In which In-Drawn toes meets Green Chandeliers Or to try to sketch a stranger?
I see in long shot this tall woman with a head of black hair spread out to fill in space. Those calf length independent looking trousers, no, maybe the finger tucked into the polka dotted raincoat. No, the polka dotted raincoat itself, gives me the feeling where I sit watching, in the humid confines of a moving taxi, getting through my 'to do's' for the day, that I am seeing her again.
I recognise the stance running through that dress and that posture, and when she turns her head, to cross the road, the features made out in rough broad strokes, the skin that has lived with the with the city and its seasons. She almost jauntily carries her contradictions, as she crosses a road in this part of the city.
I smile somewhere inside my head. Some thread of storytelling is walking into real life to tease my day of errands to be run. The day opens a little in some unaccounted for direction.
The first time I met her, I stood behind her chandelier like green earring at a local railway station, on a wet evening remembered by the heaviness of low flying planes adding a peculiar high to the lights and the sounds of the station side markets and the music that accompanied you like small explosions as you climbed the muddy stairs to the overhead bridge.
We both resisted taking at least two loaded trains being, it would indicate, similar mortals lucky enough to not be bogged in time bound routines. The gaps of having the luxury of waiting for comfortable trains were filled for both of us with familiar observation.
There was a thin old beggar woman sitting in a squashed cardboard carton by the food stall in the station. It was a horrible tableau and a face which existed with no response to the world around that might be some where implicated in its history... to us!
Of course we wanted to intervene to be able to soothe, maybe simply to break that gaze. (There have been too many instances that seem contained in an angsty poem by a young Nigerian writer and one of his 'Songs of the Market Place", I cannot remember the precise way of the words, but they caught at what sent him to push that coin into the beggars hand - the desire to obliterate the beggars face from his mind, to leave him behind when he walked on.)
I must have acquired by then the slightly unsuccessful shuttered look I wear in such situations, Green chandeliers had not. I could see the movements of her head jerking towards the woman almost as though there was a hook behind with a string tugging her head that way. I remember seeing the wave like shift across her features.
I remembered a young man I had seen one morning at a bus stop who had impressed me with the ease with which he took a begging child by the hand to take him to a nearby stall to eat, the ease with which he tried to break the tableau (not so easily broken, I know)
I had no money on me, having just started a new job with a small salary and a desire to not let go of cash. The end of that day saw me with just a return ticket. Anyway it was with some superior sense of experience that I stepped
out beyond the chandeliers, taking another chance, I thought with some self dramatisation, at being labeled a mild eccentric (another variety of games the city offers to indrawn toes like mine - how much can you say or do, before your gesture condenses into some kind of strangeness - how far can you stretch the toes? And you can, very often, it is something to see how people with hard daily routines weave strangeness into their lives and selves ).I suggested she feed the woman and must have made some hopefully clear explanation of why I was not doing so. She looked at me and agreed.
We got her some vada paav and then some more, to feel better, and some tea to go with it. She took it: I don't have a clear memory of that moment.
Green chandelier told me dramatically that she must be a refugee of some development project. I was irritated by the naïve overstatement? Some time later she added that her parents were partition refugees themselves, they had come to this country with no money whatsoever, what if her father had not made good, her mother would have been in this state.
I must have wanted to empathise and also suspected her of mythologising. How could she sweep this poverty into her own life?
Partition stories were a complete outside for me. I cannot imagine my mother reduced to penury. My father's family might at some point have sensed a possibility of a descent into a kind of poverty, but not of this kind.
I remember now hearing stories of people flying in during partition; they must have come with money?
Two adult lives whose growing up might have fairly coasted along deprivation might have surfaced only in the numb watching of tableaus around us, or more safely and accessibly, as family stories, of 'we once were...' There is the attempt to understand parents' journeys, to see how your rather affluent present is created for you, and the confusing claims you have on your parents' beginnings and struggles, as your history. When the two of us of similar generation stood at the station that day I might have carried all this in me. Moreover, was I also guilty in the worst schoolgirl traditions, of being jealous of Green Chandeliers' mythology?
I was relieved to see that the numbers in the train made us sit apart. But they dwindled and she walked across easily and started talking.
We both had a considerable many stops to go to our lives with our parents in the more expensive addresses in town.
I got mixed gleanings - of magnificent conspiracy theories which involved a small significant cartel of trillionaire Jews, of the cruelty of forced migrations and a series on audio tape that discusses many such migrations across the country (no, I could not locate the tapes now, I forgot what I heard, though I asked a couple of times, and then I never looked for them), about beggars doing bodily harm to themselves to make themselves pitiable enough…
Someone told her the man at the station who said he was a victim of communal riots had actually poured acid on himself. I remembered the man, his neck. We argued very composedly about the Jews, on the likeliness/unlikeliness of people mutilating themselves and to what degree…
She was willing to listen to all I said. Then she put forth her anger about the complete refusal of the government to do anything - how much can a middle class person involved in his routine really do?
Her thrashing about in so many directions opened out some expression in me when I self righteously made a partly politically correct, partly felt black remark about how people did not often do what little they could. She immediately disbanded my little pedestal for two. Meaning the whole world of 2nd class compartments of women around me, she said, "you think only you and I give? All of them do. They all give, they do" before going back to complaining about the government.
We were reaching the center of the city by now, and the outsides were changing face, old buildings on the roads beyond the station, parks, the sea to one side.
We talked. Backgrounds. She wondered that I came from Lucknow and knew little about the traditional jewellery there. She had once brought a pair of earrings-I searched in my memory for market names that sounded authentic and exotic enough. (I think of my housing colony adolescence in the independent higher income group, similar looking houses with small front lawns and parks at convenient places.The adolescence of the 1980s with the glut of printed synthetics with delicate flowers on kurtas and plastic baubles - yellow anchors! to match, that was Lucknow for me!)
(Well, so why did indrawn toes not say so?)
She told me she wanted to leave the country, and laughed at herself for threatening this so often when she had no means to do so. She told me she was trying to sue a tea company for the harmful metal traces they sold their product with. Some chemicals they sprayed the plantations with... she'd been seeing her lawyer and had made a huge file, but the money…
I was surprised and secretly impressed by this shift into praxis!
Her station arrived.
She was enough of a story for me then, the Bombay anecdote with some details of our meeting, especially her colourful conspiracy theory. And a sense that beyond the stillness of our conversation and our faces in that train, there was a groping of minds, and a horror acknowledged between us about the city we moved in.
Many months later, when Medha Patkar spoke at a lecture organized by a friend in memory of his brother, I saw a woman in a sleeveless green faux satin calf length dress, with inverted hearts on it and a pouch by her side. I wonder what I recognized from where I stood further behind - the way she was herself, curiously craning her neck. That quality of skin in those plump arms that stood out in that muted gathering of spare older ladies and men dressed in fading gentle water colour shades. A little abrasive without trying.
And as unselfconsciously as she stood out in that gentle gathering, so she asked her question at the end moving through some circumlocutions to probably ask how we could do, or what we could make the government do?
We recognized each other, her hair was shorter, her dress! as she stood facing my small gathering…we might have had a cup of tea together (but what would we talk and I had not explained the preface to the friends around me who anyway I had not seen for a bit) so she shrugged her shoulders and walked the other way in that seedy shiny Bombay night road by the sea. I remembered her earrings as I saw the anklets under her dress.
Binding myself by the limitations of nurturing only your everyday, or some story telling wisdom that could see the story had ended, I did not push the meeting further, but drew in my toes discreetly.
We have seen each other since then, but not acknowledged recognition.
I have wondered: what if I had fallen in step with the expressive corners to which she was taking that conversation of strangers, flung back some expressions of my own and stretched out my toes?
A Sunday newspaper carries a review of a book about the Holoucast being made into an industry. Accusing the appropriation of that event and of Jewish identity by some rich people of that community and the US establishment. The deliberate obfuscation of the Palestinian question. Who bears the legacy of the holocaust?
I remember her ridiculous theory of Jewish cartels and remember my ridiculous replies, my frozen opinions.
Might we have talked about our families and our relations to our histories, her suing of the tea manufacturer?
The endless pointless discussion, in the face of nothing else, about the exact weight of the coins that I part with, the - I hate to say it - worthiness of the receiver, goes on in its various trajectories… revealing also ugly enough things about me! The living injuries are very visible. Suddenly on some day, I frown at the thought of some obvious fraud, or blanch at some contradicting thought. We all share the same roads and sometimes it becomes unbearable to be having to share.
And so it makes me grin when I see GC on the road from the insides of a taxi, and to understand the ironies of our connection.
The joke is on us of course and the city yields very little.
But it has to sometimes yield a bit of its opacity.