Sunday, February 15, 2009

Salaam Bombay!

I saw her right there.....standing at the end of the platform. Dadar station which is usually choc-o-bloc at any given time of the day...wore a relatively empty look, being late on a Saturday evening. For a moment I hesitated..."Is it really her? Should I  be walking up to her?" ...I thought  for a split second. The very next,  I admonished myself. Here was my first best friend....standing at an ear shot...I had a sudden urge of running up to her and just embracing her in the warmest I used to... when I was a little girl!

Basanti ...was our maid's daughter. But Padma di's  (her mother) entry into our household was quite accidental.  Her mother in law Taru Pishi was the trusted aide of grandmother, from the time that she had stepped into our ancestral home as a young bashful bride. Taru Pishi was, to say the least a matriarchal figure, and yeilded an authority that no one dared to challenge. Even as an old a bent woman she had a thunderous voice that kept everyone on their toes. The maids that came to cook and clean, the gardener, driver et all! She was pretty much the voice for my petite grandmother who barely spoke above a whisper. For Taru pishi,  "ma-thakuran's " word was the words etched in stone. Needless to say, popularity wasn't her middle name. 

But as a cruel twist of fate, Taru Pishi had a paralytic attack at the age of  60, taking with it, not only the left side of the body but also her booming voice. She spoke alright, but her speech was garbled and she spoke half sentences. Enter Padma with her little daughter take care of her mother in law and us. Quite a contrast to her fiesty mother in law, Padma di took up all of her duties with a smile. No longer were there the maids hurling abuses at Taru pishi behind her back. An easy camaraderie btween the servants that was the handiwork of Padma di made the Banerjee home run like smooth oiled machinery. 

However, Taru Pishi  despite being nearly bedridden would always find fault with Padma di...calling her a "alakshmi" because her own son had abandoned her for another woman! My grandmother who had initailly resisted the change, perhaps unsure whether the younger woman would be able to shoulder all the responsibilities,  relented after seeing how competently Padma di managed everything, and all of it with a smile!  Moreover, she was now a confidant of my mother. My grandmother, who was never spoke more than necesarry and, silently encouraged the bonding of these two younger women...But all of this happened before I was born. 

When my mother came home with me in her arms, Basanti di is said to have exclaimed with genuine concern  "But she has two slits for eyes! How is she going to see?" only to evoke thunderous laughter from everyone around! Of course my Mongolian features was something she teased me mercilessly for as long as I can remember! “China mem” (Chinese mem-sahib) was what she called me, much to my chagrin! When I was baby, as my mother told me later, Basanti di a girl of 5 or 6 then, would sit around for hours as my mother tended to me..."a little person who either sleeps or eats all day!" ...she would say and sit by my babycot for hours at end....and the slightest turn would be reported pronto to my mother! 

In many ways, we were bonding much before either of us realised. As I grew up, she was my constant companion. I followed her like a shadow everywhere and our favourite haunt used to be one corner of our huge terrace where she had made a makeshift tent for me with an old sari. We collected all the odds and ends...from dolls of all shapes and sizes to marbles , discarded utensils,  an old stethoscope, which my grandfather had no use for...and many such knick knacks. It was our own world. She was an indulgent big sister, a trusted companion and my escape from the world of adults. 

When I started nursery,she would wait till I came back from school and would have little gifts...some days it used to be a beautiful gulmohar that blossomed in splendour making our sunlight terrace look etheral...on others it used to be a thonga (small paper packet) of alu kabli )  (potato chat) I had developed quite a taste for especially as it was forbidden. She even covered for me once when my grandfather caught us squealing with laughter my hands smeared with chat masala. Padma di slapped  her that day…and I cried feeling the sting on my baby cheeks.

This other time, she brought me a pink satin ribbon that  had come off a present that had arrived in the post. This was to headband for Rani, my doll with only one arm, whom both of us had a soft corner for. The other arm had been mutilated by a big bad hulo (tom cat) who had found  Rani lying around outside our tent, as we went away during our mealtime.  Since then Rani always got special attention among all our other "children". 

In more ways than one- Basanti di was my first exposure to the city I call home now. During one summer vacation that my grandfather had decided that we take a holiday in Puri, Basanti di was taken away to Bombay by her maternal uncle, who worked as a porter in the railway station. An excellent orator, she had come back in all of  a week, when we were away for more than a fortnight. While, I had brought her back  a bag full of shells, and a furry purse, she had come back with innumerable tales.....of  the beautiful city of Bombay..

I remember herdescribing the VT station as "huge open room with beautiful high walls where thousands and thousands of trains come and go!" The lights outside the station right behind which her mama had a kholi (shanty) was like the "house of the queen!"  she said. Even the chats in Bombay she said tasted much better.....(I dont agree on that though!). Eager to impress me she even said she saw Amitabh Bachhan on the streets of Bombay having chat right at the exact same spot where she had been visiting! Though I was too young too figure out the magnanimity of the moment…it did not quite occur to me that she could be spinning yarns! I remember her breaking into a Hindi song number and us doing little jig to that in the joy of having seen the Big B!

Our tales were endless...Basanti di was growing up to be an attractive young girl. Padmna di was insistent that her daughter get an education and did not have to end up working as a maid.So on my mother’s recommendation(being a school teacher) Basanti di procured an admission in a local Bengali medium school. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that her heart was not in the books. It was cinema that had enthralled her…every flick Bengali or Hindi she would see, she would come back with the detailed stories. Watching films back then, was a taboo in my home. Not only was I not allowed to watch films, even TV in those good old Doordarshan days were switched off firmly, even if there was so much of a hint of a commercial hindi flick.

So Basanti Di’s tales enthralled me. How Bachhan dealt with a troupe of goons with a single kick or how Mithunda danced effortlessly to “halwa wala aa gaya I gobbled it all up with wide eyed interest. My mother however strongly disapproved of this, but despite Padma di’s reproaches, Basanti di wouldn’t relent. She even saved up the money her mother gave her to buy lunch at school to buy movie tickets. While Padma di worked hard to give her a good education, Basanti di had other plans. She had dreams of becoming Sridevi some day. “ See if I don’t!” she would tell me “ And you will gt to watch all my movies for free!” she’s sayas I would nod along in excitement.

And then it happened. One day when I came back from school, I saw a broken Padma di, quite inconsolable as my grandmother and mother tried to calm her down. From downstairs I could even hear Taru pishi screaming that her mother had bad influence on the girl. I went up to my mother and asked what was wrong but my father ushered me out. Later after much questioning my mother replied in a single sentence that “Basanti has gone away.” Although I missed her around the house, I knew heart of hearts that Bombay was her destination. I even prayed that she got her break in then movies as she had much desired.

Slowly but surely, Basanti di’s memories faded and became a happy relic of my past. I got busy with academics and in course of time I developed a dogged determination to come to Bombay, albeit for  different reason. Working in the financial capital as a financial journalist was a dream that I had begin to nurture and God was kind. I did find my vocation in Mumbai and have now lived in the city nearly a decade now, half of which I have been lucky to have spent with the husband. I had nearly all but forgotten Basanti di, till I saw her at Dadar that day.

Our eyes met, but before I could even walk up to her, she saw me. For a split second her expression was that of having seen a ghost and she darted out of the nearest entrance….I called out after her and even followed her out, but she had disappeared without a trace in some by lane. I came back to the station angry and hurt. “What kind of a city is this, I thought to myself "How could she not have spoken to me! She was MY Basanti di….isnt it?” I thought to myself.  A thousand possibilities clouded my mind as I made my journey home. Needless to say I was at my snappiest best, and the husband had to bear the brunt of it!

I wanted to forget the incident, like the many, one learns to ignore during the course of  city life, but it continued to haunt me. Every time I would be at Dadar station my eyes would involuntarily seek her out. One such Saturday, much later than I had spotted her, and was partly successful in washing away the pain, an old woman in burqua came upto me  and handed  me a note, before I could even ask her who she was she had pushed her way into a Borivali bound local.

What followed –will always remain with me as a myriad of memories. In the note that was written in an unsteady hand of Bengali, Basanti di had urged me not to be angry with her, that she had indeed recognized me the other day, but did not know how to face me. After much hesitation she invited me to her kholi. Her letter said that it was no place worthy of me and that she would perfectly understand if I did not chose to come, but nothing would make her happier if I did indeed visit.

Misty eyed I put the note in my bag ,and  set out to find my way to a shanty that was located in one of the many overcrowded by lanes of the city. I knocked at a door that was partly open, and there she was.  For a moment as our eyes held each other we saw our past rush through like a flashback in sepia tone…We held each other in tight hug for what must have lasted for more than five minutes, and wept. It was as if all the unspoken emotions had finally found home.

We had a lot of catching up to do, and she asked me a million questions about my parents, my brother and my husband. The selfless joy that I saw, was a rare find in this city, when one thinks twice before sharing one's happiness with others. She squealed in delight like a child when I told her that I was a journalist now, assuming that I was a TV reporter. She did not hide her disappointment though, when I laughed and said that I write for a magazine and was not some hot shot reporter chasing film stars as she had imagined!

It however took some goading from me to find out what she was doing. And then it all came out—the unadulterated truth that may have well been a movie script. Her maternal uncle who had once brought her to Bombay so many years back had seen “potential” in her then. Thus in her pursuit to be in Bollywood when she had found his address and send him a letter, he had lost no time in sending for the na├»ve girl. That is how she arrived in Bombay with a man who claimed to be her uncle's friend. 

Too stary eyed to have smelt a fish she had followed him into a cheap hotel that the man claimed her uncle had arranged for her. Just as she thought that the man would take his leave after having put her up, he began to make burly moves and before she knew it, she had been raped mercilessly by a man, old enough to be her father. The next day a very drunken man arrived with her uncle and the act was repeated right in front of her perverse uncle.

She had contemplated suicide that night, but her senses took the better off her, and she fled from the hotel, not knowing another soul in the city. She traveled aimlessly across the city for two days till she came to VT station, that brought back vivid memories of her childhood. As luck would have it , a film unit was shooting with some junior artists around the station. Basanti saw in the film unit her last chance of survival and waited on a empty stomach for nearly a couple of  hours till they broke for lunch.

A lady with a kind face saw Basanti hanging around. She took pity and offered her some lunch. During the course of the lunch, she asked Basanti if she wanted to earn a quick buck. Already wisened by her experience when Basanti refused, Amina Bi as the older womanhad introduced herself caught the drift of her thoughts. As she had begun to move away, Amina Bi caught her by the hand and made her stand by her forcefully as the film unit began to gather. “ It’s a crowd scene. Pretend that you are moving in a hurry” instructed Amina bi. In the “scene” that lasted for about half an hour, the filmwalas gave Rs 50 to each one present. That was Basanti’s first salary.

"Go beti” Amina Bi had said “You have enough money to buy food for two days.” Her kindness touched Bsanti’s heart, and she fell at her feet and narrated her whole experience. Amina bi listened to her story and nodded silently at the end of it. “You did wrong beti. Its not nice to have pained your mother.” She had said. “But now that you are here, I will take care of you!” Amina Bi had said. That’s how her journey began in films. From a junior artist she has graduated into a group dancer and has done bit roles in films where actresses such as Karishma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Urmilla Matondkar and Shilpa Shetty have played the lead. She preserves the stills from each of these films till date and has made a “portfolio”.

“My dreams have altered Mamoni she says (an endearment she used to call me by) but they are not dead.” She says with the same spark that I was familiar with. Today she has saved up money for her mother’s old age, and intends to bring Padma di to stay with her soon. Padma di, who is still at my parent’s has forgiven her daughter and accepted her profession. As we are deep in conversation, a little boy comes and flashes a million watt smile as he puts down a plate of delectable chat in front of us….Basanti di looked at me and said “ I had a hunch you would come, so I had sent him to get your favourite!” she said.  

We sat ther sharing chat like the good old days of our girlhood and giggled just like the way we used to in our hideout on the terrace…..united in our pursuit of happiness…. “Salam Mumbai…” I said in my heart, as I left her place…promising to meet again soon!