Bharti gets frustrated when I ask her to clean the windows or cut the Papaya before she leaves. She says that she has a lot of work in other houses. However, Bharti never goes without playing her little game of wrapping my freshly washed clothes, neatly arranging them in different piles and waiting for my lethargic butt to get up and organise the newly bought cupboard by my landlord in Mumbai, Ram Uncle.
“It’s got a nice mirror, see,” Uncle declared as two seemingly malnourished boys dragged the cupboard inside my room. His wife, Ramini Aunty, dressed in a blue sari with a gajra around her thick black hair bun arrived with a pooja thali in hand, chanted a few mantras in Kannada, and rotated it for about three times She then offered the metallic silver door some white rice and a pinch of vermillion.
While Aunty is tall and curvy, with right bends at right ends, Uncle is short and potbellied. I’m told that he suffered a heart attack, just a few months before I moved to their place.
“It’s so nice, no?” aunty asked, looking at me. “Out of all, we liked only this one,” she added without waiting for an answer.
“Now see, if tomorrow there are two girls sharing this room, one can use the upper corner and the other one, the lower. We’ll be done with just one almirah,” she had announced victoriously.
As I hang the yellows, pinks, and whites on the extreme left corner of the upper shelf, I hear a crackling noise in my mostly abandoned colony lane.
I peep out of the sliding window, only to see a yellow-white van brightly painted with the fancy name of an International School, halted adjacent to our main gate. Little kids dressed in white and greys jump from the corroded bus door, some on the ground, while others on the lap of their grandparents.
My painted fingers enjoy wrapping the synthetic dress in my hands, and the scene reminds me of my HRTC bus- Himachal Road Transport Corporation, which would start from my school, Loreto Convent in Shimla and stop at Sanjauli, a distant hill so overpopulated that another house could topple everything.
I’d nicely ask for a ticket to my stop, State Bank, and hesitantly pay Re1.
Sometimes, I would skip the ticket by confidently lying of possession of a pass. And, on days, when the bus conductor would ask for a proof, I’d meekly say that it was forgotten at home!
A junior with a knocked off nose and a clipped lip would get down at Ice Skating Rink stop.
I would then hurriedly get up and switch to the first left window seat, closer to the entrance door and proudly shout at the local passengers, “You can’t get in. It’s a school bus!”
I’d usually walk back home on my own. Mom would give two rupees every morning, one for the ticket and one for leisure. Some days I would eat an orange pipe (local frozen juice contained in a long plastic tube pack), always preferring orange over rose.
On days when I would have saved about twenty rupees, either I would buy Cheetos and Maggi, or eat a chicken Patty at City bakers in Lakkar Bazaar.
My favourite point was Taka Bench, Thakur Uncle, who owned one of the Gol Gappe stalls told that during the British rule, people were charged a sum of one taka to sit and rest here, hence Taka Bench.
“Taaniya, aa gayi?” he’d ask in his heavy voice, loudly mispronouncing my nickname, Tani.
Uncle always had a long teeka on his broad wrinkled forehead. I’d usually see him with a cloth in his left hand; gently wiping the steel plate in his right. The customers would sit on wooden benches on the sides, surrounding the stall, and casually watch the silver bowls sparkling through the mirror in the afternoon light.
Sometimes, I had Papadi Chat; nice layers of crispy thin beige papadis, neatly clothed with white layers of curd and bright hues of orange-red sweet chutney and topped with boiled black chanas. The curd and chutney would mildly mix at the sides and chanas would soak in an immense white bed with shades of orange, and layers of red.
I’d walk up the hill for nearly 1.5 kilometres every day, with a blue bag on my back, loose skirt and messed up ponytails. I had to collect two packets of milk from Pal Uncle, short and fat, with extreme dandruff and hair fall.
“You might find monkeys on the way,” Promila aunty would then warn me. A slender, tall woman, with dry unmanageable long hair, dressed in a salwar kameez and wrapped in a mustard shawl. That’s how I saw her almost every day.
After my last stop at Pal Uncle, I’d eagerly wait for the walk to end. I’d touch the stone gate of our entrance, Oak Wood Place, Jakhu Hills, and run through the cracked wooden stairs and triumphantly barge in our house.
Granny would be inside the kitchen and brother wouldn’t be at home. Mom would be in Delath, a village almost 500 kilometres away from Shimla where she had been transferred for work.
I’d call her as soon as I reached.
Granny would ask if I wanted food right away, and with twinkling eyes, I’d say a no.
It would be a feast day- I would have bought a double packet of Maggi with me!
“Didi, you’ve still not kept the clothes inside?” Bhakti enters, breaking the silence.
“Where were you lost? she wonders.
“Nowhere, was just going home!” I smirk and get back to work.