Sunday, October 19, 2008

A river left behind

I read this story at the Caferati meet yesterday. It's a story that has been with me for a long time, and is one of my personal favourites. I'm still not sure whether it's 'done'. But ...

It came from a documentary recce shoot on a mini-DV, Shanker and I in the city. How I wish I'd made a copy of that tape before I sent it off to the producer in the US. Regrets born out of disorganized living.
Malti lived with Raju on a big, empty ground surrounded by apartment buildings, somewhere in Jogeshwari East, Mumbai. When Malti had come from her village many years ago, there had been empty grounds all around her, green fields, and lots of cattle sheds. The smell of the buffaloes, the clinking of the milk pails, and the milkmen in their yellowing white dhotis had reminded her of home.

But now, there were no green fields, and the cattle sheds were wedged between concrete buildings so tall, that Malti had to strain to see the tops of them. The ground that she lived on seemed to have been forgotten for some reason, in the building frenzy.

Malti did not miss her village all the time. But she did miss having a bath everyday. In the village, she could walk into the river any time she wanted, whenever she was feeling hot and dusty, and splash around to her heart’s content. But here she was able to have a bath only once a week.

Raju had to fetch buckets of water from the well near the tea stall. The tea stall owner had become the unofficial owner of the well, and even though Raju paid two rupees for every bucket of water he took, the self-proclaimed owner stared disapprovingly at him whenever he took a bucket too many.

The little boy, Muttu who worked at the tea stall would help Raju lug the buckets to and fro, and bathing times on Sunday mornings became a big event. But even twenty buckets of water could not give Malti the pleasure she had had splashing in the river back home.

Every Sunday, after the bath, Raju would take Malti to the South Indian temple in Matunga. It was a long walk, but they earned a lot of money on that day, because the temple was crowded with devotees, and each one of them gave something to Raju and Malti. Malti would be decked in all her finery, and everyone would turn to look at her, she was so beautiful. Malti would stare back with smiling, crinkled eyes.

Malti loved to go to the temple. The lane outside smelt of flowers and incense; the women were dressed in brilliant colors and the children laughed happily at her. The roads were not too crowded on Sunday, and it was a pleasant walk for Raju and Malti.

On weekdays, Raju would eat his breakfast late, at the tea stall. Malti would wait till he was ready. Then they would start walking on their regular rounds. Past the cattle sheds, crossing the busy highway, crossing the railway tracks to the more affluent western side of the suburb, Andheri where there were many small South Indian eateries, whose owners always had a little something to offer Raju and Malti. Malti hated to cross the highway, with its roaring trucks and cars that never seemed to stop.

Some days they met Indu and her keeper, Mahesh. It did not happen too often, but some times, they would be called together for a wedding party or a film shoot. Indu lived far away in Mira Road, and Malti was happy whenever they did meet. Indu and Malti could talk to each other all day with their eyes.

Indu was Malti’s daughter, born to her in the village many years ago. Malti and Indu had come to the city together, but had been separated when they came here because they worked different rounds. Malti had another daughter, Anu who lived further away in Kurla, and whom Malti had never seen again after they came to the city.

One day, Malti and Indu crossed each other near the crowded Andheri station. It was more than a year since they had seen each other. They were on opposite sides of the road, but oblivious to the traffic around them, they stopped in the middle of the road, and called out to each other.

The traffic policeman glared at Raju and Mahesh, who goaded both the females to move ahead. The cars piled up around them, the drivers honking furiously. But Malti and Indu did not hear the noises around them, or even feel the prod of Raju’s and Mahesh’s sticks, but just continued to stand still and look at each other.

Suddenly, a large red bus with an impatient, irate bus driver nudged Malti on her back and moved forward. Malti, shaken out of her stillness, was hurt by the weight of the bus and moved back a step. Across the road, Mahesh too nudged Indu again, and she reluctantly, but with a lingering glance at Malti, moved away. Raju skillfully guided Malti through the traffic, ignoring the abuse of the drivers around him, and with great patience brought her back home.

That night, Raju lay awake, hearing Malti moan for Indu. Her eyes were shut, probably she was asleep after her long walk, and the injury on her back must be hurting, but Raju thought perhaps she was dreaming of her daughter, Indu and the village to which she belonged.

Raju wondered if he should walk to Malti’s side of the ground and stroke her, but he lay where he was, listening to her soft crying. Again he thought of their silent walk back home, and felt a little proud that he had managed to bring her back without any further accidents, she had been so distressed that day.

After a few minutes, he picked up his thin mattress and sheet, and walked up to her. He stroked her gently and murmured softly into her ear. Malti moaned back.

Raju was a kind mahout. He had often told his owner, Jha-saab that Malti, Indu and Anu needed male mates, but Jha-saab had stopped bringing elephants to Mumbai.

It was too expensive to transport them, too expensive to keep them. The three females he had brought years ago were still paying their keep, but it was certainly not worth its while to invest more money in animals, what with the new rules and regulations. Anyway, where on earth would the elephants mate in Mumbai? There was no place big enough for that in the vicinity. Open grounds no longer existed, and they were lucky they still had place for the three elephants in the city.

Raju shrugged helplessly in the dark as he thought about Malti and her daughters, and their longing for their loved ones. Then he thought of his own wife back home in the village, and wondered if she too moaned for him like that in the dark. He laughed at himself and his fancies, as he remembered his silent Sarita going about her work at home and the fields, and sighing softly he turned to go to sleep.

When Malti woke up the next day, she was still a little sad. Every time she met Indu, she was sad afterwards for days, missing Anu, missing her village. But today, Raju fetched buckets of water, and gave her a bath, even though it was not Sunday. Malti sprayed water on him with her trunk, and tried to be cheerful for his sake. Raju, soaking wet, laughed, and threw yet another mug of water at Malti’s back. The little boy, Muttu came running towards them with a fresh bucket of water, and sprayed by Malti, he too laughed.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


The other day, at the fag-end of a party, with only 8 or 10 of us still around at 3 in the morning, conversation turned from Vipassana, meditation and prayer to corpses and ghosts. Don't ask me how.

Our hostess who lives alone, was a bit annoyed. We made a second start. Talk of food and recipes slid quickly down to corpses and cannibalism. Play-school level lavatory jokes too went the same way.

The men at 4 am were quite willing to leave our gentle hostess with the stench of decaying flesh and go off. They were drunk enough to fall off to sleep the minute they reached home.

But I know well how horror strikes in the early hours of the morning. I insisted we talk some more, of nicer things before we left. This time we tried films, and everyone sobered down, recalled to their professional selves.

Though we left behind a mass of dishes, dirty glasses and cigarette butts when we did say our goodbyes, I'm pretty sure we didn't leave any ghosts behind, thanks to  the Magic of The Movies.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Circle limit IV

Life is quite like an Escher painting. You see angels, angels, angels, then suddenly all you can see are wicked devils. And try as you might, they don't go away. Except suddenly again, with another blink of the eye, they are angels again.

The trouble is once you've seen the devils, you know they are there even when you are seeing the angels.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

some memories of August

These are the worst days of the year in Bumm-Bumm-Bhole-Land. Hot, hot, hot in a piercing way. Still, sticky, no wind. The sunlight exhausts your eyes. So, to cool down,  ....

What I noticed only this year, and loved, were the umbrellas and the raincoats used by boys and men. Very few blacks, or khakis, or greys. Out there in all the colors of the rainbow. Very metro-sexual, hey?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The broken people

Last year, I thought it was time for Dhanno to begin cleaning her own bathroom and toilet. When I proposed it to her, she was shocked. Until then, usually I and sometimes Tai had cleaned it for her.

Perhaps she had never realized that someone did the job for her. Luckily, she was reading bits of Mahatma Gandhi's 'My Experiments with Truth' then, and we crossed over several issues with the thought that Gandhiji cleaned his own toilet.

It's the same with our public spaces. Most of us assume there is someone to clean up. So, it's chuck, spit, pee, shit.

Read my review of 'Untouchable' by Mulk Raj Anand, here.

Friday, October 03, 2008

alternative modes of transport

I was watching Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee on a snow peaked mountain in 'Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hain', don't ask me why, I wouldn't know. No, wait, it was to do with the Friday release of 'Drona' and I wanted to see the director's earlier film, from an academic point of view. No, really, that's me.

Anyway, suddenly, I got an a-ha moment. Teja and Dhanno will tell you I often get a-ha moments, where I basically realize after a considerable amount of time what most people know from their mothers' wombs. A lot of my a-ha moments are to do with the working of taps, bottle caps, door latches, turnstiles, elevators, tetra-packs and other such mind-boggling things. But that's another story.

Right now my a-ha moment came while Teja said: "Where are they dancing?"

I said: "The Swiss Alps." Though I didn't know for sure, it's good practice to give answers confidently.

Since they had just reached the Swiss Alps via a Film City set just by virtue of singing a song, I said: "I'm sure if we sing a song right now, we could be in the Alps."

Teja said: "Yes."

I said: "We'd have to move our arms around in synch."

Teja said: "We could do that."

Dhanno said: "But both of you will reach there. I'll be left behind. I want to come too."

I said: "We'll sing a family song."

Much singing (completely off-key on my part, perfectly pitched on Teja's and Dhanno's part) ensued accompanied with much flailing around of arms and legs. But we stayed firmly ensconced in Bumm-Bumm-Bhole-Land.

I said: "We need costumes and make-up."

Dhanno said: "We need a camera and lights."

Teja muttered to himself: "Love means doing stupid things together. Love means never having to say sorry (to yourself) when you do stupid things together. Love means ..."

Meanwhile Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee had come back to the Alps after a brief sojourn to some grassy flowery meadow in Ootacamund.  They looked at each other, they looked at the camera, they did some posing of the romantic, dreamy kind, you know the arms outstretched, twisted necks variety.

I thought the way they are shot, and their dance steps are, they could well be performing in front of a blue screen in Mumbai. Most songs are choreographed this way nowadays. The backdrop could be Milan, Mauritius, Muscat, or a painted screen in Mehboob Studios, Bandra. How does it matter? The actors don't relate at all to the place they are in, the dance movements have nothing to do with the space around them.

I missed suddenly with a deep pang, the cavorting, rollicking, rolling in snow, sliding down snow peaks, throwing snowballs  - Shammi Kapoor and Saira Banu in 'Junglee', Raakhee and Amitabh in 'Kabhi Kabhi', Shashi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore in 'Aa Gale Lag Jaa'. I missed the sweaters and the pom pom caps and the woolen mittens and the faux fur collared jackets. Rani was wearing a chiffon saree, Abhishek was wearing something that I forgot even as I looked at it. Certainly not made for goofing around in the cold. Sigh.

Anyway, since the song and dance routine didn't work for us, we'll just drive down to Pune for the weekend.

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