APARTHEID, INDIAN STYLE

By Glory Sasikala

We had been transferred to Chennai from Kolkata. The phone had been surrendered and I had to use the phone booth. And so I went to the nearest one, owned by a fair, bald-headed, middle-aged man, and run in the front porch of his house.

“What do you want?” he asked rudely. When I told him that I wanted to make a call, he said, “You can’t do that from here.” “Why, is your phone out of order?” I asked.

“No, I don’t allow South Indians to use my phone booth,” came the startling reply. I stared at him.

“But…” I started.

“Well, what are you waiting for? You can go.”

“But this is urgent. I have to make a call,” I said, beginning to boil over. “Go and use some other booth,” he said. “Stop arguing and get out.”

He spoke faultless English.

I stood there, waiting for my blood pressure to go down and then turned and left. Later, I found that all my south Indian neighbours too had had the same problem with this man.

Transfer and packing is a tough job and since my husband was not relieved off his duty, the brunt of it fell on me. This meant that I had to make several phone calls, and I trudged to and fro all day to the next booth, a little further down the road. Each time I passed his booth, I beamed at him and said, “Hi Dada!” loudly. Each time I went back, I waved him a vigorous goodbye and said, “Bye, Dada!”

Cheeky and dangerous behaviour? Well yes, this was my country and he did not own the road.

Things came to such a passé that he grew jumpy and scuttled inside his house and shut the door the moment he saw me turn around the corner. Unfortunately for him, we came face to face that evening, and he dropped his keys nervously. He bent to pick it up, the now familiar red spreading over his ears, face and neck. I burst out laughing and went my way.

A group of shopkeepers, all of whom knew me well, stood talking at his porch the next day. “Bahu di (sister in law) namashkar,” they called as I passed. “Namashkar!” I replied. Where is phone dada?” I asked them in Bengali. “He’s inside.” “Tell him ‘Namashkar’ from me,” I said, gaily. They laughed. From inside, a round, bald head peeped and a ghost of a smile appeared.

“Where are you going?” he asked the next time I walked past his booth. “To the next phone booth, where else?” I said, sarcastically. “You can use my booth,” he said and walked out, leaving me alone in the booth. “Well, why not while I am at it?” I thought, and rang up my friend too and talked for a good 15 minutes. He smiled as he took the money.

I had ordered huge mud pots of rosagolla to take home the night before our departure, and went to collect it from the sweet shop the next day morning.

“Good morning,” he said, smiling, as I passed by. I wished him and went my way.

When I came back, I found him standing in front of the gate of our house.

“Hi,” he said, “Where are you from?”

Dreaded question. “Chennai,” I replied, cutting short the generally longwinded explanation I had to give others of being the quintessential rolling stone with no place to call my hometown.

“Dada, we are leaving today,” I said. “On a holiday?” he asked. “No, we have been transferred.”

“Oh,” his face fell, “Oh, I see.”

“You’re different,” he said.

“No Dada, we are all the same,” I replied gravely.

He laughed at that. “Anyway, nice having known you,” he said.

I felt sad, knowing he was making an exception to his general rule by being friendly with me and that he would always hate south Indians.

As I walked into the house, I wondered what his views were on apartheid and what he thought of Nelson Mandela.