The ongoing reflections of a curious soul in uncertain times
The blare of a horn shatters my reverie. The routine of the robot has already taken over the recent convert, the faint strain in the legs the only reminder of the miles consumed. The morning walk momentarily thrown out of gear, I instinctively step on to the slender pavement ringing the blocks on the outer perimeter and cast around for the source of disturbance.
Miniature Bengali Aunty, ramrod erect in her matchbox Maruti, scowling combatively through the windscreen, warns the denizens of her impending arrival from 30 metres. Woe to you who fail to heed her warning, as the car picks its way down the compound road, for you do so at your peril.
Satisfied that the space created by the gaggle of scattering citizens is sufficient to tether her steed, she parks and alights only to position herself in her multi-tiered garden, slight figure lost in the bright foliage and, mobile to ear, berates a loved one in gravelly tones for the years of neglect of dental hygiene that now compels the dreaded visit to the dentist.
There is nothing more universally feared than dental intervention, and no two words like “root canal” which evoke more alarmed empathy to unite even friend and foe in temporary truce. The tone is maternal, proprietary, and delivered in the halting cadence of a mother tongue clung to in the decades of the diaspora.
At the time of writing, we are now well into the month of April, and the images of colour and action that are the mainstay of the cooler months are now but rare flashes. It is warmer, no, hotter! Spring, the delicious ephemera of the weather of South Asia, is in steady retreat, beaten back by a sun that gains daily mastery of the grey-blue sky.
The morning yields a steadfast but dwindling crop of walkers and joggers. The greetings are less exuberant, the smiles more strained. One appears to labour twice as hard, and the pinched features tell a personal story of effort and pain as each aspirant for a healthy existence trots out a personal destiny at varying levels of reluctance. As in all other challenges in life, the inertia is to be overcome, with greater effort if necessary. Good luck to all, and be on your merry way, I say.
The collective spirit is dulled as the reality of the sun slowly, inexorably, draws the last vestiges of cool moisture out of the atmosphere. Pools of shade still do appear as if by magic to provide some succor, and the ten-kilometre slog around the outer limits of the plant is rewarded by unexpected stretches of shadow with breeze.
The thirsty tickle at the base of the throat is not yet agony, but the breath is more ragged, and the mirage of water tantalizes. The perambulation has lost its spontaneity, and has instead assumed the contours of a well-planned expedition to anticipate the rays of a sun penetrating every nook and corner of our precious patch of green.
Life appears to be in retreat, and a blanket of somnolence has descended on our oasis. But in spite of the brakes applied to the pace of life, there are the occasional glimmers that provide enjoyment, or amusement, or both, to the daily rite of exercise and make it all worthwhile.
The nature of weather has changed palpably over the years. Those were the days when life was a tad more definite and we benefited from more trees, when one could predict the end of one season and the commencement of the next with accuracy down to the actual day of the cusp. We celebrated Holi some days ago, the “festival of colour,” signifying the end of winter and the advent of spring and the months of heat, that traditional harbinger of the hard cutover in seasons, doubling as a blessing on the spring harvest.
Astonishingly, a cool breeze perseveres and plays through the length and breadth of our oasis. There is much to be said about the first principle of environmental consciousness which beseeches the world to maintain at least a modicum of green cover. Plant a sapling, nurture it into a tree, and contribute to the divinity of creation.
I was dismayed at the thought of Bengali Aunty having also retreated into the confines of her ground-floor home. Sheltered by the protective ring of her first family, the garden, only the other day she shut the windows and lowered the cane blinds, grimly announcing the onset of summer before disappearing into her micro-sanctuary.
Curiously, we refer to “blinds” in this part of the world as “chicks,” an association difficult for a bloke nurtured throughout his adolescent years on a diet of American-English. So I could have shouted for joy on seeing her reappear, menacingly, bearing down on us in her little car. All is not lost, for there is still some colour and action to be had.
Reluctance manifests itself in different ways. Let’s play the game of “greet and meet” and “greet and avoid.” It’s amusing to hail and be hailed by various units of the complex. Will they, won’t they, how uncomfortable are they? Will they fix eyes to the ground in anticipation and dare you to holler friendly-like?
Put it down to the resignation of age, rather than the light of maturity, that a character like me who was loath to greet the same friendly bird more than once in the morning, is now prepared to wearily raise his hand in greeting sometimes even twice in a single round just because the said bird has made the effort.
Passersby view me askance, but I am beyond caring. The variation of the ritual used to flood my being with irritation when confronted with the mechanical “Jai Hind, Sir!” by the same guard every time I slogged past his block. Why can’t you greet me once, remember whom you exchanged pleasantries with, and dispense with the formality till tomorrow morning?
But, like I said, it bothers me much less today, and I raise a hand in greeting with zest to boot. It is now a source of mild amusement, and not the hypertension of yesterday.
The disciplined daily perambulation is not without its practical advantages. There are just so many times that our portly bicycle-borne plumber can avoid my ever-polite entreaties to attend to the problems of wet walls and rusty pipes. I know he is busy, and I respect his time, but dang it, I need my work to be done, or else I won’t hear the end of it from you know who.
The result of the smiling satyagraha is that Nandi-ji and his sidekick have been banging away at the pipes for four days in a row in the hope of plugging the leak without the need for any further invasive procedure. From a distance, the cementing job appears impeccable. I chortle to myself in the interim, while we wait breathless for the verdict when the house is inspected from inside and judgment is delivered. Let’s hope he doesn’t have the last laugh.
How can I forget the stream of young women, drawn from distant parts, swallowed up by the ever-hungry towers as they clock in first thing in the morning to busy themselves with the daily chores that the mistress of each home prescribes? But before washing, cooking, and tending can be commenced, they need to get past Cerberus in the form of the uniformed guard manning the pillbox at the entrance to each block.
The nature and duration of this exchange would typically depend upon the mood of the soldier serving the last half hour of an excruciating night shift. Will he be lenient or bureaucratic? Undaunted, the sisters of the nation play every trick in the female handbook to get past the main portals. Poor fellows, these upright and well-spoken residents of areas famous for manner and comportment, they don’t stand a chance against the vixens who swishes by them with a smile. Hilarious!
How could I omit to mention the elderly gentleman, on the verge of old age, with the voice of Zeus and occupying a world completely his own? This modern Alice in Wonderland may be seen at any time and in any season, sometimes caked in henna, sprawled on a bench in a crumpled kurta pajama sported around the year, oblivious of the biting cold or searing heat.
Unexpectedly, he bellows an order at the faithful manservant, never more than a metre or two away, ever alert to behavior more aberrant or unanticipated. He is a staple of the changing seasons, my rock in the tempest.
Spindly trees, their tops dusted by bright purple and orange blossoms, shout their defiance to the burning sun. The flowers lying withered and dead on the ground and swept up into a lifeless pile next morning breaks the heart, but hope remains that this bounty shall reappear and replace the forgotten debris of the evening. All indications are that nature has not yet surrendered to the weather and will, therefore, continue to send forth colour unceasingly.
The routine of active physical life is being steadily pushed to the margins of the day. Relief from the mounting heat can be sought only early mornings and late evenings. But we are creatures born to adjust, and timing our lives around the hours of the sunny day requires but a minor recalibration of the mind.
The passion of belief, of faith, grows stronger each day in my breast. The convert continues on his new-found journey, unabated. The voyage around the outer perimeter is a source of simple delight, a delight of discovery and the stark realizations that accompany such discovery. The routine of the robot has, ironically, opened up new vistas.
I don’t even feel the heat on my neck any more. My bronzed appearance is a horror to my dearly beloved, and I apply sunscreen as and when I remember to. But the change in colour, you will agree, marks an important milestone in my endeavours.
Yes, life is in retreat, at least in some of its myriad aspects. But the discovery that accompanies new faith and facets in the heat and dust and effort of the simplest physical activity gives new meaning and is as pristine and poignant as the joy of a child who has spent a day at the zoo.
And along with the delight in new and continued discovery, I keep time daily with two incense sticks and incantations shouted out to those on high.
Dear reader, join me on the voyage. By all accounts and experience, it has the prospect of being everlasting. l
Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in India, and is a freelance contributor.