“Paiyaa, first time-aa?” a Tamizh aunty who was wearing a silk saree couldn’t bear to see me suffering from the heat and said, all year pleasant weather of Bangalore spoils its people. No wonder I see little of you people in other parts of the country. You are a frog in the well. She gave a towel, told me to wet it and put it on my head. I was in no mood to confront her about the scandalous statement she made.
She opened a steel lunch box that had coconut Burfi in it and offered me by gesturing to take two. I took one and said “thank you aunty”. Please don’t call me that, call me Mami. She insisted.
Mami didn’t break a sweat wearing that silk saree. She applied coconut oil on her head, combed her hair twice a day, and put talcum powder on her face. “For the entire journey, I have packed my food. I do not eat outside food.” Mami proudly said it.
Year was 2001. It was mid-June around noon when I arrived at New Delhi Railway Station in the general sleeper class compartment of Karnataka Express. With delay, the 44 hour journey to reach Delhi from Bangalore was an ordeal. At the time of booking tickets, when I thought to book 3 tier AC compartment, my friend Shivu talked me of out it with compelling reasons. He said, “maga, you cannot open the windows. It gets claustrophobic and on a long journey it gets worse. Take sleeper class. It’s cheap and best. You can stand near the door and enjoy the cool breeze. How will you see Chambal from the AC compartment? Trust me, this is best.”
Shivu had never travelled on a train. In fact, Shivu had travelled nowhere. The farthest he had gone from Bangalore was to Tirupathi on the bus with his parents when he had cleared his class tenth board exams. He had read an article in Sudha, a Kannada weekly magazine that one could see Chambal terrains from Karnataka Express. When I told him I had to go to Delhi for a two-month internship, he was excited and insisted I should travel in the Karnataka Express. Shivu accompanied me for booking tickets and made sure I took lower berth seat. At the booking counter, when the person said Sampark Kranti Express is faster than Karnataka Express, he had to face Shivu’s wrath.
Shivu dropped me at the railway station on his neighbour’s motorcycle, Yamaha RX100. I had to manage my suitcase and rucksack as a pillion rider. At the railway station for the hundredth time he told me, “maga, tomorrow night don’t sleep. It’ll come after Gwalior. Call me once you reach Delhi and tell me about it.”
It was around 6.30 in the evening when the train departed from Bangalore station. Shivu kept waving and gesturing that I shouldn’t sleep. He had read every available information in the public library about Chambal and had a strange fascination for it. I was to be his eyes to witness it.
At Shivu’s insistence, I had taken lower berth seat. When Mami requested for change of seat, I gladly took it. The upper berth is the best seat if one has no intention of interacting with the world and just being themselves. I slept in my baniyan and pyjama. The fan had stopped working around midnight and I had no energy to complain about it and I tried to sleep. The heat was unbearable. I couldn’t sleep. I walked to the door, opened it and sat on the stairs. There was no cool breeze, but it was better than staying inside.
The second day’s journey was worse. It was early morning when the train passed Gulbarga junction. From there it was mere survival. Around 10 pm, the train reached Itarsi. I was sitting bare chested and often wiped myself with a wet cloth given by Mami. The stoppage time at Itarsi was longer. TC, the ticker collector, said there would be engine change from twin diesel to electric. I got a cold water bottle on the platform, and I poured it on my head. “Pagal Madrasi, have some lassi” TC pointed his fingers to a shop and said hurry train would leave in sometime. I ran to the shop gulped the cold lassi.
Looking at my cheerful face, Mami was curious. I told her I had super cold lassi. She was shocked and yelled at me “Ayyo kadavule; you should never have Lassi on platform. Those shop rascals use the same ice to make lassi which is made for mortuary to preserve dead bodies. Those ice are made from contaminated water. You will catch all kinds of water-borne diseases. You should have some common sense.” Mami continued to berate me and laid out all the disease names which I could get. “What will you do in Delhi if you get sick? Where will you go?” I had no answers to these questions.
Mami wrote a name and number on a piece of paper and while giving it to me, she said, “if you get sick, go to AIIMS, Delhi. I’ve a relative there. She is a nurse. She’ll help you. That’s her number. You’ll get a clean sheet and a bed if they hospitalise you.” I didn’t believe in god. But Mami had summoned one to my rescue.
I could do nothing to undo what I had done to myself. I didn’t know what would happen to me. How bad things would get. I had no family or relatives in Delhi. I didn’t have sufficient money. All those thoughts plagued me that night. I didn’t sleep.
It was early morning, at dawn, when the train crossed Gwalior. I saw the great Chambal river and the Chambal terrain. It was magnificent. All those stories we had read and heard about the notoriety of the region in those rugged terrains, I could see that. The entire trip was suddenly worthwhile. I stopped worrying. I was hungry and had Kachori – Aloo sabji for breakfast at the Agra Junction. As I didn’t want to listen to another mouthful from Mami, I walked inside train and reached the 3 tier AC coach. I stood their for sometime and looked inside through the glass door. I didn’t want to go inside. I turned around and walked back to general sleeper class.
– 2 –
When the train reached Delhi, all I wanted was to get into an air-conditioned room and stay there till winter. Mami shared her house address at Mayur Vihar, her telephone number, and insisted I call her if I get sick or need any help. She also invited me home for lunch on any Sunday. I helped her with her luggage till the taxi stand. I was told to take an autorickshaw to south – extension which would be cheaper than a taxi. I bid goodbye and thanked her. She lowered the car window and yelled that I should negotiate the fare with auto-wallahs like locals. “Speak in Hindi, not English” was her advice.
In my impeccable Hindi, I tried to negotiate the fare with the auto driver. He said “saat rupai south-ex ke liye”. It was my turn and in a firm voice I said, “nahi nahi, assee dhega mein.” With a stumped look on his face, he said “theek hai, baito.”
When we reached, I gave him sixty rupees. There was an argument, which escalated to fight. To my rescue, my friend Pramod came in, whose proficiency in Hindi was equally impeccable as mine. A nearby shopkeeper came running and intervened. After he heard us, he laughed, and he paid 20 rupees to the auto-wallah. While he was talking to the auto-wallah, I heard him say Madrasi. That enraged me. I didn’t like that word. I forcefully intervened and said I’m from Bangalore and not Madrasi. Pramod held my arms and pulled me back and said, chill man, let’s get some beer. Fuck them.
Pramod introduced the shopkeeper as Uncleji, who was also the broker who got him the flat on rent. Uncleji said to me, “beta, I’m your man for anything”. I retorted, I’m not your beta, don’t call me that again. Pramod told me in Delhi everyone calls younger one as beta. Pramod’s friend, Yashas who was interning in an electronic media channel, gave free advice to me to not fight with anyone in Delhi. You never know someone might pull a gun on you dude, it’s crazy here.
Uncleji was truly resourceful. Whatever we asked for, he got it. I asked him once to get us some beer. He bought “Godfather” and “Haywards 10000”. The hangover was excruciating. Pramod started crying from pain and said he would die. We didn’t want to take any chance, so we consulted a local general physician. Alongwith some tablets, Doctor gave us valuable information about where to buy booze.
Uncleji was a kind man. He supplied everything to us on credit. Cigarettes, bread, butter, jam, fruit juices and sometimes he would get rajma masala which his wife had made. He cared for us; I thought.
Once we asked him if he drinks. He said he doesn’t drink beer; he prefers whiskey. We invited him for a drink in our flat; he refused. Pramod insisted, and Uncleji got agitated. He yelled at us in Punjabi. We didn’t understand a word that came out of his mouth. It was sudden and weird. Our impression of Uncleji was an easy-going, calm person. What got him agitated at our invite? With little ado, we let it go.
I asked Pramod, what’s with Uncleji? Who are the owners of the flat? Why are we paying him the rent?. Uncleji was the caretaker of the flat. The owners lived abroad. When Pramod came to see the flat, Uncleji gave him the keys and asked him to see the flat by himself. Pramod didn’t mind that as the rent was about 5,000 rupees per month, which was a steal in south Delhi, and when no one wanted to give the flat on rent for 2 to 3 months, this was best suited for us.
It was a 2-bedroom flat. My friend and I had taken one room and in the other room, a guy who was pursuing his chartered accountancy was staying. We hardly had any interaction with him. We didn’t even know his name. He would come late in the night and would be asleep when we were leaving for work in the morning. Uncleji said on most weekends he goes to stay with his sister at Faridabad.
The kitchen was unused for a long time and it was filled with dust. The hall looked deserted, with no furniture. There was no TV, radio or computer. We didn’t have cellphones. So, after a long day, we were in no mood to read a book or go for a walk. We spent most of our evenings on the balcony. We smoked, drank and Pramod played guitar. I played harmonica. Every day, we looked forward to the evening. That little jamming session was our fuel to forget the Delhi summer, awful food, dust filled house, and a shitty life. Once a neighbour complained to Uncleji that his teenage daughter would frequent their balcony in evening to see two bare-chested bachelors in their undergarments doing all immoral activities that would spoil their daughter. So, at Uncleji’s request we stopped playing guitar and harmonica in balcony and took the party to the room.
The room was about 12 ft by 12 ft. It had two iron cots and coir beds on it. Every morning I would wake up with terrible body ache mostly contributed by the horrendous coir bed and dehydration caused by Delhi’s summer and alcohol.
The wardrobe didn’t have a door, and a wooden plank was broken. There was something weird about the flat, but we thought little about it. We were just glad we found something at the price we could afford.
Pramod was allergic to dust and was often sneezing and coughing. So we requested Uncleji to send someone to clean the house. Once a week, would be sufficient. We would pay for it. Uncleji’s suggestion was to do it ourselves. We insisted on help. He wasn’t keen. Sensing some resentment, I said, it’s okay we’ll ask the maid at the neighbours’ house if she agrees he can give the keys to her to clean. At that suggestion, Uncleji yelled at me and said no maid would come to your flat. Do it yourself. His wife, who was at the shop, said something to him in Punjabi. Uncleji calmed down and said he’ll look for someone. We couldn’t understand that weird behaviour. That was second time Uncleji got agitated for no reason. Since we were heading to office, with little ado we let it go.
– 3 –
As we didn’t have cellphones, I used to make calls to my parents and my girlfriend from Uncleji’s telephone at his shop. I called my parents once a week and my girlfriend thrice a week. Often people who came to the shop would wonder about the language I spoke. Uncleji would tell them “South se hai, Tamil”. Once I said I love you to my girlfriend before ending the call and Uncleji was staring at me. Girlfriend puttar? I nodded. He shook his head in dismay and said something in Punjabi mix Hindi, which I didn’t understand.
Meanwhile, Pramod’s internship was over, and he left for Bangalore. I had another month to go. I was all alone. Evenings weren’t fun anymore. So most of the time I would stay in office late and would go to the flat to get some sleep.
On a Saturday evening I was window shopping in south-extension market and a girl waved at me. I recognised her and waved back. She was our neighbour’s daughter, Parul. We spoke for sometime and she figured I hadn’t eaten chaat in Delhi. She insisted I should try some of Delhi’s famous chaat. She ordered Raj Kachori; I asked for Aloo-chaat. We talked and casually she asked in which room I was staying in our flat. The first one, next to the kitchen. Parul almost dropped her plate and said, “Oh, my god! Sharmaji was murdered in that room.”
Sharmaji, the owner of the flat, had an affair with his young maid-servant, whose husband stabbed him to death. The septuagenarian Sharmaji had put up a brave fight and in that fight, the wardrobe door had broken.
Uncleji has been trying to sell the flat ever since the incident. There are no buyers. Sharmaji’s children are living abroad. Uncleji, as their family friend, is its caretaker. We were the first tenants after that incident.
Parul said her grandmother heard strange voices from the flat till we moved in. I didn’t know how to react to that. Should I be scared? Should I leave the flat immediately? But where would I go? I didn’t have money to find another place. I had paid full rent in advance to Uncleji. If I fight with him, he might not return the money. What do I do? With all these thoughts, I thanked Parul and walked to the flat.
I switched on the lights and kept the main door open. With unclear thoughts, I sat in balcony and smoked few cigarettes. After an hour, I went to the room and sat on the bed. The wardrobe and the broken wooden plank caught my attention. My mind played tricks by reimagining how the incident would have played out. I ran out of the house and went out to Uncleji’s shop. He wasn’t there. His wife said he had gone somewhere and he would be late. I didn’t want to say anything to her. I called Pramod and told him everything. That bastard laughed and said, “c’mon comrade, you are a communist. You don’t believe in ghosts and gods. People die, natural or otherwise. How does it matter? You have dined with naxals and have been in jail for a day. What are you afraid of? Have a drink with Sharmaji. Treat him as a friend.” In your vulnerable self, you are better off without your friends and their advice.
I didn’t want to go back to flat, I just walked around till my feet hurt and was sitting at a bus stop. At around midnight, a police jeep stopped and asked about me. I said I was walking. They warned me and asked me to go home. Having no options, I went to the flat.
Pramod had given me a bottle of Royal Challenge, which was to be given to Uncleji as a gift. I had thought of giving it to Uncleji before leaving for Bangalore. Fuck that bastard Uncleji; I opened the bottle and poured the whiskey into 2 glasses, mixed some water and just sat there for a while thinking how I should offer the drink to Sharmaji. Then I remembered a friend who would do a ritual before he had a drink. He would offer the drink to gods, demons and ancestors by dipping his index finger in the glass and putting a drop on the ground for three times. I did that and gulped the whiskey at one go. Over the next hour, I made several drinks and gulped them.
How does one know whether gods, demons, and ancestors have accepted the offering? During festivals, Amma would offer the food to gods before serving to us. I realised Amma had never doubted the acceptance of her offering, as it was to god. As a woman, by customs, she couldn’t offer anything to the ancestors. Only men performed rituals after death and only they could offer to the ancestors. I was the first who was offering to the demon.
I wanted to be sure that Sharmaji had accepted my offering. I sat in silence for an hour. There was no sign of rejection from Sharmaji. I was convinced Sharmaji had accepted my offering. In folded hands, I bowed in respect, took his drink, and gulped it down.
I had almost finished the bottle of whiskey, and I wasn’t high. Probably it was Sharmaji’s blessing.
Sharmaji had become my friend. I had nothing to worry.
It was 3.30 am. I thanked Sharmaji and said I was there if he ever wanted to talk. We were friends.
I closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes, and I was lying on the bed at Safdarjung Hospital. I had broken my leg, had few stitches on my head and few bruises on my hands. My neighbour said he brought me to the hospital after I had jumped from the balcony screaming. He advised me not to drink excessively. Uncleji came, hugged me and asked “kya hua puttar.” You bastard, I’ll make your life miserable. I threatened him. I would tell police everything. He pleaded with folded hands, begged me not to tell the police and he would return the entire rent amount.
When I was lying on the hospital bed and looking at the ceiling, that’s when I realised Sharmaji was not my friend.