Friday, April 19, 2019

The rustle of brown paper and smell of new books


Are you overwhelmed by a flood of memories when you encounter certain situations in life? A situation similar to Proust's 'madeleine moment' though in my case, the instances have nothing to do with food - most of the times.


Each year, at the start of my daughter’s school term I find myself thinking of my late father. He died when I was eight years old and my memories of him are quite foggy. 
 
Yet, as the books and labels come tumbling out of the packet, I have a vision of him, hunched over the table (he was a very tall man), enfolding each book gently with brown paper and sticking labels, that he had written out neatly, on them. He was quite fastidious about the ritual. Even had a label maker he had bought from one of his ship voyages abroad.
 
The other day, while cleaning out my desk, I found the last label he had written for me. School started in January that year. He died a few months later. 

It's uncanny how similar our handwriting is.

Blurry and frayed memories of long - lost routines. The rustle of brown paper and the smell of new books bring them on. Makes me wonder what my daughter will remember about me.




Saturday, March 23, 2019

Flamenco Season is Here Again!


Flamenco season is here again.

No, I’m not taking up dance lessons. Nor am I planning to fly to Spain to watch blonde-haired Jesus Cortes in action at the Patio Andaluz in Barcelona.

My life is nowhere near half as exciting.

With temperatures spiking, I have been gearing up for the latest season of the Lizards are Coming. It’s not the latest horror show on Netflix. More like a live performance. The horrid reptiles will be crawling out of the woodwork, in shades of brown, speckled, black and grey. 

Still, if they stayed put on the walls, I could have tolerated them. Thought of them as installation art on my walls. Jamini Roy. Lizard. Bernard Hoyes. You get the drift. But when the damn creatures decide to go all pedestrian, “oooh let’s walk on the floor and all that” -- that’s when the problem starts. One minute, you are walking barefoot to get a drink of water from the kitchen in the middle of the night. Next minute there is a wet ssplishsquidge under your feet. Ughhh. 

The instant Gurgaon started getting warmer, I have been stealing furtive glances all over the place -- at the bathroom walls, behind the electrical appliances and under the beds. Any sign of movement and the frantic foot-tapping and hand-clapping will begin. Instead of castanets, I have armed myself with Hit Spray.

I will do anything to get the damn lizards out of the apartment.

Though while I’m at it, I might as well get myself a red frilly dress and some exotic headgear. Make some money while I do pest control doesn’t seem like a bad idea after all. Oh don’t worry, I will be careful with the Hit Spray. My eyesight is not that bad.

Tap Tap Tap
Spray Spray Spray
Stop right there
Don't you dare say Olé!














Monday, March 4, 2019

Clean-Up Quandary!



I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. I’m normally not a melancholic person. But I’ve been writing and reading some really dark stuff so there’s been a cloud hanging over me. That aside, some of this ruminating has been triggered off by a curious thing that happened the other day.

A man I knew briefly (we had exchanged a few emails relating to work and were connected on social media) seems to have died a few years ago and I had no clue. His updates and tweets (possibly auto-generated) had continued over the years. How on earth was I to know? A few days back when I was online on a business networking platform, I noticed an update from him on my newsfeed and beside his name, there was a line mentioning that he had passed on. I couldn’t believe it. I zoomed in and read the fine print again. It wasn’t a mistake. He was dead.

Since then, every time I spot a tweet or an automatic newsletter from his handle, I get a jolt. It’s odd when someone who isn’t around anymore sends you a notification. Gives you a turn, doesn’t it?

That’s when I started thinking. We leave the physical world when we breathe our last. What about the digital world? Do we ever leave it? Our profile, auto tweets and other random things we might have set up for business or pleasure go on forever (giving our friends and acquaintances) the jitters every now and then. 

I mean, imagine if I died and you got a reminder from FB to wish me on my birthday? Or got an automatic newsletter from me with the best news of the day. How would that make you feel? Even if you didn’t actually know me, had never ever laid eyes on me and were only a virtual acquaintance. Even then, it would give you quite a shock, wouldn’t it?

With everyone so protective of their privacy, passwords are not casually bandied about either. So my near and dear ones may not have a clue how to set things right. Not that I’d want them to. It would be the equivalent of going through my clothes and books and giving them away. I couldn’t have them go through the trauma of sorting through my digital rubbish.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the poor man and I hope wherever he is, he is at peace. I wouldn’t have been able to rest knowing I had left such a mess behind for people to clean. My house is bad enough. 

It’s time I cleaned up my digital act. As Queen had famously NOT sung,

Who wants to live forever?
physically or digitally? 
So better now than never! 
Clean up your act today.








Thursday, February 14, 2019

Not on your Boat!


I am extremely wary of the sea. That I haven’t inherited my late father's seafaring qualities might have something to do with the fact that my earliest memory of him (and one I remember vividly) was going to see a movie called Poseidon Adventure when I was three. It was about a ship that was overturned by a tidal wave and almost everyone on board perished.

Now my father (whose ship had been run aground by a tidal wave in Hachinohe on the northeast coast of Japan in 1968, he survived by the grace of God) thought it would be a fabulous educational experience for his children. 

It wasn’t. 

It scared the living daylights out of me. And since then, I have kept a respectful distance from the sea. Ships and boats make me quite uneasy. Even slightly queasy.

Imagine my horror when I receive a gaudily designed whatsapp invite to a Titanic-themed Valentine's Day party in the condominium from my neighbour Mrs X a few days back. Once my eyes were able to focus on the rest of the card (after being temporarily blinded by the shining red hearts that filled up my mobile screen), I noticed a picture of Rose and Jack, hands spread out on the deck of the ship. The text said: enjoy a special evening with your loved one, dancing the night away on board the Titanic. Charges: Rs 500 plus taxes for dinner. A sumptuous fare of kali dal, paneer, chicken tikkas and biryani will be served. Booze unlimited.

Now, I am not sure why anyone would want to spend Valentine's Day on board an ill-fated boat that sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. That isn't remotely romantic, it is a recipe for disaster. I certainly wasn't going to. 

So I sent a polite message saying I was busy.

It should have ended there but the woman just wouldn’t take no for an answer. She sent me a message back saying “Why you are being anti-social?” She wrote that I should come with the hubby. He would enjoy it. They would be playing songs like Gallan Goodiyaan from Dil Dhadakne Do (a number I really love) and there was going to be red vaalvet cake for dessert.

Woman, even if you fly down Leonardo DiCaprio all the way from the US, I still wouldn’t go! No amount of chicken tikka and red vaalvet is going to convince me. I will listen to Gallan Goodiyan on YouTube and do a little jig at home. Perhaps if my father hadn’t taken me to see Poseidon Adventure all those years ago, I might have turned out differently.

So no, thank you. I'll pass.

In fact, the only boat I’m likely to set foot on is an ark should the world come to an end.

The End.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Aquaman in my Life!


I have an Aquaman in my life but he is nothing like Jason Momoa. So, if you are thinking tall, hot bod and a heart-stopping grin, I’d have to disappoint you. 

My Aquaman is rake-thin and goes by the name of Roopesssss with an extra hiss at the end.  Like Arthur Curry, he is a man of few words. “Madamji, Roopesssss this side” is enough to make me swoon. His superhero costume is not shiny green and gold. It’s a rather tame pale blue shirt paired with navy blue trousers. And instead of the trident, he carries a black backpack that holds all manner of magical bits and bobs and rides a black Scooty. A seahorse couldn’t deal with Gurugram’s potholes and given the current political situation, a trident-carrying man might get frowned on.

Hold on a minute, I can see you frowning. I know what you are thinking.

You want to know what his superpower is, don’t you?

Well I’ll give you a hint. It has something to do with water! What else would it be? Duh.

There is a blue-and-white box suspended from the wall of my kitchen. That box contains the lifeline of my household. Every morning, the box spills out sparkling clean water, free of germs and sludge accompanied by the opening bars of Für Elise. We collect that water into bottles neatly lined up on the counter and drink it. It helps us stay healthy. Thanks to the magical box, we are not plagued by the runs. In fact most days we feel so fine, we can go for a run ourselves (Whether we do or not in reality is another matter altogether).


One night all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. I thought the Lord had finally sent the floods to wipe from the face of the earth the human race he had created. I cursed my luck (and my laziness) in dilly dallying with the ark. But then I realised that it wasn’t the Lord’s wrath but the pipes in my kitchen that had burst. Day and night, I pleaded with the plumber to repair the pipes so that we could put away our scuba diving gear. But the poor fellow would stare at me helplessly like a lost Nemo. Glub. Glub. Glub. That was all he could say. Till Aquaman came to the rescue and wielded his magic spanner. “The machine has malfunctioned Madamji,” he said. 

The box’s wrath turned out to be worse than the Lord’s.

Since then, twice a year, Aquaman emerges from where it is that he emerges from and makes sure the box is working properly and his minions are not plagued by floods or tsunamis. He vanquishes germs, kicks out the dirt and once more, there is peace in the Kingdom of Pure Water.

Then, he makes me sign on a pink slip that says service has been completed satisfactorily and jets off into the sunset amidst clouds of black smoke. I must remind him to get a PUC certificate next time he visits or his toxic seahorse .. erm ... scooty will be confiscated. The Gurugram traffic police are very strict. No allowances for superheros. 


Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Dhobi's Daughter

Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

The little girl comes around every morning to collect my laundry.

I always know it’s her at the door from the sound the bell makes. A short, quick ring. She can’t reach the buzzer till she tip toes. One press and she’s back on her feet again.

The grave face watches me silently as I count the clothes carefully before handing them to her. She then piles them up on the old bedsheet I’ve given her and folds the corners of the sheet back across the clothes, making a knot in the middle neatly. Once the bundle is ready, she picks it up and flings it over her shoulders deftly, flicking her brown matted hair back in the process. A nod and then she’s gone. I can hear her the sound of her rubber slippers echoing off the walls as she tears down the stairwell.

She would be eleven or twelve years old. Almost the same age as my daughter Riya. She’s much shorter and thinner, wearing hand me downs that are a size too big. I’ve been seeing her doing the laundry run in our building for nearly a year now. I don’t think there’s been a single day when she hasn’t come around. 

I always refer to her as the dhobi’s daughter. I don’t even know what her name is. I’ve never asked her. Come to think of it, we’ve never had a real conversation. All our communication, so far, has been through hand gestures and head movements. A nod, a wave, a pat on the back.

Her father has a tiny makeshift stall outside our condominium. All day long, I see him and his wife busy at work, straightening and ironing clothes with the heavy metal iron they own. Their children, I think there are three of them, help the parents, by collecting and delivering clothes from door to door in the neighbourhood. Apart from our condominium, there are plenty of other buildings in the area, a few smaller houses and bungalows. The two older boys share a cycle between them but the little girl always comes on foot.

Sometimes I offer her biscuits, a chocolate, a glass of milk. She shakes her head when I show her the milk carton but her eyes shine at the sight of the Bourbon biscuits. There’s a hint of a smile on the grave face as she extends her grubby fingers. She eats quickly, noiselessly as I count the clothes. Watching me all the while.

On Sundays, she always lingers at the doorway, craning the little head towards the corridor at the end of which is our bedroom. I know she hangs around for a glimpse of Riya. When the bedroom door swings open and Riya stumbles into the living room sleepily, I can hear her catch her breath and stare at the pre-teen in wonderment, taking in the Star Wars tee shirt and shorts. Riya ignores her and wiggles into the sofa with the iPad in hand. I pat her on the shoulder lightly and she wolfs down the last of her biscuit and runs off with the bundle.

“You should smile at her, Riya, maybe even talk to her. It doesn’t hurt to be nice” I reprimand my daughter after I’ve shut the door. “Poor thing, she waits every Sunday to catch a glimpse of you. As though you were a film star or something.”

Riya mumbles, not looking up from her iPad. “Hmmmmm, okay, whatever.”

I sigh and head back into the kitchen. “Let’s give her some of your old toys when she comes around next Sunday. I wonder if she even has any toys,” I shout out from the kitchen. There’s no reply.

The next weekend, I get all the old toys out in the living room, piling them up in the corner. As soon as the bell rings, I run to the door and pull the little girl in excitedly. She steps inside the apartment, looking around furtively. I point towards the toys in the corner and her face lights up. She drops the bedsheet on the floor and runs across to the corner.

She’s running her fingers over the toys that I’ve assembled for her. Gently as though she doesn’t want to hurt them. Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear and sundry other fluffy creatures that Riya used to play with when she was younger. I’m not sure what she would like so I’ve brought out the entire collection. Ever since the iPad came into the picture, Riya hasn’t looked at any of her old toys and I’d been thinking of donating them to an orphanage.

I can hear her scuffle through the toys to get to the corner where the green bucket containing the Lego is stashed. She opens the bucket and the Lego pieces spill out onto the floor. She shrinks back, looking at me apologetically. I shake my head and smile and she plops down on the floor, relieved. Daily task of collecting clothes forgotten, red, green and blue blocks in hand. Smiling, I lay down a plate full of Bourbon biscuits on the floor next to her. A little distance away, Riya looks up from the iPad and smiles. “Looks like someone has found her favourite toy.”


***


The little girl hasn’t come to our door for more than a week now and a stack of clothes have piled up high on the bed. I’m concerned. She’s never missed a day in all these months. Was she ill? Or perhaps her parents have found out that she was playing in my house and punished her for it? Wouldn’t they have sent one of the brothers then? Surely, they can’t be all that angry for something as minor as this?

I call my neighbour, Mrs Sharma, and ask her whether the little girl has come around collecting clothes at their place. “No,” Mrs Sharma looks confused. “It’s been over a week and no one has come to collect the clothes for ironing. I was planning to go and ask the guard today.”

“I’ll go with you,” I say and we head downstairs. The security guard at our building is a new recruit. He scratches his head doubtfully. He’s been hired two days back and he’s never seen the little girl. “Perhaps, you should try at the main gate?” he volunteers. Exasperated we walk down to the main gate. 

I peer out of the main gate towards the makeshift stall. It looks abandoned. No signs of anyone having inhabited it ever. The iron is missing and the clothes have disappeared. The security guards look at us quizzically. “Do you know where the dhobi has disappeared? It’s been days and he hasn’t sent his daughter to collect clothes,” Mrs Sharma asks one of the guards.

“There’s been an incident Madam,” he replies hesitantly. “Something to do with the dhobi’s daughter. Something terrible. I don’t know for sure.”

“What incident?” there was panic in my voice “The dhobi works right there in front of you and you don’t know for sure? How is that possible?”

Leela, the female guard, looks apologetic “Madam, something bad happened to the little girl. That’s what everyone in our slum is saying. They are saying it’s come out in the English papers. Maybe you can find the report in the newspaper?”

I run back to the flat.

After desperately rummaging through the week’s papers, I find the report in yesterday’s Gurgaon Times. A tiny paragraph, tucked away in an obscure corner of the newspaper. 

On Sunday evening, the same evening that she had played with the blocks in our house, while Riya was tucking into her dinner in front of the television, the little girl was out delivering freshly ironed clothes to the houses nearby. The brothers usually did the evening rounds but they were at a friends’ house playing football  A couple of hours later, my daughter was in bed, sleeping peacefully but the dhobi’s daughter was dead. She had been raped, strangled and her lifeless body dumped in the bushes. Like trash.

The police had reached a dead end in their investigations. All in the course of a few days. The dhobi and his family had gone back to their village. People had forgotten and moved on. And I didn’t even know. All week, waiting for the next Sunday to come so that the little child could come and play with the Lego.

What if it was someone like us? A monster living in a fancy house or a kothi nearby? Someone known to the girl, a regular client who lured her into the house? With something as innocuous as candy. I had done it myself. I had offered her food, toys. I had made it easy for the culprit to attack. A friendly face, a welcoming house. How would that poor child have known any better?

I had killed her with my kindness.

***



I have packed and put away the Lego set. I couldn’t bear to see the blocks lying around. Maybe one of these days, I’ll give it away to a local orphanage.

The bell rings. Several impatient rings. I get up and go to the door.

An unpleasant looking chap is skulking in the corridor. It’s dark outside and I can’t see his face clearly. “Do you have any clothes to give for ironing?” he barks at me.

I shake my head and close the door.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Apocalypse Aunty and the Vegetables!

Photo Courtesy: World Wide Web

The vegetable shop was empty. 

Well, almost empty. I could see one lady at the checkout counter getting the vegetables in her plastic basket weighed. My heart skipped a few beats and suddenly, there was an extra spring in my step.

The tiny shop inside our condominium is packed like a can of sardines on most days. Residents, domestic help, nannies, chauffeurs – all of them jostling each other as they eye, poke and pick at the assortment of fruits and vegetables that the truck drops inside the building every morning. It’s a battlefield and one is lucky to get out of there on a busy morning, unscathed.

I hate vegetable shopping. Actually, I hate shopping. Period. I hate walking down aisles looking for things that are either too high up on shelves or not there at all. I hate banging into errant carts and trolleys on the way. I hate waiting at the counter behind people. Hate, hate, hate. You get the drift.

So you will understand the adrenaline rush I felt when I realized that I wouldn’t have to wait. The woman looked as though she was almost done. I couldn’t help but congratulate myself on my superb timing. I hastily threw a few things inside my basket and took my place politely behind her. The young fellow at the counter was holding out the bill.

The woman reached inside her bag for the money and then paused for a heart-stopping moment before reaching behind me to pull out a huge cabbage, narrowly missing my skull in the process.

“How much is the cabbage for?” 

Her shopping was not done evidently. The boy sighed and proceeded to weigh cabbage.

“And spinach? Oh, and how much are you selling the apples for?”

For the next fifteen minutes or so, she kept adding things to her basket. The old bill was discarded and the boy went back to weighing. 

What on earth was she stocking up for?  The Apocalypse? Her basket was overflowing!

My temper had started to flare and my eyelids were twitching like Herbert Lom. Now I’ve been working really hard to keep my anger issues in check but this woman at the shop was not helping. Why on earth had she come to the counter without finishing her shopping? I see people doing this all the time in shops and malls and it is really bad etiquette. One of the reasons I hate going out in the first place. The app keeps my blood pressure in check.

I mustered all the self-control I could manage so that I didn’t whack her with my shopping basket. I turned purple with the effort.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, Apocalypse Aunty had finished and I saw her yelling for someone to help her lug her shopping. I heaved a sigh of relief and handed my basket to the chap. Just as he was about to weigh the potatoes, woman comes back and shoves a bundle of coriander leaves under my nose.

“You didn’t add this,” she told the boy accusingly. “You should have given this to me for free.”

The boy shook his head. “I can’t give you that much for free, you’ve taken too much already.” I could tell from his face that he was exhausted.

She gave him a dirty look. “This is not done,” she grumbled. “Well, how much is this much for?” 

He mumbled the amount.

And then she had the gall to ask me. “Are you done with your shopping?”

I would have vaporized her on the spot with my glare. 

She threw a five rupee coin on the counter, dumped the coriander in her bag, ordered her coolie to lift it, held up a floral umbrella and walked off, waddling her butt in the process. A butt I really wanted to kick.

Well I never!