Franz Kafka, the celebrated existentialist novelist, wrote “Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form”.
Existentialism outlines man’s loneliness in the Universe. It laments the obvious fact that human life is remorselessly becoming more and more complicated and too impersonal.
Back in the good old days of early Seventies, life was easy and the bustling Metropolis Ahmedabad that we witness today resembled an overgrown village, with dirt roads going around hastily developed residential clusters called ‘Societies’ on the western side of the river. Regular columns of donkeys, laden with overflowing bags of sand required for construction, sprayed the tar roads with layers and layers of shiny sand that often caused two wheelers to slip. The all-pervading God became an easy excuse to blame for the mishaps that killed or maimed many. But life went on. Every third person one met in the city worked in one of the countless textile mills in the eastern part of the city, Life, went on, easy, day by day.
The area just behind the structure known as the Post office of Navarangpura was dotted with bungalows built with, aside from the omnipresent sand, the sweat and tears of upper middle class working class and small time traders. They all had managed to escape the narrow by lanes of ‘poles’ (Close-knit ghetto type of apartments in the ) of the congested old walled city and took their much-coveted place in the sun this side of the stream called the Great Sabarmati River.
The post winter weather in Ahmedabad had just turned pleasant. The sandy roads had still not turned scalding hot, The children played in the open space of the Society, occasionally letting out screams of ‘how-s-that?” whenever a batsman got out at the street-cricket played with tennis ball and makeshift bats.
Pandya saheb, the aged principal of Jagruti Secondary School sat in the veranda with his plump wife Champaben, waiting for the peon of the school to come and deliver letters to sign. Passers by from among the residents of the society greeted the principal Saheb with respect while Champaben lost no time in berating the ladies for not turning up at the annual Papad (condiments) making ritual.
“You all ungrateful ladies of this generation deserve to be spanked, understand? When I was young like you I helped each and every household in this society. “ Champaben fumed.
The embarrassed lady accompanying her man hid her face with a handkerchief and passed over the creaky gate of the Pandya house as quickly as possible, giggling uncontrollably. The partially deaf Champaben wouldn’t be able to hear that while Pandya saheb would quietly ask her to calm down with a wave of hand.
“Baa, baa, “ a tiny figure of chinki, safely ensconced in her mother’s arms excitedly waved at Champaben.
“Arey, my precocious little devil is here” Champaben extended her hands towards Chinki who had gotten down from her mothers arms and started running towards her.
“Arey beta, dhire dhire” Swati, her mother, cautioned the hyper-excited girl as both of them entered the house from the grilled metal gate of the house “Careful now, you may fall and hurt yourself”
Paresh and his young wife Swati had been the latest addition to the Pandya house as tenants who occupied one room and a kitchen in the add-on part of the big house. Add on because it was built as an afterthought, with no toilet or proper bathroom inside. The tenant family had to go out of the house and do the morning ablutions in make shift toilets meant for servants. Pandya saheb thought this would provide some company to Champaben. The rental income too would be handy to manage the ever-growing medical bill of his heavyset wife Champeben.
Curly haired Chinki, the year and a half old bundle of joy of Paresh and Swati Joshi, discovered a variety of ways to walk up to Baa and ask questions that sometimes irritated the plump woman but the arrangement worked well. She was a compulsive talker and kept everyone busy with her newly acquired vocabulary.
“My little devil, how are you? Hope you are not making life miserable for your overworked mummy” Champaben drew Chinki closer as she could not get up with her heavy frame.
Swati let out a soft sigh “Arey she really is a devil, Baa – made a lot of fuss at the shoe shop at the municipal market, didn’t you, Chinki?” pinching her smooth cheeks.
Goaded by her Baa, the young devil stomped her right foot “ No I want those shoes, Mummy” making faces at her mummy.
“Ok, Ok, baby. That uncle at the shop said shoes for your size will arrive tomorrow so we will go and buy the pair tomorrow”
Chinki had just learnt to walk but she was destined to be probably a sprinter. Her old fancy shoes did not give her the full freedom to run. Her eyes were set on those lovely red shoes at the shop.
Ashok, the school peon appeared at the metal gate and Swati had to make way for him to come in. He handed Pandya Saheb a sheaf of papers and turned back.
“Arey Ashok, have a cup of tea”
“No sir, not today, Pandya saheb. I am getting late for the birthday celebration of my daughter at home”
“You should be given a punishment Ashok – like the teacher awards to the erring pupil! Why didn’t you get her here to celebrate the event” Baa scolded him in mock anger. Ashok just smiled, bowed and walked away.
Chinki disengaged her small frame from Baa and ran into her own world of toys.
“Baa, I may need your help in looking after Chinki for a few hours tomorrow….”
“Oh look at you, Swati. You think I am free to look after the children of everyone in the society? Even I have to do a lot of chores you know”
“Such as?” Pandya saheb laughed, winking at Swati
“You should never butt in when we ladies are talking, Ok? What do you know of running this household, huh” Baa collared her aging husband.
“But what is the big event tomorrow, Swati? “
“Oh I have a job interview for the post of a radio announcer at the All India Radio station” Exulted Swati
“That is wonderful news Swati” Pandya saheb’s joy was instantaneous.
“Who will look after Chinki if you do get selected. I will manage tomorrow but I can’t be free every day. “ Baa coughed vigorously as she tried to get up from her chair.
“We will worry about that later. May be my sister living not far from here will help out”
“What is your problem Champa if these guys earn a few hundred rupees more. And besides, she can use her talent to her advantage”
“She better utilize whatever you call talent, to run her part of this house better for a change – wastes too much of water from our common tank….” Baa’s voice trailed off as she mumbled and trudged into her house, closing the grilled door behind her.
“Baa….” Swati appeared before Champaben
“Shut up. Tell me why Chinki was crying at the top of her voice early in the morning? “ Champaben demanded
“Oh that?” Swati smiled, “She remembered the new pair of red shoes at the shop and wanted to go there and buy the it right away”
“Oh, mine, so my darling hasn’t forgotten the red shoes yet?” Baa’s eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Has Pandya saheb left for the School? I didn’t hear the usual cranking noise of his three-wheeler scooter today”
“How will you? In the din created by Chinki”
“Ok ok.” Swati gave up “ But I came here to tell you that I have given Chinki her breakfast and milk and she is now ready ……”
“… to be dumped on the good-for-nothing Baa, right?”
“Ok fine, bring her to me. You are looking like a modern girl, ready for a business meeting, Swati”
“All I need is your blessings, Baa” Swati bowed and hurried towards her door and promptly brought the little devil out in the compound
“Look Chinki, behave yourself and don’t harass Baa ok? I will bring some chocolates for you if you behave well”
“But what about the red sh…..?”
“My goodness! Once again the red shoes?? I promised you we would go there in the evening”
Unconvinced, Chinki turned her head away and ran towards the swing, into the lap of Baa. She watched her mother hail a three wheeler rickshaw and leave.
Early morning saw Baa’s trusted cook fix breakfast and lunch. Champaben just couldn’t perform any of the tasks that a typical lady of the house did. She passed her time by hailing everyone from the society going past the gate. Today, Chinki didn’t allow her to do that by incessant questions and her own observations. One wouldn’t ever know how the partially deaf Champaben could hear everything that the child rattled off and answered her. The trick was to give a lot of mutual respect to each other by answering only what was audible or discernable. What was not, was ignored.
“Kamala, you may take those left over khamans and kansaar you made yesterday, when you go home” ordered Baa.
“But be sure to put everything in order, especially the milk. Yesterday the cat from the neighborhood sneaked in and spoiled the milk, making a mess in the kitchen. You saw that right?”
“Yes baa.” Answered the cook meekly.
“Baa, baa. Where is Dada?” the series of queries began
“He left for the school in his fat-fati (three wheeler scooter). You heard him go right?”
“Where is the school?”
“Oh, far from here. We cannot walk to the school”
“But we can walk to the shoe shop?” Chinki’s mind hovered around the red shoes
“No you are too young for that. Your Mummy will take you there in the evening”
“But the Uncle said it would be there by now, so if we go now….”
“Do you want some cookie, Chinki” Baa adroitly changed the subject
“Do you have some Limca? I love Limca” shot back Chinki. The young devil certainly knew what she wanted
“No” Baa said firmly “ little children shouldn’t drink Limca” and mumbled “How do the young parents manage to cultivate such tastes, Hari hari “
“Baa can you come over here please?” Kamala called her in
“You guys have no mercy, making me get up and down. What is it? I can’t leave this little girl here all by herself”
“I just want my salary for the month, pending for long”
Baa rose from her chair “Aei girl, you stay right here, Ok? Don’t run around this place. Bawa (member of an imaginary child lifting gang) will come and get you if you venture out. I will be back very soon”
Mumbling something inaudible Baa went in, leaving Chinki to play with her doll.
Chinki was gone!
Champaben always left all financial matters to Pandya Saheb. It took a while for her to find her purse, count the cash and hand it over to Kamala who gratefully accepted it.
“Shall I massage your feet Baa ?” she asked in all sincerity.
“No Kamala. No need to show false gratefulness to me. Don’t I know you? “ Baa at her usual sarcastic best.
Kamala gathered her cotton bag along with Khaman and Kansar and started to leave.
“Baa where is Chinki?” She asked as she came out of the house in the verandah.
“Oh, where else can she be? Just look around. “ Baa said with no sense of alarm.
“No, she isn’t, Baa” Upon which Champaben tried her best to the door.
“Look, she is not here” Kamala’s voice was had a tinge of distress
They looked around. She had simply disappeared along with her doll. Kamala shot out of the main gate and looked around on the street.
She was nowhere to be seen.
“I told you kamala I could not leave Chinki and look what happened. Now what? Swati would be here in no time and would surely raise hell. Champaben cursed herself for threatening the little girls with kidnapping by a bawa.
“Go to the terrace and check for her” Champaben had seen Chinki climbing up the staircase leading to the terrace from around the bungalow. She was swift on her legs. Swati had described how she would not like someone holding her hand while walking.
There was no one on the terrace.
Where was Chinki?
Both of them heard the tut-tut of the three wheeler rikshaw pulling up at the gate and shuddered to explain the disappearance of Chinki to her mother.
“Baa, your blessings worked! I got selected for the Radio Announcer’s job. Have to report for work from Monday” Swati announced in one breath, smiling from ear to ear.
She wanted to take up Chinki in her arms and plant hundred kisses on her cheeks but where was she?
Champaben was unable to explain the exact sequence of event leading to the disappearance but Kamala did.
All the joy of landing on plum job evaporated as she grappled with the news. A hundred thoughts crowded in her mind.
Being a Saturday, Pandya saheb arrived early in his three-wheeler scooter and soon got busy in the process of search for Chinki.
And then Swati noticed the old pair of shoes that Chinki had been wearing all day. They were neatly tucked underneath the wooden bench at the entrance.
“My goodness. Her shoes are here, that means she walked off somewhere barefoot!” She exclaimed
“Arey listen. She must have walked off to that shoe shop for those new red shoes that she was keen to get” Swati was now convinced
She ran to the shoe shop just around the corner along with Kamala.
The shop owner was on his haunches, putting on the new shoes for Chinki who was seated on the chair, regally. Chinky was all animated explaining the right and left foot issue.
As Swati and Kamala entered the shop, Chinki exclaimed, “ Mummy, look. New shoes. This uncle is very nice”
“ Oh good you are here. Before I could realize she just walked in all by herself and asked for these shoes. I remember she came with you yesterday. Instead of asking her questions I thought it was best to keep her engaged in the prized pair and wait till someone came along. I had no real idea where she lived, Madam”
“It is ok Bhai. Thank you so much” Swati picked up her baby in her arms, relieved; “
Life was easy but occasionally threw challenges for the easygoing people. One never felt lonely though in those days.
Everything that you love- may appear to disappear only to return in a different form – often with bright red new pair of shoes – with due apologies to Kafka