Sunday, April 30, 2006


Shireen lived at Marine Lines.

A dingy semi-victorian one room apartment. with a 'mori', and a small square window that looked out onto Queen's road, Marine Lines, and then Police Gymkhana and finally Marine Drive. On a good day you could see the foliage surrounding the Governor's bungalow. On a bad day, well you could see just Marine Lines. If you opened the window, that is.

There was a bed. A four poster, no less. with assorted bedding, blankets, razais, and pillows. A mosquito net was draped over the frame made by the 4 pillars that rose from the bed posts. Opposite was a chest of drawers. Wood again. On top of it was a round desk mirror and an old black analog telephone covered by a white embroidered cloth. and a yellowed calendar on the wall behind showing dates of November 2003. A dull frosted glass lamp housing a 40 W bulb glowed unconvincingly from the top of the wall illuminating the room in a pale yellow halo. A cello was placed behind the bed in its dusty cover. Blackish-Grey.

A printed curtain seperated the mori from the main room. Next to it was the kitchen. A single ledge with shelves in black cuddapah stone underneath and pots and pans and rice containers, and dal containers, and bowls and spoons and forks and knives. Above was an open cabinet with tea, and utensils. And some Bourbon biscuits. An old cupboard sat in the last corner of the room. Blackened mirrors scowled back at you if you mistakenly happened to demand a reflection. 2 old suitcases and a grey hatbox sat on top of the cupboard. A couple of spiders had woven their homes in the crevices between the hatbox and the suitcases.Next to the cupboard was one chair. A wooden upright cane seat chair. Above it was a book case - open wooden shelves with books on them right upto the ceiling. In the middle of the room was a walnut wood rocking chair. With a carved back, and a delicate arch. With smooth polished rockers, the wood looked almost black. A tartan cushion sat in the seat, and the back was slats of wood held by a frame. A rosary hung by one handle. A half empty bowl of water was kept by the window. If you looked up, you saw rafters. Great big pink painted rafters. Steepling from the edge of the room and meeting the wall. A few pigeons coo-ed and you could see marks of pigeon droppings on the window sill. A ceiling fan rotated creakingly, suspended from one of the rafters.

Shireen was of indeterminate age. She had pinched sallow cheeks, black curly hair with streaks of grey in them, a pointed nose, and a creased forehead. Her neck was taut, and her lips were perennially pursed. She had a rake thin body, and she wasnt too tall. or too short. In fact in a crowded place, you might miss Shireenif you blinked. She wore blouses - whether they were polyester or silk, noone knew. Some days she wore cotton. Always the same pullover, come rain or shine. And skirts. Always pleated and always below the knee. Nobody knew where she had her clothes tailored. They were so nondescript that ready-to-wear was ruled out. She usually wore severe black or grey shoes. No garish colors. No style statements. No coiffeured looks. After all, for whom did she need to do all this? She was happy with what she looked like. Shireen was not too tough to please. Especially when it came to Shireen. She wore thick framed glasses. The kind that were in vogue in the 60s when nothing else was available.

Shireen worked in a Marwari export firm 10 minutes walking distance from her building. The export firm had been in business since pre-Independence days. But rioting, errant sons, splits in the family, eroding market share, competition, laziness, and plain ineptitude had kept the company in exactly the same place it had been, with the same people visiting it day in and day out. A loser company, kept in business by its owner, who frequented casinos, the races, went abroad frequently, had a high maintenance wife, and 2 bratty children, who kept their launderers busy. Until they squandered their inheritance, they kept Shireen in employment. Sometimes the boss brushed her bottom on his way across the office. Shireen just bit her lip, and continued on her way. It was not so often that she would have to do something about it. But not so infrequent that she forgot about it. It was something she submitted to, only because it happened rarely.

Shireen lived in a continuum, where days were words, and dates were numbers, and all life was a single cycle. Every day, she got up at 7 AM, answered the door for the milkman. Heated the milk, and had her regulation one cup of tea. She then poured out a little milk into the bowl, and added equal parts of water to it for the cat. She then turned on the Antique iron geyser and waited for the water to boil. She then filled up a clanking iron pail with 50% hot water, 50% cold water, and had a bath. She never washed her hair. Neither did she comb it. It was always bunched up. She would leave for office precisely at 9 AM. She shut the two doors and padlocked the outer door. And then pulled the chain across. Just to make sure.

One day, when she returned back from work, she saw the Mehta children from the 2nd floor tying a string of cans to her cat's tail. The cat was obviously scared and as it ran away from the children, mewing horrendously, the clattering cans made a louder racket, frightening her even more. Shireen was shaking with anger and irritation when she stopped the cat and gently untied the cans. She then stroked the cat gently, and let it go. She strode up the stairs, muttering under her breath. When she reached the 2nd floor, she began to stride down the long hallway to the double doored Gujju household of Mr Mehta, Bania; Mrs Mehta, Henpecking Bitchy Housewife; Aunty Mehta, returned from Kenya; and the Mehta brood - 2 to the Bitchy, and 2 to the Aunty. And their ghanti-toting Grandmother. Up at 5 AM reciting mantras at the top of her voice. As she approached the door, it opened, with loud gujarati voices condemning the existence of Muslims in their neighbourhood, the rising prices of onions, and the school systems that made private tuitions for English compulsory.

Shireen hesitated as she contemplated yet another inequal argument between her pidgin hindi and Mrs Mehta's articulate gujarati. She stood, poised for a split second. Then she turned around and walked away swiftly, and turned up the stairway, before they came out.

That night, the gujjus were troubled by a stringed instrument, soulfully howling out into the night.



Anonymous said...

Très très nice!
The sordid intensity of the description of Shireen's living quarters is really amazing.


elusive said...

Well, I wouldn't call it sordid..I really like such houses..that's what makes mumbai what it is..and the description is so vivid, I was almost there..