Greeshma, thanks for sharing this with us. What a beautiful read!!
|Pic courtesy: Manager of the blog|
Girl in the Metro
The characters, places and the incident mentioned in this piece are not fictitious. Resemblance to any person or place is not coincidental at all.
The girl, newly arrived in Mumbai, decided that she should go see places in the city. Accordingly she set on one Saturday morning, brimming with enthusiasm and self-confidence. Nerdy enough only to purchase books rather than clothes and accessories from Fashion Street, she reached the famous second-hand book street at Flora Fountain. She started browsing from one end, completely unaware of her surroundings. But she did notice a homely-looking old man, standing next to her, checking books earnestly and bargaining with the sellers. The plump man with thick-rimmed glasses was very neat and tidy except for a conspicuous, white patch under the left collar of his ironed, flawless, orange t-shirt. It must be of the chutney that comes with the Idli-Vada. Must be a South-Indian, she deduced. The prim and proper appearance of this Grandpa reminded her of the clean and kind Jesuit, Brother Philip at the monastery back home.
The very next moment, Grandpa asked her politely, flipping through the pages of a GRE Workbook, ‘Could you please explain me the difference between TOEFL and GRE?’ Once the girl gladly explained it, a conversation followed. Yes! The grand old man hails from her home-state, Kerala. She was proud of her own deduction skills. When she introduced herself, he said that he had guessed that the girl was a Malayalee too and that he had been observing her.
The old man apparently had been working in the Middle East, and at the Economic Times. ‘Call me Pillai Uncle’, he insisted in English, although the girl had wanted to call him Appopan (Grandpa in Malayalam). After a successful career, Mr. Pillai has settled in Mumbai with his family. Now that his sons were married and having discharged all the familial responsibilities, Pillai Uncle for a pass-time taught English at a local tutorial. ‘I am an old man’, he would remind himself often, although he tried to conceal it by dyeing his graying hair jet-black. The girl did not want to take liberties with a stranger whom she had just met by telling him that the black hair-colour certainly did not agree with his octogenarian looks.
Thereupon, Uncle Pillai and the girl started browsing books together. He recommended her a collection of short-stories by Maugham. ‘I am an old man and my tastes are all really old which may not find favour with your generation’, he said. As they chatted along the way down the street, Grandpa appreciated the girl’s confidence and courage, traveling all alone in this big city. The girl was, needless to say, flattered. He even knew certain Malayalees in the publication she was interning at. Although this gentleman claimed to have had an impressive career in the past, the girl felt that he showed a profound ignorance of things in general as they strolled down past the street. For some odd reason, she lied that she has a highly placed Uncle in the Maharashtra IPS Cadre whom she could call for help while sight-seeing; but preferred otherwise for sheer adventure.
Pillai Uncle told her about a book shop nearby which has some better collection of old books where he was heading to next. He asked if she would like to join. The girl promptly agreed and they started towards this particular street across a few lanes. It was noon time and both of them were feeling hungry. They stopped at a decent-looking South Indian Dhaba where they ate vada-chutney with coffee. Pillai Uncle, in between the meal, attended a call from his son. As he spoke in Malayalam, he said that daddy was at a South Indian restaurant but did not mention whom he was with. Pillai Uncle did not let her pay the bill, ‘Don’t be silly!’ he said.
On the way to the bookshop he showed her the various landmarks and their importance. ‘Good that I met this person, that too a Malayalee grand, old man’, she thought. Pillai discussed politics with her; but not informed enough for a person of the intellectual stature he claimed to possess. But she tried to put off the lingering doubts as arrogance. The visit to the book shop proved to be worthy enough as she found this beautiful Red Indian Poetry, a genre she has never heard of before, in addition to many good, old classics. The girl, fresh from a heartbreak, also found this ‘101 Uses for an Ex-Husband, Lover, Boy-Friend’! The shop owner treated Pillai Uncle, the regular customer and his guest with hot, steaming coffee. ‘Oh, the trip has been a wonderful one’, an elated girl said to herself.
Pillai Uncle then proposed to accompany her to the Gateway. On the way, he received another call, this time from his wife. As the girl listened to the conversation in Malyalam, she noticed Pillai Uncle dodging her repeated inquiry of who he was with. At the end of the call, Pillai Uncle apologetically said to the girl that he would explain it all to his wife later. ‘Women are after all women’, Pillai remarked. The girl pretended to him as well as to herself as if she did not hear it.
They got into a taxi towards the Gateway. Once inside the taxi, Pillai Uncle grew overwhelmingly affectionate to her. It started with Uncle Grandpa moving close to her in the seat. It later went on to gestures like petting and patting her. Alarm bells rang! She panicked as Uncle Pillai showed no signs of stopping his display of fondness for her. The girl tried to collect herself. Uncle Pillai in between would show her the landmarks while continuing to bestow her with affection. The girl could hear her heartbeat as well as feel her face flushing with anger and fear but maintained calm. She contemplated on her options. First and foremost, it was she who was overly friendly with this stranger than the other way round. And the whole act looked like genuine affection. She was in this part of the city for the first time and could not communicate in Hindi properly. She was not sure if she should ask for help from the taxi-driver. Running away or creating a scene appeared foolish to her then. Pillai, who knew the place well enough, was in a stronger position. The girl decided that she should not reveal that she is frightened and that a strategy has to be worked out asap. In ten minutes, which seemed like ten, frozen epochs, they reached the Gateway.
Once out of the car, they walked towards the Gateway. She found the place crowded much to her relief. She frantically searched for a familiar face in the crowd. Pillai led her to the Gateway, the Taj, and the seaside through which the boat carrying Ajmal Kasab & Co entered and so on. The girl decided to stay with Pillai for the time-being and waited for his next move. When Pillai Uncle made this generous offer to escort her to Colaba and Churchgate, she calmly said ‘That is so sweet of you, Uncle Pillai, but I am afraid I cannot as I just got a call asking me to get back home soon.’ Swift came the reply from that disgusting face with bulging eyes and a smile so crooked and cocksure, ‘Are you running away because you are scared?’
Bingo! There it is: bloody direct and plain. How could have I ignored all those clues and be so stupid? She tried to control her rage. That menacingly-looking, white chutney-blot on his t- shirt, the distance he had carefully put right from the start, his total ignorance of the Maoist question in India, and oh yes, the punch statement – WOMEN ARE, AFTER ALL, SILLY, STUPID WOMEN- it all made sense to her perfectly then. ‘But I am not late yet you sly, slimy jerk’, she seethed in anger. The girl replied feigning a smile, ‘Uncle why do you think I am scared when my Uncle (the fictional, Maharashtra IPS Cadre Uncle posted in Mumbai) is just a call away?’
Uncle Pillai did not say anything and suggested that they would go to CST together as he also had to catch the metro for home. The girl in the hope that Pillai will henceforth behave properly agreed to it; besides, she wanted an amicable end to the situation. Thus, they got into another taxi. She was relieved that he had bought her IPS Uncle story. But that comfortable belief was soon put to test because he played that final card: When she had offered to pay for the taxi, he said that she was being very silly again. ‘Look, I am rich enough’, he showed her the wallet with wads of currency. ‘You take my number and call this old man whenever you feel like’, he said. She understood that she had been wrong in trusting this man again. The girl however took the cell phone number thinking that once she’s back to her place, she should call him and blast him. The car soon reached CST.
Inside CST, while walking towards the metro train platforms, Uncle Pillai turned all spiritual, ‘It is by His design that we met today’. Before parting ways, the girl thanked him, gave him a handshake and conveyed her regards to his wife. As she walked towards platform number three, she thought it was better to delete Pillai Uncle’s cell phone number from her contact list.