The kids who used to work in their kirana store are all grown up with wives and kids of their own. The cashier in the bank of India in the colony who used to count out the money in a style that we assumed made him a descendant of Flash Gordon now retired walks down the road with a slow shuffle but with a nod acknowledges me. The quiet houses have long given way to huge high rise apartments that don’t sit comfortably with the existing house owners, my folks routinely complain how the apartments rob the ground of the ground water and reduce the water table. Every house still present reminds me of the ghosts of children long gone who used to form part of our cricket team, football team, hide and seek team. Mum complains about the embarrassing entrance to the colony. Something that had become a part of the natural scenery – a barren piece of land where nothing grows, cows and stray dogs laze on and occasionally becomes a cesspool of water (till the apartment mafia raised the ground by dumping rubble and diverting the rain water into our lane) is now a serious eye-sore for my parents.
The post man still comes. On his cycle dropping off the mail he’s devised a way of avoiding the dog. Just passes the mail thorough the window netting and moving on to the next house – a dedicated professional to a dying profession. The ‘junkman’ shows up. As far as I remember he’s looked 80 years of age and he’s the one person who doesn’t look like he’s aged at all. One feet firmly in his grave he totters around the yard collecting the garbage bag and cleaning the outer areas of his house in his uniform of a tattered vest, broken sandals and a dhoti bunched up at his thighs. Last month he passed his life’s savings to my mum for safe-keeping….2800 Rs. That’s about $ 55. Homeless. No family, no kids no-one you can’t help wonder if the money is actually to pay for his funeral. Sometimes around the corner of the house he sits there smoking his beedi and me smoking a cigarette a casual question on his status gets me a blank stare. The stare suggests that all we have in common is this vice so let’s just smoke and do away with the small talk. We toss our butts into the neighborhood plot and go back to whatever we were doing
The cook arrives in the morning and with her comes endless cups of sweet milky tea, joys of curd/rice, prawn curry and upma with mango pickle. For a house whose patriarch is in his advanced retired years the house is a constant state of activity. The maid for washing, the maid for cleaning, the secretary to type out letters, fill drinking water in cans, to organize, to make sense of ridiculous government laws. The unused bicycle machine has now given way to a swanky rowing machine. Three cocker spaniels long dead and gone have now given way to a notoriously intelligent spaniel called Dax who greets everyone with a ball in his mouth nudging the legs of guests with it imploring them to throw the ball so that he can go fetch it and then mock you when he dodges and darts away when you try and get it out of his mouth.
Months back on a skype call (minus video) I had explained to my Dad on using Itunes and the AV player app to load on films and TV shows. About 30 minutes into the call I got a ‘well done so well explained it’s all working great’….this time Dad cheerfully informs me that he’s forgotten everything I showed him (I know what he must have felt like when I brought a Fail report card home) so we dabble and fiddle around the computer while I load his Jim Reeves CD on dad checks his Ipad, watches Modern Family and updates his Facebook status and uploads videos for his friends list (three times more than mine). Every evening he opens up his bar and pours himself a drink and asks if I want one and the next morning has to pour my drink still sitting on the table down the drain. Maybe someday; he thinks I’ll be able to sit down with him and enjoy a glass of single malt on ice and do away with the Jack Daniels and Coke that our generation has come to embrace
India brings out the Indian in me the double cuffed shirts and the worryingly tight trousers (I can’t help it I got big balls) give way to a kurta and a Nehru jacket – traditional wear for politicians. At hotel receptions where we go for late night coffees and at house parties that my brother takes me to I am greeted with a reverence mostly given to politicians. One kid even asks me if I am one. Then the valet pulls up with the tiny 800 and everyone goes ‘Oh’.
The Maruti 800 hundred sits outside the house. It’s the first car I bought from my salary about 10 years back. Still gives me 18 km to a litre and zips around Hyderabad’s snarly traffic like a whiz.The music system in the car becomes a mini Bollywood Hit machine churning out one hit after another. Disconnected from Bollywood I keep asking my girlfriend ‘which movie?’ Post one late night cup of brew we zip through Hyderabad’s quiet streets the snarl of traffic missing I reminisce about days long gone where I drove on the streets every day. My girlfriend plays DJ with the music system. Our relationship has always been one of Planes, Trains and never Automobiles so now for a few days we're like a normal couple driving around and I keep asking her to play songs and we agree that the new song by The Killers is a perfect road song, we both do a double take when we realise we both love Savage Garden (a chick-a-cherry-cola? that stuff is legendary) The family, the girlfriend and I drive around town getting stuck in traffic jams and listen to Mum’s ‘The greatest pop songs ever’ CD and when a song comes on that we all like we listen to it again and again. Joyride, Walking on Sunshine, When doves cry and Sleeping child become our playlist for the holiday.
Our destination one day is to head way into Old Hyderabad where an ancient weaver has been assigned the task of making a couple of ornamental pillows and a carpet. He’s using a 200 year old carpet and 400 year old cushion covers that mum pulled out fo the attic as the model. We reach to see the most dazzling cushion covers I’ve ever seen followed by the most garish carpet I’ve ever seen. Then those quiet seconds tick by before my mother launches her missiles into the weaver and his two sons for messing up her carpet design. What the weaver had done to show initiative what put some designs into the original carpet design to pimp up the carpet. Gold thread used to intricately weaves designs which, like my mother pointed out (atleast a dozen times) resembled an army of cockroaches invading the carpet from either side. The attack is relentless and soon the weaver is on his haunches and the two sons are drenched in sweat. Mum….is not someone you mess with. She’ll cut you down in the same way that the commandoes in the first Predator movie cut down the jungle with their machine guns when they first see the Predator. This guy wasn’t even an alien. He’s a frickin weaver. What chance did he really have?
We drive by a big ground and there a fast game of volleyball is on….except the said volleyball is actually a tennis ball and the net is actually a football goal post. With the palms of their hands the two sides pat the ball across ‘the net’ and they do it with surprising accuracy and dexterity – Improvisation…..Indian’s have that in abundance. What we don’t have in abundance is electricity. The electricity goes every afternoon – it becomes a way of life. The dog, the parents take that as a cue to catch an afternoon nap. The house goes still till the cook returns in the early evening with her cups of tea.
My brother arrives. Snatches off conversation about politics, life in India trains, life in college happen over the course of 24 hours before he heads back to Delhi. For about an hour or two the whole family is together on the dining table. We wake up early in the morning and I drive him to the train station (which is frozen in time) that ride reminds me off the 5 a.m. mornings from 96-98 where I’d drive him to his cricket coaching and then head to my math tuitions. Over time us brothers have differed on things like chalk and cheese - our political views, our idea on leading our lives, one capitalist and one communist like my mother summarises we however find common ground in the ability to make each other laugh. We stand at the station platform and while we are the most awkward huggers and kissers we have that annoying predictable habit of our eyes filling up everytime someone leaves and this time it’s no different.
Soon it’s time for me to leave as well but not before a quick trip to Bombay to say hello to the Nairs where a small overdoze of conversation, Golguppas and Jack Daniels follows. The couple is then ignored because their son and I are BFF's that make Nicole and Paris jealous. Thier 3 year old son just won a certificate for 'Good manners' so he says the meanest things with a 'please' or an 'excuse me' for example "Excuse me those are not your slippers its my fathers, please remove it." or "Please don't go today but do go by Friday" Classic.
I spent one last day in Hyderabad At the airport an old lady on her Haj Pilgrimage annoyingly adopts me and gets me to fill our her passport forms, carry her luggage and wheel her onto the plane. Her first time on a plane and she’s excited and scared. I just want to catch up with Episodes 4-7 of Revenge and not talk to anyone but I am seated with her. What follows is a brilliant retelling of India’s history, India’s partition and India’s independence seen through her 85 year old eyes Sure she can’t fill up a form but her razor sharp memory took me down the streets of Old Lucknow and it was one of the best trips I have ever been on. I couldn’t have asked for a better co-passenger. While I transit at the Dubai airport she dissapers in a blur of people being wheeled by a small reedy man in a hurry ….another one of her many bitches. Talking to her I realized we’re such a young nation. A free nation just 65 years old yet ancient cultures, civilizations, stories, people abound and form part of the Indian fabric we drape over ourselves. Where the old & young India, rich & poor India, conservative & liberal India live hand in hand coexisting in a system that frustrates, flummoxes and improvises like the volleyball match every day.
“This time tomorrow where will we be
On a spaceship somewhere sailing across an empty sea
This time tomorrow what will we know
Well we still be here watching an in-flight movie show
I'll leave the sun behind me and watch the clouds as they sadly pass me by
Seven miles below ma I can see the world and it ain't so big at all
This time tomorrow what will we see
Field full of houses, endless rows of crowded streets
I don't where I'm going, I don't want to see
I feel the world below me looking up at me.....”