One Friday morning…
DJ was getting late for class. She quickly put on the firozi blue danglers she had picked up from the Tibetan outlet at Dilli Haat and bounded down the stairs humming Despacito to herself. The drive was a short one, but because of the metro construction going on, the U-turn was all the way up to the Sector 56 roundabout, a good 1.5 km extra.
DJ being DJ didn’t mind that at all. Tinkling her glass of life, she switched on the radio. Bauwa was at it with his pranks on 93.5 FM. RJ Raunak is just the best, she giggled to herself, thoroughly enjoying his witty political polemics. Ke ab mein band karta hoon, mujhe kya gaali khani hai… she hummed along.
Anyone watching from their car window would find it most absurd to see this petite girl with her hair tied in a flowery scarf, laughing away all alone in the driver’s seat. But DJ’s spontaneity was her USP. If she liked a song she sang it. If she felt like dancing, she danced. If she was in the mood to howl, well, she could let loose the waterworks, too.
On my way Sir…vil b thr in 15… : ) – she punched in her phone as she waited at the Genpact red light. Large grey monsoon clouds were gathering in the sky making it quite dark at 10 am.
I must wind up dot at 12:30, she reminded herself, no sitting for tea-shee after class this time.
Last Friday, she got so busy chatting about the impact of demonetization on the share market with Sir that she reached home way past lunch time. Not again, she gamely chided herself, even though the discussion was most delightful and the home-made khasta kachauris to die for.
Did I actually eat 6 of them, DJ rolled her eyes and her mouth started watering at the mere memory. She quickly waved the thought away and nudged her Brio into the Visitor’s Parking.
Trrrrring…trrrring…trrrring, DJ announced her presence with her trademark three rings and as always folded her hands in veneration to the Ganesha idol next to the door. The fresh rangoli, shiny diya and sandelwood incense smoke floating about always fascinated her.
What an effort, everyday! she marveled, I toh just about manage to switch on my battery-operated tea lights for Ganesh Chaturthi, shit!
Her reverie was soon broken.
Aunty was at the door, as usual, in a jiffy, with her subdued smile and the hint of a huff, as if she had sprinted to open the door, leaving whatever it was that she was doing, just so the guest did not have to wait even a second more than necessary!
'Namaste Aunty', DJ chirruped, flashing a wide smile as she deposited her beaded red juttis near the door. 'How are you? How are your roses and shyam tulsi coming up? Has Shanti come back to work? How’s her son now? Did you write down the recipe for tamarind chutney for me?'
The barrage didn’t deter Aunty at all. She was used to the peculiar ebullience by now, though she couldn’t quite place her finger on 'why' DJ was always happy, always smiling!
'Sab theek hai beta,' she replied serenely handing DJ the recipe on a ruled sheet with clearly jotted samagri and vidhi. On top of the page was an Om, like a squiggly rangoli.
Sir came into the modest baithak with a pile of new books and plonked on the maroon sofa. 'Aaj kuch different karenge, kyun?' he winked, spreading out the books on the glass-topped centre table with a flourish, quite like a jeweler proudly displaying his wares.
There was Ramanohar Reddy’s Demonetization & Black Money and The Curse of Cash by Kenneth Rogoff, besides the Business Standard’s comprehensive book on demonetization. They had read The Hindu last week and zeroed in on these books, and DJ was quite impressed by how tech-savvy Sir had become ever since they started classes together, ordering the books on amazon.in all by himself.
'I did get stuck for a bit with the CVV,' he confessed, 'but after that it was so simple and fast.'
The next 2 hours just flew by with DJ and Sir busy negotiating the economic maze, trying to make sense of the new policies and debating their relevance in a country where 1 in 5 people survive on less than Rs 32 per day!
'Adam Smith would probably turn in his grave seeing this newest definition of the poverty line,' they rued. Cups of tea, glasses of water, plates of nimki & nankhatai came and went. And soon it was 12:30.
DJ had set an alarm and it buzzed just as they were winding up a spirited discussion. 'Ok Sir, I’ll scoot now,' she trilled, shoving her paraphernalia of Fab India pens, pink post-its and recycled paper notepads into a tassled jhola. 'But I really need to go pee before that. Where’s the loo?'
Aunty who was always close enough to 'serve' and listen in while never ever participating in any discussion, gasped in embarrassment.
What is wrong with girls these days! No shame at all. Can’t you just slip into the toilet and do your business quietly without proclaiming it loudly to the world? Hey bhagwaan! her mind was in a tizzy.
'Arre, zara DJ ko bathroom dikha do,' Sir gestured nonchalantly, and adjusting his glasses went right back to highlighting stuff in The Ascent of Money, a gift from DJ.
'Beta, tumhara asli naam kya hai,' Aunty asked tentatively guiding her into the powder room at the end of the narrow central corridor, flanked by two bedrooms and a study area.
'Durga Jaiswal Aunty, par sab mujhe DJ he bulate hain.' And with that DJ excused herself into the loo.
Aunty was still digesting the information, when she was startled by the resounding gush of carefree peeing – loud and clear, reverberating with a mocking intensity in the closed toilet.
Good Lord, what is with this girl? How can you pee like that? she thought, almost stifling an urge to go shut Sir’s ears with her bare hands.
Ram ram, aise kaise? she shook her head in disgust, recalling that time in the mall, when she nearly fell off the pot trying to muffle her tinkling sound effects. All SHE was worried about was: What would the women standing outside think? Can’t go about hosing the potty noisily, like men! Baap re!
She literally shivered. These were things beyond her, and all she could blame it on was poor sanskar, aur kya.
DJ came out all Davidoffy. She had liberally sprayed herself with their latest Rose perfume and retouched her lip gloss.
Adjusting her hair in the mirror, she noticed the quizzical look on Aunty’s face and explained, 'Aunty its Agasthya’s birthday today and we are having his school friends over for lunch. My husband, you see, loves to entertain, and his mutton biryani with Hyderabadi korma is a huge hit.'
'I know his secret,' she winked, 'You know what he does is cook the basmati in khada masalas first… flavours… add the tender meat… slow flame….'
Husband??? Aunty was already lost in her own train of thought. Did she just say husband? She’s married? There’s no sindoor, no mangalsutra, not even a bindi. Married? Really?
Aunty stood stunned. Later in the day, this very moment would flash like a beacon in her mind, showing her the way ahead, but right now it was… crass.
And just like that DJ breezed out of the door, waving a cheery bye and 'have a lovely day' to all. Sir nodded in acknowledgement, but Aunty was rooted to her spot. Suddenly, a gust of warm air brought her back to reality and she rushed to shut the main door.
That’s when it happened. One wrong twist. One wrong step, and the next thing: she was sprawled on the floor, her bichia entangled in her salwar and a strange sensation gripped her.
The bone had snapped. For sure. She knew it, even before the split second it took for the excruciating pain to ripple through her system and lodge itself firmly in the cortex. But, her first thought, amid tears of anguish, was 'who’s going to make the rotis now?'
That Friday afternoon…
Sitting in Dr Sethi’s air-conditioned clinic in Phase 1, she thinks 'How tragicomic!' Quite like her life actually. And staid nuggets that summed up her entire existence, the full 67-years of it, hobbled along in tandem down memory lane.
Clinics, with their plain white walls and the lingering smell of sanitizers, tended to do that to her. Make her reflect, as she waited for the X-ray in pin-drop silence. Even the money plant on the window ledge seemed frozen in time as the minutes ticked by, painfully slow this lazy July noon.
Her foot by now was quite swollen and a strange mix of colours, as if the artist had set out to draw a Renaissance masterpiece and then completely botched it up to finish somewhere between abstract and surreal. She looked at it with woebegone eyes and thought, will it ever be the same again?
Five decades ago, when she had stepped into her new home as a young bride, her feet had been the talk of the small town. Alta-lined and baby pink like a rose bud, adorned with ammaa’s silver anklets and her beloved ruby bichias - the traditional symbol of good fortune and blessings for the Hindu bride.
Sada Saubhagyawati Bhava, they jingled all day. Over the years, the alta had faded, the silver anklets had become a hindrance to housewifely duties, but the bichias remained. Lone reminders of the day she thought she would grow wings and fly.
A dream so short lived, that moments later as she lay on her marital bed, she actually laughed at her own foolishness. 'How naïve to even think there was an escape,' she smiled wistfully, fidgeting with her wedding ring and recalling that exact instant when her fledgling wings were clipped.
She sighed deeply, her resigned sigh, breathing in the surgical smell that would fleetingly purge the past. 'Maheshwari Maaaaam,' the attendant bleated from the X-ray room in the basement, shaking her out of her day-dreaming.
Maheshwari – Goddess Durga, the warrior adishakti! 'Really, what was everyone thinking when they named me,' her line of thought continued, half-mocking, half-pitying herself. If anything, she was the exact opposite of shakti – submissive, silent, insignificant – tip-toeing on the domestic periphery. Appearing only when someone wanted a cup of tea or a kurta ironed.
Maheshwari indeed! 'I mean, I couldn’t even convince him to come along with me to Dr saab’s clinic. He just dismissed my hurt as a mere sprain. Didn’t even look up from the Lenovo screen, munching on the fruit platter I prepared for him before dragging myself painfully to the car.' Bah! she exhaled loudly, surprising herself.
The amiable attendant, meanwhile, lent her his shoulder to lean on and deposited her gently on the X-ray table after what seemed like an agonizing mile. 'Sethisaab will be here is a bit,' he beamed and started on the preliminaries humming a Sai bhajan to himself. 'Kaisi hain Maheshwari behenji?,' Dr Sethi sauntered in, all charm and good cheer shuffling through her medical records. 'Oh ho, yeh kya? Koi nahin, Dr Sethi will fix it. You just relax.'
There was something about the jolly old doctor that just put you at ease instantly. And Maheshwari smiled one of her rare dimpled smiles. 'Bas ek choti si problem hai,' he declared, glancing at the angry reddish-blue welt on her swollen toe, from above his glasses: 'We’ll have to cut open the toe-ring!'
Thwaaaak! The words slapped hard across her face, as if someone had called her khasmanukhaani – the cursed one – left alone in the world to suffer the ultimate ignominy of widowhood! Her throat suddenly constricted and she choked on the 'Noooo'” that just got sucked deeper and deeper into the quagmire of What ifs.
What if this is a portent of doom? What if he dies? What if everyone blames me? What if there’s no one to look after me?
Maheshwari closes her eyes. And lies still on the X ray table. Very still. Feeling the clear light of a beacon upon her.
Later that day, as she looked at the black and grey image of her foot on the Samsung screen, the smile reached her eyes – finally. For it wasn't just the bone that had snapped after 50 long years!