27 September, 2010

Mans Best Friend

“A dog is a man’s best friend” I heard this very definite statement from the fellow passenger sitting ahead of me on the bus ride home.  As I was about to silently agree with him he continued “No other animal displays the character of the owner as his dog” and that corollary opened up a page in my memory of a fairly different experience I have had during my travel in the laid back town of Mahad nearly fifteen years ago. This was during the time when I was selling boilers in the industrial area there. The days began quite early there & towards the late afternoons when the meetings had finished up & having bid my dealer partners adieu, I would be at a loose end. It was here that I would take a walk or use the sturdy old Hero bicycle of the hotel owner to explore the area. It is a beautiful countryside and I being a city boy was fascinated by it. It is here that I have had my best food experiences eating at farmer’s houses or eateries settled inside nooks and crannies of the villages. 

It was eating a spicy mutton curry at Sudam Pawar’s hotel, that’s what the board read but was nothing more than an open kitchen of his house and two string cots laid outside beneath a tree, which I came across Shiva and his cat Vaghya. Shiva occupied the other string cot and was eating with a happy concentration and Vaghya lay peacefully below him gnawing on a meaty bone. We just nodded at each other and continued our fare. It is not so polite to strike conversation immediately in villages as people being touchy I had learned to guard my tongue. Vaghya was a large tom cat of a pattern that is often found on snow leopards and very lean and strong. He ignored me completely. Shiva had a duffel bag that was lying by his side and he finished his meal picked it up and started walking away with a greeting to Sudam’s wife. He had not said a word to the cat but the animal in one sleek movement loped off after him and they vanished from my sight. Quite a pair, I thought. As I looked up Sudam’s wife saw my gaze at their departing backs and said he is Shiva. He travels up and down this road and is not a local but is here during the summers. He is a sort of general handyman who helps with the farm, the wood and does all kinds of odd jobs. I smiled at her. I used to run into this pair quite often from then on.

Once while going along to the industrial area I saw the man and his cat and he raised his hand & smiled. I waved back. He was working on painting the factory wall. He was doing a very good job of it too and the cat had picked up a spot in the sun and was lying about near him. When I finished my work and was talking to the overseer he happened to mention that I wish we had more workers like that one pointing to Shiva but he doesn’t want a permanent position. Where is he from, I asked? Oh he is somewhere from Ratnagiri but never stays in the same place for more than a few months. Takes his wage and moves on. That cat is always with him and it is the strangest bonds I have seen. As I got to know about Shiva and we ran into each other again at Sudam’s hotel, I smiled and invited him over and he came too. The big cat also came on soft paws towards our cot inspected me with care and I had a curious feeling of been found wanting as he silently sat at Shiva’s feet.

He was a pleasant enough fellow, looked very fit and healthy but on closer inspection seemed to be in his early forties. After our dinner as we were talking he asked whether I like it here and when I nodded he said that he did too. When probed on where did he come from he indicated a village in Ratnagiri. I asked him about his home and he said he had none. I marveled at his clear replies that it held no source of worry to him. When asked about it he said what do I worry about? I work to earn my bread and I have the road and all I need for it in this bag. He was wearing frayed denim trousers, and a faded khaki shirt both very clean. When I offered him a smoke he refused saying he didn’t enjoy it nor did he imbibe the spirits. Here I was at the beginning of a career already earning good money and had acquired some credit card debt , looking to buy a house and yet tremendously worried on how to go about it. While here was Shiva owning nothing but all that was there in his duffelbag and face clear of any lines, serenely at peace. He continued "My only companion is Vaghya he nodded to the cat and the animal as if he knew that he was the subject of the conversation stretched a paw to him and rubbed his foot. I asked him about Vaghya and he said that in one of the sites that he worked he had found this kitten and looking at his striped body pattern the locals had shunned him. So I fed him and he started traveling with me. There are times when I can’t get food that Vaghya feeds me. He just laughed at my open mouthed expression. Vaghya is not only an excellent hunter but he also fishes. We share our food and when he is the one providing he shares it with me. Fondly he scratched behind the cat’s ear and the big cat closed his eyes in bliss and purred.

Tomorrow is a Sunday come over to the river and you shall see. Tom cats are very slow ponderous creatures and I had seen the relaxed way in which the man and his cat ambled away, as I agreed to the expedition. I woke up late and as I cycled up to the river there was Shiva stretched out on the bank on a rock having taken a swim lying very much like his cat whom I could not immediately spot. I stood watching and before I could catch the movement streaked a form from the rock straight into the water and with deft flick of the paw had impaled a medium sized fish on it. Grasping the wriggling fish in its strong jaws the cat swam to the shore. He kept the grip on the fish till it stopped its movement dropped it near Shiva and went near the rock to peer into the water with intense concentration. He did this three more times and something about that scene stayed in my mind about the complete communion of man and beast in friendly co-existence; two fiercely independent spirits curiously having found soulmates in each other. In one of his forays into the water Vaghya knocked astray Shiva’s duffel bag from the rock and out clattered all his worldly belongings the two pairs of denim trousers and two shirts one shorts, one large multi-utility Swiss knife a roll of chappati and a sepia coloured photograph of an earthy young woman. There was a story there but it was not on this page today. I silently walked back without disturbing them as I thought about the character of the man and his animal companion, the likes of which I have never seen before. 

20 September, 2010

The Waiting Room

“Fifty Thousand rupees was required and where do I finally get it from, the jail.” The voice was new, feminine, boisterous & loud and had disturbed my slumber. It had an inherent echo to it as if traveling from the recesses of deep long tunnel or from behind the navel of a particularly padded specimen of humanity. This and the choice of words created a picture of a rather buxom lady, of a class that is definitely not elite even before I turned my head.
The curiosity was tickled however the reaction was slow as is normal when ones sleep is disturbed. The uncomfortable position had also given me a crick in the neck. More than the surprising content of the statement was the tone in which it came out followed by a huge laugh that went on and on. There was something very hearty about this sound as it was not something I had heard here over the last two days in this place that I had been maintaining my vigil. It is a game of nerve racking patience this waiting but I never get bored with it. I enjoy eavesdropping on conversations as life sometimes gives you its best doses of mirth in out of context lines and phrases. Now rather than disturb the flow of conversation by turning my head decided to just lie back and see how far would this go and sure enough it continued.
“Then?” a rather sharper voice asked. This was definitely an older lady, not very educated was my guess and I listened on. “My man Jagan, that rascal was on a job where he had identified 3 flats to break into with two partners; Bhiku & Raju from Kisen Bar. A thousand times I told Jaggu to not engage these barwallas. Completely unreliable is that breed but does he ever listen to me? He yells at me “Oye Shaku don’t interfere in the business and give your wagging black tongue a rest, the things that you say do actually happen. The job was easy as the flat owners were on vacation. Jaggu cleaned out about Rs.175000 cash & some jewelry. He had also picked up a couple of good Saris from one of the cupboards for me but that Raju… slipped from the first floor balcony and sprained his leg. That son of a she dog was drunk on a job. Now was there a need to start howling like a donkey in heat just because of a small fall? The beat policemen caught them and put them in the slammer. Then look at my fate, it has to be this particular night that Jaggu’s father started yelling with pain. So we brought him here. Our doctor told us that this is the closest place where the treatment can happen. They wanted that money to admit him. I dumped the old man here and went to the police station. Luckily the pandu’s had not registered a case and hearing my tale told them to give me eighty for the treatment and to keep the rest and leave the rascals. Look at your wife said the pandu to Jaggu…fighting for your father and look at you. He gave them two three slaps as an afterthought…more a formality to be visibly doing the proper police thing, pocketed the rest & gave me the money. I pushed my luck and even asked for one Sari but the pandu said Get lost…I felt so mad at Jaggu for losing my saris to the pandu, but I had to rush back.  Good I came back fast or the old man had already reserved his one way ticket...Up. While paying the money at the counter it felt like I was buying his return ticket” And where is Jagan? ..There…Look at that useless ass sleeping there as if there is no care in the world.
Then a male voice slurred ‘Aga Shaku chup na…keep quiet…Who is the man? Who has earned this money? You or that pandu? It was anyway rotting inside that cupboard of that sahib doing nothing. Here at least it is saving the old mans life. So don’t go about calling me useless. He sounded angry and hurt. I stifled the laugh that almost bubbled out and slowly turned to look. Shaku was a surprisingly attractive lady very plump with flashing eyes and wearing a nylon sari wrapped quite tightly. Her necklace and jewelry gave her away as an Agri tribal woman. Jaggu was roguishly good looking in a rough way and the old woman with them was evidently Shaku’s mother from her features. Shaku had walked over to Jaggu and lovingly put her hand on his shoulder. All was well now.
It had been two days since I had been coming here. By this time you would have guessed, it was the waiting room at a multi-specialty Hospital; a surprisingly neat facility in this distant suburb. I looked up seeing the fan rotate. At every turn it made a small squeaky sound where the cover brushed its top. It had irritated me the first time but after those long 48 hours had been integrated into the mental template of familiar sounds. Shaku’s was new and hence had disturbed my sleep. The layout was like all other waiting rooms a spacious room of about 200 odd square feet lined with metal bucket seat rows and two long divans with artificial leather lined mattresses. Those were available at a premium and every other time I had failed to find a seat on them in my time here. The others had either occupied them earlier and with jungle cunning when they had to visit the loo or their patient would strategically leave their personal stuff on it to retain their claims. I had lost this war even before the battle had begun and resigned myself to the chair. My mother in law was the patient. She had recovered but was under observation. There was a likelihood of us getting a discharge in the morning. After that even this metal chair I occupied would be warmed by a new backside.
My gaze met that of eyes of Sarla Hasmukh Patel a salty woman of an age that can be best termed as beyond old but pre-antique. She smilingly asked ‘Had a good rest?’ I nodded in an affirmative. She had the natural curiosity of a woman of her many rains and was very open about it too. A waiting room veteran, she was here on and off for the past 6 months on account of her husband who kept having these severe asthma attacks and needed respiratory support. She was the one who when I first came in had offered a chair beside her. Relieved by a friendly gesture in a tense situation unsuspectingly I had sat there only to be milked dry of all information; about me, my family, my patient, my mother in law & all of our other visitors. She now even knew the name of my neighbor’s dog. She also allotted the chairs in this room in a rather friendly and capable manner keeping the one chair next to her free for every newcomer who had to log in their information with her before being banished to a far off chair. She was a natural gossip and fed me the information on all the other occupants on learning that I was in the newspaper business.
Stretching to remove the stiffness in my joints my eyes rested on the sleeping form of Girijashankar Tiwary. He was a cadaverous man in his forties with a walrus moustache that drooped limply into his sunken cheeks. I had thought him to be the patient and my initial guess was not very incorrect as Sarlaben confirmed. He had been brought in by his friend Radheykishen Chaubey who owned a dairy and a babble of other well wishers. Tiwaryji’s trouble turned out to be mere gas and this excited and agitated Chaubeyji so much that he lost his temper and had a stroke right here in the hospital. Now the first patient waited patiently in the waiting room chair after surrendering his rightful bed inside to his friend. Every turn of the fan above made the left end of Tiwaryji’s moustache fly up, twitch a bit in mid air and settle down slowly in a curious sync with its squeak. It was rather symbolic of the curious turn of events that had him sleeping here.
Damu Redkar had his brother admitted in the trauma ward where he had undergone a protracted surgery on his broken limb from a motorcycle accident Though he was mending quite nicely Damu’s face was long with worry. The trouble apparently was clearly economic as Damu had a small insurance policy but it did not cover his brother and he was at his wits end in trying to mobilize money. He was forever on the cell phone talking to this relative and that urging them to come with sums and was getting a harsh lesson of human nature. This was evident from the manner in which his calls to familiar numbers were going unanswered.
Somavathy Raju was sitting in one corner of the room reading. The tome in her hands was quite obviously, a prayer book. Her father was in for the third time. She, her sister Kalavathy and mother Rajalakshmi took turns here. Their routine went like clockwork in eight hour shifts. The one who relieved the other took over both the chair and the prayer book. They seemed to be in the process of recruiting a much higher power than the white coated men inside and their faith was seemingly unshakeable. Though it did not connect with my rather agnostic sensibilities, the sincerity of that effort left one in no doubt that the person battling inside was very much loved and wanted; a very fortunate man indeed.
I got up to stretch my legs and take a peek at the patient and walked out. Here was a short corridor that had a bank of elevators and next to it the nurses’ station. Beyond this were the water cooler and a coffee vending machine and further was the ward. The lift door opened and three women came out chattering animatedly. I have been doing nights for the past two months and my husband is complaining now. ‘Why don’t you ask for a change in shift and floor?  This was the night housekeeping staff reporting out. Moving on towards the water cooler to fill up my bottle I heard the two nurses Liji John and Molly Mathews talking to each other. Young and very pretty the nurses’ uniform has always had a curious effect on me when it is worn well. A majority of my gender is afflicted with a rather sudden hormonal surge on sighting the nurses white and am no exception to this phenomenon. Molly was telling Liji about the handsome new resident doctor RMO on the sixth floor who had smiled at her and made her go weak in the knees. They giggled on. Somewhere a patient beeped and the indicator started blinking here interrupting their conversation. Liji came running out and turning called out "Wait a minute Molly don’t go I will finish with bed no 8, I want to listen to the full story".
I peeped into the patients ward. She was sleeping peacefully and I collected my bottle and came back. Sarlaben was drinking water from a curious copper plated jar that she had brought from home. Damu tired after tapping all sources had slipped into what could have been either a stupor or sleep. Shaku was cooing into Jaggu’s ear and he like a proud bull mastiff had raised one leg and was quite nonchalantly scratching the fork of his trousers with a concert violinist’s vigor. Tiwaryji still asleep had now added a small sonorous snore to the other sounds in the room. Somavathy kept mumbling her prayer. Faintly outside I could hear Liji call ‘Yes, Molly am back’. Despite so much pain and misery around both love and life are totally resilient. They do have a tendency to persistently raise their head and run its course was the last thought that came to my mind as I dozed off again.