My story in the latest issue of Wasafiri (Vol 28, Issue 3, 2013)

These Things Happen If You Don’t Watch It

“Fifty paise ginger murabba[1]! Stop your vomit with ginger murabba!”  The murabba fellow’s sales pitch has ruined our hero Hari’s mid-morning nap.  He gingerly feels the side of his neck.  Yes, so it is a catch. Bloody nonsense. So much bloody nonsense in his life.  And that murabba fellow going on about vomit. Chi. Filthy bastard! Made you want to have a bath right away with one of those nice foreign soaps too.  But he was a shrewd fellow alright – that murabba man! Why, this very minute, if Hari were to risk a good sniff around, the stink of vomit would certainly assail his nostrils… The state transport corporation should have some kind of rule about it. What about a straightforward one like this? Passengers prone to vomiting are prohibited. No, that was too much. To prohibit the vomiters.  It should be a gentler rule: If you must vomit, vomit on yourself. Or even, a sensible one like: Passengers prone to vomiting are advised to carry half a dozen cut lemons.

Our hero clicks his fingers, an old habit that used to irritate his former wife.  Talking of whom… no, he mustn’t. Perish the thought of the former wife.

Outside, Lovely Biscuits and Tea smugly awaits its victims.  Hari hates road side tea shops. It is a matter of principle with him. A sudden urge comes over him to smack its owner  – a Malayalee no doubt – in the face.  But one mustn’t smack Malayalees in the face. They would smack you right back, grind you to a purple pulp. On the whole it was a good idea not to smack anyone in the face. It was too violent an action and moreover, there was something disgustingly brisk about it – like that murabba vendor.   Where was this, anyway? Kalpakkam? Or what was that half-way point between Madras and Pondicherry?

The murabba man has vamoosed but there is no peace to be had. A series of fellows are thrusting stuff on him and on others like him, too lazy or too discerning to sip the lovely tea of Lovely.  Liver-destroying orange jangiris, rusty safety pins, unsterilized ear buds, key chains and China Barbie dolls.  A beggar too. Hari fishes out a coin for him.

“Is that all, ayya[2]?”

“Not a paisa more. Go go.”

“Take pity, ayya…”

Yesterday’s Dinathanthi had a story about this beggar who had made a lakh of rupees just as alms.  Why, this very fellow probably had a Blackberry up his underpants…

Hari’s stomach begins to rumble.  Hari sticks his head out the window and sees a banana vendor.  A banana is such a straightforward sort of fruit. Just peel it and eat it. The peel remains, of course, and is some cause for worry, for what to do with it? There is no garbage bin. There never is.  It is a serious problem, really. It seems America is full of garbage bins. What a country! Gorgeous women in skimpy clothes walking around on high heels tak tak  and garbage bins too, for a decent soul like Hari to throw his banana peels into.

Ei, how much for one?”

“Take half a dozen, saar[3]. Ten rupees only.”

Aiyyo, what is this burglary in broad daylight! I want only one.”

“No, saar. You must take three at least.”

“Look here, pa, I am alone.  What do I do with three?”

“Eat it later, saar.”

“Okay okay. Here.”

He takes one bite and then another. Nothing like bananas to give you that nice feeling of fullness.  Maybe he should eat a second one? Better not. He may want to shit or something. And where on earth was he to…

The man with whom he was sharing the seat was back now.  Thank god he was not a vomit case.  Or he may well have vomited all over Hari. These things happen if you don’t watch it. Where had the man disappeared to though? He hadn’t been patronizing Lovely. Must have gone off for a pee. Wouldn’t have washed his hands either. Chi.  No wonder the whole damn place smelt like a urinal.  The vast universe was full of … no need to go into that. He would feel like a bath again… Should he offer his co-passenger a banana? Maybe that would endear him to the chap. But must he bother endearing himself?

“Bought some bananas. They are good, quite ripe. Would you like one?”

“Ohoom, no.”

Why had the man spurned his offer? Did he think he was a banana bandit? Like those biscuit bandits – those fellows on trains who went about offering co-passengers poisoned biscuits and robbing them once they fell unconscious? Only, it could not be very easy to poison bananas. You would need a syringe, maybe? What was that story he had read to Smitha? About a girl whose step mother had given her a poisoned apple …Clever woman – to poison just half the apple! He himself could never hope to poison anybody. Not even his former wife.

The bananas are somewhat squished in their wafer-thin polythene cover.  What the hell… he would just chuck the peel out the window… everybody did that. In this land, it was the civilized thing to do. No, he mustn’t.  Some poor old bastard might slip on it and break a bone. End up in hospital.  A widower with callous, ungrateful sons. Wouldn’t have the money to pay the doctors.  Would hobble around for the rest of his life.  These things happen if you don’t watch it… no, better stuff the peel into the polythene cover.

The bus is chugging back to life. He notices the driver only now – a macho guy with a Veerappan style mustache. Probably has a wife who looks like Sridevi. The two of them rolling down a hill in Ooty – she in a white frilly gown, and he in his driver’s uniform (no, change that to white bell-bottoms and a white shirt with black geometric designs).  He should settle down in Ooty, once he is retired and Smitha married off.  Forget all this bloody nonsense…

If only he could fall asleep and dream some nice dream… But no, this macho driver guy is tooting the horn too much.

Might as well enjoy the scenery.  What scenery? What with all the hotels, the sea was like blue bits of Kibs brand lungi… His former wife Shuba was into scenery in a big way. They were both twenty three at the time. Theirs had been one of those imbalanced love marriages where one soul is superior to the other. By birth, class, caste, school, college, mother, father… and English. Shuba would go: It is enjoy, not yenjoy.   not ciricket, say cricket. She was posh.  Convent school, short hair, St.Something or the other college, chauffeur driven car, had never been in a bloody bus all her life and very anxious parents.  And Hari in love with this very posh soul.  He had never been after her money, mind you.  He was just a soul in love, though that was a category his father-in-law was never very convinced of.

They had met at an up-market clothes store where he worked as a salesman. She had come looking for a dress to wear to some party…After that, quick as a movie reel…Whrr…

Shuba’s folks were old money, Brahmin elite.  A bungalow in Mylapore. The father a retired civil servant.  The mother a former professor of English. Knee-deep in culture and the arts.  They had been horrified of course and had given in only to avert a scandal.

The mother-in-law had overseen the wedding arrangements. When she was done, even the Mambalam priests had looked dapper in their crisp silk veshtis[4].  From Hari’s side, there hadn’t been much of a turn out.  His parents had passed away some years ago.  Akka[5]  and brother-in-law had came though – all the way from Salem, and had sat through the wedding looking as though someone had gone and died.  His sister in her wedding silk saree – shades too orange –  the hem standing as always several inches above the ground. His brother-in-law in stand-by mode. At the reception, Hari had stood around sweating in his Raymonds suit, shaking hands with the glitterati of Madras. His three nutcase friends – Vikraman, Sundar and Balaji – loudly ribbing him for having trapped an heiress, their wedding gift a pack of Kamasutra condoms.  Trust the old rascals to do something tacky!

A fiat car (dressed in satin ribbons and pink roses) and a fully furnished flat in Alwarpet had been his in-laws’ gift. That was Hari – fully sold out.

But wait, he had held out. The father-in-law had tried to make a success out of him. You have too much potential to remain a salesman. We can get you a place in a business school in America. Yenna[6]? And Hari resisting the man’s offers with a stubbornness that had surprised everybody – including himself.

The baby – Priya – had arrived in the first flush of lust and luxury.  And then the cracks had begun to show – like vomit.

Shuba had met Style Man on Priya’s third birthday bash at the Connemara. Easy to date that, your honour. My daughter turned three the day my wife decided to leave me for Style Man – my father-in-law’s friend’s son he was, your honour. Style Man lived in America.  Where else? All tick marks for that. And the balance between Shuba and Style Man was perfect too. Both divorcees. And Style Man had a son.  One child and one adult per team, your honour.

Hari had signed the divorce papers without fuss and let the custody of Priya go, believing that a girl child needed a mother. Afterwards of course, Shuba had flown off to America with Style Man, leaving Priya behind with her parents. Every single weekend over the next two years Hari visited the child. She was a precocious child, the sort who asked lots of questions and never listened to the answers.   Hari would walk her to the Arun ice cream joint at the corner of the street, order a strawberry cone for her and a small cup of vanilla ice cream for himself and they would settle down to a chat.

Professionally, Hari had remained a non-starter. He had moved from selling clothes (he couldn’t stand the perfumed women and the rich dandies anymore) to selling other things – vacuum cleaners first and later, insurance policies.  The last made him feel like he was hawking death. He lived in a rat hole of a house on one of West Saidapet’s congested streets, a far cry from the gracious Alwarpet flat. But what could he do? He was not the Mysore Maharajah, was he?   He had had to employ an old woman to fetch three pots of water every day from the metro water pump down the street. There was no queue system. Such things existed only in America.

Balaji had plucked him out of the rat hole and deposited him in his motorcycle spare parts business down in Coimbatore.  If the business did well … But  what of Priya, after Hari moved?

In Coimbatore, water gushed out of the taps uushh… and the business took off. It was a pity about Priya but he visited her when he could.

Akka had descended on him one morning with her tin loads of murukkus[7]  and vatthals[8]. She almost never wrote.  Just came when she had a mission. This time around the mission was: Yen da thambi[9], Hari, you must marry again. I have found you a girl. From Salem. Our kind of girl.

There was, of course, the matter of the dosham[10] in her horoscope and it had to be admitted that she was a bit dark.  But she could cook well…After all, Hari didn’t propose to stay single all his life. The girl had been told about Shuba, about the divorce, about Priya.

Akka then dug into her bag and produced a photograph. “Here. Jyothi Rani. That is her name. Like her?”  A girl with a perfectly round face and a snub nose stared back at him.  Things at work being unusually hectic, Hari had taken the path of least resistance and said yes.  Afterwards, he had found that he didn’t especially regret his decision.

Hari could never quite remember when exactly he had stopped writing to Priya.  Certainly Jyothi Rani had had nothing to do with it. She was not one of those scheming, television- soap women.  Just your ordinary girl in a synthetic saree, flowers in her well-oiled hair, a vermillion- red sticker bindi (size three), small eyes darkened by kohl, pushparagam[11] studs on her ears. If Jyothi Rani had any problems, Hari never got to hear of them.

She was away at her parents place for her delivery when the letter had arrived. The ex father-in-law had written to say that Priya would soon join her mother in San Jose. The child needs her mother. Alright. So they were seeing the light after all. Me and my wife no longer have the energy to care for the child. So the truth is out at last. Bloody nonsense about the child needing her mother.

Hari thought of his seven year old daughter alone on a flight bound to that town full of computer geeks. Probably cold as hell too. Wasn’t all of America cold as hell? No, California was supposed to be sunny.

He had managed to squeeze in a trip to Madras where, right in the midst of her usual chatter, the child had asked, “Appa[12],  are you married to another aunty?”

Soon after his return, Hari made another trip, this time to Salem. Jyothi Rani had delivered a baby girl.  Back in Coimbatore again, he found himself counting the months to Jyothi Rani’s return.  They had given the baby a peppy name  –  Smitha. Before they knew it, their lives dissolved into Smitha this, Smitha that. Her smiles, her colic, her first steps and her delicious first words… the joy of that, untarnished and whole. It had never been that way with Priya.  Shuba’s disenchantment and his own had perhaps ruined things. And to think that they were both his daughters…  Such different ways of being father and daughter…

Priya’s first letter, written after a year. Somehow it did not excite him as much as it ought to have. The correspondence dwindling to a card for Diwali, another one for her birthday…

Funny how he had not really noticed when he had let go.  His stint in Singapore perhaps?  Balaji had sent him off to kick start a computer hardware business…

In Singapore, they would fine you if you went around chucking banana peels out of bus windows… Those air hostesses on Singapore airlines with their skirt and blouse…  Narrow waisted goddesses. When they smiled, it was real smiles too.  He had had an argument with Jyothi Rani about it. “They get paid to smile,” she had said, with unusual vehemence.

They would come around with their cocktails and hot towels.  Ahhh… the fragrance of  hot towels… And on this bus ginger murabba and the stench of vomit. Bloody nonsense.  That thin conductor fellow couldn’t hold a candle to those airhostesses.  He should be coming around the bus with hot towels and tall glasses of orange juice… The conductor in a skirt and a blouse…  The driver announcing: Ladies and gentlemen, this is your driver Velusamy. We will be arriving in Pondicherry shortly.   Muthu and I would like to thank you for choosing to travel on the state bus.   It was a pleasure having you with us and we hope to drive you again shortly.  The temperature outside is thirty nine degrees centigrade…”  But no…  Just now the driver is being most uncivil to some hapless jay walker. “Dei, have you told them at home or what? If you must die, go and die under some other bus.” In any case, his name was probably not Velusamy. Nor the conductor’s name Muthu  – though they could well be…

He had not written to Priya from Singapore. In crossing the seas himself, he had left her behind… She must have grown in the interim years, no longer the strawberry cone child. After all, children don’t stop growing just because they are away from their fathers.  She may have attached herself to Style Man. These things happen if you don’t watch it… Chi! That banana peel felt like snot… He should have just chucked it.  This was not Singapore.  Here you were free.  No police man lurking around to fine you. They had other things on their mind.  Biscuit bandits, auto Shakar, rowdy sheeter Ranga, pornography baba…

Two years in Singapore and then back again, to Madras this time.  (One mustn’t say Madras anymore.  One must say Chennai.) Smitha was in a good school. A convent where children could only speak in English.   Jyothi Rani was expecting again…  His brother-in-law had moved to Pondicherry – some new job with a courier company.  It would be good to see akkaShe would scold him roundly for not bringing Smitha as she fried the dosas.

A racket of voices. The conductor going, “Pondicherry bus stand!  Oom Oom…get off.  Ei you, I don’t have all day, you corpse… think you are Rajani or what?  Comb your hair later.”

Hari clambers into an auto, feeling in his pockets for a comb. No comb and the auto is noisy.

 “No silencer?”

“Repair, saar.”

“O”

Pondicherry. A coastal town across the world from California, where too there is a sea… A distant sea, its waters far colder.

Hari sinks into the rattle-tattle of the auto.  He doesn’t know it, but that very moment our conductor Muthu’s sharp eyes have spotted a polythene bag on one of the passenger seats.   Aiyyo, could it be a bomb inside? O, just some bloody nonsense bananas.


[1] Candy

[2] Master

[3] A Tamilized corruption of “sir”.

[4] Men’s garment tied around the waist, reaching to the ankles.

[5] Elder sister

[6] What/What do you say?

[7] A snack made of gram flour, rice flour and lentils.

[8] A snack made of rice flour, meant to be deep-fried.

[9] Thambi:Younger brother (the phrase is used to hail Hari)

[10] Flaw

[11] Studs with white precious stones.

[12] Father

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