Naseeruddin!

 

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Every year, around this time, Naseeruddin goes home for a month.

Naseeruddin is a small, thin man with skin the colour of burnt earth.  He’s not someone you would ordinarily notice. Or even spare a moment thinking about, leave alone write about. I wouldn’t either. But he’s a Very Important Person in my scheme of things and it’s only fair that I dedicate a few lines to tell his story.

Naseeruddin is my chauffeur. It’s a job he’s taken up voluntarily. Rather forcefully, if I might add. For I haven’t officially hired him. I don’t really need a chauffeur. Most of the places I frequent such as the grocery store or my daughter’s school or even the neighbourhood shopping mall (if I’m feeling particularly adventurous) are within walking distance of my home. I don’t need transport to get there.

But there’s no getting away from Naseeruddin! He’s always waiting near the gate with his trademark toothy grin, ready to whisk me away, brushing aside my feeble protests. These days, I don’t even bother. As soon as I spot him, I walk across meekly to him. I climb onto the rickshaw carefully avoiding the torn leather that rises in the middle of the seat like the folds of a flower in bloom. Shreds of gaily coloured plastic, remnants of what was once a cover, hang loosely from the metal hood of the rickshaw. One tring of his rickshaw horn and we are off.

Naseeruddin is very different from others of his ilk. He doesn’t have an attitude, never grumbles or misses a day of work, except for his customary one month leave this time of year. But then, one can’t really compare him to other chauffeurs for he doesn’t drive a swanky Mercedes, Audi or Toyota. He owns a rickety cycle rickshaw, purchased for a “princely” sum of five thousand rupees,

“Where are you from Naseeruddin” I ask him one evening as we are returning from the little girl’s piano lesson. I am hugging the six-year-old close to me so that she doesn’t fall off the speeding rickshaw. Her chubby hands try to grab the plastic hanging from the hood of the rickshaw from within the confines of my arms, giggling all the while as she misses.

“Uttar Dinajpur, Didi,” he replies cheerfully. Uttar Dinajpur is a district in the northern part of West Bengal. One of the most backward districts in the country with a sizeable Muslim population. “Many rickshaw pullers in Gurgaon come from there. I came here three years ago to find a job, after selling off my flower business in the village,” he explains.

As he pedals, Naseeruddin tells me how, burdened by debt and unable to feed his wife and two daughters, he had decided to move to Gurgaon on the advice of a cousin who also worked as a rickshaw puller here. His cousin had loaned him some money to buy the rickshaw. Each month, Naseeruddin sends money home to his wife and daughters after keeping aside a paltry sum for his food and lodging.

“My wife Fatima tries to earn extra money by doing odd jobs in the village. Whatever she can get her hands on. My elder daughter, Nusrat, is eleven. The younger one, Chini, just turned five. Nusrat goes to the Madrasa nearby but Chini is still young. She stays at home, helping her mother with her chores,” Naseeruddin sounds happy when he talks of his family back home.

“I came here in search of a better life but it’s very hard Didi. I barely make enough to make ends meet. People try to cheat me all the time. People like you,” I can’t help wincing at this. “They travel long distances on the rickshaw and don’t give me enough money. Everyone tries to take advantage of you when you are poor.”

It’s a tough life. The man barely makes two hundred bucks in a day if he’s lucky. The uneven Gurgaon terrain makes the job a strenuous one to boot. The rewards? Getting shortchanged all the time by people. I feel guilty. That he comes from my part of world only makes it worse. Is there something I can do? Yes, for sure.

That is why I have allowed him to hire me! As his passenger, being carted to destinations I don’t need to be carted to. Being frowned upon and looked at with disdain by the Gurgaon women in their fancy cars. “God, look at her, so tacky in that cycle thingy! Whoever uses those?” I can hear them snigger.

Can’t say I blame them. Women like me (read: belonging to a particular demographic profile) don’t really use cycle rickshaws in Gurgaon. They either drive their own cars or get driven around by their chauffeurs, husbands, boyfriends, brothers … depending on who is available and willing. In the rare instance when transport is not available and they have somewhere to get to in a hurry, they may use a rickshaw making sure that a battery of excuses is ready. Just in case they bump into someone they know.

 “My car isn’t back from servicing yet and my husband’s taken his car to work.”

 “Oh no, I bought a car yesterday but left the car keys in the showroom. They were sending it to me but I couldn’t wait.”

 “Both my cars are busy. I’ve bought a third car but it isn’t here yet.”

 “My kid wanted to go sightseeing in a rickshaw.”

The excuses keep getting more and more bizarre. There seems to be a unspoken social code that people don’t want to break. One must not be seen in rickshaws in Gurgaon. If you are spotted in one, people will automatically assume that you are economically challenged. Quite ridiculous, isn’t it? But it’s true.

Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn. I choose my own mode of transportation, thank you very much. And while I’m perfectly able to walk (God knows I need that walk), and I own a car as well (and that’s not an excuse!) I’m not going to sweat it. If it’s the small change that’s making a big difference in someone’s life, that’s good enough for me.

Now where did Naseeruddin go? I need to make a quick trip to the grocers.

The shrill tring of the cycle horn and a familiar voice behind me. “Looking for me Didi? Hop on!”

The Man with the Tin Trunk

greensweets

The bell would ring at twelve noon. A couple of loud gongs and a horde of girls would flood the school courtyard. It was “tiffin time,” the magical half hour of freedom from rigorous school routine. The girls’ eyes would focus on a particular corner of the vast compound where a thin, moustachioed man with a wheatish complexion would be opening, what looked like, a medium sized tin trunk.

In the next couple of seconds, all hell would break loose. The girls would surround the man. Grubby, sweaty palms (a bewildering number of them) clutching shiny coins would be extended towards him and their eyes would gleam with excitement as they tiptoed to catch a glimpse of the treasures inside the trunk. The man would smile indulgently and reach inside to begin the day’s sales.

The man with the tin trunk or Walter as he was known in official circles had a very important job. He was our school’s candy supplier while we treated him as our very own Willy Wonka with a treasure chest of goodies: green peppermint sweets, stick jaws and fudge toffees. Each of these would cost fifteen paise and if you bought a rupee’s worth, he would give a discount and sneak a couple of extra in.

The green peppermint sweets were my favourites. Round and pale green, wrapped in cellophane paper, these were exquisite melt in the mouth creations that left a refreshing peppermint aftertaste. You couldn’t stop at one. The stick jaws were tricky and it was never a good idea to have them at lunch and land up for class with an immobilised jaw afterwards. Our teachers were not amused if you couldn’t move your mouth to answer their questions. The stick jaws were devilish things and I always avoided them. The fudge toffees would be sugary squares with a hint of chocolate but delectable all the same.

Every once in a while, I have a craving for peppermint sweets. Like now! I haven’t see one in ages. Though I believe there are still some bakeries in Kolkata that stock them. Perhaps on my next trip, I should get myself some. I often wonder what happened to Walter. He’s probably very old now, if he is alive that is. I wish him well, wherever he is. He brought so much joy to an entire generation of children.

Simple pleasures, fifteen paise a piece.

My friend Afsal

 

afsal

My best friend when I was six years old was a boy named Afsal. He was a year older than me, our driver Abdul’s son. I still remember his face as vividly as though it were yesterday. Fair, light eyed with chiselled features. He would come over to play with me after school and we would run around in our garden, shrieking like banshees, trying to climb trees. Our dogs (there were five of them at that time) would chase us excitedly, desperate to be part of the action. They too loved Afsal.

Baba was very fond of the little boy. I remember Abdul would never bring him over without an invitation. But my father would make sure that Afsal was invited over regularly. When he forgot, I would nag Abdul to get my way. The last memory I have of him was from my seventh birthday party. Afsal had come over, dressed in a spotless white kurta pajama with a tiny cap on his head. He had handed over his birthday gift with a shy smile. I remember tearing open the shiny silver paper and crying out with joy. It was a bright-red battery-operated helicopter. We had played with the toy for hours, sitting on the floor of our living room. My mother had served us cake and chips and the hours had flown by.

Baba died a few years after and we moved to another house. Abdul was the company driver so we never saw him after that. My mother tells me he did visit a couple of times when he heard about my father. But I never saw Afsal ever again.

I wonder about him sometimes. He would have grown into a handsome man. I wonder where he lives, where he works, about his family. I wonder whether he remembers me. If he saw me across the street, would he recognise me? Would he even say hello?

We grew up in a different time. One where our faith, backgrounds or bank balances didn’t determine our friendships. I’d like to believe that things haven’t changed. Or have they?

 

The Dhobi’s Daughter

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pic courtesy: iStockphoto

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 bed sheet 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 cartonbut 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 upfrom 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 bed sheet 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 usedto 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 thefloor, relieved. Daily taskof 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 atthe 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?” I could feel the anger 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, she 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.

Beauty is not skin-deep, thank heavens!

beauty_GST

“My facial should be cheaper today, it’s GST day!” the lady in the chair next to me at the beauty parlour cried out loudly. I turned around to look at her in surprise. Her face was covered in green and three salon attendants were tending to her nails and hair. Two eyes sparkled at me through the green goo. I wasn’t sure whether to smile at her since her mouth hadn’t moved. Possibly to avoid getting wrinkles. Still, I decided it was safer to nod at her in return.

The three attendants perked up from their duties and stared at her with interest. “Oh ho, GST Ma’am,” the wiry chap filing her nails said knowledgeably. “Woh Shuru ho Gaya?” (has it started already?)

“Of course,” the lady sighed and slumped back in her seat. “It started from midnight last night. The parlour should charge less now with the Good Tax, isn’t it?” The three men exchanged glances. I suppressed a giggle.

“There are different taxes for different things, isn’t it Madam?” the hairstylist paused with a strand of coloured hair in his hand. “18 %, 28 % …” The chap had done his homework well.

The lady looked at her reflection in the mirror. The eyes under the mask were round, incredulous. “Yes, yes,” she said quickly. “Different rates.” Her eyes met mine in the mirror. I could tell that she didn’t have a clue about the different rates or the tax! Or the fact that salon services would cost more.

Hours later, I could hear her arguing with the receptionist about the bill. “Arre, no change in your bill. You haven’t given any rebate for GST. This is not done!” before storming out in a huff vowing never to return.

I wonder what the poor woman had been expecting. With all the personal grooming services that she opted for, I’m not surprised she was served a huge bill. It’s a tax for god’s sake, not a discount for looking good.

Like all things, beauty too comes at a price!

 

Waterlogged!

 

FLOODS

 

I’ve been quite perplexed by recent news reports that have claimed that Gurgaon and Faridabad are in the running for the Smart City Challenge announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently. I don’t know about Faridabad but who in their right minds would consider Gurgaon to be a Smart City? I’ve been living in this place for well over 16 years and I can’t think of one good reason that would help it qualify.

Fancy buildings, fancy malls, hell even fancy people do not a Smart City make! I hope the Haryana government is aware of that.

Legend has it that Gurgaon was actually Guru Gram, the ancestral village of Guru Dronacharya who taught military arts to the Pandavas and Kauravas. Despite the posh facade, which in the words of my neighbour Dragon Aunty is “just like Singapore no?” Gurgaon is really nothing more than a village. A very fancy village, if you please.

I could have said, dig deep and you will find the village hidden inside. Only, these days not much digging is required. The rains have washed away the fancy shmancy exterior and all that remains are waterlogged roads and potholes. Miles and miles of them.

It’s raining as I write this post. In fact it’s been raining incessantly the whole day. I’ve waded through dirty water to buy bread and eggs from the grocery shop downstairs, get my daughter from the bus stop outside our condo, and withdraw money from the ATM. It seems as though I’ve been wading through dirty water the whole day! And I haven’t even stepped out onto the main road.

Yes, my building, along with many others is waterlogged. The parking lots are overflowing with dirty, ditch water. Uggh. Dragon Aunty tells me that there was water inside the lift in the next block of flats. We have stores, a doctor’s clinic and an ATM inside our complex. All part of the plan to have modern, self-contained buildings. But what good are shops and ATMs if you have to swim to reach them?

Sadly enough, this seems to be the story of Gurgaon. The Millennium City without proper drainage, infrastructure or electricity. Every time there is a downpour, life comes to a standstill. Perhaps, as one bloke posted on Twitter, it’s time to invest in a boat rather than get another car? Could it be that the civic authorities are trying to model Gurgaon along the lines of a European city? One that requires the use of gondolas? I mean, If Kolkata could be London, why can’t Gurgaon be Venice?

Can gondolas be bought online though? I just remembered. I can’t step outside as I’m waterlogged.

NOTE: I mean no disrespect to Indian villages through this post, some of which are more modern than the one I’m living in now.

The Mummy! And it’s not a Review

mummy

Around the time Wonder Woman was leaving Paradise Island to put an end to the World War, another woman was preparing to wage war, of a different kind, on an audience of around 100 unsuspecting movie-goers.

As the story unfolded on-screen, through the corner of my eye, I saw a little girl (she couldn’t have been more than two or three years old) walk down the red, carpeted stairs of the aisle in the movie theatre in search of her Mummy.  “I want to go to Mummy,” she yelled out loudly in Hindi, startling everyone in the audience. I could see heads turning this way and that, all around me. We all wondered where the mother was and why she wasn’t with her daughter.

The little girl walked a few steps down, tottered in the darkness and yelled out for her Papa this time, undaunted by the loud “ssssshs” emanating from various corners of the auditorium. A figure, possibly her harried Papa, darted out in the dark and proceeded to pull her back to her seat. The little girl wouldn’t move. She had reached the landing. Her mission to find her mother seemed more urgent than Wonder Woman’s quest for Ares. God knows where the poor woman was hiding. I had half a mind to look for her myself so that we could all get on with the movie in peace but the husband gave me a warning look and I froze.

Instead I watched as Papa sat his toddler down on the steps next to my seat and kept her entertained for the remainder of the movie with bags of popcorn and cola that attendants delivered at regular intervals. The two kept up a steady stream of conversation that made it impossible for me to concentrate on the movie. I couldn’t even glare at them. It was too dark for them to see!

So I slouched back in my seat and sulked while Wonder Woman saved the World. Unfortunately for me, Papa and his little wonder had ruined mine! Several hundreds of rupees flushed down the toilet. I would cheerfully wring the Mummy’s neck if I spotted her.

Thankfully for her (not for me), she remained as elusive as the prospect of a relaxing movie night after a hard, work week!