At the Crossroads

I can't recall the precise moment when this weird fascination of mine became a pronounced compulsion: to stand and stare at the unusual. I reckon it all began with my observation of an acquaintance with a certain urge that pushed her to do things in a specific way. Such as arranging her clothes in the wardrobe not by a mere grading of colours but by classifying them in a series of tints from light to dark, motifs small to big, and outfits from informal to formal. Anything to the contrary would make her jittery. Several folks familiar to me are known to indulge in activities that seem bizarre like running round and round the mulberry bush instead of heading to the office on the shortest and most commonly used route available. Anything to avoid Gate No. 37 for fear of developing shoulder tics like that of the sentry at the post. Some of them are all angles and lines and twists and turns.

To set the record straight, it's pointless to be judgemental, as each of us keeps falling into one or the other of these categories, at some or most of the time without exception. In a series of anomalies of the kind, if I may so pigeonhole the goings-on, I cannot be counted upon to analyze these exasperating ways. It is, therefore, that I refuse to classify them as normal, atypical, or otherwise. No one ought to.

Name him what you will. “Whatever” stood out from the rest for his demeanour. He walked in an attention mode all the time, head held painfully high like the Pakistani soldier at the Wagah Border Parade, chest on an exhale command and eyes set beyond Kashmir.  Going by his appearance, he supposedly was on the cusp between academics and picking a career. Since he didn't distinctly go after either, not in a perceptible way that is, I began to suspect his bonafide and made him, my business.

By and by, I unearthed that there was a method to his manner and movements. Minute for minute, at the same hour to the second, you could bet on Whatever to emerge out of his house for his evening walk on the arterial road covering no more than three stops. He marched up and up, and with an about-turn down and down in his well-pressed night pyjamas and an unusually long kurta matching the multi-coloured bandana around his head for the next twenty minutes, intently smoking a beedi with the air of a sadhu smoking chillum, cupping the pipe with both hands close to his mouth. He let the smoke escape with such artistic twirls and whorls that the bystanders stopped to stare. With the same regularity, he'd be seen waiting at the Water Point to take the blue bus all Saturday evenings, at quarter past five, not earlier, not later. One evening, my curiosity got the better of me making me slow down and ask him if he would like a ride. My intention, to verify if he was an academician or an IT professional.

With a jaunty stride, he grabbed the offer, took the front seat, fastened the seatbelt, and began to chat with vim. He went to great lengths to impress upon me the fact that he would soon be relocating to Ahmedabad on a grand assignment as the Under Secretary to the Government of India. With perks, too, and a chauffeur-driven car and a furnished bungalow. My countenance, a speaking picture that it always is, I guess made him so edgy that he was under compulsion to repeat himself and he did it in five diverse ways, each time further losing track of his thoughts.

I will be relocating the Under Secretary from Ahmedabad with lock stock and barrel; err … perks and chauffeur would accompany the bungalow to Aurangabad; I'm sorry, I mean as Under Secretary in an under finished bungalow as expected by a government servant; ahem, … expect to be invited to Ahmedabad to spend your weekend to see me receive dignitaries and ink agreements; … … and this your car, not a patch on what I'm entitled to in Aurangabad, a bulletproof Lexus, he concluded as an afterthought, not realizing he was sounding bulky and vain like Don Quixote.

He delivered this weighty information with a glimmer in his eyes and a series of jerks in his neck, ordering and reordering his staccato flow of thoughts for clarity. By the end of it, I was no longer able to figure out who was the Under Secretary, who the chauffeur and where the bungalow. At the next stop, I pulled over asking Whatever to alight from my sedan and wait for his high-end-chauffeur-driven-car to pick him up and take him to his destination. Ahmedabad, Aurangabad, or Hyderabad? I no longer cared if he were an academician or an IT pro.

I soon discerned that unbridled curiosity comes at a price. For, Whatever, now began to stalk me after that encounter, a role reversal I did not savour. I saw him from the corner of my eye, eyeballing my young wife, ogling at my car, taking a stealthy peek into my bungalow, and eavesdropping on my elderly neighbour who had this fixation of speaking to his reflection standing before a life-sized mirror day in and day out, and tailing Betty the senile as well who visited me with each new moon. Many moons later, on a gloomy day, exasperated, “Elderly” gave up on life. I expected Whatever to drop in to pay his respects to a man who had engaged him for years, for free. That's when it dawned on me that I hadn't seen Whatever in a while. Whether he had finally landed in Ahmedabad to report to duty or if he had vaporized into nothing is something I refuse to dwell on.

I must concede, no less intriguing was Elderly's grouse against the man in the mirror which everyone in the neighbourhood not excluding me, was enthralled about. How do I know that?
Well, he lived in the twin bungalow opposite mine. I've heard him loud and clear, using choice vilifications to reprimand the man in the mirror, to no avail. He called him an ass one minute, trash the next, potty mouth thereafter, a colonial scum, and a mugger so repeatedly that I could soon provide an exhaustive list of tirades in English which a ranting Indian politician could use for free. All for daring to look like him, speak like him, and for having the nerve to show up in his clothes and his favourite pair of laceless Lotto's.

Step out of your hideout, you, spineless slave. Are you an echo that you say whatever I utter, letter for letter, act for act, moment by moment? The day you step out of that glass pound of yours, I'll have you lynched, you, … just you wait, dung-headed flibbertigibbet.

I caught my son of thirty-seven months repeat after Elderly, the litany of a livid fellowman word for word. I hate to admit that this inventory of expletives has now become part of my idiom as well. I'm afraid that I'm no longer my innate self as Whatever and Elderly keep encroaching on my every thought and action. At times, I catch myself walk and talk like them.

And Betty's visits in no way bring relief. She compels me to eat the cupcake she has saved for me from a wedding she had attended a week ago. She is a gate crasher, and you may expect to find her at any social occasion limited to her community. Sadly, the cupcake looks anything but like what it is supposed to look, one lump having slipped out of the case, bundled at one end of her sari, resembling a huge teardrop like Sri Lanka, and waiting to tumble. Betty didn't stop with the cupcake. She went on to rant about certain men who let their women experience the new-fangled concept called liberation. She warned me to keep an eye on my fashion nova wife and not let her march into church with as little as a stitch that passes for clothing these days. So, having said what she had to, she began to lose track of her thoughts just like Whatever and trailed off. Betty is now in the loop with Keshav and the Vice-president of a conglomerate business in the USA.

Each time I think of Keshav my gut cramps for him, unlike for the Vice-president from the US of America whose visits to his ailing mother in India are poles apart. The first call of duty was after two decades and the next never came. The aged lady waited and waited endlessly for her renowned mogul to visit her for the next three decades, only to die at ninety-nine, overcome by fatigue and anguish. My dear folks in America, be wary of bumping into him. He is sure to come up with yarns and tell you that he is a busy man heading a colossal company with two employees, one as the Vice-president and the other his boss the CEO.

On the other hand, Keshav, who waited for me at the threshold of my office, is an exception rather than the rule. His stomach had begun to run riot agitated by hunger. Blame it on Covid-19. Unemployed, he had no cash left in his pocket to buy a meal. All he wanted was Rs. 10.50 paise, the cost of a meal. Give him more, he would be upset, give him less and you'd leave him sad. For a living, he had ground condiments for a hotel from dawn to dusk and his wages, the cost of two meals. Not finding me in the office, he had walked all the way home to knock on my door. Seeing him through the peephole, a daughter of mine did not approve of what she saw, a lean face with sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes, a receding forehead covered with heavily oiled long strands of reluctant hair pulled around from the nape of his neck to crown his face and conceal his bald pate. She shooed him away without that cup of tea and morsels of food that may have saved his life that fateful day. Hunger driving him beyond sense, he drifted and drifted aimlessly, and was seen jaywalking only to be airlifted and thrown off by a speeding truck at Lalbagh. He was gone like a gush of air. I'm still looking for his hungry soul, to feed it with a ritual meal.  Save the Vice-president, the late Keshav and Elderly, Betty and Whatever constitute a formidable force in my life and I'm truly, utterly, and deeply cornered.

Kids on the street dubbed Keshav, Betty, the Elderly, and Whatever loonies, and adults thought they were barmy. Like my earlier disclaimer, I'm wary of labels for fear the same folks may turn around and say, "You too."  A palpable fear of the kind calls for fact-checking. After all, aren't we without exception members of the Brigade of the Bizarre in more ways than one? If aloneness drives us to anxiety, rigidity plunges us into becoming intolerant of the other, and our ineptness pushes us to live a make-believe existence, then we are weird in a way peculiar to each of us.

Why do I think that I'm beginning to ideate …? … At the crossroads, I hear a voice badgering me...

Go on, life is many things to many folks, none of them logical anyway. Moreover, today's Whatever is the Elderly of tomorrow and the future will throw up many a Keshav and Betty and an occasional Vice-president.

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About the Author

Among some of Matilda’s favorite things are the sight, taste, and feel of freshwater, the splendor of verdant vegetation, the innocence of young children, and the playfulness of fledgling animals. The one thing she spurns is social discrimination. Matilda is a self-published novelist and a short story writer. One of her short stories made it to the Honorable Mentions list of 2019-2020 International Short Story Contest organized by Twist & Twain. A collection of her short stories is on the anvil for future publication.

Matilda Pinto
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