October 23, 2008

ekda kaay zhala… (once upon a time…)

mrs singh and mrs sood were the best of friends.

both originated from north india; one, from a turban-wearing sardarji community, the other a non-turban wearing punjabi community. mrs singh was simple, they had four children: g-p-s (that’s what he was known as), the bubbly, boastful pinky, and twins the names of whom i forget (i think we simply called them goru and rimpy).

mrs sood was the more flashy kind, loved bright shiny clothes and bright red lipstick. her children: a pampered brat of a boy called babloo, who like his mother, liked to be heard, and a scrawny but cute, almost timid-voiced as a mouse, minu.

there were 13 flats in our single-building-block, enclosed by a narrow wall that had failed to foresee that within a few years, the entire contruction (houses and all) would be overshadowed by taller and larger buildings and their compound-walls. there was space but for about three fiats huddled one behind the other, and two scooters and a cycle. my father, being a better driver and more experienced than the other car-owners, parked his fiat right at the front and away from the exit-gates, while the others often needed his help in taking their cars out without a scratch. the scooters were freely removed physically and parked elsewhere if they were in the way, and if their owners were unavailable.

even in that shame of a parking-lot-cum-playground, we were six punjabi, nine maharastrian, three south-indian children who got along pretty well. not only that, we sometimes also had the karapurkar-brother-sister maharashtrian duo from the neighbouring bungalow that sold milk and other dairy products, as well as the three-banjodkar-siblings from the remarkably well-to-do lawyers’ bungalow a couple of yards away from our building. and there were the late entrants – the three-generation joint family of the bhaskars’, whose four children also joined us in the evenings. we played lagori, dabaispice, hide-n-seek, khamb-khamb-khamboree on the grounds. our gurkha watchman often interfered our games as a referree, preventing fights and at times, causing them. sometimes when it got too crowded downstairs, we all marched the four flights of stairs in a row, where we had the entire cold-colourful-mosaic-tiled terrace to ourselves.

festival times like diwali and holi were the best, when even the parents were out with us, and sometimes we participated inĀ  fancy-dress contests and little skits put together by an enterprising ‘kaku’. it was during these hastily-put-up but heartfelt celebrations when we would realise what it was like, to live in a multi-cultural society. all of us shared and enjoyed our variety of foods. we showed equal enthusiasm for every festival – pongal, holi, gudipadwa, baisakhi or vishu, ganesh chaturthi, rakshabandhan, navratri, kojagiri poornima, diwali, christmas. we were more indian than any of the indians living in any of the other states. this was aamchi mumbai.

like it is with most get-togethers, the parents used the opportunity to praise their kids to the skies about school achievements, or rate them with regards to who was the more studious or the ‘bad apple’ of the lot. we all went to different schools and that’s why the discussions got more livelier if one of us children managed to raise the topic of a particular teacher who was not particularly good at teaching.

ho ka? (is it so?) n-kaku would ask in disbelief.

aaho kaay mhantaay?… (what are you saying?), v-kaku would exclaim.

ho bagha na, ata tya divshee kaay zhala… (yes indeed, now look at what happened the other day…) s-kaku would start to explain.

nahi aisi baat nahi. ab hamare babloo ke teacher ko dekho (no no it is not so, now take our babloo’s teacher for example), sood-aunty would butt in.

and the argument would go on late into the night…. running in between the legs of the collective parent family, we resumed our games again. we had distracted them successfully. no more post-function complaints after going home!

i don’t know if it was one of these discussions that the punjabi ladies took to hearts, and their homes. because before we knew it, mrs sood and mrs singh had turned into the worst of enemies. they quarelled like cats and dogs. they lived on different floors one above the other, and on early-evenings or late mornings when the air was warm and lazy and the sounds travelled in circles around the building, we could hear their kitchen-utensils-banging and the women yelling. each in her own house. one window to the other. that loud.

we spent 14 years in that building. the games stopped gradually, as everyone graduated to higher academic classes, to jobs, or simply, to marriage. but the quarrel between the ladies had failed to simmer. the six punjabi kids had grown up listening to their mothers complaining, and naturally some of the sparks must have stayed in the minds of the two first-born boys, glowing softly like embers until the right temperature was reached: testosterone.

g-p-singh one day saw babloo sood unarmed and unsuspecting, and without a key to his empty house. impatient enough to pick up a fight. one provoked and the other rebuked. that evening, the gurkha wasn’t in his cabin. nor were any of the cars or scooters. there was space, and a lot of anger. they were getting into a fist-fight. we were two families on the ground-floor. my neighbour banged on my door frightened. she was married now, and had come to visit her parents. i was home early from work that day.

radhu come quick! g-p-s and babloo have got into a fight… a real one!!

it was something we all had feared. the elders thought they will soon grow tired of their swear-words, let them fight. but we knew this wouldn’t stop. these weren’t the kids that we knew. these were two angry punjabi communities at war. fuelled by years and years of their mothers’ comparing-and-ranting-against each other. our cries and shouts did nothing to stop them. a 12-inch sear across babloo’s head did, when g-p-s suddenly picked a broken iron-pipe from the floor and whacked him without a thought. then he ran away.

there was a lot of blood. luckily my father was on his way home. while some of us held babloo’s head with cloth, my father rushed a semi-conscious babloo to the hospital. he survived. we hoped at least mrs singh and mrs sood would be happy now.

the spirit of the togetherness with which we grew up was crushed. within a year, all the occupants of the building moved elsewhere. everything that we had learnt in those 14 years as friends growing up together, now came with a fine print. from indians were were reduced to maharashtrians and non-maharashtrians, north-indians and south-indians.

reading about the maharashtra navanirman sena riots reminded me of this fight. it pains me to see the spirit of aamchi mumbai, slowly being trampled under their collective weight. it makes me think of the men and women involved in these anti-non-maharastrian-migrant-worker fight, and how they must have spent their childhood years. who did they play lagori and dabaispice with? most of all it makes me wonder:

what were their mothers thinking?

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