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Stars And Stripes

Saryu Ahuja's prize-winning entry on the East-West clash—ammas with Tata Steel shares, NRI nephews from Yel-Lay, a hot Matunga, a cash-rich Tirupati...

Stars And Stripes
illustration by Jayachandran
Stars And Stripes
It was in March, and about the time when the heat is oppressive and clings to the skin like a pimple, that amma arrived by the last flight from Bangalore. I had been waiting at the airport for over an hour. I saw her with a small suitcase and a large handbag hastening towards me to make up for the delay. She had grown old.

At the flat in Bandra, she removed her slippers behind the door, then with a critical eye scrutinised the guest room. She unpacked immediately. She set her gods out first on the table—thumb-sized idols in silver and brass, a packet of incense, and a brass pot the size of a fist. She would demand rice-grains in the morning to fill up the pot, then jab the incense sticks into them.

She handed me a large purse containing money and a small pouch of jewellery. "Keep them safe, ma," she said, "also this file." I took it from her. "They are Tata Steel shares. So much they have fallen. This morning they were 189.6. We've decided to sell them." All shares had stumbled steadily downward after the '93 bomb blasts in Mumbai.

Amma and her two sisters, Lakshmi and Vatsala, owned 50 shares each of Tata Steel: they bought them ten years ago. They were the only shares they possessed in their own names; they were as proud of them as they were of their reset 9-diamond nose studs, remade zigzag gold bangles, and newly polished silver utensils, the owner's name embossed on each.

Lakshmi, who lived in Matunga, was dying.

Driving to Lakshmi's house next morning, the street had a smell amma was not used to. It smelled of dead fish and filthy fishermen fresh from the sea. It was crowded with people; their sweat smelling of fish and perhaps of virgin Lifebouy soap. A bit foul, a bit piquant. Bit of both. Amma crushed her palav over her nose.

"Aiyoo pavam," amma gasped. An epileptic fellow was having a fit on the footpath. An old man removed his leather slippers, placed them on him. Another urged a metal key into his frothing mouth. Two nuns, who passed by, circumscribed crosses in the air, across their chests. We drove on.

I pointed out a timber yard that was gutted during the riots, then a building that was blown up during the bomb blasts.

"Your grandmother always said," Amma displayed disgust, "these tuluka-paiyas should have been sent away to Pakistan." She sniffed the air, before dropping the palav from her nose. "But not all of them are bad, ma. Surprisingly a few of them are even honest. But they're dirty; some of them eat out of one large plate. These Muslims should learn to live properly in our country. That's all. They can't live here as though it is Pakistan."

Matunga had grown, its older aspects defying the new ones. In the marketplace, old south Indian greengrocers had laid out on the road the countrified vegetables—the snaking gourds, the rolling pumpkins and pimply yams—dull, their dyes derived from dried earth. Amidst them, the young north Indians had arranged in baskets the purple aubergine, red tomatoes, green peppers, each rubbed with oil to make them shine.

The southern fruitsellers had put out a conglomeration of bananas. Beside them those from the north sold apples, pears and grapes. I remember, not long ago, remarking on this to aunt Lakshmi. "Then what?" She enquired with a raised fist. "Ye di, you think any nice south Indian will sell apples!"

Old women in nine-yard silk coiled between their legs and younger women in bright nylex sarees ambled through the market, talcum-ed faces, and elliptic sweat in armpits. They bought flowers for their hair and the gods. They huddled into the Rama temple, coloured with the same flamboyant colours as the aubergine, tomato, peppers. Shining. Smelling. Smiling.

illustration by JayachandranLakshmi lay in bed warped with waiting, her eyes glazed with the inhibited wonder reserved for death's docking."They have not yet come, my sons, from Yel-Lay." She lamented, lapsed into silence. Her body had shrivelled like dried sultanas, her face, ballooned, four times fuller.

"It is full of water," aunt Vatsala wailed clutching amma's hand, "Lakshmi's lungs also. The doctor has made a hole in her back, ma, round like a one-anna," she held up her hand, shaped her fingers to denote a coin, "and water oozes-oozes out of it like anything. We have to put thick pads on the bed. Seventy rupees each one is. Six-seven pads we have to change in one day. Aiyoo Rama!"

Vatsala lived in the lane behind the Rama Temple. Her husband Tangam was a college professor. They had two daughters, Radhika and Mallika, and a son, Mohan. Vatsala filled amma with the Matunga news, crisp like fried karuvadams. Who had got married, to whom, who had gone abroad, and where. Who had died. How, where and when. The latitudes of death were important.

She talked about Sambashivam, the owner of the Mahalakshmi saree store down the street. She bought her Deepawali saree from him each year. "Sambashivam is thinking of going back to Madras, ma," she clicked her tongue. "For more than twenty-five years he has looked after his family shop, but now he says porum—enough!"

She whispered, "Even when the Shiv Sena started riots here to drive us south Indians out since we got all the good jobs, and their Maharashtrians did not, Sambashivam was wanting to go. Ssshhh..." She covered her mouth with her palm.

Lakshmi opened her eyes, a single minute, then closed them. It seemed as if she felt the minute in its entirety, then each separate, sandy seed of its seconds. "They have not come yet, my sons..."

Vatsala said, her hand over her mouth. "Tangam wants to buy a flat in Madras now. Security sake. Radhika is there and it will be nice to be near our grandchildren."

She looked at me, "You will have kapi no? Va-di," she held my hand, hustled me into the kitchen. Vatsala poured milk into a vessel, put it on the stove. She heated water in another vessel. "Tangam is worried," she wiped her face with the end of her palav. "Every morning he travels by train to college. These Maharashtrian people in the train openly support Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena; they are openly against the Muslims now. Tangam says this is a bad sign. Next to Muslims they hate us south Indians, then those cunning Gujeratis, poor Parsees even."

Vatsala gathered the end of her palav, lifted the vessel of hot water with it, and poured the water into the ever-silver coffee filter. "Now the Maharashtrians are thinking of only themselves, not about the country. Tangam says they were so patriotic before, they just left their work, joined Gandhiji to fight for our freedom."

She poured the coffee decoction into three ever-silver tumblers. She blew over the vessel of milk till the cream folded back towards the rim. Picking up the vessel with the palav, she poured the milk into the coffee, then added sugar. With another bowl she began to froth the coffee. I saw brown stripes criss-crossing the air. "Tangam says this is happening because so many Maharashtrians are fleeing to the city now from their villages. They don't have a nice place to live, no jobs, they see so many things on Tee Vee—Naykiiz, Layviz, Kaylokks—but how to buy no? So they are dejected."

illustration by Jayachandran

Amma asked her about Mallika, her younger daughter. Vatsala wiped her eyes with the palav now warm. She slapped her forehead. "Aiyoo, don't ask, ma, about that girl. So much trouble she is giving us. She has one more year to go, in B.A. For her sake only we are staying here." She sighed. "She wants to marry this Marathi boy. Tangam is very much against it. These modern girls are difficult, ma." She brushed her brow with the back of her hand."She wants to work. That I think is good. Because south Indian boys have become modern now, they are looking for working girls to marry. What they call it in the US? Yes, double-income families. Like our old joint families. Only ours were multi-income."

She poured coffee into her mouth, swirled it about, and gulped it down. "It is very bad here now." Then she smiled, "Aiyoo Ananda, I completely forgot, with Lord Venketeswara's blessings our Mohan has got very good job in Chee-ca-go. He has got Green Card only last month. He will come, this Deepawali. We are looking for a homely Tamil girl for him. He is asking us to go with him also. Tangam says he can nicely find an easy job in the University there." She smiled. "I think we'll go ma. It is becoming so terrible here. Aiyoo Muruga, I think the stars are too bad for this country now—it is kaliyug here. Ore hopeless." She frowned, "But one thing I am worrying about ma," she wiped the sweat on her nose, under her eyes, and neck, disgust writ on her face because of the heat, "it must be so cold in Chee-ca-go."

When Kanan and Shekar arrived, they removed their Naykiiz at the door, white tick marks stitched on their sides by poor children of the 3rd world. They were dressed in jeans, but not Levis or Layviz as Vatsala called them. Kanan's blood-red Tee-shirt had blue stars splattered over it, arguably not a predictable colour for misgivings, I agreed with aunt Vatsala, although later I was able to convince her that it could symbolise optimism. Three ash stripes, unaltered, on his forehead traversed the distance in between. He and Shekar had traversed a long distance. Over-Seas. They appeared lost.

They found their mother in bed, numb. They touched her knees beneath the sheet mistaking them for her feet. She had shrunk. But not that much. Kanan talked unabated in a Photostat American way. My brother Shivam was more liberal in the use of what he called euphemisms.

I queried him often. How do your cookies crumble so easily, Shivam? And when precisely does your shit hit the fan? How does your gravy have a train? Why do your flies sit on the wall or seep into some ointment? He had lived in the US for twenty years. In San Francisco.

Kanan sat on the bed, pensive, then in peculiar haste opened a bag. "From the US," he said to his mother, "firstclass brand. Espensive. Not to worry, I got 10% off on my Visa card." He rolled out the sheets of branded super absorbent mattress liners. Economy Pack. Then ever so gently the sons lifted their mother, smoothened the imported liner carefully on the bed, brandname up, death-faced, and then laid Lakshmi down on her one-anna back.

Shekar unpacked the blue Samsonite, it was almost entirely filled with Kellogg's cornflakes. Economy Packs. "Amma loved them," he said, "when she stayed with us in Yel-Lay. Choco-coated."

"But, Shekar, they are available here now," I said.

"Mmm," he considered, "but I bet after converting into rupees, Kellogg's still cheaper back home." He blew down the Vee of his starred Tee-shirt. It was hot.

Lakshmi died two weeks later. Moments before she did she told amma, "Don't forget, sell my Tata Steel shares, ma. Get whatever. It will at least pay for those flavoured flakes Kanan bought for me." Even death was a purchase. Tata Steel closed

at 198.9 that day.

I went with amma to Bangalore. Shivam had arrived in it a few months ago. His company specialised in water treatment and manufactured mineral water for the Cola companies that labelled and peddled it anywise into the liberated world. He'd clung to standards all his life, and numbers took precedence over fact, so Shivam strategised that India's X-million urban middle-class population would demand Y-million bottled drinking water by Zee-year.He was working on a massive project that, he was convinced, would provide pure drinking water to all city people. But just three months after his arrival, he seemed unsettled.

"Christ," Shivam said three hours after I arrived, "darned village, just one kilometre out of Bangalore, and NO WATER. What do I purify? People?" His eyes wilted. He had strayed home.

"I must confess, my statistics are not infallible," he muttered with a lost expression. "Damned country still lives in its villages. Even cities are full of them!"

I tried to understand his ire. Perhaps, such ordinariness produced rash, radical disbelief, and for him, the past was programmed to recede. But here, it was meant to prevail.

The next day, not yet at ease, he told me we were off to Tirupati. "I have rented a Hertz."

"See-yello," amma added, "fully air-conditioned."

"Ceilo," Shivam said, "chauffeur-driven. I've booked two rooms. Food's great there, I hear. Amazing, VISA's accepted everywhere. I am doing the kalayanautsav."

Amma intervened, "It's the re-marriage of our Lord Venketeswara. He was married to Lakshmi in heaven. But when he wanted to marry princess Padmavati on earth he had to take loan from Kubera. He promised to pay him back after Kaliyug. So to help the lord keep his promise his devotees go to Tirupati to fill up his coffers."

"How much was the loan?" Shivam brightened a bit, regaining his interest in numbers again, "and when is after Kaliyug?" Time was a countable sum.

Amma waved a hand at him, and the crow that sat on the satellite television cable outside. Shoo. "It's a long ceremony," she said, "shoo, Lord Venketeswara is re-married to both his wives with all Hindu rituals. Shoo. One has to book years in advance." Shoo. The crow flew away.

"Ah, but I fixed it through the Ministry of Irrigation," Shivam beamed. "That's one advantage in this indefinite country. The minister's PAs are powerful." Then his face took on a definitive form. "I decided I would do the kalayanautsav if god Venketeswara blesses my water project. Mutual interest. Fair?" Fair.

He chuckled; his sides shook like Jell-O. He said, "Calculated risk on both sides. I paid 2,500 rupees for the Lord's wedding. Freebies inclusive. I can take five people. Free. Fair?" Fair.

Shivam was dressed in a silk veshti for the kalayanautsav. His chest bare but for the lines of the sacred thread that he luckily bought from a pitiful pujari. We waited in a queue. Amma talked to an old man behind her.

"Myself, P.R.M. Nagarajan, from Tee-Nagar, Madras. My misses, Wasundra," he pointed to a woeful woman, "and my sons, from Silicum Va-lli. NRIs." Their skins were bleached, heads tidily tonsured. "They bought their sacred threads from a pujari this morning. He charged them four times more. Such thin threads also. Cheating rascal! How they just can smell out an NRI these days." He coughed. "Ah, my grandchildren. All four fully American citizens from birth. Wasundra went, for evv-ry delivv-ry," he emphasised the V. He pointed to Shivam, "Your son? Nice."

Amma nodded, "from Kaliforniya."

"Achichoo, he's wearing his thread wrong, ma," Nagarajan showed Shivam how the thread had to be worn over the other shoulder.

The marriage took place in a large hall. Shivam sat in it with a hundred others. We were not allowed in the hall but were caged into a corridor fixed with iron bars. We saw Lord Venketeswara re-married to his wives. For free between the bars. For free via colourless TV monitors that relayed the holy matrimony in disrupted lines. Three hours later, with striped vision, I fumbled out into the sun-spawned court. Shivam was in it fizzy like a can of stirred warm Heineken.

"Now we have to go to the Padmavati temple," Shivam announced.I refused to go. "Aiyoo you have to come," amma said, "the goddess will curse you."

Ganesh, the driver, used my free pass. Fair.

I was thirsty. I spotted a man selling coconuts. Not far from him I saw three poor boys near a tap. A clothcradle hung from a tree with three bulges, one for the child's head, one for its bottom and another for its middle. Its mother stood near, her breasts taut.

When the boys were not throwing water on each other they were filling empty mineral water bottles with it. The older one took the filled bottles to a cigarette shop. The shopkeeper gave him something in return for them. Fair.

The boys splashed about in the water. The baby cried in the cradle. Its mother begged in the street. Her breasts were strained with milk.

The shopkeeper held out cooled bottles of mineral water to Nagarajan's NRI sons. They scrutinised the seal. Unbroken Blue. They gave the bottles to their wives and children. I bought a coconut. I drank it without the straw. Sweet water trickled down my throat. Sticky, hot rivers.

On our way back, Shivam remarked, "Aren't you scared something terrible would happen," he looked grim, "the goddess's wrath..." a nerve ticked on his temple.

An hour later a stone hit the car's belly. "The petrol tank is leaking, sar," Ganesh whined crouching on the road. Shivam's nerve ticked more, he chewed hard on the Wrigley, "there, Padmavati's scorn!"

A battered taxi came by, a dirty cloth flying on its window like a truce flag. The driver studied Shivam's nerves; they computed a compromise—twice the normal return fare. Fair? Fair.

Shivam crushed notes into Ganesh's palm. "Aiyoo, what to do here? It's nowhere!" Ganesh uttered. Shivam fanned out seven crumpled one-dollar bills. Ganesh took them in disbelief, "I went, didn't I, sar? Why is goddess Padmavati angry with me?" He heaved. "I'll go back now only, on foot, and offer her four dollars.

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