Friday, September 10, 2010

Long Shadows

"Run Paati (grandma) run," her granddaughter let out a warning cry.

Tulasi hastened her pace and got hold of Karuna who was a few steps ahead. Once hand in hand, she looked around. There was nothing.

"Why did you ask me to run, you wicked girl?” she glared.

"I saw monkeys on the tree and got scared," confessed Karuna.

Diffusing the alarm, Tulasi held her close, “Never run from them. Just let them be. They will not harm you." Feigning confidence was never easy but she tried. Tulasi was scared of them too.

They were walking on the uneven elevated ground near the Reservoir Dam. They descended towards a small temple by the river. Her younger son Somesh was one of the assistant Engineers at the Dam site. The elder one, Harish was an engineer too but he had chosen to work with a telecom giant in Sweden. Her two sons were like the two pillars of a nation. Government and private sector divide was not just limited to their jobs; it had seeped into their lives as well.

Tulasi liked getting up late, quite unlike many from her generation. This solved a lot of problems. No rush for the bathroom. No hurried newspaper reading.  She prepared lunch, so her daughter-in-law Komala was more than happy to prepare breakfast and leave for work. Komala was a veterinary doctor in the animal husbandry and dairying department. A surgeon. To have the peon deliver a hot dabba of lunch in the afternoon was a privilege very few women enjoyed. She could not have been more thankful to her mother in law.

Getting posted to small towns wasn’t new or difficult for Somesh. Getting Komala posted there as well was.

Trappings of a modern house did lure Tulasi. She would have preferred to live with Harish in Sweden. An imposingly self-indulgent life that she had always lived in Chennai wasn’t so easy to abandon. But her husband’s death had taught her many a great lesson. Absence of just one person can make so many lives change, she realised it then. 

Somesh insisted that she give up the comfort and luxuries of city-dwelling to be with them. Harish insisted too. His exhausted enthusiasm made it easier for her to make a quick decision. So here she was, walking down the evening pathway that had been paved by many before her.

Karuna liked to go to the temple. It had a big courtyard for children to play. Evening outings were their only excursions. Some days all four would hop into the Jeep and go to the Lake nearby which was becoming quite a tourist hot spot. The government had plans to convert it into a water sports arena. “Someday I will get out of here, go back to the city and live a life I have always lived.” Tulasi spent her every uneventful day hoping for this, “This cannot be the rest of my life”.

Today was different. Tulasi wanted to explore more of the Dam. She looked at Karuna playing with other children who had accompanied their devout parents or grandparents. She wished she had come alone. She wanted to walk to the middle of the narrow bridge on the Dam. She had been there once with her son. The river looked beautiful and the open service spillways made such a ruckus. The force of water was captivating. 

It would be nice to see open floodgates release the locked waters. It was therapeutic. Symbolic too. Life in a small town was not her dream. She wished she could let go of her emotional bankruptcy for once and open the padlocked emotions.

Splendid flaming red skies called out to her. Tourists were not allowed on that part of the bridge. The evening patrol shift would change and most of the people knew Tulasi well enough to raise the blockade barrier. More she looked around, more determined she got to get to the dam.

She had to do something about Karuna.

She spotted some other women from the colony. She walked up to them and asked, “Will you be here for the next half hour?”

“Yes,” they replied in chorus.

“Will you please keep an eye on Karuna then?” she asked.
Their puzzled looks soon turned into smiles when she said “I have to discuss something with Pujari ji’s (priest's) wife. Their house is close by”. A blatant lie was better than any talk. It saved an explanation.

“Why was it difficult for people to accept that she wanted to do something other than just Puja-path (praying) or gardening? Why does grey hair bring with it a notion that life is over?” She wasn’t even sixty. Why couldn’t she do anything just for the fun of it? She paced towards the Dam and missed the city life more than ever.

The red had already turned into orange. She had to reach before it got pink and be back before the indigo. The sky was her clock. She started climbing uphill in her chappals. Once on top, she marched with the focus of a soldier in battle. She had to be careful. Thoroughfare pathways have a funny habit of turning when least expected. There was still some time before she could reach the guard post on the bridge.

It was windy. Holding the saree pallav (drape) around her, she reached the wooden barrier. The guard got up, “Namaste mata ji”. He craned to look behind her, “is Sir also coming?” She smiled and said “Yes, he dropped me here and has gone to pick up Bhabhi ji and his daughter from the temple. We wanted to walk over to the bridge to see the sunset. What to do, I walk so slowly na”. Once again, a blatant lie was better than a whole lot of explanation.

He let her pass.
She felt like a little girl.
Once on the Dam, she was a free bird. The sun had already started setting behind her and the shadow grew longer in front as she walked, almost leading her. It was fun to watch. She wanted to beat her shadow.
“What a pity, you won’t lead me anymore”, she thought and turned around. She held the railing tight and started walking to the top of the spillway, backwards. Slowly. Taking one step back at a time. This was fun. Pink sun on her face, wind in her hair, water all around. It was divine. All she wanted now was to reach the platform in the middle, under which the water gushed. She remembered how her heart pounded as she stood over it on her last visit. It sounded exactly like a busy road under a railway bridge in the city. "How would it be this time?" she wondered.

It took her some time to reach there. It was calm. The water slits were closed.  The flood pumps were motionless.

“Why is it so calm? Where is the buzz as you approach? Where is the deafening noise? Why is it so quiet? Why are the pumps not on?? Still waters looked so dead,” she wondered in dismay.

She wasn't here to be serene and tranquil. That was what her life was anyway. Idle and lifeless. She was here for the loud, forceful zesty currents of the waterway channels.

"All this trouble and no thrill, what a waste!", she thought to herself. There was no point standing here anymore. She started walking back.

The sky was slowly turning deep purple. She had to be quick. She hoped that no one went to Pujari ji's house looking for her. She felt guilty. Why did she have to give in to her whimsical longing for adventures? Karuna must be alone and scared. Her exhilaration slowly turned into regret. If only the pumps were on and she could have seen the open floodgates, she would have been so happy. Everything seemed like a mistake now.

It had taken longer than she had estimated. The lights on the metal bridge came on. She was leading her shadows now. They made fun of her. They were her only witness. Her multiple shadows were a proof of her act. Gloomy silhouettes of her carelessness. All she wanted at this moment was to reach her granddaughter and hug her tight. She had never been friendly enough with the colony ladies for them to take Karuna home without being asked. Tulasi cursed herself, “How could I leave a young girl alone like that?” 

It was already dark by the time she reached the sentry gate. The guard got up. She wanted to be invisible. His body language was different. He was a different man. He though she was an intruder. He tried to stop her. She didn’t want to. She ran around the barrier stone in her chappals. He ran after her. Once in a while she looked back at him and her almost extinct shadows. He was catching up on her. There was no point in trying to escape now. She slowed down and looked back at the Dam like a bad dream. Her only thoughts were that of poor Karuna sitting alone in the dark. She was about to stop when two screeching headlights brought her thoughts back to where she was. The night patrol was here and they hadn’t seen her.

They stopped just in time, a few centimetres away from her. Somesh got out of the Jeep. Thoroughly confused, he asked “Amma what are you doing here? Where is Karuna? What happened?”
She had no reply so she stood still.

“They had a technical problem so they called me to open the Dam floodgates but what are you doing here and where is Karuna??” he almost screamed demanding an answer this time.

"That is what I am here for too, to let go of the floodgates" she wanted to say but said nothing. The opposite happened. Something seeped in. The realisation that maybe this was the rest of her life.
Living in the past and living in denial had taken her far away from the reality.

She couldn't face him.  The jeep headlights were on. Right in front were the longest shadows she had ever seen of herself. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Good Wash

Rolling up the pink synthetic yoga mat, Girish started walking out of the office health club.

His colleagues also availed of these ‘free yoga classes’ the company had started. They discussed everything. From workplace romance to fancy health kits. They even made fun of his mathematically precise yet fluid gait.

He washed his mat everyday. He was obsessed with spotlessness.

Immaculate bearing and a pristine life style ruled anything he ever did. People called him a pain but it didn’t bother him. Earning modest wages, it was not a luxury to be squeaky clean. It was hard work and he was willing. Personal assistant to the commercial director of the company, he knew that Boss had hand picked him over many other pretty ones that came for the interview. It spoke volumes about his work.

‘Wise men say....only fools rush in...but I can’t help....’  is the point when he would unfailingly pick up his cell phone. Why have such a ringtone if you are never going to let poor Elvis reach ‘falling in love with you’, teased his colleagues. He liked the song. It calmed him before picking up the phone, invariably from irate callers. They either wanted to bark orders or were distressed about salary, payslips or leave. This song made him attend to all calls with a smile. He avoided the ‘falling in love’ ending of it though.

It was raining that day. Dark grey clouds. It was time to go home. He came back to his work station to pick up his belongings. It would be wise to leave early. Boss was going out of town and the next day was a holiday.

He put the double decker lunchbox in his bag and was about to latch it up when a faint jingle of anklets distracted him. Who could be wearing clinking anklets to office, he wondered. Some people just don’t know when they are overstepping the elementary code of decorum. The sound was gentle but it didn’t belong to a company like theirs with stern governance norms.

He continued to pack the rest of his things.

In a flash, he saw a brown envelope  flung across his cubicle. He looked up and saw Somy standing right in front. These girls, they can be so intimidating if you don’t know them. He stopped in motion. She looked angry. Very cross. His mind became a virtual flashback panel. Trying to think what he could have done to offend her. Young emotional girls, in your personal space at odd hours, can be quite a nerve racking proposition. Especially keeping in mind the new stringent ‘sexual harassment policies’. She charged on with “what does your boss think of himself”. Girish sighed in relief. It wasn’t about him.

She was from the travel desk. Last minute spoilers weren’t new to her. But this was too much, she complained. Girish's boss was leaving for Budapest for a conference and wanted her to do a file on the city in next 24 hours. It would ruin her evening. She had plans. Blah blah blah...

Mouthful of defiance later, she came to the point. She wanted to know a few things about his Boss. Was he into art or science? Did he like his spirits? Would he be interested in seeing vineyards? Etc. Etc.

Not wanting to get into a long conversation, Girish gave a broad outline, shut his computer, locked the drawers and tossed the keys into his pocket. All is a single swift stroke.

“Leaving?”, asked Somy “I was hoping you’d sit with me and help out. After all, it is for your boss. I need inputs from you”.

He looked at his soft board, trying to find something he could fix his gaze upon, while he spoke with her. He did that often. Whenever he wanted to avoid someone, he never looked them in the eye while talking. He found a picture of a mobile phone ad to stare at. “What do you want to know? “, he asked.

 “Oh come on. Sit with me. I will make the file and give it to you. You can have it sent to your boss in the morning. It’s your job you know. Let me call the despatch department. You can tie it up with them”, she picked up the phone.

He looked at her. Directly into her eyes. She was about to ruin his holiday, following up on a file.

“I will treat you. Evening snacks are on me!”, she laughed.

She spoke louder than the noise her anklets made as she  walked back to her desk. He got a glimpse of her ankles. Rough, thick skin which had blackened just above the arches.

“Desperate, loud and dirty”, he was quick to make a snap judgement. He picked up the phone and started wiping it clean. She had breathed into it, almost spray smearing it.

She reminded him of his mother.

Father didn’t talk  much. A few times that Girish had tried asking him years ago, he was slapped and told “don’t ever ask about her. Your mother was a dirty woman and she left us. I don’t know where she is now”. As a child he didn’t know dirty people meant anything other than the filthy, foul smelling ones he saw on his way to school, on the pavement.  

He would look at every beggar or rag picker closely. Wondering if he looked like any one of them and if one of them was his mother. He sure didn’t look like his father. Many years went by in this quiet search. These were people shunned by the society. As he grew older, he understood what 'dirty' meant. But by then it was too late to cure him of his fixation for all things clean. It stuck on. Just like all the memories of those women he had stared directly in the eye, trying to see if they had his eye colour.

He and his father lived a life of limited means devoid of any kind of expression. Love or hatred. A numb, calm life where everything went on with clockwork precision, free of emotional excesses.

‘Wise men say....only fools rush in...but I can’t help....’  sang his phone. Somy was calling. He looked up across the hall. She was waving frantically for him to pick it up. He ignored the ring and started walking towards her. Elvis got a chance to complete the whole song.

“You are lost. What happened? The samosas are here. They are getting cold. This AC I tell you. It is freezing in here. The company will kill us of pneumonia if not workload. Nobody does anything about it. Look at me. I sit right under the vent.... ” she was blabbering on as he tried to get his thoughts back to office and the work ahead.

Wanting to get it over with, he gave her ‘to the point’ answers explaining everything. She was good at what she did. It took her less than an hour to put everything together, take prints and zap...the file was in his hands.

The rain had turned into a deluge. He wondered how she was planning to go back. He wanted to ask if he could walk her to the bus or train station. How little did he know about her. Or for that matter, how little did he know about anybody he worked with!

She was ready to leave. He sat still with the file.

“ Don’t you want to go home? I thought you were in a hurry! My husband is waiting in the car downstairs. Do you need a lift?” she asked in one breath.

 “Oh” is all he could manage to say. He declined politely.

“Think about it. You might not get a bus in this weather”, she insisted.

He knew she was right.

He went back to his desk to leave the file for the despatch runner. The brown packet that she had hurled at him earlier was still there.

“You forgot your envelope”, he reminded her as they got into the elevator.

“It’s for you. You forgot?” she jogged his memory.

Her husband greeted them both on the ground floor and soon they were in the comfort of the car. Somy introduced the two cordially and started her usual nonsensical gibberish about how the day went. Unlike Girish, her husband seemed interested in catching every word of it. He didn’t find her ‘desperate, loud or dirty’. Girish was in the presence of love.

He opened the packet. There were travel brochures, postcards and discount coupons for Singapore. 

“You had told me once that you were not a very ‘Europe & museums’ kind of a person. I assumed you would be more of a ‘Singapore’ person. Look at how antiseptic you are...ha ha ha", she laughed at her own joke and continued "We had a conference and got some free goodies. I thought you might like them. I was coming to give them to you when your boss called!”, she grinned through the rear view mirror, "Enjoy!".

Someone had paid attention to one of his random ramblings. Girish wasn’t sure if he would avail of this generosity but it touched him.

They reached his building. He thanked them both and started walking home. The muddy slush on his trousers didn’t bother him much. Nor did the fact that he had forgotten his umbrella in the office. He was drenched. His shoes were soaked. In its own subtle way, his gait had changed a bit.