Tag Archives: fiction

Message in a Bottle: Starchie Unbends

29 Jan

[This one was written for an adult audience. With language modifications, it can work well with ages 4 and up.]

It’s been a while since we visited our friends in Sascha’s bathroom, hasn’t it? Them of the bottled feelings and mostly well-meaning hearts, they’ve lived through arrivals (hello, Hair Serum and Lotion,) and departures (adieu, Baby Powder!) as Sasha lopes eagerly toward teendom. Now a tall, long-limbed girl with blue-and-brown glasses, she undertakes athletics training at a neighborhood track thrice a week, and comes home all sweaty and red in the face. On one such evening, she bounced into the bathroom, humming a tune that the bottlehood had heard before. It was called Favorite Girl and a boy with irksome hair sang it on the telly. Peeling off her sportswear, she tossed it into the laundry basket, proceeded to shower, and hurried out when done.

All was quiet for a while. The family was in the dining room, Nanny was folding laundry and the maid worked in the kitchen. Then, in the growing darkness of the advancing evening, Condi, Shampoo, and their friends heard sniffling. It came from a far corner of the bathroom and they strained to listen. There it was again, two muffled sobs this time, and a sigh. Emboldened by his last act of bravery, Condi spoke up. It couldn’t be a burglar again, he reasoned, and this sounded like someone in distress. “Who’s there?” he ventured, glad to have Serum and Lotion by his side. The crying stopped. For a full minute, the room listened intently, and they were soon rewarded with a tremulous answer.

“It’s us,” ventured a voice from the laundry basket, “we’re Sascha’s socks. She calls us Floppy 1 and Floppy 2 because we can’t hold up,” and it broke into fresh sobs of pain. “There, there,” whispered her twin, and leaned toward her, trying to put on a brave face. The bottles saw them in the dim light, two soft ankle socks, dull white and sorrowful, huddled atop orange sweatpants. “Don’t be sad, friends,” chimed in Lotion, who was as shiny in her heart as she was outside. “How can we help?”

They shook their cotton heads and more tears spilled over. “It’s no use,” said Floppy 2, “Sascha’s tired of repeatedly pulling us up.”

“A day or two and we’ll be gone,” Floppy 1’s voice trembled.

The bottles took in this news silently. No one knew quite how to make the Floppies feel better. They all dreaded the day they would be declared redundant and have to say goodbye to the security of their bathroom world. As they stood under a pall of gloom, a throat was cleared on the top shelf.

Starchie McStarcherson was a big, tall bottle with an officious manner and deep voice. He took his job very seriously and had no time for the likes of Shampoo and Bath Salts, whom he thought frothy and irreverent. Older and aloof, he lived with his old pal Detergent on the top shelf while the rest of the bottles camped on the window ledge. The newer entrants to the bathroom kept out of his way, knowing well enough to lower their voices during his nap times.  Starchie modeled himself on a butler he had once seen on telly, while working in Sascha’s parents’ bathroom. He had been watching the unfolding dilemma with remote interest until a bulb went off in his wise old head. “I can be of assistance,” he boomed imperiously, as the bottles all craned their necks shelfward. Quickly taking charge of the situation, he crystallized a Plan.

The action began at midnight, when Sascha was safely in air-conditioned slumber, the bathroom door firmly closed.  At a signal from Starchie, the Floppies flung themselves off the laundry heap into a waiting bathroom pail. “We’re in,” they called up, rather unnecessarily, for their every move was being watched by the entire bottle sorority. Next up, Tap did a little pirouette, dribbling hot water onto them until they were submerged. Her number done, she added a curtsy for effect, and turned the other way. Now, it was the Big Moment.

With Detergent holding on tight, Starchie leaned over the shelf. His positioning had to be precise, or else he’d tip over and ruin Operation Stop-the-Flop. He leaned. He leaned further. Then he leaned some more. And then some more. “Steady on, old boy!” grunted Detergent, acutely aware of the dangers of being carried off by his bulky friend, and struggled to keep him grounded. Starchie looked below him. And then regretted it. A wave of dizziness hit him hard and he keeled. The shelf slipped out from under him. He heard a collective gasp from the window ledge. His life flashed before his tightly shut eyes, slow-motion and everything. It had been a good life, he concluded, one rooted in duty. He could’ve been friendlier with the bottles, he realized, even as the thought surprised him. Next thing he knew, he felt determined arms yank him backward and landed with a thump on his rear end.

“What…??” he cried, disoriented and embarrassed. Detergent was holding on to him for dear life, and the bottles looked delighted! “Want to look down again?” teased Detergent kindly, and when Starchie mustered the courage to do so, he saw the Floppies floating in a starch-water mixture, looking up at him in gratitude.

A cheer went around the room. Bath Salts and Shampoo bubbled with delight. Condi showed off his smooth moves. Lotion sparkled in all her pink glory and Tap did several pirouettes until an annoyed Floppy 1 asked him to quit. The bottles let out hoorays for good old Starchie, and Detergent thumped him on his back. “A million thanks,” called out the Floppies, who were now delightedly doing flip-flops of their own.  “You’re welcome,” Starchie acknowledged stiffly, and managed a little smile.

When Bai found the Floppies late next morning, she hung them out to dry. Their moment in the sun had arrived and soon they were crisp like soldiers headed to battle. Sascha wore them on numerous occasions, and fleetingly wondered where her old socks had disappeared to, but you won’t tell her, will you?

A rechristening is in order: Now that they aren’t Floppies any longer, they’d love another name. And you who shared in their story are invited to chime in. Starchie will be the Master of Ceremonies, so I’d advise no late arrivals; and yes, do hazard a glance at your own socks before you come in.

Phase Two

1 Jan

Happy 2012! Here’s another tale about the good folks at Soonawala Colony. To read The One that Came Before, go here.

***

At the precise minute the earthquake struck, Silloo Damania was perched on the potty, making a mental checklist of the tasks ahead of her that morning. Must be the Chick Van, she muttered, as the floor began to quiver, but five seconds later, Burjor, newspaper and choy abandoned, was banging on her door, demanding she cut the crap and quit the shit. (Not that she recalls his exact words, but she wasn’t one to let go of some good word play if it were served to her on a ses.)

They gathered in the children’s playground, women in hurriedly wrapped shawls, the men still in their sadras, watching swings sway ominously and the ground rumble like an ogre’s belly. So animated were their numerous opinions on geophysics, that it was several minutes before any of them noticed the tremors had stopped. Of course, not all of them blathered on about the Day of Judgment. Some, like 14-year-old Sanaeya and 16-year-old Daraius, gainfully employed themselves by making eyes at each other and blushing furiously, but let’s turn a blind eye for now, shall we?

They trooped home and a gaggle of the most opinionated voices congregated at the Pardiwalla home to watch the news.  Scenes of devastation sprang to life behind the anchor, who announced in near-frenzy that an earthquake in Kutchh had wiped out villages and many of their denizens. A hush descended on this usually noisy group. Shrieks and cries of despair rent the semi-arid land and home to thousands now meant only the endless sky with its benign January sun. Nature had taken a bite of earth and snacked on it with Marie biscuits at breakfast.  You could see its teeth marks where the ground had split. The residents of Soonawala Colony, like the rest of Bombay, hung suspended between horror and disbelief, with the occasional tear cruising down an unaware cheek.

After an hour of repeat telecasts and frequent switching between Star News and Doordarshan  that drove Banoo’s glaucoma-accursed eyes batty, the phone rang and Homyar Pardiwalla walked over to answer it. A 5-minute conversation that 12 neighbors intently listened in to ensued.  Homyar ended the call to announce that Jamasp Patel, chairperson of the colony association, was rounding up a group of able young men to accompany trucks of supplies to affected areas. A cheer went around the room as the men, who had hitherto ventured only as far as Udwada for their annual pilgrimage, welcomed the idea of rumbling off into nebulous clouds of dust to assist their countrymen.  A round of tea was eagerly accepted and “Planning the Mission” began in right earnest.

In the midst of the chatter and raised voices, sat Dolat from the ground floor, listening silently, a knob of discontent growing ever larger in her throat.  Never married and in her early fifties, she shared a flat with her younger sister Persis, cooking and keeping home while the latter went to work. It was a quiet existence, but not a lonely one, surrounded as she was by friends and neighbors from her childhood, but lately, Dolat had begun to get a sense of having missed out on life. Satellite television was her bridge to the world beyond the colony and she wanted a taste of the action for herself. “I’ll go too,” she said evenly, her voice belying the burbling she felt in her stomach’s pit, and drew a deep breath in anticipation of a response.

The clamor continued. They hadn’t even heard her. Food packages, antibiotics and warm clothing were being zealously discussed, and you’d have to be a foghorn to be heard. “I will come too,” she tried again, and this time they turned. The Wall of Voices collapsed on her slowly, brick by dissenting brick, logic and reason crumbling to dust under its red onslaught and Dolat stared in seeming resignation ahead of her.

The day of departure dawned all too quickly, and after two days and nights of ceaseless activity, in which every man, woman and child played a part, the trucks and their occupants were ready to roll. Leading the pack of do-gooders was Jamasp, with Homyar and Dara as his able assistants. Khushroo, Feroz and their “gang” that hung out until the wee hours, racing bikes on Marine Drive and risking the ire of police and parents alike, provided back-up support and muscle power, as they searched the crowd for the impressed faces of Soonawala Colony’s waifs. Packages and sacks had been hauled on to the trucks the previous night, the men cursing quietly at the heavier loads. Saying their goodbyes and waving to adoring fans, they climbed on, and engines roared to life. The convoy edged out of the parking area, winding onto the street and as the men settled in for a long ride, no one noticed a tiny corner of a rather curvy gunny sack lift itself up and take a quick gulp of air before subsiding into the potatoes again.

Step One

12 Nov

The morning after Cousin S was married, Banoo Bilimoria waited until the respectable hour of 7.14 before shuffling across the corridor and pressing her gnarled, arthritic finger to the bell. Her myopic eyes took in the vivid colors of the chowk designs that had taken Sanobar 4 hours to create yesterday and she expertly pushed back the phlegm in her throat. She waited one minute, then four, then seven. Silence reigned in the Pardiwalla household. Even the maid hadn’t stirred. She turned back, the sound of her sapaat scraping the mosaic-tiled floor of building number 14 in Soonawala Colony—a green, quiet haven of Parsi existence amidst the bustle of  South Bombay.

Back in her immaculate two-room flat and many cups of choy later, she hovered by the door until Jai Singh arrived. “Kachra-walo!” he’d announce on each floor, in an accent of indeterminate origin, and the denizens of number 14 would, on cue, pop out with their garbage bins and subject him to their pidgin Hindi, never mind that he was Gujarati. She waited until she heard the Pardiwallas’ maid undo their latch and popped her head out in a hurry. “Nahin bai, they’re not up,” said the maid shortly, before Banoo could ask her usual question, and shut the door behind her.

Marere,” Banoo mumbled, feeling slighted and unsure about what to do next. She had missed out on the wedding reception the night before, thanks to a resurgence of gout, and could feel curiosity burning a hole through her faded housecoat. Silloo Damania on the other side of her had been to the celebrations and would gladly share details if asked, with the superior air of Those In The Know. As she stood in the hallway, dithering over her next move, the Damanias’ door opened and Silloo Samachar, as she was fondly known, called out her name.

Back in Silloo and Burjor’s elegant flat, where a shiny black grand piano held court, Banoo was informed in breathy undertones about the Flat in the Suburbs that the newly-weds would have to live in—in (gasp) remote Andheri East. Apparently, the boy’s mother had refused to let her son and his bride live in with her in the colony since the day both women had squabbled over who would sit in the passenger seat of his car. “Suburb maan?” Banoo repeated blankly, her eyes widening at this novel idea and her brain frothing with more questions than it could queue. She had been to the suburbs once—on a picnic to Vihar Lake in 2nd grade. They had even packed sandwiches for the journey. And now, Cousin S (mine, not hers,) was trundling off to a place where the Tata Electric Power Supply Company held no sway—and of course, everyone knew that pelo Reliance is a muo chor.

An hour in good traffic, replied Silloo, who had got this nugget of information on good authority from another clueless guest at the wedding. Yes, only rickshaws ply there, poor things, but they will take the car. I know, so far from aapru Parsi General and Doongerwadi, and not even a good naatak on Navroze, she responded to a group that had burgeoned to include Dolat and Persis from the ground floor and Dara and Roshan from building 7. The merits and demerits of modern, marble-floored apartments versus pothole-ridden streets were analyzed to an inch of their lives, and stinking politicians and “all these immigrants” verbally flayed for their role in inflation, population, corruption and Rodabeh’s bad breath, and the questions and concerns came faster and thicker, until the Damania home was in the throes of raucous agitation.

“I’ve heard you get everything there now,” chimed in the gentle Roshan, who had made the mammoth move from building number 4 to 7 when she married her chaddi sweetheart. “Cinemas show English movies?” asked Dolat skeptically, as Banoo wondered aloud whether the couple would splurge on a First Class railway pass. So far away from their parents, cluck clucked Dara, whose foray into adulthood had meant moving into the room down the passage and ended there 34 years ago.

More cups of tea and consolation were passed around, and there we shall leave them, fielding questions and cooking up answers, as the Pardiwalla family blissfully slumbers on, their daughter curled up in the arms of her sweet colony boy, ready to take their first big step into the harsh sunlight of the world outside the leafy, familiar lanes of Soonawala Colony.

The Girl Not From Here

7 Sep

Swanley station.

1 degree celcius, 1 a.m., and a solitary woman awaiting her cab.

Eynsford, she said, sliding in the back, grateful for the warmth and the driver’s turban.

You’re brave, he said, for a girl not from here to be out alone this late.

I’ve been alone to many places, she explained, and silently counted the destinations where she was the girl-not-from-here. Days in the city of her childhood when she was the outsider. Times in her home when she did not  belong. Months in arms she felt like a stranger. The everywhere girl, the nowhere girl. Only mirrors knew her and let her be. A rebel against conformists, non-believer to the benders, among them, but not of them.

Movement helped, she sleepily mused. If you didn’t stay long enough, they couldn’t expect you to fit in. And so the girl not from here took cabs. And trains and planes and boarding passes, stepping off belief into affirmation, through revolving doors, up metal-railinged stairs.

“Be safe,” he smiled, engine purring at her door. And a pang helped her realize that kindness from strangers is easier than the wall of contorted faces people are sometimes forced to call home.

Virtuoso

18 Jul

Some days I scoop up love in those neon-hued plastic shovels from a kiddie sand pit, scrape-whoosh, scrape-whoosh, filling the spirit, topping it up with a rare fill of generosity and compassion, so that I may lie back, eyes closed, contented, and bask in the simmer of affection until darkness swarms and she siphons me out again.

O Mother mine, dementors chant like schoolboys at your feet.