Short Story 2018 Longlist, Chintha Mary Anil

Table-Talk

I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. The constant tick-tock was now really getting into my roundhead, as one of my table-legs refused to stop shaking under the weight of the vegetables that Bauma had just dumped right onto my face.

So what if I was just a table! I too have been in this family for the past three dozen years…just like her.

Actually a day more than she has… I was part of her dowry, so I was already here by the time she made her mediocre entry as the youngest daughter-in-law of the family– Hah!

Now that she is more or less the only one in the family -Bauma thinks- hers is the last word. Whatever gave her the idea!

If only she could hear Pappu’s slimy brain at work. Does she really think the cow just walked out of the gate?

Gaima is one cow that would stay put even if someone took the pains to try and coax her to move her bony butt a bit more into the shady part of the garden. Let me tell you, I was right there when it happened. Where else would I be? As if my rickety leg would budge an inch ahead. All it knows is to wobble, wobble and wobble.

Yeah, so last week, or was it the week before… Anyway, it doesn’t matter… I saw Pappu creep out in the dead of the night and speak to that jerk down the road. And after about ten minutes, with someone else in tow -to help them no doubt- I saw Gaima being heaved out panting. Nah nah, Gaima was not the one panting, but the Pappu trio were the ones puffing and panting. Gaima seemed somewhat dazed…he must have fed her some intoxicant, what else!

That is something Pappu is sure to have in plenty… Wobble wobble wobble… Ohh, shut up will you? How do you expect me to spin a yarn, if you keep on whimpering…sorry, I was talking down to my leg…you can’t blame it…all the aches and pains of old age, you see.

So I was saying, whoever would have met Pappu the next day, they cannot be blamed for presuming he had not moved a muscle from his usual slump over the verandah couch.

All of Bauma’s rants usually fell on deaf ears other than mine. Does she even realise that now I am the only one who really listens to her.

Truth be told, I don’t have much of a choice, what with her perched over me for most of the day with her cutting, knitting, reading, snoring, gossiping and what not.

Even that best friend of hers, that Salma-Balma is preening into her hand-held mirror most of the time, while Bauma drones on and on about her good-for-nothing rascal of a nephew.

I really must stop letting such prejudices colour my thoughts. After all, I am of foreign make, you see! At least that is what my makers claimed, though I do have my own doubts about my place of origin.

But in such cases, it is always best to go with the label pasted on to your bottom-side that proudly boasts of the ‘Made in China’ tag…come to think of it, do they actually have teak growing in China? Can’t say for sure, but you know just how ingenuous the Chinese are…show them a prototype and the next thing you know there is a whole batch rolling out, ready to hit the markets worldwide.

Now, don’t ask how do I know all this stuff…after all, I hear the news that blares out almost daily from the lone, dusty transistor near Bauma’s bed.

Errr…where was I? Yeah, I was tabling Pappu in my scheme of things.

Well, so don’t go by his boyish looks. His brains always seems to work overtime in hatching up all the shady stuff…you know…the ones that no one likes to discuss in broad daylight.

You should see Salma and Pappu frolicking their nights away. But how is it possible that Bauma does not hear them? Does she? Doesn’t she? Well, she has often been complaining about how she can hardly hear these days. But I thought, she was just being her mundane, tragic self.

Even now, you can hear Bauma saying, “That Pappu…he will be the reason why I will die before my time…you wait and watch.”

Does one become a prophet by predicting what is bound to happen? You never know.

“Salma, just wash these paalak-leaves and keep them to drip by the kitchen sink,” Bauma nudges gently at her narcisstic gal-pal. Her voice has always been a gruff mixture of the rough and the sly. She does know how to get her own way, without ever giving herself away.

And just like that, the day goes by.

Chores get done, even without the unsuspecting Salma knowing she is a necessary spoke in Bauma’s job-wheel for each day. And that is what makes Bauma such an efficient task-master.

What Pappu won’t do gets done by Salma or the milkman or the postman or the boy round the corner… You know how it goes? Everyone in the village somehow gets to chip in with their bit to ensure Bauma has had yet another normal, routine, boring day.

Not that she sits by doing nothing…she does get the job-wheel rolling each morning, ensuring it runs by just the right person who won’t think much about lending a helping hand.

Poor woman! A widow…even before three years into her married life…tch…tch… they all grunt in sympathy.

That she was barren was no secret, but then, a widow without kids is always preferable to one with kids. At least, Bauma taught so. Not that she ever let the others know.

None among the villagers would ever talk ill of her, as Bauma gradually won them over with a mix of shrewd coyness and helplessness that never missed its mark. Her lack of children was such a boon indeed, to quote her own words smirked across to me one night, in between the space of two advertisements on the radio.

One by one…all died…the in-laws, Bauji, Maaji, Badeh Baisaab, Choteh Baisaab, Badi Didi, Choti Didi…even her nephews and nieces, save for one…yeah yeah, you guessed right, Pappu who else!

Thirty one years old, and an absolute wasted soul. Knows nothing better than to loaf and have a roll in any available sack, if you know what I mean, ahem! Trust me, that was meant to be a significant AHEM.

Hang around him, and you too would think life is a perpetual smoky affair, with nothing more to offer than a marijuana high or a fleshy pleasure.

Speaking about me, I have always stood inside the hall with a complimentary view of all the going-ons both within and without.

My rounded polished structure offers me a 360-degree visual angle, a kind of distorted 3D effect spanning from one corner of the room to the other. Not that I am complaining, given that I am privy to all the happenings in this house.

But Alas, not anymore!

Yesterday, Bauma seemed to have an epiphany, and out of the blue, placed that hideously bright greenish-orange or some such muckish coloured flower vase atop me. That too was part of her dowry.

Ughh…sputter-sputter…am sputtering in impotent rage.

Bang above my all-seeing eye, she placed the vase.

Imagine being gifted by with the Third Eye and not being able to use it. Can you blame me for being hopping mad? Just the thought of it is sending down literal shivers down my wobbly leg even now.

How dare it mar my roving eye ensconced within my demure dignified self? Well, as if it is any use wobbling over it now.

And just when I was harbouring thoughts about growing old together with Bauma… Maybe, if she had stopped at that, I would have let it go.

I am so sure, I would have. You really should believe me. You really must.

Do you have a choice? After all, I am the narrator of this tale.

The Omnipresent, the All-Seeing, the Centre-piece… Ok, that was being too literal, but you get the idea, right!

But no, she actually had the gall to even suggest to Pappu to have a word with the neighbouring local market fellas to come and take a look at me.

What exactly did she mean by that? No, really, just what did she mean by that thinly veiled barb against me, her best friend, her only listener, her only confidante?

Just because I have a slight wobble in one of my legs, does that make me an eligible candidate for an exchange offer?

I know she had set her heart on getting herself a fridge –she herself told me just the other day- but never in my wildest dreams did I think, she was conspiring to let go off me in order to get her hands on one. How could she harbour such an unfaithful thought, especially after what I have been to her?

Ask her…ask her…I dare you to ask her whether I have not been more than a mere table to her?

Was I not her literal support when life kept dealing its unfair blows on her from time to time?

Was I not the only one around when she gave in to her weakness in front of the landlord who had dropped by, while the village lay supine in a lazy afternoon stupor?

Did I give her away, when she tiptoed on my surface to help herself to mother-in-law Maaji’s savings -privy to none- +kept safely tucked on the uppermost shelf?

Now, look at her cold, calculating self. Look at what she has become. Mention a fridge, and you had Bauma drooling with anticipation.

As if a mere sip of refrigerated ice-cold water could erase away all the warmth in our relationship carved out of years of enforced companionship…neither of us claimed it was a natural bond, did we?

At least, there was honesty between the two us. On a superficial level obviously, but who cares about that, in an age where dysfunctionalism rules supreme.

Why then did we need to be different from the rest? Bah!

I admit, with Gaima gone, Bauma was really desperate. Not that she ever cared for that forever-lolling bovine, but she had earmarked it for a long time to be the original, exchange gift for a fridge. Only because of Pappu’s sudden brainwave for easy cash, did I now find myself in danger of losing my esteemed position in the oldest crumbling mansion in the village.

What could I do? Other than wobbling all day in my miserable self, what else could I do?

That was when it happened. The murder, I mean.

Bauma slowly came towards me, and picked up the grocery bags one by one. Even as she seemed to mutter all my qualities to no one in particular, Bauma made no move to reclaim my love.

The fridge had suddenly become the immediate villain of the piece.

And when Bauma bent down to wedge a thick cardboard under my wobbly leg. That is when I saw my chance. It just seemed to hit me like a bolt out of the blue.

I focused on literally reiterating my obdurate stance, thereby making it difficult to create the requisite space between the floor and my wooden foot.

Did she then have any other choice but to tilt me at an awkward angle?

It sent me sliding into the nearby shelf that suddenly came crashing down on her head. Phew!

It all happened in a matter of seconds.

Honestly, I must confess all I wanted was a sizeable bruise on Bauma’s forehead that would buy me a few more days’ time. Enough time for me to come up with some other well thought-out plan.

Never had I even remotely considered killing her.

You know, she always said it would be Pappu who would bring about her end, and I did so blindly believe her.

How was I to know that she was not an oracle, and that I would be the actual cause of her death?

I, of all the people…ummm….i mean…of all the things in this blighted homestead!

Not that anyone blamed me.

The shelf bore the entire brunt of the guilt, to all purposes.

None cared to take a second look at me other than to gauge the extent of damage to my saleable value.

Me?

Was I safe?

Who was I kidding? With only Pappu in the house, how could you even consider such a remote possibility?

Tomorrow, the fridge will arrive. And so will Salma.

It is rumoured that I am to be taken apart and sold for my ‘high quality’ wood.

All this in the name of fulfilling Bauma’s last bespoken desire. All in the name of a flimsy wish.

I too had a wish…to spend my last days in peace and comfort here.

Oh, but now, how I wish, the clock had stopped ticking just before yesterday had happened! How I wish!

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