Thursday, July 27, 2006

Mallorka Part II

Mallorka worked at the Splendid Biscuits biscuit making company. It had been around from the pre-independence days, and the Chairman was proud of the fact that his family had owned it for the last hundred years. Mallorka found this ridiculous. What was there to be proud of in that? It was like saying that you were smart enough to choose to be born into such a family, when everyone knew that it was just luck and nothing else. She thought of the moment of conception as a kind of slot machine high up in the heavenly universe where unborn babies sat trying their luck, while god the master of ceremonies smiled benignly. Or apologetically. Better luck next time. If I had my way, she thought, I would choose to be born to an ordinary family where parents don’t decide to separate when they are almost sixty. The splendid biscuits Chairman was a large man who seemed to have continuously boomed in size over the years as more and more people ate his biscuits. The company was clever enough to have sufficiently strict policies to keep all employees in place without actually attracting the notice of the human rights commissions or the amnesty people. Mallorka worked on the customer service team chasing and accepting orders from large institutions which ordered biscuits wholesale, like army canteens, colleges and prisons.

The work wasn’t difficult and the pay wasn’t bad, considering that she hadnt bothered to study on after college. She was persistent in an annoying but cajoling manner which made the customers feel slightly guilty that they had taken so long to place their orders and oblige this pleasant girl. Mallorka was friendly with her colleagues but she didn’t know most of them beyond work. That’s the kind of place the splendid biscuit company was. People came in at nine, said their polite good mornings to each other and buried themselves into their desks where they stayed until it was time for the one o clock lunch break. Cheap laminated boards hung on the walls carrying pre-fabricated words of wisdom for all time and space. Work is Worship. Ask What You Can Do To Make A Difference Today. Don’t push to Tomorrow to do What You Can Today. Occasionally someone would try to break the monotony and chat at a neighbours desk but the sight of the vice president, Mr. Datta coming out of his cabin was enough to put an end to that like guilty schoolchildren caught scribbling notes to each other. Not that there were any rules against talking to one’s colleagues. It was just the way the Splendid Biscuit Company was built. They hadn’t made their fortunes being nice to employees.

Mr. Datta was meant to be the Chairmans representative to the employees on all day-to-day matters. Kind of like god and jesus. As for the Chairman himself, no one ever saw him, except at annual day functions or if you were bold enough to ask for a better raise or an advance on your salary. Mr. Datta was a placid man whose chief worry seemd to centre around the top of his head which was rapidly losing its cover and beginning to resemble a shiny well boiled egg. A quiet man who still wore safari suits like they had never gone out of fashion at all , he always seemed surprised when any of his employees came to him with a problem. It was the genuine surprise of an acquaintance who drops in at the flat to say a hello and discovers that he is in the middle of a domestic quarrel. Other that that, the only times when he got worried was if the sales graphs at the end of each month didn’t quite measure up on the year on year format. It was part of mallorka’s job to carry such bad news to him in neat two-colored powerpoint charts, and at such times, the placidity would slip off him like some outsized shirt falling off on its own. A red flush would start taking over his face, starting with the tips of his pointed thin ears, before moving on to his withered cheeks which hung down to his cleft chin. The last time she had done this, however, he had simply handed the papers back to her asking her to take them to the Chairman directly. He was leaving the splendid biscuit company to start making biscuits on his own. This strange man who sometimes seemed to even stop breathing was setting up his own business, possibly with formulations stolen from the Splendid Biscuits. The audacity of it was unheard of in the hundred year old history of the Splendid Biscuit Biscuit-Making Company. That was a Friday and the day when one by one the strange events began to unravel.

Mallorka made her way up the spiral staircase to the Chairman's room. The spiral staircase stood at the entrance to the Splendid-Biscuit Biscuit Making Company, its curvilinear bulk almost obscuring the passageway that led to the sales cubicles. Its wide girth could hold four people abreast at any point from floor to landing. Wrought iron railings ran along its sides and onto each railing clung a tiny wrought iron cherub, obscenely plump and holding a wand in its tiny hand. It was not clear if he was meant to be Cupid or simply a decorative detail that had caught the Chairman's fancy. In any case, it was part of the loving attention that had been lavished on this staircase with its finest imported marble, its steps carved with a wild extravagance of tropical African doodles and its landing covered by the softest, cushiest, brightest-red Persian carpet. It was not a staircase that just anyone could be allowed to step on to. Like Jacks beanstalk, everyone knew that a Giant lived above the landing, but few had ever ventured up to see him. It was implicitly understood that the spiral staircase was reserved for the Chairman and his special guests. And for good measure, made explicit through a circular. Mallorka made her way upstairs and discovered that the Chairman was only human. It turned out that he was not even as old as most people assumed. Or maybe they had just failed to notice when the last Chairman died. A round faced full bellied man sat on the edge of his high throne like chair as though he were an uneasy interloper in his own office. His checked corduroy trousers which ended well above his ankles seemed to be constricting him into a smaller frame while his floral patterned and embroidered silk shirt stood out in contrast to the muted cream and brown colour scheme that ran through the office. Mallorka had about two minutes to absorb all this before she realised that this fat man was screaming at her. “S S Stolen my recipes…”, His dough colored face was taking on color slowly. “ What kind of loyalty is this? What kind of a fool is this, leaving Splendid Biscuits…Next he will try to steal my clients, I know him, the scoundrel, a rascal, a nincompoop…” And the poop was stretched out on a resounding wail which sounded as if it would bring on a heart attack. Suddenly he snatched the sales charts from her hand and flung a malicious eye on them. Mallorka stumbled in to explain why the sales were looking down this month when he shut her up abruptly. “ You’re the one who deals with the bulk orders? Fired. You are fired. I know you are on his side. Don’t think I cant see unh. Go home now. I will ask the accountant to send your cheque home.” Mallorka climbed down the spiral staircase sadly. Even bad jobs were worth something after all.

Over the weekend, Mallorka’s parents informed her that they were getting divorced. It came as a shock though it shouldn’t have. For the last two years they hadnt been talking to each other whenever possible. Apart from the five percent of couples who can genuinely tolerate each other over many years, the rest can be divided into two kinds. The first group figure out within the two years of being together that the effort is not worth it, and decide to get on with their own lives. This is definitely a minority though. The second group takes far longer to realise the same thing, ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty years. For twenty years they complain that the other person takes up more than his fair share of the sheets, the husband’s mother is so clumsy and undoes all the hard work that goes into keeping the house perfect, the wife never tries to make her own way anywhere, the children are the imperfect image of their father and perfectly selfish. For twenty years they voice the same complaints and complain that no one is listening to them anymore. When they finally realise that no one is going to change, they feel like greedy airtravellers who have plunged their hands into the airhostesses’ box of sweets and come up with the sour tamarinds instead of the freshmints. And the airhostess has gone before you can call her back! Mallorka’s parents fell in this group.

Since childhood, her parents had tried to bring up Mallorka as a completely rational being. Her name had been the only instance when they had given in to a momentary freak of the emotions, a temporary blip in the otherwise hardwired apparatus of their minds. When other children threw tantrums and cried for sweets, mothers cuddled them or beat them mercilessly or yelled at them until the tears dried out into silence. Mallorka remembered the one time that she had gone out with her father and cried for the shiny pink bubblegum that she saw in the shops. Bubblegum was an unattainable forbidden ideal in those days. Oh so juicy and succulent as you chewed it in your mouth, rolled it along your palate, massaged it into your gums, shredded it with your teeth and assembled it whole again to blow out into a big great pink bubble that would never burst. Or sometimes burst and cover your face with a finely stretched transparent pink bubblegum mesh. Girls and boys vied with one another to blow out the largest toughest longest bubbles. But Mallorka had been forbidden to chew gum. It spoilt your teeth, her mother said, and besides, everyone knew that girls who ate bubblegum looked ugly and dirty like streetchildren. One day, back with her father from the sabziwallah, she had tried to extract money for gum from him, since he seemed like a softer target than her mother. When her whines and pleas didn’t have any effect, she started drumming her feet on the ground until she was tired and couldn’t walk anymore. Her father merely dragged her home and deposited her in front of her mother along with the bag of vegetables. When her mother heard about mallorka’s very bad behaviour on the road, she stopped reading her book. She simply went into the bedroom and came out bringing with her a large vip suitcase. Do you see what this is, mallorka, she asked? Yes, Ma, a bag, mallorka said. No, not a bag, its called a suitcase. Suit-Case. When children become very naughty and don’t do as they are told, parents feel very very unhappy. And when they feel very very unhappy, they take a suitcase and they pack all their things and they go away. Do you understand what I am saying, mallorka? When her mother was in this solemn mood, she would talk only in English. Bengali couldn’t possibly contain the gravity it required. Her solemnity needed the hard crisp sounds of english bitten out one after another with precision and impact. Since then she had grown up and realised that this was only a grownups way of scaring children into behaving themselves. Yet, every now and then, she would wake up at night and think, ma is leaving, ma is leaving me, leaving us and going away somewhere with her heart empty and her vip suitcase full of her clothes. Mother is going away, she would dream, and she would wake up to make sure that no one had gone away and everything in the house was in its own place. And now, Mother was really going away. She was to go to her brother’s house in Delhi until she had decided what to do.

Mallorka didn’t want to go to Delhi. She hated Delhi with its hyper-aggro traffic always rushing to be somewhere yesterday and groups of sullen ogling men who seemed to look through your clothes with their x-ray vision. It had nothing to do with wanting to stay back with her father. She knew him less than she knew her mother. He was a jovial man, ill-fitted for the combative event that life with her mother was. He was like a gladiator entering to meet the lions with no sword and no armor either. It wasn’t clear what tumultous events in the scarred tapestry of her mothers earlier life had caused her to become such a fighter, but there she was, set to do battle with anyone for any cause or even none. Early enough, mallorca had understood that if you did not want to get hurt in this battle, you would do well to take no sides, speak no unnecessary words, have no intimate confidences, in other words, be calm, rational, if necessary, timid and sly at the same time and confine all acts of rebellion outside this clamorous domestic arena.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mallorka (Part I)

It was evening, and the sun went down the horizon at the sedate pace that could be expected for a day where nothing of any importance had occurred. Atleast not for Mallorka. She walked down the broad expanse of Chowringhee at a slow pace counting each tile on the pavement with the seriousness of a jobless individual who can afford to take note of every dull second moving by, having completed its given tenure to the end. Ragged children cluttered the pavement pursuing the firangs who loomed large on the road, though they tried their best to fade into the surroundings. No one disturbed her. Her absorption in the ground and the casualness with which she held her handbag was sufficient indication that there was nothing of value in it.

Suddenly she speeded up and dipped into Park Street to find a telephone booth. The emptiness of the entire day had given her sufficient time to pore over the events of the last few days. They had been as numerous and cryptic as the clues of the Sunday crossword. It was evident that another min had to be called into detangle them. With the little left on the prepaid and no job in view, it was better to find a PCO. At the booth, three teenage girls crowded around the only instrument, one of them lounging in her fake DKNYs and Lees and chatting away with a boyfriend. The other two stood by offering encouragement and moral support for what was turning into a battle of the telephone. Mallorka sighed. She knew these kind of conversations only too well. Given the cheapness of local telephone calls and the kind of pocket money college kids received, they would never end. She picked up her mobile and dialled the number.It was not the voice she had expected to hear.

“Welcome to the Setland drilling company. If you know the extension number you wish to reach…”She hung up after checking the dialed number on the screen. It was the number she always had for Kevin. Suddenly the other end of the line had metamorphosed into the Setland drilling company. Of late a great many of these puzzling things were happening. Picking up some chanachur and a copy of the Telegraph, Mallorka decided to walk to the maidan and think over her gameplan calmly.

The maidan was crowded with office goers stopping by for a bite on the way back home. Young couples delighted in find a haven crowded enough to hold hands without attracting attention. Mallorka managed to find a grassy patch a little distance away from this assembly. True there was no tree cover here but the heat was fading away now and it was better than being constantly assailed by the cries of the ice cream wallahs and puchka redies. Spreading out the newspaper she lay down on her stomach with her legs up in the air and started reading.

PIL filed against woman for wrongful use of name. The story was taking place in the dank rooms of a family court. A tiny man with rimless glasses perched on his nose sat in a chair at an elevation to one end of the room. He was the judge. It was evident in the white wig that was placed on his hand and the hammer that lay before him on the wooden table. Her mother was standing in the witness box while a lawyer with a sweaty face cross examined her. Every two minutes he paused to mop his face with a large dirty handkerchief.
“ Mrs. Sen, May I ask you to tell me, how many years ago did you go to Palma de Mallorca?”
“Twenty three.” Her mother was answering him in the precise cold british voice she always used for servants and door to door salesman.
“ And is it a coincidence that you have given your daughter the same name?”
“ No. My husband and I, we decided to call her Mallorka, since we honeymooned on the island and very much enjoyed it.:
“ You are aware that in the light of the divorce proceedings underway currently, your husband has filed an injunction prohibiting your daughter from using this name, as it does not rightly reflect the change in circumstances?”
“ Mallorka is spelt with a K. Not a C as the island is. My daughter is therefore entitled to using her name until she desires.” Canned laughter rolled around the courtroom boisterously though no one could see where it had come from.
At this point, a man came running into the coutroom shouting, Evidence, Milord, Fresh evidence. The courtroom which had been fairly empty until then suddenly filled with people running in, all of them shouting strange things in different languages. Three crows flew in from the ventilator opening above the judge’s place, cawing in abandon. The lawyer wiped his sweaty face again. Her mother had lost her best cold voice and was trying to scream above the din, all her rounded bengali vowels showing. The judge was banging on the table with his hammer, order order.

She woke up and found that it was almost nine o’clock. The Maidan was still crowded and noisy. The strange dream hovered around her as though it had decided that it would like to walk out of her untimely nap and plant itself in the more comfortable and spacious area of waking consciousness. Trying to shrug it away, she walked to the road and hailed a taxi. It was time to go home. On the way home, she continued thinking about the dream. It was one more link in the chain of strange events that begun the past week when the company vice president had called her into his room to let her know that he was quitting. But it was a chain in which all the links seemed to have a size and shape all their own, no one piece like another.
(Part II should be up in a few days - under some editing)