"Neeeay......" the howl echoes around the colony, and in answer a chorus of voices shouts "Elaneer...elaneer.... I need five today, my son is visiting from US....I need only one today, my husband's doctor told him his sugar is too high....None for me, I am fasting......"
It is the tender coconut man. Nobody in Sivaganga Colony knows his name. He appeared there one day five years ago pushing a creaky old cart piled high with young coconuts. He boasted that his coconuts were the best in the city, fresh out of Pudukottai, and that none within miles around could beat his coconuts for the sweetness of their water. The Sivaganga Colony housewives, a suspicious and untrusting lot, were forced to concede that he had not exaggerated.
The tender coconut man keeps pushing his cart as if he has not heard the chorus of orders. Angry screams follow him. "Oy, elaneer, I told you I need five, stop, stop! Nothing but the best for my son!" "Are you going deaf? How many times must I shout that I need one coconut, you know I have a heart problem...."
He finally comes to a halt under a large tamarind tree at the very end of the street. The housewives make their way to him, grumbling. Mrs. Sivaraman, plump and freshly-powdered with a foreign-smelling talc, comes bearing a bright pink plastic bag emblazoned with the image of the Statue of Liberty. Sarojam Maami, she of the weak heart and diabetic husband waddles up, panting slightly. Mrs. Ramalingam, who is fasting today and does not need any coconuts, strolls over as well, her curiosity piqued by Mrs. Sivaraman's new bag. Mrs. Sivaraman beams at her audience, and bursts out with her news.
"My son has arrived last night with his family from US. He has taken up a job in South Florida Methodist University, they say it is the Harvard of Florida. He is doing very well, such nice nice gifts he has brought for me, look at this bag..."
The tender coconut man cuts in. His motto, if he has one, does not include the principle of customer service. He asks Mrs. Sivaraman to select her coconuts, and scowls as he wields a rusty knife and slices off their fibrous top layer. His middle finger is wrapped with a filthy rag stained with drops of blood, and the ladies avert their eyes, it is a gruesome sight. In silence, he works his way methodically through Mrs. Sivaraman's five coconuts, sending chips of coconut fiber flying through the air, and then stuffs them roughly into her new bag.
"Careful!" she scolds him. "This is a new bag, can't you see? My son got it for me from US." His scowl deepens, and then he announces, his tone hard and flat, " These coconuts are twenty rupees each. They are Coimbatore coconuts."
Mrs. Sivaraman shrieks, she haggles, she scolds, she threatens to return the coconuts, but the coconut man does not budge. Mrs. Sivaraman pays the price for flaunting her foreign connections and returns home, staggering slightly under the weight of the coconuts.
Sivaganga Colony is a typical middle class colony in a nice part of the south Indian city of Channallur. Its borders describe a rough rectangle, and a fifth street cuts through the middle, parallel to the northern and southern extremities. There are about a hundred houses in this colony and almost everyone is at least a nodding acquaintance of everyone else. It has an active resident's association, and its proudest achievement is organizing a garbage collection agency that picks up the colony's rubbish every day. This was not accomplished easily, as several households, accustomed to the easy - and free-of-cost - solution of flinging their garbage over the wall, protested vigorously at having to pay the fifteen rupees a month fee for the garbage disposal service. The head of the resident's association, the diabetic husband of Sarojam Maami, took care of the problem by circulating long-winded, grandiloquent letters (he fancied himself a writer, unfairly undiscovered by the writing establishment), replete with darkly insinuating references to those who opted to live in the Dark Ages when it was common practice to throw garbage out onto the streets. The letters were the talk of the colony for several days, discussed with scorn, laughter, admiration, envy, and by the time the third letter found its way into the Sivaganga Colony letterboxes, the recalcitrant ones had paid up, unable to bear the shame. The clean, well-swept streets are the pride and joy of Sivaganga Colony's residents.
For two days now, however, the garbage collection man has not shown up. Inquiries have revealed that he has gone on pilgrimage to Velankanni, and will not return for at least another week or ten days. His wife is expecting a baby after seven long years of marriage and he is making the trip on foot, clad in saffron, carrying only a bag with a change of clothes and some idlis, to pay obeisance to the goddess Mariamma of Velankanni to ensure that it will be a boy. In the meantime, several of the Sivaganga Colony residents have happily reverted to their old garbage disposal ways, flinging bucketfuls of sodden, stinking waste over their compound walls onto the pavement in front of their homes. Those whose conscience pricks them a bit but who are more bothered by the smell of their accumulating garbage, have their servants perform this operation furtively, under cover of night. The more daring ones arrange to have their rubbish deposited on a neighboring street or in the colony's municipal park. There are any number of urchins who are willing to carry out this service for a small fee. So now all over Sivaganga Colony there are growing mounds of garbage, in front of homes, at street corners, in the little municipal park, and the once-clean streets look unsightly, no different from those of nearby Ramanujan Nagar which has neither the vision nor the organizational skills of Sivaganga Colony to arrange for its own garbage clearance facility, relying instead on the whims and caprices of the corporation sanitation service.
It is six thirty in the morning, and groups of people are going for their morning walk. Three stylishly-dressed young girls of college-going age stride around the colony, arms pumping vigorously, maintaining a brisk marching pace. To the detached observer, they look alike, with their salon-straightened hair tied into ponytails of identical length, their tight-fitting jeans, and teeny t-shirts. For one round, they walk in silence,and then one of them slows down, panting, and begins to talk.
"Can you believe our princy yaa, she gave us a big lecture yesterday about how we girls are bringing shame to our college. What nonsense! It's those Mercy College girls who go around doing bad things and then when they are caught they say they are from our college! And princy believes all this!"
"You don't know what our princy did!" counters the second girl. "She has started a new dress code. No sleeveless tops, all tops should cover the crotch, so much time they waste thinking of this kind of stuff. Why don't they spend the effort on revamping our syllabus! Or getting new equipment for our lab!"
The third one wails about the dark circles that have appeared below her eyes. She has been sleeping with slices of cucumber on her eyes, to no avail. They have merely succeeded in making her pillow case a sticky mess.
They stride past Sarojam Maama (even though the whole colony knows that his name is Mr. Krishnamurthy, he is referred to by one and all as Sarojam Maama, a testament to the force of his wife's personality) who is ambling along, eyes fixed to the ground.
"Good morning uncle!" they chant in a chorus, but Sarojam Maama is deaf to the world, lost in the music of his I-Pod, a gift from his daughter in London. Also, he is composing his next garbage-related missive in his mind. He is determined that this one will outdo all his previous efforts. It will be his magnum opus. He will show the world that he is versatile, accomplished in a variety of genres of writing. This time he will show them his prowess in poetry.
The girls pick up their pace and march out of Sivaganga Colony, past the over-bridge into Ramanujan Nagar where a big new apartment building has sprung up. Sivaganga Colony residents rarely venture there, and they can flirt in peace with the college boys who live in the apartment building.
Back in Sivaganga Colony, groups of middle-aged ladies stroll round and round the colony, gossiping vigorously, and also keeping a sharp eye on every house they pass, mentally making note of countless trivia. Whose servant is wearing a new sari. Who has started subscribing to the Times of India. Whose relatives are visiting. Who has a new servant. How many packets of milk are lying in the baskets that are placed outside each house for the milkman. Who is listening to what radio station. What kolams adorn the thresholds of the houses. This morning, Mrs. Sivaraman, Sarojam Maami, and Mrs. Ramalingam do the rounds together. Between them they encompass an entire medical textbook, with their high blood pressure, sugar issues, arthritis, heart problems, indigestion, kidney disease and other assorted ailments. None of this has dimmed their curiosity about others' affairs, and they discuss these with intense enthusiasm every morning. Sarojam Maami's husband remarks wryly that every morning, a new episode of the Mahabharata is revealed on their morning walks.
Today they have a variety of topics to talk about, but Mrs. Sivaraman, whose son and his family have arrived from the United States, is allowed the opening honors. However, she is somewhat subdued. She confesses that her son and his family displayed no interest in the elaneers. In fact, they rejected them outright.
"My daughter-in-law said absolutely no way she will allow the children to have the elaneer, they are unhygienic, it seems. And twenty rupees I paid for each one!"
Sarojam Maami and Mrs. Ramalingam cluck in sympathy.
"What is this unhygienic business? She grew up here in India only, and nothing happened to her then. Suddenly after going to US, everything here is dirty. But what to do? We can't say anything to them otherwise they will say mother-in-law is interfering. And no support from son and husband at all!" says Mrs. Ramalingam, the bitterness in her voice betraying that she, too, has had hygiene-related issues with her daughter-in-law.
The conversation turns to the food habits of their foreign-resident grandchildren. All of them, it seems, turn their noses up at the traditional Tamilian delicacies that are prepared for them with such love and care, and demand pasta and pizza at every meal. Of course, this is all the fault of the parents who succumb all too easily and don't insist on Indian food in their foreign homes.
"They say, phoo, phoo, too spicy, if I put even half a chilly in their pasta," says Sarojam Maami. "And our kovakkai, peerkangai, sorakkai, they won't even touch, it tastes weird, they say". The ladies turn into the central street of Sivaganga Colony, and are joined by Nandita, a smart young woman in her late thirties who has lived abroad, and is said to have a "fancy" career. She listens to them bemoaning the poor eating habits of their grandchildren, and then says,
"But why should these children like all these vegetables? After all, they are growing up in another country, don't you think it is a little unfair to expect them to automatically like our food? When you go abroad to visit your children, all you want to eat is Indian food, and you complain about their food. Isn't it the same for the children when they come here? And, having lived abroad, I know how difficult it is to come home after a long day of work and prepare an Indian meal, with all the chopping and grinding it entails. It is very possible to cook a healthy western meal in a fraction of the time. Try to look at it from their point of view."
The ladies are a little taken aback. They digest Nandita's words in silence, and then Sarojam Maami reluctantly concedes that Nandita has a point. They will treat their grandchildrens' food habits with greater understanding and not automatically assume that they are being spoiled and difficult. But the obsession with hygiene they will not stand for. They will draw the line there, particularly if the daughter-in-law is involved.
Nandita smiles and says goodbye to the three ladies. She has an early morning meeting today, and she will go for a quick jog, to wind up her exercise quickly and go home and get ready on time.
The ladies continue walking around the colony. Nandita's words subdued them, but only temporarily, and they now discuss with gusto Channallur's music season, and the kutcheris they have attended. Sarojam Maami had gone for a T.M. Krishna concert the night before, and she describes with scathing disdain his butchery of the Nattakurinji ragam-tanam-pallavi, his bombastic vocal pyrotechnics, his gaudy green kurta, the horrible sound system that left her ears ringing all night long, the scraping, sawing cacophony of the violin and the ear-shattering pounding of the mridangam. Such talent, all gone to waste, reduced to vanity and egotistical affectations. Mrs. Sivaraman, her spirits restored by the comforting familiarity of her walking companions, their warmth and understanding, their zest for life, the soothing predictability of their morning routine, offers a vigorous rejoinder in Krishna's defense.
It is almost seven thirty now, time to return home and attend to the chores of the day. They stop for a moment in front of the Siddhi Vinayagar temple with folded hands and bowed heads. They pray for their husbands' health, for their children and grandchildren, their jobs and studies, for the world at large, and then, feeling a load lifting off oh-so-imperceptibly from their hearts, they make their way back to their homes.
Sarojam Maami returns home to find her maid-servant, Dhanalakshmi waiting for her, all in a froth with excitement. Sarojam Maami has barely sat down to remove her walking shoes, when Dhanalakshmi starts talking, her words tripping over themselves in her ebullience.
"Amma! Yesterday afternoon the government man came to our area and told us they are giving free color TVs for all of us with ration cards. So I went, with Gopala and my daughter-in-law, to the maidan (field) next to Krishnaswamy Thottam and ayyo, Amma, you will not believe the scene there. The maidan was jam-packed with people, must have been more than a thousand people there, Amma, all pushing and shoving and shouting and fighting. There were twenty or thirty trucks there, each overflowing with boxes, all with TVs in them. First one government man came and gave us a speech. He told us that they are the good government people, from the Makkal Kaatchi, and that if we vote for them next time also, they will give all of us free gas stoves. They also said they are starting a new health scheme in some big hospitals. If we show our ration cards, they will give us a special card, and with that card, we can get free treatment for any disease. Such good people these are, Amma!"
Sarojam Maami interrupted Dhanalakshmi. "So, did you get your TV or not?"
"Yes, Amma, the government man promised us, and they are good people, they keep their word. But ayyo, once they brought down the boxes from the trucks, everybody went crazy, berserk, like wild animals. There were dozens of policemen there, shouting through megaphones, beating people with their sticks and trying to make us stand in a line. They told us that everybody with a ration card would definitely get a TV. But Amma, we people, we have no decency, no manners. There were wild-eyed women there, Amma, screaming like banshees, their eyes red with drugs and their hair wild and matted. And some of the men....foul-smelling, their mouths reeking like the gutter from the alcohol they were swigging, roaring the worst obscenities you can imagine. There were so many people there, Amma, I have never seen anything like it. So much of hustling, jabbing, butting, charging. Old women trampled on. Young babies crushed by digging elbows, flailing hands. Saris pulled and torn. Sandals ripped to shreds. Dust and stones kicked up and flying through the air like missiles. Oh, Amma, I thought I would just faint there, but I hung on, and oh, Amma, at last, I now have my own TV, a color TV Amma, with all the Makkal Kaatchi channels. All my neighbors now also have TVs. Is not the government great, Amma?
"Bloody government propaganda," mutters Sarojam Maama from his writing desk, where he has been jotting down ideas for his next letter. "Ask her what she will have to pay to receive channel coverage". Sarojam Maami does, and Dhanalakshmi says that she will have to pay one hundred rupees every month - to the television network owned by the Makkal Kaatchi party. Sarojam Maama grunts in disgust. He sketches out a vision of a Brave New World where the denizens of Channallur are subjected to subliminal brainwashing through the Makkal Kaatchi television programs, a world where the Makkal Kaatchi party looms large over everything and everybody else is reduced to the role of worker ant, servicing the needs of the Alpha Pluses of the Makkal Kaatchi.. Sarojam Maami tells him not to be silly, he will aggravate his diabetes if he talks like this.
In truth, Sarojam Maami has mixed feelings about Dhanalakshmi's TV. She has visited Dhanalakshmi's home, for the first rice feeding of her grandchild. It is a ten minute walk from Sivaganga Colony, and is one of about fifty thatched roof houses that line a packed mud street next to a sluggish, mosquito-infested canal. Sarojam Maami was treated like a VIP when she went there. She was pleasantly surprised at how clean the street was, and all the houses she saw, too, were, despite the poverty of the people who lived there, neat and clean. Children were out playing marbles and hide and seek and catch; young men sat in clusters, playing cards; groups of women gossiped around the water pump, others were buying vegetables for the night's dinner from the tiny shop that served the area. Older men hung around in front of their homes, some gazing into space, some smoking beedis, some listening to the radio, some arguing over something or the other. It was a lively, bustling scene.
Sarojam Maami wonders what will happen now, with every home having its own TV. Will all this social interaction stop? Will everyone be at home all the time, staring at the TV? Will the children no longer want to play outside? But she knows there is a dark underside in Dhanalakshmi's colony as well. She has heard tales of drunken men beating up their wives, of aimless young men loitering about and picking up fights. Perhaps the TV will distract them from these pursuits. Only time will tell.
Mrs. Sivaraman finds her maid-servant, Bhudevi, drawing an elaborate kolam in front of her house. She has gone to town with her kolam - there are lotuses, stars, lamps, birds, clusters of grapes, a large Ganesha, and framing the whole thing, two large coconut trees. "Amma, ayya and his family have come here all the way from America, no, so I am putting a special kolam for them, it is a very special day today!", exclaims Bhudevi. Squatting next to Bhudevi, and watching with wide-eyed fascination, is Mrs. Sivaraman's eleven year old granddaughter, Nikita.
"Oh, Paati, this is the coolest thing ever!" squeals the girl, and Mrs. Sivaraman beams with joy and a warm feeling surges through her. She asks Bhudevi to pour some kolam powder onto a sheet of paper, and hands it to Nikita. "This is for you, kuttimaa", she says, "with this you can put your own kolam over there.". She points to an empty patch of driveway. "Every day when you are here you can design your own kolam." Nikita jumps up and hugs Mrs. Sivaraman. "Oh, Paati, really, can I put my very own kolams every day? We don't have kolams in America, they are the coolest thing! You are the best Paati ever!" Mrs. Sivaraman holds her tightly and kisses the top of her head. She should get some fresh jasmine flowers for her hair. That's another thing they don't have in America. As she enters her home, Mrs. Sivaraman remembers: she loathed elaneer as a child. Her grandchildren are just like her, no wonder they don't want it either. This little delusional fantasy cheers her up immensely.
She enters her home to a scene of noisy chaos. Her husband and son are engaged in a loud argument about Barack Obama. Her son says he is a ego-driven charlatan who is wrecking America's economy, her husband insists that his election sends a message of hope to the entire world, it is something every human being should be proud of, besides, he has inherited a mess from that George Bush, who asked him to start that stupid Iraq War. It is the same argument they have every time they speak on the telephone, and Mrs. Sivaraman has heard it all before.
The oldest grandson, Neel, who is fourteen and perpetually hungry, is demanding cheese toasts for breakfast. His mother offers to make it for him, but Neel will have nothing of it. "When I am here, I want only Paati to make it," he declares. "Her cheese toasts are the best in the world!" Mrs. Sivaraman smiles at her daughter-in-law, and then, remembering her conversation with Nandita, tells her, "For lunch, why don't you make that nice pasta dish you made for us when we came there?" The thrilled smile on her daughter-in-law's face makes Mrs. Sivaraman glad she asked. There is nothing a generous dollop of pickle cannot save.
In the kitchen, while Mrs. Sivaraman makes the cheese toasts, Neel dribbles an imaginary ball around his grandmother and then - BAM! - dunks it on her. He is an avid basketball fan, and he has been unrelenting in his efforts to educate Mrs. Sivaraman on the intricacies of the game and the goings-on of the National Basketball Association. Mrs. Sivaraman has tried valiantly to keep up with the stream of information issuing from Neel but most times, it is all too much for her. He is now quizzing her. "Who is your favorite player in the NBA, Paati?" Mrs. Sivaraman, flustered, and distracted by the many steps required to make the best cheese toasts in the world, replies, "That tall fellow, what's his name, we saw him in that match on TV...."
"WHAT!!" splutters Neel in disbelief. "Paati, I'm going to punish you! It's GAME, not MATCH! And you've not studied all the web sites I asked you to look up! OK, here's a really easy question for you, even a baby will be able to answer it, which is easier, a layup, or a full-court shot?
"Move out of the way, daa, you're going to get burned...uhhh, a full court shot?"
"PAATI! You must be joking! I can't believe you just said that. Tell me you were joking!"
Offered this escape by her outraged grandson, Mrs. Sivaraman lies that yes, of course she was joking, the answer was so obvious that she decided to pull his leg with the wrong answer. Almost, but not entirely convinced, Neel says, "OK, one last question, and no fooling around. Who is a better rebounder, Dwight Howard or Steve Nash?"
"Stop dunking on me when I'm cooking, one of us is going to get hurt! Move away from the stove! Uhhh.....Dwight Howard."
"Excellent, Paati, give me five! I'm going to write twenty new quiz questions for you, and you better study properly and get them all correct! Mmmm, oh, Paati, these cheese toasts are even better this time!"
Meanwhile, the middle grandchild, twelve year old Jay, has turned on his grandfather's computer and downloaded a dozen games. The computer, unaccustomed to this level of usage, crashes. Mr. Sivaraman is dispatched upstairs to deal with the situation.
At lunchtime, they eat the pasta dish prepared by Mrs. Sivaraman's daughter-in-law. Surreptitiously, Mrs. Sivaraman adds a large tablespoonful of mango pickle to the pasta. It's not bad. Not bad at all.
It is late in the evening now, the sun has set, a cool breeze blows, sending the smell of rotting garbage wafting through the streets. Mrs. Ramalingam's fast is done, and she is wolfing down a large plate of curd rice washed down with a cup of strong, milky coffee. In Dhanalakshmi's colony, the sounds from fifty TVs blare through open doors and windows. Everyone is indoors, glued to movies, dramas, the news. There will be lot to talk about, compare, and discuss tomorrow.
In Sivaganga Colony there is a furtive scurrying along the street margins as urchins cart garbage and deposit it far away from where they collected it. Soon afterward, Sarojam Maama walks from house to house, and puts a letter into every letterbox. He is smiling broadly to himself. He has really outdone himself this time. This letter will get him the literary fame he so justly deserves. He is certain of it.