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Friday, June 16, 2006 

Bawi Remembered

Went out at six (which is a time for the religious freaks to display their wares in say, Chennai, and the fitness freaks to display theirs in South Bombay) and called a cab. South Bombay was pretty much unaffected. That was my first warning that something was amiss. “Saare flight cancelled hai saab”, he said.” TV pe bola hai”. The hell with it, I thought. Let me reach the airport, and then we’d see. He took off, avoiding the Causeway. “Traffic jam hai akkha sheher mein”, he said. “ Kya baarish aayela hai saab, kal poora janta office me hi so gaya”. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation; I let him ramble on, tuned out. We seemed to make pretty good time, and I idly mused on how the roads were empty, bless the State for declaring a holiday. I returned to earth with a jerk: we’d been standing at the light for more than five minutes. “What happened?” I asked the driver. He shrugged and waved a hand out: the road ahead was jammed with bumper to bumper traffic. Oh well, I thought, we are almost at Bandra. Might as well catch a snooze. Woke up half an hour later, to find we hadn’t moved an inch. The cabbie was out of the car, calmly smoking. I stepped out. “We’ll reach by about 5”, he said. I didn’t get it, at first. Then it struck me. Five? “ Its only half past eight now!”, I said. “And just fifteen minutes to the airport from here!” He shrugged. See these cars, he said. They’ve been here since last evening. I muttered a foul imprecation or two. Paid him off, and dragged suitcase to the pavement. Slung the laptop around my neck and studied the situation. Linking Road, it seemed like. Looked around, saw the McDonalds sign. Pushing aside my intrinsic dislike of this symbol of crass American domination, I walked in. “ The place is shut”, the guy said. Give me a cup of coffee, I begged. “Where are you going?” he asked. “ Airport”, I said. He looked at me as if I were insane. “Don’t you know all the flights are cancelled? ”, he said. I was tired of people trying to stop me getting to the airport. “ A cup of coffee is all”, I said. “ And could you please give me a big plastic bag while you are at it?”. He seemed to start to say something, and then thought the better of it. He made some sign to a guy inside, and went in, presumably to get the bag. The guy inside brought a cup of coffee. (Twenty bucks for a insipid latte. I mean, these Yanks are thieves). Again, an unspoken communication between them. “ You’ll have to walk, you know”, he said. “ Yeah, I intend to”, I said. I had no intention of going back to South Bombay. If nothing else, maybe I could ogle at the airhostesses passing time between delayed flights. That’s when I saw her. She came out into the drizzle, and blinked at me. “ Sawhney”, she said. A high pitched chirp that instantly brought to mind Mrs Philips, my very first teacher. I looked around. She did mean me. “Sawhney, you going to the airport?” Bawi, I thought. Typical bawi lady, that indeterminate age after 40. Small built. Naturally querulous. High pitched voice. “Yes”, I said. “ Moddom is going to the airport too, sah”, muttered the guy. The other shuffled his feet. “So if you could help her too...”. I looked at her and cursed inwardly. Nursemaiding a crusty bawi lady through water and traffic for a couple of hours did not stand exactly at the top of my list of 10 things I always wished to do. “Here, give that to me”, she said, pointing to the laptop. “Thanks, it isn’t any trouble”, I said. She reached over and yanked it off my shoulders. I sighed and picked up my soft suitcase, thanking my stars that it was as light as it could’ve possibly been for a five day tripMaybe bawi would be a help, after all. Thank god for the meek, I told myself. And they don’t get meeker than bawi. “You can help with this”, she said, and I nearly keeled over. She had a gargantuan suitcase. I watched myself being handed over the suitcase by friend Shufflefeet with a sort of out of the body detachment. Mumbleface seemed to be solicitously enquiring whether bawi wanted some biscuits or a cup of tea to speed her on the way. I noticed that they didn’t waste any sympathy on me. The next thing I knew, I was lugging two suitcases through knee deep water, with bawi huffing and panting. Meek, I told myself. Meek. Think Tata. Meek, for god’s sake. Two heavy suitcases : my own seemed to grow in weight in a sort of sympathy with hers.

I looked at her . Petite. Generous sprinkling of the salt in the hair. She threw a sidelong glance at my inspection and seemed to decide that small talk was called for. “So, how old are you?” she asked. Old enough to know better, I thought. “Feeling tired, aunty?” I said, deftly sidestepping it. “Married”. It was a statement rather than a question. Silence. “Where are you going?” I told her. “Ohhh, madraasi??” she chirruped. I resisted the impulse to throw both the suitcases at her head. “No” I replied curtly. Then, not satisfied, “Not madraasi, bawi”. “Bawi?” she asked, raised eyebrow and all. “ Bawi, Parsi aunty”, I told her. There, that should shut her up. She seemed to consider a reply, then decided against it. . The damn roads were knee to thigh deep in water, and I couldn’t even put the accursed cases down to give my aching shoulders and arms a rest.

Miraculously, a solitary pan shop seemed to be open. I attempted to take a detour to the roadside. She seemed to divine my intentions almost instantly. “Where to?” she asked, in the precise tones that Mrs Philip used to such devastating effect all those years ago. I am no longer 5 years old, I wanted to say. Instead, I just raised two fingers to my lips. It was a complex manoeuvre that involved shifting of both suitcases to one hand for the moment. “No cigarettes”, she said, with a certainty that made me bristle. “Maybe you should try it too, bawi”, I told her. “Good for the system in the rain”. “My Fersi told me it’s bad especially in the rains”, she said. I trudged on, not having the energy for a contest of wills. I did not even want to ask who this Fersi was, and what appellation he answered to in the normal world. Nothing interested me except for the fact that the water level seemed to be rising. It was almost hip level for me, and the lady seemed to be having a bad time. Not that it dimmed her enthusiasm or curiosity, though. “ Know where we are going?” , she asked. I turned deliberately obtuse. “The airport, Bawi”, I said with obvious effort. “ No, sawhney, I was asking if you know the way” , she asked. No, I don’t, I wanted to tell her. I am just taking this route to see if I can drown you in a convenient street. “Yes”, I said, wanting to expend no superfluous energy. Ahead, some volunteers were distributing hot tea. We stepped up, and were handed blissfully steaming paper cups. I tossed mine off in a gulp and started drinking a second one, wishing like hell that I had a cigarette to go with it. She glared at me over her cup. “ Don’t take extra” she went, in loud voice that made me cringe as other commuters glanced my way. “So many poor people out here, coming from far far in the city”. None more than me, I wanted to say. Look at them, all THEY are doing is trudging back home after a day of being stranded. I, on the other hand, have a control freak with a loud voice and a heavy suitcase. The tea over, we started again. And so did she, in her singsong voice. “ So, tell me which route you are taking”. I sighed. “Look, we started from Linking road, right? So now here we go, we are heading into Santa Cruz, and we’ll now go on to Station Road. Cross on the over bridge to the east and hit the highway in a short while. Walk along that and we should be at the airport… do you know this portion of Bombay?” I asked. “No”, she replied with perfect equanimity, “just checking, that’s all”. I gave her a long steady look, but it didn’t faze her in the least.

She moved on to other pastures. “Know anybody in this part of the town?” , she asked. I was still smarting from her previous sally. “Mmm”. “ Who is it?” “ A girl, Bawi”, I said in a tone that brooked no further questions… or so I thought. “Is she pretty?” , she asked. I said nothing, just concentrating on shutting her insistent tones out. “And you married and all”, she said in accusatory tones. I turned, and found her watching me. “Bawi” I began. “ If you don’t watch the road, you are going to fall into a gutter as filthy as your mind”. “ Men”, she sniffed. “All the same”. “Your Fersi too?” , I asked maliciously. She pretended not to hear.

I decided two could play at this game. “Were you pretty, bawi?”, I asked. “ Hah, what do you know”, she said. But a quick glance told me she blushed. I wiped some more rain off my face with an awkward heave of my shoulders. I was beginning to enjoy this now. “That’s a nice dress you’re wearing, bawi”, I said. Sunflower prints on a pastel blue. I reflected on what a sight we’d make. A sprightly old lady and a sore, tired, middle-aged man. “You tired?” she asked, doing some sidestepping of her own. “ Bawi, I used to lift weights”, I told her. “And anyway, this is airline baggage, right? Can’t be more than 15 kgs. Mine is just twelve. I used to lift fifteen all the time.” “Mine is 17”, she said calmly. “ How can that be?” I spluttered. When I’d taken a borderline 14 plus once, they ran it twice just to be sure. “ I brought it on the way here too”, she said. “I just asked them nicely and they let me”. I’m sure they did, I thought. There’s a bunch of us born every minute. “ If it’s too heavy for you…” she said. “ No problem”, I rasped. I wondered what the penalty for killing chirrupy old ladies was. “Strong man you are”, she wheedled. I smiled, and regretted my outburst. “No problem, bawi”, I said, more kindly this time. After all, it wasn’t her fault . And what could I do, give her the suitcase to carry ?

We crossed the bridge and hit the highway. Or rather, went on the road towards the highway, to find the water almost reaching to my chest. There was no way I could get her across this. “Let’s go back, bawi”, I said. For the first time, she turned back silently, without a protest at the half kilometre back. We hit the overbridge again, and went into Santa Cruz station. I kept walking on, without an explanation. She gave me a few questioning looks, but decided I was too near breaking point to push. We reached the end of the platform and went on to the tracks. I started walking along the tracks. She followed, and started walking on the stony track. We went a couple of hundred yards, and she stumbled. I quickly reached out to steady her. Or rather, as quickly as a suitcase in either hand would allow. She leaned against me for a moment, and continued for just that fraction beyond the strictly necessary. In that moment, my heart went out to her. How difficult it must be for her, I thought. “Are you OK, aunty?” I asked her, with as much genuine concern as I could put into my voice. She straightened up immediately and I could almost hear her spine clicking into place. “Don’t you worry about your bawi”, she said, and despite the forced cheer, it heartened me. “Look, bawi”, I said. “We’ll get off the tracks”. She looked around at a loss, till I pointed out to her the minute openings in the bushes that lined the sides of the tracks. I set off for the nearest opening, went and stood at the opening. Showed her the path that ran down. She took it gratefully, both the downward slope and the firm ground instead of the gravel. We went through the tenements and onto the road again. The road was much better here, with almost no water except a slow current lapping around our ankles. Soon enough, we were just at the base of the climb to the airport. Her talk became more animated, but it no longer grated. I thought it over, and realized that the root cause of my irritation was her madraasi remark. Let it go, I thought. While the basic premise of unthinking (and wrong) branding rankled, I knew now that it did not contain the usual element of unstated bigotry. She’s a bawi lady, for god’s sake. How much would she know? Just then, we overtook a couple of leggy lasses, headway hampered as much by their baggage as their oh-so-dainty flipflops. Just my luck, I thought. I would’ve walked behind these legs all the way from Colaba, and here I am with a feisty bawi for company. Just after we crossed them, however, a car stopped, and a kind Samaritan leaned out and asked us to get in. Score one for the bawis, I told myself. When it comes to the sympathy stakes, leggy lasses don’t come near them in the charts. Just a couple of hundred meters upslope, and we pulled into the foyer. “My people will be here”, she said, even as we thanked the guy. I picked up the suitcases, and loaded it into a blessed trolley. It felt good to be pushing that load on wheels after the two and half hour trek in the rain. I looked up and saw her, peering into the milling chaos. Searching for “her people”, as she called them. Then they were upon her in a rush.

I felt vaguely disoriented. I felt a sort of dissonance between the sights and sounds around me and stared. A bunch of hearty Punjabis. “ Bibi, tussi mobile kitthe? “ one guy bellowed. Others howled in equally concerned Punjabi Hindi dialects. She seemed to be replying to all of them simultaneously. She’d started at six, and no, it wasn’t anybody’s fault, their going off to some holiday over the weekend was perfectly fine with her. She’d have met up with them at the airport in due course anyway. Yes, she’d caught a cab. No, the road was still jammed. Yes, the roads were horrible, waterlogged. No, she was fine, really fine. And she hadn’t left her luggage anywhere, there was a nice man who’d helped her. She turned, and suddenly stepped out of the group and walked up to me. There was a roguish glint in her eye. “Not bawi”, she said. “Just a mini size Punjaaban”. Even as I stood, she made as if to lift her massive suitcase out of the trolley, and the rest were on her. Laughing, their fears for her dissipated. Chiding her for trying to lift the suitcase. Thanking me profusely for helping her. The tallest asked me whether I’d join in with them. They were hauling her off a nearby hotel, he said. They’d already booked rooms and all. A warm bath and some food inside would revive her. “ Kitti chupchup si ho gayi hai”, he said. I smothered a laugh. The tallest looked concerned. You’re coughing, he said, sure you won’t join us? I refused politely, even as he laid a proprietary arm on me and led me to a side. He unscrewed a flask and pressed it into my hand. Have it , he said. I took a sip, thinking it would be some hot coffee or tea, and nearly gagged as a generous shot of whiskey nearly went in the wrong way. Just thanks, he said, smiling. He’d already “managed” at the hotel, wink wink. Some distance away, the group yelled at him. They were already piling into the car. “ Oye pappa, chetthi kariin”, howled out a cute little girl, must’ve been all of ten. “ Aayajiii”, he screamed back in return, forcing another searing sip into me. “ Fersi”, he explained, pointing to the girl. We both thanked each other effusively. Then, as he left, I asked him something. He gave me a searching look, and then replied. He then hurried up to the car, and got in, starting the engine and gunning it in.

As the car pulled away, she leant out, as I knew she would. She waved frantically. I waved back, feeling absurdly uplifted. I rolled over the words he’d said. G’bye, bawi. Ajj dil khush kar ditta.


LOVELY!

2nd time this happens...someone says something important towards the end...not revealed...taxing my imagination :)

Hey taxman- give us a tax break.

The part II with its taxing proposals- please give relief thereon.

If you promise not to mock me by calling me queen, I probably will say a lot of good things about this post.

And absolutely loved the previous poem. My favorite so far.

Avignon : Not more than the effort I need to put in to give a diff twist to your name :)

S : Unforgiven. Unrelieved. Unreadable : )

Alfie : Me mocking ? Just following aNTi's lead!

And of course ...
"Say Say Say
What you want"

:)

SUCH a softie. But we knew that. :P

May I call you Un-cle? :p

Too long, too long. Lost patience half-way through (or was it 1/8th?). Comments seem to suggest that it's a very nice post. I'll come back next year.

Oh, did I mention that the 1/8th was very good?

nice nice..good...pretty happy ending for a skin drenched weight lifting escapade...so whatd you do then...managed to get a flight?

Ph : That's what ya THINK : ).We are leenmeenfitingmusheen.

S : Better than a lot of names I've been called : )

Belle : Sans Merci beacoup!

USG : Stayed at the airport for that day and got a flight the evening next : ( But thats a even longer tale!

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