Monday, 10 December 2012

Mangoes of Steel


Mangoes of Steel

Amaa hated May. She called it: The Month of Dust.

and that turbulent afternoon too, in spite of shuttered windows and drawn curtains, fine grit had found its way in and coated all surfaces, alive and dead. Amaa, with her small platoon of household helpers, was fighting a losing battle. She had armed everyone with kerchiefs, old pillow-cases and surplus dupattas which they were stuffing into every chink and slot that linked the raging outdoor world to Amaa’s fragile realm – her frilled, crocheted, lace-edged, hand-woven world. 
From time to time, Amaa would pull her eyes away from the cleaning squad and look at the girls. When she did, they instantly blew their nostrils into wads of tissue paper that were given to them for this purpose. Soon, like other things that Amaa made them do, it became a game.
“My turn; hoomph!”
“My turn; hoomph!”
And they showed each other brown clouds forming on the tissue. What else could they play? Amaa had covered the toy racks and board-game drawers with sheets. And she had turned down the appeal to go to their next-door friend Reema’s much before the storm had come, saying that now that there was a tooth-paste bill-board erected in her front yard, it would be dangerous to play anywhere close to it. Yes, she knew that Neha’s wedding was two days away but, no, they still couldn't go.
 And then the storm had come.
“See. What if you’d gone?” Amaa had said triumphantly, clearly very proud of her Mothers’ Instinct that, she said, always gave her the warning vibes.
“Better safe than sorry, dear. The board might fall or something!” she had said, and walked off as they began playing a just-discovered clapping game: ‘Fall or something’ – double clap – ‘ball or something’ – double clap – ‘tall or something’ – double clap.
The girls desperately wanted to be let out in spite of the persistent storm and the bill-board. It was only two days to Neha’s wedding and her dowry was still incomplete. This week it was Reema’s turn to be Neha’s mother and hence enjoy its custody – and that of the sewing paraphernalia – so they could not work on Neha’s wedding dress or string Neha’s jewelry unless they were at Reema’s. Besides, they weren’t afraid of the bill-board knocking them down. Bill-boards were meant to stand not fall. Everyone knew that accept Amaa. Moon Bhai and his friends – Moon Bhai was the teenage show-off who lived in the last house down the street – often climbed the slanting bars that held the shampoo bill-board in his garden, to touch the bottom edge of the green shampoo bottle.
The girls were now kneeling down on the floor beside the landing window, their eyes following leaves, papers and plastic bags being jostled up, up and up. Sometimes the object they followed, would vanish in the dense haze in the gray sky. They dutifully pointed out to each other anything unusual that they spotted flying. So far, they had seen flailing an orange flannel cloth, a lightblue-darkblue striped sock, the bearded face of a maulana on a torn poster, a biah nest, a piece of a net of some kind( maybe from someone’s badminton court) and a nylon national flag tied to a long plastic rope that happily floundered behind it. From time to time, there were faceless crashing sounds that left everyone thinking ‘What was that?’ The wind whooped and howled, and smacked the window panes, wobbling them mercilessly.
“Is it more posssible a toothpaste big-board can fall and less possible a shampoo big-board can fall?” Uzzie asked Selma, nodding her head a bit in expectation of the answer being in affirmative.  
“Silly stupid you are, Uzzie,” Selma said, furrows that had appeared on her forehead for worrying that the wedding preparations would not be good enough, deepening a little more. She always said this when a question, a rogue one amongst hundreds that Uzzie asked every day, threw her off-balance.
Uzzie was used to hearing the words ‘silly stupid you are, Uzzie’ and thought they had no viable meaning.
“Is it, Selma?” she asked, her nostrils squashed against the glass.
“Well; yes.”
“Is it because it’s bigger?”
“Well; yes.”
“Is it bigger because they need more space for drawing the big teeth than the gianty woman with long hair?”
“We-e-ll, yes! but ‘gianty woman’ is wrong English,” Selma said, amazed that her little sister had come up with a wonderful analogy about bill-board sizes; but sounding as if she thought that Uzzie’s had solved the mystery by fluke.
“Is that why Amaa isn’t letting us go nextdoors; that they have a big-board that is too big because it’s a toothpaste big-board and we’d die if it fell on us?” Uzzie said in one breath, putting the whole thing together in one long question. She always did in the end.
“Bill-board not big-board, stupid,” said Selma.
But Uzzie was sure the word was big-board not bill-board. But she didn’t know who to go to for correcting the universal mistake.
Months ago, when they had first heard that ‘The Government’ had planned to make a flyover bridge over their street, Baba had told Amaa that it was ‘a violation’ and the Residents’ Committee would never let it actually happen. There had been meetings at Moon Bhai’s where all the men had put their heads together – literally, considering the size of Moon Bhai’s dinner table – to come up with a scheme to stop the bridge from being raised.
But the bridge had come up before the scheme.
And then ‘The Government’ had allowed Bill-boards. When the first one was raised on the other side of the bridge, Baba told Amaa that it was ‘a violatation’ and the  Residents’ Committee would see that the horrendous configuration was removed. Again, the men had met at Moon Bhai’s. But in less than a month’s time, another one had popped up from one of the front yards in their lane. There had been an avalanche since.
Baba seldom spoke after that; and he did not go to the committee meetings any more. The girls hadn't met or seen 'The Government' but they both thought that, in many ways, she was resposible for the dreadful silence at their dinner table these days.
Bill-boards had multiplied as fast as Amaa’s vegetable crops did when the sprouting season came; a yield of steel and screen-print plastic; two pictured caravans parked along both parapets of the overhead bridge, showing off the colored sides to the commuters on the bridge and bad ones to the dwellers down in the alley. There were suitcase-size juice cans with manicured fruit; milk tetra-packs, showing foreign-looking cows; half-open cookie packs with cookies sliding out, thin females with fat lips, wearing colorful voile prints and lolling on divans; legs wearing jeans (just legs); a beautiful bride who, closer-up, looked like a clown wearing jewelry and a classroom of children with made-up faces and slick hair.
Uzzie best liked the one which was shaped like a bar of chocolate whose wrapper was peeled off a bit from one corner to reveal the luscious chocolate inside and a little man crouching down and licking. She would daydream that the chocolate bar was real and that she was climbing up the steel bars to snap off a piece. Sometimes, when it was hot, she would walk to the window that overlooked the road, half expecting to see the chocolate melting and dribbling down.
It took an hour for the storm to tame down into a harmless breeze. When it did, Selma whispered in Uzzie’s ear.
“Ask her if we can go to Bi Ji’s. Kunnu Khala might have sewed the red dress by now; and she’s doing other things too. You want Neha’s wedding to be good na Uzzie?”
Uzzie nodded and, straddling the wooden railing, slid down the stairs.
“Can we go to Bi Ji’s house, Amaa? The wind has stopped and Bi Ji doesn’t have a big-board in her garden,” Uzzie asked.
The dirt-mark on Uzzie’s frock – from straddling the railing – was worrying Amaa. They could both tell it was. Amaa’s eyes were fixed on it and she wasn’t really listening to Uzzie. On the landing, Selma waited, holding her breath in dread of a refusal coming up.
“Can we, Amaa?” Uzzie shouted in Amaa’s ear, shrill and loud, as Amaa spanked her frock free of dust.
“Uh-huh! But stay inside and don’t be gone long. And don’t be in the way; Bi Ji and Kunnu Khala are busy packing stuff,” Amaa said inattentively, her gaze now following the broom with which the maid was sweeping dust off the floor, onto a dust-pan. Uzzie could see that Amaa had a shriek in her mouth, ready to be released in case the broom touched the cream upholstery.
“We will,” Uzzie said, “and we’ll be careful that our frocks don’t get dirty,” she said, forseeing the advice coming up or, perhaps, just to please Amaa.
They sneaked out of the front door rather quietly, afraid that Amaa would change her mind and call them back. Outside, a cool breeze touched their cheeks and blew their hair back from their faces.
The ever-sparkling floor of their veranda was littered with leaves and twigs and pieces of a broken hanging-pot. Amaa’s pride and joy, the pretty little front yard looked like it had been given a quick spin in Amaa’s mixing machine. The bougainvillea bush hung desolate, stripped of each of its little balloons of purple flowers. The green fabric that had been the summer-roof of the drive in Reema’s house had flown over to their side and was hanging from the roof banister like a huge flag.
The tapering alley, with the houses on one side and the cemented wall that held the bridge on the other, lay deserted. The hideous mixture of graffiti and paper-posters on the wall looked as if someone with good taste had been tampering with it. The wind had shredded the posters and they flapped about like streamers; the graffiti had a film of dust on it that had dulled the florescent colors into soft pastels. 
They hopped and skipped the small distance to Bi Ji’s, their eyes squinted to keep out the grit in the breeze that, although much weakened, was still blowing. They sang:
‘Tum kis ko lene aaey ho, aaey ho, thanday mausam mai?
Hum tum ko lene aaey hai, aaey hai, thanday mausam mai.’
Elderly Bi Ji and her daughter Kunnu Khala had been a part of their lives since as far as their memories went. Bi Ji was Amaa’s aunt (her mother’s sister) and lived three doors down the street. She loved using foul words and knew the funniest of stories about Amaa’s childhood – stories that they could never refer to in Amaa’s presence. They were stories in which Amaa and her sisters had lice in their hair as big as little tadpoles(Bi Ji’s exact words); in which Amaa picked her nose and sometimes swallowed the little blobs of phlegm she picked; in which Amaa held out dried droppings of a goat on the palm of her hand and asked if they were playing marbles. If Amaa ever found out that her Perfect-Woman Image was being tarnished, that she was being accused of having any connection with lice and phlegm-blobs and goat-droppings – any whatsoever – she would force them to stay away from the ‘Nutty Old Woman’.
They couldn’t really construe – not that they tried very hard – the exact nature of the relationship between Amaa and Bi Ji. Although, superficially, the two were at daggers drawn, there was something between them which ran deeper than the apparent hatred. For instance, Amaa was unable to hide the troubled look that came to her eyes whenever the topic of Bi Ji’s migration to Sialkot was brought up.
***
Cut out in the left leaf of the steel gate, there was a little gate that was open as usual and swinging back and forth. Huge rectangular wooden containers which the girls had seen being unloaded the night before, were stacked in the small front garden. An enormous canvas cloth was stretched above the containers and it made the garden look like the back of a big truck carrying a load of big boxes. The canvas was probably the only relocatable object that the storm had been unable to relocate.
 They entered and ran towards the darkened side-passage to go to the back of the house. Both   sides of the passage were lined with sacks full of useless items, leaking tubs and buckets,  cracked flower-pots, old hose-pipes, broken chairs and other bits of furniture. Sprawling along the parallel walls, the twin cities of plastic, wood and metal lay unperturbed by the storm. Rain, however, would have been a totally different prospect. When Kunnu Khala had last washed the passage with a hose-pipe, hundreds of white ants and grey crickets had sailed off towards the drain.  
Inside Bi Ji’s house, packed and sealed cartons were stacked along the walls of the living room which had been stripped of all accessories and small furniture. Only two old sofas which could easily be told apart from the sofas in the drawing room because of their tea stains and cigarette holes, lay facing each other.
Yes! The biggest secret the girls’ had hidden from the world was: ‘Kunnu Khala Smokes!’.
Bi Ji and Kunnu Khala were standing beside the dining table on which they had laid out a huge quantity of spoons and forks and other cutlery in rows and other patterns in which Uzzie became immediately interested. The women both wore baggy shalwar-kamises made of limp voile with vague, hodgepodge prints. There was a little box full of rubber bands and all possible kinds of pins, lying open on one side. The rubber-bands were wilted and sticky, and the pins had fused with them to make little spiky lumps which looked like steel porpoises. On the other end of the table, an old sewing machine lay amidst an array of silk pieces and spools of thread. A doll-sized red dress was sprawled on the upper curve of the machine.   
“What are you two doing running lose in this dust in these lovely new frocks? I find it very strange that our dear ‘Miss Clean’ let you out. Don’t you too, Kunnu?” Bi Ji remarked, seeing the girls slip in through the back door.
Kunnu Khala looked at the girls fondly and said nothing.
“These frocks are old Bi Ji; they’re just starched,” Selma explained, hurrying towards the sewing machine and picking the red dress.
Bi Ji’s eyes, big and flowy like two shelled eggs behind the thick glasses of her specs, stared at their crisp muslin frocks – baby pink, baby blue. For no viable reason.
“What’s this?” Uzzie asked, pointing at the cutlery, looking at it as if never before had she seen a spoon or a fork.
No one answered.
“When are you leaving Bi Ji?” Uzzie asked, desperate for attention. 
Bi Ji had sold off her house to a man who wanted to convert it into a factory where they would sew T-shirts. But before doing that, Bi Ji had made sure that she had told the neighbours, all and sundry, that she thought they were all cowards who had failed in peventing the mortification inflicted on them. Also, that she couldn’t possibly live in the ‘mouth of a cement alligator that had grown freak metal teeth’ – Bi Ji conjured a fanciful metaphor to dramatize every situation’ – so she was moving to her house in Sialkot which she had inherited from her father.  
“I’ve told you a hundred times Uzzie; on Sunday,” Bi Ji said a litttle crossly.
“Will you ever come back? I mean ‘ev-v-ver’.”
“Why don’t you ask ‘Miss Clean’ to bring you all down to Sialkot every vacation; hm-m-m? It’s her hometown too. She should; shouldn’t she Kunnu? They could even come this summer.”
Kunnu Khala smiled and nodded.
“The fear is that if I were to ask my dear niece to bring you all down, she’d go all haughty totty and say, ‘Bi Ji! What will I gain from forcing my girls to endure a bumpy car ride and a stay in a house full of dust mites and lizards – not to speak of the compulsion of walking through streets  with open drains? A reunion with my relatives? I’m sorry; I can’t risk the girls’ health... blah, blah, blah!.” Bi Ji said, mimicking Amaa’s cultivated accent.
The girls laughed. Strangely, Amaa’s obsession with cleanliness was a topic that seemed never to be done-with with Bi Ji.
Meanwhile, Selma had moved to stand very close to Kunnu Khala.
“Kunnu Khala?” she whispered, searching Kunnu Khala’s eyes worriedly. “Neha’s dress doesn't have all the gold gota you said you'd put on it," she whined.
“After this, Selma. We'll complete the gota work today."
“And have you found the doli*?”
“Oh no! It totally slipped my mind! When’s the wedding?” Kunnu Khala asked.
“In two days. On Saturday,” Selma said, looking even more anxious.
“I’m sure it’s not in the packed boxes. I packed them all myself. The cupboards…they are almost empty…if it’s still in the house, it should be in the kitchen somewhere. That’s the only place left,” she said, thinking aloud.
“If? You never said ‘if’ before,” Selma whimpered.
“That old doli that you played with as a little girl?” Bi Ji interrupted. “Haven’t seen it for years. I’m pretty much sure we gave it away…” 
“No, no. I’m sure I still have it,” Kunnu Khala said, looking at Selma to see how far she had believed Bi Ji’s decree.
 “Neha and her husband can go off in Aadi’s red car, Selma. He said he could take off the roof with his Dad’s little-one hammer,” Uzzie said in her pre-school English to please Kunnu Khala who never failed to enjoy her mistakes.
“‘Little one hammer’ is wrong English,” Selma said in a small voice.
“Listen Selma; I’ll make you a new doli if I don’t find the old one,” Kunnu Khala reassured.
“By tomorrow?” Selma asked, happy now.
“By tomorrow evening,” Kunnu Khala promised.
They watched Kunnu Khala and Bi Ji pile up stacks of matching cutlery in sets of dozens and tie them up with the ever-lengthening rubber bands. Uzzie recounted each set. (She got very excited when a counting mistake was corrected on her advice.) Selma watched everything through wide, thinking eyes, her elbows on the table and her chin cupped in her hands. Afterwards, Kunnu Khala sat on the window-sill and lit a cigarette and Bi Ji went to the toilet, muttering vague details of her purpose of going there, saying that she’d be leaving the door unlocked from inside. Uzzie stuck her tongue out and clamped her nostrils tightly shut to display her distaste for Bi Ji’s disclaimer.
There was a sound coming from the backyard; some kind of rhythmic thumps. Uzzie noticed it first and ran to the window to see what was going on. In the middle of the clutter – as if what the storm had done wasn’t enough – a bearded man was chopping down the old mango tree in the backyard with a big axe; the tree that Selma could climb and she couldn’t. Last Sunday, Selma had picked about a hundred raw mangoes from dangerously far branches and she and Kunnu Khala had together made and jarred a pan full of mango chutney.
“Kunnu Khala, why’s he doing that?” Uzzie looked at Kunnu Khala and asked, feeling secretly pleased that, with the tree gone, Selma would not be able to show-off her tree-climbing skills. Then she remembered that it didn’t matter anymore because, after Sunday, they wouldn’t be coming to Bi Ji’s house, ever.
E-v-v-ver!
“That man’s a freak,” Kunnu Khala muttered. “He’s been chopping that tree since six in the morning. The storm looked like it was going to blow forever but he didn’t leave. As soon as it was gone, he began again.”
“But why is he doing that?” Uzzie repeated her question.
“The man who bought the house is getting the yard cleared. He’s going to make a store-house there.” 
“Oh no!” cried Selma, all of a sudden. Then she ran to the window and looked outside. “Stop him Kunnu Khala. It’s still your house till Sunday.”
“Listen to me, girls; I’ll show you the dress now. It’s so beautiful, you’ll go...” and she did an exaggerated enactment of passing out.
“And I’ll paint the doli red and decorate it with the left-over green brocade...!” she went on.
But Selma’s gaze was fixed. As she looked on, tears welled up in her eyes and condensed along their lower rims, threatening to brim over at any moment.
Then, not giving anyone a chance to prepare for what she was about to do, she tore across the room to the back door, threw it open and burst out like a bullet. Kunnu Khala charged after her, yelling her name. Bi Ji shouted from inside the toilet, asking what was going on. Uzzie too made off in panic. All she could think about was that the man on the tree had a huge axe and Selma had nothing.
Uzzie stood frozen at the door, watching the man standing on a low, level branch, the blade of his axe reflecting the slanting beams of sun, looking in amazement at the little girl in a fluffy pale-pink outfit, streaking towards him.
When she was close enough, Selma braked to a stop, applying the same power with which she had started the run, and shook the branch vehemently, crying, “Stop it, you bastard,” again and again. Uzzie was shocked even more. ‘Bastard’ was a word Uzzie did not know and had thought that Selma did not know either.
For a very brief while, the man stood holding the upper branches, unaffected by the jerks and laughing at Selma’s foolish attempts at throwing him off. But in next to no time he could be heard shrieking at the top of his voice. Then he fell off. Quickly, he rolled himself up and sat holding his foot up, crying like a child.
Selma had bitten the man with the axe, on his right heel.
He hadn’t bled because his heel was fibrous and woody, but it was wet with Selma’s spit and had an arc of red tooth-marks that had risen from below his skin. He rubbed the thorny skin on the sides of the wound and wept. Kunnu Khala crouched down beside him and spoke to him gently.
Selma just shivered and shivered.
Then Bi Ji spouted out from the back door, swearing at everyone: Selma, Kunnu Khala, the man. Even at Uzzie. For no good reason.
Seeing Bi Ji storming towards them, Kunnu Khala stood up and embraced Selma in her arms protectively.
“Go inside, Bi Ji! Just go in! Nothing’s happened; just go in!” she said in a croaky voice.
“What’s gotten into you, girl? Ordering me to go in! I have to sort this thing out. These little imps can’t be allowed to…”
“Leave it to me, Bi Ji. I’ll sort it out. She’s not in her right mind. And I’ve offered to take the man to a doctor but he says he wants some money instead. Uzzie, run and get my handbag from the dining room and the yellow ointment from the drawer,” Kunnu Khala said, her tone flat and her voice gruff. Uzzie pondered which Kunnu Khala’s real voice was: this or the birdy tuneful voice they had always heard.
Bi Ji inspected the man’s foot from a distance, her eyes two runny yokes behind the thick glasses.
“Go and see if the rice is done, Bi Ji,” Kunnu Khala said.
“Don’t lie. There’s no fire under the rice pan,” Bi Ji said, staring at Selma accusingly.
“Then light the fire, Bi Ji. It’s almost dinner time.”
Some time later, when Selma had said her apology, the man’s wound had been tended to, he had been given the money he wanted and had hobbled out through the side-passage; and Bi Ji had crossed half the length of the yard to go in, Kunnu Khala again spoke in a voice that was even more flatter and thicker than when she had spoken before.  
“Nothing’s happened and we are not telling anyone any stories Bi Ji; not even their mother.”
For a long time she sat there on the grass, rocking Selma in her arms till both of them became the old Kunnu Khala and Selma. Later, Uzzie slowly went close to them and put her little hand on Kunnu Khala’s cold cheek. She patted Kunnu Khala’s head like a grown-up and then twisted a stray salt-n-pepper lock of her hair and tucked it behind her ear.
“Why don’t you ever color your hair, Kunnu Khala?” she asked, probing Kunnu Khala’s face for signs of normalcy.
“Just like that, Uzzie?” Kunnu Khala said in a voice that was almost a sob now.
Again and again, Selma glanced at the mis-shapen mango tree from the corners of her eyes.
“Where did the little mangoes all go? There are none left on the tree?” she asked quietly.
“We didn’t want them Selma, so they took them,” Kunnu Khala said.
Selma nodded.
It was getting dark. Kunnu Khala had a buzzy black haze above her head that she would repeatedly wag away; but it would reappear instantly. Finally she said that the mosquitoes wanted the garden to themselves so they must all go in.
On the way in, she told the girls that she wanted them to have dinner with Bi Ji and her. There was pea-pulao that she had started cooking earlier and she would make raita to go with it.
The prospect of eating Kunnu Khala’s pea-pulao made Uzzie so happy, she smiled and nodded in spite of the post-accident solemnity.
A few steps from the door, Selma stopped and looked up at Kunnu Khala’s face.
“Do you have to go Kunnu Khala? Do you really have to?” she asked in a small voice.
Kunnu Khala didn’t look back at Selma; she just nodded. Then she tugged at her hand, urging her to walk again.
“What do you think of Uzzie’s idea, Selma? Don’t you think she’s right? There are no dolis these days. What about decorating Aadi’s little red car with flowers from the chameli bush and…”
“But I want a doli for Neha!” Selma moaned and now Kunnu Khala looked at her through the mist in her eyes.
“I was just joking, Selma!” she said in a voice that was a mix of laughing and crying. “I’ll make you a beautiful doli tomorrow.”
***
It was dark and Selma was hopelessly quiet when they walked down to their house, each holding a hand of the maid whom Amaa had sent to fetch them.                                                                                                                                               
“Mangoes!” Uzzie said, to please Selma, pointing at the bill-board at the starting point of the bridge on the other side of it, the only one whose good side could be seen from the alley. Selma and the maid looked up. A woman with parted lips was facing upwards with a just-landed drop-shaped drop of mango juice on her lower lip which had probably fallen off the tilted juice can at the top of the board. Behind the woman, there were three mangoes; yellow, ripe and glossy; hanging from a branch of a tree, the rest of which could not be shown on the board. 
Selma turned her eyes back to the road ahead and walked on in silence.

Footnotes

doli: a palanquin; it was used in South Asia as a ladies' commuter, especially a bride on her wedding day. Here it refers to a toy palanquin.