Latya Mamu sat there, staring absently through the brown glass. Right across from his STD booth was a vegetable market. Kamalavva would be sitting there with her baskets of vegetables. But for the past two or three days she was not to be seen. It was this that gave rise to a strange sense of anxiety in Mamu. If she were to go to someone's marriage or someone's kubasa ceremony in the seventh-month of pregnancy or for any other reason to a relative's place, she would, in the course of a conversation, mention it when he went out for his tea. It was only when she had to go to someone's burial suddenly, that she went without saying anything. But the next day, she would be back with her vegetable baskets. It puzzled Mamu as to where Kamalavva had disappeared to for the past two-three days; as she always said she needed to sit in the sun and sell vegetables for a whole day, even for a single meal.
Winter was over, the mild summer days fading and the days of scorching sun had just begun. The flushed sun that gently warmed the rosy dawn, by noon , was brandishing swords of fire on people’s
heads. But if one looked through the brown glass of Mamu's telephone booth, even the blazing sun seemed like slumbering moonlight.
It was while Mamu was lost in thoughts of Kamalavva, that ‘the Lady’ rushed into the booth. It was only when she stood there, impatiently wiping her face with a handkerchief, that Mamu realised how hot it must really be outside.
She asked for the telephone directory, took it, leafed through it for a while, shook her head and said,
"No, it's not here."
"Ask the enquiry". He replied in his routine style.
"What's the number?" she asked, still holding the receiver.
"One Nine Seven," he said and dialed the number himself.
"I only hear an engaged tone," she said.
"Is that so?" He dialed the number again.
She suddenly laughed. Looking at his small white prayer cap with a brown flowered design on it, she said, "Are you observing roza?" and laughed again.
"What is it to her … what impertinence," he thought angrily.
"Why should she assume I am observing roza? Besides, what's the connection between roza and dialing a number?" Before he could ask her that, she said,
"You say the number is One Nine Seven, but you are dialing One Nine Three. So I thought your head is probably not working because you are hungry."
Mamu realised his mistake, felt a little ashamed and smiled sheepishly. "Bai, please do it yourself," he said and reclined in his chair.
She asked the enquiry for the number of some office, gestured to Mamu, took a piece of paper and took down the number. She dialed the number; tried to contact someone she wanted, then asked for something else and kept the phone down. Mamu had been staring at her in surprise. Even to this day, the little machine called the telephone baffled him. The way a thin wire connects people at different places, the way acquaintances suddenly become strangers and the way close friends thunder, "Don't call me again" – its speed, its power, astonished Mamu.
"Do you have water to drink?" she asked, searching for a coin in her purse. "Oh, but you are observing roza," she said and went away smiling, without even waiting for his reply.
Mamu felt that the middle-aged Lady had filled his booth with her presence; with her playful laughter much more than the smell of her sweat. (To Mamu more than the smell of her sweat, the middle-aged lady’s laughter seemed to have filled up his booth) Even as his gaze followed her out, he took in the vegetable baskets, women sitting in the blazing sun without cover of umbrellas, and customers who imagined they could save a fortune by thriftily pinching a rupee here or an eight annas there. Mamu sat there gazing
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Mamu's actual name was Lateef. After his elder sister married early, the children she gave birth to one after another, started calling him Mamu. So did the children in the neighborhood. Somehow 'Mamu' got combined with the name his wayward friends had given him – Latya -- and he became Latya Mamu. The name became so familiar that 'Lateef' could never invoke his image as much as 'Latya Mamu' or just 'Mamu' did. Mamu had, besides his elder sister, two elder brothers. No good at his lessons, he had dropped out of school and was loafing about – dragging his feet, it could be said – when his brothers set up an STD booth for him. Before that, they put him through an apprenticeship at the STD booth of an acquaintance, so that ‘he could become a little smart.’ Once he sat behind the counter in his small, neat STD booth, Mamu, who was rather drab looking, acquired some amount of sheen, wore good pants and shirts and looked pretty neat himself. When there was no rush in the booth, he would walk across the road to a shack shop for tea. Or sometimes he would gesture and shout wildly across the road to get his special tea delivered to him.
It was on one of the occasions when he was once coming back from the shack shop after drinking tea and watching the vegetable-selling women, that he first noticed Kamalavva, fanning herself with the edge of her saree, unaware of anyone's presence. As she fanned herself, Mamu stood there looking at her rounded breasts that would appear now and then. When he noticed that four or five other men at the tea shop too were looking at her, he felt a little uneasy, and pretending that he wanted to buy vegetables, touched the brinjals and said: "Cover yourself properly."
She looked around and wrapped her saree properly around her and grumbled, "I have given birth to four. What do the rogues want to see?" Immediately she put brinjals in the balance and asked, "How many kilos?"
After this incident, whenever he went out to tea, he used to talk to Kamalavva on the pretext of buying vegetables, even if none of his brothers had asked him to buy any. Kamalavva, who used to talk at length about how two of her children died in a day or two after birth and yet another was stillborn, would not talk about her husband at all. When Mamu asked about him pointedly two or three times, she snapped that he had run away, without giving him a chance to ask when and why. Kamalavva had left her son to simply loaf around after he had failed in his seventh standard and dropped out of school. Once he begins to earn, she would say, who can dare me? The thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy was supposed to have been stubborn since a child. Though he did help her sometimes, in her absence he used to loaf around with boys older than him.
"It's enough if he turns out okay," she would say, and Mamu could guess what she left unsaid – "as long as he does not become like his father."
Six months ago the news that Kamalavva's husband had come back, made rounds in the vegetable market and fell on Mamu's ears like the sound of an old coin. Kamalavva however, was like the day's fresh vegetables. Basamma, who sat next to her, said, "When he has come to call you, why don't you go with him? Why sit in the sun and sell vegetables?" Kamalavva replied sternly: "Do you think I am the whore he keeps, to go with him when he calls me and come back when he kicks me out?" Mamu, having overheard the conversation, just blinked, not knowing how to react.
"When I was carrying an eight-month old baby, he kicked me out. From then till now, he has not bothered to find out whether we are dead or alive.How does such a man's coming or not coming matter? Why does a woman who sweats it out for a living need a man now?" she said and just sat there, pushing vegetables that were no longer fresh, to the bottom of her basket.
But the waywardness of her son had deeply upset even a woman like her. She told Mamu how her son, along with two other bigger boys, had got caught in a theft case being a minor had been sent away to a remand home. She would press the edge of her saree to her eyes full of tears, as she spoke about it. But Mamu, who had heard someone saying that they reform boys in the remand home and teach them something worthwhile, consoled Kamalavva, saying, "Why do you unnecessarily worry and waste away? Everything will be alright." Kamalavva quietened down, thinking that it may be so; it’s enough if they reform him there and he becomes a good boy.
Later everything was back to normal. Mamu was relieved when Kamalavva did not return to her husband and the very issue was shelved. He was able to lapse back into the same intimacy with her.
But Kamalavva's absence at the vegetable market was a source of worry to Mamu at those times, when he sat in his telephone booth alone without customers around.
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Four or five days later, the Lady came to make a phone call. From the way she spoke, Mamu guessed she was speaking to a friend. As soon as she dialed the number, she struck a hearty note, explaining that her daughter was not well and said, “Tell me the tablet name, I’ll take it down.”
The name must have been mentioned from the other side. As she was trying to open the cap of the pen with one hand, Mamu took the pen from her and opened the cap. She scribbled the name, and then to keep Mamu from hearing, she whispered, “is fifty or sixty rupees enough for this medicine?”
Attempting a smile she said, “it’s the month’s end…the purse is so light it would float even in the air.”
Mamu stared out through the brown glass lest she feel embarrassed. What the voice on the other side replied, remained unknown. “It’s all as usual. There is tension the whole day after I get up. Some quarrel…the same shouting and screaming, it’s all the same rigmarole,” she said, clutching the end of the table, almost reduced to tears.
It was there just for a moment...but she changed the course of the conversation and started saying something with a smile. Since half the conversation was in English, Mamu realised that it was something to do with office. Someone might have smiled on the other side and said something. She started laughing. These days Mamu had become an expert in guessing what the people on the other side were saying.
By the time she finished her conversation and was about to give him money while wiping her face with her handkerchief, Mamu said, “here’s the water.” And kept the water bottle out. She gulped down the water, wiped her lips with the tip of her handkerchief and rushed out without even looking at him. In her steps, there was the haste to go to the medical shop. It was only after she left that Mamu realised that the cap of her pen was still in his hand. He wanted to call out to her, but not knowing what to call her, he kept quiet. He had been an onlooker as she shared her confidences with the little telephone receiver but as she rushed out of the booth, Mamu felt her slipping away from him into the unfamiliar world outside. He felt they could never meet again in that unfamiliar world, and even if they did, there would be no reason to smile or acknowledge each other. And with these thoughts spread within him a sense of warm intimacy with his little booth.
When Kamalavva was not seen for two more days, Mamu enquired with Basamma. When she said Kamalavva these days was selling vegetables at Uppaliburuju, he was puzzled as to why she had gone there leaving her usual place of many years. Though he thought of going to Uppaliburuji, he could not do so because of various commitments. Besides, it would take one or two hours to go to Uppaliburuji from Gandhi Chowk. He could not keep the booth closed for so long. And so he kept quiet.
Then one morning, Mamu, on his way to the booth by bus, saw a boy standing on a scaffolding and painting a hoarding on the road adjoining the circle opposite Jayashri Talkies. Looking at the little boy swaying from side to side on the scaffolding, he started worrying about the boy losing his balance.
But hadn’t he seen the boy somewhere? The face seemed rather familiar, and Mamu prodded his memory to figure out who he was. He then remembered that he was Kamalavva’s son. Once or twice, Kamalavva had brought the boy to the market, and even as he looked on embarrassed, had introduced him proudly as her son. By the time he had decided that he was indeed Kamalavva’s son, the bus had moved on. He thought of getting off at the next stop to go to him. But, even if it were him, what would he say? Moreover, had he escaped from the remand home? Wouldn’t Kamalvva also have seen him? But Uppliburaju was not likely to have any hoardings. Was that the reason why Kamalavva had moved there? Unable to resolve his doubts, Mamu entered his STD booth.
By sheer force of habit, he dusted the place, lit agarbathis and sat down. What if the boy had been released from the remand home? They taught things there. Couldn’t they have taught him how to paint hoardings? As just as soon as he considered the natural possibility that the boy could have been sent back from the remand home, he felt upset. Why were negative thoughts always the first to surface in his mind?
That day, when there were no customers at the booth, Mamu went to the shack tea shop. His elder brother’s wife came there and started pestering him for money to buy something for the house. Mamu replied that he had to collect all the money he had to pay the bills the next day. But she raised a racket saying, Mamu, who just used the house to eat and sleep, had no sense of responsibility, which is why they had not got him married till now.
Mamu was getting angry. “The eldest one has four kids, the second one three…they don’t feed the kids well and let them play in dirt. One kid or the other is unwell all the time. Who asked them to have so many children? They are so preoccupied with their own selves that they don’t bother to find me a girl and get me married. There is a dispute however much money I give them…everyday there is some hassle or other,” he thought.
In the course of the quarrel, he suddenly noticed …the Lady who had forgotten her pen cap standing near a man astride a bike, talking with him. Mamu dropped the quarrel. The man with the rugged face must be her husband. He was saying something and she stood there, nodding her head.
When she turned to get on the bike, she caught sight of Mamu and seemed to recognize him. He felt embarrassed at the thought of her having witnessed his burqa-clad sister-in-law screaming and abusing him and he felt he too should pretend not to have noticed the rugged-faced man rebuking her.
As Mamu stood there not knowing what to do, his bhabhi’s quarrel hit a new high. The Lady flashed him a smile as she went off on the bike. The smile was as intimate and natural as the swish of the pleats of a saree while walking, telling him that all these things were a part of life. That instant, the spontaneous smile that unfolded in the unfamiliar world outside his STD booth, appealed to Mamu in its complete naturalness. And just as suddenly the suspicion that the Lady might have mistaken the burqa-clad woman to be his wife, made him downcast.
“No, no! that woman in the burqa is my sister-in-law...I am not yet married! Even if I were, I would neither ask my wife to wear a burqa nor would I behave roughly. Besides I wouldn’t marry such a virago!” He smiled to himself at the thought that he must say all these things to the Lady when she visited his booth the next time.
Meanwhile his bhabhi, by the force of her voice, had captured the attention of some vegetable vending women and the men at the tea and paan shops, who began to advocate on her behalf saying, “Mamu, give her the money… why do you want to quarrel…why do want to get screamed at... why don’t you just give her some money?…” Yet Mamu stood there, staring out to the road, lost in meditation with an absent smile, immune to the others. It was the last straw for his sister-in-law, who in hopeless anger, covered her face with her veil and walked off, muttering, “Come home in the evening...I will show you what I can do.”
Like people who come out of a slam-bang film and go back into their own worlds, all those who had witnessed or participated in the quarrel, quietly returned to their normal business. As if nothing had happened, Mamu returned to his small, sparkling booth. It was very hot that day. It was probably a government holiday. Or because of the heat, there was less traffic and fewer people on the roads. What a horrible summer for this town, he thought. The sun beat down on the tar road, raising unending waves of heat and dust; the heat and sweat making people snap and fight on the slightest pretext; people just ready to explode.
As his head started throbbing a little towards the evening, Mamu decided it was all right to close early even if he suffered a loss. He locked the shop and stood undecided on the road. He did not feel like going home so early. He looked here and there and walked slowly down Station Road. As he reached the circle near Jayashri Talkies, someone he knew stopped him and engaged him in a conversation. While talking, Mamu’s attention was drawn to the hoarding. The scaffolding was not there. Seeing the painting completed, he felt relieved.
This had happened to Mamu many times before. His feelings of anxiety over young boys precariously perched on high scaffoldings to paint hoardings and his relief on seeing them completed. He could then breathe freely, thinking that the boy must have gotten off safely. Even today, he was overwhelmed with the same emotion on seeing the completed hoarding. His acquaintance, finding him indifferent, concluded the conversation and went away.
Mamu slowly crossed the road and stood below the hoarding. On the ground, between the two iron poles on which the hoarding was mounted, were two or three small tins of paint. There was also a brush. He thought, no doubt this was that boy’s brush; probably discarded because it was worn out. He picked it up. The brush was old but the paint still freshly wet.
The hoarding advertised Asian Paints. In its corner, stood the innocent Asian Paints’ boy carrying his tin of paint. His demeanor, possibly that of a boy released from the remand home; his face seeming to say, “ I am reformed now, Amma”. With these thoughts Mamu pocketed the brush hastily.
Even as he stood looking at speeding autorickshaws, buses, tongas and two-wheelers, clouds gradually darkened in the sky. A cold breeze began to blow and it started to drizzle. Mamu felt the sting of small stones on his face...hailstones...lightning and thunder in the sky as the roof of the cloud palace cracked...and its shards of glass exploded all over.
Joyously, Mamu collected hailstones in his open palms and from the ground, putting them in his mouth. It had been many years since he had seen hailstones. The men in the auto stand and shops also engaged in the same celebration. As Mamu bent to pick up the hailstones, the paint brush fell out of his pocket. As also, the Lady’s pen cap which he had so carefully kept. Gusts of wind and monsoon rain beat down on Mamu’s face, the paintbrush, the pen cap, paint tins...and everything else.
The monsoon roared...the wind, lightning and thunder washing away the heat of the harsh summer, cooling everything from the very sun in the sky to the hearts of people on earth.
The images of Kamalavva, the Lady, the ‘reformed’ Asian Paints boy and rain-soaked Mamu, seemed to intermingle and merge as one into the colours streaming from the paintbrush.
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