Shahana rushed back from her kitty, swerving her BMW into the condominium gates, raising billows of dust and narrowly escaping the huge ornate earthen pot housing a bougainvillea, an Indian welcome for visitors at the gate. She zoomed round the 4-acre complex of the condominium to reach the back gate where Ifra’s school bus was scheduled to drop her off at 2:30 p.m, and the clock on the dashboard read 2:29. She zoomed into a parking spot that lay vacant for the day, and ran jauntily towards the gate on her Jimmy Choo stilettoes under her pant style pyjamas and stiff long silk kurta. Phew! The bus had not arrived yet and she was not late, she breathed in relief.
Gautami was already at the bus stop, perched on a bike parked beside the closed back gate. One foot dangling off the pedal, she was ready to jump off in the event of the owner arriving. Her semi-formal block printed shirt with collars and a hand-woven stole contrasted against her Reebok track pants.
“Lovely pearls Shahana,” coooed Gautami.
“Thanks Gautami; had a catch up with friends today. You know like a kitty, sans the money. My friends and I make it a point to meet up every month; a breather from the daily toil. What’s up with you, formal shirt over track pants?”
“Just wrapped up a video call on Skype and rushed down to pick Chaitanya. I had a terrible headache when I woke up, so called in sick to work. But, hmm, the work never stops.”
“Must be tough,” she sympathized. “Well, you know, seasons are changing and the dust and pollution is now a year-round feature in NCR.”
“Yeah, it’s all over the papers,” said Gautami waving off the particles of dust glistening under the balmy afternoon sun of early spring.
“You should take care, Gautami.”
In walked Manju aunty and her house help. Manju aunty glimmered in a hot red sweatshirt and shimmery black leggings. Her blonde hair contrasting against her dark eye brows. A single strand of grey in there catching the sunlight when it shouldn’t have.
“Hi Gautami, Shahana,” she said blowing kisses in the air amidst hugs that stopped mid-way for fear of non-existent warmth being perceived by anyone who might be viewing the scene from corner windows.
“Great legs Manju aunty,” said Shahana and imagined a whole lot about the jiggly jelly in the back that seemed to be showing itself off in pride. ‘Uff! The opportunity, thanks to the red sweatshirt that’s stuck around the paunch.’
As she smirked in outward manifestation of the laughter rioting in her brain, two more mothers, Sam and Jaz joined the little party that was now forming. Sam, as the ladies in the apartment called Samantha, had found a best friend in Jasmeet when she had moved in to the city from Mizoram. Living in adjacent houses, they had bonded like milk and jalebi.
“I need to rush today ladies,” said Jaz as she looked eagerly towards the street stretched out to her right. “Wonder why the Suncity school bus is late. My mother-in-law is waiting to head out for her appointment at the parlour.”
“Which one does she go to?” Asked Shahana.
“Donna Bella at Galleria. She claims the guy there gives a sexy massage.”
“Oooh! I hope that’s all she’s getting,” chimed in Gautami with a smirk joined in by a roar of laughter from the others.
“I hope so too dear. She makes it a point to keep me away from Donna Bella, always encouraging me to try that low rung Style&Class nearby,” responded Jaz with a pretentious huff.
“You won’t believe; I once saw this wrinkled old thing sitting at the pedicurist next to me in Style&Class complaining that the hair stylist was refusing to streak her already golden hair any further. Apparently, the hair stylist was scared that she might lose the little strands that were left on the head. And, you know what, when I checked out the mane, he was right. The next thing I hear, the old hen calls up a ‘Baby Doll’, can you believe it Baby Doll, that’s someone’s name. Anyway, she calls this Baby Doll and asks her to get her away from this horrendous parlour that refused her services. And when ‘Baby Doll’ must have asked her an estimated time for pickup, our wrinkly Ms. says, ‘In 15 minutes after he finishes applying golden glitter to my toe nails.’ Roars of laughter spilled onto the road and attracted looks from the vegetable vendor and mungfali seller who were perched on a boulder holding down the rope of their tent and puffing hopeful rings off their beedis across the street. The mungfali seller spat out the lack of his luck and turned to the vegetable vendor to discuss the ladies. The ladies continued their banter feigning oblivion, some looking at a school bus that roared by, others pretending to stare with purpose at a housemaid who cycled by. The frantic ringing of her cycle’s bell cutting through their dying out laughter, causing them to give her rite of passage through the gate.
“The mothers-in-law these days…tut, tut,” chimed in Manju aunty who was there to pick up her daughter’s daughter. “When my son gets married, I will leave everything and sit on the charpoy in the balcony, pray and play with my grandson. Who would want to miss time playing with their grandson, I wonder.” The laughter died its death at a realization of the gerontological facts that had so long formed the ring of womanly bonhomie.
“So, when is your son getting married?” Asked Samantha.
“Well, he’s 27 now, we were about to begin looking for a girl for him but he then introduced us to his girlfriend Rose.”
“Rose? That’s a lovely name. Is she a Christian?” Asked Shahana.
“Yes,” sighed Manju aunty, “they meet them at offices, colleges; these foreigners are everywhere these days. Who can stop grown-up boys. They fall prey.”
“When he entered college, Karan’s Papa told him beta anyone is okay except a Muslim. But, who knew…” continued Manju aunty shaking her head in disgust.
“Is she a foreigner?” Jumped in Gautami to salvage the situation before it disrupted into a broil.
“No, no, from Kerala she says. You know, but it’s still not our culture, right?”
“Why is Kerala not our culture?” Asked Gautami in her Tamil accent, albeit heavily accented to make a point.
“Arrey, don’t get offended. I have nothing against Madrasis. I like Madrasis, but mainland India nahin hain na...”
“Sorry, but what is mainland India?” Asked Samantha, tightening her arms in a fold. “I’ve heard about mainland China, but what is mainland India? When did the Southern states of India get attached to what ‘you’ think is India as an afterthought?”
All eyes were now on Manju aunty, who swallowed hard.
“I mean, I mean, mainstream…” she fumbled.
Samantha was now on edge, “mainland, mainstream, same thing. What is it Manju aunty?”
“Woh, matlab…” fumbled Manju aunty and then looked around for the school bus. “Arrey, arrey, my granddaughter Pooja’s bus is here.” Saved by a bus that moment, Manju aunty sighed in relief, scrunching her eyes towards the street on her right.
The bus slowed down and halted ahead of the ladies. A helper boy stepped down and helped Baby Pooja jump off the bus. “Naniii,” she screamed in the excitement of seeing her grandmother there to pick her up instead of the usual house help. “Beta, say hello to all the aunties,” prompted Manju aunty.
“Hello aunty,” said the little child, almost six now, as some of the ladies recalled the days her mother carried her in the womb, days when Gautami cooked her sour rasam to satiate her craving, days when Shahana secretly served her a reticent spoon of sevai to satisfy the sweet tooth of a gestational diabetic.
The ladies greeted the little munchkin with a loud and loving “Hiii.” They bade her goodbye with loads of flying kisses.
And, behind the kisses creeped in an ominous silence. The women stared towards the street on their right, looking for buses that were not arriving. After what seemed like hours, Jaz finally attempted to break the silence, “so, the mother-in-law…”
But, the divide that had gripped the group was too potent to be broken. In its veins trickled an understanding of acceptances and rejections. As they waited, staring at their feet, some attempted to draw perfect maps in the mud but failed amidst the prejudices that had risen from their minds.
A few feet away, forming a separate group, stood the wives of two expats, Mrs. Crouzat and Mrs. Obi. They were discussing the attack on a French satirical magazine’s office in Paris. Whispers and words of which now bounced off the other group of ladies.
A few long minutes later, the school buses arrived, children hugged their waiting mothers. The mothers held on to little hands in tight grips. Holding on, the mothers lead them home. As they walked in separate sets, Elsa Crouzat and Ada Obi pointed out to Chaitanya’s hat that was covered with pompoms in rainbow colours, something he had prepared for his Funny Hat Day in school. The children left the hands they held and joined to form one group. They began poking the pompoms and having fun. Together, the children skipped away towards home as the mothers trailed behind carrying burdens…of, perhaps, school bags and water bottles.