Thursday, March 17, 2011

Other side of the Mat

Six young girls and boys. Yellow tee-shirts, blue track pants. Standing on the pavement with a few rubber foot-mats each in their hand. Eagerly looking to their right every few seconds.

"When are they going to start?" One asked wearily.
"They are supposed to start at nine", replied the other.
"It is nine fifteen already, why can't they be on time?" the third one grumbled.
"Why can't we just start now, there are people running?" the first one asked hopefully.

The eldest of the lot turned around to explain,"The ones running right now are long distance runners. They are not going to pay attention to us. They are so few in number anyway. Let's wait for the dream run to begin."

It is all about numbers. Bigger the audience, sooner the message reaches the masses. They were told that by their Madam Ji.

At precisely 9:20 am the Dream Run of the marathon began.
Most people ran in this segment. Thousands of them. It was short and fun. The trend of having a Marathon was catching up in a lot of cities. Politicians, advertisers, film stars, non governmental organisations and all those who could benefit from this database of people, encouraged it.

Five of the young yellow tee gang had never seen a marathon earlier. They stood there stupefied.
"Go, Go", screamed the leader.
No one moved.

They had never seen such a sea of humans earlier which surged ahead now.
They had been working with Madam Ji for just a few days now.
They were the field workers.

"Go and place these mats in a line on the road before they pass this area," ordered the leader.

The confused youngsters ran and laid down the foot-mats on the road and rushed back to the pavement. Their job was done. The marathon runners would run over these mats. The leader took his position in the middle of the road. He was ready with his pocket camera. Just as he was about to click the first few who were sprinting past, he realised it was such a futile exercise. People didn't step on them. They avoided stepping on the shining synthetic mats. They went around it. There were hordes of people. None stepped on them. The whole idea was a flop. He came back to the pavement and stood along with the other five.

The five new recruits were looking at the carnival that passed by. Men in pink wigs, somebody dressed as God, a group of bare-bodied men, girls who looked like stuffed water droplets, someone had a hat with a tree sprouting out, someone was dressed as a tiger, some girls in a mermaid costume, some wearing huge skeleton masks.

They stared at this parade in awe. The fact that it meant anything more serious than the fancy dress it looked like was beyond them. A group of men wearing chef hats passed by with trays of food in their hand. They represented a big hotel. This reminded the field workers how hungry they were.

They were up since four in the morning to get everything prepared and load the van with these mats.

"Bhaiyya can we go and eat something now? We have done our work." asked one of them.

The leader looked at them in disgust and told them that the work was far from done.
They must wait for the crowd to pass.
Wait for it to thin out so that they can go and pick up the mats, run across the divider on the road to the other side and place them in a line before the runners returned. He had to get a picture of them stamping the mats. That was the whole idea. He had to get that somehow. Unless he got a perfect photograph, he knew Madam Ji was not going to pay them their daily wages.

They would have to request everyone to step on the mats now. If need be, herd them to it.

"No you cannot eat now," was his reply.

They stood there waiting for the crowd to return. There was still time for the fancy ones to come back. Few tired ones trickled in. They were useless. They were at the end of their half marathon of 21 kilometers and almost half dead for all practical purposes. They couldn't care less about any cause.

"What are you doing standing like that? Are you getting paid to stand or work? ", Madam Ji shouted from behind. All of them were startled. She wasn't supposed to be here. She was supposed to be at the NGO head office. They jumped when they heard her shrill voice and ran to the other side of the road with their mats on an instinct. Even as they steeplechased their way across the road divider, they could hear her. She was yelling at them from the other side. "Lazy fellows! Free loaders! Idiots! Good for nothing! One simple thing I tell them and they can't do it!"

As they ran, they tripped and fell. Some on the road, some on the runners who were finishing the half marathon and some flat on the mats they were carrying.

The bystanders and paramedics rushed to help them.
Everyone forgot about the mats and mercilessly stepped on them in the madness that ensued.

The leader quickly got up and went berserk clicking. He had to earn his wages.
He was happy he got wonderful shots.
Madam Ji was happy that her presentation for foreign funding would have some nice pictures. Maybe she could even send it for some international award in the ambient advertising section. It was her best creative.

Two runners were taken away by the medical team.
Five bruised field workers got back on their feet and started collecting the strewn mats.

One read,"Trample away hunger".
Another mat read,"Trample away illiteracy".
Yet another read,"Trample away child labour".

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Roots

"Do you know how do they make the roads?" asked her friends.

Neeti knew how roads were made. There was the gravel, the tar and the huge road-rollers. She saw them everyday on her way to school. "Maybe they know something more", she thought.

"Not really. Tell me how they make the roads", she fell for the trap.

"When you wash your face, they collect the water and make the roads from that", they explained and laughed hysterically. It was mean but not unusual on their part. They made fun of her dark complexion under some pretext or the other everyday.

Neeti lowered her head, walked a few steps trying to hold back the tears that welled up. Once done with that, she joined them back.

They always walked back together from their dance class in the evening. These were her good friends. They were nice people. Making fun of her skin colour was a regular source of amusement for them. It never occurred to them that she was getting hurt and it never occurred to her that they were in the wrong in doing so. Maybe the fact that she laughed along with them most of the time had something to do with it.

She laughed along because she had no other option.
But it did choke her up every single time.
She hid it well.

She asked her mother why was she subjected to such cruelties? Mother had no answer. She was still bearing with outbursts like, "Such a handsome son of mine had to go and get himself a dark bride like her. Love marriages should be banned. Etc. etc.", even after fifteen years of marriage. She consoled Neeti, "See even Lord Krishna was dark. Dark girls always get fair boys". It wasn't much of a detour for her innocent questions but Neeti took comfort in them.

She was only eleven.

Annual Day is a day the students look forward to and the teachers hate.
It means no school. Acting in school plays. Entertainment program. Free snacks. Prizes for those who did their best all year long. And a chance to show off your parents.

She was no longer in the primary section. Her first year as a secondary school goer had begun well as far as studies were concerned. She was a part of the school play. She had auditioned to play the young princess. She wasn't chosen. She didn't feel bad. To settle for less was ingrained in her. It was as if she knew that she was meant to be a peasant and not the princess. She accepted the role of a poor farmer's daughter happily.

Mother was very happy too. Her sister Roma was in town and she would be accompanying them, to see her niece act. Neeti was treated like royalty at home that day. Nothing should stress her out. Her performance was scheduled for the evening. Mother was going to leave early with her to help her get ready. Father, Roma Mausi and her younger brother were to arrive later.

The green room backstage was chaotic. School had appointed two ladies to do the make-up. Mother pleaded with one of them to take longer and do a good job on Neeti. She had brought her own foundation cream and powder. The make-up lady barked,"Only powder and lipstick for the students who have smaller roles, no foundation for them." Mother tried her best to have the rules bent.

Neeti was oblivious to all this.

Finally she was called in for the make up. Foundation, podwer, lipstick, kajal, eye liner, rouge, gold dust. Mother had done a good job begging.

Next day was a holiday. She couldn't wait to get back to school.

Roma Mausi came to drop her till the school bus the following day. Neeti got curious looks when she got onto the bus. Children made gestures and pointed at her. For a moment she got scared. Did she look horrible in the play? Did she not look nice? Was anything amiss? Many thoughts sprinted across her mind. She took a seat and tried hard to listen to what they said. A girl behind whispered, "Did you see Neeti's parents? Her father is so handsome and her mother so beautiful." Nobody spoke of her.They were not talking about the play. They were admiring her parents. What a handsome couple they made. For those who had missed out on the Annual Day, her classmates in the bus pointed in the direction from where Roma Mausi was still waving her a morning bye-bye.

Neeti knew that her mother never got a chance to go out and sit with her father the whole evening. She was busy helping in the green room.

She should have turned around and said, "No that wasn't my mother. That was my aunt." But she kept quiet.

So what if they made fun of her. At least they thought her parents were good-looking. She didn't want to dis-illusion them by revealing who the pretty lady with her father was that day. She let them believe that the beautiful woman waving at her right now was her mother.

She waved back with added enthusiasm.

Seeds for a whole new generation with the same old mindset were taking roots.

Indumati

Indumati could give anyone her age a serious competition.
Not only is she gadget savvy but also ever willing to learn more.
Not many people at ninety-two are.

She knows how to operate a remote control. She learnt it years back. An occasional, "Ram Krishna Hari" chant isn't such an uncommon utterance while she is glued to the television. These deodorant commercials with hundreds of women in bikinis running to a man make her squirm and remark, "why are these girls running in Hanuman Chaddis ?" The fact that the root cause of all this commotion was a heavenly whiff of the famous body spray escapes her.

Her great grand-daughter chirped," In another five years we will celebrate your centenary. We will call everyone!" She glared at her great grand-daughter duly correcting her,"I am only ninety-two not ninety-five".

She knew her math. She had learnt it the hard way.

Oh how they fought. She and her husband! It was a fight for survival that had taken the shape of daily squabbles. He was a government servant, mostly away on revenue inspection to other villages. She stayed back home with seven children, ailing father in-law and a sister in-law who was old enough to be her eighth child.

Everyone remembers the day India got independence as a historical moment.
15th August, 1947.
So does she, but for a completely different reason.

Indumati wasn't even thirty then.

Tiny cough syrup bottles refilled with kerosene, served as excellent lamps when infused with homemade wicks. No study tables, no table lamps and no separate room for children. They all huddled around such lamps and studied to become officers of repute in their lives.

Indumati was lucky. There was a street light right outside their house.
Electricity was rare and she was happy to have one beam right into her kitchen, free of cost.

She would light a lamp in front of brass statuettes of different Gods. An oil lamp, not a kerosene one. Children would sit in a line to say their evening prayers. She insisted they sing in rhythm but they rattled them off as if they were reciting counting tables.

After that, they would open their books and study while she cooked.
It was sheer pleasure to cook in a room full of light, albeit borrowed. She had the most prized corner in the house to herself. The kitchen. She deserved it. She had earned it. 

On the morning of the fifteenth of August 1947, she had a few worry lines that sat stubbornly on her pretty face. They refused to move. Her husband traveled for 25 days, stayed home for a week and would leave again. Being a circle inspector in Bombay Regency was a tough job. He would hand over money to her for household expenses every month. This time it was different. It had been over a month and a half since her husband was home. They lived a hand to mouth existence and the rations were down to the last morsel.

Her youngest son came home crying.
The village shopkeeper had refused to give groceries to them on credit anymore.

She handed over two huge copper pails to her eldest son and asked him to trade them for some money from the local moneylender. Just as he was about to leave, her heart sank. These were a few of the items her parents had gifted her in the wedding. She didn't feel like parting with them.

There was just enough ration at home for two more meals.
She thought she would somehow stretch today. Hoping against hope that her husband would arrive by the evening bus. She called her son back. They were not going to mortgage the pails yet.

It was a peaceful afternoon. General happiness lingered in the air even though there were not many festivities related to the independence day. Evening went on as usual. The street lights came on, children went back to their studies, she started cooking. Her husband wasn't back yet. There were just three fistfuls of rice and nine mouths to feed. She had never been to school but she knew this math was difficult. As with all women those days and now, she wasn't a part of the math. It was given that she would have to go hungry.

She was about to separate the rice water from the cooked rice to make Kanji when the street light suddenly went out. That had never happened before. The only light she had now was that of the wood chulha. Things were going wrong one after the other. It was quite overwhelming as she tried to contain a sigh. She was pouring the rice water into a vessel when she heard a knock on the door.

Tears rolled down as she expected familiar footsteps to walk in.
She was right. Her husband was back. She could now go to the grocer and prepare a good full meal for everyone. She ran to greet him but was taken aback by his condition. His clothes were torn.

The independence day celebrations in the Taluka (district) headquarters had been a burden on the delicate and scarce electricity supply. All the surrounding villages were under forced load-shedding blackouts. It was a wonderful night for the thugs and thieves.

Now there were three fistfuls of rice and ten mouths to feed, her not included.

That was the last day anyone ever slept hungry in her house. The pails and anything remotely expensive went into mortgage. She stepped out and started taking up odd jobs which ranged from making 30 feet long Rangolis in marriages to chaperoning the rich.

Children studied as usual and had one student - their mother. 

"No one will ever go hungry in my house again" is a resolve that can bring about seas of change.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shopping List

What is so scientific and methodical about choosing which clothespin to buy? Simple spring loaded clips which help you fasten the clothes to a clothesline. Mother wanted wooden ones. "Who uses wooden pegs in this time and era?", thought Raman. In case the wooden ones were not available, the plastic ones had to be sturdy, flat, have a long coil and be in muted colours. Cheap coloured ones left imprints on clothes in the summer, or so he had been instructed.

Shopping for household things was a bane. However much he searched or bargained, mother would always say,"Oh this is available for half the price" or not be happy with his purchase anyway. Where was the point in sending him to the market??

The only reason he was always willing to step out for buying these mundane inane things was that he could finish buying them fast and meet his sweetheart Tanu. The vegetable shops were such a convenient place to be seen together without anyone raising an eyebrow . Setting up these clandestine meetings was the best part. This was their first year of college. School was fun. They met everyday. Why did girls have to have a mind of their own these days? Why couldn't she join the University just like him? They had extra classes in the afternoon. They could bunk a few and be together. But no, she had to go and join an all girls degree college!

Questions, questions and more questions. His mind was full of them. Some intelligent, some forced. He couldn't fathom why wisdom was always associated with the older lot.

He picked up the plastic clips. There was time to kill before she arrived so he searched and picked up a few other things on the shopping list. Mom would be happy. This list had been pending for quite some time. He seldom bought home the complete list. There were always a few things that he couldn't find or weren't good enough. That happened when Tanu arrived before or on time.

This gave him a sense of adulthood, however false though. He did with ease what most men found difficult. He had cracked the empirical formula to keep wives and mothers happy at the same time.

All that was left was to get a new clothes line and the list would be done.

He called her to check how long she would take.

"Kavita Calling", flashed Tanu's cellphone.
She smiled.

"Where are you", he asked.
" I have been waiting near the saladwala for past ten minutes. Where are you?", she asked in return.

This was rare. She reaching before time. But it wasn't impossible so he rushed and started walking fast. He forgot all about the rope.

They met on borrowed and stolen time. A cord could be bought later but no amount of money could get him back the moments he would miss out if he reached late.

It was a wonderful Sunday afternoon. Thick of winters ensured that everyone was buried under heaps of clothing which made it difficult for people to recognise each other. The monkey caps and shawls added to the disguise. They were free to walk hand in hand without any fear. Oh what bliss to be a teenager in love!

An hour flew by in minutes.

He was late. He rushed back. By the time he reached home it was 2:00 pm.

Mother was setting up the table for lunch. There is something about mothers wanting their children to eat well. They can never scold them at mealtime. As soon as he walked in, she asked him to wash his hands and feet and call everyone for lunch.

It struck him that today was the weekly laundry day. Mother washed heavy washloads. Bedsheets, sweaters, table covers. She was saving up to buy a washing machine in the new year.

He ran to the terrace.

He saw what he feared the most. Two rows of freshly washed clothes were lying on the ground smeared with dust and dirt. The clothesline was the first thing he should have bought. The old one was knotted at many places, holding up on sheer will power and luck. It had breathed its last this quiet afternoon.

He came downstairs with a heavy heart. Mother smiled and poured dollops of buttered dal in a bowl for him. He didn't have the heart to tell her what he saw. He just nibbled on some salad. He wasn't hungry anymore.