When Ammamma woke up at the crack of dawn, it was with a sense of purpose. She briskly walked into the still-dark kitchen to boil water for her morning tea, while Nati, her granddaughter, watched bleary eyed; seated at the dining table. She parted the windows to let in the cool mid-summer-morning breeze. The Gulmohars swayed in unison. At the washbasin, she popped on her shiny new dentures and squinted into the mirror. “I miss those toothless days”, she said matter-of-factly. “I have to brush my teeth everyday now.” She marched past her still dazed Nati, back into the kitchen, as the hissing sound of boiling water beckoned her.
She took a sip of the piping hot tea and grunted with satisfaction. “I do not miss the sugar in my tea anymore.”
She opened the front door of the house, into the gloomy, deserted corridor beyond and surveyed it with a sweeping glace. Ten tightly shut doors stared back at her in quiet defiance, early morning activity plainly missing behind them. Ammamma withdrew, disapproval writ large on her face. She then hauled her favourite rocking chair to the door and took guard, the teacup cradled in her palms. It was about time.
Ammamma was in the city to live with her granddaughter. Ever since Nati had bid her a goodbye, to journey to the city for her new job, Ammamma had been constantly anxious for her well-being. Despite Nati’s persistent assurances over phone, every night that she could fend for herself, Ammamma’s worries had failed to subside. After all, she had single-handedly raised and cared for Nati through her childhood. She found herself battling pangs of separation through long, sleepless nights.
The arrival of summer was the cue for Ammamma to unite with Nati and she promptly set out on the much-anticipated trip. Journeying alongside, securely fastened under her armpits; was the well-ripened jackfruit from her garden, which she refused to set down. It sat smugly on her lap as the auto rickshaw navigated the dusty, grey roads of the city. On reaching; the houses stacked one on top of the other and reaching into the sky gave her a scare, before she was shown into the lift.
“It was your Mama who forced these on me”, she explained her new dentures, as she finally deposited the thorny, barbed fruit on the kitchen counter. “At this ripe age of 70 I do not get so much as a second glance from people. Silly Boy! Why do I need new teeth now?” Over the next few days, Nati was put on a diet of jackfruit flavoured idlis, slathered with ghee and honey, a summer special.
Ambulance, fire brigade, carpenter, plumber, electrician, pest control, car wash, beauty services, food delivery – Neck craned upward and eyes boring into; Ammamma was negotiating the giant notice board in the lobby overflowing with scraps of paper vying for space and attention. When she could not find what she was looking for, she enquired of Nati, “Do you not have newspaper delivery services here?” With a non-committal nod, Nati said something about news being available on mobile phones.
Ammamma was not satisfied. Her favourite newspaper formed an important part of her daily routine and she was determined to pursue it.
The first friend Ammamma made in her new surroundings was a garden help who tended the park in the building. The sultry summer weather drove Ammamma to the park every evening, where she rested on a stone bench and waited for the sun to disappear behind the city skyline.
A plump, fair woman, she was squatted in front of Ammamma, her hands working deftly picking stray leaves and flowers off the lawn. “Kannada gotta!” she exclaimed gleefully before launching into a prattle in her Native tongue. “I have been working here for over a year now. The sahib who owns this building is from my village. It is thanks to him, that many of my townsfolk are now working in the city. He is a great man, our Sahib.” Her eyes twinkled with pride.
She rose to stretch and there was a lull in the chatter. She gathered the pleats of her lemon-yellow saree and tucked them around her waist. With a good-natured smile, she crouched and picked up the oblong gardening scissors. Soon the twilight air was heavy with the scent of fresh cut grass. Ammamma sensed an opportunity and jumped in.
“Newspaper?” She looked up with a puzzled expression, before comprehension dawned. “Of course, it can be made available; right at your doorstep every morning. I know the boy who delivers newspaper to homes in this building. He is a kind lad. His Chikkappa runs a big newspaper agency, which distributes paper to half the city. He has put the boy to work in this area. I hear he is very hard on the boy. Poor Lad! ” She now swept the loose browning grass into a wicker basket. The green glass bangles on her wrists tinkled in the background of her lively chatter. “The boy is always polite and well behaved with me. He often runs errands for me. I only have to voice it and he will comply. You can be assured of getting your newspaper from tomorrow.”
Dragging behind her, a long pipe with a nozzle fitted at the end she sprinkled water unto the freshly manicured lawn. The scent of wet mud slowly wafted into the air.
“Madam, I am a very busy man”, he explained patiently. “I have to be present here, at the lobby every minute of the day; scan and profile every person entering or leaving the building. Even haircutting services are delivered to the doorstep these days, Madam!” He enacted scissors being run through his dark, greasy hair and paused for a moment to register her displeasure.
“Then I have to sprint to the gates and open them for every car entering or exiting the building. No delay is tolerated Madam!” he continued with a grave expression. “Now I have additional duties of cleaning the lobby for no extra pay! Ever since those shoes were stolen from a house last year, I have fallen out of favour with these people.” He pointed with distaste. “Plain bad luck!”
“In my spare time I wash cars in the basement to make some extra money”, a sly grin broke across his face revealing paan-stained teeth.
It was the morning after the first summer showers. The trees had acquired a fresh look. Pigeons were to be seen on windowsills all over the building, pecking and clawing at one another, to claim their territory. The sun had returned with vengeance, blazing bright over the puddles and marshes formed overnight.
When the newspaper did not show up, Ammamma had turned to the sentry posted at the entrance of the building, for help. Tall and lanky, he walked with a pronounced limp. She had described her problem in broken Hindi, aided with hand gestures; and had requested for help. She was now being subjected to a harangue in the unfamiliar language. She tried to be sympathetic.
“That boy is a devil; creates a ruckus in the building every morning; wakes up the whole neighbourhood. He leaves his bicycle parked right across the driveway, and I have to face the wrath of the car owners driving by. He leaves stubborn, mud- trails behind with his dirty footwear and I have to scrub them clean. He scarpers away every single time and makes funny faces from a safe distance, that Haramzaada!” The honking at the gates interrupted the tirade. He slowly got off this swiveling chair and limped away, Ammamma’s problem all but forgotten. “Wait till I catch him. A sound trashing is in store for him.”
He was a scrawny boy of about eight years, with a round face, protuberant eyes and big, prominent ears. His school uniform – navy blue shorts and a white shirt – was baggy and soiled. The bulky school bag slung over his shoulders, reached his knees. The gaping ends of his socks were pulled right up to his knees, and fastened with rubber bands. The shoes – caked with mud – had parted contact with the soles at several places. He twiddled the dials of his orange wristwatch and stared sheepishly at the floor, while Ammamma tried to coax him into helping her. He was the garden-help’s son.
“Yes, I know him. He is in school with me. But, he absents himself all the time. I do not see much of him.”
The door to the house was ajar. They stood in the corridor outside. The other doors remained resolutely closed. Ammamma went back into the house and returned with some jackfruit idlis, which she placed on his outstretched palm. His face lit up and the conversation took off.
“The teachers mostly do not like him; he makes mischief all the time”, he spoke between mouthfuls of idli. “But he is a favourite with the boys. He is very good at playing marbles. He buys chocolates for us all; with his own money at that. Everybody wants to be friends with him.”
“I am amongst his few close friends”, his eyes shone with pride. His voice echoed in the corridors and the stairway. “We have played a lot of pranks together. I often accompany him on his bicycle; when he is out on newspaper-delivery duty.”
“Soon, I too will start working like him; delivering newspapers at these buildings. He has already dropped a word for me with his Chikkappa. Chikkappa has given his consent. I can ride Appaji’s bicycle comfortably now. Rising early in the morning will be a challenge...” His voice trailed off when he saw the stern look on Ammamma’s face.
“Aaytu Ajji”, he reassured her. “I will ask him to bring you the newspaper from tomorrow. Since I am on very good terms with him, he will obey me. May I go and play now?”
Ammamma had dozed off on her rocking chair at the door; head lolling on her shoulders. The teacup was precariously held in her right hand hanging limply beside her. The corridor outside had lightened and the building around her was slowly coming to life. The cool, breezy dawn had made way for a sticky, sweltering morning.
Commotion. Hurried footsteps. The unmistakable sound of newspaper sliding across the corridor floor and coming to a halt at the door. More footsteps. Ammamma woke up with a start. The prospect of another day without the newspaper powered her dash through the open door into the corridor beyond. She was late. The corridor was deserted. A Kannada daily, however, was at her feet, eager to be read with fresh, brewed tea. As she picked it up, she was aware of a faint resentment.
She would have liked an encounter with the boy. Was he the mischievous bully or the affectionate lad, oppressed by his Chikkappa? She was curious to find out for herself. Did he go to work every morning dressed in his school uniform – a conspicuous bulge in the pocket holding marbles? Did he wear muddy shoes? She scoured the floor for shoe marks. She would have liked to admonish him for being so lax at delivering her newspaper. She would have liked to offer him some jackfruit idlis.
Vidya Bhandarkar is a resident of Bengaluru and an avid reader. An engineer by profession, she has written short stories and reviewed books and films in the past.
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