On an early January morning, at the peak of the little of winter that this city gets, I’m sitting out in the sun on the balcony, at home in Calcutta. I’m cosily dressed in my nightdress, over which I’m wearing a cods wool housecoat, a woollen muffler and there’s also a woollen pair of socks my feet feel smug in. Not that it’s that cold really, but I like the physical and emotional security these warm clothing provides as I tuck into several books stacked beside me – a chapter or two at a time – ranging from Tagore’s ‘my Life’ from his letters; Albert Camus’s ‘The Fall’; to Javier Marias “When I was Mortal’; also Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Whereabouts’ – over a series of cups of ginger tea, our cook comes up with every now and then, quietly removing the used cup.
The two, year-old cats, Milky and Pizza who have adopted us rather than the other way round, are prancing all around the balcony – stretching, trying to play, after being cooped up in their terrace room, over a blanket, over the night. These brats are always floating on the brink of my attention, whether it’s subconsciously when engrossed in the pages of a book, or tugging at it consciously while shaking and biting up the rug of pink, green and yellow patches at my feet, or the straw mora in front, both of which are placed here for their seating comfort, so as to avoid the chilling marble floor.
Pizza’s making chortling sounds near my feet, while sticking his head and front paws out of the iron grill – grows in intensity. It drives me to get up and curiously peep down over three storeys to the main gate. The Persian Tomcat Dude, who is now four years, often sits at the gate basking in the sun. Pizza is in awe of him, especially of his fluffy large tail that’s always brandished upward behind him. I think it is Pizza’s excitement to go down to join his now independent feline male idol, as my husband is the human one, that is increasing the ferocity of his gut-deep chortles, with the meeker and sly also now wounded brother Milky, quietly chasing his tail, adding to the excited flurry of activity around me. I’ve named them, for their respective penchant for Pizza or anything crusty, and for anything milky or creamy. Their personalities are as distinct as their tastes.
There is however no upraised tail I can see, or one tucked between feline legs for that matter, even as I try to get a glimpse of Dude, who must surely be there. Instead, I catch sight of the back of a partially greyed, women’s head wearing an informal bun. I look closely, at the tall and lean frame standing with her back to our main gate, staring in the direction of the sun. She’s standing there basking in the sun, I surmise, and is rather lapping up the now warm sunshine we are wrapped in, wearing a shawl, with her ankle length night dress visible below it.
I recognise to my sheer surprise, also an inexplicable sentiment as yet – the aged woman as Mrs Bhagat, who lives across my house. I watch for a while, allowing the irony of the situation to sink in, to figure out what she’s doing standing there at this time. Perhaps waiting for her car to turn around at the end of the lane where its much wider, and then pick her up. There’s even an Uber taxi that is turning around right in front of our house now. But she doesn’t get into it, before it revved up and left her standing right in front of our gate. Beside the pillar against which I’ve recently put up a granite slab that names our house after my mother, who left us just eight months back.
Mr and Mrs Bhagat were good friends of my parents right since constructing their house here. And either of them, sometimes both – would visit our home every other day, on a visit to their own construction site to take stock of the progress. On such visits to our house, they sought advice and discussed various building related issues that they faced or might encounter. Then after their house was ready, they often came over to discuss matters of renting a floor or more of their three-story house, which was completed over a period – though they moved in on completion of just the ground floor.
Mr Bhagat had been a chartered accountant and financial consultant while his wife a teacher in a school. Both were always smartly and impeccably turned out. The wife in a sari crisply pleated, giving an indication of her dynamic personality as she was in addition to being very active, efficient and agile, also one of the few ladies of her time who drove, that too by herself. The husband, I remember well, was always in formal clothes – whether it be a suit and tie in winter, or a crisp formal shirt and tie in summer. And always brought his brief case with him on every visit to our place. They had exposure to all sorts of professional experiences, I’m sure, but what defined their visits to our house was their immense caution on financial matters, from the impending costs of building a large house.
This defining factor of their personality, being exceptionally financially astute, stands them apart from many their age in the neighbourhood, and has driven up with them right to the current old age. This cautious streak, even with all their three children married and well settled now – in the US and in India. Their anxiety over money just doesn’t dissipate or so it would seem. The couple, but more often the husband, is heard haggling with vendors – be they plumbers, carpenters, painters or masons. It could be for nominal amounts to large sums. Everyone at my place knows the man’s voice and bargaining tone rather well by now. Also, he tends to stop or call over any vendor who he sees working at my place. My painting contractor struck a deal with him and also worked with him – to reiterate my opinion on his stinginess.
The wife, is often seen and heard bargaining with the vegetable or fruit vendors for piddly amounts. She even has her personal weighing scales she will bring out to make and then prove her point, whether on the weight of the carrots, beans or apples, oranges and bananas. Then she will offer the vendor an astounding amount of sometimes one-fourth or at times even one-tenth of the price quoted. Then vociferously hold her ground in bargaining with the exasperated vendors.
Just yesterday, I watched with much interest, without her noticing she had an audience – the persistent bargaining of Mrs Bhagat, on her day’s need of vegetables. Which comprised mostly of red carrots in season and so already at the lowest possible prices than year-round. The lengthy bargain ended with a smug, satisfied holding up of the vegetables in a transparent polythene packet on her part. With the exasperated vendor holding up his patience, but not able to hold up the facial expression which was a giveaway. He is one of the few who doesn’t walk past pretending not to hear Mrs Bhagat’s calls from inside the house, as many of them tend to do. Their precious time wasted in arguing over just one sale can be better utilised calling out loud for new and easier customers.
Most of these updates I receive from my cook. As I often get impatient just watching these petty exchanges, but cannot avoid the voice of the man coming right into my house, while I’m reading in the balcony, especially so if I’m on the ground floor. The woman’s voice is more muted, unless I choose to really look upon her exchanges and thereby somewhat gauge the ensuing conversation. The Bhagat’s persistent arguing over anything and everything has become more passionate with their accentuating age, while other neighbours around their age are seen and heard less and less, even if they might not be bed ridden as some are. The aged, I suppose, have evolved into allowing their attention spans taking up spiritually liberating pursuits, handing over properties and money via Wills precisely made, in readiness for their disengagement from worldly ties. While their children or care givers deal with money and all that it can provide them.
Two weeks ago, I had overheard Mr Bhagat loudly bargaining with the coconut tree climber. The conversation, after much running on parallel tracks without the ability to meet anywhere, anytime soon, was lulling out. The vendor quoted Rs. 300, for bringing down the coconuts of one tree, while his prospective client was stuck on Rs. 150. So taking on this opportunity as it seemed godsent, as my two coconut trees that were full of fruit had not been plucked for a while, I asked my cook to promptly engage the man for Rs. 300 before he walked away in exasperation. Though he later charged me Rs 500 on completion. It is increasingly difficult to find, unlike in my mother’s times of needing one, a man in the city – willing or rather having the skills to climb a tall coconut tree and pluck it off the heavy kernels which are difficult to bring down even if descended on ropes.
The man promptly agreed to take on my job, rather than wait for Mr Bhagat to come around and engage him. He was no fool to let pass a sure business while one engaged him in talk only, to finally let the deal pass. Also, several of these service providers, just like this one as I was soon to find out, were at first engaged by my mother in the well over three decades that we lived here. The Bhagats had, as I have mentioned, taken her aide in so many of these household matters including sharing the man who still comes to clean the water filter at both our houses. Just when this coconut man was well into our premises, all set to begin his job giving Mr Bhagat time to decide, he called out to him.
“You come here later, we will finalise this…” he announced almost with an air of scornful finality, “Anyways now you cannot do our house today…”
The man didn’t quite care to understand the meaning of this statement. He already had a business in hand. My cook had politely called the man over to our gate before offering him the task, expecting to have him complete the Bhagat’s job and then come over. So, he attributed Mr Bhagat’s declaration to his own indecision, from an inability to score a good enough deal as yet. But this callous and abrupt statement, came flying into my consciousness like a javelin thrown right into my house, as if to crack the very soil, uproot the two coconut trees about to be fruited. The connection to his declaration that was to my acute revulsion yet again after fifteen years, lay in Death having recently visited my house, barely six months back; taking in its cruel grip my mother.
How could Mr Bhagat allow a whiff of Death that would come from my house to his through the coconut man, to directly or circuitously interface with his house! So what if the woman who it dragged away in moments, as Mother had gone down the whirlpool and was lost from her dynamic life in less than an hour of a heart attack; had advised, guided, offered a variety of help, opening up her home, heart and companionship – when few others in the neighbourhood had – to the minority non-Bengali house owners in a predominantly Bengali locality till two decades ago. She had moreover, rented out one and half floors of our house only to several non-Bengalis in the past three to four decades even though we are rooted in Bengal. As she had worked in Delhi and Gwalior long and concluded that north Indians are much more respectful of elders – in this case her their landlady.
I’m not normally prone to cynicism or undue sensitive insecurity on what the neighbours or the world thinks and would not have come to the conclusion that Mr Bhagat had attributed his not allowing a man to bring in the essence of Death from my home to his if it was not his own emphatic submission sixteen years ago. This was at the death of my father. When almost everyone who knew him had come over to visit us right over his lifeless body, till weeks after, except the Bhagats who lived just across our house.
Even at the personal invitation, via an invitation card offered to them for the thirteenth day Shradh ceremony for dinner, the couple or their three grown children older than us, had not turned up or even offered a telephonic condolence to my mother – not even did they send a stalk of flower – leave alone a wreath or bouquet. They never visited or spoke to us since my father’s passing, though we easily see each other from our respective houses all the time. And in solidarity with Death, and my father who it snatched from us, we made a conscious effort to ensure our shadows did not cross their paths ever since.
“We couldn’t come to the Shraddha” Mr Bhagat had announced, with a smirk, from his balcony, met with a cold silence by my mother, “As we do not go to any house where death has visited recently.”
Then what is Mrs Bhagat doing at our south facing gate today, I have a good mind to demand of her! But I don’t – as I would rather put this question up to the world at large! As most people still view death with revulsion – like it were never to come upon them or it’s contagious. Only recently, one of our long time tenants of three decades back, who have practically lived and eaten meals with us for three months then, and brought their four daughters into this world at our house later – as when they first moved in the portion they were to rent was not yet ready but they were in a great hurry to come, proved this so shamelessly.
A few weeks back this lady Meena Sharma, called me to ask me for the name and phone number of a Bengali caterer who we used a few times. After I had visited her a year ago, with the gift of a perfume, when I learned from her husband I ran into on the street, that she had a Cancer surgery – she had lost the attractive face she always had to. Needing the mask not only for covid protection as we all did.
I asked Meena when she called, “why do you need a Bengali caterer?”
She chose not to divulge that her daughter was getting married to a Bengali man in a couple of weeks. I was aware of this from the daughter’s photos on social media, but I chose not to embarrass Meena in reminding her that the death of the woman that prevented her from inviting me, had given her shelter as a daughter – when she had been forced to leave her house with her husband on her mother-in-law’s bidding, and Mother had been more than a mother figure to her whole family for years after.
So, before I end this, I go out to the balcony to put my thoughts on Death into perspective and emotionally let this aspect go – when I look down at my gate again. I see Mrs Bhagat is still standing there, holding up her arms to shield her face from the strong sun – or perhaps subconsciously, from my mother’s scorching presence. As she wouldn’t be standing here if she was alive – consistently stealing slices of our lavish sunshine that God doesn’t bestow on her house in the peak of winter, just as he keeps death away. We’re in turn graciously gifted with both Sunshine and Death.
As Sunshine and Death – are two sides of the coin of Life – one is going to be missing in the absence of the other!
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