Butter chicken moment
“On July 11, 1979, the world watched as Skylab, America’s first manned space station, hurtled towards Earth. With the massive orbiter nearing re-entry, reactions on the ground ranged from fear to celebration to commercial opportunism.” ……….Elizabeth Hanes, History.com
Like every eighteen year old I too had the temerity to dream that I would have a momentous celebration to herald the fact that I had now reached the first rung to eventual adulthood. But space, science and technology had come together that year to create a havoc which went by the name of Skylab. Skylab was going to hit the earth and we would all explode into a ball of fire, along with it.
I was born with a skull that used to stick out at one end, my mother told me. She told me that it had embarrassed her greatly because people who saw me soon after my birth thought that I was a freak. And for my mother that was completely unacceptable. So she went to work on me with hot towel compresses, laying my head to rest on a mustard seed pillow and occasionally gently massaging the stuck out portion.
It worked! And my mother was certain that I was destined for great things. Let’s just say that it was a dream that was to stay unfulfilled, till the Skylab news bounced into our lives.
Too much is made of the teen years. To me it was like a weight on my chest which just refused to go away. I was expected to be full of the joy of impending womanhood. Coy and beautiful and filled with promise, all ready to bloom. Far from it. Confusions reigned. Emotions lay open threadbare and raw with pain. All this, crowned with racking insecurities.
Rumors, innuendos, gossip…were laced into the landscape of the small town where we lived. It was the salt of our conversations and the reason why social get-togethers had a high-pitched hum to them. Oh the excitement of discussing why the Mishra’s daughter married her classmate and not the bank officer her parents had so carefully chosen. Or why Mrs. Rout would never mention her son’s employability. It was as if a pack of middle-class, middle-aged hyenas had come together to tear into the morsels of people’s lives.
The street where we lived had non-descript houses with little patches of green where emaciated rose plants rubbed shoulders with cheerful, sturdy marigolds. Occasionally a muscular dahlia would surprise everyone with its brightly colored flowers. Such homes were usually singled out for discussions during evening strolls. Wasn’t it amazing how they managed to grow healthy plants in spite of the unfriendly weather…it was always on those lines.
If I roll out my memories like a carpet, of those growing up years two large motifs stand out – envy and despondency. They took turns in filling my entire being depending on the situation. In college it was envy for the girls who would effortlessly glide through their lives with no self-loathing or family challenges. They seemed to have a compass that pointed them in the direction of success. Once the envy bore out despondency took over. It was a vicious cycle and I hunkered down and accepted this till the day Chandra walked into our house and into our lives.
Statuesque, sensuous and splendid…she made everything in life appear so irrelevant except for the fulfilment of one’s deepest desires of the bodily kind. And yet she did all this with such innocence. She would smile when asked who the father of her daughter was as if it was a riddle that had puzzled her all her life. And then when she became pregnant with her son all that mattered was that she was going to have the son she had long wanted. Somehow questions like paternity seemed so irrelevant.
Chandra laughed the loudest at the Skylab story. She refused to accept the fact that something could fall from the heavens and finish off the planet. There is a god and he’s never going to allow this, she explained to me. Besides, since when did the radio and newspaper fellows know anything about anything. And with that she flounced off, five feet and seven inches of curves embellished by the most beautiful pair of breasts that one could ever imagine.
Chandra had come to us by way of her sister who used to clean and sweep our one thousand square foot home with furrowed-brow determination. One day without any prior warning she fell violently sick and Chandra showed up at our doorstep to “help us out” till she got better. Her sleek, dark skin, chiseled nose, bright eyes and innocent smile added a sharp-edged intensity to her sensuality.
Small town life has a way of slowing down one’s life reflexes by padding it with comforts that are easy to reach. Our easy-to-reach comfort was Basant, who would come to our house to tailor our clothes for special occasions. Basant’s closest competitor was his older, alcoholic brother who was strangely enough also called Basant but with an ‘o’ – Basanto. My theory was that this was because the burden of choosing a name was given to two different persons who didn’t know each other. Or probably had a warped sense of humor. Either way, for us at home it was at times maddening and my mother resolved the matter by deciding to go with Basant without an ‘O’. His frail body and prominent limp, which he insisted was the legacy of a childhood tragedy with fire and not polio, made all of us heave a collective sigh of sympathy and so it came to pass that he became our tailor in residence for two months of the year.
Basant’s specialty was making blouses for saris which he created with the true passion of an artist. His dark spare frame would be bent double as he carefully sewed hooks and stitched “darts” which were meant to perk up the breasts. Sometimes there would be too many of them and my mother would hold them up to his face shaking it furiously at the same time trying hard not to laugh.
Summers in our town were particularly hot and humid. The only respite was the occasional gentle breeze which would cool the sweat on our bodies. The day the Skylab was supposed to come crashing into our world was supposed to be a balmy one. But then did it really matter? We would all be dead and if indeed anyone survived that person was sure to inherit a sad and lonely world. Mrs. Palit from down the road kept repeating this sentiment till it had firmly etched itself into my mind. I foresaw a gray world where people with pallid faces walked around like they were shadows of their own selves.
There was a clearly defined tradition to listening to the radio at our house. The old model radio was the family’s entertainment center and it spewed out music, news, theater, movies ….depending on the audience. Sunday afternoons were reserved for entertainment, while weeknights were solely devoted to the news. Every night at 9 o’clock my father would switch it on and find the news station through the buzz and stutter of static. The newsreader’s voice filled our living room with a sense of importance that came with being at one with the rest of the world. The clear intonations had a fluid grace which made me listen to every word like it was some celestial judgment being pronounced.
At the center of the barrage of news was my father. He carefully doled it out according to the audience. For my mother it was always light-hearted, anecdotal information. For me it would be about incredible achievements especially in science and medicine and for my brother it was sports or about people who had surpassed themselves in a particular field. The wires never crossed. And he always found something new to tell us.
The year was turning and soon it would be time for the arrival of the festive season. It always began when my mother started reminding my father that she needed extra money to buy clothes. It was exciting to see the bales of colorful cloth which my mother carried home in large brown paper packets. She would take them out with a flourish and then throw them on the bed where they tumbled forth joyously. It was always happy and cheerful colors for me and till date I associate them with my mother. To her, brown was a dead color and it should never be seen in anyone’s wardrobe. The next step in the process was to have word sent to Basant that it was time for him to show up at our place. And if he had the temerity to accept another job he knew he would never hear the end of it from my mother, so he would meekly show up whenever he was summoned.
If meek and submissive had a face it would most certainly be Basant’s. His entire life was spent giving life to them and the world never allowed him anything else. The alcoholic Basanto on the other hand charged through life with bloodshot eyes and an uncanny talent for creating the most delightful children’s clothes.
Chandra’s son was born one balmy night in June. We all came to believe like she did, that this was a gift from the heavens. She told me one morning while applying copious amounts of oil in my hair, that Jesus had smiled at her when she asked him for a boy. John, she said, was a result of that enigmatic and gentle smile. John had none of his mother’s sassiness and hunger for life. He was a weak, clingy baby and in spite of the clean clothes and combed hair look that she favored for him, he ended up looking unhappy and sickly. Of course my mother would have none of that story about the smile from Jesus. She pointedly asked Chandra what the deal was.
I can vividly recall the coy smile on Chandra’s face. At the cusp of eighteen I felt that I needed to know more about “life”, so I shamelessly partook of the incident from behind the closed door. At first Chandra stuck mulishly to her beatific smile story but slowly I saw a slyness creep up into her eyes and gradually tainted the rest of her expression. It made her voluptuousness appear almost sleazy and even before the words were out I knew she was lying.
She told us that she was now married to a gentleman who worked at the local radio station. She referred to him as “radio babu” and that was that. The confession didn’t sit well with my mother’s sense of morality. She wanted to know if the marriage happened before or after the child was conceived. By now I had lost interest in the conversation because I knew that whatever Chandra would say now would be a lie, since she didn’t want to upset my mother.
Basant showed up the following morning with his usual crumpled expression and pronounced limp. He made his way to the corner where the sewing machine was kept and sat down quietly chewing on the lump of tobacco in the corner of his mouth as if it was his sustenance, which looking back now, it probably was. The colorful bales of cloth were carefully taken out from the paper packets and designs were discussed. It was completely one-sided with my mother holding forth on her views and the quiet little man just nodding. Very occasionally he ventured forth a viewpoint, but that was mainly to let her know if the dimension of the cloth was large enough for her dream design.
Lunch was always given to Basant when he worked at our place. His earnings were too meager and my mother’s finely honed sense of decency didn’t allow for her to ask him to carry his own food. I remember being fascinated by the sight of him eating. It was like watching a giant grasshopper perched on two spindly legs devour its prey, mouthful after mouthful. He made large balls with the rice which he delicately dipped into the gravy and then tossed them into his mouth. Then he chewed on this mix with a relish that bordered on the reverential. Every morsel was savored till the last and finally at the end his plate was wiped clean. The very act of completely enjoying a meal the way he did, enthralled me and also made me understand his poverty. A family living on his erratic income would’ve had very few days of full bellies. It made this idiosyncrasy seem so valid.
The first dress was coming along nicely. I was in the throes of a romantic crush on the college principal’s assistant while around us the news flew thick and fast that the Skylab was due to crash in the next few days. Life had acquired a frenetic edge to it. My mother had discovered A-line skirts that year and there was no shaking her away from that. They had burst upon the fashion scene and offered just the right amount of pizazz that our sleepy little town could handle.
In all fairness to it, our town it was not entirely bereft of the colors of excitement. There were the occasional elopements interspersed with the odd extra marital affair or drunken scenes. Sometimes the air reeked with the musty smells of scandal and at such times the bubbling cauldron of people’s innuendos would never stop. For instance, two generations after it happened people would still talk about how a frail, simple housewife like Aditi Das just upped and left her comfortable middle-class life to become the live-in girlfriend of the debauched Swaroop Patro. The entire town’s hysterical disbelief of the event just refused to die down. And the hushed whispers continued well past the lifetime of the said individuals. A-line skirts seemed like a natural progression to this.
The day Basant redeemed himself in my mother’s eyes by producing a well-cut A-line skirt, he asked my mother for more money. It was an act of almost suicidal boldness. While my mother’s generosity was recognized, it was not sweeping. It was doled out to those who had “earned” it. The bylaws of “earning” were those that were defined by my mother. And Basant had still not “earned” it. But the little man stood his ground. He said he needed it for his family and without it they would all starve. Of course it was pure exaggeration, but for me it was an impressive sight to see all five feet and four inches of Basant with eyes downcast, tremor in voice, shuffling feet demanding more money. The conversation was purely one way, with my mother’s furiously clipped tones refusing and Basant murmuring that he couldn’t go home until she agreed to it. If ever there was a battle of the inequals, this was it.
A tiny sliver of memory that I cannot seem to dislodge is of Basant’s little boy who had accompanied his father one day to help him. We were told that he was a sous-tailor of sorts but I found that hard to believe. My mother, who was of the opinion that every dissenting thought ought to be brought out and shaken dry, made it clear that the boy was welcome to lay out the threads, etc. but would not be allowed to touch a pair of scissors. He was a complete novice and he would be treated like that. But looking at his wizened little face scraped off all expression, I was of the opinion that the boy was brought along so that he could get a decent, full meal.
Summer had metamorphosed into a full blown heat wave. We preferred the indoors and the cold stone floors to the dust and heat of the outside. After the A-line skirt it was time for a navy collar shirt for my brother. It had a jaunty look to it which seemed completely at odds with Basant’s woebegone face. I looked hard for some lightening of his expression because he had managed to wrest a raise from my mother. But it was always the same. I had never seen him smile and very rarely heard him speak other than to respond to my mother. It made my curiosity bubble up to the surface about what this man was all about. Did he have feelings? Did he feel anger? Did he have any expectations from life?
Life’s somersaults often threw up the most interesting tidbits which I relished savoring. In the current scheme of things figuring out the riddle that was Basant, was one of them. He was like a crumpled piece of paper that the universe had discarded and I wanted to know what was written in that paper.
Two things hit me smack in the face in early July. I fell in love with neighbor’s wavy haired son, Preetam and my classmate Rupa eloped with the college debating champion. As far as elopements go this one got the lion’s share of attention because Rupa was the daughter of one of our town’s most successful business families and Freddy was…well, Freddy. They were brought back red faced and relieved two weeks later and kept housebound. Rupa was promptly married off to the first available man who was willing to have her and Freddy continued with his life as if this was a blip on the radar.
The sheer brilliance of the act left me uncertain and fidgety. As if I had become a lesser human being for not having done something equally incredible. Incredible….that’s right…that was what I thought it was. And ironically for all of us wannabes of such acts of boldness it was done by this frumpy, boring girl Rupa who certainly didn’t look the part.
I took my bedraggled self-esteem to the only person who would understand it. Chandra. She looked at me straight in the eye and asked me if I had someone with whom I was interested in running away. I loved the term. It suggested sleaze and disobedience and a certain aura of arrogance. I told her that there was no such person, but then that would not be a problem since I could always find someone. Though deep within I knew that the wavy-haired Preetam would never be game for it. All he was interested in was some desperate and sweaty pawing to the accompaniment of his own panting. No, running away required charisma and confidence. To which Chandra had a simple response – no one who was worth running away with would agree to run away. It was one of those simple philosophies that was breathtakingly simple and profound.
And then the bottom fell out of my world. Chandra got married to a safe, solid and respectable man who would be a good father to her children. He was clean-shaven, wore neatly ironed clothes and walked carefully. He looked like someone who had never been careless or disrespectable his entire life. Every word he uttered was resplendent with caution and his every move had bells tied to them so he never missed a beat. I couldn’t understand why Chandra had chosen this man who was the complete anti-thesis to her. Or maybe that’s why she had chosen him. But it was so unfair that this warm, passionate, irreverent and sensuously beautiful woman had compromised with her situation in life.
There were hushed whispers of why Chandra had chosen to discard her “radio babu”. That his wife had returned back to him after the brief interruption in their marriage and had decided to give it a go. Chandra went about her work in her usual manner. Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of unshed tears in her eyes, but they remained unshed. And then one day she just didn’t show up for work. My mother was in turns worried and unhappy. We were so used to her and now this abrupt end to her time with us seemed like an inglorious end to an era. We never knew where she went, but we were told that her husband had found himself a better job in another town and the family had left. We missed her. All of us. But I think I missed her the most. Her I missed her home-brewed philosophy, her large, booming laughter, her appetite for life and loving and the fact that she had the balls to live life on her own terms.
The Skylab stories were now spreading like wildfire. The postmaster at the little post-office down the street was heard telling people that the government was going to come out with a Skylab postage stamp if the country survived the onslaught and we all lived. Really? I mean, did anyone care about a silly postage stamp when we were faced with matters of life and death. Jyoti, our neighbor two houses away felt that the Skylab falling on us would be a good thing. That way, people would stop asking questions about why she still wasn’t married at twenty-six.
The insinuations and seemingly innocent questions had a brutal edge to them. It was as if we were always answerable to “them”. An anonymous and powerful force that always made us feel small and wrong in whatever we did. “They” were always judging our every move and watching how we conducted our lives and if there was even the slightest blip in the morality radar there would be hell to pay. It always inspired a sweaty, claustrophobic feeling in me.
Basant didn’t show up for work the following week. It was not natural, as my mother put it. He had just finished cutting up the material for a blouse for my mother so there was no way she could get it made elsewhere. Maybe he had a cold. Or maybe his flimsy son had succumbed to one of his many fevers. We kept making excuses for the next four days. I could tell that my mother’s patience was being sorely tested and she was on the cusp of a blow-out of volcanic proportions when he showed up on the fifth day. I opened the door to see his little crumpled figure standing at the entrance almost hidden by the huge trunk of the coconut tree in the tiny front yard. I was delighted to see him. My mother was furious at his cavalier attitude. She almost pounced on him but the thought of the unfinished blouse reined her in and Basant, was back at his usual spot by the sewing machine.
No explanations were given and none were asked for. And so life continued for the next two days. The blouse was almost over and the next item on the last was a simple cotton dress for me. That’s when Basant told my mother that since the Skylab was due to fall in less than a week’s time there really would be no need for a cotton dress, or for that matter, anymore new clothes. It was a speech of epic proportions from a man who had barely said five words since the time he had started his assignment. My mother’s first reaction was that he had been drinking hence the new found bravado. Her next reaction was that if this bravado led to him not showing up again then we were in trouble. So she kept her calm and responded with a weak smile. I’m still not sure if Basant even realized how close he had come to being summarily dismissed forever, from our lives. But it is such moments that make moments interesting and garnish memories. For me it did two things, brought up a troubling thought that maybe our days were numbered which in turn released a latent sense of recklessness which surprised me and delighted the wavy haired Preetam.
Long, lingering walks after dinner had become a norm since it was the only time we got some respite from the stifling humidity. My usual companion was Jyoti, of the still-not-married reputation. I enjoyed listening to her stories because our lives were so completely different. She was royalty. Her father’s father had been anointed the maharajah of a small principality close to our town and she had grown up surrounded by horses, servants and hordes of annoying relatives. Since she had no brothers there was always the threat that her father would be usurped from his position by his brother and predictably enough that’s what came to pass. Conveniently for her father, he succumbed to a heart-attack and her mother moved with Jyoti and her older sister to the crumbling old house down our street.
Preetam rushed out of the dark shadows of the street corner just as we turned it. I gave a yelp of alarm. Jyoti’s hand tightened on my arm. In that state of half-shock I noticed the glitter of a single diamond on her hand. Its regal wink emanated class and sophistication. I had barely taken it all in when Preetam yanked my arm and took me into the shadows. Jyoti discreetly waited a short distance away.
Preetam’s short, muscular arms pulled me towards him. I resisted feebly. His shirt fabric grazed my cheek and then I felt his lips on mine. His frenzied and clumsy kissing didn’t bother me. Everything was happening in such a hurried manner that all I could do was just go along with the tidal wave of passion. If anyone ever charted the course of our short lived affair this moment would definitely be its crucial axis. It was all downhill after this. Did I enjoy the kiss? A little, maybe. But to be honest, what I really enjoyed was the sweaty furtiveness of the encounter. And the fact, that my rebellious streak was alive and well.
The Skylab was due to end our lives in a little over seventy two hours. Basant was to finish that evening. But by afternoon it seemed unlikely. His shriveled little face had a moist sheen to it and there was an odd glint in his eyes. My mother thought that he was running a temperature and she was contemplating giving him the rest of the day off till he went and spoilt it by asking her for an additional raise. To this day I wondered how he got this spurt of deathly self-assurance. My mother’s apoplectic look should have given him the clue that it was clearly the wrong thing to ask for. But the Skylab factor had infused a strange rush of death-defying confidence in our bloodstream.
It seemed like the world was moving forward on skates. The rhythm of life had become faster. There was a frenzy and yet, a certain reluctance to get things done. We all seemed to share a collective destiny and there was nothing anyone could do to break the spell of death that seemed to be hanging over our heads. The following day Basant came over with resolve written all over his tired face. He was there to finish his work and take his money. Nothing was going to come in the way. He had arrived an hour earlier which caught us all a little unawares. He was accompanied by his son. My mother was in a strangely mellow mood so she didn’t put up too much of an argument when he said with nervous defiance that his son would help him with the cutting. I had just received a note from Preetam pleading with me to meet him for just a few minutes. The balance of power was firmly tilted towards me and I savored its taste in my mouth. It tasted wonderfully sweet.
The day continued on. Everyone was glued to the radio for news of the impending doom that the fall of the Skylab was going to bring. It seemed unfair that the world should end in 1979 without any prior notice. There were so many matters to be resolved. A part of me waited and watched Basant to see what he was going to unfold do next. As if he was the lightning rod for the big bang. He looked so unlike a lightning rod as he sipped a cup of tea looking out as if speculating his non-existent future.
That evening as he collected his final payment there was a peculiar vulnerability about him. It reached out to my mother because when he asked her for some more money she gave it to him without any arguments. She had lost her toughness. I was not sure if I liked that.
That evening my father returned home looking exceptionally cheerful. He was not usually that way. I normally associated him with a sense of heaviness and responsibility. He immediately rushed to the radio and put on the news. This was not scheduled news time so I figured that our time was up. Even as I said this in my head it sounded terribly dramatic. I remembered one particular train ride from a long time ago. We had an entire coupé to ourselves. I had seized a corner and made it my own. My favorite doll was ensconced in a corner and I had laid out a tea set complete with brightly patterned tea cups and saucers and the most elegant little teapot. I was making her a cup of tea and when I looked up I noticed that her left eyelid was droopy and that she was missing a few eyelashes. It was the ugliest thing that I had ever seen. And made all the more macabre because she was still smiling with her beautifully shaped, ruby red lips. YOUR TIME IS UP. I heard the words clearly in my head. So I calmly picked her up and without another thought tossed her out of the window. To this day I can see her smiling face as she was falling giving me a wink with her left eye. I never played with dolls again.
There was excitement in the news reader’s voice as she spoke of the impending entry of the Skylab into the earth’s atmosphere. What will happen? Will we all idea? She made it sound like the promo of a new film. It made me so angry that she was trivializing something so big. And so doomed. I wondered what kind of a morning we would wake up to. The thought that a lot of other people were also going to die along with me was comforting. And yet when the end came it was far from dramatic.
I woke up the next morning to learn that Skylab had sneaked into the earth’s atmosphere and broken into small pieces some of which were found in a tiny little place in Australia. We had survived an onslaught of Biblical proportions and that meant we could carry on with our lives like before.
Basant came to see my mother three days later. He looked even more crumpled than usual. He mumbled an apology saying that he would return the money that he owed. He didn’t say when. My mother didn’t ask. I think that was what surprised him the most and the words tumbled out of him in a cathartic flood. He had taken the money because the family wanted to feast on butter chicken before they all died in the Skylab blast. It was going to be a spectacular feast and one they all wanted to indulge in fearlessly because they would not have to pay back the money. They did not want to die without having tasted butter chicken at least once in their lives.