Voices from the gate: About a koel, quarter-pants and Billu Dutt and Amma Jaan

Mathai Joseph | Updated on June 06, 2021

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We now wake to birdsong — and snatches of everyday conversation

“In 29 years, I have heard a lot but never anything like this: 211 Madam wants me to stop a koel singing near her balcony. Says it wakes her early in the morning.”

We felt fortunate to have found a flat at the dead end of a quiet lane. The clamour of vehicles on the busy road nearby was faint when it reached us but we could still make out the whine and buzzing of two- and three-wheelers, the growl of bigger vehicles jostling with them for space. The lockdown stifled even those sounds. Now we wake to birds calling, occasionally cats squabbling and dogs hoarsely asserting themselves.

“Lucky that she didn’t ask you to climb the tree.”

The morning bustle of cars being urged out of parking slots and speeding away to schools, colleges, offices and shops has gone. Young and old are reduced to being small boxes on screens who peer at performers on some distant stage.

“303 has a cat. Tell it to chase the koel.”

During the day there were once vendors with incomprehensible chants: One who sounded like a fortune-teller (Kal eeya kal kya ho) sold small bananas at exorbitant rates. Another offered powdered herbal potions to solve all problems, even the constipation of elephants (Hathi na khatti miththi liththi aana purr). The raddi-wallah came to collect what house clearing uncovered: Empty bottles, tins, boxes and paper, sometimes even broken chairs and tables missing a leg; if it fitted on his handcart he’d take it.

The day had many endings. In the afternoon, shrieking, dishevelled children would tumble out of school buses and cars and head for homes, to fuel their stomachs before they came out to play. Later, college students would return having made their assignations (“See you at five. Bring your bat. Remember to tell Lalitha to come”). Finally, office goers came peeling off postures with their ties and jackets as they neared home.

We are in 107, on the first floor, next to the gate. In the relative silence of today’s mornings and evenings we hear the custodians of our properties, the cleaners of our spaces and those who turn the hastily bought produce into food for the table.

“Yesterday I saw that Ruki again — the one who cooks in Mount Pleasant. Wriggling in front of the security man in the bank as if she has an itch. And they’re both married.”

“Ruki always has husband trouble: Other people’s husbands.”

The most frequent visitors today deliver the kind of food that appetites demand and lockdown-weary cooks fail to produce: Pizzas and pies, tandoori dishes, chop suey and elaborate pastries to add to the calories that inactivity is busily installing on midriffs. Other liveried delivery men arrive balancing enormous loads on groaning two-wheelers and hand over grossly over-wrapped packages that have come from afar.

“I don’t like the attitude of that Amma Jaan courier: He thinks I must stop everything and immediately deal with him. The Billu Dutt-wallah is better; at least he listens.”

Online marketplaces provide tempting relief for restless minds and fingers not satisfied by paying for mere groceries, vegetables and fruit. But even these may not satisfy all needs.

“Did you see what the madam from 305 was wearing? Little on top and even less below.”

“T-shirt and half-pants. Except hers are like quarter-pants.”

“Must be dressing like this for the moustachioed man, the one who comes in the broken-down red Swift. Sometimes he stays for a few days.”

“She’s properly dressed when her brother comes. And the red Swift man stays away.”

“Brother must be trying to get her married. Until then she’s got her own side show.”

Despite the lockdowns, work continues on remodelling flats and lives. From late morning, thunderous noises bounce between buildings and clouds of dust rise as workers disembowel interiors and strip walls, ceilings and floors of cover. The sharp whine of the cutter announces when the destruction is over: Tiles and stone being cut to fit edges and corners. Finally, the slap of brush as paint is lathered on walls. We wonder when work will start on the next room, the next flat, the next building.

Relentlessly through these times, the pandemic reaches into people’s lives. White-coated technicians arrive to test the suspicious, ambulances take away those diagnosed as positive, PPE’d workers arrive to sanitise their habitations.

“Did you see how the municipality filled their house with gas? It was coming out of the windows and doors.”

Some will return, days or weeks later to home quarantine; others have had their last journey.

“She must have done many good deeds. She was in the ICU for six weeks. She came back half the size she had been. But she came back.”

Lives lived across broader panoramas are now squeezed into small spaces. We wait: For inoculations, for safety, for better times.

Mathai Joseph is a retired computer scientist living in Pune

Published on June 06, 2021

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