Among the crowd of guests, visitors and not-so-welcome visitors adorning our home, there were three major Wanted ones.
They would slither past the front room, holding their breath tight, lest my dozing grand-mother would be alerted. Normally it takes nine and half seconds to cross the room but they would make it in four and quarter. Tip-toeing with such a speed is a near impossibility but they would accomplish the feat with success every time. Once they reach the first floor they would breathe in ease. No, I am not talking about thieves. They were my father’s friends.
Once within their planning den they would draw up blue-print for bringing sea changes in the society – beginning from village, ranging up to nation.
And then would begin their list of ‘wanted’. Invariably they would nominate their friend Pranab for all such demand and supply activities. It would begin by stealing matchboxes from the kitchen. He would then be sent to ask for tea from my grandmother. And this harmless ‘ask’ was actually equivalent to waking up a sleeping Tiger and borrowing it’s stripes. Unaware of their presence so far, my grandmother would be startled awake from her sleep.
“Maashima, little bit….just a too-little bit of tea would be enough for all of us”, he would mumble feebly.
“And when on earth did you arrive?”, my grandmother would thunder.
The demand would step down further.
“If not milk tea; just a light raw tea would be fine.”
Grumbling, cursing and letting the poor kettle face her displeasure, grandma would still make their tea. Milk Tea!
What would begin at twelve in the noon would get over at twelve in the night. The demand of the ‘world reformists’ in the meanwhile would be never-ending – erasers, scissors, old piece of cloth, ink for the fountain pen, old news-paper…… And ofcourse, not to forget the full two meals!
This was one reason why we always had the practice of taking an extra hand-full of rice-grains while cooking.
Given a choice (it did happen many a times!) they would just find a nook and sleep the night away. But near around mid-night my grandmother would noisily climb up the stairs and stand with her hands on her hips – casting her long shadow on the corridor. There would a sudden hustle-bustle – as if things were just about to be wound up. And then there would be a mad-rush down the stairs before my grandma could raise her voice!
In those days when Flipkart was yet to unleash their cart, we still had a number of ‘service providers’ right at our door-step. They were varied, colorful and passionate people. A tattooed cow-dung cake seller, who would almost climb up my grandmother everytime she spotted our pet dog Jimmy. A sweet-vendor selling jaggery and coconut balls from an awfully dirty, rusted, tin box. A man selling rubber slippers door-to-door, asking us to ‘choose’ from his wide range of choices- blue and white or blue and white!
And then there was Bhola – the barber. He would be commissioned once in two weeks. A seat would be laid out for my grandfather in our family garden and then he would take out his magic-box. We would huddle in mesmerized wonder as he would take out his magic props – an oily comb, three scissors, a mirror with a cracked edge and his shaving razor. His fingers would match the pace of lips – letting out one social gossip after the other. My grandfather would then have to remind him about the presence of children around.
He was our family barber and the word ‘family’ actually included all of us – my father, my cousins, my brother, myself….. When we were young, Bhola was the Fairy God-father – deciphering every bit of our hair-cutting instructions.
“A bit short from here but not too short”.
“ Do you know how to cut an U-shape? It should be a perfect U” .
He would let out a divine smile and nod his head in affirmative. It was only much later, when we grew up enough, did we realize that all his hair-cuts –irrespective of our gender -resembled only one thing : an upturned bowl. Red-eyed protests, lunch-boycotts and nagging howls of crying could ultimately save us from Bhola’s scissors. But even after minor disasters like snipped ear, bloody cheeks and ill-matched side-burns, Bhola’s presence in our house and life continued unabated.
Somehow, the presence of these visitors were vital to our very existence. We wanted them, they wanted us. The feeling was mutual.
And ‘The Wanted’…..
It was late night when my grandmother heard the muffled groan. For a change she was sleeping upstairs with my cousins, leaving my grandfather alone downstairs. She waited for a while, dismissing it to be an extension of her dream. And then she heard again. She woke up my cousins and rushed down stairs. As she put on the light she discovered two nervous men – equally scared and shivering. One was my grandfather, the other was a thief. And the muffled cry was actually my grandfather trying to raise an alarm. Only thing his ‘Thief, thief’ sounded like a mute call of a kitten from under a cushion! My grandmother, brave that she was, didn’t take much time to handle the situation. Within minutes the entire neighbourhood was at our door-step. Each of them wanted to try a hand or two on the poor thief – an easy channel to flush out middle-class frustration! It was then that my grand-father intervened. Holding the thief’s hands he nearly pleaded, “Promise me in the name of the good Lord that you will never steal again and I will let you free”.
The thief was definitely amused. He hadn’t probably ever expected such an easy way out. He promptly fell at my grandfather’s feet and pledged never to steal again. So, much to the annoyance of others, he was let free.
Either he chose an alternative profession or a different area of action – we wouldn’t know, but no one saw him again.
It was a strange thing that the thieves always found our house to be vantage point but it was stranger that they somehow were contemplated by stealing items ranging from soap cases to damaged buckets to non-functional radios.
I do not recall and remember whether the ‘come-hither-and-be-reformed ‘ policy worked for all of the ‘most wanted’ or not but it certainly did for some. When hard core thief Ratan decided to give up his ‘steady business’ and open an electrical shop, not many dared to call him home to avail of his services. But in our house, he was a constant fixture – fixing bulbs or repairing fans. My Dad was a brilliant repair man and I am sure they actually didn’t require Ratan’s services but well, that was the way they were….And perhaps that was the reason why my grandfather and grandmother were ‘Baba’ and ‘Ma’ to Ratan till his death. His sons now proudly sit in his shop ‘Ratan Electrical’ – earning a fairly decent living.
The smell of kerosene lamp, sound and people……
The circus is over. The tents have been wrapped tight and shoved up in the attic. The chief actors of the entire show have taken their final bow. My grandfather smiles from his framed existence. The book that my grandmother was reading till her last days still carries the smell of her hair oil. The God-men, I guess, have surely attained their salvation at last or maybe they have changed their route of travel.
And behind closed doors of my apartment I try to search for the lost sounds and smell. I keep my ears open just in case I hear the call of the chickpea gravy seller. I hallucinate about his kerosene lamp – the black trail of smoke from the dim lamp trailing off into the purple of the setting sun. The smell of his chickpea gravy submerging into that of fresh Saal leaf plates. “One for a rupee”, his voice booming from behind his alluminium pot….
I force my son to pay a ten rupee note to the Sadhu who comes every Sunday, playing the mandolin and singing folk-songs. I feel angry and hurt when my husband whispers, “ I saw him drinking cola and smoking an expensive cigarette the other day”.
I, for one, am not ready to accept that the circus is over.
And my mother continues to put in that ‘extra handful of rice-grains’ into her cooking pot, just in case……..