The young girl’s voice drifted down the dark, rain-washed corridor of the chawl. She stood for a moment at the door of their room number forty-two, on the second floor, silhouetted against a backdrop of cheap tube-light and blaring noise from a soap opera. Then, without waiting for an answer from the lassiwala, she walked down the corridor, a big plate of mango seeds balanced on an upraised arm that was bedecked with gold and blue glass bangles perfectly matching her electric blue dress with gold sequins.
She moved towards room number forty-seven at the end of the corridor, and then to the cluster of toilets which stood huddled in a corner where the corridor bent. Without as much as a downward glance, she tilted the plate over the parapet. The sound of the incessant rain on the corrugated roofs of the shops muffled the dull thud of the mango seeds as they settled into the rubbish heap in the courtyard below.
The lassiwala saw the seeds fall. His room on the ground floor faced the rubbish heap squarely.
Through closed windows, everyone in the chawl had heard her call to the lassiwala. It signaled the end of dinner in her house. In room number forty-seven, Kaka put down the newspaper and waited for her to pass his window. His was the only window that remained open throughout the year, whether Mumbai was ravaged by rain or riots. He had a vantage point on his cot near the window, to watch the scams and shams in the world outside.
“Kya, Khana ho gaya?”, he called out. The girl, who had slowed her steps in anticipation of this ritual, stepped into his house for a little tête-a-tête until the lassiwala’s arrival. Poor Kaka! He lived all alone since his wife’s death. “You should not eat mangoes once the rain has come!” he chided her as if she was his granddaughter.
The lassiwala did not answer her call. He never did. There was always a gap of twenty minutes between her booming command and his arrival on the second floor with the can of delicious buttermilk that would complete their meal. But today he did not come for a full forty-five minutes. Kaka got worried. He was concerned for the lassiwala as also for the end of the dinner ritual in room forty-two.
Kaka stirred out of his comfortable position on the cot. He limped over to the parapet to find out the reason for the lassiwala’s daring non-appearance with the buttermilk. He had the tingling anticipation of some drama that was about to unfold in the corridor. After all, he had the worldly experience of a seventy-eight year old. He could see the glistening roof tops on D’Silva Road. The leaking roofs were inadequately covered with blue tarpaulins. D’Silva road was a virtual vegetable market. It was lined with cloth shops and toy shops, shops with different blends of tea and coffee and a couple small eateries. Vegetable vendors lined the pavements and even stood in a line in the middle of the road. The garbage van was the only vehicle that ventured into the street and even that, after ten in the night and only thrice a week. He could hear the tomato seller shouting, Bara rupaiyya kilo! Bara rupaiyya kilo! in a singsong voice. Somewhere beyond the shops, his children lived in the nicer part of the same locality in dream homes. Their windows looked out at the blue sea. Their dreams were medium-sized, spread over the Arabian sea to the shimmering skyline of Bandra. On reaching Bandra, they will design Large and Extra Large dreams about exotic lands beyond. Kaka pushed his cart of small dreams from the roadside bhajjiwala near Dadar railway station to fried fish in Sachin Restaurant on Gokhale road. The lassiwala did not have any dreams, having lost them in the rubbish heap outside his door.
The lassiwala finally arrived on the second floor. He emerged like a velvet phantom from the dark stairwell and moved with an unusual limp towards room forty-two. He knocked on the door. Kaka unconsciously rubbed his own once-broken, right thigh in a sympathetic reaction. An over-sized shadow fell out of the doorway of room forty-two and the lassiwala’s form disappeared in it. The shadow had the voice of a Pomeranian. It pitted its vocal chords against the soap opera and sent an artillery of abuses in a language which was barely comprehensible to Kaka. However, the lassiwala, whose business acumen had prompted him to be a linguist, seemed to comprehend. The lassiwala’s shadow made some inaudible noises from the recesses of the over-sized shadow.
The buttermilk was delivered and the door was shut securely on threatening voices and forms. The lassiwala’s shadow reappeared only to dissolve into the total darkness of the stairwell. Kaka had noticed the lassiwala pointing to his foot and he surmised that he had been hurt. He had seen a white patch, which could have been a bandage of sorts, where he presumed the lassiwala’s feet must have been in the darkness. He would find out on the way out on his morning walk. Kaka had no problems of status or ego about visiting the lassiwala’s den. Without the master’s knowledge, the right hand moved over the right thigh as if in kinship.
Kaka did not sleep too well that night. He had slight difficulty in breathing. He had never given much thought to his health, having always enjoyed the best of health as far as he can remember. If at all Kaka became conscious of his enviable state of health, he attributed it to contentment and an absence of intense feelings. He had small desires that can be easily fulfilled. Most of his desires had to do with food. He was satisfied with garam bhajjiyas made on the roadside and sold in a discarded news paper. Sometimes, it was the bright yellow juice near Dadar Railway station that his son used to call the typhoid juice and refused to take. But Kaka never got that dreaded disease. His son had contracted typhoid when he was nineteen and had died.
The trouble with his breathing was soon submerged by the enthusiasm for the morning walk. Kaka checked his ‘wallet’ which was once a milk sachet, but now washed and dried and secured neatly with a rubber band. He counted the notes and found that he had only thirty rupees left. He took out his check book and put it in his cloth bag and put the ‘wallet’ in his shirt pocket. He had not forgotten the lassiwala and made his way to his room two floors beneath his house. The lassiwala shared the room with the lady who cleaned the toilets and her son. Nobody knew who the tenant was, and who the sub-tenant, or whether they were relatives. Nobody had bothered to find out their names. Everybody called her Bhandki. Kaka did not know if that was her name or whether it meant ‘cleaning woman’ in some language. Inthe chawl, a medley of languages rose up in the air. Her son was referred to as ‘Bhandki’s son’, and it served the purpose to call lassiwala as lassiwala, which meant ‘buttermilk seller’. Why then bother with first names?
In that chawl, as if there was an unwritten rule, people possessed names or did not have names depending on the floor on which they happened to live. There was some strange algebraic equation between the material possessions, the floor which you occupied and the right to possess names….
Kaka was horrified to see the swollen foot of the lassiwala. Under the dirty bandage, which had gone askew, was a deep yawning gash. The entire foot looked discolored. There was a strange stench in the room, but Kaka was not sure if it was from the foot or the rubbish heap with the flies swirling around it. A couple of flies came to examine the wound.
“When did this happen and how?”
“Four days ago”
“Have you been to the doctor?”
The answer came from Bhandki. “Do you think he has the money?”
“What about the government hospital? You can get treatment for free there. And they give you good food. Eggs and milk for breakfast and roti and sabji for lunch”
“Are you out of your mind? See. I lost these front teeth at the Government hospital when I had gone there for my delivery. The nurse pushed me into the bathroom and I fell against the pot and broke these teeth. Why people like you want to have babies, she had shouted at me.” The words, puffed with air, spilled through the gap in her upper teeth.
“When I was admitted there, they refused to give me breakfast. They asked me if I had ever eaten such good breakfast in my life. The nurses and the cleaning boys must have shared it,” a voice chipped in.
“Moreover, the lassiwala was involved in a fight and got hurt. It is a knife wound. If the doctors find out, they will give him up to the police. I am telling him to go to the village.”
“Yes. In my village, they would make a leech suck out the poison from the blood and he will be alright in a day. It will cost only twenty rupees. But where is the money to travel?”
“How gruesome and stupid!”Kaka thought. Nevertheless, he felt moved. “Have you asked your rich customers upstairs for some money?”
“Yes. Rashmi behn said her daily buttermilk expense alone was hundred rupees, amounting to three thousand every month. ‘Where is the money to give you?, she asked.’ Deepu’s mother just stared at me and went inside. I waited thinking she had gone in to get some money. She never came out. It’s no use.”
Kaka suddenly felt like a philanthropist. The words fifty rupees flashed through his mind. He would give it on the way back from his bank. By the time he left, Kaka felt like a dignitary. He had a retinue of a variety of unshaven vendors, half-naked boys with snot streaming from their nostrils on to the upper lip and humming blue-bottle flies in attendance.
At the bank, Kaka stared at his passbook. He had a total of twenty thousand rupees only. What can you do with that money these days? A visit to the hospital was ruled out. He had withdrawn five hundred rupees. He did not want to open the ‘wallet’ in front of the lassiwala. So he wanted to keep fifty rupees in his shirt pocket. His fingers flirted with the fifty-rupee note in the wallet. True, he had thought of giving fifty rupees in a moment of recklessness. But can he really afford it? Even the very rich are not giving.After all, Kaka’s children are not going to take care of him. Is Kaka being a fool? May be he should give thirty or twenty. Finally it was a five rupee note that made its way into the shirt pocket. Kaka felt a little less like a philanthropist.
Kaka had an attack of breathlessness again that evening. It started in the evening and stayed on until the wee hours of the morning. He decided to skip his morning walk, something he had never done before. He thought of his father who had suffered from cardiac asthma in his last days. Could it be the same? Should he go to the doctor? His bank balance floated before his eyes.
He was hungry. The widow from the ground floor who cooked for him had not appeared. Kaka made some rice and hoped that a religious neighbor would donate some delicious stuff to embellish his lunch. He could smell osaman being brewed in the next house. On a few generous occasions, he had been the recipient of some goodies from the Patels next door.
In the evening garam bhajjiyas from the road side cart beckoned. On the ground floor, Bhandki’s son met him.
“We took the lassiwala to a doctor. The doctor says he will have to cut off the foot. He said something about too much sugar.” Bhandki’s son was following him.
“Arey bapre! Gangrene!” Kaka’s mind was momentarily distracted from culinary delights to medical horrors and monetary nightmares. “How much is he going to charge?”
“Two thousand for cutting off the foot and hospital charges, and five hundred for not telling the police! He took fifty rupees for consultation.”
Kaka was suddenly afraid. He realized that he had become a ray of hope in a world of hopelessness for these people on the ground floor. Too much responsibility. Kaka’s hungry stomach and asthmatic heart gnawed at the same time. He had reached the road with Bhandki’s son still in attendance. He told his conscience to turn left and take a small walk up the road, and he himself turned right towards the food carts and hoped that Bhandki’s son would not follow him.
That evening, the breathing trouble came back for him like a black witch who liked to trouble him at night. Mr. Patel’s wife peeped in through the window and asked him if he was alright. She had moved into the chawl in the same year as Kaka and had seen his children grow up and go away.
“Shall we send word to your daughter?”, she asked.
Kaka thought of his daughter. When his wife was seriously ill, she had admitted her to the hospital. Then, back on the seventh floor of her luxury home, she had interrogated him from the folds of the leather sofa about hospital bills.
“Aren’t you going to pay the bills? Why are you such a miser? After all, she is your wife. ”
Kaka had taken refuge in the synchronized Bollywood dance on the television. He had fantasized saying, “But isn’t she your mother? Doesn’t she look after your little girl (our little granddaughter) and coax her to eat and sleep until you return from your office? Don’t I go to the bus stop and receive her from the school bus in pouring rains?” He held his tongue and let the voice in the folds of the leather sofa berate and deride. He didn’t need the wisdom of age to tell him that the poor should hold their silence in the presence of the affluent. Even that talkative little urchin on the ground floor knew that. He always kept quiet in Kaka’s presence.
“Aren’t you ashamed?,” she had screamed, taking the remote and switching off the television and stomping out of the room. He did not know if she had referred to his absorption in the synchronized pelvic swings on the television, or his inability to pay the bills. Finally, the leather sofa had paid the bills. His wife died anyway.
So he did not want Patel’s wife to call anyone. He asked her for a different favor. For Kaka had no problems of status or ego. He had brought some bread on his way home. If he could have some dish to eat with it.When she had gone to fetch something, he wistfully hoped that it would be the osaman that he had longed for in the morning.
The next morning, Kaka was in a stupor. He seemed to be drifting into a beautiful sleep. A permanent sleep. A voice called him from time to time, urging him to call his children for help. Another voice reminded him of his bank balance and the bills and enticed him to go back to sleep. He wandered from one voice to another while each stated their case.
Between these wanderings, Kaka became vaguely aware of another voice. A voice of desperation telling him something about the lassiwala. A hopeful voice entreating him to do something.
“The police have arrested the lassiwala and Bhandki’s son.”
Kaka tried to rouse himself out of the stupor. “Go back to sleep! Don’t get involved,” his spirit voice commanded him.
A crowd of curious neighbors gathered outside Kaka’s window. Gossipy voices plied the owner of the desperate voice with questions. The desperate voice was saying, “Yesterday, Bhandki’s son helped the lassiwala to reach the railway track and to place his ankle on the track. They thought it a simple way to amputate the foot without having to pay. As an accident victim, he thought he will receive treatment for the leg without fear of police. But the police have got them anyway. Attempted suicide and abetting suicide they are saying. They have beaten up both. We thought Kaka can help.”
The crowd turned to Kaka. But Kaka was drifting in his own world. A world where nothing made sense. Where beautiful nurses wore police uniforms and had mustaches above painted lips. They were holding out plates of delicious bhajjiyas in one hand and hospital bills in another.
“Call his children, quick”, somebody was saying.
When Kaka surfaced for the last time, the tomato seller in the street was shouting, Bara rupaiyya kilo! Bara rupaiyya kilo! in a singsong voice. Kaka now had to choose between life and death.