the bypass route?” he thundered. Not fazed by his soreness, Sangeeta let out a volley of protests, all in Bengali, his native language, which she later translated for me: “How could we have known that there were two routes? I didn’t know about the bypass!” The cab driver softened a bit and offered to take us via the bypass if we paid him an extra amount. We agreed, lest we infuriate him after having committed our first mistake immediately upon arrival. As we saw him swerve to the left and then to the right indiscriminately on the congested road, muttering under his breath, we were relieved to take the bypass. Only for a moment. The next, we were flying. “Easy,” we implored, but the cab driver  had suddenly developed a hearing impairment. Of course, there was enough space in the Ambassador for our bodies to take the knocks, and when we reached our destination in one piece, I realised that the “No Refusal” declaration was open to interpretation. His was to not refuse you anything but do as he pleased.

One morning, we got into a yellow Ambassador again. This time, there were four of us. While I understand that it takes Herculean effort to preserve anything on its way to extinction and that sometimes it is well nigh impossible to succeed, I had never been this closely associated with a dying species. The hinges of the cab were rusty and creaking. The doors groaned. The windows made a sound that grated on my nerves. As I struggled with the broken handle, which now made a bleating sound, the cab driver turned back, looked at me with a mixture of pity and derision, and then ignored me. There was neither an apology nor any inclination to help me roll up the windows. The jagged edges of the torn rexine seat covers poked us. This vehicle belonged in a junk yard. The cab reminded me of Archie’s jalopy and as we zigzagged across the streets, I was sure the doors would fall apart, the tyres would spin out and the steering wheel would get dislodged at the next turn we took. The driver was oblivious to my fears and his faith in his vehicle bordered on the devout. But, when an at-all-times undaunted Sangeeta let out a flustered, “Ohhh…” I knew my fears were not unfounded.

On the day it poured, we were sure nobody would ferry us to the workshop we were attending. We had heard that some roads were badly water-logged and as we boarded the cab, the driver warned us, “Main paani me gaadi nahin chalaoonga. I won’t drive through water.” We nodded, glad to have found transport. As we charged through the wet roads, the driver looked straight ahead. All attempts by our friend to make small talk with him were met with silence or a smirk or a grunt. Then we saw the water. “I’m not getting off here. I can’t possibly wade through so much water,” Sangeeta announced. I waited for the cab driver’s response. There was none. With robotic efficiency that overshot the requirements of his vehicle, he drove on, cutting through the water. Not a muscle on his face twitched. He was either coerced into submission by the two shrieking women on the back-seat or inspired by the other drivers steering their vehicles or moved to kindness. We tipped him generously as we arrived dry and in one piece. There was no acknowledgement. Not even when we thanked him. This was the language of silence. It needed no words. Only a deep understanding. I would soon be an eager learner.

Just when I had decided to not engage in a conversation with the cab drivers in Kolkata, I met Baidyanath. I had engaged him to take me for a drive through Southern Avenue. As we drove through the streets, he started pointing at the Rabindra Sarobar, a rowing club, and the Ramakrishna Institute. Then, he parked the cab outside Vivekananda Park and informed me that this was the place to have puchkas. Unused to such camaraderie, I ventured cautiously and asked him if he would show me around. He seemed pleased. As we embarked on our sight-seeing tour, Baidyanath was transformed into a guide par excellence providing a wealth of information and cultural and historical insights that left me spellbound. He spoke of politicians and the corruption of the traffic police in a matter-of-fact tone. All through, he stuck to his lane, not once stepping on the accelerator or honking angrily. Even as an errant cab driver hurtled towards us from the wrong side of the road, Baidyanath applied the brakes with the calmness of a sage. This was vintage driving. As is my habit, I voiced my anger at the driver’s recklessness. “Madam, tension mat lo, tension do,” he said, as I alighted, and thanked Baidyanath profusely. I knew better but looked at him for a moment, just in case. But, I was right. He did not smile. He was a true yogi, Sthitapragya.

They may have driven me round the bend, but Kolkata cab drivers have attained a state of  equanimity. They have arrived in the true sense of the word.

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The Man Who Lived Bollywood Style

You couldn’t but notice his exaggerated swagger. He jerked his hips so to the extreme right and left that in a narrow alley they were sure to graze the walls and be abraded. Had the Bollywood brat known for his hits and runs, on whom Ketanbhai had patterned his swagger seen him, he would have been astonished at the ease with which his fan’s hip-roll aced his own. With his thumbs inserted inside the front pockets of his crotch-crushing pants, the rest of his fingers spread out evenly on his thighs, his feet snug in ankle-length cowboy boots punctured with rivets, he strutted through the streets of Mulund, the latest Bollywood chart-buster on his lips, his body possessed by the reigning tinsel town star. He was an eyesore in white–from the embellished shirts that managed to make the otherwise serene colour a horror, the trousers with strange decorations jazzing up his attire, and most of all, the shoes, which by virtue of their whiteness contributed to the militant chalky landscape. Only his hair, an unruly mass of  shades of black and his red stained mouth provided some interim relief. His shirts—designed on an Elvis Presley-meets-Jeetendra pattern—were unbuttoned right down to his navel, creating a valley that revealed the five stray hair on his chest.

People ducked when they saw him, hid behind doors, slunk away stealthily before he could spot them, because acknowledging him meant being dragged into a kaleidoscopic world of song and dance and being an anguished participant in his never-ending romance with make-believe till you either lost your sanity or plotted a sensational escape. That was easier said than done because Ketanbhai had the famous tenacity of legendary celluloid heroes, who, when they pinned down their victims, let go of them, only after they finished their business with them. But, if despite your precautions, he spotted you and his eardrum-bursting “Hiiiiiiii” encircled you like a twister, there was no choice but to be drawn into its vortex. It was a Tarzan-like, “Kreegah Bundolo” war cry, no less, practised to perfection, with an ability to stupefy you. If you were male, he thumped you on your back with such force that if a large piece of apple was lodged in your throat, it would be ejected instantly. Just as you recovered from the spinal shock, he squeezed your shoulders affectionately, as if you were the long-lost brother he was separated from in a densely populated village fair, and he had lived all his life for this very delirious reunion. If you were female, he folded his hands, bent low from his waist and greeted you with a, “Namaste bhabhi.” Then, making a slurping sound, he sucked in the betel leaf juice that swirled inside his mouth and smiled, the thick flavoured saliva leaking out of the corners of his lips.

His mouth was a red cavern, a fount of oral sap that sprung from some never-drying source. He wiped his lips with the back of his palms, squirted the spittle on a nearby electric pole and continued talking. He enquired about your health, asked after your children and if you had an old relative living with you, requested you to convey his respects to them. If you met him in the morning, you ran the risk of being dragged to the nearest restaurant for a cup of tea and snacks, with Ketanbhai stuffing your mouth with his generosity till you reached barfing point. Generous he was—with his words, his money and his smile. You could be a beggar sitting outside a temple near his house, but you deserved a smile and acknowledgement. So, despite the fact that I cringed at his sartorial choices, winced at his affectations, was exasperated by his dramatic dialogues, exaggerated gesticulations, and the theatrical contortions of his facial muscles, I could never dislike him. Beneath the masquerade was a man with a good heart. So, when he went into histrionic overdrive, all I managed was rolling my eyes and masking my amusement.

One day, he bumped into us, my husband and I, as we were returning from our morning walk. My husband, thrown off-balance, by an overdose of Ketanbhai’s introductory affection, steadied himself and began to make small talk. For some reason, Ketanbhai tapped his feet incessantly on the ground. Ignoring the percussion, I scrutinised the variety of his teeth, a row of tiny porous rocks—rough, jagged, serrated—fixed inside his gums in a pattern that would fox the most celebrated dentist. I couldn’t distinguish between the molars and the incisors, and the stains left by years of betel- and gutka-chewing ensured that their original character was completely obliterated.

‘What makes this man feel like a film star?’ I wondered, revulsion gripping me during that not so compassionate moment. The tip of his nose, I noticed, touched the centre of the vertical groove that ran from his nose to his lips. As if to compensate for this flaw in design, the Creator had enlarged his nostrils to make enough space for the air to pass through. As I looked at his hair, a mass of wiry scourers that defied the breeze and stood their ground, he stamped his feet furiously. The grotesque buckle on the embellished belt which secured his pants emitted multi-coloured rays, blinding me. “Bhabhi, look at my sooze,” he commanded, mispronouncing the ‘sh’ sound in ‘shoes’, forcing me to shift my attention from his faulty speech to the fault lines in his footwear. My husband was already transfixed. He looked like he had just seen an alien. I looked down at a monstrous pair that had tassels sprouting out from all directions, laces that were veritable ropes and heels so high that Lady Gaga would baulk at slipping her much-elevated feet into them. As I groped for some polite compliments and adjusted my facial muscles to mask my alarm, Ketanbhai punched my husband playfully and said, “Kidhar hai, bhai? Lost, are you? I got them made from the same ‘sooe’ designer as Sunju Baba.” It socked us, this unabashed, unashamed worship of a celluloid deity that had inspired an enchanted Ketanbhai to go to the extent of locating his idol’s shoe designer. In comparison, our own reverence for the Almighty faded into insignificance. This was super stuff that made blockbusters out of inanities and set the Bollywood cash registers ringing. What would the Salman Khans and Sanjay Dutt’s of the world do without the lunacy of the likes of Ketanbhai? He was a star-maker, a builder of destinies, an upholder of the cause of no-brainer, time-pass entertainment, a dream-buyer. Who were we to judge a devout fan who gave two hoots to our derision, who lived life on his own terms, in his own mad way, unconcerned by what the world thought of him? We, with our trained responses and tailored behaviour, stood exposed in our own eyes. “Wow, awesome shoes, Ketanbhai,” I said, shocked at the genuineness in my voice. “Hai na, fir?” he retorted, doing a jig, as we slithered away.

We lived in the same locality, our buildings facing each other, he on a lower floor, which enabled us to get a bird’s eye view of his house and his antics. He woke us up every morning from our deepest slumber with the latest, noisiest Bollywood numbers that created seismic waves in our beds. Unmindful of the temblor he had caused, he gyrated at the window, bare-chested, brushing his teeth, the strokes of his toothbrush keeping rhythm with the music. He looked around egging on the rattled neighbours to shake a leg, risking his life and limb, for there wasn’t a single soul in the rudely awakened neighbourhood who did not want to strangle him with his bare hands.  It didn’t help that he had the best music system in the neighbourhood, which managed to rouse even the comatose with its amplitude.

My heart went out to his wife but she was the stuff legends are made of–the ever-dutiful, ever-suffering, stoic paragon of endurance, the kind you want to shake mercilessly or bow down to. Hina was a picture of dignity. She had a thick hide and a smile that camouflaged her duress so remarkably that I began to suspect that she secretly enjoyed Ketanbhai‘s notoriety. He serenaded her often with a romantic number, pulling her out of the kitchen, twirling her, her hands caked with sticky dough, her long, simple braid swinging, her body resisting this untoward onslaught with all its might. He admonished her for serving pedestrian fare unfit for consumption. “Roj roj chawli ki bhaji,” he wailed, and eulogised the Bollywood wives and mothers who scalded their hands while making the ubiquitous sarson ka saag, makkai ki roti and the much-served on the filmi table–gaajar ka halwa. It is possible that she complied, as I heard him roar one day, “Mere paas Hina hai,” thumping his chest with pride.  I met Hina by chance the next day. She knew that I had heard. I turned away so as to not embarrass her. I needn’t have. She looked me in the eye and said, “What to do? However he may be, he is my husband.” Then, she flushed a beetroot red. Hina was in love! One more had bitten the stardust.

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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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