“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 9.pm…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 dear..my 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.