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November 07, 2015

A Flawed Abundance

Illustration by Salil Sojwal

Oyster mushrooms growing off jute bundles…sunbirds chattering over hibiscuses… neatly planted vegetables…well-exercised dogs. Monideepa Saha — having turned her back on the expressway of urban living where everyone does things very fast — is enjoying her life in an almost perfect rural idyll. Gouri Dange pens a portrait of her simple days in an exclusive short story for Verve

Bits and pieces of the story had filtered down to us, back in the office. No one really believed it would last long. But now, as I squelch my way up the red-earth and pouring-rain path to her small home, I am less prone to smirk.

The first sign comes from the little white cards stapled on to small sticks tucked into newly-laid seed beds. One of them says in indelible green marker, in Moni’s firm hand: ‘Brinjal’. The next one reads: ‘Turaii’. There are more cards, all the same size, marked basil, cucumber, bhindi. I flip over one of the cards and see printed on the other side: the name of our bank, one of the prominent ones that chases you relentlessly with car loans and credit cards — and below that, Monideepa Saha, Vice President, Business Development.

“You remember, someone got us those waterproof, scratch-proof, tear-proof cards made. They’ve proved to be so useful, here,” she calls out to me. She unfolds herself, standing upright from her squatting position in one smooth move, and waves a muddy spade at me. She’s lost some weight, and there’s grey showing (or being allowed to show) in her hair. On her faded but serviceable moss-green T-shirt, the once-proud crocodile on the left pocket is now a pale lizard. The trousers, which can best be described as random, must have once been beige, but are now reddish with the local soil. Rubber chappals finish the ensemble. I wonder what she did with her Imelda-esque collection of shoes. Did she lose them in the division of assets along with the Jamini Roys, I wonder absurdly. I want to giggle at the image of her supercilious Shishir walking around in Jimmy Choos.

A dog of uncertain lineage — a random dog — comes out of the house with his face split in that dorky smile that says welcome one and all, and don’t expect any barking and stuff.

Inside the house, random, unmatched pieces of furniture sit around comfortably — smoking bidis, so to speak. None of that elegant at-your-service-ness or the fake languidity of any of her Carmichael Road apartment furniture. No artwork on the wall…just a large softboard with photos of sundry dogs and her two sons in their childhood, and of what must be local kids, grinning toothily into the camera, squinting into the Konkan sun.

The house is built, we’ve heard back at the office, by her and a local couple. None of the material comes from more than three kilometres away from the site.
At the stone sink, she washes her hands fastidiously, scrubbing with a brush, before she puts on water for tea. Watching me watching her, she says:

“Some habits die hard…doc parents and all….”

“How’s your mom?” I ask her.

“Hmm…Mom…she visits once in a couple of months, sits on the edge of the divan for half an hour, avoids ingesting anything, and scurries back to Mumbai,” she says, miming the scene perfectly. “She doesn’t approve of Endy,” she adds, fake-boxing the dog on his ears.

“Where did you get that name Endy?”

“ND, Endy…when I took him to the government vet college up in Ratnagiri for his first shots last year, the vet put down his breed as ‘non-descript’, ND.”  Endy wags his tail.

She hands me a mug of tea, the steam giving off the fragrance of bruised lemongrass and ginger and tulsi and mint, all plucked off the kitchen windowsill where they are growing boisterously, close at hand to the counter. For herself, she pulls out half a tin of condensed milk from the small two-shelf terracotta fridge.

We wander on to her porch. She puts a long gooey spoonful into her mouth, and I pretend not to look.  After four or five such mouthfuls…I finally say: “Kya trip hai, Moni? What’s with this condensed milk thing…roj khatay ho kya, chai ke badlay? Do you know how many calories that has?” My question sounds nonsensical in my head immediately, as I can see all around me the signs of the hard physical labour that she must be putting in on a daily basis.

“Naah…not every day. I bought some yesterday when I went into the city…had forgotten what it tasted like…can’t stop eating the stuff.”

“Achha, this is some regression trip…back to child-like state and all that,” I say, surprising myself at the sarcasm in my voice. I expect a sharp retort.

All she says, like she’s talking to a kid, looking over kindly at me, is “No trip-wip, Sheetal…” And then sings out softly, with a grin: “Trip ke din beetay rey bhaiyaa, ab sukh aayo rayyy…”

“I’ll tell you who was on a trip,” she says, “KB was.”

KB was our colleague once. Couple of years ago he’d ‘gone rural’, but in glorious technicolor….made a big production out of it. Sent us all change-of-address cards with the message “So long, lemmings” printed on it. Put his kids in a vernacular school. Joined an NGO. Sold his car, bought two bicycles. Blabbed on about being ‘close to the earth’ and ‘getting his hands dirty’.

“You remember his standard reply when anyone asked him what he and Amita did now? He used to say, with that pseud-enlightened look: ‘We  do nothing. And we do it verrry slowwly.’” Moni shuddered slightly. “Man, it was like hearing fingernails scraping on the wall, that phrase. Sala…ego-trip even in simplifying his life and dumping the urban life. These chaps want an audience and a standing ovation even when they opt out: ‘Look ma, no hands.’”

Little wonder then, that KB and family had come skittering back on to the expressway, back to doing everything and doing it verry fast. And just like he’d pretended his corporate life never existed…or had been just a little detour, now he would never refer to his excursion into nowhere-land. “Just a sabbatical,” he’d say glibly, if anyone asked. His little outing into the rural hinterland, and then the rather difficult re-entry into corporate life, was still talked about in nudge-nudge terms back at the bank.

Licking the spoon thoroughly, Moni said: “These buggers think it’s easy…that the Universe is simply waiting for you to abandon your jobs and loll about. Point is, everything is hard work…. I’ve just found the kind that I really like, and a place that is kind enough to let me in. So now I don’t go to bed agreeing with those clichés: ‘Life is a bitch, then you die’ and ‘Win the rat race, and you’re still a rat’. It’s not, Sheetal, my life is not a bitch anymore. But I’m not sitting on my butt either.”

I look around me at the evidence of her labours….the oyster mushrooms growing off a jute bundle suspended in the kitchen, the veggies outside, the vermicompost pit at the back, the spare, neatly kept home, the rain water barrel. The well-exercised dog.

Time was, when Moni looked most preeny-modest when anyone called her a workaholic. Like it was a compliment. What I see now is a woman who works hard…not an anything-holic. And not in need of an audience.

“Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young,” she says, stretching this way and that. “I wasted mine behind a desk, behind the wheel of my car, behind the airplane seat in front of me, behind closed-bloody-door meetings.”  “Chaila…” she adds, bringing local colour to her always colourful vocab. “Imagine how many more rows of veggies I could have planted before I hit 50.”

“There must be some heavy economic explanation, a Marxist explanation and some capitalist explanation, none of which agree with the other, but what I can’t figure is why there is world hunger, when a pocket kitchen garden like mine can produce enough veggies round the year, for me, my two neighbours and the watchman’s family. Without a single upper for the plants and downer for the bugs. Nothing. I just plant them, 50 per cent survive, and 25 per cent produce veggies. You’ll say this is a poorish return on investment. I say this is more than enough. Any day this flawed abundance than the mingy perfection that we lived,” she says.

I wonder if the ‘we’ she refers to is all of us at the bank, or her and Shishir.

“Of course it doesn’t come out of ‘doing nothing verry slowly’.” She points to her calendar…and there are little notes on it….planting schedules, mushroom bag changing dates, ‘take down papayas’, exam dates for the watchman’s kids, etc.

She picks up a basket of dried beans and begins to split them open, black chowlis tumbling musically into a steel bowl. I try my hand at it, and we fall into a mesmerized, bean-stringing silence. “Remember that thing I’d got from Japan for my desk…‘stress-buster beads’.” We look at each other and burst out laughing. “What a dumb-ass thing.” She makes a zombie-face — hands playing with invisible big beads. “…and everyone at the office so thrilled with it… When all the while there were beans to be stringed…or is it ‘strung’. And the rest of India knew about it. Only self-important sorts like us didn’t.”

We laugh some more…and then she says, “You know what makes me really sick…even if I remember it for a second? That creepy relaxation music piped into the office. My gawwd…the worst…it’s actually called industrial music. I think of it and I feel ill in the stomach. In the elevators, in the lunchroom, in the waiting area, in the telephones. Music with absolutely no identity…Those chimes and ocean waves and I’m-so-soothing saxophones…yukkk.”

We step out on her little porch. A sunbird comes chattering excitedly and alights, drinking long and steady from the white hibiscus. Moni watches it, and says dreamily, “I know where it’s building a nest, but I won’t show you. It’ll get pissed off and abandon the site.” I nod seriously, feeling ridiculously left out. I try to think of what I can tell her I know but won’t tell her. But only Tara’s affair-gone-sour with Hari and Diksha’s impending transfer come to mind, and I’m afraid she’ll laugh, or worse, ask who Tara, who Hari, who Diksha?

I look for the newspaper and can’t find one. Moni says she doesn’t take a newspaper. “The newspapers thrive on anxiety-mongering…. Whatever I need to know, immediately relevant to me, I know from around me…if I need to go into the city, I call up my friends there…ask them…array aaj riot-wiot nahi hai na kuch…sometimes they tell me it’s raining madly, come later…bas that’s all I need to know. The news is a bogus concept. All this preoccupation with information and opinion…so much BS. See what old Rumi says,” she says, reading from a book:

‘Discursiveness dies and gets put in the grave.

This contemplative joy does not.

This present thirst is your real intelligence, not the back-and-forth, mercurial brightness.

Scholarly knowledge is a vertigo, an exhausted famousness. Listening is better.’

At brunch time, Dilnaz comes by from Warak, a hamlet four kilometre from Moni’s place. “Her husband and she are growing palak and methi this time, so we’re trading,” Moni explains. Once a stinging-biting film critic, Dilnaz now gives me a blank stare when I ask her what good films to watch. “Hey that was on another planet,” she explains kindly. Then adds quickly…“Okok…I’m not doing a KB…saw Queen? I have a girl-crush on Kangana.” She hands Moni a batch of dog biscuits that she’s made from ragi and crushed eggshells, examines Endy’s ears for fleas, removes some offenders, and leaves on a bicycle.

Has this all been set up for me? Just the image of a rural idyll? I wonder paranoid-ly, as my time to leave and head for the Mumbai-bound train approaches. As if on cue, two schoolgirls in faded but clean uniforms, hair well combed into shiny plaits, run past us, and one of them shouts out: “Moni-tai remember NOT to trim the jamun tree yet, haan? There’s a nest there.” Moni looks craftily at me, reading my mind straight off, and says. “What would an equivalent child in Mumbai be shouting out? I’ll tell you…‘Mummy don’t forget to call up my allergy specialist haan?’” She grins at her own corniness.

“I’m going to take a nap,” Moni announces, and looking at me glancing at the clock — it’s 12 in the afternoon — she says, ‘You know the word ‘hysteresis’? Not hysterics. Hysteresis. In physics. See, when a cell phone battery doesn’t discharge completely, and you recharge it, then over time, the part that doesn’t get discharged, that part loses its capacity. That much battery dies on you. That’s why they suggest you let your cell phone battery discharge completely. And then recharge it.”

“And your point is…” I say.

“My point is that I did that for the longest time. The half-discharge thing. Parts of me became unusable. Now I discharge myself completely. And so, tata-for-now,” she says, Tigger style. She puts on a CD and stretches out on the divan. “Before you leave, I’ll make you a great, great cocktail. It has melon liqueur in it, is the only clue I will give you,” she says, pulling a Sholapuri chaddar on to herself. ‘Power napping,’ I almost say, but the phrase seemed out of sync here.

An old veteran voice pours forth from the player. A robust, gravelly and yet sweet voice. A Tukaram abhang, in which he asks his god to keep him small, humble…because the mighty fall with a crash, while the small are simply taken back into the soil, the maati, when their time comes.

There are no introductory notes…he seems to launch himself and the listener straightaway into the heart of the matter. As if he’s been singing since eternity, and it’s only I who have tuned in just now. It’s a live recording. I can hear the audience murmuring…carried along on the singer’s journey. It’s like being in a sailboat. He is in charge of the sails…but the wind and the ocean decide how much you weave and pitch. At the end of a particularly long, sweet and mesmeric line, the singer too half-laughs — as delighted as his listeners at how that came out. It is a complete submission to the nature of the composition. As if he’s just a medium. And yet I know that much hard work has gone into the making of the medium, the singer…so that there is this seemingly effortless outpouring.

I feel a huge pang of envy…for everyone who has submitted to what they love…the singer, Moni, Dilnaz, even KB…in his own confused way. It seems so simple, so doable…and yet so frightening, to leave the city. I pick up a book and open it to a bookmarked page. Again I get the uncanny feeling that the page has been marked specially for me. Arranged so that I read it when I need it. Rumi is speaking to me:

‘This is how a human being can change:

There’s a worm addicted to eating grape leaves.

Suddenly, he wakes up, call it grace, whatever, something wakes him, and he’s no longer a worm.

He’s the entire vineyard, and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks, a growing wisdom and joy that doesn’t need to devour.’

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