Sunday, March 24, 2013

Suburban Gossip

Before I begin writing about what happened in the wee hours of yesterday morning in front of my house, I would be required to give a detailed map of our para. I can already feel the beginnings of a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, with a detailed map of the vicarage on the verso page, but there wasn't any murder in front of my house yesterday (alas), and most of the elderly population here is more vicious than the murderers of Christie put together.

So, our locality is a closed compound, with a big gate in front which is usually kept wide open, and two little gates on the sides, with very low walls, used by the drivers and cooks of several families as a shortcut. On one part, the low wall is broken, and the residents have refused to mend it, because they think it's nice to have another shortcut for their domestic helps to come quickly to their service. The main gate has one old, bent gatekeeper in the daytime, and we're supposed to have a night guard. However, several incidents involving missing mobile phones kept beside the window at night has prompted many residents to refuse to pay for the night guard. When last winter there were news of many robberies around, our (elderly) president recruited a night guard who by sheer chance happened to be the most notorious thief in the area. What followed was a successful robbery at the temple -- the very temple which is located exactly on the main lane of the para, and has several houses (including mine) facing it; and several failed attempts to loot a couple of houses. I'm sure the robbers and our venerable night guard were not to be blamed for the failures. In one case, the pipe they were heavily relying on to enable them to reach the upper floors of a certain house broke down, and they fell with a crash on the floor, awaking the family; in another instance, the garage lock, which they were trying to break using a hammer stubbornly refused to yield. Yes, I can see a prospective David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd hit episode right here.

So, the main road leads from the big gate to the end, when you hit the garden wall of the Gomes'. You pass my house on the left, but I can give the instructions to that later. On the left and right are five little kutcha lanes on each side, which also have no lighting. The annals record some tiff or the other between the residents and the then president on the disposal of the fund. Most of the houses are spacious, and have a patch of garden, except my neighbour, who has a thriving garden on his terrace. As you might have guessed by now, the majority of the population comprises elderly people, some staying with their married children, while others have married children all around the globe. This population engages themselves in spirited morning walks, even more spirited evening walks, and gossip with a vengeance. That is, most of this elderly group except for my grandmother (who prefers to make delicious and fattening treats for me when others are walking and gossiping) and the three sisters on the first right lane (who prefer staying indoors with their doors and windows shut -- yes, the Dickens story was the first that came to my mind).

After the failed robbery attempts, the night guard was sacked, and the one who replaced him is a zealous martinet. This wonderful specimen of the night guard who replaced him, starts strolling and blowing his whistle from ten thirty at night, at a time when I begin contemplating what to cook for dinner. By eleven, since I'm the one person awake in the entire para (I know!), he lodges himself firmly outside my window and blows his whistle with desperation, hoping to lull me to sleep. I usually shut the window on his face and turn in three hours later. Incidentally, regardless of where ever I happen to live in this mighty city, I never fail to arouse unbridled curiosity of the fellow residents. I suspect being a young woman living alone with her grandmother in a massive house, with parents visiting every month, strikes them as (funnily) unusual. The conniving ones haven't ever come forward to strike up a conversation (although they know about my sleeping habits and my computer's on-off habits better than my grand mother), and consequently, I get their identities muddled up in my head. Till date, this hasn't been a severe cause for spanking (ouch).

Last morning, I was dreaming about petting a joey and feeding it parsley (don't ask me why), when I woke up with a rude start to several voices screaming outside. My first reaction was to roll on the bed and check the balcony (it's hot, and I'd left the wooden door open before turning in), and spotted Thamma in her pujo sari, with a gonga jol ghot in her hand, looking outside. Relieved that she was fine, I rolled down again, but some louder shouts made me spring from my bed and go to the balcony door. Thamma told me something about great danger lurking outside, and that I should definitely check it out, and from the corner of my eye, I spotted my handsome neighbour (and father of two), run from the right lane to the main road. Blind without my spectacles, I located them, put them on, manoeuvred to the door, discovered it wouldn't yield until I opened the lock, staggered to the drawing room, had an adventure with the main door, retrieved the keys from another room, and finally opened to see that an elderly woman whom I knew by sight, was sitting on the road, and another elderly lady (whom I knew and rather liked) was holding her arms and screaming for water. I thought I should be getting the water as "it" happened right in front of my door, but I should also be opening my gate, which mysteriously wasn't opening. Another neighbour came forward and insisted that I could pass the water from the spaces between the girders of the iron. I did that, and finally opened the gate, and then I learnt what happened.

The ladies were taking their morning walk when a stranger who walked two rounds with them, came from behind, snatched her immensely long and heavy gold chain, hit her on her head (which turned into a bump), and ran down the left lane which leads to the tiny gate over the low wall. This happened just before six thirty in the morning (ok, not very "wee"), when every single family in the para is awake and active (my house is represented by Thamma), the children are already playing cricket in the fields (I think they're bonkers; but one kid actually threw his bat at the thief, but the latter just kept running), and the temple was open, and two ladies were cleaning it. How could this happen in broad daylight (relatively speaking), in front of so many witnesses, was something that kept the minds busy the whole of yesterday. Anyway, with most of the para in front of my door, and with a lot of shouting going on, the husband of the injured finally came (half an hour after the incident, and their house is one minute away from the scene) and led her home.

The second part of the drama unfolded after that when the virile men of my neighbourhood came with sturdy sticks in their hands. I wanted to tell them from my window, that since the thief had scarpered forty minutes ago, he was halfway to Sealdah by now. But I decided to keep shut primarily because the drumming in my head wouldn't stop until I had some Darjeeling. While the leaves settled, I spotted Mrs. M (a diva in her early sixties) finally grace the gathering of virile men by walking down the road in her flimsy night gown. When the whole para was outside, screaming, she was in her house, doing what I dare not imagine. She spent a considerable time nodding her head and motivating the men, before swaying back to her house.

For the rest of the day, this was the sole topic of discussion in my para. My plumber, who came at seven fifteen, and had seen some of the action, commented on the discrepancy of the guarding duties, with the night guard leaving at five, and the bent gatekeeper arriving not before nine in the morning, and pointed out that our locality was going to the drains. Our cook who came a quarter of an hour later, brought fresh news about the injuries, which made my frail Thamma reach for her aanchol to wipe her tears (not before cursing the thief). She spent the rest of yesterday, and the greater part of today, firmly lodged in the balcony and asking random strangers about news of the injured woman. I had called up my parents (who were holidaying in North India) early in the morning and had succeeded in effectively scaring them for my safety. They arrived late last evening (not as a consequence of the incident, but because they were due to return in the evening anyway), and insisted that I lock and double bolt the doors at all time of the day and night. Every one who dropped in yesterday and today, predicted that the para would be busy dissecting this incident for a week at the most, before forgetting all about it, and reverting back to old ways. The lady from the temple, who came over this evening to talk about the anniversary of the establishment of the temple, gravely said that although many people were "outwardly" saddened by the turn of events, they all said, "I was the target. Bhabte parcho?" I said, ami bhabte parchina (I cannot imagine) and left Mother Dear and Thamma to deal with her, before retiring into my room to burst out into laughter.

At the dinner table yesterday, Maa, who even over phone had helped me identify the injured woman when I described her appearance, said that many months ago, Mrs. K, the nice lady who was helping the injured woman, Mrs. S, had noticed Maa in the balcony, and good-naturedly asked her, when she'd arrived in Calcutta. After a little chat, they (for Mrs. S was standing beside her, with her face turned in another direction) walked ahead, when Mrs. S asked rather loudly, "She doesn't stay here? Who stays here then?" After Mrs. K gently explained our situation, Mrs. S said (loud enough for Maa to hear), "Why? Why did they keep an old woman with a young girl, huh? What can an old woman do? Huh. Over smart people." On hearing this last night, I said, "Serves her right!"


  1. Besh hoyeche! But take care . . . :( pretty scary!

  2. I began reading this thinking you were writing about a neighbourhood in Berlin. The illusion broke down by the time I reached the cooks and drivers using the shortcut. (That may happen in some neighbourhoods of the US and UK, but certainly not Berlin!)

    What's a 'Para'?

    1. Oh, it is neither US nor the UK! It's only Calcutta, my Heimat. 'Para' is one of those quintessentially Bengali words, untranslatable in English (like 'adda'). It means simply a locality or a neighbourhood, but like most other things relating to Calcutta, it harks back to a different time, when neighbourhoods were like little boroughs, united by a sense of fellow-feeling, little snack counters in the corner, and open balcony beside the roads where anyone could sit and have an 'adda' (or mundanely put, a fulfilling conversation)

  3. Wonderfully articulated, really feels scary after reading it.