Why did we have to have cities, I wonder? Weren't we happy in our villages, herding sheep and cattle, collecting dry wood and having our nails clipped at the local barber's? I have seen a village belle come and clip the nails of my granny, who used to sit like a matriarch in her huge verandah with two German Shepherds guarding her. Earlier in the day I would take the dogs out for their morning crap session, and they would drag me all around the village, Maheshpur. Maheshpur is now in Jharkhand, about two hours from Dhanbad in the mining heartlands, but those days it was in Bihar.
Sundar da (although a Bihari, he spent 40 years at our place and turned Bengali) asked me if I would like to go with him to fetch milk. I would jump at the opportunity. There weren't any other kids to play with at my granny's place and I would get bored playing with the dogs, who didn't think much of me as a playmate. We would walk to the khataal, a place where the cattle were, humongous black buffaloes mostly. The milkman would give us a canful of frothy, creamy milk that we carried home. Back to the dogs. The dogs ate beef and rice every day and hated taking bath. But we would tie them to a post next to the well and give them a nice bath every Sunday. Sundar'da managed this alone as I watched from the steps.
My granny was big, black, and wore black spectacles. I was told stories of how she once caught a robber on a running train and handed him over to the police at the next station. She sat alone, watching the road, huge stick in her hand, with Betty and Darling on both sides, ready to lick the world to protect her. She was sad. Four of her five children were away. Her youngest son was the only one who lived with her. My mom and I would visit often because we lived about 100 kms away in a neighboring state. Often she would lift her thick glasses and wipe her eyes. I couldn't understand why as tears always made me uncomfortable, but I lay there, at her feet, playing with a toy, perhaps, and thinking why the others couldn't come to see her. They did come, once a year, and those were times when I had a lot of fun. Four boys and three girls, we made quite a bunch, but I guess we all got together only twice in our lives. Those are memories to die for.
The food was fresh, we had a kitchen garden where we grew some veggies, and Maya di managed the kitchen. I remember her perpetually making rotis. She had a room in the garden and she would read Gopal Bhar stories to me. She wasn't as friendly as Sundar da, who had a golden heart. He came as a young boy to our place and died much later, some say of cancer. I never saw him not smiling.
Today when I bit my nail too close to the skin and shrieked in pain, it all came back to me. The girl who would come to clip our nails, making life so easy. Someone to cook for you, someone to look after your dogs, open the gate for you and close all the doors after you have gone to sleep. These relations were symbiotic. Poor people whom our government did nothing for survived on employment created by the middle class. Fresh milk, vegetables from your own garden, trucks carrying coal, the postman coming at 1.00 in the afternoon with letters from Australia, Madhya Pradesh, or Durgapur.
No such luxury in a city. Here you are handed a nailclipper, which you are too lazy to use. You end up biting your nails to their right length and shape. And sometimes, it is too close for comfort.