A Red Motif
By Sita Nilekani
Veer Shura protected only by a crisp white cotton shirt as his armor against the hot blazing sun quickened his stride. At seeing a massive crowd outside the drug store jostling for attention from a lone man, he abandoned his plan of buying aspirin and continued walking toward the bus station.
He loved walking on this street. He enjoyed the casual conversations with the friendly shopkeepers who had appreciated his business over the years. Most evenings, on his way home, he would stop at the Irani bakery to buy the tasty mutton puffed pastries and a fresh loaf of bread. The smell of fried samosas filled his nostrils awakening his appetite, but there was no time for food today. The spicy aroma and noisy chatter from the carefree vagrants huddled in corners was a familiar sight but it seemed muted. It was a momentous day for Veer, he was on his way to an interview, his first one in ten years. Veer seldom had headaches, but the one he had now was relentless. It started as a slow rhythmic drumbeat from afar, but slowly its intensity had magnified. He found no relief even after emptying the entire aspirin bottle in just three days. As the thumping continued he thought, “I’m ashamed of last night’s episode. I should calm down, control my anger. I should never let that happen again”. “Anger is a form of violence, why am I consumed by it? Why was I so insensitive? I should be careful, or the cat will be out of the bag. I don’t want another argument with ‘Pyare’. Not now”.
As Veer walked toward the jacaranda tree he extended his sagging chest and reminded himself to walk tall. He had read in a magazine that height could make or break a person at an interview, that tall men who seem to exude confidence are more likely to get selected. He was about 5’ 7”, with average looks and a slight paunch. He hated being judged solely by his looks and liked the idea of having a strong moral compass guiding him. But lately he was not sure if that would work against him. He often wondered if he was too old fashioned. The modern cosmetic culture with superficial values that changed every two years was not his cup of tea. Often the butt of his friend’s jokes for being a “backward thinker”, he often felt outdated, but remained confident that unlike his friends, he could never sell his soul to money or material comforts. He often told his wife,
“Money is a necessary ingredient of life, but not the only ingredient”. “It cannot buy happiness,” or “money should be put to good use” especially when she falsely accused him of squandering money by giving it to his relatives or donating, as she unkindly put it, to needy workers who pleaded for help. He hated fighting with his wife. Veer considered himself lucky for his arranged marriage had been very successful. Although his wife was rather plain, not beautiful by conventional standards, he admired her for surviving a rough childhood. That meant a lot more to him than a truck full of dowry or a pretty face. He knew friends who had married rich girls with stunning looks but were now miserable because of their jealous suspicious wives.
Veer, inadvertently, uttered rather loudly - ‘Pyare’, a word he called his wife only in private. He caught himself in the act; quickly coming to his senses he looked around in all directions to make sure nobody heard him. He gave a big sigh of relief to find himself alone under the tree. The sun’s glare was now piercing straight into his eyes; he closed them for a few minutes. He tried to concentrate on the impending interview, but his mind wandered effortlessly to the textile industry, his livelihood and his other love – cotton. For him the white fluffy fiber thrusting out from the hard shell was like pure joy bursting after a hard day’s labor. The recent news of synthetics like rayon and nylon replacing cotton worried him. But he brushed it aside by saying, “how can man made fiber be superior to natural fiber which has stood the test of time” or “ why would anybody in his/her right mind, in a tropical country, wear anything but rich absorbent cotton?” It was his way of coping with ambiguities. He found it repulsive to see women with short hair, wearing sleeveless blouses, wrapping themselves in synthetic saris and then complaining of heat. He couldn’t understand the “twisted logic” of these fashionable women; he liked his ‘Pyare’ in her simple cotton sari. The sweat trickling down his face awakened him to reality. He opened his eyes to see the waiting bus with throngs of people pulling at each other, fighting to climb in. Wiping his brow, with a kerchief, he approached the bus.
He double-checked the destination before squeezing through the crowd into the bus. The only available seat was beside a shaggy old man chewing tobacco. He got a strong odor of the incense stick above the garlanded photo of Gandhiji, by the windshield, which said “simple living, high thinking”. He was glad that besides sweets he had no other vice, no tobacco or alcohol, or even tea. But since he himself was down on his luck, he thought, “who am I to judge this old man and his habit” so he sat next to him. Soon the bus started moving. The stomping in his head had escalated; he wanted to avoid any cerebral activity but he couldn’t stop brooding over the friction at work. He wanted to share it with his wife but couldn’t. “How could I? She will never understand my dilemma”, he thought. “What will she think? I cannot support my family? When did my principles become more important than food, shelter or Netra’s education? What about our relatives? They will think - how disgraceful,” he mumbled quietly.
The bus made sharp turns and sudden stops throwing people across the aisles. Veer stumbled hitting his head on the steel bar on the seat in front few times as the bus stopped. He looked at this wristwatch and at the passing traffic through the window. He saw an elderly man getting into a waiting car. The figure reminded him of the owner of his company. Shethji, a through gentleman who Veer had met at the company picnic a few times. Picnic was a novel idea to Veer. He never went to one at his previous job. Shethji was a cultured man with a progressive outlook who wished to introduce a new kind of management. He had heard him say, “ workers are a company’s asset and should be treated as such”. “Something Shethji must have read in foreign magazines” guessed Veer. He got lost in his thoughts again, “ things wouldn’t have deteriorated if Shethji was in town, and his absence for a month gave his son, Vipin, a free rein to rule the company as he pleased”. “I admire and respect Shethji but he knows Vipin’s quick temper, bossy brash demeanor. How could he be so naïve?” “If Vipin was my son, I wouldn’t leave my workers at his mercy,” thought Veer.
He lived in hell all last month. Vipin constantly interrupted and harassed him in the oddest places, always asking the same question “ why don’t you fire Suraj Kumar”. Veer worried, “how can I terminate Suraj, when he had done nothing wrong”. Veer liked his assistant. They made a good team. He was smart, committed, consistent, a bit immature at times, but “immaturity is no reason to get fired,” thought Veer. He couldn’t understand what had caused the bad blood between the two. Both were young and both refused to give him any details, besides whatever happened outside of work was not his concern. Vipin said many harsh words, disrespectfully, for not following his orders. Veer couldn’t take Vipin’s arrogance or dictatorial style any more, he felt deflated, discouraged, he doubted his skills, was worried he may lose his sanity if he stayed on. He didn’t want to work where he was not respected. It seemed like he was fighting a meaningless battle. That night he wrote his resignation letter and mailed it the following day. Veer pretended to go to work every day; he didn’t want anybody to know he was unemployed. He felt angry and miserable. The first two days he wandered aimlessly distraught and confused, not knowing where to begin, hoping his savings would not run out.
The bus came to a screeching halt. As Veer regained his balance he suddenly noticed a young woman was sitting besides him. “What happened to the old man; when did he get off,” wondered Veer. The sudden jolt had thrown the woman into his lap; she quickly got up, apologized and composed herself. A commotion was brewing outside. He saw two burly men nudging the cows sitting in the middle of the road. Finally the bus resumed its slow crawl. He heard the conductor ask
“Chavani,” said Veer.
“ This bus is going to Palasia,” barked the cross-eyed conductor.
“That’s impossible,” said Veer, “I checked the bus before boarding.”
“Did you check before or after the driver boarded?” asked the conductor impatiently.
“Before, I think,” Veer said with slight hesitation, but he was not sure.
“Well, you are in the wrong bus,” said the conductor moving toward the back of the bus.
“ How far are we from Chavani?” asked Veer, looking at his wristwatch.
“Well, over an hour if you take the correct bus,” chuckled the conductor.
Veer realized that it was impossible for him to reach the interview in time. The drumming in his head had intensified and now was in sync with the honking cars and the traffic hysteria. The petrol fumes and the smell of incense made his stomach queasy. Totally exhausted from fighting the heat and tired from thinking, he decided he should go home and take a long cold shower.
A car turned right and entered the narrow Aamla Street. Netra, the seven year old, was squatting by the bush picking the henna leaves. She loved applying henna on her hands, a regular summer ritual for all the girls at her school. She hated the tingling from the lemon juice, the sight of her crinkled hands and the funny odor, but she loved to discover the umber red motif under the dried flaky paste after she had washed it off. Her papa hated henna. But today she didn’t care, not after what “he did to me last night” she thought wiping the sweat from her forehead. “He was angry for no good reason,” she said loudly. “All I was doing was straightening the shoe rack”. Her papa had yelled at her commanding her to go to bed. Netra had yelled back fighting her tears from spilling, “I hate seeing shoes all over, I cannot sleep!” Papa had shouted back, “ What has sleep to do with shoes” and literally dragged her to the bed. “Poor mama, she was speechless, she too was frightened” thought Netra. The musical horn of a car startled Netra. She looked back.
A white car was crawling toward their house. Netra had never seen such a fancy car on the narrow Aamla Street or knew anybody who owned one. She thought, “It must belong to the East African relatives of the Patels”. But the car crawled past the Patel residence. It puzzled her. “Who could it be?” said Netra, dropping the henna leaves she ran to the gate. The car had come to a stop. Netra saw someone in the back seat but with the tinted glass, the figure was blurry. A tall dark man with a large handle bar mustache got out from the driver’s side and walked toward her. Netra stared at his mustache and wondered, “Can he balance two lemons on them like in the picture in the magazine?”
“Is this 786 Aamla Street?” asked the tall dark man in a strange accent.
“Yes,” said Netra
“Is this where Veer Shura lives?” asked the man.
“Yes,” said Netra. “That’s my wild father,” she thought of saying, but didn’t.
The man opened the gate, walked past her to the main entrance and pressed the doorbell. Netra’s eyes followed the stranger. His towering figure stood there for 2 minutes before the door opened and her mother came out. Netra wondered, “ Where is papa? He should be there, I saw him enter the house an hour ago.” “Why didn’t he open the door, if it was me, he would have called me lazy Daisy.” Last night’s skirmish had made her very bitter, she was hopping mad. “He looked like an angry lion with his red eyes, flared nostrils, hair standing straight. He paced the room like he was thinking of his next move. Getting ready to jump on his next prey. Papa resembled rowdy Ranga, the villain in the film, ‘Aag,” she thought
After a few minutes the tall man walked back to the car; he consulted with the man sitting in the back seat, now, with his window rolled down. Netra couldn’t hear a thing. But the man looked like he would make a good grandfather. He smiled at her. The man with the kind face got out from the car; with a cane in one hand, he slowly walked toward her. He stopped next to Netra and asked her, “ What’s your name, pumpkin?”
“Netra,” she said with a smile.
“What a pretty name,” the elderly man said, introducing himself as Shethji
“What grade are you in?” he asked again.
“Second,” replied Netra.
He then looked at the tall man and said, “Birju, go get some biscuits or toffee for Netra,” and walked toward the house. The tall man quickly rushed to the car, reversed it with some difficulty, and drove toward the main road. Netra’s mother was waiting by the door. She greeted him and they both went in.
Netra started picking henna leaves again. She wanted to finish this chore before sun down but her heart and mind tip-toed in with Shethji into the house. She wanted to be with them listening to every word he said to her parents. Netra imagined her mama making tea, her famous crispy rice rings and potato pakoras. She could smell the roasted cumin, see her mama dicing, salting the potatoes, lowering them slowly into the smoky hot oil, the batter dripping all over messing the counter. Then she saw the golden brown potato fritters floating in oil, just like “ lotus in a pond” she thought. “Mama is a great cook, a wonderful hostess. Everyone loves her tea and savory snacks,” Netra salivated. She had heard papa once call mama ‘Pyare’, a long time ago. She wanted to hear it again. Netra was not sure what it meant, but when she repeated the word it tasted like sweet honey in her mouth.
There was a warm summer breeze that afternoon. Pieces of conversation and lingering laughter from the house filtered through the henna bush. To Netra it sounded like crystal clear bubbling water cascading over sun baked boulders in the river. She sat on the dry grass, quiet with her eyes closed tight, chin up, waiting to hear the next sizzle from inside the house. Sweat beads covered her face. The sun burst into a smile from behind the puffy cotton clouds as it traveled west.
Sita Nilekani describes herself as a composite of ideas, values, and beliefs, and a blend of East & West. Indian by birth and pedigree, American by choice and decree. She landed on the shores of the New World with a degree in Biochemistry (Ph.D.), one suitcase, & cherished memories of family & friends, monsoons and mangoes.
A serious walker, she enjoys Mother Nature, Rocks, Water, Sunset, and a good book. An artist at heart, she feels most centered while creating sculptures or drawing or mixing textures & colors, gardening or wrestling with words. She truly believes what Mother Theresa said: “We can do no great things only small things with great love” .
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All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber and respective authors.
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