Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wonderland as I saw it.

“Hiiiii…eeya man…what are YOU doing here?!” a big booming voice I heard as a loud thud landed on my back…and almost threw me off balance... “Al! ” I thought with a smile even before I turned back… Al had by then grasped me in a smelly bear hug..her shirt reeking from a hard day’s work.
But I didn’t mind, because a sincere heartfelt warm hug from a friend is to die for! Alice…or “Al”as I fondly used to call her showed no signs of being a woman..besides her large proportions. Her hair was always cropped short..and I don’t remember seeing her in anything but a loose shirt and a jeans.
Apart from a tiny cross that she wore across her neck with the thinnest ever chain …jewelry was alien to Al. ...What’s more, she insisted on wearing a large and ugly male watch on her right hand. From a distance there was no way you could guess Al was a woman…and when teased about it..she would always take it in her stride..with a loud hearty guffaw…..
Alice and I go back a long way…this tale is from the time when I was a fresher in Bombay , working for a financial daily then. I was barely six months old in the city, and was still trying to figure out the topography of places beyond office and home...I used to take the trains to work and had just got a first class pass.It was early days yet …in what now seems like a lifetime association with the first class ladies compartment.
Bombay trains have the first class ladies coach segmented, one half of the coach or the “dabba” as it is better known is for ladies to travel in for all 24 hours, while the other is transformed into a general compartment after…But when the trains are empty some men, for reasons unknown invariably hop into a ladies compartment. The ones travelling in those off peak hours are usually suave office goers or upper middle class housewives who find it beneath their dignity to say something to these mischief makers though everybody will frown upon their presence. Alice did not belong to that category…
I was on my way to work from an appointment I had in Bandra ( called the queen of the suburbs, Bandra has been home to a lot of Christans who hail from Goa) and Alice and I happened to board the same dabba.
No sooner than the train had picked up pace a 20 something man hopped onto the ladies compartment and was whistling a then popular Hindi film tune as he swung from the railing, completely ignoring the decorum one needs to maintain when in a public. A handful of ladies who were on board…rolled their eyeballs and cast nasty glances at him, but nobody protested. That was reason enough for Alice to take charge….having put down her heavy bag under the seat..she turned around and held this lanky fellow by the collar and in her customary Bandra accent said “ Kya man? Tum sharukh kaan hoyenga…par herogiri is compartment mein nahin dikhane ka samjha?!!” The booming voice and the iron hand that had grabbed the youth was enough to scare him..and he was more than happy to scamper away as soon as the train entered the next station.
Having chased him away Alice settled on the seat next to me and with a large grin on her face.. ….and good humoredly said “u’ve gotto fight for your rights in this city man” I grinned back at her and complimented her on her act. We got talking and she was very excited to learn that I wrote about stock markets…and said “ I will take tips from you? I can make money fast-fast in the share bazaar na?” A rookie at work then, I was mortified, as we were forbidden to talk stocks let alone recommend….nevertheless I put up a brave front and spke some gibberish about the merits f long term investments. Al was suitably impressed and I felt pleased with myself…..
Since that day Al used to make it a point to board the same train as I did and we had a gala time chatting away till I reached my destination. I learnt AL was a supplier of the yummy sponge cakes to a famous store in south Bombay. I offered to buy cakes from her but she insisted on giving them to me for free…embarrassed I did not ask her a second time, though she raved about her plum cake and how I absolutely must attend her Christmas party. I always thought it was just good manners on Al’s part to invite me on Christmas and I never thought I would actually land up at her place.

But I did. Albeit not at Christmas and came face to face with the real Alice. One fine December day, when the world at large is vacationing and we poor scribes have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for stories, I was in Bandra waiting to meet a source. I had arrived early and was loitering on Bandra at Linking Road ( most famous for its street side shops that sell everything that would interest a woman, primarily the shoes that are available for as low as Rs 50) this is whenI bumped into Al and she wouldn’t spare me till I dropped in to her place, Still having some time to go I relented and accompanied Al to her place that was close to where I had a meeting.
I found myself entering a dilapidated building with Victorian arched windows with multicolored glass panes and wooden flooring that lent an old world charm to this mystery building that stood sandwiched between two very modern structures. I entered into a quaint little home with an old fashioned couch sitting pretty in the middle of the room. The mantlepiece on the wall was adorned with what seemed like relics from the past…among them I saw a pic of a pretty girl in her late teens with a printed floral dress leaning on a man with a large moustache, and dressed in a impeccable pin stripe suit. I couldn’t help notice that the man didn’t seem to be very attached to the woman who was leaning on him ever so lovingly….
Just then Alice came out of the kitchen with the much promised plum cake and two cups of tea. Unable to hold my curiosity I asked her whose picture it was…she grinned and said “that’s me man! U cant recognise me or what??!” Indeed I was shocked..Al…as I knew her in a dress? With a man? I just could nt imagine….before I could even shut my fallen jaw..Al said “ wait let me introduce you to someone” and wheeled out a frail old woman in a well worn wheelchair..As I got up to greet her she took my hands in her palm and said “ welcome Alice says you are a very good friend.” I had some difficulty understanding her speech, as she was mouthing words wit great difficulty , her right side being totally paralysed. I patted her hand back and looked at Al….
“Mamma …and I have been with each other for the last 35 years…Benny and I were married in Goa..thirty years ago..Benny brought me to Bombay and told me I must assist mamma in baking cakes….he was never a husband…and treated me like furniture around the house….ill treated me and used my body whenever he wished. Only a girl then I used to be very scared of him…Mamma was my only support. She knew what her son used to do to me and always said that I should not take it lying down….but I never had the courage to say anything against Benny.
One day when Benny came home drunk and saw that the dinner was not ready on his table, he started yelling at the top of his voice…not satisfied by yelling alone he came and dragged me out of the kitchen by my hair and threw me down. That’s when something broke within Mamma…otherwise a dignified woman whom I had never heard raising her voice came and slapped Benny hard…Startled himself he looked at his mother… “I have given birth to Satan she said…I though I would have had enough influence on you not to shape you up like your father who was a swine and a wife beater but you are no different from him! Leave Alice alone..she will not do what I did all her life! You are no son of mine!” So saying she asked Benny to pack his bags and leave that very night…..Benny an otherwise vociferous man…left without a word..and that’s the last I saw of him….

I didn’t quite figure out what Mamma was doing then…but she told me later that Peter my father in law was just as brutal as Benny was…and used to live off Mamma…and drink and squander off his time while Mamma worked hard to earn a living fore herself….he even left her for another woman when Benny was just a boy of five…..
After Benny left she took me in her arms and apologised…profusely for having let Benny marry me….She said she knew he had a devilish streak…but she had prayed that Jesus will have merc on his soul….and will bring out the best in him after a woman came into his life. But Benny was no different....Soon after Benny left Mamma had a parlysis attck and since then she has been on the chair…she thinks Its God’s punishment to her …but I know better…I am alive today because of Mamma!

From that day on I became her son…I abandoned all my womanly stuff and plunged myself in to the bakery whole time... “the woman gave up her son for me…that’s the least I could do for her!” she said looking lovingly at elder Mrs Fernandes… “The watch you girlies tease me about is actually Benny’s…it tells of the time that Mamma and I went hrough those times of constant fear that gripped our lives. I don’t want to forget all that…..I don’t wish Benny any ill. In fact I am thankful to him for marrying me…Mamma has given me all the love that my own parents did not!”
I am saving up …for a little house in Goa Al said ..her eyes glistening…I have enough money saved to buy a little shanty on the beach….”My old woman wants to die watching sunset on a Goa beach! “
I looked at a whole new Al then…and a stange mother and daughhter in law relationship where there was undying love and sacrifice one each had made for the other…
In my mind I counted the several times I have wrongly judged my mother in law and I felt remorse…I looked at Alice and swore not be be judgemental again…I don’t know if I will be able to do it all my life, but I will certainly remember this lesson that I learnt from Al….
Speechless and many thoughts going through my mind I had forgotten all about the plum cake that lay untouched on my plate….I was almost choked with tears asI looked at Al who was feeding Mrs Fernendes a piece of cake...I saw the Alice then who was in her wonderland with the person she loved the most in the whole wide world!
I was lost in this reverie when another loud thud landed on my back “Eat man!! What are you staring at the cake for??!” I heard with the customary guffaw that I associate Al with…This time I laughed back having caught a glimpse of the real Alice well concealed under the veneer of Al.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stopped and spotted....

“Nightmarish” is what comes to mind if you ask any Mumbaikar about traffic… The flyover constructions that last a lifetime, the crater sized potholes, roads dug up for the placement of cables or god knows what…and a battered tin placard that says " Inconvenience regretted " is pretty much the picture everywhere. Add to that a half hour of steady showers and life on a so called highway comes to a grinding halt..

Sometime midweek when it started raining cats and dogs in the evening, I thought of making an early exit from work and decided to hit the roads instead of the trains as getting into a train at around 6ish from Santacruz (a suburban station that is closest to my office) is nearly impossible. And as I have said earlier I am definitely not one of those brave souls who can barge into an overcrowded compartment and hang precariously from the footboard! I took an auto rickshaw instead hoping I would reach home faster.

I don’t know what makes me optimistic about the traffic situation..Every time I find myself saying “Ok so last time was bad..It will surely can’t get worse!” But Mumbai never fails to deliver on that count..our respected municipal corporation has duly dug up some more arterial roads just at the onset of the monsoons..making life miserable (that’s about the most expletive I can get here!) for those who travel by roads….So the inevitable happened…I got stuck in a traffic jam that showed no signs of easing up in a hurry…

Now, being a true blue Mumbaikar, I have stopped getting frustrated…and tearing my hair out when I am in one of those never ending traffic jams…I either make phone calls, send text messages, listen to music ..and when I am in no mood to do any of the above I just watch people….that’s by far the best “timepass” as a mumbaikar calls it…..

Its then that I spotted Farida…a little girl of no more than 4 or 5 was animatedly waving at someone…I couldn’t help stare at her face…eyes like a doe, pink lips..and a wheatish complexion….it was almost like looking at perfect the form of this child woman. Too young to wear a burqua an oversized scarf…contoured her oval face…At first I thought she was waving at someone in particular… I pretended not to notice…but it was difficult not to look at such an adorable child…so I waved back….

No sooner than I had done so….the child became a little conscious..the way children are with strangers at first …so I made funny faces at her and she broke into a giggle…we were less than a feet apart ..she at the window of a Maruti Omni and me in the rickshaw…soon this little girl was animatedly making faces at me as well…I whispered slowly for her to read my lips“ tumhara naam kya hai” (what is your name) I asked..” Fa-ri-da” she replied imitating me ..with coy smile…

I don’t know how much time passed as Farida and I played a little game of making animals with our fingers…she would emulate what I was doing and make now a dog and now a deer that was happily scampering along..and all the time her giggle like the sound of trinkets kept background score…..I seemed to have forgotten about the traffic jam and was indulging in child play.

We were engrossed in our little games…when suddenly a stocky man…with a skull cap and a huge beard stepped out of the Maruti and with one swift movement shut the window that Farida was leaning out from..whats more he made a sharp about turn….and with a look of scorn said “ hum apni aurato-o ko aap logon to ki tarah besharam nahin banate” ( we don’t make our women shameless like you!”)

I was so astonished by what he said I could not react…and neither did I care for some fundamentalist who was looking for an excuse to strike up a war of words..

All I could do then was look at Farida…our short lived camaraderie rudely interrupted..she was as taken aback as I was..the window having been slammed on her face…tears welled up in those beautiful doe eyes and she looked at me…That was perhaps the most helpless I have felt in recent times…I had a strong urge to step out of the rick and to just snap up this little girl in my arms …….but I did no such thing…

Just then the traffic started moving as well and the Omni whizzed past my rickety auto rickshaw…but I could see a little hennaed palm…pressed hard against the back pane of the van….and those large eyes locked mine till the car went out of sight….I don’t know if I will ever see Farida or whether she will recognize me if ever we happen to meet again….all I can do is pray…pray that The God in whatever form he is worshipped blesses her soul..and gives her the strength to break free from the fetters that that are binding her today….

And I pray that men all over the world stop binding women …crush their spirits..take away the light from their souls and most of all STOP doing all of this in the name of God!