She stood on the balcony and gratefully inhaled the heady smells of rain splattered mud, jasmine and cow dung. The sky was clear but it had rained during the day. Memories came flooding back as she gazed at the fronds of coconut trees reaching out from the back yard next door. The colours of the ostentatious new bungalows in the ‘Judicial Layout’ jostling tiny rustic shacks of the local labourers assailed her senses. She loved looking out from the terrace at this jumble of houses, street dogs, cows, the cockerel that defiantly crowed all day long and the hens with their brood of fluffy fussy chicks. Best of all was the breathtaking sunset over the distant trees beyond the houses and shacks.
The balcony view from the other side of the pretty swimming pool was supposed to be the selling point. But it was the rural scene before her, which reminded her of the India she had left behind years ago, that had captured her She gazed at the dearly-remembered view, yet something had changed. She could not quite put her finger on it. But she was back ‘home’ and that was all that mattered. She had held on to this memory everyday when the grey skies of England got her down. I feel alive, she thought, her heart pounding.
“Just look at those awful colours!” She looked around to see her husband pointing at the garish oranges, greens and yellows of the new houses in the distance. “And the telecommunication towers are everywhere. Make the place unsightly,” he added. She felt a tug of irritation. Please don’t take this moment away from me, she thought.
John was quite easy to please but sometimes the gulf between their environments divided them. In England, they lived in a smart townhouse in a rather fashionable development called – ‘The Village’. The locals in the nearby real villages resented this ‘posh’ name. The house overlooked the ‘village’ green where cricket was played on weekends.
The rather exclusive health centre was nearby, supermarkets and shops beyond the green; but best of all, the development backed onto the beautiful undulating North Downs called ‘Happy Valley’. John’s day revolved round working on his computer in his home office, walking in the valley, a daily visit to The Fox, the local country pub, before lunch, and a nap after. Evenings were spent with more browsing on the net and then relaxing in front of the box after dinner; finally bed.
This sedate routine followed day after day interspersed with a visit to the pool or a weekly Pilates lesson. Motor sports and occasional visits to Goodwood for track days, or the restaurant or local cinema were the only bits of excitement to add a bit of sparkle to a rather quiet and semi-retired life. They had no close family near them either, so there was very little interaction with other people or other lives.
John preferred it this way. He said he was a simple man with simple tastes. She teased him saying “simple life” could be translated into “selfish life”. But, seriously, she thought they lived in a bubble. She, on the other hand, needed to get involved. Life is all about caring and sharing. Caring and sharing was her mantra to whoever cared to listen, mainly her children who were now grown up and living away. Life in England had become quiet, calm and eventless.
For Nira, there was no spark in this clean, comfortable, almost clinical existence. There were no comings and goings, hardly any sounds from outside the house to punctuate the silence within, no smells of washed mud and jasmine, no sunshine streaming in through the closed windows – no chaos. In The Village, the well-maintained grounds with the manicured lawns, the trimmed hedges; the young fresh green of the oaks and the chestnuts in spring; the colour and smells of the lavender and thyme in summer; and the golds, burnt oranges and fiery reds of the maple, and the crimson Virginia creeper in autumn were glorious. She particularly loved the autumnal colours although it made her sad to see the trees in front of the house gradually shed their leaves, the skies get darker by the day and the birds silenced.
Aesthetically it was beautiful, but it did not make her feel alive, did not sharpen her senses as the higgledy piggledy mix of the rural and urban India sprawled out in front of her now did. How could she explain to John that it was this chaos that she missed so much?
Her eyes lit up when she saw the vegetable vendor slowly pushing the cart up the road shouting the names of all his greens in a sing-song manner. She had been taken aback by the new supermarkets that had sprung up like a rash everywhere she went. She resisted going to the supermarkets and insisted on going to the same local market to buy her vegetables and flowers as she had done years ago with her mother.
Nothing in England could compare to the mountains of vegetables spilling out of their baskets or the beautifully-arranged fruit gleaming like gems in the sun – the green of the knobbly custard apple, the orange-yellow papaya and the golden bananas and mangoes, the stubby pineapples and the smooth globes of melons, the greenish yellow speckled guavas and the earthy brown chiku, the magnificent emerald and ruby chandeliers of grapes triumphantly arranged on large platters, and so many many more that she never got to see or smell in her part of England.
Even the nut brown husky mounds of coconuts were a joy as they promised delicacies she missed drinking and eating so much. And the garlands! The garlands made of myriads of flowers, leaves, ferns and herbs that decorated the front of the market and welcomed the buyers, mixed with the heady smells of the incense – jasmine, musk rose and her favourite sandalwood and frankincense. This was the magical, mystical, mysterious India that she longed for when she was away and that she wanted her husband and children to embrace.
The mouth-watering aroma of dosa and coffee enticed her back into the house. She greedily gobbled up the food put in front of her. She was just getting used to the idea of having “staff” comprising a maid cum cook, a part-time gardener, and a driver. The last because of the way John had reacted to driving on Bangalore roads and to local drivers. All this was luxury she was unused to in 30 years of living abroad. Back there, she was the head cook and John was the chief bottle washer! She sat back sipping the hot South-Indian coffee and turning the pages of the local newspaper.
The story caught her eye and she put down the cup. A teacher had hanged herself because her daughter failed to attain the first rank by a few marks. Nira had heard about students in India committing suicide for shaming their families by failing to attain the expected grade or unable to get admission into one of the top colleges. This was different. She was horrified at this reversal – the parent’s suicide. How would the daughter who had the misfortune of coming second cope with this double whammy?
Nira took her coffee out into the balcony to shake off the depressing thoughts. It had started raining again which cooled down the place considerably. Again, it struck her that something was different, something was missing. Suddenly she knew what it was. The little shacks in front of the condominium complex had all disappeared! It came as a shock to see the empty grassy land where the little children of the condominium workers had raced around hooting and their mums squatted clutching their little suckling nut-brown babies and spitting red juice of the paan they incessantly chewed. She liked the sense of community in the group of workers. She loved to watch all the children from the different families play together.
She had grown particularly fond of five-year old Thimma who always ran up to her and smiled shyly when she walked past his hut. She would often stop and talk to him. Bright little Thimma with the same wide brown sparkling eager eyes her son had, hungry to learn new things. She always had a few sweets when she left the house hoping she would see him on her way out. She loved the way he always ran away gleefully to share the sweets with his little friends. Caring and sharing, she thought. Nira hoped when he knew her better, he would let her teach him to read and write. His friends could join in too. She’d promised his mother she’d teach him on her next visit. The mother had joined her palms with gratitude, overcome at the thought. Nira had remembered to bring little picture books of alphabet and numbers which she couldn’t wait to show him.
But the huts and the families were all gone.
She knew some residents had complained about the huts spoiling their view but it hadn’t been easy to move the workers and their makeshift homes. This was their home, where they worked and lived together and all the children played and grew up together. She could understand the neighbours’ complaints for she lived higher and therefore not so affected by the view perhaps. But the empty untidy land with its quietened cold mud stoves stared up at her.
She felt guilty. She called the security guard to ask what had happened. He said the group was forced to move. “Did they all find another place where they could all live together?” “No”, he replied. It would be difficult to find one spot for all, so they would all be scattered. “So, how were they convinced to move?” “They were all paid off. The developers,” he said, “came up with a clever scheme to coax them to leave.” Nira wondered just what it must have cost the wealthy developers to pay off nearly 20 families. “How much were they paid?” The guard said with a snigger, “20 kilos of rice.”
Rani Rao Innes is the senior partner and lead trainer of Link Communications, a specialized communications skills company based in the UK. She has regularly presented courses and training workshops for private and public business sectors as well as students and teachers in the UK, Belgium, Malaysia, Japan and India. She has also been active in theatre for 30 years and was the director of Canterbury Players in Kent for eight years.