Monday 26 November 2012

The sari connection

Palakkad. It was the first name that sprang into Subhadra’s mind.
“Palakkad,” she told her inquisitor, tired of avoiding a reply. The young man had been grilling her for some minutes now. .
“Seriously? In which state is that?” Sunjiv asked, uncertainty clearly written on his brow.
Subhadra decided to take a chance. “Kerala,” she told him rashly, making a mental note to check it on Internet the moment his back was turned.
Sunjiv worked in the HR department, and sat in a cabin opposite to hers, at the far end of the big hall.
Subhadra in a sari.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Once he heard her speak into the phone in impeccable Punjabi, and sauntered across to her table on some pretext. He began a casual chat on a small office matter. Soon she got used to making small talk with him. They conversed in English, always, till one day he dropped a line in Punjabi and she replied in the same language. He seized the opportunity swiftly.
“Are you a Punjabi?”
The cocky lad should have seen it coming, but did not.
“Oh no, how could you think that of me?” she pouted, sounding offended.
The young man fumbled for words. “I wondered how you could be, but the other day you were talking quite fluently in Punjabi. So …”
“So, are you an Englishman by the same criterion?” she retorted.
“N-no, I always thought you were from Bengal. Now you say you are from Kerala.”
“Why, do I look like a Bengali?” She was beginning to enjoy pulling his leg.
Sunjiv was positively squirming now.
She wore such a diverse range of saris that it was difficult to tell which part of the country she came from, he explained.
“You mean to say I should not be wearing saris? Or only one type of sari? Or only salwar kameez? Perhaps western suits? I had no idea you kept such a sharp eye on what women wear,” Subhadra said, ragging him more.
“Actually, the variety you wear is so wide, we often discuss it,” Sunjiv blurted, now profusely apologetic.
“We? Who else is tracking what I wear?”
“Don’t take it otherwise, please,” Sunjiv begged. “Banjyot in my department and I often talk about the way you glide into office in your crisp sari. You don’t circulate much, but whenever you do talk to someone you sound very pleasant,” he coloured deeply as he defended himself.
“Is that such a bad thing?” she asked him, picking on him.
“N-no, ma’am, it’s not that. We fell into this habit of betting on what colour of sari you would come in.”
“That’s not done,” Subhadra frowned. “You lay bets on such trivial issues?”
“Believe me, ma’am, it’s all healthy and with no money involved.”
She pretended to be annoyed now.
“How is it anyone’s business what I wear to work?” she demanded.
“But that’s exactly what we mean,” he sounded almost deferential. “It’s a pleasure to behold you … business-like, professional, self-contained, and — and tastefully dressed. That is all, ma’am, I assure you,” Sunjiv was almost babbling. “That is how we came to wonder which part of the country you came from. It’s entirely harmless talk, ma’am. No offence whatsoever, ma’am.”
Subhadra decided to let up the pressure a bit.
She made him sit down, and called for coffee. Soon the talk veered round to the sari she was wearing that day. It was Sambalpuri, from Orissa, she told him.
Later, she accompanied Sunjiv to Banjyot’s cabin, at last making a friend in her office, indeed, two friends.
Banjyot was a Punjabi, too, like Sunjiv. She had little knowledge of saris, being more inclined towards western attire. The trio shared some light moments over the episode and then headed back to their respective desks.
Subhadra’s saris helped cement the friendship. Sometimes she told the duo how she had picked out a particular  colour combination. Sometimes her new friends tried to guess the type of silk used in her sari. Almost every sari had a story behind it: how Subhadra’s husband had pulled out a particularly striking one from a heap of silks in a South Indian shop, how husband and wife ended up buying the same shade of rust at separate stalls, and so on.
A few weeks later, Subhadra decided to tell Banjyot the truth about herself, but waited for a good occasion to tell Sunjiv.
He was quizzing her about her husband one day: “How did you decide to marry a Punjabi?” “How come you are so fluent in the language?” “Does your husband speak Bangla?”
Humouring him, she said: “We met at a seminar, and clicked.”
“Just like that?”
“Well, it took some effort on his part convincing me,” she smiled naughtily.
Sunjiv was clearly bent on romanticizing her so-called affair. She embellished her story with nonsensical tales of the courtship. She said her family hailed from Kerala but she was born in Bengal and studied in Delhi. Sunjiv seemed to lap it all up … how she had scorned her husband’s advances at first but secretly admired him from day one; how he turned up at her doorstep every other day; how they dated for two whole years. Wide-eyed, he exclaimed, “Ah! Sir must really have fallen for you.”
At one stage, she could no longer hold back her mirth: “Silly, I am a born Punjabi and had an arranged marriage! Within months.”
“I don’t believe you, ma’am,” Sunjiv said indignantly.
“You spun a romantic web about my marriage, and I led you on because you were so hung on it,” she replied. “It’s just that I’m a cosmopolitan Indian woman. My husband and I share this love for all types of saris. It helps that I have a non-Punjabi look, which fooled you. I just played along, man,” she replied.
Sunjiv’s bewilderment gave way to a sheepish grin when he realized how his runaway imagination had invited an elaborate joke on himself.

Monday 19 November 2012

Tastie Toast Café

Honee worked at Tastie Toast Café. He attended two-hour morning classes at the slumside tent, then scampered off to the bus station for his 9.20 a.m. ride to the city centre.
The café was famous for its black tea and black coffee, but most of all for its Tastie Toast. All six working days of the week, the owner kneaded the dough with his own hands and prepared the stuffing five times a day to get that perfect taste into his unique patty.
The whole staff – that is, Honee, Bindi and Mandra – had become good friends. Their work bound them closer than any Fevicol could, Honee mused. After all, they worked sort of butt-to-butt in the tiny kitchen at the back of the café.
It hadn’t always been such a tight squeeze, but the cafe’s growing popularity had forced the boss to make more space for his customers and push the kitchen wall closer to the back. As a result, they had to lightly shove each other by their backsides to move in or out of the kitchen. It was dicey, manoeuvring with trays and steaming mugs balanced on each palm. Like today.
“Coming, saarrr!” Honee replied in a singsong tone when the perpetually drunk Bear called out a third time for his Tastie Toast.
“Bear” was their nickname for the grumpy, bearded man who lurched in every morning, his cap dangling down one ear and spiky hair shining in the sun. He slumped into the corner by the big glass window, ate Tastie Toasts and drank till he was sozzled.
 Another regular was the “Dream”. Some years back she used to wear skimpy blouses and flared pants tied high on her waist. Now she had put on weight and wore tight, ill-fitting tops with skirts or pants that did not match. She loved Tastie Toast Café even more than her cigarettes. Once she was inside the café, she wolfed down Tastie Toasts and had black coffee laced with a drink she poured from the tiny flask ever-present in her huge purse. She did not smoke except on her way out. Boss served her himself, preparing Tastie Toasts in quick succession so that her plate was never empty.
Tastie Toast on a tray.
The black coffee was a hot favourite.
Digital sketches: Harjeet
Honee’s personal favourite was the “Cane”, a quiet old man with thick eyebrows. Short and stout, he walked with a cane, his head erect, and always landed up at 11 sharp for a cup of tea with milk, a Tastie Toast and a cookie. Then he would strut to his office hard by. It seemed he had no cook at home because after work hours, he dropped in for two Tastie Toasts and one mug of black coffee. After that, he walked out in the opposite direction, to the bus station.
Cane’s friend was of middling height, sporting a moustache. He usually darted in 15-20 minutes after Cane, whispered some secrets perhaps, and scuttled off before Cane had finished his cookie. It was done in clockwork precision. But Honee had not been able to establish if Cane and “Moustache” worked in the same office.
Bear interrupted Honee’s reverie: “Boy, what are you dreaming about? Where’s my toast today?”
Honee looked around. He had unwittingly put down the Tastie Toast at Cane’s table. Swiftly retrieving the plate, he muttered a soft “Sorry, saar” and shot back into the kitchen.
Cane was fidgety today, and to top it Honee had delayed his order. Mandra was poised at the door, and passed on a tray.
“Quick,” he hissed to Honee, who darted back to where Cane was sitting.
“Here, saar!” he panted as he put down the tray. “The other saar is not coming today? All well, saar?” he asked.
“No, he hasn’t come in, and I’m worried,” Cane replied. “I hope he is well.”
“He will be fine, saar,” Honee said reassuringly.
This was Honee’s longest conversation with any customer. His boss did not encourage small talk. He philosophized that rich people were best left alone. Serve them well, and earn your living. Stay out of their hair, and they won’t bother you. “It’s that or your job. I don’t want trouble in any form,” the boss would often say.
But today Honee felt impelled to ask more. So, undaunted, he prodded Hero for more information.
“My friend lives all alone, just like me,” Cane said.
“So I was right about him,” Honee thought. Aloud, he asked if he could be of any help.
“I’ll let you know,” a distracted Cane replied.
Honee fretted all day, waiting for Cane to come in before they shut shop. The boss had to pull him up twice for not paying attention to his work.
Cane did not turn up that evening. Honee felt concerned. Mandra had left early, so Honee told Bindi about it when they were scrubbing the floor.
Downing the shutter, they noticed a lone light in the building next door where Cane worked. Climbing two steps at a time, they gained the glass door in a trice. Cane was sitting alone, staring at his typewriter. They roused him, and guided him down the stairs. Bindi stood guard by him while Honee clambered back to lock up the office. They offered to escort him home, but Cane shook his head determinedly.
They decided to trail him. He wound up three or four lanes later at what was probably his friend’s place.
They waited in the shadows. Cane was back in five minutes, his shoulders shaking. Honee made bold to step forward. “All well, saar?” he asked for the second time that day.
“I could never have guessed!” Cane had been laughing silently, and did not bother to ask the young men what they were doing there.
“That woman who comes in to drink liquor with her coffee proposed to him yesterday. He’s so scared he’s holed up since, ha-ha!” Cane said gleefully.
He was referring to the Dream. That much Honee could figure, but he had not seen her and the middle-aged Moustache exchanging a word.
Cane said the two worked in the same office, and she had been chasing Moustache for some time. He would leave for the café the moment she entered office, pour out his agony to Cane. Somehow, that fortified him for the rest of the day. Today, however, she had waylaid him, and proposed. He ran off and had since been hiding in his one-room tenement.
“He doesn’t like her?” Honee asked curiously.
“He does, but he’s scared of her ex, the one who sits in that corner in your café,” Cane told them.
“Her ex?” they exclaimed.
“Well, they went around a bit. Though she broke off the affair, he does not let anyone near her,” Cane explained. “He is a violent drunkard, and my friend won’t risk offending him.”
“They can complain to the police, or get married and go to a new place. Why are they spoiling their lives for a drunken man?” Honee said with naïve wisdom.
“It’s not easy to change jobs, and anyway he has never discussed it with her. He’s too scared of him,” Cane told them as they walked to the bus station.
“He won’t be around too long,” Honee assured Cane lightly, leaving him wondering.
Honee went straight to his teacher’s house in the slum, and told him about Moustache and the Dream. He asked if there was a way to get rid of Bear. The teacher said the café owner could complain about his drinking. But Bear had been doing that for so long without creating a scene! “So you create one,” the teacher suggested.
Three days later, Cane was beaming at the corner where Bear usually sat, for Moustache and the Dream sat holding hands there.
And Bear? He had been taken away by the police for drinking in public and threatening to kill some youth harmlessly indulging in Tastie Toast at the café. Bear had actually brandished an evil-looking knife drawn from his pouch! It had been touch and go.
The plan was carried out so smoothly that no one suspected the young men came from a slum, dressed in their Sunday best for the occasion, and there at Honee’s behest.
Honee could not stop grinning all day. The Dream had for the first time taken her coffee neat, without drawing out that flask from her bag.

Thursday 1 November 2012

When Stuti met Dhwani

Their biology teacher had asked the children to separate the different parts of the flowers on their desks. When Ma’am called out “Sepals”, they were supposed to hold up the sepals; then the petals or stamens or ovary. Stuti could not bring herself to ruin her cute purple flower, though her classmates were doing just that.
Winning pair Stuti & Dhwani.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
The boy sitting next to her nudged her: “What are you waiting for?”
She shook her head silently. When her turn came, she stood up, held up the full flower and pointed to the stamens nonchalantly.
“Why did you not pull the flower apart?” Ma’am asked.
“I want to keep it this way.”
Ma’am decided to overlook it, for there was no gainsaying Stuti.
The child was so sensitive and self-assured. She was also very responsible and helpful, willing to fetch and carry study materials for her teachers, sharing her tiffin with her class fellows or setting their school ties right as they poured into the assembly hall.
Indeed, Stuti was the talking point among her teachers. What spooked them was Stuti’s total lack of self-consciousness. She did exactly what she wanted, when she wanted, how she wanted. The physics teacher often recounted the incident of the pencil. A boy in the front row had come to school without a pencil. Stuti did not wait for Sir to ask if anybody would lend the boy a pencil. She rose from her chair as Sir began scolding him, passed on the pencil and was back at her seat without a word.
The English teacher had another tale to share. Stuti came to the rescue of four or five children who could not fill in the blanks, turn by turn. While they shuffled on their feet and stammered, she just uttered just one letter that made it easy to guess the word.
No amount of persuasion or harsh words could deter Stuti if she thought she was doing the right thing. She was just about 14, but her demeanour was one of a peaceful sage. Not for her the typical tricks that children play on each other; no antics, no teasing. Her soft “Good morning” shamed her naughtiest classmates into returning the greeting. Pranksters kept away from her.
Every morning, Stuti wiped her desk with a piece of flannel she pulled out from her bag. Then she would lay out her books period-wise inside the desk, pencils and rubber to one side. She never forgot to bring the right books, her pen never ran out of ink and she always had a rubber and sharpened pencil at hand. She submitted her assignments on time and she also topped in class, invariably.
The teachers noticed that the rest of the class stood in awe of her. They knew it was not fair, but they could not resist shifting a recalcitrant child next to her. The child would be miraculously reformed. Stuti never exerted herself or imposed her will on them; they just submitted to it. She could do no wrong, unlike them. She did not scramble out of class, she did not push or shove, she never stuffed her books into her bag anyhow and rush out when the bell rang. Her placid manners won her admirers, but she was friends with none. Rather, all were wary of befriending her.
That did not seem to bother her. She lived in a world of her own. Her teachers brought up the subject with her parents, who said she behaved exactly like that at home as well. She was a loving child, but kept to herself. All efforts to draw her out were in vain, they said.
Stuti’s well-organized world went topsy turvy with the arrival of Dhwani. The new girl in her class was as noisy as Stuti was quiet. She was a tomboy, playing a prank on the unsuspecting math teacher the very day she joined. She banged her desk shut, scraped her chair loudly, and merrily nicknamed her classmates by their looks.
One was dubbed “Mr Hairy”, another was called “Miss Curly Hair”, yet another “Mr Broad Shoulders” and so on, but somehow the ebullient Dhwani could not fathom Stuti.
The tall Stuti just walked up to her when Ma’am introduced her to the class, shook her by the hand and said: “Hi, I’m Stuti. I sit in the second-last row.” No other child in the class had done that. It was not the norm, anywhere. And Ma’am had not blinked.
She determined to try breaking “The Silence”. Yes, Dhwani decided, that would be her name for the enigmatic girl beside whom she was made to sit the very next day. She refused to be intimidated by Stuti’s orderliness and self-contained bearing.
Dhwani would sing loudly during lunch break, exhorting the others to join in. She would play pass-the-parcel with a greasy lunch box, wipe her hands on her skirt, empty her bag onto the desk if she couldn’t find a book – and the class was loving it. She was normal. They flocked around her, enjoyed her silly antics and generally became a livelier lot.
Stuti watched apprehensively. She did not grudge Dhwani her boisterousness, but she could not digest such lack of restraint either. She did not want to be seen as stuck-up, but she couldn’t join in.
Being deskmates, they had to spend a lot of time together. So one day when Dhwani left her rough notebook at home, she sheepishly accepted the sheets Stuti handed out from her own notebook without being asked. Dhwani sprang to massage Stuti’s foot when her chair toppled down on it. And when they knocked their heads trying to shoo away a lost-looking frog from under their twin desk, they shared a hearty laugh.
The teachers could see the change in the two girls. They compared notes in their common room on the pair of complementary role models in the making. One was opening up to the world around her, the other was getting tamed.
Stuti was not as stand-offish now. She could make shy conversations of more than one syllable. She even played the parcel game with Dhwani, whose lunch box was no longer grubby. Dhwani did not slam her desk or screech like a parrot during lunch hour any more, and moderated her jokes that Stuti was beginning to smile at.
The companionship was sealed the day the girls won an inter-school debate. They had independently signed up to represent the school in a declamation contest, in which they had to think on their feet, be on the same wavelength and bond well to take on the competition. The topic: “Who comes first – friends, or me?”
The usually pushy Dhwani hung back, allowing the once-reticent Stuti to step forward and receive the trophy, and to make an elegant acceptance speech on behalf of them both. There was a loud cheer backstage. Only their classmates and teachers knew it was more in celebration of a newfound friendship.