“The tension was mounting; the drama slowly unfolding in front of me was clearly more charming than the one in the novel.”
It was a hot afternoon in Chennai while I was waiting for a bus to Velachery at the Central bus stand; of course when it comes to Chennai, ‘hot afternoon’ is only redundant information. The sun was blazing with a vengeance, with a spirit to kill, and I could literally see dead spirits rising up from the tar roads.
I kept sipping on some cold Miranda while I anxiously checked for every Volvo that came by, for the magic number, the bus I had to board. I couldn’t wait to hop into one of them. I knew the air-conditioning and the pleasant Tamil music from the radio would be heaven on earth. “An Illayaraja hit, maybe?” I thought to myself.
Like the waves in the ocean, one bus followed another, but my sweet-honey kept me waiting for a solid 15 minutes before it could caress my senses with the blissfully chill air from its ac vents. ‘Kaadhalin Deepam Ondru’ was mid-way as I stepped in, I could feel my strained sun-burnt soul slowly bloom to the music and smile. I truly felt rescued.
I sat at a two-seater, facing the driver, took out my book and started reading; as I always did. The bus was at the terminus for about 5 minutes. At just about the 5th minute a granny with her daughter and grand-daughter entered the bus. As the bus began to move forward slowly, the granny panicked and held my hand gently to maintain her balance; I responded reassuringly. Her hand was moist and as tender as a tissue paper, she gave me a warm smile of gratitude and said ‘thanks ma’ in a feeble and shaky voice. They sat next to me – the daughter next to me, the granny and the grand-daughter on the opposite seats facing us. I felt compelled to put the book away.
The granny seemed like a messiah of the Indian middle-class housewives from the 70s. Humbled by the world around, cautiously clinging onto the new breed of men – her educated and independent daughter and grand-daughter. The daughter was a confident and attractive women in the early forties, wearing an elegant kurta that finely accentuated her figure. The grand-daughter was a chirpy looking young girl, with a healthy dose of puppy fat still left behind from her teenage days.
Granny (with a slight tone of embarrassment): “As one ages, fear catches on more than wisdom does! What’s your name ma?”. “Sita, paati”, I responded.
“What a nice name ma! Kids these days have such complicated names. BTW this is my daughter, Malini, and my grand-daughter, Shruthi. She would be leaving to America on Monday, she works for TCS. Girls these days are very smart and daring! Imagine going all the way, all alone! I wouldn’t go to the street corner without her grand-pa!”
The conversation then went this way.
Malini: “Amma, don’t underestimate Shruthi ma. Sky is no limit when it comes to her list of boyfriends. She is definitely not going anywhere alone!”
Shruthi: “Oh paati ! Don’t listen to chithi! She is just pulling my leg, I am a good gal paati. Was studying all the time in college and now working hard all the time, not a minute wasted on men, movies and malls!”
Malani: “Ha! That’s a truck load of lies amma. People at the Phoenix Mall are contemplating about dedicating a floor for her, in honour of the number of visits she has made to the mall!”
“Chithi! That’s just for the coffee-shop there!! What an evil twist you give to a simple rejuvenating break from work!”
Granny: “What is this ‘Fenus’ place that you are talking about?!?”
Shruthi: “Paati, PHEONIX MALLLL paati! It’s a mall paati! There are lots of nice shops there paati! Haven’t you ever been to one?”
Granny: “When we had been to Kalyani’s wedding in Madurai, your grand-dad’s brother took us all to the main city market – it was truly eclectic, one of a kind. Silk, books, pulses, slippers, toys, everything that one could imagine were all available next to each other! We all loved it and had a great time”
Malini: “Amma! At Kalyani atthai’s wedding?! That was 15 years ago! You have any idea how much the world has moved on?!”
Granny: “Will this place be any different?”
Shruthi: “Paati, this place is very large, all the shops there are international.”
Granny: “Bigger than our Lakshmi Silks?!”
Malini: “Amma, we are talking mountains and you, moles!”
Granny: “Wow! Then why don’t we go there today?”
Shruthi: “Ha ha! But paati what do you intend doing there? Shop for mini-skirts and tank-tops?”
Granny: “You said you have coffee there, I like coffee!”
Malini: “Amma, this isn’t your filter coffee ma! These are expensive Englishwala’s coffee!”
Granny: “Coffee is coffee, why not have the Englishman’s coffee once?!”
Malini: “Shruthi! Look at the strange interests she seems to be harboring at this ripe age! Totally strange!”
Granny: “What’s wrong! If Shruthi can go all the way to America, why not this Ambhujam goto Fenus?!”
Malini clearly seemed to have rubbed the oldie on the wrong side. The granny turned towards the window and stared out, murmuring a little something to herself. Shruthi who was busy texting until then, said “PHOENIXXX” and continued to fidget with her mobile. A few minutes of silence followed, making me uncomfortable and I was wondering if it was the right point to gracefully exit the conversation and go back to my book. As if the granny heard my thoughts, she stepped in to keep the conversation going, “Those days when your grand-dad was there, he used to take me to so many places”.
Malini: “Ha ha! In that 1000 sq ft village?! I clearly remember, appa never even used to allow you to your parents’ place without hours of mama’s persuasion!”
Granny: “Shruthi, when you were a school, your mother didn’t want to send you to that Ooty trip and it was me who convinced her to let you go, you know!”
Shruthi: “OMG! Paati! So was it you behind the amma’s sudden change of mind?! It was a horrible trip and I so wished I had listened to amma’s words and stayed behind! Until this point, I was on your side, but now I have scores to settle with you”
Malini: “Amma, the place is too big and there is nothing of interest there for you – not a single vadam shop in there, I promise! You would just get tired and would probably develop a headache on going there. We have the pooja early in the morning tomorrow, remember?”
Granny: “Coffee should handle the headache!”
Malini: “Amma, now you are being silly! Stop being a child! Ok! We can go once Shruthi leaves to the US; you, me and akka could go on Tuesday.”
The tension was mounting; the drama slowly unfolding in front of me was clearly more charming than the one in the novel.
Granny: “But I want to go with Shruthi! I wonder if I would still be around when she gets back from America.”
That was the final nail for me, I had to intervene! “Why not just stop by for a quick tour of the place and a cuppa coffee and leave?! She seems to be very keen and it might be her last time out – at her age one never knows”.
By now Malini’s temper was in line with the heat outside the bus, she shot me one cold stare and I knew I had crossed the line. For the next few minutes, I wasn’t sure which way to look. Shruthi mercifully stepped in and sided granny; and that was the final nail for Malini, “No one is going anywhere, we are all going home now – that’s that! Not a word more of this childish rumble!”
I was still frozen from that stare and couldn’t musk up enough courage to utter another word. Shruthi and paati knew that the final verdict was out; a stoic silence ensued while the bus rode on. Suddenly, the bus came to an abrupt halt, as if it couldn’t handle the drama any longer. Some engine over-heating, and it wouldn’t move until the radiator cooled down. We all got out of the bus in dismay, and bang in front of us stood the glorious ‘Fenus Mall’!
Malini smiled and let fate override her word!
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