A Fortunate Stroke of Serendipity

a writing by Anjani George


Even the sobriety of dusk couldn’t bring down the glitter of the tiny lamps as they shone bright in the hands of the hawker who moved from car to car. He was knocking at their windows trying to sell them to the city drivers who had stopped at the traffic signal beneath the Bridge. The said Bridge was the latest controversy in the city, having failed the strength test after hardly three years of the project was completed. There was an enormous amount of mudslinging with politicians, construction companies, engineers and government departments playing the blame game. The ultimate result was a proposal for reconstruction of the Bridge from the girders upward, which would mean another two years of snarling and exhaustive traffic jams to and fro for the daily commuters and more extortion of the poor tax payer.

The only ones to gain were the out of state gypsies who seemed to flock in hoards with their peppy and colourful wares, which definitely did help to relieve some boredom for those who were stuck in the traffic jam. The gypsies seemed to be perfectly at home under the Bridge where they had set up their tattered tents and little cooking fires for preparing the evening meal. The young women in colourful skirts chatted together and some suckled infants while the older ones seemed drunken showing all signs of being in an inebriated state. There were so many little children running around while some of were too small and were bundled up in the women’s laps. Those who weren’t children were parents; flinging into the air the taboos of morality, with policing unknown and thriving on the code that life was a journey wherein the larger the crowd the merrier.

The sun was setting and the sky was a splash of orange. The lamps were tiny in size hardly about half feet in length including the handle and were a miniature version of the yester year kerosene lamps. They had solar powered wicks, protected by thin glass chimneys. The glass was held in position by golden coloured “x” shaped thin metal strands. The top cap, bottom base and the delicate handle being an exact replica of the lamps she faintly recollected used during her childhood days to light the tiny living space of their thatched hut. Of a rustic iron colour then, these decorative lamps were a glitzy gold with tiny knobs in fluorescent pink, green and orange adding to its comeliness generating positivity in the beholder.

She clutched tight at the rupee note in her hand, not sure how much it was. She felt hot and flushed, sweating profusely. Her hands trembled as she agitatedly looked here and there, wondering if anyone had seen her pick the note from the ground. She was sure it belonged to one of the gypsies and yet as it lay on the ground she couldn’t help picking it up. This wasn’t the first time she had taken something that didn’t belong to her, but the act always made her feel nervous. It would perhaps be enough to fetch some bread for Janki and herself to stop the rumbling in their stomachs. Janki probably was back from school and she had to reach home before the child got worried.

Where all had she been all day? Where had she been all this while? She remembered feeling the hot sun beating on her face felt tired and exhausted. Yet, hard as she tried she could not recollect the events of the day. She wore a blue coloured blouse, yes it was blue for sure she reaffirmed. The pallu of her sari had moved away from her shoulder and lay dragging on the ground. The hooks on her blouse had loosened giving a peek into her bust. As she tried to comprehend the stares of the passersby, though still confused by the hazy thoughts clouding her head she felt shame for her nakedness. Very slowly she lifted the lingering cloth to cover her chest. The sari she wore was of nylon, a very bright coloured nylon sari which Janki had draped for her in the morning.

She had been an erring mother today and perhaps Janki had already begun searching for her, not finding her at home and would probably be vexed at her for leaving the safety of their shack. She had to cross the road and get on the other side to buy the bread packet. Her lips were parched from dehydration and yet the thought of food had got her salivating. She was a wasted figure with sunken cheeks and a starved look. Her hair was uncombed and unruly. Strands of white could be seen among the black hairs. She wore no ornaments and kept muttering unintelligible things in a subdued voice mostly to herself.

Even as she tried to concentrate on the heavy flow of traffic making an effort to cross to the other side, she simply couldn’t take her eyes away from the lamps hanging aplenty in the arms of the gypsy hawker. They were so beautiful, prettier than anything she had seen or owned in her entire life. So attractive they were that she was overwhelmed, mesmerized by their beauty. So much was her desire to own one that she released her tightly clutched fingers to look at the money held within, wondering it would be enough to get one of them. At the same time she could feel the pangs of hunger that were burning within the insides of her empty stomach.

When the line between sanity and insanity is very thin, the person in question is but a tight rope walker balancing rationality and madness, tilting sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left. The cutting edge for such a person is the freedom to act at will since no explanation is expected. Hence when the tattered, ragged “mad” woman decided to get one of those lamps giving in to her yearning for it and prioritizing it over a meal for herself and her daughter, nothing else need be said. The hawker was only too happy to give away one for the money that she had so tightly held a while ago.

Having been relieved of the only money she had, Janki’s amma decides to sit right there under the bridge and examine her new prized possession now being its proud owner. Her fingers were trembling as she lovingly caressed the new treasure. It lay there in her dirty hands, the golden coloured metal shining bright and she lightly turned it’s colourful knob, the solar wick began to glow. She took a quick inward breath, more out of excitement and set in the backdrop of evening time of day her face glowed in the warm yellow light of the lamp. It highlighted the innocence in her eyes, lit her face and it was as if for that moment even fate had forgotten she was of an unsound mind. She turned it off wanting to save the rest of it for Janki.
Janki was indeed worried. Where had her “amma” disappeared to. The make shift tin door to their tiny one room shack was wide open when she returned from school. The walls of the shack was made from blue tarpaulin wrapped round PVC pipes inserted in the ground at regular intervals and the roof was of corrugated asbestos. There were no windows and when the winds blew hard the rattle of the door and the roof made a lot of noise terrifying Janki, who was afraid the shack as a whole would collapse and fall on them. The little shack had been the cement go-down, when the hotel nearby was a construction site. After the work got over, the shed was abandoned and perhaps because it was farther away and out of sight of the now running hotel, it was never brought down. This turned lucky for Janki and her amma, who had no home, nowhere to go and no acquaintances.

Janki attended the nearby Government school and was a student of class six. She woke early in the morning cleaned the room, lit a small fire outside and prepared black tea, tealeaves collected from the left over teabags, she managed to pick out from the waste bin of the hotel that was quite close to their shack. She carefully washed the tea bags to remove any traces of milk or other particles from them, opened them up, carefully spread out the tea leaves on a piece of paper and let them dry in the sun.

Then she helped amma bath and change and finally got ready herself to go to school. Every morning she would warn amma not to step out of the shack but almost every evening she came back, the shack was empty. She carried a little plastic container into which she would pack a little of the rice gruel and lentil served to the students for free at school and bring back for amma to eat. She never asked for a second helping because it made her feel ashamed and always divided the share she got into half to carry home for amma. Mostly it was the only food they ate except for a sweet or piece of cake students would bring for their birthdays, which was an absolute treat for Janki. Yet, no matter how much ever she craved for the sweetmeat, there was always half of her share neatly wrapped up for “amma”.

There wasn’t any light in their little shack due to which Janki generally sometimes did her study, especially when there was more homework to do, under the street lamp a little further ahead. Usually she completed all school work by 6.00pm when there would be enough natural lighting. Since there wasn’t any cooking or any other thing to be done after sunset, mother and daughter huddled in the darkness of their little shack, comforted only be each other’s company. Perhaps the darkness of the shack was a blessing in disguise, protecting the deranged mother and her vulnerable daughter from the dangers lurking in an evil outside world. To be safe and protected is a privilege in itself and for those who have enough of it; it is usually misinterpreted for lack of freedom. It is only those who have forfeited this prerogative, know its value.

They were always hungry and so it was not a new feeling. Janki could correctly remember the day she had a full meal, enough to fill her stomach. It was two years back, on her best friend’s birthday. Avantika had brought chicken biriyani, homemade, for all her friends. She still remembered the aroma of the spiced basmati rice lavishly strewn with tenderly cooked chicken pieces, with raitha and hot and spicy lemon pickle for accompaniment. She had hungrily dug into the rich food, savouring its taste and finishing every single morsel that had been served for her. For the first time in her life, she felt her tummy full and satisfied and it had felt very good too. She had promised herself she would carry the usual school served meal for amma but by the time the party was over, she was too late to collect her share.

That night Janki had gone to bed on a full stomach while amma was hungry. Without any food the whole day, the older woman had been difficult to control all night. She abused Janki verbally calling her names and muttering to herself. There were tears flowing from her eyes as she clutched at her stomach, not knowing it was hunger that made her stomach growl. Yet in spite of all the reprimands and loud wailing the woman never touched the child. It had been the ranting of a mad woman, who even in her unsoundness wouldn’t harm her little one. The disturbance continued well into the night till she became weak and fell asleep. That morning Janki woke very early scavenging into the food waste bin of the hotel till she found some bread, with which she fed her mother.

Janki had felt dreadful about it and so terribly guilty, vowing never ever again to eat anything without having kept aside half of what she got for amma. After that she eluded friends, having decided that sharing their food was an indulgence she couldn’t afford. It distracted her and besides, she would never be able to give back anything.

The child’s mother now makes a re-entry into the story. Like a champion she emerges holding high her trophy and her eyes gleaming with excitement. She cannot wait to get to Janki and seeing her from afar breaks into a run. She stops a few inches away but short of breath and scoops the little girl into her arms. This sudden play of affection is not new to the little girl who was quite used to it and who would now accept detachment too with the same temperament. It all depended on the emotions her “amma” went through about half an hour before they met, as the feeling of happiness or sorrow could linger in the poor woman’s brain only for a maximum span of about half an hour, the time about which she could hold on to them. If the last emotion the woman in question experienced before she met her daughter was happiness, the Janki could expect a hug as today and if not a rough push.

She shoved the new treasure into Janki’s hands. It took some time for the child to realize what it was, but on a re examination, her face shined in delight, just as older woman’. Janki handled the new toy with special care, turned it over to examine it, as her mother showed her how to gently turn it on lightly turning the knob. That night for the first time since they had made the shack their home, it wasn’t pitch dark. The warm light from the solar wick of the lamp seemed to have removed the darkness of the room. Long after her mother fell asleep, little Janki stayed awake till the light faded out. Even after the light had dimmed, the golden framework of the lamp dazzled in the streak of moonlight that stealthily found its way into the shack through one of the holes in the corrugated roof.

Janki was overwhelmed by its beauty and she caressed the lamp in her little hands rubbing it softly, secretly hoping for the genie as in the Alladin’s story, she had heard, to pop out. If it did, what would she ask for? She looked round to review their belongings in the moonlit room. Hmm…… what could she ask for? Her eyes fell on her mother snoring away on the other side of the ragged mat they slept on and her eyes became gentler. Then she knew! She would ask the kindly genie for a full plate of biriyani, just like the one that Avantika had brought on her birthday. She wanted it that amma also got a taste of the delicious meal, she had so selfishly partaken all by herself on that day.

“Yes dear genie”, she whispered lightly to the lamp, “please get amma a meal of chicken briyani with raitha and lemon pickle and some for me too”. It still took her awhile to go to sleep. She could hear the croaking of the frogs, the leaves of the neem tree swaying in the night breeze, the clutter of the asbestos sheet of their roof as the wind hit it and of course the growling of street dogs, as they snarled and barked at each other. She knew they were prowling outside their little shack and as scary as they seemed they provided the mother and daughter armour of protection against heinous beings and diabolic intrigue of the dark.

She knew she ought to be thankful to them for they were the reason the red eyed, fiery looking supervisor working in the nearby five star hotel, didn’t dare to get at her. He had called her near once, on the pre text of offering her some sweets. Then he had clasped her cheeks in his palms, hurting her and then brought his face so close to hers that she could smell his breath. It had been loathsome and then suddenly aware of some terrible danger lurking, she had broken away from his grip and run for her life. She tried to explain to amma what had happened but the poor woman couldn’t understand a word and she had left it. But she had been careful never to cross paths with the man again and took pains to make sure they never met.

From the twelfth floor of his luxurious suite room, the biggest in his Hotel, Khalid Omari the owner looked out of the window with a sense of satisfaction. This hotel had been his dream, or rather his father’s dream. The Omari family had shifted to Kochi from Hyderabad, driven away from their hometown as debtors. His father used to run a restaurant on Basheer Bagh, a crowded street in Hydrabad. As fate would have it, the family was forced to shut down their small restaurant, sell their property and go into hiding, since even all this would not be sufficient to return a loan taken from the local money lender.
It was tough in the beginning but then the small Hyderabad food stall they began in Panampilly Nagar took off far better than expected. The people of Kochi are avid food lovers, coming from different back grounds and different places but having amalgamated into the hustle and bustle of this crowded but fun loving and vibrant city. Eating out and trying out new food jaunts are among the city folk’s favourite outings and before long Baba Omari’s Hyderabadi specialties were rated as one of the best. Business grew and so did little Khalid. Soon, he took over the business and before long the family began to flourish. Today Baba and Ammi lived a content retired life, Khalid was married to Ameena and his children Abid and Shafeena went to the best international school in the city.

From his room, Khalid squinted, straining his eyes to see what seemed like a little fluorescent blue box from the window facing the back portion of the hotel. It looked like a shed. His brows furrowed, wondering what was going on there. It sort of disturbed him and he wondered if any nefarious activities were going on right there under his nose. He needed to look into the matter.

The very first thing Khalid did the next morning was to investigate the “fluorescent” blue box that had given him a sleepless night in spite of spending the night in the best room of his five star hotel. The box had lost its charm with dawn. The streaming rays of sun shone on the blue tarpaulin and asbestos sheet, brought out the worst of it, and it was beyond doubt an eye sore. Yet, far more than the damage it was doing to the views from his hotel rooms; it was the plight of the school going girl and her mother that tugged at the gentleman’s heart.

It was clear, they were starved, but before they could be fed, they had to be shifted to a safer destination. He arranged for them to be accommodated in one of the lady staff rooms with an attached toilet. For the first time in her whole life, Janki and her amma had a proper room to themselves. A room with a tube light, a ceiling fan, a table with a chair and a window by it with horizontal bars from which she could look out onto the beautiful landscaped garden of the plush hotel. Just by the side of her bed was a small table on which she gently placed the lamp, so that it was the last thing she saw before closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.

Dear reader, everything would follow in days to come, if not in excess enough to suffice, enough for Janki and her amma to survive and they did live more or less happily ever after.

You perhaps wonder why Janki’s amma was not taken to an asylum, given her condition or why Janki wasn’t given over to an orphanage, which is the usual case. Well, you see I am an optimist. I believe, every mother strives to give the best to her child. She sets her heart at it and gives her whole self to its fulfillment. When she is overpowered by circumstances that render her helpless and incapable of the task, her mind shuts out and she becomes unhinged. When things return to normalcy so does rationality.

You also perhaps wonder why Janki escaped the clutches of the red eyed supervisor pedophile. That because it would be too cruel, for no child ever ought to be harmed. No! Not even in stories. The world must set out to protect them for they are love, they are the future and they are all we have.

And now for the crux! Khalid was a very kind hearted man. Feeding another two mouths was nothing for so rich an hotelier but he preferred to do it in style. “They shall be fed every single day with one plate each of my own very special “Hyderabadi Dum Biriyani”, he ordered.

Who says there aren’t genies in lamps anymore? But alas for their interpretation skills………………

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