Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The tiffin-lady's daughter

The overhead water tanks probably did not have enough chlorine. They had too much muck in any case. Each household in the housing colony had its own tried and tested method for water purification. For all the filtering, the purifying, and the boiling was worth, the water was resolutely a little turbid - a little foam showed up when it was poured into a glass. Few escaped the vomiting, the lack of appetite, the nausea, the weakness, and the eventual bed rest. The children all had fevers, and the adults moved around in a lethargic lack of grace. For the next month and a half or so, most households were down and out. Relatives were called in to help, many moved back to their native places till they got better, a few got admitted to hospitals, one family, was however, left to fend for itself. Their only real concern was the food, they did not have the stomach to take in oil-heavy, over spiced hotel food. Their constitutions could only bear the kind of soft natural food prepared at home. So Anil and his parents arranged for a tiffin-lady to deliver a towering lunch box full of vegetables, rice, sambhar and chapatis twice a day. The tiffin was delivered by her daughter.
The tiffin-lady's daughter was young, in her early twenties. Her fingernails were dirty, yellowed, not blackened. Her teeth had huge gaps in between, and were blackened, not yellowed. She had huge toenails as well. She smelled like a stray, wet pup, and her wild hair was a tangled mess - like a crows nest falling apart, or imploding. There was also a bald spot somewhere, shining through the mess on top. Everyday, she came in with the food. Everyday, Anil consumed it, waiting for that one moment when the tiffin-lady's daughter would bend down, and he would spot her breasts. She had breasts, that dropped and appeared to be struggling to run away from each other... like two like ends repelling each other. But they were still breasts, and Anil was a young boy with a fever.
Sometimes, the tiffin-lady's daughter would speak. Anil's mother would nod her head kindly, take out a ten rupee note and hand it over to her. No one could understand the tongue of the tiffin-lady's daughter, no one felt the need to call her by name, she was abused and screamed at by her father in the middle of the road, and at such times, people quietly went about their ways ignoring the show on the road, but feeling good that they were on a higher level. She was a degraded creature, but she was a human being, a part of society, and in some corner of her retarded brain, she probably had a will.
One day, the tiffin-lady herself came to Anil's house. She told Anil's mother in very clear terms, while collecting the money for the next month, that on no condition was her daughter to be given any money - even if she asked for it. She went and told this to Priyal's mother, and Sankalp's mother, and everyone she delivered the food to. This was because the tiffin-lady's daughter had had enough of her father, and her mother, and had tried to run away three times in one month. The minor epidemic passed, the clientele of the tiffin-lady reduced drastically as the housing society returned to using their own gas cylinders. The tiffin-lady's daughter, was beginning to become a big liability. She had to be disposed off, unfortunately, there are laws made against killing.
On the other end of town, in the outskirts of the slums, in a small abandoned shed that no one used, lived a beggar. No one knew from where he learnt the English, but he could beguile a good man when he wanted to, ask money for the ticket to a place far away, pretend to have his wallet stolen, admit to shame, make pity balloon up in the heart's of strangers, enough to quench his thirst for country liqueur. In the nights, he would walk around in a drunken daze, a beast within him would awaken, he would pilfer, steal or use some cunning scheme or other to lay hands on a handful of subsistence. And sometimes, other beasts woke up within him, beasts that instinctively reached out for the pleasures of the flesh... for he was a human too, and he would find another like himself, if there was one, there were a thousand, and they would feast. One day, his neighbour got him a wife. It was the tiffin-lady's daughter. No one in the world knew how the clandestine exchange took place, but it did. A middle class family, had thrown its own daughter to the mercy of a man in the lowest rungs of society.
Probably it was the sight of your own ugly wife screaming insults at you in the middle of the street. Probably it was the smirks of the people who went by, busy in their lives and without a thought to spare. Probably the beggar could not laugh at himself anymore. Probably, he had human will in him somewhere. For whatever reasons, within a month, the beggar had found work at a flour mill, brought home vegetables, and kept his deranged wife happy. His wife's speech grew steadily more and more coherent, she started keeping herself. Although her hair was still tangled, and her breasts droopy, and the smell of a wet puppy lurking about her, her eyes grew less vacant, and the hint of a purpose blossomed within her.
A few years passed, Sankalp saw her once, on a railway station, a very young child against one drooping breast. He couldn't believe the dry things had any milk in them, he was surprised, she recognized him. He could not exactly say "hello." He felt more like vomiting, but he just looked away. She had eyes only for her own child. Maybe he would never wear a branded shirt in his life - she just hoped he could stand his ground in a fight. It hurt her breasts, but she didn't stop him. Priyal and his mother saw her once, while they had gone out to visit a relative. Priyal's mother didn't recognize her. She decided to get back to the good old days of insanity for a second. "You!" she said "Give me the money you owe me bitch!" in the middle of the street. Priyal was horrified, his mother scared, and they both hurried away, as if running away from an explosion. It was an explosion too, the tiffin-lady's daughter stood in the middle of the road, screaming insults and hurling harsh words in the general direction of the flight of Priyal and his mother. The onlookers on the roads laughed, and they laughed more at Priyal and his mother. Anil saw her too, after a few more years had passed. He was sitting at a coffee shop, smoking a cigarette, when she went past. She said in perfectly clear English "smoking is bad for your health". He looked back at her, took a second to recall who she was, and gave her a middle finger salute. She did not care. For a second, she remembered arousing the childish affections of a growing boy. Then she remembered her husband and children. She walked on, with her bag full of vegetables, a mass of now greying, tangled hair, the lingering smell of a wet puppy, and her drooping breasts.