Friday, April 3, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: The Householder

5. The Householder

The one-room tenement was filled to capacity only at night. The youngest child, the boy, got to sleep with his parents and the two elder girls made good under the makeshift kitchen counter. And that was only when he wasn’t spewing fire after getting back home. Otherwise, everyone made a beeline for the door as soon as the first tirade started – everyone that is, except the woman. The violent episodes were getting more frequent lately and the pain from the beltings on her back and thighs almost prevented her from getting up in the mornings. He had a job the last two months with the Municipal Corporation as a garbage attendant – it paid enough to sustain his daily sachets, and if he was feeling rich, his quarts. She was working three flats these days, and the occasional extra if someone was moving in or out of the co-operative society building behind the slum - she had cajoled the watchman to keep an eye out for her.

She had first heard of it from a chance conversation between the eighth floor resident and his twelfth floor friend when he had come downstairs to get something. She was finishing up the washing when the man said something about the tablet for drunks they had just started selling that paralyzed you if you even had a whiff of alcohol. They were still talking when she left five minutes later. She went home, made lunch, checked on the boy who was playing next door and hurried over to the clinic. She waited for two hours after registering at the counter and then met the doctor who had handled her last delivery. He wasn’t convinced. It was too new, he said, and culpably dangerous. He changed his mind and wrote out the prescription after she got down on her hands and knees in front of him after locking the door. Home again later, she put a lot of energy into the daal for the evening meal and after separating a portion for the children, she mixed the ground white powder thoroughly into the remaining viscous paste. She added an extra dose of salt to mask the bitterness that she imagined he would taste straight away. When he arrived home, at around twelve that night, they were all asleep. She got up, scooped out some pickle, and fed the daal to him with the chappatis herself – he was too far gone that night to do anything at all by himself. When she felt his body stiffen on the mattress later, she closed her eyes and hugged the boy tightly to her breast.

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