September 21st, 2008

Another short story..

My first attempt at fiction. Its a bit on the longish side and I am sure it could do with some ruthless editing, but I did not have the heart to further slaughter my own baby. Anyway, do let me know what you guys think..

The title is 'Just Another Day' - not very imaginative, I know, but writing the story itself proved so mentally exhausting, I couldn't come up with a better title.

- Aparna.

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Most non-writers who take to the pen on an impulse, to capture some profound moment before it slips by un-recorded, usually begin their tale with a description of the weather. And thus shall I begin mine.

It was a sultry morning - typical of summers in Mumbai. It was only 7 ‘o’ clock and already the air hung about warm and heavy, with a light breeze displacing it every now and then. I stood at the window of my fifth floor flat, a cup of tea in my hands. White porcelain cup, with a brown ring around the rim, and a brown, floral print at the bottom. And a chip in the handle. The tea-set to which this cup belonged had been a gift, given to me at the time of my marriage by well-meaning relatives. It was typical of the gifts we gave to each other in the family – boring, but practical.

Far below me, the city was just stirring to life, its numerous residents spilling out onto the streets to prepare for another day of the same old, mind-numbing routine. Perched on the fifth floor as I was, I had often seen the same morning scenes being enacted day after day with such precision that I could almost give you a detailed description of what anyone was doing at any given point in time, and what they would do next, without having to look out of my window. Actually, why don’t I do that?

Let’s start with Savitri Mungekar, 6-year old Ashutosh’s mother. Her family lives in the adjacent building, and at 7 in the morning, she would usually be escorting her son to the bus-stop, where she would give him company till the school bus arrived. Ashutosh and my son, Karan, studied in the same class at school and I can see her now in my mind’s eye – a short, plump woman in her trademark brown gown – the dark brown one, flecked with yellow flowers and with white lace at the sleeves and the neck-line. And a pink chiffon dupatta worn as a ‘V’ to further proclaim her modesty. In one hand, she would be carrying Ashutosh’s green, rectangular school-bag, packed the night before with the books needed for today’s lessons. And in the other, she would firmly hold onto Ashutosh’s own small hand, applying pressure every now and then to indicate whether she wanted him to walk fast, or slow, or to behave. Words become superfluous in such conversations – the touch of a hand, the expression in one’s eye conveyed all that needed to be said. And thus a dialogue would ensue between mother and son that others wouldn’t even have suspected. We would usually meet at the bus-stop every morning, she with Ashutosh, and I with Karan, and we would chat a bit about the new teacher at school, or the revised fee structure, or the complicated bit of craft assignment that the kids had just been assigned and whether she had had any luck in twisting that bit of craft paper just so, to make it resemble a peacock. And we would both complain that kids were learning more and more difficult things at increasingly younger ages – at age 6, all I had been expected to know were my alphabets. A to Z. And it was ok, cute even, when I said ‘dubloo’ instead of ‘double – u’. When Karan does that these days, he simply gets a negative remark in his report card.

Then there was Nandi, the cow. Karan and I never got around to figuring out if she had a proper name, the one assigned to her by her owners; this was partly because I never bothered with trifles such as a cow’s name. So Karan simply took to calling her ‘Nandi’, as a tribute to that great beast of Hindu mythology. The name rankled – it seemed a bit incongruous that such a decidedly male name, and one that had been assigned to the superstar from among all the animals in our mythology, had been so easily given away to this, a bored-looking heifer permanently flitting away the flies that buzzed around her with wide swooshes of her tail. But with all the adamancy typical of a 6-year old, Karan refused to refer to her by any other name. And she remained ‘Nandi’ for us. Every morning, Nandi and her owner, a mere lad of 14 or 15 would pass by our building, on their way to the Krishna temple near the school bus-stop. This daily trip coincided with Karan’s own journey to the bus-stop – he would gaze with fascination at the animal, even as I tugged and pulled at him, trying to make him go faster, lest we miss the school bus yet again. By the time Karan was safely packed away into the waiting bus, the cow would have made it to the temple, where it stayed all day long, feeding on the tufts of grass that devotees bought from the vendors right outside the temple complex and supplied to the cow in a show of piety. Occasionally, an especially-ardent devotee would also feed it stale chapattis, left-over from dinner the night before. Some would do it because the ‘punditji’ had assured them that this would be a good way of absolving themselves of their ‘dosh’; others because they reasoned that chapattis would be more wholesome food for the poor creature (didn’t they feed their own children garam-garam chapattis, made of wheat-flour whose packaging claimed such and such levels of iron and vitamins and other things that were so essential to health?). But they all did make one small concession in deference to the animal they sought to feed – they took care not to coat these chapattis with ghee.

Next of course, listed in this narrative in just the order in which Karan and I came across him everyday on our way to the bus-stop, was ‘Nai’. Now, if I had my way, ‘Nai’ would figure in no way either in this narrative or in our lives. But in that irritating way kids have of befriending just about anyone they meet, Karan had gone ahead and made great friends out of this roadside barber. He was not a bad man, I must quickly add, but he simply wasn’t the kind of person you want your kid to be spending time with. But Karan held some inexplicable fascination for this toothless, old man – looking out at the world through spectacles as old as him, and framed by thick black plastic that permanently hid from view the upper part of his face. We passed him on our way to the bus-stop, where he would be setting up shop for the day – a rectangular wooden bench where would sit he, and his clients, poor locals who only wanted a quick haircut and a shave. And perhaps a head-massage ‘maalish’ as well, if they had managed their funds well in the month gone by. Karan would make it a point to stop by everyday and prattle on with this aged barber; heaven alone knows what they would talk about, but I noticed that this morning banter had become something that both Karan and the barber would look forward to, the barber’s toothless grin becoming even broader every time he spotted Karan skipping along towards him. I would ignore both, and continue down the road, turning to look back when I deemed they had had enough of conversation – ‘Karan, Karr-ran… we are getting late, beta.’ Once I did get some inkling of what the old man and my young boy discussed – Karan came rushing to me, his face all lit up. It seems the old man was a genius, forever showing business acumen that left my son amazed – just recently, he had discovered that most people wouldn’t go in for a hair dye from him because it took a lot of time applying it with the traditional brush, and besides, all his customers had extremely short hair with the result that it was more often their scalp, and not their hair, that absorbed the dye. His solution? He started applying the dye with a tooth brush, and business had started booming again.

Then there was Sai – our indispensable ‘mochi’, who had shrewdly sensed a good business opportunity when he started setting up shop early in the morning in the vicinity of the bus-stop. And his shrewdness had paid off. Parents like me – with mischievous, careless children like Karan and Vijay (my other son, elder to Karan by 6 years) always had a bag that required mending, or a shoe whose sole needed replacing. There was always something or the other – a zipper that wouldn’t close, a shoe whose stitches had come apart, a bag that had ripped at the seams. And unlike the richer classes that just went ahead and spoilt their children by getting them new stuff every time – ‘Oh, the bag won’t lock? We’ll buy you a new one beta.’ Or ‘The shoe’s looking rather old, and worn. It’s time to get a new pair’. – I practice economy. And no point splurging on new things – at the rate my Karan and Vijay were damaging their stuff, I’d be shelling out money for a new bag / shoe every other week. So I rely on Sai instead. And it’s pretty convenient that he has started setting up shop early – there’s enough time while waiting for the school bus every morning to squeeze in a repair or two.

And then there are the trees. Three in a row, they line the stretch of road that lies between the corner bend that leads to our building, and the bus-stop. It’s particularly pleasant walking on that stretch every morning. These trees are a common sight in Mumbai, you’d find them everywhere, but I haven’t really managed to, or bothered to, actually, find out their names. That’s another difference between a writer and a non-writer I suppose. Writers always know the names of the things they are describing. And they can even tell you where it came from. But I can only describe the tree for you. It’s got these small leaves, about 20 of them arranged on each branch. They have yellow flowers that keep dropping on to the ground in the middle of the night. But by morning, several of these fallen flowers would already have been trampled by motorists and pedestrians. But the flowers are rather pretty. And you’d usually find them on the road, forming a yellow carpet of crushed mass. If one ever escaped this rather cruel fate, Karan would promptly pick it up and hand it to me, expecting me to wear it in my bun of hair, as a sign that I understood and appreciated his token of love. The leaves of this tree are pretty too, and remind me of the time Vijay had brought home a plant sample from his Science class. That plant too had similar leaves – he called it the ‘Touch-me-not’ plant, and the leaves indeed did curl up every time Karan or I touched them. The leaves on these trees reminded me of that ‘touch-me-not’ plant, but I doubted if they were indeed the same.

And that reminds me – I must make it a point to meet Rohini Kamble today, Vijay’s tuition teacher and wife of the proprietor of ‘Kamble’s Coaching Classes’. For a long time now, Vijay’s grades at school have been slipping. And I had decided to give her a piece of my mind – what was the point of sending my child to a tuition class if she insisted on filling it up with 60 students (same as school) where a child simply didn’t get the attention his parents had paid for. Arjun, my husband, had been trying to coax me not to enter into battle- after all, his grades had started slipping only after Karan had died in that road accident. And somewhere within me, I knew he was right. It had only been two months since that accident, and life had changed for all of us. Vijay at least had started going back to school after an extended absence of three weeks, but I had yet to resume work. Somehow, things didn’t make sense anymore. I knew the external world had not changed its rhythm – everything was as it had always been. But a connection had snapped.
People stopped being ‘Karan’s best friend’s mother’, ‘Karan’s Nandi’, ‘Karan’s Nai’, ‘Karan’s Mochi’. Or ‘Karan’s flower’ for that matter. They just became people and things I observed from my far-away perch on the fifth floor, leading lives that had once been a familiar aspect of my own, but which had slowly dissolved into nothingness. Their lives went on as usual, but I thought, with a sudden pang, that one detail had changed: had they noticed? Had Nandi, the cow noticed that there was one little boy who no longer followed each swoosh of her tail with eager fascination; did Nai notice that he now had lacked an audience to boast about his business savvy; did Mochi miss his most loyal customer; did that little yellow flower on the road, that will soon be trampled under a car wheel, miss its savior?

Perhaps these questions, by their very nature, will forever remain unanswered. But I am making an effort to find out the answers to those other ‘trivial’ questions that never seemed to matter before. Starting with Gomati: Nandi’s real name. But I have a feeling Karan, even from up there, prefers ‘Nandi’. Adamant in heaven as he was on Earth.