The Guessing Game
Madness begins to reign in our household before the Sun and the son rise.
Before Nikita can indulge in the luxury of her morning yawn, and stretch the sleep-sloth away, she jumps out of the bed, rushes to the kitchen, bleary-eyed to put water on the gas stove for the morning tea. And even as the water is boiling, she takes out Tunnu’s (his pet name; full name is Tanank Kanjilal) school uniform, rolls it into a ball and hurls it at me with the words, “Iron it, please. Quickly.” The presswallah has been on strike to get the rates increased by the Housing Society we live in. So this is an additional chore added to the routine.
Before getting down to ironing the uniform, I fill two steel containers of drinking water to last for the day, as water shortage has been dogging our Housing Society for six months. Because of the insensitivity and carelessness of many residents, whose coolers keep overflowing regularly, the water bill shot up and the Society decided to reduce the supply of water to the flats.
Then I make tomato sandwiches for Tunnu’s lunch and embark on an in-house investigative mission to locate his lunch box, water bottle, books, note-books, pencil box, and other sundry items. He hides them to get even with us for dragging him out of the bed at the unearthly hour of 5.45 am to ready him by 6 am, so that he does not miss the school van. It is quite a job to retrieve these things, as he puts them away in unlikely places.
Each member of our family of three has to beat deadlines: Tunnu for his school van, Nikita for her bank, (being the Senior Manager she keeps the keys to the locker room) and I for my college, as I have the first period in the timetable. The college is thirty kilometres from our Society.
Waking up Tunnu is as easy as stopping the Sun from peeping out from behind the eight-storey building in front of ours. At one stage the scene resembles a chaotic wedding ceremony, where the only unruffled person is the Pundit, who sits cross-legged issuing threats that the auspicious time for the ceremony is slipping away and if the bride is not brought to the bedi forthwith, the ceremony will become tainted and her marital happiness will be jeopardised.
In the middle of the drawing room, I am holding a limp Tunnu from under his arms, while he is either getting his standing snooze or is bawling non-stop. Nikita is trying to slip him into the uniform, combing his hair, making him drink milk, removing the white moustache, and garlanding him identity card, strung to a shiny blue ribbon. Suddenly, Nikita screams, “Anshu, the other shoe. Where is it?”
“How do I know?”
“Tunnu, where did you take off your shoes yesterday?”
This is asking a question of Sphinx and Tunnu does not care to bestow even that enigmatic smile. He remains sullen at the torture being inflicted on him by two adults, who profess several times in the day that they love him. With the Child Rights NGOs gaining ground and popularity, there is a serious danger of Tunnu pressing some digits and the appearance at the door of an eager team to rescue him from the clutches of victimising parents and get us behind bars for cruelty on a hapless child.
Today is one such morning. The household is in the routine tizzy, when the phone rings shrilly.
“H-a-i-ll-o-o” drawls a voice.
“Yes, please who’s on the line?”
Instead of the answer, I hear the conversation a lady is holding with someone standing near her, “See, he is pretending he doesn’t recognise my voice. How strange, naa!”
“Hello, who do you want please?”
“Very strange of you to be asking this question! Arre, Titu who else? Give the phone to him.”
“Sorry, there’s no Titu here.”
Suddenly, the voice assumes an imperious tone and commands, “I say get me Titu. Quickly. What’s he doing?”
“What Titu? There’s no Titu here, I told you.”
She again says something to her companion in her room, which is not fully audible.
“He, he, he … are you joking with me? You can’t stand between Titu and his grandmother. Hurry up now. Give him the phone.”
“What number have you dialled please?” Words tumble out of me in anxious hurry and I am getting on the edge of my nerves.
“Kamaal hai, oye Bitte. What has happened to you today? You can’t recognise my voice. What has gone wrong with you?” She has become positively abrasive.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what Bitte you are talking about.”
“Oye Bitte, every morning I say H-a-i-l-o-o to Mini or you and then talk to Titu. But for me, he will never go to school. It’s I who cajole him to go to school, with promises of ice cream and visits to the Water Park where he would have a lot of fun and a burger at Macdonald’s.”
“Please what… …”
“Don’t interrupt me. Both of you are careless. I know you never give him enough to eat. Poor boy! He’s already turned skin and bones. Have you put some Ferrero Rocher chocolates I brought from London in his school bag? You know, he feels hungry while coming back in the school van….”
“But why don’t you tell me what number have you dialled?” I say with mounting exasperation in my voice.
She refuses to listen to whatever I say and carries on unfazed, “Day before yesterday, Titu complained against both of you. You didn’t give him Hershey’s Kisses, (a branded chocolate) which I had left with you last time I visited you. You know he is terribly fond of me.”
“Are you crazy, for God’s sake?” I burst out. “We’re in a mad rush. Please, please stop it now.”
“O.K., O.K., I’ll see you. I’ll come over. You’ve insulted me, your mother-in-law. I’ll talk to Niki. She’ll teach you a lesson. I committed a blunder. I shouldn’t have given you my permission to marry my daughter. Have you forgotten, you used to come over every other day with gifts for me and buttered me so that I would agree to your proposal? Actually, your family is no match to ours – how much did your father earn as Porophaiser? You didn’t deserve Niki, such a nice girl. Yes, I’m saying it to your face,” she goes on blabbering.
“To hell with you…” I bark into the phone. I thanked heavens, she disconnected without hurling any more threats at me.
Now the household is in full and proper frenzy. Tunnu’s school van has arrived at the Society gate and the driver is honking his top away. The Pomeranian has chosen to bark non-stop at a bird that had come and perched on the parapet, surveying the balcony for breakfast. Nikita has still not found the one missing shoe of Tunnu’s and now both of us are on the ‘Mission Shoe,’ and are bumping into each other running from one room to the other. And to cap it all the milk Nikita had put on the gas stove for boiling, hisses angrily and spills all over the kitchen, creating a huge mess.
“Shall I take the receiver off the hook? As it is we are running late.”
“Umm, no… don’t. My Chief Manager might ring up.”
“He can do it on the mobile.”
“You forget, we switch on our mobiles only when we leave home?”
At such a time, the phone begins to trill again and sends my pulse racing.
“Hello, Anshuman, how’re you doing, fella?” asks a male voice. I wonder who could it be now, but can’t place him.
“Can you guess who’s speaking?” and then there is a pregnant silence.
Oh, no. No more of guessing games! “Well .. at the moment, I am ….” I begin.
“Good, very good, yaar. You’re a real friend.”
“May I know who … …”
“He, he, he,” he laughs exultingly as if he has floored his opponent at a high powered quiz contest and resumes, “Now you know who is on the line. I mean you would know from the way I laugh.”
“But you see … ….” I am getting desperate.
“Funny, isn’t it? Anyway, I’ll give you a clue: two years ago, we briefly met at a cinema hall. I wouldn’t tell you the name of the movie, or else you’ll be bang on spot in a jiffy.”
Crazy blighter! As if I were dying to guess his blasted name.
My brain is in a whirr. My nerves are splintered, my temples are throbbing and I don’t know what to do.
I hear myself shout: “Oh, I’m sorry I couldn’t recognise you from your voice. You’re G. M. Latooria, I mean Ghasita Mal Latooria. Well, I’ve given up on drugs long ago. I’m now absolutely ‘clean.’ Yes, believe me. I’ve been fully rehabilitated. I have stopped smacking completely! Sorry, I don’t need to buy heroin anymore.”
The phone goes dead promptly.
I don’t know who he really was. Obviously, he was one of the friends whom I had not met, nor talked to on phone for a long time. Perhaps, I had been brutally rude to him and hurt him, whereas he was only trying to show his affection. However, what would you have done in my situation?
Anyway, the voice which I christened as Ghasita Mal Latooria has not bothered me again and I don’t think it will. But there can be another Ghasita Mal Latooria who might ring up some morning, and ask me to guess his name. Who knows? I bet, there is no dearth of Latoorias in the world!
(The Author, Subhash Chandra is a former Associate Professor of English, University of Delhi)