Sunday, September 18, 2016

A seamingly simple life!

Bajrang in his ultra white, half-sleeved banian (under shirt) made out of cotton with a little pocket just below his left shoulder - why anyone would sew a pocket on their under shirt was always a mystery to me - soda bottle glasses, with his shock of white curly hair and mouth full of betel nut and and it's juices, was always bent over the sewing table, using a large pair of iron scissors. He was affectionatly called Bajrangiya! I could see his shop from the side-walk enroute to dance class. I always saw a couple of girls sewing on buttons and a young apprentice with a shock of dark curly hair, the most sparkliest of smiles, wearing a brightly patterned shirt sewing the clothes that Bajrang had cut. I was not yet ten and yet it made me wonder how can such a boring man as Bajrangiya have such a cheerful son? I often wondered about Bajrangiya's wife.  How come I never saw her?

One of the reasons we never had to go to Bajrang's shop was because he came home. Randomly. He'd come every few months, dressed in a blueish or grey safari suit that had pockets all over. Always smelling betelnutty. My aunt was his primary client. Always having a few outfits to be made. He'd first measure the cloth, which would always be more than the needed 4 meters for a salwar-kamez. Then he'd suggest a frock or a skirt for me, from what would be leftovers. I distinctly remember an A-line skirt made out of brown and white scraps that I wore for years. Everything he stitched was made to last for years. And years!  His stitches were robust and the cloth would tear but his buttons and hemmings would never come apart. He always gave my aunt and mom a couple of inches to grow into. My outfits were all long enough to fit someone who was 6 inches taller than I, but that was the secret to the longevity of his products - room to grow! He didn't believe in measuring his clients, their vital stats didn't matter. He winged that!  Anyways, so after he'd measured the cloth, it was snack time. He'd have tea and pakoras or poha or whatever, then he'd ask for a small amount of money in advance and he'd leave.
Scraps synchronized

He always spoke to my grandmother in Marwari of which I understood very little of, but with the whole betelnut-in-mouth meant, I understood nothing. That was another thing in my family, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Marwari, English and Marathi were spoken all the time and I only managed to learn the three that were taught at school. Anyways, I digress.  So yes, God knows what he said, but after he left, I'd pounce on the biscuits that he hadn't touched and demand for a translation of the conversation. There really wasn't much, just small talk.  And then he'd be back in 3 or 6 weeks - depending on how badly he needed the cash - with the garments all sewn, ironed and in a neat bundle. He'd take his cash and leave. Sometimes his boy with the grin on his face would do the errand. I don't know if the boy was invited in or not, but he was, he must've politely declined or just accepted a drink of water. Simple were those days, when everyone who came to your door was offered water. So, years rolled by and sometimes Bajrang got sweets and then my grandma gave him money in an envelope and I'd learn that his older daughter got married, then his younger daughter got married and the girls in his shop were replaced by a couple of young lads. Then his son got married and had a child or two. Details got fuzzy.

Business was thriving and Bajrang did the rounds of his patron's homes mostly as habit.  His old patrons gave him work, just because. It was a symbiotic relationship built out of loyalty, convenience and respect. His cheerful son had taken over the business. New customers went to the shop and opened magazines and dictated exactly how they wanted their clothes to fit. Bajrang had a dutiful daughter-in-law, who like his wife covered her face in public, had borne two sons and had probably taken over the household chores from his mysterious wife. I started seeing much less of Bajrangiya. There really wasn't much need. I was a teenager and I had graduated to 'ready made' clothing. Although Bajrangiya's visits were inconsistent now, I had kind of taken a dislike to this old, pot bellied, safari suited man too. A dislike that comes from the arrogance of youth. Where everyone is boring and anyone predictable is dull. The fact that he was a hardworking, honest man who had single handedly taken financial and emotional care of his family did not come in the way of my youthful dislike of the man with a pen in his pocket and measuring tape in hand. Even my aunt,  (who had continually filled in the 2 inches he gave her all these years) his most trusted patron and client had outgrown (no pun intended) his pin tucks and piping designs. She'd scoured and looked for a newer tailor. But there was always an outfit or two for Bajrangiya.

And then, as things in stories go, Bajrang vanished. Everybody at home remarked every now and then, that he hadn't come around, but then we figured maybe he'd gone to his village or to visit his daughters since his curly haired, ear to ear grinning son was doing a much better job than he. Diwali came around, and it wasn't like Bajrangiya to not come for the shakkar para and gujiyas. My grandmother was worried. We asked around, and we sort of heard that his shop had been closed for a few months. There were angry customers, who had given their cloth and cash in advance but hadn't seen or heard from anyone. He went bankrupt we heard. His wife was ill someone said. He's been asking around for cash. There were rumors aplenty, except it was very out of character for a man who was so set in his ways. He had no reason to roll down his shutter and disappear, . The man was in retirement mode if not completely retired.

One evening, I stepped in to my grandmother's living room and doubled back into the kitchen. Diabetes and cataract had blinded my own grandmother, but she sat upright in her chair asking sombre questions. A visibly shaken Bajrang, was sitting on the edge of the sofa opposite her, talking and half sobbing. There was a thick pall in the air. Back in the kitchen my questioning glance to my aunt was met with sniffles as she strained the tea in the kitchen. I brought the tray and placed it on the table in front of Bajrang. He didn't notice me, nor the tea nor the biscuits. I took my seat at the edge of the divan. Listening intently. I was much older now, and I could understand the gist of the conversation without knowing each word in a sentence. He spoke of famous doctors and hospitals. Of a famous politician recommending a world renowned doctor. One of his super rich clients donating a lot of money for an operation. And then another operation. I listened to his misery, while second guessing who or what? Was it a sick grand child? Cancer? His wife? What could make a stoic, no nonsense man into this blathering sobbing tragic figure? Had I known what I know now, it would have taken me seconds to answer that question. Only a child can do this to a parent. 

 Heavy downpours in Mumbai meant the electric poles fell down or thick electric wires just snapped. And employees of the Electric board, would often have to repair the lines in bad weather.  The grinning child was now a full grown man with a family and business to take care of. His kindness had not waned in all these years nor his zest for life. So, when Mr. dark curly hair, heard a man cry for help, he reacted swiftly. He picked up a thick wooden stick to hand it to the lineman on the pole who was being electrocuted. In the moment of panic, he didn't see the loose hanging electrical line and just a small tip of the line hit him in the eye.

That's it. A  (mighty) bolt of current in the eye, started it all. He was rushed to the finest of hospitals, there was a burn in the eye, an infection, and doctors and operations and the infection spreading to the other eye, more money, operations, facial burns, help, pooling of resources, pain, agony, loss of sight. Blindness. 

 I never saw Bajrang's son again. Months later I heard, he was working in some workshop for the blind, learning to use his hands to you know, weave baskets or some such. I didn't take dance classes anymore, but if I went that way, I peered guiltily into Bajrang's shop. We no longer needed his services, which made the guilt worse.  And what I saw was like a camera panning out in a movie.  Bajrang frail and balding in his soda bottle glasses and not so white banian with a pocket, bent over his sewing table. His daughter-in-law was at the sewing machine, her saree covering her head but not her face, working diligently. Her two sons sat there doing homework and maybe helping with the buttons. 

P.S. - I just realized that I forgot to mention Bajrangiya was an integral part of many people's lives. In this pic below he made this 'Lady Diana' outfit for me in 1982 for my Uncle's wedding.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Wiflomat ©

Diplomats are taking same-sex companions to postings abroad, the title above should read spouselomats but we can give up being all PC all the time and stick to the above. How does gender matter anyway, right? I could also go with diplomates, but it somehow conjures up an imagery of a man in a black suit, Mont Blanc cufflinks, saluting his flag and his wifey winking to the camera with bunny ears and a bushy tail.

I was thinking of writing how one chases spiders away and how difficult it is to come to a first world country and adapt and all of that, but people before I, wives before me, have already  done  a good job detailing that kind of stuff . Also, I never did have to train cheetahs, or kill snakes, or rig up electric wiring anywhere I've lived – YET. So how do I write about my experience?

First, the thing about being married to a diplomat – mediocre or awesome – is that he (I am the wifey remember) is connected to something big. Very big. His/her work is about billions of dollars in trade, changing or maintaining political borders, helping earthquake victims, writing global environment laws, etc. The job is omnipotent, all encompassing, self perpetuating and basically like sand in a ruched swimsuit. It gets into crevices that you didn’t know existed. Or at least that's what most spouses feel at some point or another. We see our spouses on TV, their names in newspapers, they are key-note speakers in conferences and they address local communities all the time. We, the wiflomats, we're their number one cheer leaders, their groupies (we do sleep with them), their PR person and their event management specialists all rolled into one. We facebook their successes, watsapp their images, tweet their sound bytes, bask in the reflection of their glories and yet surprisingly, soon enough we're at the helm of their photo ops. We make our homes fancier than we care, we dress to impress, our jewelry makes bold statements, our children are polished to their eyeballs and yet we're not our spouses. We can try and overshadow them socially with our wit, charm, beauty, elegance and warmth and yet, it is they who hold the office. So we go squirreling in our career drawers and talk about our careers and qualifications, we think of what we would have been or we would have had, had we not taken up the role of a trailing spouse. A medical practice, a dance troupe, a CEO ship in a company, our own NGO – the truth is, we will never know. We chose this.

We wiflomats are not revered like Army wives, nor are we pitied like the wives of travelling salesmen. We are seen as intoxicated spoilt beings who live in a continuum of soirees and coffee mornings. No one realizes that we, in effect end up being single parents too, with our husbands working non-stop or traveling incessantly.  We don't moan, we don't complain, we do what needs to be done. We make sure the children do their homework, the house is clean, we learn those 20 recipes even though we've long misplaced the books that held them, we learn to knit if winterwear is expensive, we learn to swim if there's water aplenty, we learn 13 languages, we learn to ski if the mountains are cold enough but the most important thing we learn to do is s-t-r-e-t-c-h our money.  We learn where to buy the cheapest table cloths, the most original fakes, we learn to buy gifts in bulk, we learn never to spend our money on chocolates, we learn how to decorate with leaves from our gardens and steals from the antique store, we learn to bake without baking powder if need be, and we learn the exact international shipping costs of Victoria's Secret stores if we have ample bosoms and can’t procure our nether garments locally without losing an arm or a leg (or some boob).

No matter how many phone calls we make, we truly never know what awaits us in a new post. We just go in good faith, ready to tie our apron strings and wear the gardener's belt and don the hostess' pin. There are plenty who put their foot down and refuse to be trailing washerwomen, but most of us are bitten by the gypsy bug and we have an itch to pack our bags. Not bags exactly, more like 400 boxes and then reach another destination and unpack them. Often ourselves. We are driven by the force of the next handmade trinket we'll own. The next 'best kept secret travel destination' we will visit. The next best opportunities our children will experience. The next bunch of memories we will make. The next food we'll try and most importantly the next chapter we will write. For, we all have a  book in our head. A different book. Unique. Just like us and the lives we make. And they're not all about chasing away spiders.