Image: Bhani Rachel Bali

City Stares

Poornima Mandpe

When Baba shouts, there is a wild thumping in my heart, like it wants to break free from my ribs. I feel like sitting down on the floor and crouching, bringing my knees close to my chest, and burying my head, deep inside the knees. I feel like hugging somebody tightly. Instead, I shout back, hurl words that hurt more than sticks and stones, till my voice becomes hoarse and my mind numb. Shouting down people to prove your point is a useful art that I have developed over the years living in this house.Even when baba is not really angry, I involuntarily raise my voice to protect my interests from being white washed in the flood of fury that keeps on coming and going.

After the tide recedes, we get back to normal. Baba is no drunkard. He is also not a good for nothing unemployed fellow, the kind of frustrated villain they like to justify in movies. There is no visible domestic abuse. Just a bad childhood and all of it vents on the people he loves the most- aai, dada and me- his darling daughter.

Today is another cue to sigh. Just in the morning we had one of the fiercest rows in months over dada’s wayward career- as Baba thinks it is. Going from dada’s behaviour to mine, he then goes to mom’s so-called indifference in raising her kids and how everything eventually is her fault.

In the end, Dada stormed into his room. Aai went back to the kitchen crying soundlessly as she has learned to, all these years so that the neighbours don’t get to hear (as if they haven’t got enough of mine and dads yelling). Baba turned the volume of the TV loud, as he always does to distract himself and occupied the living room.

I suddenly recalled an assignment to finish, but I didn’t have the mood to do it now. I went to my bedroom, the only bedroom in the house which Aai and I shared at night. Dada was already there, propelled on the bed and busy with his phone. Like mom and me, he too had developed an art to tackle the problems. He possessed art to get over any damn fight in less time than it took to cook maggi noodles.

Oh, why did I have to wear this tight salwar kameez to college today? (I hadn’t got the time to change it since I returned home from the early morning lectures). My entire body was sweating from the heat and the itching- because of the sequins I guess- was unbearable with each passing moment. All I wanted to do was rip the clothes from my body, fling them on the floor and throw myself on the bed. Finally however, I went to the bathroom to change.

It was evening time by now. My stomach was growling with hunger from not eating since morning. I decided to take a stroll before it becomes too late. As I descended from the stairs, I felt several people staring curiously at me. Or is it that I am imaging it, like I do after every row at home? I didn’t want to find out. I went around the chawl, the place where the plants once grew so wild that they could hide me and my friends behind them in our childhood games. Now, the space is occupied by cars, of those living in the tall buildings beyond and nobody plays here anymore. In fact, I was warned by my brother to not loiter there in late hours. He claims to have seen ‘unpleasant scenes’ behind the car though he neither told me nor I asked him what exactly these unpleasant scenes are. Basically I think he’s lying and only trying to act smart by being big brotherly and all.

I turned back and took the lanes. People are looking at me through side-way glances. I shouldn’t have ventured out in my pyjamas. By now I was too bored to turn back. I headed towards the park. The park always relaxes my mind. It’s completely vacant now, just the way I want it to be, to be able to feel the tranquillity of the falling darkness and silence around me. But the darkness had really fallen by now (or is it because the lights were dim!) and I faltered.

I turned once again and started walking down the main road. I had lost the track of time but could not, even once shake that nagging feeling at the back of mind that I am not supposed to stroll around like this, leaving everyone tensed at home. Few more minutes and I would go back, I decided. The skywalk loomed large in the night, emptier than it is during daytime. Some view would get from the top at this hour, of the traffic below and also the stars above, especially on this moonless night. Should I check? But I stopped after I climbed a few steps. The skywalk was almost desolate except a few boys, and few homeless beggars. Time to go back!

People were openly staring at me now, though not necessarily in a bad way. It must be really late now. I wished I had carried my cell phone with me; I would at least be able to call up Aai. I hurried on.

Hunger and tiredness was slowing me down. Dada always boasts of the omelette wala near that of lane of St. Teresa School. I must try to for it! True to his word, the aroma of freshly made omelettes wafted in the air as soon as I entered the lane. Thank God I have some money in my pocket! I went and stood near the stall.

More stares. Piercing, accusing ones now. Was I snatching one of your omelettes, I wanted to shout at the guy with a cigarette, who was un-bashfully looking at me like he had never seen a girl before. The omelette wala was calmly cutting the bread. I waited. Finally, he looked up asked, the guy right behind me- “what do want, sir?” I didn’t even hear what that man said. Why I was not asked the question? It was 5, in now, that I am standing near the stall. What did he think I was doing here? What was going on in the other men’s mind? I desperately wanted to go home now, even if that meant another row with Dad for coming late.

Just two years back, I had been at marine drives with my friends. It was 2 am in the night but nobody bothered that we are only 3 girls on our own. It was an exhilarating feeling, watching the wave’s crash on the stones, drinking the sweetened tea, chatting loudly, or just lying down on our backs to watch the clear night sky. I smiled at the memory. But have to get out of it now. How many places like this in Mumbai, the safest city in India, will you find where women can travel, no, simply loiter at leisure in groups or alone?

Sadat Ali Manto, my favourite, would not have been so had he been a woman. Would he have being a woman, dared to roam across the underbelly of the city, loitering at its widest landscape to the narrowest lane and the darkest corridor, at ours he deemed comfortable, looking for experience, looking for inspiration, finding stories.

Suddenly I heard a footfall behind me. Soft but steady, stopping when I stopped. I didn’t dare to turn back and see. I quickened my pace.

Poornima Mandpe

About our writer: “A dreamer and a book worm, I believe in following the dictates of my heart. I intend to make a meaningful contribution to society in a small way through my writing! Currently a part of an NGO (Akshara) that works for women empowerment and gender justice.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of KrantiKālī.

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