Mrs Sharma’s Toxic Vigil
Her daughter insisted that she needed to see a doctor. But Uma Devi knew doctors were part of the plot. She would never step out of her little cave. Leave me alone! she screamed, making her husband and daughter step back in horror.
It had begun in her seventy-second year when sleep became an elusive dream. Over the past months she had been getting up earlier and earlier. Not that it bothered her at first – she had only felt elated. Finally, she had beaten Gandhiji in one respect at least.
All through that winter, windows of the Sharma’s 2BHK, D 203, apartment blazed at three AM, riding roughshod over the groans of her sleeping husband. With a righteous, military-like flurry, activity commenced. Everything bristled with purpose. The washing machine thrummed assertively on high, churning her two salwar kameezes, undergarments, one bed sheet, one pillow cover and one towel in the water she had smartly filled the evening before. Uma Devi believed in washing everything everyday. Only way to keep pure in these polluted times.
At four am, the exultant bass of full flowing taps hitting the five empty plastic buckets lined up in two bathrooms reverberated through the apartment to the adjoining ones, so that the neighbour’s children, preparing for Boards, were woken by that sound rather than by their cell phone beepers. Pressure cookers whizzed, pots and pans clanged, pre-dawn vividh bharti moaned mournfully to the flap–flap of her rubber chappals.
Water was boiled and then cooled to precisely ninety-six degrees, lightly salted, and used for noisy rituals of inner Yogic purification: ingest from nostrils, expel with mouth, and other variations.
At seven AM, Uma, suffused in the superior glow of her exertions was spent enough to take her post on the armchair by the living room window as she sipped tea and nibbled toast. The perch let her simultaneously monitor the activities of the maid Juma, supervise Mr Sharma, and keep an eye on the goings-on of the neighbours, whose day was just beginning .
Look at that Singh of 1O5! Rapist, drug addict, forever staring at women – including me! You must report him to the police, she told Mr Sharma. Juma was kept only because she never came late. Otherwise Uma Devi knew she had a tendency to steal sugar, tea leaves and pickles. Her way with Juma was to always let her know that she knew.
Why Juma! she would say springing behind her into the kitchen in bare feet, I thought I had filled the mango pickle bottle only today? Do take it if you like it but only, ask me first. When have I refused you? I forgot to wear my chappals and look how dirty my feet got?
Her instructions to her husband on matters of domestic importance were always exacting. The kabuli chana must be small-grained while rajma must be speckled brown. Don’t buy the jalebi if it is more than an hour old. It does not stay crispy. And remember the baingan must be small and round. You brought long green ones last time and wasted twenty-five rupees. Not counting the petrol cost. Problem is, you never watch things.
All through the thirty-five years of married life, Uma Devi had lived in spacious bungalows in small towns where her husband, a bank manager, had been a big man. She always had a garden and a man to tend it; a full time maid in the kitchen and a driver. She had been the queen of a minor kingdom with many subjects to lord over.
Shifting to BAAP (Banking Adhikari Aawasiya Parisar), a cooperative apartment society in the state capital after her husband’s retirement had been a major climb down for her. Mr Sharma said that a big town had hospitals and good connectivity to rail and air networks and all this mattered in old age. While that was true, it was also more true everyday that no one around her thought she mattered. No one cared. Except a meek Mr Sharma and the wily Juma. They were her only subjects.
Twelve years back life in BAAP had not been that bad. In 2000, theirs was the only apartment block on this side of Hoshangabad road. You could see acres of paddy fields and spreading mango orchards from the bedroom balcony. Grand old semal and peepal trees spread all along the edge of the fields and through the summer, the frantic call of koel could be heard right up to the living room. In shraavan the smell of ripening mangoes wafted in. The mango contractors, their women and children, kept watch on the fruit-laden trees. They camped, ate, and slept beneath the trees. Uma Devi loved to watch them from the bedroom balcony. The women in flowery ghagras and bright yellow dupattas and the children clad only in singlets, playing in the mud and sucking mangoes.
In those days Uma Devi would go for morning walks on the kaccha road along the fields. When her daughter called from Delhi, Uma Devi always told her how pure the air in Bhopal was and how watching all the green had made her eyes strong. Baba Ramdev had told her on TV that if she could count the far and near greens fifty times during her morning walk her eye power number would come down magically.
If her son called from UK she told him how delicious the mangoes or guavas were. He would never find such delicious fresh fruit in England. The son and daughter, busy with their own lives would find an odd crammed weekend to visit her before they melted into the rush again.
Then the real estate boom engulfed Bhopal and all the fields were portioned off and sold to builders. Trees along the old double lane highway were butchered. Majestic banyans and neems, gnarled with age, tamarinds, and peepals were torn out as casually as cardboard cutouts or flex boards violating municipal rules. Nasty yellow machines with enormous maws ate the fields and threw up dust all day. Five years of grinding noise and mayhem later, a six-lane flyover-ridden, glossy black python of a road sat smugly coiled around outer Bhopal, carrying glittering malls and towers in its folds. The python’s belly swelled with the old red-tiled mud huts, the trees, the tiny shops under the trees, the anonymous shrines and the paddy fields that had greeted Uma Devi on her morning walks.
Her own complex, BAAP, became a tiny blip, engulfed like so many other Castles and Retreats and Estates and Paradises and Heights in the python’s embrace. All of them pretentious pigeon holes scurrying in a manic race for being the ugliest. By 2010, if you stood in the front balcony all you saw was the blur of traffic, the wheeze of it enough to makes your nerves raw. From the bedroom balcony you saw skeletons of half-constructed towers and tree stumps, hungry, emaciated jhuggi children scrabbling in the malba. The paddy fields and mango orchards seemed as if from a dream, from another world.
Her morning walks stopped, and she took to Yoga and Kriyas.
More and more she turned to late night TV for entertainment. She liked watching programmes that laid bare the evil face of things. Sansani, Crime Reporter and Asli Sach were her top choices. It was a bad world out there. Old women had their throats slit by servants. Little girls were raped by people close to them. The next day, she would tell daughter to be careful about her three-year-old daughter, never to trust anyone – that means anyone.
Night after night she sat absorbed in the world where men raped, made videos of unsuspecting women, mothers strangled daughters, and husbands cut their wives up into forty pieces and left the gunny sack full of body parts on the railway platform.
Look, she would hiss at Mr Sharma, what is the world coming to! Poor Mr Sharma itched to see Twenty Twenty or at least the news highlights on NDTV, but he could not wrest the remote from her claws.
At night, even as she lay dutifully still and sleepless on her cot, her mind whirred. Every night from eleven to three am, curtains drawn, the lights across visible, she saw and heard , remembered and kept track of everything.
The hostellers in 104 coming back past midnight. Whores! The makkhichoos doctor of 201 who did night duty for extra money, but refused to pay his share of fees for cleaning up the common areas. Mr Rao of 205 whose daughter had burnt her hand in her in-laws place fighting with his wife to have her go back. The Tomars and their rowdy friends making too much noise again. Drunkards.
As the clock ticked by, the faces of her neighbours became hazy, as if immersed in the murky green pond of her childhood village. They warped and shifted into the faces of the long dead monsters she kept deep inside her blue tin trunk, the one her mother gave her when she got married to her no good husband. Out came her evil stepbrother, her sadist brother-in-law, the witch of a mother-in-law, the stepsons ganging up and egging her husband to strangle her. All wearing neighbourly masks. Knocking at her door to ask haal chaal and borrow sugar and milk! As if she did not understand !
Five years of watching the monsters through the night and a strange thing happened. Uma Devi felt convinced that she was being watched.
First it was those CCTVs everywhere – the electronic eye jutting out everywhere: at the landing outside the lift, in the corridors. No matter how often she turned her back to it, she felt uncomfortable. When a University came up close by, their complex was run over by college students looking for accommodation. These boys and girls laughed raucously, wielded cameras, put wires in their ears all the time, had wifis and laptops. Her grandson told her that internet could keep track of and record everything forever. That made her shiver! No wonder these kids felt so insouciant and powerful! They knew everyone’s secrets. Nothing was safe. Notebandi had already turned her cash to wastepaper. What was next?
She stopped stepping out of the house or talking to anyone. If anyone knocked she talked through the eyehole. She tore up bills and letters.
Then she put thick curtains on the windows and started keeping them drawn even during daytime.
She got Mr Sharma to nail plywood on the bathroom vents. She switched on only one bulb and gave an earful to her husband if he dared to switch on more lights. When her daughter came down, from Delhi, she told her ‘they’ had put an internet device on the bathroom pipe that ran all along the multi storied tower, so that they could film dirty pictures of her taking a crap.
Switching on the bulbs brought their disembodied voices to her. Accusing, threatening, warning her.
She now hardly slept or ate. When she saw herself in the mirror she saw a cadaver with beady eyes and sunken cheeks. It made her throw a vase at the mirror.
Who were They? asked her daughter wringing her hands.
Oh everyone. They are all monsters. Who knows who they are ? They wanted to make fun of her. She would spit on them.
I don’t want a doctor. I want you to put them in jail.
Varsha Tiwary is a bureaucrat, currently residing in Washington. Reading has always been her basic need but writing came late to her, after much hesitation and self-doubt. Having started writing, however, she cannot staunch the flow. It has become a way of downloading memories pickled over time. A way of making sense of things around her. From time to time she sends her words into the Universe , with a prayer that what she enjoyed writing be read with equal relish by some reader.