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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Creamy Layer: a short story by Dr.Neerav Patel

Far from relatives, here in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, preparing for the marriage event single handedly is not a child’s play. And yet - clothes, jewelry, party plot, catering, decoration, music party, beautician, utara- so many arrangements were fixed swiftly just by writing a cheque leaf. A small matter like wedding cards, however, was a great headache for the Vaghelas.  After much deliberation they finalized not one but two draft-design-color combinations. One in English, the other in Gujarati - one for their caste fellows, and the other for others. Only then they felt relieved.

Shalini looked very smart and sweet in her air hostess uniform. Whoever she gave the wedding card, it was praised profusely. Captain Chopra exclaimed, ‘O, What an elegant language!’ Flight purser Swaman Deshpande admired: ‘What an abstract art you chose for Lord Ganesha! And that saptapadi shloka in italics...’ Everyone who received the wedding card expressed joyful appreciation. Shalini would feel proud hearing praises for her parents’ high cultural taste and aesthetic sense. But when her co-pilot Kulin Joshi bathed her in kisses, her happiness touched seven skies: Miss Shalini Vaghela is now going to be known as Mrs. Shalini Joshi.
“There can not be anything unpompous in the marriage of a Bapu family!” some lower grade employee whispered in his Kathiyawadi accent. But Shalini was lost in her dreams. She was really flying in the air…

It was getting difficult for the Vaghela couple however; excited though they were with the idea of giving kankotri to all their relatives by visiting their homes personally. They hired a taxi from Ahmedabad airport and drove straight to their native place. The foreigner-like couple was surrounded by all family members and began raining the choicest taunts: ‘oh brother, after so many years you remembered the land of your forefathers? Your father used to come to greet us on every New Year Day and for offerings to Mataji in Navratri festival. He would invariably offer 9-yard religious flag to the deity of Rama Pir. But brother, you studied, married and lived in Mumbai with wife and forgot all family relations. Who are your kith and who are your kin? What is your dear one and who is your near one?’

Vaghelas were taken aback hearing bitter words, in place of warm welcome. Of course, they knew there was some truth in what they were saying. Brothers, sisters, cousins, maternal and paternal uncles, maternal and paternal aunts, all in-laws, these relations cannot be maintained without   visiting them often. If they had not left village for city, if they had not joined white collar jobs quitting hereditary work, if they had remained uneducated rather than educated, had lived in hutments rather than in an apartment, they could have maintained the relations perhaps, perhaps…

Cousin Brothers were very haughty and impudent. They were completely illiterate. But there was this little boy who was pushed to school with the temptation of mid-day meal, and he could make out the alphabet at his own pace. With much difficulty he read whole kankotri to all gathered. They were happy to hear their names among the inviting hosts as per the joint-family custom  : Dhulabhai Punjabhai Vaghela, Kalidas Punjabhai Vaghela… But moving the kankotri back and front, up and down, the elder sister-in-law shouted:
‘Brother, how could you forget our family deity Chamunda? Our family is hale and happy, just because of her blessings. Now as you mingle among high caste Hindus, you left our Mother in the lurch? You printed your God like yourself -- in coat and pants and you forgot our Mother who is ever present?’ With broom on shoulder, she started for the village, muttering:  “you get your daughter married to a caste Hindu. We would not be able to grace your occasion...”
Rather than the photos of clan deities and beginning the kankotri ‘with the grace of  deity Mother Chamunda’, Vaghelas had  printed Babasaheb Ambedkar’s photograph as a sign of new  awareness. And it was an unpardonable offence! They had never imagined that such a large chasm had occurred between them and their relations…

With folded hands they requested all and asked for pardon for this misdemeanor. Younger sister-in-law, from the ghunght of her sari and with down-cast eyes began: “We hardly get adequate food. How can we afford the long journey to Mumbai? Here we make our children’s clothes from the shrouds draped by the savarna dead bodies. We barely get our family supper begging whole village. Shall we not look ‘different’ among your high-caste guests?  Will it not be an embarrassment for you?  Your status will be at stake.”

It was because of this fear only, that the Vaghelas had to decide for two wedding cards, two separate menus, and two separate receptions at different venues. As if finding a solution, Mr.Vaghela took out money from his wallet and said: ’keep this money. Please don’t worry about anything. Buy good clothes for women and children and all, and this is the train fare. But please do come. Kindly forgive our wrongs and grace the occasion.’

It seemed that anger subsided and things were on track. Youngest daughter-in-law came with a glass of water from an old earthen pitcher. Thinking the water as unhygienic, Mrs.Vaghela turned around and told diplomatically:  “No, no. We have water bottle with us. We have brought our tiffin also.” She opened her handbag and offered Bislery bottle to Mr.Vaghela. A young girl from next door came smiling: “This is the tea made of whole milk. Choice of the big people like you.” Mr.Vaghela stared at the creamy layer floating in the tea cup, he removed it with his finger-tip taking care that no one should notice his impatience.

Unhappy over the attitude and behavior of the family members, Vaghelas bade farewell to their native place with heavy heart and sped away in the taxi towards the city. They wondered what would be the response of maternal uncle, maternal aunt, and paternal aunt’s husband like.

The taxi stopped on the bank of river Sabarmati, near a posh retreat-like building. Its name was quite worthy to its grandness, ‘Kailas Dham’. Vaghelas crossed the beautiful garden and came at the the end of the precincts.  It was the servants’ quarters. Just at that moment,   with shouts of ’Rama bolo bhai Rama’, the mourners got down with a nanami from an ambulance. Maternal uncle, rather than completing welcome formality for the guests, rushed towards electric crematorium. Vaghelas remained patient,   as this was the maternal uncle who was supposed to come to Mumbai for Shalini’s mamera.

‘See brother, there is epidemic of the pig fever in the city. I am very busy. Municipality sahebs would not grant any leave. At such a time you fixed the auspicious date…” Maternal uncle’s wife put her point. To turn away from this awkward situation, Mr.Vaghela asked her: “ I don’t see sons and daughters-in-laws. Where have they all gone?’’ “Brother, everyone is on job. Sitting idle does not fill one’s belly. The elder son’s wife is sweeper in Civil Hospital, and the elder son too is working in a mortuary.   The young children might be at the entrance gate with a cloth spread on the ground, the mourners may give charity after the dead. If you wish to pass time till your maternal uncle returns, go and meet the younger one, he has a job in the neighborhood.” Maternal uncle’s wife proposed, introducing her well employed family in fine details.

Vaghelas immediately accepted the proposal, so that they can come out of suffocating atmosphere of the modern crematorium.

They asked the taxi driver to take them along as per directions of mami. Whoever they asked for the place, with a smile they retorted: “where to?  the Mayors Bunglow?” Vaghelas wondered how come a Mayor would be living in such a dalit basti? The taxi stopped opposite a studio-like building. Much in the fashion of Corporate Houses, there was a plaque with golden letters: Sulabh International, and below it, in small letters was written: Pay and Use Sulabh Shauchalaya. In the middle of the foyer of the building, there was a table and chair and a hansome youth stood by arrogating as its owner. Vaghelas approaching straight away towards him,  he shouted :  ’ One rupee for eki, two rupees for beki’ When they introduced them as relatives, he felt a bit let down, but  he called a boy in filmi style: ‘Go and bring two kadak mithi (strong and sweet) and two water pouches. Run quick!.’ Vaghela couple tried to stop stench of this modern toilet with   hand kerchief. Though they said no, the tea cups arrived on the table of the young manager of Sulabh Shauchalaya. Mrs.Vaghela surely wouldn’t take tea but Mr.Vaghela had no option. He stared at the tea cup. Thankfully, it was without a creamy layer…

From Sulabh Shauchalaya to Kailas Dham they returned.  After taking their assurance to come to Mumbai for wedding, they took leave to visit maternal aunt in the east end of the city. Originally the buildings were constructed as M.L.A.Quarters. They were lying vacant as the Capital shifted to Gandhinagar. Hence they were allotted to municipal employees. Currently the dilapidated buildings were worse than slum quarters. Maternal aunt’s husband, after gulping two pouches of desi from Sahibagh adda, bragged, “Brother, look, all of us in our family are having government jobs.” Mrs.Vaghela’s eyes scanned all over the house with a woman’s curiosity - she saw many imported articles. Catching her surprise-struck, as if clarifying he said: “our younger one’s wife is on international airport. Others will have to pay to see the air plane from outside, whereas she enters all overseas planes to clean. In the air plane even toilets are full of fragrance. Foreign liquor, chocolate, whatever is left- food too- by passengers, she would bring home. Your Shalini is also working on plane, may be they have a chance meeting at Ahmedabad airport sometime!”

Vaghelas shivered at the thought of such eventuality!  Masa went ahead: “The elder son is a driver in the dump van of slaughter house and the younger one in the van for stray dogs. All of us have government jobs with the grace of our clan deity.  How do our people do in Mumbai?  It is heard that even the high class people live in slums. They wear good clothes but their job is to collect shit. Your grandfather, when he left village for Mumbai, too did the same. It’s only you,  after education , now has a white collar job…”

After tolerating Mamas’s verbal lashings, Vaghelas could make him agree to come for Shalini’s marriage, for Mamera.

It was getting increasingly intolerable. Vaghelas began checking the guest list. Mr.Vaghela’s father’s bosom friend was living in a remote village in Saurashtra. But his father had insisted that they deliver the wedding card visiting him personally. The old man was his childhood friend .

After offering double money to taxi driver, they crossed dusty roads towards the village. At the end of the village, there was a solitary hut. The village darbars were astonished to see a car going in that direction. On hearing somebody shouting the old man’s name loudly, the old woman appeared from inside: “The old man has gone out of village.  Jorubha, the durbar, passed away and our old man has gone to deliver kalotri. It is our veth and he has gone on feet. After visiting two - four villages he may return tomorrow or day after tomorrow.” Opening the briefcase, the Vaghelas handed over the invitation card to the old woman, the kankotri addressed to the old man who had gone to deliver kalotri and was father’s childhood friend.  Vaghelas could not utter a single word.

Now it was end to Mrs.Vaghela’s patience.  In utter disgust she said: “Let us now call it a day. The remaining cards you can send through post later. As for now, I don’t wish to stay here for even a second. Let us leave by the earliest flight to Mumbai. How much is pending for my dear daughter’s marriage...”

Shalini was very happy to see mum and dad return by an early flight. She asked: “Mom, have you given the wedding cards to all, isn’t it? Our home will be crowded with relatives and family members ...” Shalini who had studied in the convent residential school was to meet her caste fellows for the first time. But Vaghela couple was in no mood to respond. Mr.Vaghela wondered, ‘what a big socio-cultural gap!’ He felt as if he was driven out of his family and caste. Dropping himself in the sofa, he called Shalini: ‘Shalu, please bring me a cup of tea. And of course, don’t add cream. Now I pity the creamy layer.’

(tr. By Dr G K Vankar)

Creamy layer:  with its literal meaning, the phrase in current Indian context has acquired different meaning – a tiny top section of dalit, tribal and Other Backward Caste communities that has become rich, educated, and powerful after getting benefits of reservation policy of the government and is envied upon by the caste-Hindus as a challenge to their hegemony.
Utara:  customary lodgings, Ganesha: God of auspicious occasion.
Saptapad : Hindu marriage ritual in which bride and groom ceremoniously walk seven circles
Bapu =honorific address for a Rajput (apparently the person has assumed Vaghela to be a Rajput rather than a dalit, as the surname is common among the Rajputs and dalits)
Kankotri = wedding card, Kalotri =letter informing death
Mameru = customary gifts of bridal clothes and ornaments from maternal uncle
Mama = maternal uncle,Mami = maternal uncle’s wife
Masa = husband of mother’s sister,Eki= passing urine,Beki = passing stool
Adda= illegal den for drinking, Shauchalaya = toilet, Kadak Mithi = strong and sweet, tea
Kailas Dham = literally the abode of Shiva in the Himalayas, but ultimate destination after death metaphorically


navro mayur said...

Very good satire....
Very well written..

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