Saturday, April 7, 2007

In The Company of Strong Women

“Do you know Indra, why I have four cute sisters?’
She has once asked, it was a usual hot and humid afternoon. They were sitting in his room; the door was left wide open to make them visible to any passerby in the inner gallery. It was advised by Prerna and Indra found it to be very convenient and seemingly acceptable in the building.
It made some knotted souls uncomfortable and they gleefully whispered malicious gossip around. But adventurous Prerna was not perturbed at all and these meetings were held to discuss pressing matters. She could afford to be aloof of such silly concerns. His suggestion to hold such meetings in an aloof, usually deserted restaurant was mercilessly vetoed by her.
Indra couldn’t answer and stared blank at her rarely sad face.
‘Because in those days, they didn’t have that machine.’
‘Machine! What machine?’
‘Oh! You ignorant fool.’ She mocked surprise.
‘Yes.... I don’t have to cram irrelevant shit to pass ……those bloody exams.’
‘I know you love to hear that… want to see others defeated? You people are trained to make common people like me…. feel and think defeated.’
‘I just don’t want to know that. Is that clear, madam?’
Their raised voices attracted attention of an alert Shanno. She lifted the gaudy curtain to make herself visible in her usual finery. Sound of her anklets alerted them to lower their voices. She looked at them with smile and proceeded to hang a towel on the balcony railing. Taking her time, smoothing the wrinkles of the puffy cloth, turning it over many times, her numerous bangles making clinking noises, ears tuned and hungry for any exciting sound bytes. The gang of five was to visit her and watch some exciting film together and indulge in malicious gossip. She was excited by prospects of her tidbit’s being the juiciest. She was a generous host and ladies were addicted to her tasty pakoras and tea. Further her deaf mother in law was greatly envied by all visiting ladies. It gave them freedom to enjoy with video films, loud music and unhindered-uninhibited exchange of notes about vicious mother in laws and their wicked ways. She was envied too for her bulging purse, no kids to look after and a fawning husband. Every night Amma ji only looked forward to count wads of currency notes, brought home by Chouthu. After that she will put money in a hidden locker under her bed and sleep on it. It was rumored to hide a sizable booty in cash and she rarely left it unguarded. More over Shanno was the only house wife in the building to hold a separate bank account, generously funded by her indulgent rich father. It gave her immense standing in the gang. The bewildered gang members were astonished at tales of her premarital raunchy escapades with variety of lusty lovers. They sighed with envy and excitement as she shamelessly unfolded each episode with great explicit details. Some were repeated often on demand, and Shanno too loved to tell a juicy tale.

Prerna silently went on looking at him.
“Ok. I am going...If you don’t want to listen.’ She hissed, her eyes betraying deep feeling of hurt.
‘I am sorry… if you felt that way?’
She turned her eyes away.
“It’s okay…what it is?’ Indra knew there was no escape and he will have to bear burden and listen to her.
'It’s is that sonograph machine……… they now use to detect…’
‘Detect what?’
‘Don’t you know?’
“No! I said I don’t know. Didn’t I?’
‘Sex of the child.’
Indra was silent. Didn’t know what to say and how to sooth her.
‘Oh that?’
She remained silent, her face clouded.
‘You look sad.’
‘Yes I am sad. But do you bother?’ Prerna didn’t look at him.
‘I am sorry.’
“Don’t be, please. Its ok’
Indra avoided her steely eyes.
‘I shudder to imagine, if they had that machine in those times my all sisters might have all been aborted… killed. Why only my sisters! I too might have been sucked out of the womb, bundled and disposed off or thrown some where to be eaten by hungry dogs.’
‘Please Prerna? Why you think of all this?’
She didn’t reply.
‘Lets change the subject…please.’
‘So you don’t want to listen. I am going.’ Prerna got up.
‘No. It’s not that. Please stay…. I mean. Please tell me... and ...unburden your self.’
He waited.
‘I feel bad Indra. ………Being a girl… really bad.’
‘Don’t say that…. And of all the girls you are saying this? I am surprised.’
‘Surprised? Are you…. why?’
Both were silent. It was getting unbearable.
‘Those girls may have been fortunate …they perhaps. Didn’t hear… and if they did… might have not felt as bad as I do. They don’t take these things … the way…. I do.’
‘Please calm down.’
‘ I heard all this... my self.’
‘What? Heard whom?
Prerna remained silence. Indra held her hand and made her sit near him.
Shanno watched them from her vantage position, engrossed in her urgent business of spreading the towel on the rusted railing with great deliberation and expertise, taking her time, craning her long neck to see the unfolding action.
‘Don’t tell me. You mean.... your parents?’
‘Yes.’ Her shaking voice betrayed her practiced self-control and dignified poise.
‘Oh my god...please hold yourself Prerna. You are too strong a girl to take such things to heart. May be they didn’t mean…what you have been thinking.’
‘No. They did exactly say.... just that. It was as clear as a crystal.’
A sense of heavy gloom and helplessness was slowly filling the space.
‘They were discussing the huge finances needed to marry off... all of us...and how unfortunate they are to have five girls…they.... never ever wanted. And how my father went on demanding more commission from contractors and finding more ways to make money for impending marriages involving huge expenses. They were loudly wondering what sin they might have committed to deserve five surely must have been a great sin.’
‘When was it?’ Indra asked cautiously.
Shanno tried hard to catch whispers, but the low voices assured her further of a rumored affair; a promising young woman officer falling for a handsome scoundrel. She sighed with envy, trying hard to decipher the focus of seemingly intensely private lover’s argument.
Her fertile brains raced to decipher meaning in girl’s tense bearings and boy’s alarmed position, and then it hit her surety and prospects she loved. She was sure to score in the ladies gang by divulging the piece of a hottest scoop.
‘It does not matter, when they said it. But the fact is that they did say such things.... and I was unfortunate enough to hear. I.... do.... try hard.... to forget. But those whispering, repenting and angry voices haunt me so often. Hit my self-esteem like a sludge hammer. It's more painful, when they tell me how wonderful they felt when Pintoo was born after five of us. They aborted three unfortunate unwanted girls. Though, I love Pintoo...but some times I see him in a strange way. I can't explain it... I mean...’
‘I know that, Prerna.’
‘So what, if you know?’
‘Please. For gods sake... I mean... I didn’t mean any thing... offending?’
‘I know that you don’t mean any thing.... you never do. You are just listening to what I am saying now, because you don’t have any options. Why should you bother about it...and. if really you do, I suspect its just an idea for you... a good plot... for a new lousy play? You don’t know how I am feeling. How helpless I am... when I go over.... those horrible utterances of my so called loving and caring parents, killers of three unborn babies.'

‘I am sure, she is pregnant.’
‘‘Who is pregnant?’
Shanno looked around at expectant friends. She presided over the afternoon meeting of the ladies in her cool bedroom. They had assembled after finishing the back breaking daily cores and feeding kids returned with heavy bags, fight torn cloths and a bad report card from various schools, befitting the economic standing of each household. Shanno was obviously free of such boring-daunting cores and has planned the news breaking ceremony with due deliberation and care. She has personally informed the gang members to not the miss the session. She gave hints of making an exciting discovery after the persistent investigation expected of her.
“Guess…who is fit to be pregnant?” Shanno winked.
“Well what about you?”
“Oh come on, not so early yaar. Let me have a little more fun, than I too will get in the lousy rut you all are so eager to push me in to.”
Ladies laughed and suggested various names. Shanno smiled and gleefully vetoed them all.
“ One more thing –she is still unmarried.”
A sudden hush fell on the assembled gang. Elder ladies looked at each other’s face to know the dreaded answer. The forty plus ladies of the gang were troubled with a great sense of anxiety to know the girl’s name fast. They were troubled by seemingly strange ways of their own teen-aged daughters.

The Inglorious Exit

The silence out side was broken by Chauthu’s inglorious exit from the scene. His new camel skin shoes made sharp creaky noise. Sheepishly he must have bowed his head and carefully climbed down the narrow, darkened, and worn out winding stairs. Such occasional insults would not change him a bit in his crafty maneuvers and would surely try to hit back and evict Indra from his cheap, centrally located room, who has powerful friends in Prerna and Ganga Bai. Chauthu was indeed fighting a battle he will perhaps never win. Nevertheless, there was other more compelling reason-he didn’t like Indra talking so frequently with Shanno, his wife and daughter of the richest man of his village. Shanno ignored his objections with contempt and continued to be friendly with Indra. It was a rumor that she had been hurriedly married off to Chauthu, to put an end to the troubles created by her. She was prone to vanish from home at night with her various paramours. Many village elders have made their disapproval known to her father, rather meekly due to his stature and money. Her troubled father had to find a suitable match fast before she could bring further infamy and damage to the fragile family pride. The tedious job entrusted to a reliable barber Naththu, famed for fast results. He quickly produced a befitting match, a poor but promising prospective groom for a rich man's wayward daughter. Greedy Chouthu and his foresighted, deaf mother were too happy to overlook her past for a sizable dowry of cash, house hold goods and a motorcycle along with a well stocked oil shop in Jaipur. Shanno was excited to live the in the famed Pick City.
‘He never slept so late.’ Ganga Bai’s concerned voice assured Indra further. He continued to brush silently and listened carefully.
‘He is up and brushing teeth.’ It was Prerna’s kid brother.
‘Pintoo…. too bad,… you should never peep in any one’s room.’ She snapped at her mischievous little brother. Whose investigating eyes must have found an uncovered hole or a crack in aged wooden door?
‘That’s bad Beta, we all are so worried and you didn’t say a thing to assure us, that you are up and all right.
‘Thank you- auntie. I am all right. Let me have a bath please. And Pintoo, you can come after half an hour, OK! I have a surprise gift for you.’
The message to Prerna was communicated.
‘What’s it? Tell now? …. Is it a comic book or a chocolate bar?’ Pintoo was eager.
‘Oh now come on. He said half an hour. Didn’t he? Come on now, complete your homework first.’ Prerna was tough with her naughty young brother.
‘No. No. No. I want that chocolate now.’ Pintoo’s protesting voices and tantrums trailed off. She must have dragged him upstairs. He might have made usual veiled threats of exposing her gory secrets. Nevertheless, Prerna surely knew how to deal with her mischievous young sibling. He was the sixth and latest offspring of her parents, who went on producing five daughters, every time desperately expecting a male child, the heir and lighter of their funeral pyres, assuring their place in heaven.

A Room Without Windows#2

They would come go out smiling, with bowed heads like obedient children reveling in expected tantrum of a lovable senile elder. Some would telephone tenants to keep an eye on her and keep them informed of her well-being; their only purpose of troubling them, they would never forget to state. Every one tried to be sure that they would be the first to know and beat others, to be with her in last defining moments.

Indra picked the red plastic jug from the blue plastic bucket of cool water and wet the brush. The cap less toothpaste tube laid crumpled and squeezed flat of its contents. Indra put the index finger on its orifice and squeezed hard at the neck. The effort reluctantly produced a small crusted bar of dry paste with a soft tail, enough for his present needs. He started to rub teeth carefully, not to let the crumb of dry paste drop on the darkened, cracked mosaic floor.
‘No, I don’t believe you at all. He may be a fool, but a fine boy, an artist. They are a different lot and prone to brood over certain important social matters late in night. Don’t you see his name and photograph appear in newspapers regularly? It requires lots of talent to have your activities mentioned, so frequently. These newspaper people are not fools to write about activities of vagabonds and wastrels. For us, our name is in print only after deaths in small obituaries columns. I know how boys are, of his age and temperament. So many things trouble them. Kamal was just like him, an artist. You foolish man, you won’t under stand theses finer things at all. Didn’t you assure to find a reliable tenant for the room at ground floor? Have you done any thing about that bloody promise of yours or not? So don’t try to impress me by telling such crazy things, get lost and mind your own patty business of adulterated cooking oils.’
Indra stopped rubbing teeth and tried to go over, what Ganga Bai has said so eloquently to that crafty rascal. It would have been indeed a treat to watch his crestfallen ape like face.
Therefore, the cat is out of the bag.
He resembled her late son, also an artist.
Suddenly things looked quite brighter. Perhaps he can look forward to take little liberties with her. Like late payment of rent, use of her secluded roof top for rehearsing his lines and may be for an impending rendezvous with Prerna. It too seemed like an old, stale movie scene, repeated millions times over by the dream merchants of Bombay. He decided to find a tenant for her and beat crafty Chauthu.
‘What happened, Tai?’
He could recognize the husky voice of Prerna. The attractive and bright elder daughter of Ghaasi Ram Meena, an office superintendent in the lucrative public works department. Indra felt attracted to her husky voice, large eyes and dusky complexion with well-endowed body. Prerna reciprocated his attempts to find her alone and talk about art and theatre. He has helped her act in a few plays to get over her stage fright and improve public speaking skills. Indra was amazed at her carefully organized and well-planned life style; in contrast to his happy go lucky ways. Whenever his name and photograph appeared in the newspapers, she would send her kid brother to wake him up from his drunken stupor and have a look.
She selected in the state administrative services. Primarily because of her talent and to some extent her birth, which surely must have come handy to score over, equally, placed general candidates. She has already started to behave like a pompous civil servant. Moreover, no body protested for obvious reasons. They were all too happy to have a pushy young civil servant in their crumbling old building. She has organized that the street and open over flowing drains taken care of properly. It was a rare thing to happen in the narrow back lanes of the old city.
Indra, not impressed by her selective indulgence, teased her a lot and punctured her pomposity occasionally, and that may be the reason to set him apart from the fawning, adoring crowd around her. She listened to him and talked about various common interests.
‘Saab, He is still sleeping. I wonder---.’
Chauth Mal addressed Prerna with utmost caution, being aware of her friendship with Indra. Lately she and liked ‘Saab’, an expression of masculine power and authority.
‘So….. what? How are you concerned about him?’
Prerna’s curt and sharp authoritative tone was music to Indra, and it produced an abrupt silence out side.
‘No. I mean-------- I said----No I didn’t mean to-- Saab--“.
Indra smiled, he could picture a fumbling Chauthu with relish. Every body wants to develop and maintain good relations with a civil servant. You never know when it will come handy to further own interests, business and god knows what not

A Room Without Windows ( An Unfinished Story)

Indra painfully opened his heavy eyes and heard the piercing ring of the alarm clock. He could sense heat of various shaped shafts of bright sunlight intruding from holes of the window glass. He slowly extended his right arm and pushed down the stopper to kill its sharp, echoing noise, his concerned and bossy landlady Ganga Bai, must have heard.
He felt pathetic with a throbbing headache- obvious after affect of late night heavy drinking-lots of stinking rum and too little food. He had no choice but to take a strong position against those stupid arguments, rater than to eat that spicy and greasy, stale food at a roadside dhaba on the Aimer road.
It was a Sunday and the clock showed ten minutes to noon. The old ceiling fan was circulating hot stuffy air. He flung the sheet over and sat on the corner of the bed. The floor was heating up by shafts of sunlight, containing numerous floating tiny objects, made visible by the bright sunlight. Particles of dust, pieces of hair, lint with fragments of carbon soot floating around aimlessly. Too much pollution in the Pink City will turn it in to a stink city. He felt the strong, pungent odor from the open sewer one floor below his window, which opened to the gandi gali, the dirty street, receiving a continuous waste discharge of all conceivable variety.
The back lane primarily made to provide ventilation to the closely erected houses, had always been put to another more demanding need- the waste disposal. In older times, the sweepers kept these lanes clean under supervision of stern jamadars. Moreover, in those times the waste generation was in manageable limits. Now it was different, the same old pathetic tale-of indifferent dwellers, city leaders, planners and executioners ruining a thoughtfully planned, beautiful city.
He shifted his position to avoid the hot spots on the floor and settled down to plan- day’s activities. There was not much to plan. Still the activity gave him a feeling of organization and efficiency. He picked up the bottle of water from the wobbling side table. The taste was stale and warm.
‘Babuji! Get up, I am here.’ It was his maid Laxmi Bai to do the cleaning and cooking.
Indra hurriedly got up and started to organize the room. He covered the bed by the sheet and looked around to inspect the room for any object of embarrassment, before letting her in.
‘Indra beta, get up, it is almost twelve noon now.’
It was Ganga Bai and she continued with deep disapproval-‘ I don’t know, what is he does so late every night. I must tell his mother, when she visits him next time.’
Sound of muted laughter and clinking bangles, come filtering through the cracks in the door, window and ventilator. Indra silently went to the washbasin and splashed water on his face. He did not like what he encountered in the left tilted mirror- heavy swollen eyes; disheveled hairs and an unshaven face stared at him. He tried to align the tilted mirror vertically but due to wrongly screwed hanging loop, it faithfully retained the old position almost immediately as he removed his hands from it. Indra gave up and decided to mend it after he is through with the ladies.
A fast combing of hairs, toweling of face, tidying of his night cloths- and he was ready to face the old ladies. He moved towards the door.
The location of his room was quite convenient in all respects. It boasted of a separate toilet and small kitchenette, a deep cabinet with door, open rack for books and 2 deep attics for his sparse belongings.
‘What has happened to our resident drunkard?’
He could recognize the voice of that snooping fox Chauth Mal Soni, occupying the two-room portion opposite his one room. Indra stopped and decided to listen further.
‘He is not getting up as usual, what else? Today I am going to give him a piece of my mind. This is too much.’
Ganga Bai sounded worried, suspicious and angry in a safe descending order. He picked up a peppermint tablet from the small attic to cover the horrible breath. Mehra was indeed a rascal as he produced smelly but heady stuff for such occasions with a criminal regularity.
‘Come on Tai! How can he get up after a debauched night of drinking wine and company of whores?’
Chauth Mal was trying to create trouble for him. Now the sound of laughter was clear and contained a wider participation of ladies and children.
‘Chauthu! Will you shut up and go away to your shop, right away.’
Ganga Bai was sharp and angry with Chauth Mal to utter such prohibited words in the house, and that too in her benign presence.
No, taai, I am telling you a truth. Believe me, I saw him in bad company many a times. And I can prove every thing. You must tell him to leave at once. He is a bad influence in our - I mean-- your building. And one more thing - he mingles with females too much. I just don’t like this vagabond here.’
Chauth Mal spewing venom persisted in his attack; he eyed his room for one of his cousins.
Indra felt a knot of anger forming. This is too much to tolerate- he must punish him right now. He would love to demolish his fake sense of importance severely in front of his charming and seductive wife. Nevertheless, he restrained himself and decided to brush teeth, and reduce the traces of that horribly smelly rum and the bad taste, before he made him self present to the eagerly waiting crowd out side. He silently went to the washbasin in the corner and picked the brush and toothpaste from a deep attic in the solid old wall. His movements must have alarmed a baby lizard, which darted out of the attic and looked at him inquiringly, hanging up side down from attic top surface. Indra stared at the toothbrush, which might have used by the lizard in various ways. Its smooth handle was a good surface to sleep on. There was also a strong possibility of the lizard using it as a urinal. Indra decided to discard the present brush and in future keep such things in relative safety of the cupboard. The lizard meanwhile has haughtily twisted its tail, moved to the wall, and kept on eyeing him by slowly rotating its soft neck; expressions of deep disapproval and annoyance were evident.
Ganga Bai, the sole owner of the building- a childless widow, for some unexplainable reasons treated him rather well. It was quite unusual due to her unpredictable temper and authoritative bearings. She kept a stern eye on her tenants and their life style; and rebuked the wayward suitably. She believed in order and discipline in her building and did her best to maintain it. Now her falling eye sight and aggravating painful back ach has slowed down her vigil and supervision. Her greedy relatives have noticed the deteriorating state, prompting them to increased frequencies of visits to inquire about her health. Ganga Bai knew their motives and informed them of her preordained long life, predicted by the redoubtable Kala Baba the famous astrologer. She also spoke of her fighting spirits and no intentions of an early departure to the swarglok. Her assorted relatives had no alternative but to beat others who paid more visits and tried to be with her on festivals and numerous sradh ceremonies she performed with devotion. They had to be careful and could not take chance with a prospective inheritance of a close kind. Her costly prime property was a powerful magnet, a part of which could be theirs if they play their cards well and become her favorite, being with her when she needs help and advice.
While inclined to be amused, she enjoyed their pampering and attempts to be her favorite darlings. Her bad mood would shoe them out at once and close doors on their faces bluntly.
“I know why you come here; to inspect my decay…. to count number of days to my death? Get out; don’t want to see your greedy faces at all. I am fine and healthy and don’t want to be disturbed. Every time I try to take a nap, tring-tring and there is more one idiot to see if I am dead or not. Where were you all when I fought hundred cases to get this building back inch by inch, room by room, floor by floor?”