By Preeta Kuhad Balia
The house repair work has resumed. In the last third of March, an absolute lockdown so stringent was imposed that when I drove to buy fresh produce in the mornings, at a time permitted for the purpose, I was harassed multiple times by policemen on the roads – ‘why don’t you walk down, why do you use a car?’ or some such unreasonable dictum that I simply accepted because those weren’t the days to fight small fights. I’d steer my car and access a by-lane to reach where I had to go.
Later, the newspapers said that service providers such as carpenters or electricians or similar could go to work between 7 and 7. The supporting shops, ironically, were still shut. Only once our usual suppliers confirmed on the phone that they would be lifting their shutters that I called the workmen back. Today two men painted the underside of our front facade cantilever and the veranda ceiling. I made a note in the roster. I am also painfully reminded of how my costs have risen – the earlier workmen were from UP and worked with the quiet, uninterrupted force of practice and perhaps migrancy. These men, both from Jodhpur, are like our city – slow, unapologetically easy, always chilled out. For all the virtues of living in a tier-three city, I am annoyed to have to deal with men who show no urgency to finish a job.
I read about the misery, the disrespect we showed in shooing our workers away from Indian cities. Most newspapers stabbed at our conscience with anecdotal accounts of the ‘largest migration post Partition’ even though the painting contractor assures me he sent Sunil and Jaisingh safely home. Now they can’t return because the closest train stop is 70 km from their village. How would they reach that far?
The to- do list of the day safeguards me from taking many a guilt trips, considering how we scooped out Pintrest recipes even as people starved and thirsted on their way home. Many died.
Every construction contractor I reach out to claims to be operating with 40% the usual workforce. And their pools have lost the best fish. I know it. I am still paying the same money, even though the Jodhpur men come an hour late and leave much sooner. These two don’t drink tea, unlike Sunil and Jaisingh.
The expensive, home delivered vegetables have been stopped. The chauffeur is back and can be sent to fetch everything – grocery, tower bolts, interior paint. This morning I forwarded a picture of the exact bucket of paint needed to the supplier on Jalori Gate, as sent to me by Hukmaram the contractor, to weed out any chance error.
There are some office calls I make in the day. Most of my legal work is now centred on re-negotiating lease deeds for clients. Today I have an anxious landlord to deal with. He sends me Whatsapp copies of messages that his defaulting restaurateur tenant has been sending him. It’s an image of an undated news item that states –
‘Most mall owners agree to retailer’s rental terms’.
Office may function at less than a fourth of its manpower capacity but when I called my husband’s cousin to wish him a happy birthday he suggests we drop by in the evening. He tells me over the phone in his understated, reticent manner – ‘accha lagega, tum aana’ – it’ll be nice if you come.
We go with mangoes and some store bought sweets – because now sweet shops are open. It’s my first buy though and I debate if it’s morally, medically safe to do so. My husband has asked for them so I rationalise, it must be okay with them. Seated in their foyer, I see to my amazement that they serve the very sweet we’ve brought them, albeit from a different store. The size of these rasgullas is much smaller. By now, my metric of rasgulla softness is based on the recent homemade ones I’ve enjoyed due to the generosity of a skilled friend or my mother in law. The sunken cheeks of the served rasgulllaspale in comparison, though that doesn’t stop me from chomping down a pair.
We are all seeing each other after so long that the first few minutes of ice-breaking conversation is centred around who has lost weight and who hasn’t. Each pointing a sharp index finger at the other, as though to be thinner is a lockdown sin. It always amuses me to notice that people here usually warm into a conversation with personal allegations of weight variation –
‘Oh God, you have lost more weight’.
Or ‘Are you not looking fuller than last time’.
In London, conversation starters would be the day’s weather. In Jodhpur it was traditionally, ‘what have you eaten (or cooked) today?’
Now the current stock of married couples talk about body weight. Yours. Theirs. The struggle to be rid of it. Youtube video links for spot specific fat reduction. The odd joke at one’s own flab. Our weight is our mental weather. All this while there are at least five saucers of food options to feed us. Yes, just as quickly as we had conveyed to our cousin, his mother, wife and everyone in earshot that we’d eaten a large dinner of fried kachoris (courtesy my sister in law, not a lie), his wife rushed to fetch more food for us. As is ritual, we ate after some half- hearted fulmination even as we weighed the virtues of the bite sized rasgulla against the sambhar vada and aam papad. Everyone laughs as a can of their rasgullas with late mangoes from their own tree are packed for us to carry back home.
It’s life coming full circle. Truly, as we sow, so we reap.