Life gets exceedingly painful when the metaphorical becomes literal. The average person should want the ‘actors’ in their lives to mean ‘catalysts’ and nothing more. How else could this word apply to you in an everyday setting, except through that one lexical connotation? You especially don’t want actors you barely admire to become actual catalysts.
The first time I saw his face, he was wiping the hood of his car, a dark navy sedan, with a dirty rag. I watched as he wiped for well over twenty minutes, dipping the rag in a bucket of water that was a shade of muddy brown. I couldn’t help looking at his dark, earthy, oddly square face because he was right outside my window, blocking the until-then unrestricted view of the meadow and the lake beyond. That view was mine. Yet, here was this creature, dressed only in a pair of shorts that had seen better days. What was he showing off? His car? His skinny torso? Or his lack of cleanliness?
I sat there waiting for some other resident of our enclave to handle this atrocity. No one came. After a while I went around attending to my chores. Thankfully, I had to go to work and the eyesore was soon forgotten. However, that same evening, when I got home, a shock awaited me. This man had turned that corner into a mini haunt. He had spread out a little straw mat on the beautiful green grass by the front door of the car and had invited a few friends over for a game of cards. I looked at my watch and noted the time. It was around six and the faint light from that day’s ferocious sun was still around, refracting through hesitant clouds, casting a spectacular hue over my view.
When the chai walla showed up with a tray full of cups of hot steaming tea, I just stood there and watched, appalled. One from the group looked up at me and exclaimed, ‘She is staring!’ (or something to that effect) in a Bengali that had Marxist fingerprints. I knew enough to be able to tell the difference between Tagore’s uplifting Bengali vernacular and this filth. They weren’t entirely wrong in their assumption that I wouldn’t understand their language. If the Bengali wasn’t a phrase or a sentence that matched a piece of dialogue from a Satyajit Ray movie, it might as well be gibberish.
The man, playing ‘teen patta’ (a three-card game), sitting on a mat on lush green society-maintained grass wearing a lungi and an odd crooked smile, was pointing at me and calling me an ogler. All I could focus on was the society-fee I had to shell out each quarter for the maintenance of the ‘common area’. What I had hoped would be taken care of by the end of the day was now settling down like a season.
I wanted to ask, ‘Who are you people?’ I wanted to yell, ‘Get out of here!’ But I knew better. I went down to the society manager’s office. The manager had left for the day. Instead of going straight back home, I knocked on a neighbour’s door and lamented. The smug look on her face did not corroborate the more obvious sentiments of sympathy attached to the words her mouth formed. My confusion cleared when, quite unable to contain her enthusiasm, she announced that she was moving in a week. Yes, it was a big secret but housewarming was in a week, and since it was in another locality further away from the city, no one from here was invited. ‘…the other house is bigger, not in the city yes, but the house is bigger. We need a bigger house, the children are so much taller now, the three boys all shooting up like giraffes…’ She went on and on, while I paid partial attention, my mind still on the Marxist view-vandals. She said her new tenants would be arriving in a month. The rest of her boastful jabber was lost under a cloud, channelled from my brains, lit up with these neon letters – ‘Who is going to pick all our common fights?’ Anything that had to do with the ‘common area’ was our shared dilemma, and until then her husband was always quick to jump on every issue. My mind rushed to process how I was now left to deal with these Marxists by myself.
Feeling defeated, I walked back into my by-then dark home, dreading having to face the altered view that would no doubt greet me. When the light filled the room, there they were, laughing and drinking tea right outside my window. In the now heavy darkness outside I couldn’t make out their features, even though there was enough light from the car, powered on, only to sustain their activities around it. Eventually, they switched the engine off, and began making full use of the light filtering out of my living room as well as the adjacent kitchen, yelling for another game of cards to begin. In the days that followed this would become a routine like we had a secret pact. They would enjoy this free supply of electricity coming from the beautiful apartment my estranged husband was mostly paying for – my apartment with a view now eroded by this very filth – and I would indulge in feeling helpless though I maintained a never-say-die front.
People tiptoed around Marxists, but never around Marxists with jobs. What kind of communists held working positions in an uneven society? Surely, those weren’t serious Marxists? The real ones snatched their living from nature and from donations from the paranoid guilty, didn’t they? The kind of guilt that grows from a self-centred approach to life, a deluded approach fed from an erroneous belief – everything is about me. How else were these people, toting an ideology shunned by a majority world over, still holding on to respectful credibility?
It wasn’t until three days later that I got to talk to the manager. I brought him to where the car was usually parked, but the car was gone. There was no sign of it ever having been there. The manager couldn’t confirm if he had seen something either. He left, asking me to note down the license plate number the next time the car blocked my lovely view, assuring me that I had the right to find it intact and free from man-made encumbrances unless the change has been approved and voted on by the members of the society, which was clearly not the case here, and therefore agreeing that if there indeed was such an impediment as the one I had described, a grave error had occurred. I was one of the lucky few who’d managed to snag a great view with the apartment deal, and the manager always mentioned that every time we ran into each other, even if there was no context that could justify the reference. Our conversation led to the neighbours next door, about their moving, and once again he found an excuse to sneak the topic in as he wondered why they’d vacate this view. Chewing on his betel-leaf, he reflected despondently upon the common attitudes of some people who never knew when they had a good thing.
I had this nagging feeling that I was being a little self-centred. I wasn’t guilty consciously. ‘I deserve to focus only on me’, I justified. I had nothing much going for me at the time. A failed marriage, a hard-hearted sister who took my ex-husband’s side, a terrible dead-end job in a place that the rest of the country said was the best place to work especially for a woman, and a whole bunch of cousins whom I had nothing in common with – this is what I was hiding behind the beautiful view. The lake stood shimmering between me and these nasty side effects of being a human being. The ducks and the frogs made me happy; my family made me want to knock down God. The quality I value most is dependability. The frogs are dependable. They croak whenever it rains, when the wetness around them is even and consistent, and they croak to a beat, repeating, rhythmic. The birds are similar. Their schedules are set by nature. Humans dance to a lower, carnal order.
Things always get worse before they get better. That is a known fact. The men came back, and now there was whistling when I passed by. I was shocked. Did they think this would make me happy? I hid behind my couch and observed them unseen. Who else were they doing this to? Was it every woman? A few? A special kind of few? I used to be pretty, but at thirty-six and on the heavier side now, when I’d always been skinny, I judged myself un-dateable. What were these men up to? From what I could see, they hadn’t whistled at anyone else, but then again, it would have been impossible to whistle justifiably at the lady who had just had heart surgery and walked around clutching her heart, a few nannies, and a school girl. I switched tracks and noted down the car’s plate number. Hell, I used my phone and clicked a picture.
I waited to find a suitable opportunity to talk to the manager, who was always busy attending to more serious calls like curious thieving monkeys getting into rooms through open windows, or people getting locked out of their homes due to their own forgetfulness or because their partners would rather have them die outside, somehow, miraculously, in the moderate Bangalore weather. My ‘obstruction of a good view’ problem was at the bottom of the list.
Then I saw her. She had the biggest boobs I had ever seen on a woman whose waist was only as wide as a decent-sized cow’s neck. I mean, they were huge. There was no other word. Colossal? Gigantic? She walked confidently past those Marxist recreational gamblers. They never even looked up at her. I stood in my kitchen with my apple stuck in my mouth. The whole scene seemed surreal. This woman who belonged in some boob circus didn’t warrant a whistle? Her tight-fitting clothes alone should drive men crazy; she was a marvel! What was going on?
I went to my living room, obsessed by this thought that either I was turning into a lesbian or someone was pulling a weird prank on me. Perhaps the manager was having a laugh with his good view review. Here is a twist – is this a better view? I wasn’t laughing.
I went out for a walk and followed the big-breasted woman around the block. She was on a stroll, and so was I. If she was a Marxist too, I would soon find out. I noticed several people staring at her, both men and women. She walked on uncaring, as if unaware of her super-human attribute. No, she wasn’t drawing attention to herself, but neither was she apologizing. As a self-professed feminist, I had to admire that quality. Not many could brave such an obvious visual assault when not in it for the adulation. Her pink stretch-pants and sweater matched the colour in her cheeks. I couldn’t help wondering about the lucky man in her life. Immediately I was worried. To whom did these thoughts belong – to me or a malevolent male spirit? What was going on? Was this normal after a Marxist influx?
After one wide run around the entire perimeter, I was done. The men didn’t whistle. I guessed they’d stopped existing in whistling mood soon after they’d done it to me that morning.
I had to tap into the gossip channel for more news, but I needn’t have bothered. They told me those drivers were in the employ of a famous film-star. The next day the film-star showed up. The relatives of the actor, who were our neighbours, (not the ones next door) came down to say goodbye as he took his leave. They stood in front of my home, and offered the actor a ride in the car whose driver’s salary, I was sure, was coming out of his very pocket. The actor waived their offer, and raised his hand and clicked his fingers. Immediately a motorbike pulled up, shooting through the main entrance, ignoring security. The biker was thin and fully covered in black, head to toe; even his helmet was black. Although the crowd was sparse, they were loud. They clapped and cheered as the actor hopped on and rode pillion out of the enclave.
I began to wonder then if these men were even Marxists at all.
Although vindicated in that I’d astutely assessed how I must tread carefully around these men, I wasn’t very happy about how I was now probably in the minority with a major problem. After assessing the mood, waiting a few more days and absorbing the gossip that wafted in through the common area, I understood that it was one of euphoria. No one was unhappy; in fact, the opposite. Everyone had an anecdote to share that involved the actor and themselves, either linked through a close connection or extremely remote, and all of it was hilarious; of course it was, since the actor was a comedian. That is how that eye-sore, the always half-naked driver, became a minor celebrity himself. People walked up to him with gifts and smiles and stupid questions, and all right in front of my living room window.
By now, the undefined object of my dismay had gathered that I wasn’t from that fan-club. I had no anecdote, and the one movie I had enjoyed, with that actor in it, I wasn’t ready to attribute entirely to that man. I swallowed my pride and sorrow and prepared for the worst – a lonely life with no view to come home to. But then, it got worse. It got noisy as hell.
There’d be loud yelling, from boisterous teens, screeching co-eds, and delirious-with-heady-fandom people of all kinds, and at all odd hours. My new neighbours moved in and absorbed all of this as normal. No one was going to complain now. My fate was sealed. That became even more obvious when the manager began avoiding me, smiling politely as he passed by in a hurry, or looking through me with the ease of one who’d always known how to do that.
I decided to get down to business all on my own. Pulling the suitcase full of essential documents from under my cot, I looked for the one with the layout for the entire area. The parking lots had been clearly marked and sold together with the apartments. There simply was no parking lot in front of my apartment, marked or unmarked. All I had to do was find proof and write a letter to the concerned people. They would be forced to act on it.
As I drafted my letter, trying hard to keep my anger out of the voice that was guiding me to write it, I heard the distant croak of the first monsoon frogs. Tears filled my eyes, and the words blurred. They were here, my unlikely amphibian companions, right on time as usual, but this time our unified and blissful consummation of nature wouldn’t happen without certain unsavoury interruptions. Spurred further, I wrote and edited to satisfaction. The next day the letter, with proof enclosed, was slipped under the appropriate door.
Well accustomed to the way things worked, I wasn’t holding my breath for a quick reply. This could take anything between a month and a year. The driver continued his visual assault on me, my unwelcoming attitude refusing to sink in. I had always been a thorough lady, never frowning except in the company of the closest and dearest, never laughing out of turn either but this man changed all that. I looked out my window, every time the noise rose to a decibel level higher than the one from the sick dog somewhere in the compound, and frowned hard in the general direction of that pseudo-celebrity. Finally, he got it. He did not let it go. The next day his employers came down and looked up at my kitchen window, an older lady dressed to kill and the big-breasted woman once again in matching sweats and Nikes. Here was the explanation for what had happened earlier with that young woman and the whistling. I looked down at them and they looked up at me. They went away. I stood there, still looking, as they took off on a supposed evening stroll. I made it a point to commit their entire expressionless profiles to memory, noting sheepishly that this was the first time I’d set my eyes on Ms. Nike’s face. Embarrassed, I switched gears and reflected upon that earlier euphoria I had processed.
Enough cannot be said about that phenomenon – the wide-ranging comments all exhibiting the same emotion, and over something that would do nothing substantial for the world at large; or would it?
At work, the debate for discovering ways to keep employees motivated was constantly on. There were newer and surprisingly time-consuming tactics beings introduced just to keep employees driven, in peak state, possibly even ecstatic, no matter how mundane their responsibilities. Never had I experienced this kind of a collective and spontaneous delight, a clear uplifting of the spirits, like when the actor had just waltzed in unannounced. This could be the answer, I theorized, and proceeded to suggest that as a possible motivational technique.
The response was a swift and emphatic refusal to entertain. Is this the same country? State? City? I could not grasp the reasoning behind this starkly antonymic reaction. Was my workplace filled with people like me? Hardly. If that were true I wouldn’t be miserable here. Since the one-line suggestion was never discussed, I never got the opportunity to clearly explain my own motivations, and therefore I became the thing I detested, here, in this place which was the other one that would consume the rest of my days. Everything was different now, at work and at home. I decided it was time to take it all the way, no thanks to the actor. First, I was going to patch things up with my sister. Then, I was going to sever the last piece of thread my marriage was hanging by, snip it, rip it off, and move on. I no longer cared what the society’s take would be on that illegal squatter.
Applying for leave, I began packing, and soon I was on a flight to Calcutta where my sister lived. Perhaps it was because I was here one day and taking-off the next, that the lady followed me all the way to Calcutta. When I saw her at the airport, I was more than a little taken aback. Curiously, her face was just as expressionless even as her gaze lingered, recognizing me no doubt. A dark-skinned shorter woman, older by about fifteen years or so, was heavier than I prayed I would ever become, but she carried herself well. Her face was caked in make-up, and the large bindi on her forehead, glistening with glitter and sweat, had the dazzle of a stunning diamond. Dressed in a dark red sari, the colour of garnet, she stood out in that crowd like a well-rounded beacon. What was the right thing to do here, I wondered, processing the fact that her usual companion was missing? I never did see Ms. Nike again.
My sister was running late, and I headed towards a chair in the waiting area, my attention divided between this woman and a T.V. screen. It wasn’t all that shocking that she was here. After all, this was more her hometown than mine, and it was festive season – the ‘pujas’. I settled down and tried to rid myself of the eerie feeling that I was being followed.
It was absurd. Why would she be following me, this tiny yet sprightly woman who was related to a film star? Nothing had happened between us, nothing untoward and nothing feisty, so there wasn’t anything that could have led to this. I concluded that this was nothing but a terrible coincidence. This was the new course my life was taking, one that was away from everything I was used to until then. Leaving a ten-year-old marriage would throw up its own challenges in weird ways perhaps, I mused. I wished for something new, and there it was, staring at me, the strangest neighbour I had ever had. It could have been worse. It could have been that scantily clad youth, whom I briefly mistook for a Marxist, who assumed a whistle in my direction would settle all transgressions including that one.
When my sister arrived, I whispered urgently, delivering the entire history within the span of a few seconds. Her set face, which I read from experience, said it all. I hadn’t been declared crazy without substantiation. Here was more proof. First, I walk away from a saintly husband, then I imagine film-stars, or their relatives, are following me around. My sister led the way, lugging some of my bags, her expression now clearly indicating how burdened she already was, and the week was just two minutes in. Eventually, my sister did buy some parts of my story, but she was sure I was mistaken in thinking that woman at the airport was the neighbour who’d lurked briefly around my kitchen window ages ago. I could live with that, I decided. The week flew by, and on my way back I was on high alert for Mrs. Bad Neighbour but she wasn’t visible. I was almost disappointed.
Back in Bangalore, I was greeted by a notice posted on my door. I ripped open the envelope to discover that the proof I had sent had been validated and returned with a further query. ‘Are you the rightful owner of this property? If not please send this back with his/her signature. Thank you.’
As far as I knew, I was. When I looked around, just to make sure, I discovered that my property papers were missing. I had never bothered to check until then, referring to its safety, whenever anyone enquired, with a casual ‘it is someplace safe’. Now, I rummaged through with a vigorous frenzy. Unable to get a whiff of its presence anywhere in the apartment, I did what I had to and called my ex/estranged husband. He had it, he said, and autocratically demanded to know why I wanted the papers. ‘Are you planning on selling?’
I explained the situation and he replied coolly, ‘Don’t worry, that view will be gone soon anyway. Some developers have bought the area around the building. They’re laying down a foundation for a mall. They’ll be moving in tons of sand any time now, to fill the lake.’
I cursed him and called him a liar and hung up, forgetting the dual purpose of my call. I was supposed to ensure that that the documents were back home. I dialled again and he didn’t wait for me to speak. ‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll send it over.’ He said, and hung up, not bothering to explain the filching.
The whole experience put everything in a new perspective. What was I doing? Did I have a plan? I didn’t even know where my own things were. Was I cut out for a divorce? I thought about it long and hard and at the end of another week, I called my husband up for a face-to-face. The time has come, I informed him, for us to move on, for real. He wanted to know what that was ‘really about’. ‘I’m coming down there to check this situation with some illegal car park!’
‘No!’ I insisted. What was this? Playacting? ‘You stay put and let me handle this.’
But the thing took over, and soon he was here. We faced the anticlimax to the whole thing together, when nothing happened; nothing at all. The car park was now legal they claimed. Using a clause in the sale agreement, the society had approved adding additional parking spaces around the entire lot along the compound wall. ‘Letters have been sent out to all residents and would be arriving soon.’ I had a feeling that the actor was one of the developers of that mall.
So, there it was, the explosive end. I decided that it was time to sell. The peculiarly literal catalyst and his proxy had won. This chapter of my life needed closure. I didn’t know it then but the next time I would see that woman would be in a movie, in a Hollywood production, years later.
The long drawn out drama came to an end with the successful sale of that apartment where I thought I’d be spending the rest of my days. By the time I left, with what I claimed my own, the cheerful frogs had already been silenced.
The author has been writing all her life authoring prize-winning essays or editing technical documents while working as an I.T. Business Analyst. The first short story she published was in her high-school magazine. More recently her work has appeared in literary magazines. A short story titled ‘The Bride’ appeared in the Indian literary magazine ‘Indian Ruminations’. She once received an honourable mention from ‘Glimmer Train’ for a short story titled ‘Oddly Irrelevant’.