Thursday, August 06, 2015


"Can you get me some of that afim?"
I had no opium to give her, but she insisted that if I went down to Katrasgarh and met the mining contractor, he will take me to the kameens and that they have opium. Her Katrasgarh in Bihar was 20 hours by train from Delhi, but there was no point trying to tell her that.
"They do opium at night, and beedis during the day, those women."
And then she told me how the grass snake tasted like fish to her and how the kameens brought their lunch from home and worked with their male counterparts at the mines, ferrying coal to the waiting trucks. They were shiny black, from the hills of Purulia, wiry, and could work all day. Their children grew up in those clever little cloth swings around their hips.
"You will find them if you look for them. They shared their lunch with me and will share their afim too. This hifenac isn't working, son."
Mother was fascinated that they could stand and pee nonchalantly, smoking their beedis. That seemed like a new world of freedom for women in sarees.
"Did I tell you the snake tasted like fish? Haven't you had sole? Ah, your dad doesn't like it much, so I don't get it. The kameens eat rats and snakes alike, giving a damn about who's predator and who's prey.
Rats, snakes, rats, snakes, rat-snakes? Are there rat-snakes?"
The thought of snakes made me shudder, but I was curious to taste a cooked snake someday. Right now, there was a bigger problem at hand. Mother's pain.
She was getting more and more incohorent with each passing day. The hifenac had stopped working and her rheumatoid arthritis was getting worse. She kept repeating things, kept talking about her childhood in the mines, a pink little child among the black, loving kameens. With her wheezing and pain and delirious sleep in the bitter winter of Delhi, I could do precious little to help. With my meager salary as an editorial assistant, I couldn't even afford her medicines.
"I have to deliver a manuscript to Priya at CP, will you be able to manage on your own?"
Get some afim on the way back, if you can, was all she said to me. She had a hardbound copy of An Equal Music next to her, but I doubt she could make sense of her books anymore. I have sometimes seen her read the same page over and over again.
A Sunday morning ride on a 445 blue-line to Connaught Place is always dreamy. The roads are empty, the bus doesn't have many passengers, and that day everybody seemed to be in blue blazers. Priya's typesetting office was on the outer circle, and I was forever uneasy in her presence. She was a page 3 lady, once beautiful but now aging, something she couldn't seem to come to terms with. She gleaned through the pages and kept checking my markings. Suddenly, she paused on a particular page and looked up at me with a look of utter disbelief:
"Since when do editors at Penguin spell a hyphen as hifen, dear?"
I had no clue what she asked me about, although when I looked, I had actually marked a compound adjective thus. That very spelling, indeed. I had a tremendous urge to run out the door right at that moment, but this was an embarrassment I had to put on a brave face to. Priya would call up David, and mock him about his editors, and I will promptly lose my job. And my mother's medicines, the rent for the barsati, the money I owed Gaurav! My whole little world seemed to come crashing down around me, when this dapper young gentleman in green shoes and a ponytail walked into the room.
He was Priya's young lover boy, and looked pretty much like an upstart to me. I hated his wealth, his black Cielo parked outside, and the black muscle tees he wore to those socialite evenings. He was quick to gauge the situation.
"Hifen? Oh yes, that's how the Americans spell it these days" he came to my rescue. As Priya looked at him incredulously, wondering if to be disgusted at me or the Americans more, I murmured a goodbye and slunk out the door. Outside, the beggars in front of the restaurant were still sleeping, and the pigeons were pottering about, feasting on last night's litter. There was a solitary janitor in the distance, two policemen in a white Gypsy, and the sweet winter-morning smell of relief. The man didn't seem so bad after all, I thought.
A little after Khubchand's pork shop came Bercos, where the girls took me out many days and paid for my lunch. I smiled at the thought of so much love, took out mother's prescription from my jacket pocket, and changed hifenac to hyphenac.
There is afim available in Pahargunj, I heard.