The act of leaving home

Home is what you call your roots. The place that shields  you, nurtures you, comforts you – that, my dear, is your root. That is who you are. The place, the people, everyone, and everything around you, make you. So it gets difficult to detach those overt and covert, subtle and obvious strings that you so carefully nourish for a considerable amount of time of your life, when you leave your city. You are probably not intending to detach your ties literally, but the possibility of a physical proximity diminishes. A part of you remains there. A part of yourself is carried to the new place where you plan to settle for the years to come. The new city may welcome you, be all kind to you, but you can never ever call it home. A string constantly tugs you at the heart, to come back.

This city has given me a lot, has taught me things – how to laugh, how to live, how to fight back; this city has always been a comfort zone – a place where I can always lean on when I’m too exhausted, scared or scarred to think of anything else. The nooks and corners of this place has always haunted me. Its old charm, the grandeur, the must, the dust, the heat, the rain clogged streets, the chaos, the colour – I am going to miss it all.

This city knows about my mischiefs, midnight pranks, endless chatter, silences, lonely strolls, guffaws with close ones, sweet nothings, falls, and efforts to rise again. It knows a little too much about me to break its trust.

‘This city knows about all my firsts;

And the more I try to run away from it, it closes in upon me’.

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Digital Painting #1

Trisha di had gone on a solo trek to Sikkim’s very own Tonglu. I don’t remember which route she had taken to reach there, but all I know is that she had clicked some of the most amazing photographs that I have seen till date, which have been etched on my mind. Here I have tried to replicate one of the photographs, and the result is this.

The forlorn woman by the window

The Forlorn Lady by the Window

The deserted house 

The house right adjacent to our home has been deserted for almost a decade now. The last person to stay there was Sengupta grandma, who had a loud, hoarse voice – a voice of which everyone in the vicinity (including the stray dogs, cats, and crows) was frightened. I remember, once a crow was sitting peacefully on the wall, facing her balcony, pecking at something with great concentration. I was right at my window, hiding and observing the crow’s activities, imagining myself to be a budding Salim Ali (Well, I was really small at that time, and considering that, I shouldn’t be laughed at)! 

Suddenly, I heard a threatening roar and a strain of abuses being hurled at the poor bird, and out came grandma with her stick, waving it wildly at the bird. Startled, the crow flew away, leaving its food behind. Seeing me stunned, her scowl soon broke into a toothless smile, and she said that the birds nowadays have become pretty ‘oshobhyo’ (uncivilized!) and they create nuisance wherever they sit.

She never allowed any unwanted sapling in her prim, treeless backyard. Even if a rebellious baby plant protruded from the soil, or from the moss-covered wall, she plucked it immediately. Her rooftop was absolutely plant-less as well.

Sitting in her balcony, on a comfortable couch, she used to shout at passers by, who probably made the mistake of standing near the entrance of her house. I guess she hated people as well. A true misanthropist by heart!

When I was in my 8th class or so, one day, I saw grandma’s daughter helping her out of the house with her baggage. I learnt that she was leaving for good. My own grandmother commented, ‘now there will be a little peace in the vicinity’.

It has been almost a decade since then. The house is still there, while nature wrapped its arms around it slowly and stealthily. Just the other day, I noticed a pretty banyan tree spreading its branches in great vigour on the roof, exactly where the antenna of grandma’s TV was once placed. The roof is now cluttered with mud, and in it are growing various plants, thanks to our gardener who casually throws away grass, unclaimed saplings of neem and succulents on the other roof.

Stray cats now peacefully make love, give birth to kittens, and sleep on the dirtied couch that is still placed in her balcony, just as she had left it.

Warblers and mongoose now nest in the foliage of the unkempt little jungle, that had once been her small backyard ‘garden’. Civets frequently make nuisance over her roof.

Within the span of a decade, I gradually saw her house being engulfed by things she always detested. Her house grew to be a haven for all those she considered ‘uncivilized’, be it the greenery, animals, or petty thieves. Whenever I go out into my balcony, to look at the tiny speck of greenery left amidst the concrete jungle growing around, I always think of her – the uncompromising way in which she always prevented any unwanted being from entering, growing or littering in her premises.

 

Unravelling Sikkim Himalayas – The Fambong Lho Diaries

Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in East Sikkim. A trekking programme through this mountainous jungle had been proposed months back, and I had jumped to the decision of going. The wildlife sanctuary is an extension of the Kanchenjunga National Park and houses a variety of species of flora and fauna. Anyway, I was looking much forward to a trek since it had been more than two years that I had set foot in the Himalayas.

I had heard that the duration of the trek would be four days, and the batch was an enthusiastic one. So I hoped for the best and started off from Kolkata with the rest on 30th of October, 2015. At New Jalpaiguri Station, we got divided into two groups, boarded two buses and headed towards a small village called Pangthang, where we were supposed to stay for the night. Our buses rounded up the hilly roads, via Gangtok, jolting us often in our seats. In the afternoon we finally halted in front of a display board which stated –‘Welcome to Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary’. Someone shouted inside our bus, ‘Look look! There’s a rainbow!’

That afternoon was just perfect. Sunlight was quickly fading away, emitting a pinkish glow. As we stood mesmerized at our campsite, the sky kissed the distant blue mountains and the rainbow was still etched across the sky, glowing with all its radiance; when we turned our heads, Kanchenjunga smiled amidst a cloudy haze.DSCN0799

And that was just the beginning!

In the night, we all snuggled into one big shelter and introduced ourselves. There were so many new people, and it was difficult to remember everyone’s name in the beginning. Each had a different story to tell. However, we retired to the comfort of our sleeping bags soon, as the next day would be demanding, with loads of work and walking to do.

I woke up early in the morning as nature kept calling me, poised with all its seduction. I came out of the shelter with a torch, but soon had to switch it off. It was a moonlit night. The sky was pitch dark, studded with glittering galaxies and constellations all over, and you could clearly see the way. The borders of our camping ground were surrounded with the dark silhouettes of trees of the olden times, which looked over the vale as watchful protectors. As I turned my head around, Kanchenjunga lay quiet, glistening under the moon, sitting like a nesting dove.

It was a clear night, without a single trace of cloud. And it was a cold, cold night, sending shivering sensations down the spine every now and then. The surrounding was chaste, pure, and you could feel the fresh, cold morning air filling your lungs, purifying you in and out.

Soon the campers awoke as dawn started descending upon us. The quiet of the night broke into a clamorous day as there started a lot of hustle and bustle. And then the magic began! The first rays of the sun gradually cast its wand on the gorgeous peaks of Kanchenjunga, reddening the tips. The red soon spread all over the range like splattered vermillion. The colour gradually started transcending into a golden hue. And soon, the mountains were transformed into a land of golden sunshine. However, the mesmerizing vista did not last long. With the sunrays gradually hovering on us from the East, we saw the peaks retaining their eternal white glow. The show was finally over.DSCN0838.JPG

That morning, we were supposed to walk uphill to a place called Golitar. There was a forest bungalow, though it would not have been sufficient to accommodate all of us. Also, we were part of a course, where instructors and campers alike, all were required to stay in shelters made of plastic sheets.DSCN0876.JPG

The path was not long. We started off a little late, and reached early. The trail was through a rich natural vegetation, that Sikkim is known for, consisting of numerous orchids, bamboos, ferns, primula, coniferous trees and much more. The route was filled with the continuous chirp of crickets and occasional tweets of unfamiliar birds. The moist atmosphere allowed for the growth of gigantic ferns all over. Moss hung over the huge, ancient trunks of trees that drooped its branches down over the narrow, meandering paths, forming canopies of foliage here and there.

Golitar’s bungalow was in a pretty location. The first thing to catch my eyes was the bottle green display board with Frost’s words scribbled on it,

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.’

Well, yes. We surely did have miles to go before we ultimately parted ways. But instead of thinking about what was going to be, I looked at the present. The present was exciting. The present was slipping away, second by second, even though I wished hard that there were some more to each day. I wished to live in the moment, not quite thinking about the ‘miles to go’, but the time already spent together. The seconds we were spending together were the moments when each of us was making memories.

The next morning in Golitar again greeted us with the dazzling panoramic view of Kanchenjunga. Along with it dawned a reminder – our already slow team had a long (long with a lot of ‘o’s in it) walk to undertake to reach the next halt –Siddhi Chowk. The already seven hours’ journey might just take a lot more time, as a few campers were facing difficulties while walking up or downhill. The day seemed a little long.

We had started off early, did not take much breaks. But in the few halts that we had indulged ourselves into, our local guides kept reminding us that we were not even halfway through.

The fragrance of the wild lingered throughout. The jungle increasingly unfurled its vast reservoir of splendour as we gradually exposed ourselves deeper into its tender hands. At one such point, we abruptly reached a watchtower, took a long break, hungrily gulped down whatever food was remaining, and then started off once more.DSCN0886.JPG

This next stretch of walk, all of a sudden, became more interesting. The soil abruptly became very soft. The path took a steep descent and I could hear frequent thumps and giggles as people ahead slipped and fell on the way. Then there came a vertically poised log on the way on which steps had been cut. We sort of climbed down on all fours. The path again took us a little uphill, and before I could realize I found myself on the top of a ridge.

The sky randomly became gloomy. Clouds started floating in. The trees all around us were enfolded by the haze and the weather became chilly. Then I could see a flight of rock-cut stairs; that too, really steep ones. From behind, I also saw tiny specks of pink, blue or green rucksacks, which seemed to grow two legs each (no heads could be seen as the towering rucksacks covered people’s heads), crawling steadily upwards. Gradually, the first person moved beyond the point of identification as he was completely engulfed by the clouds around. Following him, one by one, we all gradually crept into the clouds and I was rejuvenated once again.DSCN0892.JPG

It was past afternoon that we reached Siddhi Chowk, a vast meadow covered with flowing yellow grass and countless flecks of white flowers. Evening soon descended upon us as we worked upon making a common shelter – the purpose was to stay together for the night, as well as sit together to cook. In the beginning it became a chaos, with people huddling all over a tiny space. But as everyone settled in their places, it became less chaotic and more of fun. That night was also supposed to be the night of a grand feast. Every group kept utensils full of their food on the ground. There was a display of a variety of food items, ranging from parathas and dried-fish curry to desserts. That night, as per the tradition set by the previous nights, supper was amazing. Who could ever imagine in her/his wildest dreams that a few days of hardship on the mountains can produce such brilliant chefs?

The final day soon approached. We walked downhill towards Tumin. The clouds accompanied us throughout the way, drenching us a little now and then. The strong smell of the wild was roused with greater vigour. Everything around was glistening green. The soaked path emitted petrichor. Tiny droplets hung from thin, dry branches, reflecting their surroundings in their minute crystal like, vase-shaped frames…

Tumin’s forest rest house soon loomed in the distance. A tiny wooden bungalow, a broad balcony and two rooms, Tumin seemed to be a perfect weekend getaway. Our campfire happened on the scheduled time. Good food, good company, chilly weather, and a star-studded sky – the last night could not have been better. Some of us had preferred to sleep in the balcony. Till late in the night a few of us lay awake, singing spontaneously until our eyes could restrain sleep no more.DSCN0905.JPG

Next morning we walked a little more to reach the nearest road head, where our two buses were waiting. The last day it was. My mind was a little heavy. The past few days had been enthralling. And everything was coming to an imminent end. Next time, even if I come, the exact same people won’t be there. The route might change as well.

The most difficult part, now, was to return. Each hike tends to mould a person a little differently. One always learns something new. Some things within are bound to change. And ultimately, you, as if like a misfit piece in a puzzle, do not quite fit into your own world after coming back from the mountains. Even when you are finally back into reality, your mind just trails off to the serenity left behind. You cannot concentrate on the present, you keep pondering about the past. And the fun part is that it is this set of imageries that refuse to let go of your mind, which presses you to go back to the wilderness again and again; which makes you plan your next trek!

Ray’s depiction of Tagore’s ‘Ghare Baire’ – the intertwining effects of a political movement and the ‘modernization’ drive on the bodies of women in Bengal

Satyajit Ray’s ‘Ghare Baire’ is based on Tagore’s novel by the same name. The context of the film is the reactionary Swadeshi movement that came up against Lord Curzon’s proposition of partitioning Bengal in 1905-06. The film deals with the complexities of the Swadeshi movement, the intricacies of ‘modernity’ as was symbolically marked on women’s bodies, and a nuanced understanding of widowhood. I find four concurrent themes throughout the film which I will elaborate.

  1. Contradictions within the Swadeshi Movement

The Swadeshi movement involved large masses of people of Bengal, especially the youth, who enthusiastically rejected every kind of foreign made product, and embraced locally produced goods. The tactics used by the participants of the movement involved boycotting and burning of foreign goods. However, the interesting thing that the film depicts through the portrayal of one of the protagonists, Sandip, is how the Swadeshi Movement had contradictions and problematic areas of its own.

The level of resentment of the native population against the Britishers had reached its height when the proposition of Bengal partition came up. However, the brunt of this collective resentment sometimes had to be borne by innocent Britishers staying in India, who had no role in the larger political scenario of the country. For example, in the movie, one of the local youths throws a stone at Bimala’s music teacher, Miss Gilby, wounding her. This forced her to leave the country. Thus, from a broader vision of trying to empower local cottage industries, by boycotting foreign goods, the movement took certain narrow and violent turns.

The movie portrays Sandip as a character full of contradictions. Even though Sandip was delivering fiery speeches about Swadeshi – burning foreign goods, and using goods only made in India – within the four walls of his friend, Nikhilesh’s home, he failed to part with foreign brand of cigarettes. Moreover, as Amulya told Bimala at the end of the movie, part of the money collected for the campaigns went for Sandip’s own luxurious endeavours.

Sandip also represented leaders of the movement who were so carried away by their ideas that they often ignored the cause of the poor people (Muslims in this case). Foreign, factory-made products were far cheaper than locally produced goods, and the quality of the former, again, was better than the local produce. Therefore the poorer sections of the society could only afford foreign goods, which included daily necessities like sugar, salt, matchsticks, clothes etc.

Nikhilesh turned Sandip down by not granting him permission to carry out Swadeshi activities in his Zamindari, Sukhshayor, and not stopping foreign goods from entering the local market. Nikhil argued that the poor traders do not have the luxury of buying expensive local goods, and definitely cannot afford to burn the foreign goods that they require on a daily basis. So, Sandip took up violent strategies of forcefully burning the foreign goods that belonged to poor Muslim traders, and coerced them into joining, or at least support, the movement. However, this did led to further estrangement of the local Muslims from the Hindus, ultimately leading to a communal riot in Sukhshayor.

After Sandip’s speech at Nikhilesh’s place got over, Nikhilesh brought his wife Bimala out into the ‘bahir mahal’ (the public), so that her friend Sandip could meet his wife, a ‘modern’ woman who indulged in literary practices, music lessons etc. Considering the colonial time period of Bengal, where women were confined within the ‘andar mahal’, what Nikhilesh and Bimala did was revolutionary. However, once she stepped out of the ‘private’ sphere, and found herself physically and emotionally drawn towards Sandip, Bimala was addressed by Sandip as ‘Makkhirani’ (queen bee), who attracts a lot of male gaze and becomes the centre of male desires. Sandip seduces her, kisses her and gains her confidence in trying to coax Nikhil to let them carry out their Swadeshi activities within Nikhil’s territories. She becomes so entrenched in love that she even gives out her gold coins to fund the campaigns, which to her unawareness, included forcefully burning foreign goods and sinking the boats of poor Muslim traders so that they fail to bring foreign goods into the village by the river – the only means of transporting goods from the mainland.

  1. Emergence of the ‘modern’ woman

The onset of modernity in Bengal was considered to be a result of two major factors – the social reform movements, attempting at uplifting the status of women in India, who were till then subjugated by a feudal patriarchal social order, and western education, which was supposed to expose the new upper and middle class Indian elites to western ideals of nationalism, democracy, equality and so on. In the context of Bengal, the growing impact of western education had been most profound on the new middle and upper class elites. Since the woman’s body has always been the site of the operations of patriarchal order, as well as that of the challenges to it, the symbols of ‘modernity’ were also inscribed on the bodies of women in the society. Modernity in Bengal was marked by the changing ideas of ‘ideal’ womanhood. The social reform movements and western education both were influential in marking a change in women’s status in colonial Bengal.

With the rising rate of English education among the elite men of upper and new middle classes, ideas of marriage started changing. A new concept of companionate marriage came up where the wives also had to be educated (preferred if she learnt English as well), knew how to drape saree in the new, upcoming styles, learnt music, and thus served as ‘ideal’ companions for the husbands. Thus modernity was symbolically inscribed on women’s bodies. The same efforts to ‘modernize’ women can be seen in Nikhil’s attempts to make Bimala learn to read and write in English, and making her a ‘modern’ wife; she is made to learn English songs under the guidance of Miss Gilby. Bimala is also seen trying out new styles of draping a saree, suiting the prerequisites of an ‘ideal’ modern woman, who can battle the confines of the private sphere (Andar Mahal), as well as step out in the outside world – (the Bahir Mahal).

However, even when Bimala is shown to be transgressing the boundary that separated the Andar and the Bahir Mahal, she is expected to fulfil her duties of a ‘Pativrata Stree’. After staying in the confines of the Andar Mahal, Sandip was the first ever man she sees in ten years, apart from her husband.

She is looked down upon by the other women in the Andar Mahal, who were posed in stark contrast to the ‘modern’ Bimala. They were shown to be trapped in the private sphere doing the chores of the household; their dressing styles reflected ‘traditional’ patterns. Their anxious faces, once Bimala comes back after meeting Sandip, clearly show how scandalized they were of the fact that Bimala had transgressed her boundaries.

  1. Stereotyping of gender roles

One important aspect to highlight in the movie is how it portrays the character of Nikhilesh as an affectionate, progressive upper class zamindar, who believes in a companionate marriage pattern. However, he is not ignited with the ‘patriotic’ spree of Swadeshi, which he terms as an ‘addiction’. This is why Bimala says that he is too ‘cold’ – implying a lack of masculinity, as contrary to Sandip whose fiery speech impressed Bimala. Nikhilesh, on the contrary, does not seem very passionate; in bed they hold each other’s hands when Bimala tells him that he has never bestowed any compliment on her. Nikhilesh replies, ‘Do I really need to say that in words?’ Nikhil’s lack of ‘passion’, coldness, all implied that Bimala was not quite satisfied with his lack of ‘masculine’ traits. His characteristics were juxtaposed with his friend Sandip’s, who on the very first instance impressed Bimala with just his words, his passion for Swadeshi movement, and his ideology.

Another interesting stereotyping of gender norms is seen when Sandip implies that women lack men’s rationality when he highlights their ‘intuition’ which, he says, is of greater importance in making crucial decisions in, for example, the Swadeshi movement.

  1. Widowhood

In the beginning of the movie, the widowed sister-in-law of Nikhilesh is shown to be a woman who remains within the confines of the Andar Mahal, draped in a white saree, as was the custom in those times. She is posed in a stark contrast to Bimala – the former Bimala narrates in the beginning that by looking at the widow of her late brother-in-law, she could sense that this woman’s life was devoid of a ‘happy marriage’. The widow is shown to be passing mocking comments at Bimala from the beginning of the movie. Initially, when Bimala takes music lessons in English from Miss Gilby, and hums those tunes in her leisure time, the widow exclaims that since Bimala is humming foreign tunes, wearing foreign clothes, she might just become a ‘memsahib’ one day, forgetting her folks. Later on, eyeing Bimala’s dressing table and all the foreign branded perfumes, she exclaims the ‘attar’ of the good old days is enough for her; these foreign products make her uncomfortable.

Her hostility towards Bimala starts increasing as soon as the latter crosses the threshold of the Andar Mahal. Now, one can understand the intricacy of her character from her lamentation that Bimala is unaware of her fortune, since her husband is so caring. When she was a young wife, she used to dress up each night, waiting for her husband to come to the Andar Mahal; but he never came. But when he was on his deathbed, suffering from high fever, he looked at her with a blank expression, asking who she was. He could not recognize the woman who he was married to. This was the extent of lack of personal contact between the husband and the wife. Her repressed female sexuality could hardly find gratification since her only companion that time was the young Nikhil. So, her concern for Nikhil, especially at the moment when Bimala’s interest shifts from him to Sandip, is also quite understandable.

Bimala is looked down upon as she tends to venture out into the public more and more often, to meet Sandip. The widow makes a sarcastic remark – ‘how can I resist the call of Krishna’s flute’. She cannot see a woman’s sexual desires getting fulfilled not only by her husband, but also from a man from the outside world, as this probably reminded her of her own ungratified sexual desires. The widow approaches Nikhil and tells him that, as a husband he had the ‘right’ to force Bimala to remain within the Andarmahal. When Nikhil declines to do so, saying Bimala is not a kid, and has a mind of her own, she goes to the extent of asking him to at least ask Sandip to leave the house.

Once the riot breaks out, Nikhil rushes out of the house to prevent it, only to get killed (as portrayed by Bimala’s transformation from a married woman marked by long hair, a gorgeous saree and ornaments, to a widow marked by a white saree and short hair); the widow calls Bimala a ‘demon’ who ‘sent’ her husband to death, denying Nikhil’s agency in trying to stop the riots, and blaming Bimala for all the misfortunes that befell him.

***

The complex interrelation between the characters, within the context of a political turmoil of Swadeshi and communal riots, is what Ray has tried to depict. The four parallel themes ultimately merge in an effort to reveal Tagore’s criticism of blind patriotic fervor that the nation was dealing with and, also, the repression of women under the garb of modernization, which was no less patriarchal than its antecedent, feudal counterpart.

The Landlady

Nayana opened the door for me, and I peered inside the apartment. My eyes were straining hard to get used to the sudden darkness of the hall in front of me.

It was the apartment where Nayana and six other girls were staying as paying guests, along with the owner of the apartment – ‘aunty’, her smelly dog, Goldie, aunty’s ‘art collections’, her paintings, her showpieces,  her abstract sculptures,  her books, her furniture, and so on.

I stepped inside the apartment, and the hall greeted me with its gloomy darkness and its damp, stinky smell. Time seemed to have stopped once I entered.

Through the hall, Nayana led me to her room, where we sat and started chatting. Through the half-open door of the room, I saw aunty inside the kitchen, cooking something. She was a woman advancing rapidly towards her seventies – a fit woman who could take care of herself.

After she finished her work, she came to meet me. A jolly old lady, with a toothy smile- and immediately I was won over. Her head was matted with very short black curls; her thick glasses made her eyes look really big. When she spoke, her words got intertwined with one another because of the lack of teeth on her lower jaw.

Smilingly, the lady asked my name. After coming to know that I belong to Kolkata, she went on telling me about her Bengali friend with whom she had once gone to Amsterdam. From the assumption that all Bengalis sing, she asked me whether I sing or not. Learning that I do, she insisted me to sing something. I remembered my favourite Ghazal and sang. The wordings went somewhat like this – “Nind na aaye unke bina, Chayn na aaye unke bina…” (Sleep doesn’t come to me without my beloved; I cannot be in peace without my loved one). The song got over, and I was pretty much satisfied by the way I had sung. Alas, the praise did not last long. Immediately aunty bombarded me, “so, for whom did you sing this song?”

I tried hard to clarify that it is the song in itself that I love; I didn’t mean to address anyone in particular; but she was not at all ready to fathom my argument. “It is absolutely okay. You can tell me”, and gave me a crinkled wink. I got tired and just smiled back. I let her interpret whatever she wished to…

‘Aunty travels a lot! She has travelled all over the world; well… almost’, Nayana interjected.

Apparently, she went to Paris, Switzerland, Beijing, Tokyo, New York, and I cannot even remember all the places that she has been to. She spent three months in Tokyo, learning Japanese; two months in Beijing, maybe learning Chinese. She talked about the people she had met in each place, their lives, and their ways of thinking. And the most thrilling part is that, this enthusiastic woman is a solo traveller! Recently she had gone to Nepal, with a group of senior citizens, for a trek, at the age of nearly seventy!

Now, she loves making all these abstract sculptures and collages with scraps of junk. Her hall is filled with those. You cannot see the walls; you cannot see the corners of the room; even the ceiling is hidden forever. There is absolutely no systematic manner in which her ‘artwork’ or the rest of her things are arranged— everything just lies here and there. Well, to put it in the right manner, they are piled up in every possible ‘empty’ space throughout the house, so that, in the end, there is absolutely no empty space left whatsoever! So I asked Nayana, “How do you manage to even move about inside the room, without disturbing the showpieces and everything?” She replied casually, “We don’t. As in, we can’t move inside without dropping a thing or two. So we just keep picking things up!”

Nayana’s room, also, was not at all pardoned from the responsibility of storing piles of miscellaneous stuff. Apart from the two beds kept side by side, and the suitcases underneath, the rest of the heaps of things around belonged to aunty. The cupboards were bursting with books. Anytime these precious books might gush out of the cupboards like a volcanic eruption, if the doors are even slightly opened. The cabinets behind the two beds were stuffed with innumerable objects which I do not have further count. Strings overhead, full of half-dried clothes, crisscrossed the entire room- ‘they are all aunty’s clothes’, Nayana noted, after my surprised gaze at them.

Apparently, very recently, aunty had indulged into this sudden spree of making paper mash sculptures. She had taken the bucket of Nayana’s room-mate, without even bothering to ask, and had soaked newspapers in it to make sculptures later on. Bhagyashri, this unfortunate roommate of Nayana, had vowed to herself that day that she will leave this place as soon as she found a job!

Whatsoever, the whole of summer went by, and all the girls in that apartment requested, urged, pleaded aunty, in as many ways as they could, to persuade her to finish those paper mash sculptures. Meanwhile, the not-so-pleasant smell had already started hovering all over the rooms, offending their nostrils. Aunty, however, oblivious about the plight of the rest of the world as usual, spent the two whole months of summer painting… water colour, oil, pastels, crayons, etcetera and etcetera.

Soon enough, monsoon, in its due course burst in, drenching the entire city, making everything damp and gloomy; and striking enough, it just suddenly reminded her of the pending paper mash work! Therefore, in a jiffy, she was huddling over the paper pulp pile, making ‘African dolls’, without even bothering to think how they will dry.

‘She made those dolls and had kept them in my room! Moreover, since she doesn’t let that dog stay out for long, it urinated inside the room! And both the stench of the dolls and of pee made me want to stick my head out of the window for the rest of the day! At night, after aunty had slept, my roommate and I dried those dolls with a bloody hair dryer!’ Nayana’s frustration gushed out!

Aunty had gone out for a while. She soon came back with coffee. We sat for a while and chatted. Later on, she called me to show something. I went out into the hall with her and a sudden surge of putrid smell greeted me all over. With immense pride she showed me the ‘African doll’ she has made – a pride with which a child displays her new set of crayons!

Maybe she had poor eyesight, or maybe she just did not care how the girls suffered from dampness and stink in her P.G, because she neither seemed to notice the fungus that had accumulated on the two shoulders of the doll, nor the incredibly large number of small, black flies hovering noisily over it!

‘It’s fantastic, aunty!’ I said, unable to suppress the twitching of my nose (to let as little smell enter my nostrils as possible) and violent hand movements to shoo the flies away from my face. She seemed pleased by the compliment. The dog kept on following me wherever I went. ‘She likes you. She likes to hang around new people!’ aunty explained to me.

The dog sat in front of me, staring at me with its puppy-face, leaning with all its weight against the stool where the doll stood. The doll jolted a little. Aunty was oblivious. I told her that her hard work might get spoilt. Then she quickly patted the dog on its head and told it to sit aside. However, the dog remained stationed. And she, also, did not bother much to persist. I smiled and came back to Nayana’s room, my lungs rebelling for fresh air.

Nayana gave me some biscuits to eat. I crunched along and chatted with her. Suddenly I felt the last piece of the biscuit slightly moving between my fingers, and then there was this wet feeling on my palm. I understood that Goldie had casually licked it. I saw her standing beside the bed post with her innocent puppy-face, occasionally wagging her tail. I left a half-sigh, wishing I had finished it earlier, and gave it to her. Happily she gulped it down as if she had not eaten for ages!

At this juncture, I came to know about the fact finding report on aunty’s refrigerator where all the food that have crossed their expiry dates are stored inside, and are often given to the poor dog.

Bread that has gathered fungus – “Goldie! Come along… Food!”

Biscuits that had just crossed their shelf-life, which no one can eat – “Goldie! Food!”

Three to four days’ old chapattis that had turned harder than asbestos sheets – “Goldie…..!” And in comes the dog, bouncing along, licking its plate clean!

‘We feel really scared when aunty offers us food. Who knows, we might die of food poison!” Nayana explained.

I fearfully looked into my coffee cup, which was almost empty by then. I couldn’t contain my anxiety. However, she comforted me by telling that only coffee was a safe choice in this place.

Once, all the girls, including aunty, went out to have food in a nearby restaurant. The next day, aunty suffered from severe stomach pain. “Outside food does no good to your health”, exclaimed aunty, concerned about the girls. “Maybe you just cannot digest fresh food”, muttered some mischievous souls in their rooms.

The clock went on ticking, time flew past, and I suddenly realized that I had spent almost six hours in that damp room, chatting. I wanted to say goodbye, but suddenly I saw aunty coming inside, sitting in front of the mirror. I waited a little more…

We kept on chatting and she kept on dressing up, putting on make-up and accessories. Once she was done, after twenty minutes or so, she waved her hand and said goodbye. She was wearing a decent looking sleeveless Kurta, a huge black neckpiece, dangling earrings, with a tinge of kohl on her eyes…

“Are you going somewhere aunty?” my friend asked.

“I’m going to my swimming class. Goodbye.” Then, turning over to me she exclaimed happily, “Come to meet aunty soon.” And thus, leaving us profusely amused, she left – a charming woman, who lives exactly as per her own diktats, her own set of rules.

The one who cleaned…

There was a woman who used to clean our hostel; a sweet lady who was really passionate about her job.

Whenever she came to clean the washroom, we were doomed. She would sweep and wash, scrub and mop the floor, and take an eternity to either come out or even let us in.

If we tried to enter while she was cleaning, she would first scowl. If the person entered, neglecting that grumpy face, she would shout out loud in Marathi; and if she found out that the concerned person doesn’t understand the language, immediately her tone of voice would come down (I have seen that some people in this city has this strange feeling of awe towards students from far off cities from outside Maharashtra. The farther it is, the greater awe it evokes). Politely she would tell the person not to step inside, since she’s cleaning. She was not bothered at all by the fact that the person concerned might wet her pants. She also overlooked the fact that the washroom would get mucky once she leaves.

She was also a concerned person. Sweetly she would ask you ‘didi, aap gussa to nehi ho gaye?‘ (sister, you’re not angry, are you?) How can you remain irritated after that!

Once I went to the washroom while she was cleaning the floor. Irritably she asked, “what do you want?” In my mind I answered, “to enjoy the weather, to see the blue sky…!” Probably my sarcasm reflected on my face, because she didn’t say anything except, ‘didi, aap gussa to nehi ho gaye?’

She used to scold us anytime, any place. Whenever her magic broom was sweeping and girls were stepping close by, a strange scowl used to be drawn on her hardened face. A sharp remark essentially followed on how clean she has to keep the building every single day. But one fine day, the girls in the hostel collected signatures of every hostelite to replace her with the former cleaning lady. I also eagerly signed.

After two days, that woman was nowhere to be seen. Now, the former person comes and goes silently. I haven’t even noticed her face. A tingly feeling of guilt overpowered relief. Due to our petty problems, a woman lost her job in this ever hungry world, and I lost contact with another amusing person.