Archive | May 2015

The Grill Door

I’m one who watches movies in installments. I finally got to watch the first story of 5 Sundarikal on my flight this time. It was the most disturbing story in that movie. 

Time to plug in a story I had written a few years ago.

Sanju plodded up the stairs and rang the doorbell. Rama aunty wouldn’t open it soon. She stood there waiting impatiently, digging on a flake of peeling paint on the yellow wall. The schoolbag was weighing her backwards. A good five minutes later Sanju heard shuffling footsteps.

“Hello Sanju, back from school?” Rama aunty gushed as she opened the door, and then went back inside for another two minutes before she came back with the keys.

“Why don’t you come in and have something” she asked in a baby voice.

Sanju shook her head. “Bye aunty”, she said and lugged her bag up the next flight of stairs, clutching the bunch of keys in one hand.

“Rama aunty is doing us a big favour by keeping our house keys. Never impose on her. Politely refuse if she offers you a snack, and never go inside their house” These were her mother’s strict instructions, and Sanju followed them scrupulously.

Rama aunty was not actually an aunty, Sanju thought. She looked more like her grandmother in Kanpur. But since her mother and father both called her Rama aunty, Sanju too did the same. The old woman too probably felt some satisfaction, being called aunty by a nine year old. How come there is a grandmother in that house when there are no children? Sanju always wondered.

She missed both her grandmothers a lot. She hardly saw them. Sometimes she visited on Diwali or for a few days during her summer vacations. She treasured those moments with her grandparents. One was in Dehradun and the other was in Kanpur. Both of them never visited their house in Noida. “There is nothing for us there” was their reply whenever they were invited to stay over.

She stood outside her house and fumbled with the keys. She pulled out the silver key and opened the silver lock. The iron grill door opened. She then pulled out the golden key and opened the golden lock. She struggled to close the grill door, holding two locks and the key bunch in her left hand. She then opened the wooden door and went inside the house, throwing both the locks and the keys on the couch in the living room.

She ran to her room and threw her school bag on her bed, and went straight to the dining table. She poured herself a glass of water from the jug. “No fridge water” her mother always warned her.

“If you drink fridge water, you will lose your voice and will not be able to sing anymore” Sanju loved to sing.

Her mother had put out the green tuck box today. Sanju eagerly opened it, waiting to see what goodies lay in store for her that afternoon. Apples. She scrunched her face and closed the box. They had become brown and the room smelled like the Sector 22 market as soon as she opened the box. She looked around; there was nothing else that her mother had put out for her. No cookies, no cakes, no Munch. Angry, she went to the kitchen to search for something to eat. The big box was sitting right on top. She could see the Namkeen packet inside, pressing against the translucent white plastic, trying hard to break free.

“No, I cannot reach it even if I stand on the stool” she thought with frustration and ran back to the dining room.

She opened the thermos flask and poured out her Bournvita into the yellow mug. She took a sip. It was tepid, as usual. She spat out the bits of cream floating on top that stuck to her tongue. She hated that. Holding the mug in one hand, she opened out the door to the balcony and stood outside. She smiled at Rakesh who was standing on the opposite balcony. He was holding a red mug.

“Next month, I will get the red mug with my Bournvita” Sanju decided. He took up his right hand to his mouth questioningly, “Did you eat?” he gestured. Sanju shook her head back slowly, sadly. He shrugged back.

They stood for a while smiling at each other, sipping their chocolate flavored health drinks from free mugs. Both wishing they had the other colour. Hers was tepid, but his would be hot enough she thought. Shiny didi would have mixed fresh Bournvita for him and strained off the bits of cream. Shiny didi was in eighth standard and was allowed to light the gas stove.

Rakesh was also in her school, her class. In fourth standard, but he was in section C. She was in section A. The three of them, Sanju, Rakesh and Shiny didi along with Karan and Rinkie from R block were rickshaw mates. Every morning, Sanju’s mother dragged her out of bed, hurriedly dressed her, made her stuff two slices of bread into her reluctant mouth, wash it down with a yellow mug of Bournvita and literally chased her out of the house to the waiting rickshaw already overflowing with children and schoolbags.

The rickshaw uncle would then pedal the five of them and their schoolbags for another two kilometers to school on his broomstick legs, coughing and spitting every five minutes. Sanju hated the rickshaw uncle’s smell and always sat at the back, her legs hanging outside, facing the opposite direction, smiling and waving at the cars they tried to cunningly overtake in the traffic jams. The same rickshaw uncle would pick them up at three o’clock and drop them back home.

Rakesh, Shiny didi, Karan and Rinkie had come for her birthday party the previous month. Why is my birthday only on 16th of July, she wondered. Couldn’t it be on the 16th of every month? This year, she had actually celebrated two birthdays. On her Real Birthday, she had to go to school, but she took a box of Alpenlebies to distribute to all her friends and a tin of Haldiram Rasagullas for her class teacher. They had all sang Happy Birthday and clapped. Everyone was so nice to her that day.

And then that Saturday, she had a Second Birthday with a party at home. Her Delhi uncle and her Ghaziabad uncle had come with their aunties. Reema aunty and uncle had come from Sector 61 with her little cousin Coco. She was a bit disappointed that none of her classmates from school had come though she had announced that they were all invited before handing out the sweets on her Real Birthday.

Three other kids from their building had also come. Sanju smiled at them sweetly, though she didn’t like them. All of them wore the party hats, ate the goodies laid out and admired the decorations. They are all so jealous of me, Sanju thought. They all sang Happy Birthday again as she cut the clown shaped cake.

Her mother had dressed her up like a film star that day and she even allowed her to apply a touch of lipstick. Sanju had pouted her lips for the rest of the evening, trying hard not to press her lips together lest the lipstick faded away. She ran up to the mirror every now and then to check whether it had worn away. They had taken a lot of pictures and videos and her father played it on his laptop after the guests had left. The three of them had sat on her parents’ bed and watched happily.

Rakesh and Shiny didi had given her a pencil box that opened on both sides. Karan had given her a doll and Rinkie had given her a shiny necklace with matching earrings. The three kids had brought some fluorescent crayons, sketch pens and a Spiderman doll. She hated the Spiderman doll and hated the kid who brought it even more now.

Her uncles and aunties had disappointingly handed her envelopes of money. Her mother had allowed her to remove the one rupee coins stuck to the envelopes but took away the money inside.

“I will put it in your name in a bank account Sanju, the money will grow with you” she said.

“That is my money,” Sanju thought angrily. “They gave it to me and I want to buy that doll house from Geepee Store.”

But she knew that her mother would scold her if she said it out loud. No,not today. Her mother had been so sweet to her since morning and she did not want to spoil that. It was afterall her Second Birthday.

***

Sanju wished so badly that her mother would be there to open the door for her every afternoon when she returned from school. Make her hot Bournvita and Maggi noodles. She wanted to tell her that Miss had praised her in front of the whole class for finishing her sums first. She wanted to tell her that a frog had hopped inside their class today and Rita had screamed and climbed up on the table. She wanted to tell her mother that Vijay had Made Toilet in his pants today.

Sanju giggled recalling how Miss had pushed him outside, muttering unapprovingly “You are in fourth standard Vijay, what is this?”

But she knew she could never share all this with her mother. Even if she did, it would just be acknowledged with a grunt from her before she started yelling at her to finish her homework.

But Sanju was glad that her mother came home to her every evening. Rinkie lived with her father and her grandmother. Her mother’s office had sent her to America six months ago and she had not come back yet. Rinkie said that she phoned  every day and promised to bring her gifts, but still, Sanju decided that she was luckier. She prayed that her mother’s office would never send her to America.

She finished her Bournvita and turned the yellow mug upside down to show Rakesh on the opposite balcony. He did the same with his red mug and they both giggled. Shiny didi came and shooed Rakesh back inside the house. They both smiled and waved at Sanju before closing the door. Sanju wiped her mouth with her school tie and went back inside the house.

She went to her room and changed into the clothes her mother had laid out on the bed for her. She hung up her school uniform on the cupboard handle and pondered for a minute. She could start doing her homework, but then she decided not to. If she finished it now, her mother would not sit with her for even those few minutes in the evening. Everyday, her mother darted back and forth from the kitchen to the dining table where Sanju sat with her homework. She was always irritated and raised her voice at the tiniest mistakes Sanju made, but somehow Sanju cherished these moments with her mother. She asked her the silliest doubts and enjoyed it when her mother tried to explain to her.

“Is it Either or Ither mummy? You say Either but my Miss says Ither” she would ask in between long division and her mother would reply in an exasperated tone “Both are right Sanju, now finish your sums.”

So she put her homework back in the bag and looked around the room wondering what else she could do now.

She was bored of the computer games. She wanted to ask her father to download some new games, but didn’t know when to ask him. He always sat with his laptop on his bed and never did anything on the other computer. These days he signaled angrily at her to leave the room whenever she went up to him.

She switched on the TV and surfed channels for a while. She tried to watch Disney channel for sometime and then went back and forth from Pogo to Hungama. She was bored. Kareena Kapoor was dancing on Sony. Sanju loved Kareena. She turned up the volume and began to sing with her. She climbed on the couch and began to dance. She had been in the group dance for the annual day last year and was hoping to do a solo number this year. She jumped up and down happily with Kareena mimicking her movements and her facial expressions. She folded up her pink T shirt high up to her chest and pulled her pants a bit lower to expose her belly button. She ran one hand through her hair and the other all over her body, singing along, pink with excitement. She plopped down on the couch happy and exhausted after the song was over. An advertisement.

“I will become an actress when I grow big”, she decided. She made a mental note to dig into her mother’s dressing table later. It was forbidden, but then Mummy is not here, she thought.

She sat waiting in anticipation for the next song but it was a boring one. Disappointed, she changed channels again. Hannah Montana was crooning away on Disney. Sanju sang along with her loudly, trying to get the words, the tune and the accent right. She moved away from the TV, still singing along. Hannah Montana didn’t dance as well as Kareena.

She opened the wooden living room door and stood behind the iron grill doors, looking out through the holes. Her mother had told her never to open the grill doors once she came home.

“It is like I am in jail,” Sanju thought angrily “Anyway, mummy is not here.” The bolt squeaked loudly tickling her teeth. She opened the grill door and stood on the doorstep, not knowing what to do next. She stood on the door and swung it back and forth, staring into the empty hallway.

The door of the opposite apartment opened. An Uncle came out. He was not a new Uncle, she had seen him many times, but her parents had never spoken to him. She didn’t know his name.

The Uncle smiled at her and nodded, wriggling his fingers gesturing to her to come to him. Sanju shook her head and smiled shyly. He gestured again. And she shook her head again swinging the door almost closing it.

The Uncle went back inside. “Oh no”, Sanju thought. “He is angry with me. I should have gone when he called.” She stood on the door and swung it back and forth again, loudly, hoping he would hear it and come out.

A minute later he came back and stood on his doorstep. He had a Munch and a packet of Lays in his hands. He smiled and called her.

Sanju’s face broke out into a huge smile. She ran to him.

The iron grill door swung slowly and banged against the wall.

Hannah Montana continued to croon on Disney channel.

A housefly buzzed greedily over the sticky yellow mug lying on the dining table.

Inside the darkened apartment, the Uncle smiled again. This time, Sanju didn’t smile back.

Youth (Scenes from Provincial Life #2)- J.M. Coetzee : 8/52 ( Memoir)

A few years ago I went on a date with an aspiring writer. He was the stereotype. Tall, lanky, unshaven, badly dressed and smelling of stale cigarette smoke. He had that faraway look on his face while he spoke about the book he wanted to write. He then told me that he had just quit his job the previous day to focus on the book and was in no position to take what we had to more than just one date. I nodded. On the train back, I realized that if I had met him this way when I was 20,  I would have totally fallen for him. ‘Write me like one of your French girls’ I would have said to him. And he would have. And then dedicated the book to me. And thanked me in his Booker acceptance speech… I Google him once in a while to check whether he made it. He still hasn’t.

A few weeks ago another crush,again an aspiring writer who is going through the motions in a regular desk job, mentioned this book to me. ( Yeah. Looks I have a thing for aspiring writers. And not without good reason ) A book about a poet stuck in a dead end computer programming job at IBM and how he could totally relate to it. Though the crush itself didn’t last for more than a week, the book recommendation did.

A white confused South African who wants to escape his homeland,one he feels is not rightfully his, to become a poet in the land of the artists and writers. While he would love to go to France, he settles for England. And there, he is again forced to settle for less. He settles for a job that puts food on his table but eats away his creative soul. He settles for women who aren’t the muse he is desperately looking for. But that poet in him does not settle down. It flits from thought to thought, aimlessly drifting through the days and nights, summers and winters hoping that his dreams will somehow find him.

The prose is beautiful. It just moves from moment to moment, feeling to feeling in a rushed, haphazard way. It makes you feel helpless and while you keep hoping for something good to happen, you somehow know that nothing is going to happen.There are so many poets and authors referred to in the book, most of them whom I haven’t read or even heard of. Makes me want to try them, maybe I’ll start with Ezra Pound, our hero’s hero. While the political situation across the world in the early sixties isn’t the main backdrop, it is the undercurrent that drives the narration forward. I realized that  know so little about South Africa. There’s a touch of India too. Satyajit Ray makes an appearance and so does Indian curry. And it also appears that Indian computer programmers living abroad haven’t changed their habits over the decades.

‘”At 18 he might have been a poet. Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is a computer programmer, a 24year old computer programmer in a world where there are (yet) no 30 year old computer programmers. At 31 he is too old to be a programmer: one turns oneself into something else – some kind of businessman – or shoots oneself”

Words that hang heavy on me. Different contexts, same implication. Scary. Very scary.

Had this book not been labelled a ‘fictionalized memoir’, it would have made it to my dark and twisty shelves. But no. Our hero went on to win the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature. If Astrid or Caroline or Jacqueline Google him, they would know that he made it.

Knowing

We make such a lovely picture today that we could sell anything on Indian television right now. Anything from expensive suiting to insurance policies. Or multinational banks. Or maybe even pure gold jewelry.  Or a health drink. A teary eyed mother, grey haired  in silk and pearls dabbing her eyes with the edge of her sari pallu. A proud father glancing around in all directions to no one in particular and mumbling ‘My son, my son’, much like how he says ‘Peace be with you’ at mass every Sunday. And a son who has just been awarded his doctorate from the most prestigious university in the United States of America.

I am enjoying playing the stereotypical ignorant- but- proud -mother moment today. I really still don’t fully understand what Aryan’s doctorate is for. But I know that it is something that will help save lives someday. And I know that my son must be something of a prodigy for getting this PhD at twenty four. That is all that matters to me. Ravi is beaming so much that the metal cap on his last molar flashed when it caught a ray of light from somewhere. That metal cap after his root canal treatment on that tooth, his symbol of martyrdom. Why spend money on a ceramic cap for a tooth that won’t show when that money can buy Aryan food for a couple of days in America, he had said, feeling proud of the sacrifice he was making for his son. It wasn’t like my son actually needed his parents to go on an austerity drive and tighten their belts to put food on his table though. He had gone there on a full scholarship and was sending money back home for the past few years. I resented Ravi for trying to take any bit of credit for Aryan’s American education.

That crash diet and tucked in stomach have helped Ravi fit into this suit he is wearing today, but the pride that has filled every pore of his body is making it burst at the seams. A rare wave of fondness sweeps over me when I look at him today. Was this the man I came to America with 35 years ago? The man with whom I went back to India with six months later, carrying Geetu in my womb and the blame of having brought him bad luck on my shoulders. It wasn’t Lehman Brothers or the sub prime crisis that led to the recession that got him fired. It was his new, luckless wife. We were never able to step into America again afterwards, and a day did not pass for the next thirty five years without me having to hear how it was I who was to blame for the wretched existence we were forced to lead in India.

In an arranged marriage, they told me that familiarity will lead to like and like will lead to love. But in our marriage, everything led to hate. Ok, let me give him some credit here. Ravi never hated me, it was I who hated him. I hated him for taking it for granted that the freshly graduated mechanical engineer would be a contented housewife. I hated him for making my brain rust over the next three decades. I hated him for calling up his mother every night to report to her about what I had cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner and go on to say that it tasted nothing like what she churned out from her magic kitchen. I hated him for switching off the bedroom  light the moment he wanted to go to sleep, ignoring me lying down beside him engrossed in a Dan Brown novel. I hated him for not noticing my new haircut, my new clothes. I hated him for not asking me if I had eaten dinner whenever I laid out his food when he came home past midnight. I hated him for not being Mathew McConnaughey or Hugh Grant. I hated him for not being able to talk about Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. I hated him for being 11 years older than me. I hated him. I hated him, but I continued to exist as his wife. For Geetu. For my parents’ place in society . For his parents’ place in society. For his sister’s wedding. For his sister’s husband’s family’s place in society. For his office parties. For his bedroom. For his kitchen. I continued to exist as his wife. And every day, I began to shrink a little so that I could enter that shell I was building. The shell that would protect me from the life I hated.

But then everything suddenly changed. It must have been a year before Aryan was conceived that my life was suddenly took a turn, and to the surprise of luckless me, it was a turn for the better. I had shrunk myself into a non-entity and was living a comfortable life inside that little shell I had entered when all of a sudden there was birdsong and sunshine in my life again. Maybe it was the very act of taking out my engineering degree from that suitcase on the loft or being able to step out of the house for something other than restocking my pantry. I wasn’t actually applying my engineering skills in that job, but I was doing something more than two loads of laundry a week and it was so liberating. I suddenly started to have someone tell me that my writing was really good or that the peacock green kurta made my eyes sparkle. I had something to wake up for every morning and because of that, I had something to come back to every evening.

And then, Aryan was born. When I look at Geetu these days, I feel guilty. She has turned out pretty good inspite of all what I put her through. She is in a solid marriage full of laughter and love today. So no, I think I managed to smile through the hate I had for her father successfully. I hope she has blanked out those few days when I was in the hospital after I overdosed on sleeping pills when she was five years old. I’ve never been able to get over the guilt of having done something so selfish. I love Geetu, my firstborn. My daughter, the one I dreamed of dressing up in pretty pinks and yellows since I was thirteen. I love her, I do. But I don’t love her as much as I love Aryan. There, I said it. And I feel bad because I don’t even feel bad about it. But I am Aryan’s mother today and I won’t allow myself to think about anything else. Anything.

***

Aryan comes up to me and envelops me in a bear hug. He is so tall, towering over me and Ravi. My heart fills up with so much emotion that it hurts. Blood rushes to my head and I can hear my heart beat in my ears. He says something, I cannot hear. The thudding gets louder and I sit down. He gives me a peck on my cheek and goes over to speak to a friend who just waved to him. I look at my boy. He is surrounded by a group of friends now and they are all laughing about something. A girl walks up to him and puts her arm around his waist. Aryan puts his arm around her shoulder, glances at me and raises his eyebrows seeking my approval. I smile back at him. There is so much happiness in the air today.

***

And to think that twenty five years ago, I sat on a wooden bench in the basement of that building, bladder full of water, planning for this moment today to never happen. He was with me all the way, holding my hand through it all, saying that he supports whatever decision I make. But deep inside he didn’t want me to do it. He wanted me to keep the baby. It was the only thing we have to show for ourselves, for these months of joy we shared together. We have no other future, he said, let this baby be the future we share. And then he leaned over and whispered in my ear ‘I love you . I love you both’ Maybe it was the claustrophobia I felt in that tiny medical lab, maybe it was his hot breath that warmed me when he whispered those words or maybe it was just my heart telling me to. But I just grabbed my purse and ran outside. He ran behind me, following me up the narrow steps to the main road. I flagged down an autorickshaw and jumped into it  before he could catch up with me. And as I was leaving,  I looked back and saw him wave. I am not sure if it was a wave goodbye or a wave asking me to stop for him. I just waved back. I’m sure he couldn’t have seen me through that hazy plastic autorickshaw window, but that wave was my closure.

***

He kept his word. I’m surprised at how we have managed to stay unconnected all these years. I still  haven’t mustered up the courage to Google him.  He left to Australia a few weeks before Aryan was born. We remained in touch only on the phone after that afternoon at the abortion clinic. No words of our love were spoken though. It was just pure business. I would keep the baby, but as mine, not ours. He would never contact us again. Ever. His PR to Australia was coming through and he would have left anyway. ‘You’ll know, Deepak’, I said to him when he called me from the airport after having made his his wife and children wait somewhere far away. ‘You’ll always know. This whatever we have had for the past two years is stronger than any other bond I’ve made in my entire life. And you are leaving a part of that behind with me. You needn’t be here. Whatever happens, somehow, you’ll just Know’

***

Do you Know, Deepak? Wherever you are, can you sense something today? Your son has just been awarded his PhD and I am here celebrating it with him and the man with whom I raised him.  But I can sense it Deepak, I can see you opening a bottle of your favorite scotch tonight and celebrating too. Because I know that you Know. Like you’ve always Known.

We.

Dedicated to that child who should have been