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 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.
“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.
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.
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!
What is it about Bengalis and their must-have dish, mutton curry, on Sunday?
As I type this, I have mutton and potatoes cooking inside a pressure cooker, delicious aroma wafting into my living room from the kitchen, to remind me that I need to turn the gas off after a couple of minutes. And it’s a Sunday.
There goes the warning whistle.
They say it’s tradition. I find that odd as I’ve never been particularly traditional. Yet I find myself craving mangsho every Sunday. My family isn’t very traditional either. Though my ancestry dates back some three hundred years in West Bengal. My father left home when he was twenty to be a mariner. He loved the seas and was hardly ever seen shopping for groceries on a Sunday morning like most traditional Bengali men. My mother cooked only when she had to, though she was happiest with a book in her hands, not a ladle.
Yet, oddities aside, every Sunday we ate meat curry for lunch.
I’m grown up now. At least I hope so. I don’t live in Kolkata anymore. I couldn’t be further away from it, enconsced in the heart of dusty Jat Land. Yet every Sunday morning, there’s that all-too-familiar gnawing in my stomach.
I buy the meat myself. The husband does NOT go shopping with a tholey (cloth shopping bag – I’ve always hated the ghastly things) though he would oblige if I asked him to. My meat is home delivered. The friendly neighbourhood butcher knows the cuts of meat that I like. I wash and cook the mutton myself, potatoes fried golden brown, chunks of meat marinated and cooked in a fiery amber gravy before being tossed into the cooker with the potatoes to sizzle in their own juices.
The cholesterol scare keeps us away from the dish every now and then but it’s back on our table sooner or later. Always on a Sunday though.
There goes the whistle. I’d better go. My meat is cooked.
They say people from West Bengal have a chip on their shoulders. Who wouldn’t? Imagine laboring through life, tough enough as it were, with a name gifted indulgently to you by a fond uncle or a loving grandma when you were little. Too little to protest.
Cut to the present. Imagine the horrors of having that name discovered, being ridiculed by the world at large. From anonymity to the centre of attention, except none of it is good. The name that you spent your whole lifetime trying to hide. How does it feel Potla? Or should I call you Habool or Phoolkumar? Or are you a hulk of a man who goes by the name of Chhotu or an obese, middle aged woman called Flopsy?
My pet name, or as Bengalis would have it, daak naam, was recently revealed to the world thanks to a tip off by a friendly relative on a social media site. I don’t think she meant any harm but I have been struggling with the jibes ever since, silently seething. Why did my supposedly loving parents allow this to happen to their daughter? I haven’t a clue. And no, it doesn’t help that it is a one-of-a-kind name and that you cannot claim mistaken identity.
Still, I guess it could have been worse. I could have been named after a cat. Or a dog.
During a visit to her sister-in-law’s place once, my grandmother discovered, much to her horror, that one of the many cats in the household had been named after her. Throughout her visit, she heard her sister-in-law (the matriarch of the family) screeching out at regular intervals: “Penky, stop jumping on the table!” “Penky get off the bed!” “Penky don’t you dare touch the milk!” You can imagine my grandmother’s state the whole time. She had been sitting in one corner of the room, drinking a cup of tea, rather quietly as this particular relative was not a favourite. I realise now that the feeling was probably mutual!
Each time, her name was yelled out, my grandma would jump out of her skin. She didn’t know why she was being admonished for the things she was NOT doing till her sister-in-law slyly introduced her to her namesake. A scruffy looking cat. Grandmother was humiliated to say the least! Secretly though, I thought it was hilarious and the perfect revenge!
Another time, my father was invited to a colleague’s son’s rice ceremony. On reaching the venue, he found the house teeming with guests, most of whom he obviously didn’t know. So he chose to park himself in a spot away from the crowds, next to the golden-brown dog tied to a charpoy with a chain. After a while, he heard the host, his colleague, shouting out loudly for a “Goldie? Goldie, where are you? Come here at once. Goldie?????”
My father helpfully offered: “Goldie is here, next to me, tied to the bed.”
The host came over to where my father was sitting, eyeing him rather coldly. “That’s not Goldie, that’s Jimmy. Goldie is my son, he’s crawled off somewhere and we can’t see him!”
Do you blame my father? I would have made the same mistake.
How was anyone to know that Goldie was not the dog.
Incidentally, Goldie is now a middle-aged, pot-bellied man, working as a manager in a bank. Good thing, he’s not on social media though.
Disclaimer: Any similarity to unfortunate pet names of persons living or dead is purely coincidental!