09 May 2011
It sat bang in the middle of Commercial Street – food vendors, pedestrians, milled around. Higginbothams Books stood next door like it had for the past 60 odd years. To the right, The Daily Herald. Three floors of grey stone housed coffee-lovers, doodlers, insomniacs and others.
There was a ‘kicked up newness’ about The Coffee Shop this year. Fresh painted off white wall, front door burnt brown, black handle, terrace garden first floor, stairs spiralling off a tiny reception, pine freshener, new varnished tables, wrought iron window grill, peeling wood bench out front that local Traffic police ignored during road widening procedures when metro railways re-structuring first began.The Coffee Shop’s name plate stood thick with pigeon droppings and feathertuft wedged in rust.
Yes, there was a newness here…in the way of old garden cities and new fly-overs.
After chairs went down that morning, a few regulars walked in glassy eyed, to smoke, stare, have their cup of freshly ground coffee in white cup and round bottomed saucer. Nice people in states of non thought apparently contagious.
Ginger and the four cats, including New Lady, hung back in the terrace. Mij wasn’t in yet so no leftovers! No one ate. Coffee and cigarette butts. Shrivelly match and ash. Eeeeyeow. Things hadn’t changed much at The Coffee Shop.
He sank in his fur and shut his head. New Lady looked away unimpressed. She was, but wouldn’t show it. Ginger knew. Which was why he shut his head. The ways of the female species weren’t new to him. They were all quite human if you looked close. Indiscretions to the fore and immensely ignorant of the fact that the covers to their psyche were sheer glass. Oh, you could read a human like you could read New Lady here.
Why people did not ‘read each other’ confused Ginger. It could simplify everything. Like peripheral vision. Did they use it? Nah! Other species yes, but humans? Maybe some women did. And some sleuths. Specifically trained. Or stock brokers. And some journalists.
Four that evening, Mij finally came in. Ginger and others settled into more mobile peace. Life began. Mij looked strangely content today; hadn’t fussed with her hair as usual – somehow that helped. It hung flat either side of her wide face, softening it. Fifty nine and in bright purple T shirt, white heels, skinny jeans, workday – even if you hardly got off your high chair with laptop and pictures of ancestry?! Mij was originally from “Persia”. Parsi!
Oh. Ah. Ginger purred inside – all over. See, she asked no rent; coffee bags behind the kitchen brought in rats, mice. Why complain?
5pm. Time moved in one slow amber stretch. Amber because of the late Indian summer sun slanting in thru Mij’s windows overlooking the City’s park across. High red walls and Asoka trees that landmarked The Coffee Shop. Girl with plait hadn’t arrived yet (French plait meticulously braided from the top, sometimes even with white and pinky pearl or satin twine. Salon? What, every day?).
Table 6 was busy again. Tall man with leather briefcase. What was he? Real Estate? Mattered? Nah! Just that people walked in with their lives. Little untuned edges sometimes rankling like a raspy guitar. Black silk dress tie tonight, ok. Okay-ee! Third coffee, loosened silk tie, he was slipping down till one socked foot stuck out under table. Doped-sleepy.
New Lady had one green eye, the other was blue. Striking in her white fur, Ginger thought. She was long jawed long boned, hind feet ambling like a big cat’s, hmmmm, ATTITUDE!! Lineage. New babe was thinking privileged class, uh.
He stretched loudly across so she had to hop over Table 6’s long socked foot. What can you say. These were the ways of a street cat. Don’t try dress him up, gold trimmed deep streaked fur, tail like a christmas tree, and all. Mee Maw!!! Velvet brown eyes unsafe to look into, not till you were ready. But then he had a wildness that slipped out without warning. Almost like people. She retreated to the Monsterra pots outside to do her nails.
7pm. Just walking space left. Even over by the maroon benches along the left wall with the Mario black and white murial. Mij’s paintings kept her away from the madness. The shop was a gift from Ma who had dreamed of an Art Studio, back when young ladies had no business thinking that way. Grandpa thought different…
Well, the dream died. After ma moved on, Mij, single and somehow better at 50 than 40, made her decision. Yeah, there was a time she used to think “Soul Mate” would walk in, sweep her off her feet, tall, dark, ruggedly handsome, unlike Slick there. Sure he had a girlfriend in tow, but she wouldn’t recommend him for any one she knew, he was just too smooth was all.
She must’ve smiled at the young couple across, Slick and the girl; they smiled back good-naturedly and Mij felt a pang of bad. Sometimes she was really so bad. Wicked streak from her dad for sure. He was a rash one. Mij tried to remedy familial curse (there was also cancer, arthritis, colic, ulcers and spinal curvature running rabid in the family, so you wanted to wash that out, specially here where you needed ‘nice’, and work, for pity’s sakes, without generational mess). That explained her Feng Shui crystals, mirror and single laughing Buddha at the entrance with petals in round earthen water tray. And river stones.
Oh, too many accessories for a Coffee Shop? So? She had snacks. Samosas, khari biscuits (flaky light wheat biscuits, reminiscent of her years in Gujarat), some lassi & yoghurt recently, tangy-chillied Lime pickle bottles for sale in tall shelf, but coffee was coffee. Fresh ground from Coorg in the hills, best hill station south of India, Mij knew no other. The aroma of it rose to the rafters, spilling out to where Chaat sellers swirled puffed rice concoctions in tender mango shreds, tamarind preserve and coriander spiked potato crunch. You bought your Chaat for Rs 30/-, walked in for coffee. Mij didn’t care. She leaned on her elbows like she were looking in at the window sills of the world.
Girl with plait was dazzling in blue tonight, black long earrings, sparkle in the loop. Very nice. The nails were painted bronze, subtle. 22? Maybe, 23. Med school, or architecture. Yeah they had that look, PGs.
Ginger wished they would change the music. It had a whine, which was alright some nights, but not with moon and Moghul outside, at it. Moghul was a dignified dog, polite to felines, so they all looked out for him, except that his whine put sad sitars and shennais to shame.
Plait girl was smiling. Oh. Ah! purred Ginger. Humans could express so much but mostly did that to themselves. Like personal truths were for individualised governance of the Galaxy. He prefered cats. What you saw was what you got. Male cats. Humans were big on emo. Superficially, see? Like New Lady. A species dedicated to self.
Table 6 was sorting out his shoes. Short man in the corner and woman with bags from Garuda Mall were actually eating. Girl in plait hadn’t stopped talking into her phone. Whoever she was waiting for better arrive soon; there were three waiting for that one chair.
Next to the Billing counter tables in front of the mirror filled with delegates from a seminar. Glossy badges, happy plastic smiles. Ten of them squashed into room for six.
What did Coffee do? Kick the nerve centres? Soak up happy spots? Made humans feel better looking? Couple at table for two, snuck glances at long mirror. It was great being a non human, you could stare at anyone anytime, for free. The woman so very, very pretty, but needed confirmation all the time? Pouty slow smiles into the mirror when he wasn’t looking. Funny thing was he did the same. Like they were in love with their own face, or some other people…
Ginger was wide awake. The family with teenagers were here. Six of them, each a silent stone. Had their coffee in silence. Why would they want coffee like that, once a week? A pact, counselling tip, payoff for Dad? Did they talk at home? Did they get the bus here? They did not look like BUS people.
8pm. Sara Pai arrived, hunched in her own designer brand of clothing, white salwar kameez, red shawl. Relished her coffee like it were the last thing before paradise, to the last drop before paying up, no tip and a swipe at the Cumin seed sweetened bowl, one tissue for the road and she was gone like she had arrived, leaving behind a trail of Eau de cologne, old cotton and napthalene. Yeah she was used to nice things. And some rough.
Mij straightened her shoulders, deciding not to charge Sara Pai anymore. As a tribute to…life. There was a niceness about changing the old routine. Tomorrow she would clean up the name plate outside. Not that anyone noticed. It was a relic. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and started. She was beginning to look…nice. Then she studied herself with heels, without heels. Ginger knew she wouldn’t touch the relic. It was her good luck charm. The last time she tried cleaning it Janam, the cook, fell ill. Humans were odd when they thought no one was looking. It was great being non-human. Night vision for one thing. Oh-ah! The things you saw around The Coffee Shop when the shutters were down.
New Lady spat. Na-Da. Mij would do the name plate tomorrow. Today she had found a worthy human trait. Dignity. And beauty. Even a legitimate degree of pride. Maybe it was about Sara Pai and tributes. To life. Mee-Maw!
Her blue/green eyes were striking she noticed, preening in the mirror, utterly pleased to finally say it out loud. “We have something more than basic vision, anyway, sir! Feminine instinct…” New Lady watched Ginger through the tip of her tail and padded into the kitchen.
Photograph: ‘Smile’ © Jamie Koziura
03 April 2011
Li & I on the rollercoaster
It clicked into place and slowly ambled up the slope;
Noe, my husband, was in the front seat and very happy to be there. Happy to be near anything that had speed in it. After living with years of me, I couldn’t blame him.
I’m not telling you much about early child hood experiences of near falling off a train, or crazy boats in wild Indian Rivers and seas, but there are people who do not like speed, aren’t there?
It was a perfect Mumbai noon. Li, my sister, and I were here to make a difference in the way we lived our lives up till then.
“I can take this,” she said, glaring at me for having doubted her.
She, the State Champion for Badminton, Table Tennis, Sprint Queen, our neighbourhoodcricketer par excellence, enduring Medical School Student through all those years with formalin-corpses…
Only we knew Li and I were terrified of speed and heights. So, that noon, we stood still to listen as the brakes loosened and the Steel monster purred, before lunging onto it’s tracks with a grin – we somehow knew it was grinning.
When speed began to tighten all the muscles down our right shank and elbows, hamstring and brain, and the wind was a thin shriek pulling earrings off earlobes, Li began to whisper the name of her God through the sides of her head.
The monster plunged its neck in as it bungied into meters below; our glasses collectively folding into tiny heaps in our lap. We could not wail.We could weep. That suspended fall stole every last syllable we may have shrieked.
“Done?” She wept.
“No,” I whispered hoarsely. The brakes unclasped some secret higher gear.
“Oh NO!” She said.
“Yes Li, there’s more!” I said, as the winds slid flat down our cheeks, flattening our edges into its roar.
What can I say? After it was over and we side saddled off onto the cement walk, Li my sister said, “What rubbish, Ray, did we have to go pay? Do they care that we could die? Know what? Now I’ve lost all fear, I must learn to drive, I’m sure I can drive…”
The female side of our family may be inclined to be afraid of crossing streets – I cannot say too much here, you wouldn’t want the neighbours to know – but there was no stopping Liafter that!
20 April 2011
You won’t believe this but now I’m committed I’ve got to say.
Last night, half awake half asleep – moonlight bright silver all over my floor – I had this dream.
Maya, my friend at the hospital…Maya, beautiful and dying, was getting better. ESR diving .. everything everything everything they said was never going to happen began to happen. Right there in front of my eyes, with fast-forward madness; her hair was growing back and fit like a wooly skull cap. She looked stunning. Stunning!
I know I’m being repetitive but it’s hard to be coherent here. Maya was supposed to meet with a few of us…discuss…details…
Jed, for instance. The Kids. The sister in Tibet. The house with the bougainvillea spilling over that low bamboo gate no one remembered to fix. The cemetery. There I said it.
I hate that word. Not a word anyone loves, I am sure, but having Maya talk about ‘plots’ as if she were at the tailors and worrying about the location of darts maddened me to the extent I had wanted to slap her.
Then last night this dream. Something about Aloe Vera treatments; there were three nurses; a doc smiling so much over charts; Maya getting into old jeans sizes too large, barely held up her characteristic red leather belt…
She was staring right at me, her indigo-black eyes not filling with a single tear.
Not yet. Every word she was not saying stood tall in the thickening silence between us. I tried to inch away but my spirit leaned in. Needing to see what she was going to say.
“Run!” I screamed inside but my voice spiralled in, echoing within the silence I had welled in deep over the years.
Maya looked beautiful in the blue striped wide necked tube smattered hospital gown. Four years, and she was not ready to go. “Not like that. Not like that!” She said. On the phone, text messages, email, whatever she could lay hands on, or get a nurse to punch out for her.
13 April 2011
Sometimes, in the dark, you dance with Angels
There was this drum stick tree in the back yard and my sisters tying hammocks in the casurina in front of our home…such white sand, Gopalpur on sea, stark white like you’d washed it. With sunlight.
Dad came home that noon with diesel oil in his strong brown fingers. To this day he reminds me of Denzel Washington. Hmm I love Denzel W for his own self but this was years ago when DW himself was maybe in school, and so was I.
My yellow pug nosed bus that coughed like an old bull and kicked like a donkey. They wouldnt let women in first. Bad luck, like owls and black cats all under one ladder was a woman that stepped into a bus before a man could. It was Orissa, the 70s, interior.
They let me in though – I was a Chokri (little girl – child)! A neither human, like an elf. Or a Leaf 🙂 I so remember myself. Browned to the burn. Squinting up at Dharma the bus conductor.
If you saw him with anything but my eyes, you’d worry. Massive lower jaw and crinkled in eyes / close blue black curls rich with mustard oil ; they sprang upwards over oblong temples,. His arms hung like giant hooks on either side of a torso that defies description to this day. No, you didnt want to mess with Dharma.
I adored him. He reserved the seat next to his, for me. I was seven years old and it was an hours ride to Berhampur ( east coast of India/ famed for her Konarak Sun Temple and outrageously beautiful sunrises )
We ‘d reach at 7.20 am before the School bell yelled. Dharma would lunge me over and out, as the school gates whanged shut. To this day am scared of road crossings, cuz Dharma was a jet plane over lesser things like rickshaws and buses.
I thought of that this morning as our teenager crashed out the door to summer music school ,and that son of ours said, “Ma, I’m going to learn how to ride a bike too so I can go to school myself from June…” No cares that he cannot see.
“Whats the problem here?” He’s asking through a Silence that steadily fills the space between his ears and my mouth. I have no answer to many questions, not just my sons’.
Sometimes when the Power fails and the sky is that intense midnight black you see in nights here aroun d the equator, strange dimensions meet the eye.
If you ve been there you’ll know. A friend of ours who later became a Music Moghul in the Industry once said , ” How do we know there aren’t other Things looking at us, right here right now? Both good and not so good?”
We were in the middle of some nice eastern food, one cool night. I remember thinking it was a good time to talk that way because Tim Mathews here was out on a leg with the last of his savings and a prayer.
We went on to talk about Angels and Demons and strangers appearing out of nowhere to be nice to you, vanishing like they had never been there, but you knew you had just experienced help of an unusual sort.
I had just had an offer to be Technical writer from an Industrial Company in Worli, Mumbai , but wanted more than a desk job.
There were things that happened. Illness and healing. Sometimes a little smile in an unusual place. A warm hand in the Scan room where chill can rinse your bone !
I used to think angels had long white starched cotton dresses with fur trimmed wings.
Uh uh. Sometimes they’re the smile of a quiet child with a “handicap” a special ability to make me peer right into the dark.
Who knows what you might see…there, there. And yes, even…there! Hey when you ‘re staring into the dark, you could be startled .
Resolution for today – Dont forget to use my seven year old eyes. (Love you Dharma my bus conductor – thank you for helping me cross that street…and maybe a few other Minefields!)
This picture here is Johann, with his dog and Oil Painting – Blue Vase, RN
© Rayla Noel