Saturday, 22 February 2014

Jiggs and the cat

Jiggs snarled. This was getting too much for him. The cat had dragged out his favourite bone after having upset his basket for the umpteenth time today. He raced menacingly towards the door, out of which the cat had bolted after her mischief.

He stopped short when a shadow crossed his path, and looked up to find Huh-huh eyeing him quizzically.

Leashed, Jiggs was unhappy with Huh-huh.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Jiggs was very unhappy these days with Huh-huh, his master who had given him his strange name. He had heard Huh-huh say a number of times he was an ardent fan of Mr Jiggs, but little did he know that it was a comic strip character Huh-huh was referring to. To him, Huh-huh was simply reiterating his love for his hulk of a pet.

Huh-huh? Well, that was how Jiggs thought of his master, for those were the first words he learnt to comprehend. It did not matter to Jiggs if Huh-huh had another name.

And of late Huh-huh was quite of favour with Jiggs. They had been quite a pair. They used to go for long walks when the sun was still a little yellow globe up there. If Huh-huh was at home all day, they would play in the shaded garden when the globe glowed warmly. Once the sky turned a dull blue and the sun went down on the other side, Huh-huh would take him for a short run around the apartment blocks.

A large ball, an assortment of bones, a convenient hole in the garden to bury them or dig them out whenever it pleased him, a smart leather collar, a lavishly done-up basket, a bagful of old shoes and socks to tear apart, lots of meat, dog biscuits and other stuff to gulp down – Jiggs had all these and much more.

Huh-huh had never failed to comb him down daily and take him for a weekly swim ... till the cat arrived. She didn’t just wander in. She was planted there by the woman who had moved into Huh-huh’s apartment. He seemed to like being with the woman a lot, even more than he did being with Jiggs. She wasn’t bad, no, sir. She took turns with Huh-huh to feed him and walk him and all, but it wasn’t the same thing any longer.

She couldn’t be a friend friend, you see. Jiggs and Huh-huh, Huh-huh and Jiggs – that had been a great combination. But Huh-huh was often distracted now, sometimes forgetting to pet Jiggs even though he wagged his big, bushy tail till it hurt. He no more checked if his pet was well stocked for the day. Jiggs missed his run around the apartment block, but it seemed Huh-huh did not, because he went out with the woman instead nowadays.

When they sat down for the meal after dark, they kept holding hands and smooching, ignoring Jiggs’ dripping tongue that at one time used to attract savouries throughout dinner. Of course, his bowl was hardly ever empty when he felt like eating, but previously table time was reserved for treats from Huh-huh. Even that change was bearable, for when Huh-huh spared time for Jiggs, it was like the good old days. Jiggs firmly believed that Huh-huh still enjoyed himself more when they were together than when he was with the woman.

He would not have minded the woman so much, had she not brought the cat soon after joining the household. Just as Jiggs had no name for the woman, he refused to call the cat by any name.

The cat had an injured foot when she arrived, so Jiggs was not much concerned about the intrusion. Once she was back on her four feet, however, there grew a silent hostility between them. 

The cat was wary of him, and he possessive about his territory. The woman sensed his discomfort, and demarcated their domains to avert any disastrous encounters. The dog was free to roam around without a leash when the woman had to go out and the cat was locked upstairs. On her return, which was always too soon, the woman would bring the feline down to the ground floor and his freedom was curtailed.

Jiggs began to resent the way Huh-huh humoured the cat, just because the woman had brought her. Huh-huh let the cat paw his sofa, his plush rocking chair, the rug next to the dinner table … wherever the cat wanted to be. He did not remonstrate when the cat spat or shed her hair – ugh, so much of it!

What hurt him most that Huh-huh could not … rather, would not … see how the cat was making Jiggs’ life miserable. Now the occasional fly could buzz around his wet nose but he was not free to chase it down. He was chained, that’s why! He could see a rat scuttle by, but the cat was free to pounce on it and play with it before killing it, not Jiggs. 

Not that Jiggs would kill a rat. Them dirty creatures were no prey for him, heaven forbid! He had better things to do. Like barking at strangers who dared to stop by the house, let alone enter it. Like chasing away the birds that soiled the window sill. Like digging in the garden to his heart’s content. Like huffing and puffing with a ball or a bone in his mouth and making Huh-huh laugh at his antics.

Sigh! That was all in the past. Now the windows were no longer open for the birds to flit in and out. With a cat in the house, Huh-huh had called some men one day to fit the frames with mesh so that the cat did not attack the birds. The cat was so slender that she could sneak out of the iron gate of the garden, so some mesh was fixed on it too. Now Jiggs could not see much through either the windows or the gate. How was he to guard his master’s house?

Why couldn’t Huh-huh make out what was happening? Jiggs was not exercising enough, he was becoming ungainly in gait, his coat of hair no longer shone as much, he did not prance around his master because of the leash, the house was almost unguarded, the cat kept tipping things over, and she irritated Jiggs.

As the days grew colder, Jiggs got more irritable. He longed for the sun, but he was forced to sit next to the heater most of the day. He began to look forward to the woman leaving the house, for then the cat was locked up and he was let off the leash. To feel this way was not good, he knew, but he could not help it.

Today the woman was away but Huh-huh was at home, and he had let Jiggs roam around without securing the cat upstairs. Jiggs wanted to make the most of it, tearing around and generally amusing his master with tricks he had almost forgotten. But every so often he found the cat in his basket, pulling at his rug or sniffing at his tin of biscuits. He chased her out each time, sometimes discreetly, at times with short barks so as not attract Huh-huh’s attention.

Now she had attacked his favourite bone, and he was not going to let her off lightly. He had decided she must be smacked, and hard. But Huh-huh appeared in the doorway just then, and Jiggs braked hard, almost knocking him down. Huh-huh recovered his balance with some effort, and caught hold of Jiggs by the collar.

“What’s gotten into you?” he asked absent-mindedly, patting Jiggs.

Jiggs barked, and licked his master’s feet. Then he bounded out and back in, out and back, hoping Huh-huh would follow him into the garden. He wanted to lead him to the cat and somehow make him put her on the leash instead.

Someone entered the gate that Huh-huh had left ajar. He called out to Huh-huh, but Jiggs dashed out first and was at the intruder’s ankle in a trice, barking madly.

The agitated man was holding the cat in his arms. She was purring and purring. Huh-huh shushed Jiggs into silence. The two men exchanged some words, and behold! The stranger took away the cat.

Jiggs could not believe it. Was the cat not coming back? Was he going to have his master back, all to himself? Had the woman also gone? That was too bad a thought, he chided himself. But he restlessly followed Huh-huh in.

Jiggs felt his master was not perturbed that the man had taken the cat with him, and he positively perked up when Huh-huh gave him his undivided attention after many, many days.

The woman was back when the sun was gone. The couple had a long chat, but they did not tie up Jiggs. He kept to his territory, lest his unexpected freedom drew the woman’s attention. But she seemed somewhat upset and paid him no heed.

The cat did not return the next day too. Jiggs relaxed.

Soon after, when Huh-huh and the woman were at home one whole day, the men who had put up the wire mesh came and took it down from the windows and the gate. Jiggs was now sure the cat was away for good. He could have an unimpaired view of the road outside again. And the birds would be back too, thank heaven!

He could live with the woman around. That was a small price to pay for freedom, Jiggs thought to himself, curling up in his cosy basket after setting his rug just the way he liked it.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

‘Papa, you kiss him’


Jeet Uncle, who always dresses smartly himself, is surprisingly indulgent regarding his wife’s fetish for garish pinks and all shades of red.

I have always liked to watch them, especially Nola Auntie. I am not as well versed in the ways of the world, but even I have to admit her gaudy magenta salwar kameez suit complements her rosy cheeks; the cherry red outfit, in which she dazzles with a twinkling red and gold bindi stuck on her forehead, would be difficult for most young women to carry off.
The couple lives within walking distance of our house. When they were newly married, the two would drop in once or twice a week after dinner. They said it was to look us up, but I suspect they wanted to spend time together, away from his large family. 
She was fair, plump, and very girlish when I first saw her. I mean, I was an impressionable 16, and Nola Auntie, who was Mom’s first cousin, was just 20. She had lived in another town before her marriage, so we had never met, not even on family occasions.
I quite looked forward to their visits, for it was a big change from my dreary transition from school to college. Not just that, most of our visitors are pretty senior in age. My parents are a happy-hosting couple, and there is nary a day their friends or sisters or cousins do not show up – so boring for me. I have few friends nearby, so I stay indoors mostly.
Back to the newly weds. Nola Auntie tended to prattle like a child, but Jeet Uncle was clearly besotted by her. I eagerly drank in their exchange of romantic looks, their pleasant banter, and their playful complaints about each other to big sister, that is, my mother.
Little Kaunu made everyone laugh.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
They would go on tours frequently, which meant Jeet Uncle’s office sent him someplace and Nola Auntie would accompany him each time.

I derived a lot of vicarious knowledge about places I have still not visited, despite having left my teenage years behind. Jeet Uncle was very good with word sketches, for I could vividly imagine the lush green of the coast down south dotted with the sloping red roofs of mud cottages, or the lights of a merry-go-round in Rajasthan when Nola Auntie wanted to keep riding a particular wooden horse painted red, white and gold.
Two years into their marriage, Nola Auntie decided to get pregnant and was so cool about it. I mean, in my protected little world, no one could so unashamedly display a swollen belly! Being with child, Nola Auntie was advised to take a walk every day, so their visits turned into daily affairs.
Living in a small house meant I could not be shooed away to a remote corner while the women discussed morning sickness and baby clothes. So I learnt a lot about pregnancy and calcium doses, mood swings and hospital visits.
Jeet Uncle turned into a harried man obsessed with the health of his wife and their unborn child. I got rather tired of his endless fuss over blood pressure readings, diet charts, queasiness, doctors’ reports and what not. So it came as a big relief when Nola Auntie delivered a baby, a boy they named Kaunu. Now life would be back to its earlier fun years, I thought to myself.
How na├»ve could I be! The baby’s arrival changed the couple forever. No, no, Nola Auntie still dressed in her reds and pinks, Uncle still drooled at the sight of her. But now there were no travel tales, no romantic banter, only talk of baby, baby and more baby. Thankfully, the couple could not be at our place as often as before.
Instead of walking, however, they would bring Kaunu on their two-wheeler. I stopped minding his presence after a while. I guess a child takes to people that its parents feel happy with. He would extend his chubby arms towards us and we would coo over him. Soon he learnt to preen himself in the face of so much adult adulation.
When little Kaunu learnt to crawl, our house was cleared of all breakable items that he could possibly pounce upon. He was so much like a family member that we made minor adjustments in furniture to give him a free run of the house.
Kaunu took his first baby steps before our eyes. He uttered his first coherent words in our presence, and we were about as ecstatic as his parents were. His broken sentences still leave us in splits.
Though he is a boy, many of his clothes are red or pink. I have tried to impress on Nola Auntie a number of times that boys wear green, yellow or blue. I read somewhere that pinks and reds were meant for girls. But she shuts me up by saying if that were the case, manufacturers would not be selling red T-shirts and polo necks and pink shorts and trousers.
I have yet to come up with a solid counter argument. Kaunu, meanwhile, continues to sport bright red, mauve and pink clothes. 
Last month, Nola Auntie, much plumper and with even rosier cheeks than when she got married, waddled in with Kaunu in tow. He was dressed in a pair of crimson trousers offset by a white shirt but with a red bow. His mother was looking stunning in a matching crimson sari, her hair stylishly rolled into a bun.
Jeet Uncle arrived later with some relatives who were to stay behind with us. He was taking his wife and son to a party straight from here. When we were all gathered around Kaunu and encouraging him to say cute, naughty nothings, an old aunt said teasingly, “Little boy, your mother is looking so lovely. Go kiss her.”
Kaunu smartly trundled up to his mom and gave her as sound a buss as a little child his age could. He turned around, beaming with the satisfaction of a task well executed.
Next my mom offered her cheek, and Kaunu obliged. But when my father urged him to give him a kiss too, he turned to Jeet Uncle and said in a wonderfully steady voice: “Papa, you kiss him.”
We all laughed heartily, but Nola Auntie turned as crimson as her sari when the old aunt remarked tartly: “See! He didn’t ask his mom to kiss on his behalf … he’s already a sensible young man.” 

Oh, really? I thank my stars I did not join in and seek a kiss from the toddler that evening. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The trip to a dusty old town

Riti had grown up listening to tales of her mother’s girlhood. Some or the other uncle or aunt or their children kept drifting in and out of Riti’s home. After they left, her Ammu would recount some interesting event or anecdote related to them or other relatives.

Ammu had a way of infusing life into her storytelling by associating her subjects with a colour or with a dish she was cooking or some chore she was performing at that hour.

Thus once, while kneading dough, she told Riti about an aunt who hated being given this task. The child, who was fascinated by the way her mother could roll out a wonderful ball of dough using powder-looking flour and water, could not imagine why the aunt would not want to do it. “That was because she did not like anything to stick to her fingers. But that was precisely why Grandfather insisted that she prepare the dough daily for the entire family.”

“But you had a huge family, Ammu!” Riti  cried. She began counting on her fingers: “Your grandfather, grandmother, my grandfather, his brothers … five of them, and two aunts. Ten in all!”

“Of course ours was a huge family, and you haven’t counted my mother and five of us brothers and sisters,” Ammu smiled teasingly.

“Oooh, your poor aunt! But then your uncles were also married, so there were other aunts as well?” Riti asked.

“No, not till then. This aunt was last but one of the brood. You forget that we used to be put to work in the kitchen even before we were 10 years of age,” Ammu reminded her.

Riti was curious. “I don’t understand, Ammu. You had a large house with marble staircases and all, with many servants. Then why did you girls have to cook?”

“My grandfather said hard days do not ring an alarm before they arrive. And servants may not always be around to wait on you. You should know how to run the kitchen because that is the most critical role in a household. Our schooling was secondary for him, though we did attend high school.”

“Ammu, why did your mother or grandmother not knead the dough?”

“Like I said, Grandfather wanted to prepare his daughter for her life ahead,” Ammu told her patiently.

“Besides, my father was the eldest child and lost his mother quite early, like I did. Grandmother, who brought me up, was actually his stepmother and just a few years older than him.

“My stepmother was much younger than my father and he pampered her a lot to keep her happy. She had little time for us after she had children of her own, so Grandmother took us under her wing. That meant she had plenty to do anyway. ... I was very attached to her,” Ammu added, a little sadly.

“Is she dead?” Riti asked innocently.

“My grandmother? Oh no, she lives with my youngest uncle,” Ammu replied.

“Do you meet her often?” Riti seemed full of questions.

Riti and Ammu going to see Grandmother.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Something had upset Ammu. “Sometimes, when we visit my uncle,” she said vaguely. Riti was sent off on a trivial errand and the rest of the story was forgotten.

But it all came back to Riti when she was 14 years old. She had accompanied her mother to a dusty old town to attend a wedding. It was a chilly day and the girl looked out of sorts. The ceremonies were over before noon, and Ammu asked her if she would like to meet Grandmother.

My grandmother,” she said in response to Riti’s questioning look.

“She lives here? You never said a word about it when we left home,” Riti pointed out accusingly.

“It was to be a surprise. Grandmother lives in a colony close by, and is not well, so I would not have missed this chance to look her up,” said Ammu.

Against the drone of the lumbering bus that took them to Grandmother, Riti hurled a volley of questions at Ammu. “Why does your uncle live in this faraway place and not in the city, the way your other uncles do? Why does Grandpa not look after his stepmother? All your uncles are much richer than him, no, so why doesn’t she live with any of them? Do they all send money for their mother?”

Ammu had no plain answer to any of these. But she did tell her daughter in a roundabout way that Grandmother preferred to be with her last-born, probably feeling closest that way to her departed husband.

Riti did not fully understand that one, but she could make out from her mother’s grudging words that the rich uncles were only too glad to have an ailing mother off their hands. Ammu could not tell her that Grandpa, who was a fearsome father to her in his heydays, had turned mute witness when his much younger wife frittered away all his wealth on her own siblings.

Ammu’s uncle’s place turned out to be an apology of a house. It was one in a row of shaggy flats strung across one side of a square, built around a large open space. The square had just one entrance, and Ammu’s grandmother – a mere bundle of bones, actually – was heaped on a rickety cot near it.

Grandmother seemed to have been plucked from her bed and plonked there, ostensibly to stay warm in the weak sun, but the strong wind was chilly and unsparing. Yet her withered face was all smiles when she recognized Ammu’s voice.

She struggled with the blanket covering her, as if to get up, but Ammu’s aunt suddenly swooped down on them. She must have spotted the duo when they entered the square. She hustled them indoors, ignoring her mother-in-law completely. They were served tea and biscuits, treated to a litany of the woes that had befallen the family, and then escorted out.

All Ammu managed to get out of her aunt was that Grandmother had spilt hot tea over herself some days back and the burns had not healed fully yet, so she had to be kept uncovered with just a blanket around her.

Ammu stood her ground as she reached Grandmother while Aunt fluttered around helplessly. She spoke a few loving words to the old woman but out of sheer politeness to her aunt, Ammu did not mention the injury. It was with great effort that Grandmother mumbled a few endearments into Ammu’s ear, her eyes nearly shut but with love shining through. No complaint about her current state or suffering passed her lips.

Riti was quiet on the return journey. A distressed Ammu kept glancing at the girl, but she could only guess what was going through her mind.

“What sort of love exists in this world, Ammu?” Riti spoke up when they were seated in the train taking them back home.

“Uh, what love are you talking about, dear?” asked Ammu in turn, apprehensive about what was coming.

“So people stop loving their parents when they grow old and frail?

“What is the use of being wealthy and keeping servants if you won’t attend to the needs of your own mother?

“Why do parents live only with their sons? Your grandmother could live with us otherwise, no? 

“Does no one visit her here? Do they know of her condition? Imagine, she doesn’t seem to have any flesh left!”

Where was this going to end? Ammu wondered.

She was bracing herself for more when Riti said, too sagely for her young years: “Well, obviously there is another sort of love too. Your grandmother still loves you, she still loves all her children, I am sure, and she loves her youngest son most because he is the poorest of them all. Perhaps he needs her most, emotionally, I mean.”

“I can’t say your aunt does, but at least she hasn’t turned her out,” she added cheekily.

Ammu knew then that her daughter had grown up during the short trip to a dusty old town.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Reunion on the beach – II

“Why did you leave town so abruptly?” Sumedha asked Medha as she pulled her long-lost friend away from a particularly vicious wave that could have swept them out to sea.

The question that hung between them was now asked, the thin ice broken.

“You did not feel the need to tell me about the way Mridul was behaving. Souraj told me,” Medha retorted.
Their linked hands formed a 'V' against the setting sun.
Digital sketch: Harjeet

“Did he? He never told me that. What could I say to my best friend, my only friend … that her husband drops in way too often?” Sumedha had tears in her eyes.

“Indeed you should have had the courage to say that to me, your closest friend,” Medha cried. “I was your friend much before I became his wife. That is why I insisted that we shift out, so that I could shield you. I was also ashamed of my husband. I thought we could make a fresh start. 

“But do you know, you were only the first one? Wherever we went, Mridul would see something in another woman that he felt I did not have, and begin to chase her.”

“Oh no, my poor Medha,” Sumedha held her friend’s hand tightly. “I hope he has mended his ways by now.”

“I don’t know. I divorced him three years later,” Medha said.

The pain Sumedha felt was about as intense as her friend’s. The salt that the waves splattered across their faces did not sting their eyes as much as the memory of their days together and the long years of separation. The tears flowed freely. They left the loose, wet sand and headed to a bench.

The cool breeze made them shiver as they shook their beach sandals free of the sand.

“So you have been on your own since then?” Sumedha asked.

“No,” came the rueful reply. “ You know me, the ever rebellious Medha.”

Sumedha puckered her brow at that. “You are living with someone, but you are not married,” she stated crisply.

“My, my! Someone’s really up-to-date with trends!” Medha laughed. “Of course you would disapprove of it, though.”

“So you are in a live-in relationship, aren’t you!” Sumedha exclaimed.

“I do live with someone, but our relationship is not a live-in one,” at last her friend laughed, causing the greying bun at the nape of her neck to wobble somewhat. “That someone is a young man who has just completed college. He is my stepson,” said her friend.

Sumedha seemed nettled. “What? Did you marry again?”

“Yes,” Medha said, adding: “I met this widower at a family get-together. Mitull loved sightseeing and he reminded me of you … same serious nature and sermonizing at the first opportunity; a great one to spend time with. He had a four-year-old son and was all at sea about bringing up the child single-handed. So I joined hands with him,” she chuckled.

“But we had not known about his weak heart. He left us all last year suddenly,” she added softly.

“Are you happy at all?” Sumedha put an earnest question to her friend.

“I am at peace and, yes, in many ways, quite happy,” Medha was dead serious now. “My son loves me, he cares if I am down in the dumps, and he sent me here so we could meet.”

“You don’t say! I thought this was just another coincidence, like it was in school,” Sumedha said wonderingly.

“It was well planned and executed, my dear friend. I have known all about you through the years. I know that you changed course and began teaching in a college, that now are a budding educationist in your own right, that Souraj is also a respected academic figure, that you have been lucky to have a husband by your side who gave you free rein … I even know you have two daughters.”

Sumedha was speechless. “You almost shattered my life, walking out without a word, and you have been tracking me all along?” she finally managed to protest.

“I was true to my friend but not to my friendship, I confess,” Medha said. “It would have been too big a strain to try hiding the truth from you, and too uncomfortable for you to be at ease with Mridul around. So I made a clean break. Your hurt healed with time, but the wound I would have given you could have infected your whole life.”

“Make no mistake, the hurt has not healed. And you did not think you needed a friend when you yourself were going through so much?” Sumedha was almost livid, glancing at Medhas prematurely lined forehead.

“I wanted to pick up the threads after Mridul and I parted ways, but I did not want to upset your life when you were blazing a new trail. I decided to keep tabs on you from a safe distance. I read every word written or spoken about you, online, in newspapers, on television. My son also brags about having such an aunt, so what if he has never met her,” Medha smiled.

“You said your son arranged that we meet?” asked her friend.

“He aspires to be a professor, like you and Souraj. He has set up a Google alert for me so that I do not miss any mention of you. He assiduously follows your programmes on TV as well. In fact, we watch you together,” Medha told her.

Her eyes brimming with tears, Sumedha egged her on. “Just how did you know I would be here?”

“He said you were coming here to deliver a guest lecture. He booked me into the only five-star hotel this town boasts because he was sure you would stay here. He said it was time we reconnected. Was he right?” Medha asked anxiously.

Sumedha was crying once more. “Indeed he was, silly! I can only say you are blessed to have such a child. We must all meet. Souraj will be beside himself with joy. We often talk about you. My daughters too know all about the Aunty they never met … well, at least what I knew of her till she cut me clean out of her life.”

Medha held her till she stopped sobbing. “God has been kind to both of us. He brought us together once. He has done it again, and surely this time it’s for keeps. Come, we have a lot to catch up with,” she stood up, tugging at Sumedha’s hand.

“I have thanked God daily for all he has given me, and always prayed that you were happy wherever you were,” Sumedha said. “I had no friend when you came into my life. You taught me to live, and with dignity. For the first time in years, today I feel God has blessed me with a complete life ... my family, and my true friend.”

As the reunited soulmates walked to their hotel, their linked hands seemed to form V sign against the setting sun.

Concluded