The beauty parlour was manned by a uni-browed woman whom Lakshmi thought could benefit a great deal from the treatments advertised. The parlour was called Jyna’s, and always made Lakshmi shamefully think about her private parts. It had once been a doctor’s clinic, and apart from the sign that hung outside the premises, little had been done to transform it in to the ‘luxury salon’ it claimed to be. It was nothing more than a green boxy room; chloromint coloured walls mounted with posters of naked babies promoting tins of Cerelac gurgling and drooling on photographs of outlandishly styled women. tacked up in a hasty attempt at redecoration. A gilt jug stuffed with dusty plastic roses sat in a corner. The doctor’s room divider, examination bed and a faint odour of sickness remained. But it was Lakshmi’s sanctuary. For one hour every month her hands and feet were scrubbed, scalded and soothed. Her nails painted in a barely there colour. Lakshmi forgot the drudgery of her life and felt young, glamorous and carefree as she sipped the flat cola she was always offered, flipped through an ancient copy of Stardust she had already read thrice and fended off the proprietor’s offers of free ‘privates’ waxing. There was always a pang of sadness when she handed over the money at the counter and walked back to her life that waited patiently outside.
The parlour visits were Lakshmi’s secret ritual. On the last Friday of every month, after four weeks of carefully secreting away the unaccounted fives and tens left over from the month’s household transactions, Lakshmi would grope beneath the folds of her starched cotton saris and behind the sugar jar her diabetic mother-in-law never reached for; fingers seeking the sometimes crisp sometimes flaccid currency notes. Lakshmi would wait for her husband to set off for his evening walk and her mother-in-law to amble down to the temple where she claimed she was praying for a quick release from her earthly existence. The reality of the situation was quite different. After a cursory perambulation around the sanctum sanctorum, Janaki (or the hawk as Lakshmi secretly called her mother-in-law) and the other old women of the neighbourhood (and some young ones eager to join the pecking order) would settle down on the stone floor of the temple courtyard and discuss Nalini at number 2’s hooked nose, number 52 Chandru and his roving eye and the price of raw mangos if it was pickling season; their beady, cataracted eyes constantly darting over the crowd. Searching for prey.
Once the two of them were out of sight, Lakshmi would usher her two daughters Sri and Sangeetha into the back off the cantankerous Maruti 800 and set off. She knew if she left them at home they would be forced to going to the temple and bribed along the way with milk sweets and tender coconut to answer the hawk’s questions. Lakshmi saw nothing wrong in buying their silence about the monthly trip with a few extra hours television or a packet of cream biscuits though. If a mother couldn’t ask this of her children then she had nothing, Lakshmi reasoned.
But before she could descend in to her sickly green cocoon there was one hateful task to complete: the weekly visit to the vegetable market. It was one Lakshmi hated in general, but on her Friday the task seemed even worse. It was always dispensed of first and as quickly as possible (her personal best was fifteen minutes) – what was the point of going to all that trouble to get out of the house for a manicure and pedicure if she was then going to sift through mounds of dirt-covered vegetables and risk stepping on cow dung? Lakshmi despised the market and its crowds, the smell of sweat and urine mingling with the aroma of freshly ground coffee powder, incense and exhaust fumes. The flies, cows and homeless that shared the pavement – buzzing, tail flicking and mewling for money. She hated the incessant cries of the street hawkers, their voices swirling about her in a whirlpool of coaxing, luring words. It was so squalid. Lakshmi had been coming to the same market almost every Friday since she turned twelve, when her mother had decided that Lakshmi was old enough for the responsibility. Lakshmi’s brother would bring her on his rickety moped and drop her near the spinach stall before heading to the street corner where he would smoke cigarettes with his friends till she was done. When Lakshmi turned sixteen, her brother’s friend Ravi had come up to her as she bought roses from the flower lady and asked if he could buy her a strand of jasmine. She had laughed at him, son of a temple priest and said no; after all she was destined for better things in life. Yet here she was making the same market trip week after week. Ignoring the perverts who provocatively held large mangos as close to her as possible with promises of tenderness. Going through the tedious motions of shaking coconuts, squeezing okra and half-hearted haggling. While Ravi was a software engineer somewhere called Santa Clara. In America.
But Lakshmi had learned to make do and comforted herself with the knowledge that a monthly trip out was better than no trip at all. Her plan was infallible. Every question the hawk put forward had an answer.
“Why do you need to take the girls?” the hawk would ask innocently.
“If they’re at home they’ll insist on coming with you to the temple. I don’t want your prayers disturbed ma.” Lakshmi would reply sweetly.
“Why don’t you buy vegetables from Shivaraman the vendor who comes to our street? Vidhya Mami’s daughter-in-law does.” the hawk persisted.
“Ma, I didn’t want to tell you, but I’ve seen the way he touches the women’s hands when he gives back change.”
Sri and Sangeetha were always well dressed for these monthly excursions. Their hair would be braided, they would wear the slightly ill-fitting birthday and Diwali dresses from two years ago and their faces would be coated with a light dusting of powder. All this to sit in the car and wait; for they were never allowed inside the parlour. The stress of relaxing, minding them and showing off proved too hard for Lakshmi, so they were left in the car – white faced, frocked and sweating it out with the tomatoes.
Sometimes if the parlour owner had another appointment waiting she would finish off with Lakshmi in half an hour, dunking her hands in tepid water instead of letting them soak, carelessly applying one coat of varnish instead of two; the viscous liquid seeping on to Lakshmi’s skin. On such days Lakshmi would sooth her disgruntled soul by slipping in to the air-conditioned supermarket next to the parlour for a few minutes. Here she caressed the boxes of imported dry fruit and clutched the exotic sauces; too proud to ask what flavour the strangely named pesto would impart to her da. Lakshmi would stand transfixed before the shampoos, opening each bottle and inhaling their heady, synthetic aroma. The jars of ground all-spice were like crushed jewels to her. After half an hour she would reluctantly make her way to the checkout counter hands clutching some trifle – a pair of tweezers, a tiny bottle of shampoo or a packet of cream biscuits for the girls.
The onions, snake gourds and hairy coconuts were piled up in colourful plastic baskets and infused the car with their raw, earthy smell. Sri sighed heavily. She was approaching that age when a younger sister was of little use and a liability to her image. That Friday they sat in their respective corners, slyly pushing the burgeoning baskets over the invisible line of control, hoping the transgression would annoy the other enough to start a fight.
Sri began to hum while Sangeetha kicked the front seat making tiny butterfly wings with the dusty soles of her shoes.
“Let’s play I spy” Sangeetha suggested. Sri sighed again. It was something she had started doing whenever Sangeetha spoke, as though her very presence was a huge strain on her being. Sri said nothing for a few minutes, looking out the car window and pretending not to stare at the adult movie posters that were plastered on the tobacco-stained walls.
“I spy with my little eye something beginning with C” Sri stated.
“Who said you could go first?” Sangeetha demanded.
“I’m older so I go first.” Sri purred.
Sri smugly shook her head.
“Car?” Sangeetha ventured.
“OK you have one more chance.’ Sri reminded her.
“Carrot? No, no I-”
“Sorry! You can’t take it back” Sri crowed “Calamine lotion. STUPID.”
“But that’s in one of the bags. You can’t see it. You have to say things you can see with your eye. That’s why it’s called I spy” Sangeetha complained.
“I’m bored. I don’t want to play anymore.”
Sangeetha sulkily completed her dusty mural as Sri resumed her humming. Outside, the rush hour traffic wheezed and choked on its own fumes. Rusty, green PTC buses trundled along like drunks; tilting to one side under the collective weight of the dozens who clung to the foot board. Women sat proudly on their two wheelers; earthly Durgas astride man-made tigers. Their saris hung limply around multiple waists, wilted like the flowers in their hair. Teenage boys lounged against motorbikes, their eyes trained to seek out the young girls walking home from evening tuitions, their calls, whistles and singing drowned out by the roar of the traffic.
“Want to play word ending?” Sangeetha asked. Failing to keep the desperation out of her voice she tried again “Nameplaceanimalthing?”
“You’re not fair. I always play when you want to.” Sangeetha whined.
“Give me one example” Sri challenged.
“Like when you want to fashion design.”
“That’s not a game. That’s meant to help you. If you don’t want to anymore then that’s fine by me.”
“No, no I want to” Sangeetha insisted without enthusiasm.
Fashion designing was one of the few things they still did together, though Sangeetha questioned her sister’s motives in including her. Whenever Sri was bored she would announce that it was time to fashion design. She would bring out her sketch pad and hand Sangeetha the one-sided sheets their father brought home from the office. The Caran D’ache sketch pens –a gift from their Aunty in Singapore- would be brought out from the almirah where it shared hallowed ground with their mother’s wedding saris and gold jewellery. Sri would run her fingers over the multitude of blues and violets while Sangeetha grappled with the leaky, broken Camlins from last year. While Sangeetha created fantastic trapezoidal skirts and triangular jackets in improbable magentas and violent yellows, her sister drew dainty summer dresses in pastel shades with matching shoes and handbags. The final efforts would then be passed around the family. Sangeetha’s shoulder padded monstrosities were received with silence, a wan smile and mumbled compliments; Sri’s would be marvelled at and saved in a clear plastic folder to be shown to admiring relatives when they visited.
“OK let’s play something you want to play” Sangeetha suggested. “Akka, I said lets-”
“I heard you. I’m thinking” Sri stressed the ‘nk’ of thinking. “Let’s play truth or dare.”
Sangeetha froze. It was the grown-up game Sri played with her friends when they came home. Hours of pressing her ear up against the locked bedroom door meant Sangeetha knew that telling the truth involved confessing you were in love with the PT Master and that being dared meant having to steal underwear from the neighbour’s washing lines. Very often the shrieks and giggles turned in to loud sobs and angry accusations.
“Truth” Sangeetha barked, hoping the fear didn’t show on her face.
“OK. Who do you love more – Amma or Appa?”
“Mummy or daddy? You have to choose one of them”
“No. I have to tell the truth”
“You’re lying. If you lie you have to do a dare.”
What horrible thing was Sri going to think up, Sangeetha fretted? Would she have to eat a raw brinjal like Maithreyi had last time? Or go and tell Amma that the watchman had touched her like Regina was forced to? She hadn’t seen watchman uncle since then.
As Sri sat thinking, Sangeetha looked outside the window. The traffic had dwindled to the odd auto and the buses had sobered up and were driving straight. It had been half an hour since their mother had left the vegetables in the car and disappeared. Sangeetha wish she would come back, she didn’t want to play anymore.
Lakshmi wished she could stay in the supermarket forever. The air condition hummed away happily as it dissolved the beads of sweat that decorated her back. She felt a momentary twinge of guilt as she thought of her daughters in the hot stuffy car. She would buy them a nice cool drink. The smell of baking bread seeped into her and replaced the remorse with its warmth. Crystals of sugar winked at her from the shelves. Chick peas sat stodgily in their polythene covers. When was the last time she had had masala chole? At the drive-in on her birthday last year. She could still taste the spicy cooked chickpeas hiding under the large, oily bubble like batura. She also remembered how the hawk had lifted an eyebrow in disdain.
“I’m sure there’s garlic in that” she had muttered disapprovingly as she dug in to her bland, mushy upma. “I don’t know why we have to eat out. You’re not a child anymore to celebrate your birthday. How much will all of this cost? Rs. 500 at least. We could have gone to the temple and donated the money to feed the poor instead.”
Lakshmi had looked to her husband, hoping he would reprimand his mother; stand up to her. But instead he looked straight ahead, his greying moustache tinged orangey-red from the tomato soup he was noisily slurping. Lakshmi had continued eating and then ordered a plate of curd rice, asking the waiter to bring garlic pickle with it.
Lakshmi sighed and ran her newly manicured finger along a bottle of ground cumin. They had been painted the palest lavender. The colour was so light, one could only tell her nails were coated in varnish when light bounced off the smooth curved surfaces. Anything brighter and the hawk would surely notice. Lakshmi looked around her, pretending just for a moment that she could buy everything and anything in the store, and spotted a handsome man stood at the far end of the aisle. He was holding a packet of foreign food, Lakshmi had seen it on a cooking show once. It was like vermicelli. She couldn’t recall the name though. He looked up at Lakshmi and caught her staring. Lakshmi blushed and turned away, pretending to straighten some of the bottles on the shelf before her.
Sri rummaged through the plastic baskets and pulled out two fresh bunches of spinach that their mother had bought at the market.
“Do Maari-Amma dance with this” she ordered, thrusting the greens at Sangeetha. Amma had told them never to imitate the Maari-Amma dances they had seen in the movies. It was wrong to make fun of God like that she had said. But Sri and Sangeetha were fascinated by them. The heroine would become possessed with religious zeal at the temple festival and then dance and sing feverishly, her face smeared with a turmeric paste the exact same shade of her sari, hands grasping ample green bunches of veppelai leaves. After much eye rolling, fire walking and demonstration of frenzied piety, the pleased Goddess Mariamman would descend from the heavens and help the heroine vanquish her evil mother-in-law and reign in her useless husband. Mother had warned the girls that if they ever tried the dance themselves (as she had once found them about to do; it had taken two days for the yellow paint to wash off) then a spirit would enter their own bodies and never go, leaving them dancing and eye rolling for all eternity.
“There’s not enough space” Sangeetha protested.
“That’s ok, just sit down and do it.”
Sangeetha took the spinach leaves and half heartedly shook them about, looking out the corner of her eye for any wandering spirits in search of a home.
“No, no. Somebody has to see you.” Sri insisted “Otherwise it doesn’t count”
A wiry, old man had just finished relieving himself on the ‘Do Not Urinate’ sign painted on a wall. He adjusted his dhoti and stood there wondering what to do next while he scratched his head with one hand and his groin with the other. Sri nodded at him, but shook her head.
“No. The person has to be on this side of the road. And chee, stop staring!”
Sangeetha was annoyed. Her sister seemed to be adding new rules as and when they occurred to her. But a strange desire to do the dare had gripped Sangeetha. She wasn’t about to give up now. They both waited tensely for someone to walk by the car. Sri suddenly gripped Sangeetha’s arm and silently pointed ahead. A young girl was walking towards them. She was poor – you could tell from her faded pavadai that swept the ground, the once bright gold thread border unravelling along the hem. Her heavy anklets went ‘jink juk jink juk’ with every step. Her face was powdered a ghostly white and her well-oiled hair festooned with orange and white flowers. A white stone nose-pin winked against the girl’s darker, inadequately powdered nose.
Sangeetha gripped the spinach with determination. As the girl reached the bonnet of the car she began to sway from side to side and rattle the leafy stalks about. With each step the girl took Sangeetha increased her tempo and soon began to roll her eyes about and stick out her tongue, ululating for extra effect. Sangeetha writhed uncontrollably, the spinach thrashing the roof of the car and its windows.
Lakshmi did a mental count of how much money she had left. Two hundred rupees would easily cover Frooti for the girls and a small treat for herself.
“Excuse me, but do you sell olive oil?”
The smooth English words brought Lakshmi to a halt. She looked at the voice’s owner blankly. It was the handsome man from before. ‘Why was he asking her that?’ Lakshmi wondered as looked around and back at the man.
“Do you sell Olive Oil?” he slowly repeated.
“Now your turn Sri Akka…” Sangeetha panted turning towards her sister. Sri’s eyes were scrunched shut and she was hunched in the corner of the seat, mouth working silently and hands folded as though in prayer. Sri’s eyes flew wide open with shock on hearing Sangeetha speak normally. Her wild eyes roamed over Sangeetha’s dishevelled face before bursting in to tears. Her loud sobs racking her frame. Hiccupping and wheezing, snotty and saline she hugged her sister. Sangeetha mutely put the spinach back in the basket and returned her sister’s embrace, stroking her head in comfort. After a few minutes Sri’s crying ceased and the only sound in the car was the odd sob that escaped.
Janaki was perched on the edge of the plantation chair watching the news. Some fishermen had drowned and the Government was offering the bereaved families one hundred thousand rupees each. “One lakh! They wouldn’t see that kind of money even if those men had survived and earned till the day they were a hundred.” she drawled aloud. Janaki’s well tuned ears heard the key turn in the front door over the wails and funeral songs of the widowed women who were now beating their chests and pulling their hair. “All drama for the cameras. Who really cried like that? Really, they were all probably happy that those drunkard husbands weren’t around to slap them anymore.”
“Why so late?” she called out, eyes till on the television. There was no reply. She leaned forward a little and called out again “Who so late?” She heaved herself out of the chair and hobbled towards the kitchen, exaggerating the limp in her left leg. Or was it her right? She paused trying to come to a decision before carrying on with the left. “Just let that girl say something about it” she muttered. Janaki stood at the entrance of the kitchen watching Lakshmi and the girls unload the baskets and bags.
“Can’t you hear? I asked you why you’re late.” Janaki was getting annoyed at her daughter-in-law’s stubborn silence. The girls weren’t saying anything either, she must have taught her daughters to be insolent too. They were going to turn out just like their mother. Janaki limped over to the dining table and picked through the vegetables. The bundles of spinach were completely in tatters, the leaves limp and bedraggled. Was her daughter-in-law blind? She was incapable of doing anything properly. What a useless thing this one had turned out to be. Janaki limped back to the plantation chair, and leaned right back in to its curved depths, sighing in satisfaction. At least she would have something to tell the other women at the temple next week. It was her turn.
(One of the first stories I wrote for a collection of shorts that is now stuck. The stories, of various lengths and stages are on my hard drive. I don’t feel like going ahead with them any more. A friend suggests I work at writing something else till I do. So while I think of a new project I might just put all my stories up here. Or not.)