Tag Archives: Family

Ten Lakh Rupee Haircut

 

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“Liked it? Cost me ten lakhs!” said my grandfather proudly, rubbing his left hand on his shiny bald head. A bowl of what appeared to be a murky dal sat in front of him, waiting to be cussed at. “Pimps!”, he snorted as an afterthought, looking at the television screen, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket team captain got caught and bowled by a stunning yorker. “Can’t bat against pace, what are these kids getting paid for these days. You know! Gavaskar used to -”

“Bat without a helmet against the West Indians…they were the best team in the world…had the fastest bowlers….had Michael Holding….he was called whispering death!” I completed. “You’ve mentioned it to me once or twice, I remember over the past twenty years..”

Grandfather chortled which turned into a animal like cough. As he gasped for breath he pushed the bowl of masoor dal away and turned towards me, raising his finger. “I thought I’d get to eat some fat and meat when Sheela left us. This is worse than what they used to serve us in training.”

It had been a week since grandfather’s last chemo. My uncle, one of Pune’s best oncologists had taken me to a corner in the hospital and told me it’s my job to let mother know we probably have a month with him left. He didn’t have the heart to break the news to his own sister despite being her closest confidant. Today was my Sunday on the calendar. Grandfather, an ex-army man had changed completely since we told him he had stage four. It stripped him of his age by decades. He started resembling the man my mother had told me stories about since I was small. The man who was the centre of attention at army parties. The man who would laugh in the face of his biggest trials and the man who had turned into a shadow of his old self over years of battling debt, depression and marital problems.

“He was a really nice father”, my mother would tell me. “It was my mother who was a real witch. She would provoke him into a fight, and he’d lose his temper and oh god, he had a terrible temper.”

The last time I had visited grandfather at home, he had smashed a large wine glass on my grandmother’s face. We had found them sobbing in different rooms, their entire crockery cabinet in pieces in the living room. We had rushed her to the hospital, spent the entire night watching her wince as the nurse tweezed out bits of glass out of her cheek. I had vowed never to visit their house again post (I swallowed my pride after he was diagnosed) My mother, though furious at her father at first surprisingly blamed her… “She must have said something really terrible. She would always say mean things. Stretch him to breaking point” just before I left the hospital at dawn. My grandmother stayed with us for the rest of her days, till she passed away a year back. She was eighty. A week into shifting in our house, I saw our crockery cabinet combust similarly, this time at my mother’s hands. The temper that was so famed in the house had luckily by the grace of genetics not been passed to me. I never saw grandfather apologise for that day, you know. He continued to harp that she deserved it till…well…till the last time we brought it up before he –

“We haven’t played Ludo for so many days. Get the old set out. Let’s play some Ludo.”

“Eh Appu! Not Ludo. You always end up winning at Ludo. I know you cheat somehow.”

“You rascal, you accuse your old grandfather of cheating? I’ll show you today”

“Do you want to play chess? I can make you some tea and we can play till mother gets here.”

I got the old wooden board out from ‘my cupboard’. It was actually a single drawer where my grandparents would store all my toys when I was a kid. Out of habit, the first thing I do when I reach their house is open it to ensure all ‘my things’ are still there. There’s my chessboard, unused for years, an old whistle I had driven the neighbours silly with when I was five, a couple of Secret Seven books I had re-read till I knew them by heart and I have no idea why I’m so attached to it, but an old World Book I used to press leaves in during summer vacation. Press leaves? You know, keep leaves in an old heavy book in the Summer of 1999 and open the book again by winter to see them etched as a skeleton? I would love doing it.

“You want black?” I asked him.

“Nope. But I know you want white. Go on then.”

I moved the pawn in front of the king a couple of steps ahead. “Boring, boring. E4, E5, NF3, NC6. That chess class ruined you. You were doing so well sitting on my knee and playing. I keep telling your mother, you would have been the next Bobby Fischer.”

Grandfather taught me how to play chess when I was six. I used to sit in his lap while he would furiously explain what each piece was capable of doing in Marathi. By the time I turned eight, I actually started beating most of my family. My parents’ Indian sensibilities blazed to life, realising there’s a miniscule but very likely chance for monetary opportunity here. They shoved me into an archaic buddhibal gurukul where I would be forced to train for hours at an end on weekends till my head throbbed. In six months, I started hating the game eventually refusing to play it. Grandfather was furious his protege had become a guinea pig for slaughter. He tried making it fun for me, but something in my head just switched off whenever I saw a chessboard then. I don’t mind playing it now, I still get flashbacks about the musty smell of the cloth chess boards and the all too familiar irritating click of kids banging chess pieces out of the board whenever they were captured.

“I’ll make tea, wait. Do NOT touch the pieces! I remember where they all are!” I warned him.

It triggers memories whenever I wander around my grandparents’ house. It’s in the old part of Pune, where time stands still – almost infuriatingly sometimes. Theirs is almost a century old, largely made of stone. I remember it being cold. Really cold. It smells the exact same even today, of burning camphor and incense sticks. Except you can also smell the effort invested into keeping an old man alive. My grandparents brought a television way before we did. It just had twelve channels, but it did have Cartoon Network. I’d make excuses to come here and watch Tom and Jerry or any of the old Hanna Barbera re-runs, whilst grandmother doused me with variations of deep-fried, unhealthy snacks. I digress. Where was I? Yes, in the kitchen. Making tea. Boiling water and milk separately. Waiting for the tea leaves to settle down. “We aren’t savages, like them” my grandmother would say with a heap of disgust, referring to her neighbours from Delhi. Her years in the capital left her with a heavy aversion for how the north would make tea – mixing water, tea leaves, spices and ginger till they were well and truly butchered by the flames.

I used to find the reluctance of all my relatives to embrace my adulthood infuriating. As the youngest kid in the family, I would be spoken to like a small prize winning dog – worthy of attention, but no seriousness. In my grandfather’s case, it was the exact opposite. He made me feel important. I’d sit at his desk as a kid and stamp his bank documents, feeling like my involvement is his paperwork somehow mattered. He’d ask me for advice, which I’d find very endearing. I’d see most of my other defence kid friends have a strict hierarchical culture in their house, which was nice to see my grandfather not give a hoot about.

Grandfather slurped the tea. “Tastes a lot like Sheela’s…”

“It’s because mother makes the same tea. And I learned from her…”

“You haven’t moved any pieces for twenty minutes. Are you going to bother playing?”

Grandfather was a simple man. Post his army life, which I never thought he really liked too much, he became quiet and reserved. He’d always tell me how he missed death by an inch fighting the Pakistanis in ‘71, though grandmother had on safe authority that he never actually touched a rifle the entire stint. He distanced himself from all his friends in the regiment and sat at home post his retirement, immersing himself in hours of television and B-grade Marathi novels. He used to be a lot of fun, mom would always tell me. Always filled with terrible jokes

“I think she was having an affair.” said my mother.

“You know know, or you suspect?”

“Um. They never told me anything, but I always overheard bits from their fights. There would be this ‘uncle’ who would come up to our door and take her away in a car. She would never introduce him to us, so I kind of always suspected…”

Grandfather, like several of Pune’s tea drinking heavyweights, has an intricate ritual circling every sip he takes. He slurps each time to a crescendo and then follows it up with a low bass ‘Ah’ as if to reassure himself that it was a sip well invested. I had come to forget his little intricacies over the last decade I’ve spent working in Bombay. My home trips to Pune had become less frequent and the time I’d get at home to visit my grandparents, even less so.

“You want to see the garden?” he asked me, about eight moves from defeat.

“Let’s go.”

We sat on the swing. He chattered on about how his gardener is quite obviously a crook, since his fertilizer supplies having slowly been disappearing, always punctuating his sentences with a racking cough. We spoke in depth about how the rose plants were there just to show off, and no real botany connoisseur would want to have a plant as common as a rose in his garden. He even offered to field for the neighbours’ kids playing in the yard opposite his house, much to their horror. There was a time he would have been really mean to them when their ball crossed over to his fence, but this was a changed man in his last month. I think of his transformation like that ‘Selfish Giant’ story…we used to have it in our Radiant Reader by who was it? Yes! By Oscar Wilde.

“I wish I could have taken you to my Father’s factory!”, he said suddenly.

“Yeah, you guys would make glass, wouldn’t you?”

“And what amazing glass it was!” he reminisced. “Green, violet, orange glass. I used to get scraps of the colours for your mother and her sister all the time. They’d make ornaments out of it. It was wonderful.”

“What happened to it?”

“Oh, shut down in time. Once the borders opened, a bunch of all these foreign brands came in. They were better. Cheaper. We had to sell.”

“You must miss your village.”

“Terribly sometimes. I miss the small things. You know, throwing stones at the mango trees to eat kairi. Cycle races all around the fields. You wouldn’t know the simplicity in that life.”

“Ever feel like going back?”

“No. Not really. You miss them. But you move on. I don’t feel like going back to the army either. I hate meeting my old mates from there. Going on and on about the good old days. I’m quite done.”

We rocked on the swing for a little while. The skies turned a steelier shade of grey. It was just April. We call this rain ‘valvacha paus’ in Pune. The first rains. Just a premonition of monsoon.

“I think I was way more ready to pop it in 71’. This is just embarrassing right now. Tell your mother from my side. They’ve covered me with pipes. Throw it all away. I’m pissing out of a tube half the time in the hospital, if you haven’t noticed…”

“You’re NOT ‘popping it’!”

“Don’t lie to me. Even a duffer like me learns a few things by the time he turns eighty. This chemo and radiation nonsense is meant for people who want to live more.”

“I…you realise no one’s going to let you just wither away right?”

Grandfather ignored me. He began rocking his legs like a little child on the swing. At his most vulnerable, he always reminded me of a child. He was a simple man. He had always been one. With no ulterior motives. No ambition. No desires. It kept him happy.

“I hope it rains today. Been so hot this summer. I won’t need to water the plants too.” he said, as a gust of wind set the windchimes in motion, their clangs echoing through the garden.

“Whatever happened to those parrots? I completely forgot about them”, I asked him.

“You mean, the ones you forced me to buy from the cantonment? Those were love-birds. One of them died. And then the other one-”

“Oh right. It died as well?”

“No silly. We let it out.”

We sat for a while as he hummed a song I couldn’t recognise. “Right. I’m sleeping in for a while. Your mother’s coming here to make sure I don’t kill myself taking the wrong medicines. I don’t want to disappoint her.”

“Do you want your stick?”

“Let it be here. I don’t actually need it till I go outside. I wouldn’t mind a cigarette though? This weather is quite something”, his eyes hopeful.

“If you actually think I’ll get a man with lung cancer a cigarette…you have got to-”

“Yes. Yes. A simple no would have sufficed. I’m going to sleep.

He slowly walked into the house, balancing his drip. I sat alone, my attention moving to the the touch-me-nots he had planted right in front of the swing last spring. I touched one of them, just to make sure they still work. It closed.

 

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@sumedhnatu – Twitter, Instagram

Artwork: Aditya Phadke
Instagram: @artyaditya

 

 

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Ganesh Chaturthi as an Atheist

Yesterday marked the first time in twenty-five years I missed Ganesh Chaturthi in Pune. Usually, I make it a point to spend the first couple of days in Pune before getting back to work in Mumbai, because those two days mean a lot to me. It’s not because I’m religious, I’m as much of an annoying atheist as anyone can be. It’s been one of the last family traditions I have left I try to follow. Invariably this year, that’s broken as well.

Pune transforms during Ganesh Chaturthi. The sarcastic scowls that adorn everyone’s face in Pune for pretty much the rest of the entire year are replaced by a genuine temporary smile. There’s incredible warmth in the air, which I’d like to believe is simply because of how well fed everyone is. Buying sweets becomes a gladiator like sport; there’s banter moving in very fierce currents between customers and shopkeepers. Kids line up with huge aluminum boxes, with strict  and precise instructions about how many modaks  they’re supposed to come back with. There’s the ever present fear that one’s family might just have to present a meal to the Lord without a decent steamed modak, which I admit is very frightening. All this, combined with Pune’s perfect almost-autumn weather makes this stretch of ten days one of those annual stretches of time you start counting down from the beginning of the year.

I was brought up really religious, but never religious in the crazy ‘you have to do this because the gods will eat you in the afterlife’ way. Father was never god-fearing, he doted on the idols he worshipped. Besides that, he was a huge on science.  Which was insane. Because he wouldn’t ever endorse the superstitious bullshit that usually accompanies religion. He made a strong distinction between his faith and the influence of religion over his day to day morality. Which meant that he made sure he never made me do things for the heck of it. He’d always explain the meaning of whatever I was saying in Sanskrit and it was never an imposition for me to prove my faith. I worshipped the gods because I enjoyed it. It brought me a sense of peace. When I was really small, I had once placed pieces of egg in the ancestral idol of Ganesh in our prayer room. Mother had freaked out when she saw it, and I half expected father to lose it. I had really meant it as prasad. Father had been really pleased. He said it was one of the most sincere forms of a prayer he had seen. From that day we offered meat (basically whatever we cooked) to the gods as prasad. It was a mark of respect, more than an actual offering to them.

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I also grew up obsessed with Indian mythology. When we were in the second or third standard we had one of those typical mid-term assignments where we had to read out a story to the class from our favourite books. I had picked Bheeshma, from the Amar Chitra Kathas.  Now to be fair, he won over Tintin and Timmy the dog from the Famous Five series, but I genuinely saw him as a hero in the same vein as a bunch of my friends saw Batman or Superman. I loved the Mahabharata, and it’s been a wish of mine to adapt it ever since I read it as a comic book series and saw it transform on screen on Zee TV’s Mahabharata (which was just awful in every way possible). I took a special liking to Karna and Bheem and for some strange reason Drona’s son, Ashwatthama, who I always felt was wrongly represented.  Keeping the religion away from them was beautiful, because then they became like any other comic books, and their stories were just fantastic.

Ganesh Chaturthi was in itself, my favourite stretch of ten days in the year. There’s an air of such purity in every house in Pune. It’s a celebration of utter avarice. My mother would clarify for months before the day vowing to ‘keep things simple’ before demolishing her previous years’s spread by adding at least two more items. Our maids ate everyday at our home often making excuses to stay past their work time, which often made me wonder how badly the other households they worked at treated them.  Mother was religious depending on her mood. About a day before Chaturthi, she would declare solemnly that owing to the sudden onset of her periods, she would be unable to pray or partake in the puja. Father and I would laugh this off because neither of us had any problem breaking the old fashioned rules that demand a woman’s withdrawal from publically showing her faith during her menstrual week. I figured that my mother never liked saying that she just didn’t care for the puja directly. She needed an excuse to back it. If that’s what made her comfortable, so be it. She would channel all her energy in cooking and we’d have a feast ready on Chaturthi.

I would always wake up on Chaturthi morning to the smell of sandalwood. My father, who would usually personify sloth would be hard at work muttering his choicest complaints like ‘no one keeps things where they’re supposed to be’ or ‘So! You’ve finally woken up, when are you going to grow up and help around a bit’.  I would rush out to buy durva, the grass the elephant in Ganesh supposedly likes, the singular lotus flower meant to appease him and a collection of sweets for all the guests in the evening. I’d portion the five elixirs made as a basic offering to Ganesh – milk, honey, curd, ghee and jaggery. After the praying was done we’d eat through the seven courses mother had prepared while her eyes flashed at any signs of weakness from us. After the guests who came to pay homage to our idol left, after the evening prayers were done and the kitchen had (finally) been cleared and the refrigerator was groaning under the stress of mother’s amazing cooking we’d have a dreamless sleep. Here’s the thing though, I would sleep in absolute peace.

After father passed away, I stopped praying. There was a part of me that was incredibly pissed off that a man so utterly religious could have died without any warning. It was about the same time that I grew an absolute disdain for religion. Slowly and steadily, the prayer room started catching cobwebs. The gods were cleaned not out of a sense of devotion, but like any other furniture in the house. Ganesh Chaturthi became a day to celebrate nostalgia, more than anything else. My mother and I would have a quiet meal and spend the day like any other.

In my second year of college, I joined three of my juniors (who would later become my work partners) as we shot footage through ten days in the interiors of Pune, in the heart of the city. The sheer exuberance of the celebration there is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We shot through the late hours of the night scaling the tallest buildings around hoping to get decent footage. It was magical. For the first time I saw Ganesh Chaturthi at its most magnificent. A bunch of my batchmates from college who had badgered their parents into buying them a DSLR were around. It felt nice to belong though, as someone who had been a part of this for two decades. That’s a sense of belonging that I haven’t felt outside of Pune, because the way Chaturthi is celebrated in Pune is a very pure memory in my head.

You know, I’ve had a very weird relationship with religion. I’m as absolute an atheist as I can be right now, but I’ve seen myself transition from someone who was extremely religious, to someone who hated every aspect of religion to someone more accepting now. I feel like if you keep the absolute morality and legislation out of religion, there’s no harm seeking salvation with an idea of a creator.

It’s so weird, but I’ve spent seven years since I haven’t bothered praying. I still haven’t had a day where I’ve felt the absolute sense of peace I’ve felt during my childhood during the festival. I went to Dadar,for a meal last night (a huge part of Mumbai’s Maharashtrian community lives there) to salvage some of the homesickness I had since morning and it felt nice.

I saw a kid carry an idol home on the streets last night. He had such a familiar looking glint in his eye while his father walked alongside, reminding him to be careful where he walked. It felt like home. Simpler times, way more heartfelt.

 

 

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Uncle bought a Mercedes Benz today.

Half an hour before father’s evening prayers, the house unwillingly tries to adjust its mood to something more sombre. The television shuts down without fail, always disconnected from the main switchboard, never by only the remote. Nanda bai is given her daily reminder to not grind masalas in the kitchen. A dull silence takes over in fifteen minutes, broken only by father’s monotonous singing of selected verses from the Bhagwat Gita while he bathes. Our bathroom door doesn’t close properly, which allows steam to waft through the corridors connecting my room and his. As he reaches the end of the shloka, which I’ve memorised verbatim over years of hearing it again and again, he barks out my name where after I’m expected to fetch turmeric and sandalwood from the kitchen. Father needs the paste to be of a certain consistency. I grind the sandalwood blocks in the kitchen just as I hear the bathroom door open, to make sure it’s fresh and moist enough for prayers. By this time, the entire corridor is flooded with steam and one can barely see the door to the small prayer room at the side.

Our prayer room is the only room in our seventy year old house which hasn’t been touched by renovation. My father and his father before him were very vocal about this. As your cross the boundary of the room, the marble turns to wood, the cream paint that adorns most of my house, save the cracks that land up uninvited till you throw them out during Diwali – slowly vanish to red brick. One’s eyes immediately flash eastwards, towards the main statue of Ganpati kept there in a silver devhara, our only real family heirloom. It’s solid silver, but father refuses to let me clean it with acid because of which it’s become a dull shade of grey. I’ve often asked father how much it’s worth with the antique value of three hundred years backing it, but he refuses to tell me, sometimes even demanding how a son/daughter of his could dare put a price on something so valuable to the family.

Something strange happened today. My father didn’t go straight for a bath and rush to pray after coming home. Instead, he sunk himself in one of the sofas and handed me his wallet. He told me to walk up to the corner and buy a full box of pure ghee pedhas, the ones with powdered sugar on top of them. Years of asking questions and never getting answers from father has conditioned me to simply following instructions. I walked towards the corner where six shops have been standing for a decade without a hint of change to what they sell. The way was littered with Gulmohor pods, just about to flower. I made a mental note to stock these up for school tomorrow. They’re filled with water and make for excellent ammunition to fire mid way through Geography class.

There’s a dwarf that sits on the large stone slab separating Chitale Sweets and Joshi Sweets. He polishes shoes for the entire neighbourhood. I used to be really scared of him when I was small. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t seen him sitting in his canvas shelter, never bothered by the weather, always flashing a smile to all the regulars. He overhears every conversation that transpires in both the shops, often wincing when people order the wrong things from both the places. He waved cheerily as I entered the lane and asked me if I saw Thursday’s match. I told him I had and added that Ganguli was indeed the star of the game. Pleased at my critical insight, he swore at Sri Lanka, who we had fought, threw a mango toffee at me and picked up the brush and a tub of very brown polish.

The two sweet-shops are almost sacred in Pune’s rigid culinary space. Chitale Sweets is known just as much for its eccentric and rude salesmen as it is for it’s paper thin saffron Jilbis, which people from neighbouring towns have been heard to make entire day trips for. A visit inside is never complete till you’re shown the sweets the servers believe you’re worth. They never greet you, they never smile at you. Over the years, people have warmed up to this show of arrogance. They don’t mind the stabs of humiliation one goes through while one begs and reminds the man behind the counter that a kilogram stands for a thousand grams, not nine hundred and fifty. Only the choicest regulars, the inner circle of buyers who have grown old along with the store get access to the fresh lot of sweets. Still, no one can deny how exquisite the produce from the place is.

Which brings us to Joshi sweets, owned by one of Pune’s oldest families. Every generation that’s owned the outlet has fought bitterly in a very, very public spat worse than the previous one. Every decade a rumour resurfaces where close friends of the family swear by their blood that the shop will shut down any day. It never does. The sweets have not changed in their taste in over a hundred years, a fact verified time and again by their oldest customers. The Joshis are the antithesis of the Chitales. One is welcomed inside with one’s first name. One is asked what one wishes to buy and subsequently taken to every other counter other than the one one wishes to carry out business with. As one is just about to leave the store with the shopping bags heavier and one’s wallet lighter, one is reminded – have you forgotten your so and so? And one has to buy a final item. The portions are always large and the taste is rustic and raw with flavour. There is never any delicate garnish, no sprinkles of dainty gold foil, just eight glass counters and barrels of the choicest food.

I have to admit, I’m loyal to neither. Father never touches anything post the doormat at Joshis, so it’s going to be me facing the Chitales today.

Almost to reaffirm what people whisper saying, the shopkeeper served three people who walked into the store after me reminding me each time – Old people are more important. I sat on a stool, listening to the unbearably monotonous chorus of ‘Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’, which plays there on loop every single minute of the day. Father had once told me that  old man Chitale had been told to chant Lord Ram’s name ten thousand times a day if he wanted a male heir to his empire of sweet shops. Ever since, he’s played the cassette on loop. It never stops. He even has it as his cell phone ring-tone, just in case. After quizzing me with several questions about school, how my preparations for the terminal examinations were going on and how my sister was doing in college, he measured half a kilogram of pedhas, made sure the sum total was four ninety five grams and pushed the packet in my hands.

I thought about school. Today was an eventful day at school. Yellow house defeated green for the first time in six years to win the annual sports day overall championship. There is no way this could have happened without a certain amount of red tape involved, we suspect Anshuman Thombre, who was seen sneaking out of the PT sir’s house last Sunday. Yellow have had a terrible history at excelling in anything, so it was quite the day for anyone unfortunate enough to have been drawn into the house. I cycled home like any self respecting student, extremely indignant that we’d have to deal with all of them gloating for the next year.

Father was already standing in the backyard by the time I reached home. Our old Esteem was dripping water by the time I walked into the driveway. Our watchman Baban, an old wrinkly fellow with an awful amount of hair sprouting out from his ears and who, to be fair would have been removed a long time back if it hadn’t been for the fact he had served us for a while looked at me approaching and declared that my uncle was going to visit. It always bothered me that he was privy to father’s intimate days months before I was. He would share with me the less harmful details of the future he had overheard, just to remind me how important he was.

Father checked the contents of my purchase to verify if I had brought what he asked. He asked me if I got a receipt, followed by the change. He asked if I had counted it. I replied affirmative to all three counts. He pushed an open palm at my watchman, who placed a packet of 555 cigarettes in his hand. Father opened the packet and lit one up. He would smoke either while he was driving, or when he was having a great conversation with someone, or when he was edgy. He didn’t qualify for the first two right now.  I had no idea why father was so nervous about his brother coming over. Kaka used to stay in America, and had just recently shifted back to Pune. He was always fun to hang around, had hilarious stories about what it was like to be an Indian in America. He still spoke perfect Marathi, which I find really funny, because I can’t. Mine seems strange and foreign. He would switch from an American accent in English to a perfect Kokanastha Brahman accent in Marathi right between sentences, which was very disconcerting the the ears.

The first thing he noticed was that the car had wipers on its headlights. That was a huge deal. What an important vehicle this must be, if its lights needed wipers, he thought. He remembered all the scrap books he had made with entire pages filled with cut-outs of the Mercedes-S class, the Mercedes-M class and so on. The star looked exactly like one of those. It was raven black and shiny to the point where one could use it as a mirror if one wanted. As his uncle parked the car, the smell of fresh leather and foam started taking over the wintery smell of Gulmohor and Chapha. He looked at his father, who nodded before his son could ask the question.

He screamed and jumped on his uncle as soon as he got out of the car. Why didn’t you tell me? When did you get it? Why did you get black? Didn’t they have blue? How many people know? Does it have a phone inside like they say it does – were some of the questions he fired without a seconds pause for an answer.

The uncle touched his father’s feet. They hugged. His father reminded the uncle to offer the pedhas as a prasad to Lord Shankar, without whose mercy the father was sure this extravagance would not have been possible. The boy opened the door and sat marvelling at all the knobs and buttons inside. There’s a real phone here, he exclaimed looking at the car’s satellite phone, a device useless in Indian territory. The boy pressed the first button on the dashboard and the car whirred into life, its mirrors slowly coming out. We need to do this by hand, he reminded his father. He pressed a second button and the windows disappeared into the car, all automated. How many hours of his life he had spent wrestling with the rear windows in their Esteem, he remembered. He pressed the horn and the car blared out a sound so unique he was sure all the neighbours along the street would come out to take a look. He was wrong, for his neighbours were already watching. Some from their balcony like Mr Yadav, with a cup of tea and khari ready at the side. Some had walked to the porch almost disappointed to find out that it didn’t belong to a celebrity, perhaps from the television shows. The uncle pulled the boy’s cheeks and reminded him that the car belonged to all of them. The boy demanded they go for a drive. The uncle asked the father if he’d like to drive all of them along. The father insisted his son and the uncle go on their own, he would watch them from the distance.

The boy was anxiously watching through the car windows. He really wanted his school friends to see him. Of course, he would tell them about the drive anyway, but the actual thrill of having their jaw drop without any sort of warning was what he was hoping for. Neither Utkarsh nor JP were playing in their porch. He cursed their timing at being unproductive.

The car cruised through the lanes of Pune, orange with fallen Gulmohor. People craned their necks to look inside the car. The boy made sure he didn’t make eye contact. Other kids on the road excitedly jumped and pointed to their fathers and mothers, who ruffled their hair and told them not to point. At the signal, a college graduate of Pune’s prestigious Fergusson college poked his girlfriend, who assured him that he too would drive such a car one day. The boy decided it was time he showed of his vast knowledge about automobiles, and quizzed his uncle with a volley of questions about the BHP of the car, the torque and so on. He had no idea what any of them meant of course. The uncle knew this but complied. The boy made notes in his head, he knew he’d have to add this when his friends would argue about how powerful the car really is tomorrow in school.

They passed by Law colllege and went past Kanchan Galli, where the foothills of Pune’s hill start from. As they crossed Maggi Point, a spot made famous by its serving of India’s favourite instant noodles, the uncle asked the boy if he’d like to drive. The boy naturally wanted to but was very forthcoming about his lack of maneuverability in controlling the vehicle. The uncle chuckled and asked him to sit on his lap. The boy complied. Now keep one hand here, and keep the other here, instructed the uncle in a voice that resembled his father’s except it didn’t have the pages of safety instructions his father would have mentioned before.

The boy turned the steering slowly, his uncle making sure he didn’t turn to much. The car turned obediently. The boy was thrilled. He couldn’t wait to grow up and stop pedalling for a change. He asked his uncle whether he could put his foot on the accelerator and change the gear, but his uncle said no. A few more years and I’ll teach you he added, as an afterthought.

The father was still waiting downstairs when the drive was over. He invited his brother for dinner but the uncle refused, lying about a prior commitment at the Gymkhana. The father didn’t try to force him into coming. The boy demanded to know when they’d go out together, the uncle laughed and said they’d plan a long trip to Rajgad or any of the many forts scattered around the Maharashtrian countryside. He reminded his nephew to hang from the bar every day and stretch his spine, the boy promised he would.

Father stared at me again, and he pushed the box of pedhas I had brought a little while back at me. I passed it to my uncle. He opened it, finished one in a single bite and gave me the box back. I thanked him for the drive and he pulled my hair. You don’t need to be formal with me, he said. I’m your uncle, not an outsider.

The house was silent and dark when we walked upstairs. The lights in the prayer room, which are usually gleaming bright by now, had been forgotten. Father threw the house keys on the sofa and asked me how my day was at school. He asked me how prepared I was for the terminal exams. I said I had finished reading all my books once. I would finish reading them again by the time the exams started. Father told me he was very proud he had me as his son. He started walking towards his bedroom. I asked him if I should prepare sandalwood for the pooja later. No need, he said.

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Artwork credit: Aditya Phadke
Instagram – Artyaditya

Story by Sumedh Natu

Twitter, Instagram – @sumedhnatu

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Filed under Fiction, Media, Norms, Uncategorized

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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