A Self in the Crowd

“Fine, I do not understand art, culture and literature. I may not be as romantic as any of you. But I appreciate whatever little I do understand. She should acknowledge that, if nothing else,” said the guy in the striped shirt and denims as he walked past me. He had a half-rimmed pair of spectacles balanced unevenly on his nose and a beard that seemed to have got the plot wrong, growing more on the neck than on the cheek. “Also I told her, as opposed to what she thinks, not all Marwari chicks are ugly. Some are sexy as fuck. Remember Arpita from Math class? Woof!” He wore a beautiful watch with a paper-thin white dial and black leather strap. Walking with him was another guy in a yellow T-shirt two sizes bigger than what he should’ve worn, tucked shabbily into a pair of khakis. He was taller and the streetlight gave away the stubble. They were both in their mid-twenties.

I was standing under the same streetlight they walked past. I was there waiting at the main gate of Banerjee Dadu’s house where my mother worked. She cooked, cleaned, washed the dishes and did the laundry here, as did she in several other houses in the neighborhood. If I was in luck, she would come out of the door with some mouth-watering food the fat kid in the house decided not to eat, to order pizza and garlic bread instead. Else, we will walk home where my mother will make us a modest assortment of steamed papaya and rice.

My mother, Archana, as Gouri Dida fondly calls her, is not your typical maid. She works deep into the fabric of the everyday to put together some money and take it home to our little garage, where Tuhina, my sister waits for her, sometimes with a random person my father owes. She pays him, just like she has paid for everything else around here, with a smile on her face and song on her lips.

This garage where we live was about half-a-century old and was built keeping a smaller car in mind, like the Austin Somerset, Bimal dadu’s first car. But Mehul dada, his son, has bought himself a much bigger car now, a sedan, and any attempt to pull it into this garage leaves the rear sticking out like it needs to be spanked for being a bad girl. So he decided to park the car outside. My mother pounced on this opportunity and asked Gouri dida if she could have us move into this place now that the car was not going to. In this part of the city, if you slave away for somebody for far too long, you may be granted a second class citizenship in the form of a garage to live in. Yes, the place that marks the end of the driveway and is built to shelter a car. From just another cleaner in the household, she was elevated to the ranks of a distant stepdaughter of sorts, and Gouri dida, looking at this as an opportunity to have her within the premises of her house and thus at her relentless beck and call for more time, had no reason to object. And thus continued our journey from one garage to another.

They love me in school and Tina madam thinks I should be a doctor. Protim loves Piyali enough to inscribe their eternal love right on the surface of the wooden table I place my answer sheet on. As I struggle to draw a straight line without tearing the sheet that is right over the inscriptions, I wonder where those fucking bastards are. In the morning I walk Ankur dada to the bus-stop, with his school bag on my right hand and his water-bottle on my left. There are some of his other friends too, bedecked in their fancy uniforms. I try to listen as they speak to each other, but they talk in English. Mark my words, if I could speak English, they would not stand a chance against me.

My garage is half the size of your bedroom. And with three other inhabitants you would wish you had four eyes when you touched yourself looking at a half-naked woman on the paper trying to sell you a bra, or molten chocolate. A tin roof at the top and a metal gate guarding the facade, concrete walls make the three other sides. It can get very hot during the summer with the tin retaining the heat and leaving it there much after the sun has set. And it gets extremely cold during the winter with the cold wind blowing into the little place through the window that does not shut properly.

The big bed, shouldering the weight of four at night, was duly given the pride of place at the center of the garage. Outlining the inside of the garage from the right corner to the left were the table fan, stove, a small fridge, TV and a cupboard that housed everything from my father’s threadbare vest to a half cut pumpkin my mother would cook the next day. There is a yellow light in one corner that lights half of the room that is nearest to it. The rain, so passionately romanticized by the girl on the third floor of the house next door, sometimes flood our floor with water before we can fold the carpet and keep the stove away.

But we know when it’s raining. Lying on the bed at night, we can tell if it is raining gently or heavily, by the patter of raindrops on the tin that sometimes intensifies into a drumming as we slip into the darkness. Asleep, the rich and poor are vulnerable alike. One morning, after the rain of the night has left behind clean leaves and quenched birds, baba caught me looking at the girl on the third floor of the house next to ours. She raised her face against the sky as she rested her arms on the railing, her eyes closed and her lips pursed into a smile as if to itch the part of the upper lip where a drop of water had fallen, probably from a leaf. Her hair unfurled like a national flag, proud and jubilant, as she let the cold monsoon wind in her hair. “What are you looking at?” he asked me with that sly smile of a man who has had his share of fun back in the day. And though that made me smile while I was wondering what her hair might smell like, she was too rich and I too poor. And not even in the most escapist Hindi cinema do we meet.

Often, the sound of airplanes that fly above our garage rattles the tin roof. It is then that I might abruptly wake up to find my father dismounting my mother and pulling her sari down her thigh to the ankle, all in a split second. This flutter might also wake up Tuhina, lying furthest from them. Now they have to wake up till we go back to sleep so they can start all over again. Life isn’t easy.


My name is Aparajito

The tone of my voice might make you feel that I hold something against you, that maybe I blame you and your like for my plight. If I do, it is because despite having no control over what I was born into, I was born less than you. My math is better than you, and it could’ve been even better if my drunken father had not turned up the volume of the TV into a stupor every time one of our batsmen hit the ball for a six. I am not embarrassed to admit there are times when I contemplate a painless death. But given the number of boxes of KFC under Ankur dada’s bed, I know I will have bigger things to worry about if I am to be reborn as a chicken. My mother slaves away in the heat of the kitchen and the stench of the toilets while Ankur dada’s looks into the mirror eating at her gluten-free supper, contemplating a new haircut. But that is fine. We are all entitled to a healthy meal and a luxurious haircut. But when his mother raised a hullabaloo about my father stealing money from her almirah, she crossed the line. It left him broken and days went by before he said a word.

It was just a few days back when mother came home and sat on the bed, pensive. It looked like she had cried on her way home as a new set of tears welled up. No sooner had I sat down next to her and kept my palm on her cheek lovingly than a drop of tear hurtled down that cheek and into my pants, the same pants she bought me for the occasion of Durga Pujo last year. Rita aunty told her off for asking for some hot water to wash the dishes at five in the cold January morning. Just some hot water.

I said all that I did to tell you that we exist. We exist, just as we did, unheard. That despite the odds, I survive. That is all I want you to know. But I will be just as happy if you look at my plight and feel grateful for all that you have instead.