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Apr 29, 2004

Gangubai - A Short Story

I too have had my moments of epiphanies much like Joyce’s protagonist in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. One such incident took place when I was eleven years young. My inquisitive nature coupled with my spirit of adventure made me trespass into the house of Gangubai. It is an occurrence which has left an indelible impression on my consciousness. For the first time it raised questions about social co-existence, about morality and about man-woman relationship.

It occurred during one of my annual visits to my grandpa’s place in Nagpur, the city where my mother was born and brought up. My grandpa’s house is located in Buty Chawl. True to its name people from all walks of life are to be found here. It has a cosmopolitan flavour where each resident has been living for the past 50 odd years. As is typical of a chawl this place too has its share of ego-clashes, cold wars, camarederie and ofcourse some roof shattering quarrels.

But of all the houses there was one house which was the point of my curiosity. I had heard a middle-aged lady was the sole occupant. Her name was Gangubai. A one-eyed Tibetan Lhasa was her only companion. Her’s was reclusive existence. She stirred out of her house once in a week to pick her rations. All doors and windows were firmly bolted even in the most scorching summers. She hired no daily help. The only other person to frequent the house was pan chewing man with a Gandhi cap and spotless white dhorit kurta. This man who could have been in his mid-fifties came very rarely and most often at the fall of dawn. But though I saw him going in I never quite saw him coming out. My questions regarding the lady were usually parried off.

Besides the intrigue value there was one more reason why Gangubai was the object of my attention. We played cricket everyday. Each time somebody hit the ball inside her house it was declared lost. We had been told Gangubai was averse to kids. Moreover the Lhasa was ever vigilant about trespassers. If that was not enough there was the looming fear of a tidy spanking if somebody did manage to retrieve the ball after scaling a 5-6 foot high hedge. As an annual visitor despite all curiosity I resisted the temptation wanting not to spoil my summer holidays.

But soon the house became a major irritant. As I could tonk the ball far more often than not I was most frequent culprit of sending the ball inside Gangubai’s house. And thus ball after ball was being sucked into the black hole – its appetite insatiable. My gut feel was that this could not go on for long. One day my uncle had brought an expensive Cosco ball for me from abroad. The temptation was too much. I wanted to brandish my latest possession to others. And I succumbed.

Obediently within 10 minutes of bringing it out the ball was sucked into the black hole. It was obvious that nobody would be interested to fetch it. I had to do it myself. On one hand was the dissappointment of losing the ball on the other was fear of the unknown coupled with the thought of a tight spank. The former far outweighed the latter. Disregarding my playmates’ advice I decided to take the plunge.
I was felt reassured as the dog was not barking. I presumed it was inside. As I could not scale the hedge I suffered the ignominy of slipping beneath gate which was about 6-8 inches from the ground. My expertise in ostacle race came in handy. I was inside the lawn only to find to my horror that dog’s slumber had been broken and the ball a yard away from it. The dog started barking and I decided to beat a hasty retreat. As I was about to slip out my shirt got stuck to piece of nail. Before I could unhook it I felt someone was pulling me from the behind. That was it – my fear overtook me and I froze.

The next moment I was hanging in the air and was being escorted into the house. However to my relief it was not the dog but Gangubai. She put me on the sofa. I was afraid to even look up. Reaching home was all that occupied my mind. But I had to look up and as I did I saw the most brilliant smile I have ever seen. Giving a motherly pat she asked why I could not simply ask for the ball. It would have saved me all the trouble. I wondered whether this was the same lady about whom we were bred so many fears. Her smiling face reassured me. I gathered courage and asked her if that was the case why she had not returned our balls on earlier occasions. She replied that nobody asked for them. I found the answer inadequate. Moreover her master had forbidden her from talking with anyone in the neighbourhood. Nobody wanted their children to interact with her. All this while she was medicating the bruise I had received during my attempted escape. She asked me to wait but I wanted to be out. She brought a plateful of mithais. I gobbled them as fast as I could as I was afraid that my companions might betray me. As she accosted me to the gate she squeezed my chubby cheeks and gave me peck.

But as the gate clinged open my worst fears came true. In true chawl style I could see a motley crowd mainly made up of neighbourhood women. My eyes immediately wandered to two of them, my grandma and my mom. I can barely recollect what was said in the ensuing fight between them and Gangubai except that Gangubai spoke very little. I could feel a stinging pain in my left ear and was virtually dragged by the ear. For the first and only time I received a hammering from my grandma. It was grandpa’s intervention which brought my misery to end.

For the next few days we stopped playing and the others avoided me. But as passions subsided and it subsides pretty fast in a Chawl, life took its routine course. The only change – we played in a different direction with the batsman’s back to the house. In private some friends acknowledge my bravado. But to their mothers I was a problem child. That incident never got mentioned in my house again. I never ventured to find out what was the end of the altercation that day. I did not encounter Gangubai again. All that I know is she died of a stroke a few years ago. The house now belongs to a famous Nagpur mithaiwallah and is teeming with people.

Now that I know more about the birds and bees and am about to be a father I realise the circumstances of it all. Gangubai was ostracised for being a mistress. My grandma is a favourite of mine but I still failed to understand her reaction to an incident which evokes only laughter from me. My take – I would not shut myself out from something just on hearsay. I also have a souvenior – the peck from Gangubai. Albeit for a few moments but it made a young boy feel like a man.

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