Intruders

The door at the bottom of the stairs has been left open. An opportunity is taken. Three men slip inside, into the dark corridor. Stealthily, they climb the tiled steps, diamonds and stars of light from the cut-out patterns in the outer walls of the stairwell criss-crossing their faces. One holds a gun.

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Indira has been feeling unwell and has decided not to join Bapuji and Sudhir at the toy shop this morning. From the living room she looks up in alarm as the grille at the top of the stairs, usually padlocked, is pushed open. There is little time to react before the men are in the apartment. Indira lets out a scream and runs back, away from the stairs, onto the front balcony. One of the intruders follows her and forces a handkerchief into her mouth, pulling her lips open wide. At the same time, another man enters the dining area. Ba has been sorting through a sack of chick peas, picking out and discarding the small, shrivelled and hardened ones. She looks up as the movement of the thief catches her cataract-misted eyes, and, assuming that he is the mechanic that they have been waiting for, starts to berate him for his lateness. Realising that the man is unknown she flings out an arm towards him in self-defence. Hearing her cry of alarm, Julius, the trusted servant, runs out of the store-room, shouting ‘Mwisi!’ – thief! The intruder is startled; he is a novice, clearly, for the commotion results in a bolt for the stairs, with Julius in pursuit. Ba runs towards Indira, and the man that had been standing guard over her realises that his leader has flown, and that the game is up. He too, makes a swift escape. What of the third man? Neither Ba nor Indira remember what he had been doing but he decides that a rooftop exit offers the best chance of escape. In the street indignation is rising. The local shopkeepers have heard Ba and Indira’s shouts from the balcony, and witnessed the men barrelling out of the front door. They join the chase and before long the three would-be-thieves are caught, paraded jubilantly down the road amidst a crowd of usually peaceable men.

After the adrenaline comes the combined fear and relief, the nausea and trembling. It could have been so much worse. Sudhir rushes back from the toy shop, to take Indira to the police station and then to the dentist, who stitches the tear inside the mouth. 

When I first heard of the events described above I understood only that the thieves had fled after Ba had flung her arm out at one of them. My diminutive grandmother had scared away armed robbers, it seemed. Made them run. Even now that I know that Julius chased the leader away I still believe that Ba managed to startle him; she dealt the first strike, Julius the final blow. SuperGran indeed: “Stand back Superman, Iceman, Spiderman, Batman and Robin too, Don’t wanna cause a fracas, but BA Baracus, have I got a match for you….”

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Shine bright like a diamond

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This month, Bapuji and Ba will have been married for 75, yes seventy five, and I don’t mind writing it again, SEVENTY FIVE years. It is the second diamond wedding in the anniversary calendar. I had hoped to time this blog entry for Valentine’s day, but in the end, it really does not matter, for after two countries, seven children, eleven grandchildren, four great grandchildren, a thousand or more overnight guests, tens of long-haul flights, death and disability, bucketfuls of joy and laughter this couple, who have survived a lifetime with each other, hardly need the reminder of love which occurs on the Feast of St Valentine. Besides, theirs was not a conventional marriage, in terms of here and now. For them, love came later.

Bapuji and Ba had not set eyes on each other when they married; there were no photographs and meeting in person was certainly not possible- forbidden by culture and distance. The marriage was arranged by Bapuji’s boss in Africa, a respected elder with many connections.  Bapuji travelled back to India on a dinghy, and was wed wearing a long coat over the traditional peasant ‘dhoti’. Ba cannot remember the colour of the sari that was bought for her; it holds none of the romance that a much-desired wedding dress has for brides today. Two innocents were married.

Bapuji remembers how nervous he was as he tried to keep up his pretence of confidence; to Ba he was the tall, fair, handsome groom who had travelled far and was wise to the ways of the world. When Ba’s uncle asked Bapuji to look after his ‘daughter’ (he had taken over responsibility for Ba as she had no father), Bapuji replied magnanimously “Do not worry, your daughter is my daughter”. His immediate look of mortification resulted in an eruption of laughter, and with that the newlyweds returned to the small town of Gunda, where they stayed with Bapuji’s sister-in-law, Motiba. In the weeks that followed the couple tried to get to know each other, battling shyness and propriety, under the ever-watchful eye of Motiba. Just one month after the wedding, Bapuji was once again bound for distant shores, leaving behind his young bride.

It was a difficult start to their union. Two years passed before Bapuji and Ba were reunited, before married life could finally begin. The love that forms the foundation of most modern marriages grew slowly, and together, Bapuji and Ba have a bond that is as unbreakable as diamonds.  It is a normal marriage of good- natured teasing and irritable bickering; Ba may complain about Bapuji’s annoying habits but she also massages his aching legs every day.

When asked what his advice would be for couples now Bapuji stated “Lead a simple life; do not set unachievable ambitions for yourself or have unrealistic expectations of your spouse. Learn that you have to forgive.”

Africa cinema

My daughter loved her first cinema trip, despite spending the entire 2 hours bent double with her feet up next to her ears (my husband had failed to notice the booster seats near the entrance). We would have loved to have gone as a family, but my toddler son’s concentration span is about as long as that of a gnat; it would not have been fair to submit the other cinema-goers to his squirming, fidgeting and eventual sprinting along the aisles. Ila, Bapuji and Ba’s daughter, described her own cinema experiences as a teenager:

“We used to enjoy going to see films as a family at the drive-in cinema nearly every weekend. Initially, the cost of the ticket was 50 shillings per car. This meant that we used to fill the car with as many people as possible- at least 8 people in each car. We would pay the entrance fee at the ticket booth and then, once parked in our spot, would spill out onto the ‘sadri’- woven picnic mats- to watch the film in comfort. We could park anywhere that there was a speaker column, which housed a portable speaker that you carried in through the car window, if you chose not to sit outside. We would arrange to see a particular film with family members or friends, organise party food and have a huge picnic whilst watching the film. This was the highlight of the weekend. We used to have a laugh when it rained and we watched the film with the wipers on. Sometimes the rain was so heavy that the film had to be stopped and we would lose our entrance fee, but that was a risk that we were willing to take. Then the owners must have realised what was happening and gradually changed the price of entry from ’50 shillings per car’ to ’20 shillings per person’.  We could not afford to go as often, and we wanted to do things as a big group, so the cinema trips became far less frequent.”

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Drive-in cinemas are, of course, completely impractical in the UK, but what a brilliant idea: entire families could go, and park further from the crowd if they had active or raucous children, and I love the idea of a giant picnic while watching the latest blockbuster. I have a feeling that they were also a great date-night option, being a little more exciting than the local multiplex. Sadly they appear to have gradually faded from public affection, and many have closed, including the one that Ila and her siblings attended every weekend. Drive-in cinemas will have to join old-style typewriters and Tamagotchis on my list of things that should stage a comeback.

Sunday 26th January 2014

For the first time in years, the toy shop has been closed during the week. Business is oh so quiet. The busy throngs outside rush this way and that past the open doorway, but inside the shop the calm is undisturbed. The dust floats in the sunlight streaming in and the toys wait patiently for new owners. Indira has made a decision. Perhaps, just perhaps, a change of routine might alleviate the tedium. She takes Bapuji and Ba to the derasar; it is beautiful, this temple, with white stone columns and a mosaic tile floor, adorned with statues and figurines. There is a library here, where Bapuji used to broaden his mind every morning, its coolness offering respite from the blazing sun. Years ago they would have known many, if not most of the worshippers. During festivals the chatter of the sari-clad women would bounce off the columns, and even at quiet times there would always be somebody to catch up with. But solitude is the reward for outliving your peers, and Bapuji and Ba have had quite enough solitude already. The trio head home, where Bapuji spends the rest of the day muttering (not quite under his breath) about being bored, and being just a little cantankerous.

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January is always a slow month, after the pre-Christmas spree, but this year tourism, terrorism and taxes exacerbate the toy shop torpor. Tourists have ventured elsewhere, taking with them their much-needed injection of foreign cash, and the now very possible threat of terrorist attack is discouraging them from wandering back. Much as I hate to discuss the issue of taxes- having just submitted my tax return after considerable grinding of teeth and procrastination- Indira’s rant on the subject provided food for thought. Please feel free to wander off and make a cup of tea, but if you choose to bear with me I promise not to vent for long- reading this blog should not be taxing. The latest government has increased taxes, on everything, it seems: milk, bread, electricity, gas, books, farm chemicals and implements, computers, mobile phones. Toys and books have suddenly become a luxury. They allowed publishers to increase the price of school books by 14% in December, in addition to the 16% VAT rise in September. I can only imagine the collective fury of the lovely parents at my daughter’s school if the same were to happen in the UK; it is a non-uniform school, where children are encouraged to learn in an unrestricted, supportive environment (a sentiment which I approve of, but no uniform– clearly not a policy voted in by parents of little girls who have an indecisive approach to dressing each morning).  So how are children expected to learn, if their parents have to choose between food and school books? How will this African country progress if it loses the intellect of all of the children who could not afford school books? I do not have the answer to these questions, and my indignation has nowhere to go. Those of you who went for an Earl Grey, it is safe to return. The rant is over.

*gets off soapbox*

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