Monthly Archives: May 2014

What are the odds!

Published in the Bombay Review.

http://thebombayreview.com/whataretheodds/ 

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Father’s won! Father’s won!

Sankar would always enter his house screaming. His screams would normally be requests for immediate nourishment, but today was different. He didn’t want the usual plate of last night’s stale idlis deep fried in groundnut oil. He would have only fresh tiffin made especially for him. One might enquire why he felt he deserved such presidential treatment for no reason in particular. Well, Sankar had had a near-perfect day and he was determined to keep it going northwards. He had solved all eighteen geometry problems, though sixteen of his answers would have made Pythagoras turn in his grave. The drawing teacher had patted his back looking at his perfectly proportional horse, despite it not having a tail or ears . He had even managed to bowl out Ram right after he hit his fourth consecutive six into the girls’ school.

Oh, and his father had won ten million rupees in the national lottery.

Every Sunday, all the families in the neighbourhood would buy the weekly ticket from Baba’s General Store. Baba was a small, fat man whose eyebrows threatened to take over his face. He would always ask Sankar how his elder sister was and what she was wearing at home. Sankar found it strange, but he would tell Baba the precise colour and shade of her cloth. Baba would then ask how short the dress was. Shankar would put his hand on his leg and point out how much of his sister’s leg was covered by the cloth. Baba was obviously concerned about the heat and the rising prices of twill.

Sankar would then buy milk, flour, gram and if there was enough money in the house, and if mother was in a mood- two sweets for himself as a small end of school treat. Baba would pack everything in cloth, and add the ticket of the week to each of his customers’ packages. They thought it was a free ticket, but Baba cleverly added three rupees to everyone’s total amount as and when they came.

The lottery was always important. Nobody ever won it. Nair uncle had won a consolatory cart three years ago, but the cart was green in colour. Sankar would never be seen alive in a green cart. He was partial to red. Besides him, there had never been any record of a winner in his community. Why then, did everyone follow the lottery? His father used to keep telling him something about beating the odds, something about seeing who the Gods would favour. It was bound to happen with someone, someday, his father would say.

Since his family did not have a radio set at home, Sankar would go to the post office on Monday after his school and harass the clerk outside for the winning numbers. The clerk would demand his oratory fee of half a packet of tobacco before lazily removing his wallet with a bearlike snore. He would then pull out his previous night’s ticket and read out the winning numbers, which he had scribbled in a childlike scrawl on the left hand corner of the ticket. Sankar would match the numbers and let out the only swear word he knew (Puchinta, which meant flaccid penis in his dialect) and had been beaten up for using, before running home.

Of course, today was a slightly different day. Today, the numbers had matched. Sankar knew that his father had won a lot of money and was careful to not tell the clerk when he touched realisation. Money was desire, he had often been told. What if the clerk asked for a full packet of tobacco? Such luxuries were out of the question!

On his way back, Sankar wondered what all one could achieve with ten million rupees in one’s pocket. He calculated that the Wesson Willow bat, which Khan had purchased from his last trip to Bombay was worth five hundred rupees. What a bat that was! You could hit a straight drive with a flick of the wrist, like someone had loaded the handle with gunpowder. It even came with a poster of your favourite player, but you had to select your choice while ordering.

He would buy at least two of those bats, and spend an extra amount on polish. He loved the smell of polished willow. It was a very woody smell.

Sankar approached his house, which was at the east end of the village. The neighbours were killing what seemed to be the last of their chickens, judging by the feeble squawking coming from the barnyard. Thank the heavens, he thought. No more of the awful smell of fat frying. He threw a stone on a stray dog that was threatening to sleep under the mango tree next to his door before marching in.

Father’s won! Father’s won!

“Won what?”

Sankar’s mother was cutting the three idlis left from last night’s dinner into thin artistic slices when she heard his yelling. She had had a tiring day. The oil monger had fought with her for twenty-two minutes about the bonus he was supposed to have received for putting them on the credit list the previous month. He was a crook of the highest order! Her monthly bleeding had started shortly after, so she was forced to wash all the utensils and pray to the Gods for touching them before purifying herself with prayer for the week-long duration. Her abdomen ached. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the times when her mother-in-law was alive. During her bleeding, she would be forced to cook outside her house then while the monster observed with a steely eye. Her husband was way more flexible. Still old fashioned, but flexible enough for the time.

When Suparna was handed the completed ticket by her son, she did not realise what he had handed her for a moment. She continued to obsess over the symmetry of the cut idlis, before she realised in graphic horror the significance of what her son had just announced. The last cut skimmed the edge of her thumb, but no importance was given to the thin stream of blood flowing from there.

“Are…are you sure?” She asked with a trembling voice.

His answer was overlooked. She sat down in her place. It was all too much to take in. The oil in the pan had started crackling up. Suparna didn’t care. Her head was spinning. She grabbed the ticket and checked if the diamond pattern that the winning ticket was supposed to contain was appropriately filled. It added up to 77. It was perfect. Suparna started crying. She pulled her son close and hugged him tight. Her son wrenched away. Tears made him nauseous. Besides, he would be joining his friends in their fourth attempt at stealing unripe mangoes from the neighbours’ garden.

Suparna got up and started walking in circles for no reason in particular. Ten million rupees. She had not seen even a fraction of such an amount her entire life. She picked up the lower end of her sari to wipe her face. It was a blue sari, which had faded marginally over the years. She could blindly tell where it was torn and where it was darned. No more would she have to wear the same old clothes. She would pass by her sister’s house wearing an exquisite silk sari with a golden border. She would match that with a small diamond brooch, exactly like the one her mother-in-law gave the elder extended-daughter.

Suparna smelt the oil burning and went near the stove. She picked up the finely cut pieces of idli that were about to be fried. The thought of never settling for a stale evening snack again sent a jet of joy through her head. It’s high time there was a maid servant in the house, she thought.
Tonight, they would celebrate. Suparna prepared a sweet payasam laced with jaggery (the sugar in the house had finished two days ago) and made a fresh curry of potatoes and brinjal. After all, they would have to get used to the finer things in life now. The idlis lay forgotten.

How it would be like to actually be the owners of such a huge amount, Suparna thought. Does so much money smell different? She had heard that the first bundles of cash from the mint smell sweeter than the chafa flower as it blooms during the full moon. She was sure she would be proven right.

Suparna suddenly realised that she had forgotten to share this happy news with the Gods of the house. How many times had she begged for her husband to get a raise! Today, her prayers had finally been answered. She must not ignore them lest they get angry. She prostrated herself in front of the small statue of Brahma, the God of eternal knowledge. Brahma was never supposed to be prayed to, because of a curse given by the other two all-powerful Gods, but her family was an old family. They chose to specially worship him hoping that he would be partial when the curse is taken off.

“Is that brinjal cooking?”

Her second child and oldest daughter had just entered the house. She had been busy at work cleaning clothes at the village well. She appeared at the door dripping with water, her hands marked with ash. Her hair, long and shiny as it was during other times was all tangled and messy.

Sunaina wondered why her mother was preparing brinjals on such a dreadfully ordinary day. Dishes like curried brinjals were reserved for birth-anniversaries and sacrifices, where one couldn’t feed the presiding Brahmins the simple curd rice usually reserved for the twilight hour. The smell of the dish was deeply ingrained in her head since she was a child. Her mother had prepared it for her brother’s thread ceremony. It had even been made the first time a prospective groom had been called home matchmaking for herself. Of course, that night had been a fiasco.

Sunaina was surprised to see the remains of happy tears on her mother’s face. She was quite used to seeing her mother routinely crying, almost immune to it, in fact. Most of the times, the reason for her outbursts would be petty. Sankar would say something callous. She would have a fight about living in the same house for two decades with her husband. When her mother informed her that their fortunes had changed, Sunaina too was besides herself. She was hugging her mother and tearing up out of a different set of emotions herself. She would finally be free of the moral obligation of getting married in the next few months. She would be free to read a book in public, rather than in the closeted darkness of her brother’s blanket. She often questioned why he was pushed into studying, when he didn’t care what he was doing with his life. She was self-taught on the other hand. She saw herself reading about red cows, how trees grow and how the Ganga flows across her land. She would decorate her books with brown paper and neatly write down everything the teacher demands, not in the scrawny shorthand her brother barely made an effort with. Gleefully, she jumped and pushed her mother away and added the finishing touches to the curry, careful to add the crushed coconut after the water was simmering at low fire.

 

I often wonder if any of the members of this family know what the odds of winning the lottery are! I’ve been informed that the chances are about one in fourteen million. I highly doubt that any of the family members would even understand what a staggeringly high amount fourteen million is! But being educated is my privilege. So is having an outsider’s perspective on the situation as well as having a decent exposure to society in general. Maybe I’m being harsh, as I still haven’t met the man of the family.

 

He, as I gather stepped in the house half an hour after dinner was ready. He had had a tiring day, and had been forced to file his reports twice as he overlooked a small decimal point in the third last row of the fourth file. To make matters worse for him, his application for leave the following weekend had been denied. How would he be able to stick to the promise he had made to Lord Balaji the previous fall? He had even grown his hair to make sure his offering of a full head of hair was satisfactory.

Sanam saw two pairs of slippers outside the front door. His son was loafing around somewhere, no doubt. What would it take him to sit at his books once a while, instead of playing truant with all his friends. That short wolf like boy who always lurked around his son reportedly stood second in the school after winning the local amateur wrestling tournament. His son was doing amiably well at wasting time and sleeping through the afternoons, desk or no desk around. Maybe it was time he gave him another cane hiding.

Sunaina on the other hand, seemed to be in the house. She was a good girl, she was. What was the use! She would never be his to hold his hand when he grows old. Sometimes, Sanam slept thinking he should have just joint the army and worked for the country. His father was too high headed to let him do what he really pleased. He had never enjoyed learning accounts. Seeing small piles of money he would never be allowed to touch.

Suparna was quietly sitting in a cane chair in the corner of the room. His daughter, Sunaina was sitting besides her. No doubt, a combined effort or an early attack into extorting money to feed some fantasy with no future. Even if medicants from the Himalayas came with a battalion of vegetable vendors and fruit sellers demanding money, he would not surrender a single paisa. Did they know how tough it was to earn the paycheque that he managed the house with every month?

“What is it? Why is everybody so quiet?” asked Sanam.

Sanam scouted his inner mind for the occasion when his entrance in the house had earned a smile from both the mother and the daughter. They were beaming. Was he supposed to have brought a gift home? He could not recall. His wife was clad in one of her newer saris and was adorned in dark kaajal around her eyes. His daughter too had laid out the entire table, which was giving off a heavenly smell.

“You have won the lottery, father”, said Sunaina as she walked up to him. She placed the ticket in his hand.

Sanam’s mouth went dry as he heard Sunaina’s voice. He blankly held the ticket in his hand and stared at it like it was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He couldn’t seem to read it; the shock of her sentence was so bad. A shooting pain moved from his heart to his left arm and before he knew it, he was clutching his chest, struggling to stand. He collapsed in front of the Brahma statue and fell flat on his back, his eyes rotating upwards as he tried to get a last glimpse of his wife before his heart gave way to the pain.

He was pronounced dead the moment the village physician came to inspect him.

The next day the surviving family was told that the father had a debt of half a million rupees on his head, which he was expected to clear in the next six months. They were also informed by the National Lottery Company that as the ticket had been purchased on the father’s name, they were under no obligation to give the money to his survivors, though the ticket was perfectly in order. They were offered the National Lottery’s deepest sympathies and were sent a garland of flowers from the Chairman of the Lottery, who personally offered his help should they need anything at all during these dark and trying times.

 

I often wonder if anyone in the family knew that the odds of someone dying of shock are even slimmer than winning the lottery. Especially if the news one hears is good news.

Maybe the Gods were being partial.

Or maybe, like the father would say, it’s just all about the odds…

 

 

 

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This story is a work of Fiction.

 

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