“So, you like it?” Navin asked Puja as they got into the car.
“Mansfield Park…” Puja tossed the name into the air. “It is nice!”
“And the apartment?” he asked as he began to reverse the car out of the tall castle-like gates. It was a Sunday, and like other Sundays all of the previous month, they were on a house recce.
House hunting was obsolete in Gurgaon’s corporate circles – it was now house recce. Houses, apartments, flats, villas were aplenty; it was what one wanted to possess.
“It is quite close to my office…”.
Puja weighed the pros: location, commutability, and most important, the address. She thought of the houses her colleagues bought and then talked about; address was the clinching factor.
Mostly all apartments were alike – two or three bedrooms, a hall and kitchen, one or two balconies and a view of the city. What mattered was where it was, what it said about your future.
Besides with both of them putting in long hours at the office, a house was just a place – to, well, put things in.
“Yes, let’s take it,” She said decisively.
Navin felt relieved. At last he could go back to doing more important things; he had been passed up for promotion this year.
“Good morning, ma’am! Do you expect any couriers or deliveries today?” the security guard asked, bending down to the car window.
Puja could smell his cologne. She smiled.
“Yes, actually yes!” she suddenly remembered. “The Ikea Store will deliver the living room set.”
Oh, how could she have forgotten!
“Will you be here for the delivery ma’am?”
She hesitated, turning to the husband. “Can you get away for an hour around 11 am?”
“No way!” he replied. Mondays were busy; today was crammed to the last second.
The security guard was immediately helpful.
“You can leave the key with us here. We will take the delivery, if that’s ok with you.”
The second guard called out from behind, “Won’t you be going home, Babu? Your night shift is over…”
Puja faltered. Babu, the guard at her window, hesitated, but only for an instant. “Don’t worry ma’am! I will stay and help with the delivery.”
“That would be very helpful.” Puja was relieved.
That was the advantage with these societies, these ‘global’ housing facilities. The house keys were handed over.
“You can pick up the key from the guard in the evening shift. It will be right here,” the nice fellow, Babu, explained conscientiously, and indicated the kiosk wall clearly visible from the car.
Puja smiled, muttered a “thank you”.
What a relief the job would be done without disturbing their schedules.
As they drove away, she remembered the guard’s cologne, the way he spoke English. But then, why not! So what if he was a security guard? Did he not have a right to dream of a good life? Maybe he was educated; his accent was certainly better than that of many of her colleagues.
In her mind, Puja gave him a birthplace in UP or Bihar, a noble heart, and an ageing, maybe ailing, mother.
Then she remembered her own mother. She must remember to call her in the evening – it was her birthday. Fishing out her phone from the bag at her feet, she put in a reminder.
Meanwhile, Babu, the nice guard turned back as the new couple drove away and smiled at his companion. “Nice people, aren’t they?”
“Babu, I hope you don’t expect me to help you!” the other guard remarked as Babu hung up the key on the wooden frame fixed to the wall.
Babu whistled a happy tune and shook his head. “Nah… I will handle it, don’t worry! It is only a table and a few chairs… not a diamond necklace, bhai!”
The other fellow shrugged his shoulders and went on writing in the large rectangular notebook before him on the desk.
Babu was not quite the regular! He was different from him, from all their colleagues.
‘7E’, Babu read from the nameplate. ‘Puja and Navin Pandit’.
He inserted the key into the lock and the door unlocked without a sound. A regular apartment. Even the furniture replicated itself, mirroring, in Babu’s mind, the curious lack of originality of people these days. They all lived the same life, wore similar clothes, spoke the same words, even had the same pinched expressions… they must be mass produced in some factory in Faridabad, he decided with a sigh.
Moving to the bedroom, he took in the mess – clothes everywhere, at the foot of the bed, the armchair in the corner, the dresser. With a grimace he opened, just a little, the bathroom door. More chaos, more clothes! He turned away quickly and tripped on a shoe.
The other bedroom was less chaotic. Things lay in a jumble on a computer table – watches, pens and stationery, a few books, a pair of sunglasses, a tea cup, a calculator. A laptop lay buried under the confused mass.
Babu looked at his watch: 11.10 am. The Ikea people were supposed to come at 11 am. That meant they could be here any time between 11 am and 2 pm. He called his colleague at the gate and told him he would wait for the delivery. Then he settled down in the living room to watch the TV.
After a few minutes, he got up and went into the kitchen. The refrigerator was well-stocked: Coke cans and a full loaf of bread, fruit, cheese cubes, a can of pineapples and left-over food.
He took out a can of Coke and went back to the TV.
This is nice, he thought, as he settled down comfortably to watch the Star TV repeat of yesterday’s episode of the crime serial, Bones. He particularly liked the female lead actor in the show – she always wore those stylish necklaces.
“Babu,” his mother’s voice was faint.
“Speak louder, ma,” he said, “I can hardly hear you. Are you well?” He could hear shuffling sounds; then her voice came stronger.
“Now can you hear better? Have you found a new room?” she asked.
“Yes. I have.”
“Is it too expensive?” his mother asked.
She worried unduly, he decided.
“Ma, I will manage,” he assured her and then quickly added, “I will send you some money this weekend through Mitul.”
He wanted to assure her that he had found a nice comfortable home with ample privacy, just as he liked.
She would not understand. But then, she had never had to stay in slums… and thank god for that! She was better off in the village.
How could his mother, in a village in distant Jharkhand, know the pain of renting a room in a bustling town like Gurgaon?
His duty timings, from late evening through the night, made his claim to a room tenuous at best.
The last room he had rented had been in a slum, a crowded and illegal basti. He did not like it, but he did not have much choice with rents threatening to overtake his slender salary.
The room ended up being a source of heartburn for Babu. Various people used his room during the night and when he got back at 8 am at the end of his shift, he began his time of rest by cleaning other people’s mess.
“We had no place to sleep…”
“… our relatives have come from the village…”
“we had Guddu’s ‘janam-din paaty’…!”
He felt cheated. No one had bothered to save a piece of the birthday cake even. And every single drop of water in the room, water that he brought, bottle by bottle, from the common tap had been consumed.
He resented these neighbourhoods where migrants like him lived for another reason too: their squalor disturbed him.
His dreams seemed to shrink in the harsh morning sun when he could see the women quarreling at the common water tap, or the men folk squatting in groups for their morning tobacco fix. Everything reinforced his identity as a homeless migrant then.
It had been six months since Puja and Navin had moved into their apartment in Mansfield Park. They had bought the furniture, the kitchen had been remodeled and they had had a housewarming party for their colleagues and friends – nothing fancy, but still, booze, food from the nearby takeaway, and some really special chocolate pudding from a friend’s bakery in old Gurgaon.
It had been a great evening, and people discussed it over lunch the next day in office. That was always a sign of a successful party.
Puja often thought it would be nice to have a baby, but right now, she wanted to focus on her career. She was reluctant to slip out of a life she was comfortable in.
But today she felt ill. She went for another cup of coffee, her third since morning.
“I think I’ll go home,” she told a colleague, “I’m not feeling that great.”
She phoned the project director and he sounded preoccupied.
“That’s fine, Puja. Go if you must, but be sure to check in tomorrow. We expect the design specs to be in by tonight.”
The company was planning for a big project and she was on it. She was excited about this because unlike other projects they did for British companies this was for a Swiss corporation. It would be a new experience. She looked forward to the next nine months.
Within the hour she was back home and in bed. She felt terrible – even the Crocin was not helping. Distinctly uncomfortable she sat up in bed and wondered if she should call her husband. She decided against it – he would not like it.
Click! It was the sound of the front door closing.
She opened the bedroom door a crack and peeped out; something prevented her from barging out immediately.
Her hand flew to her mouth and she suppressed a shout with the greatest of difficulty. It was the security guard… that…. that fellow, Babu.
Her heart began to hammer in her chest, and she clung to the doorknob. Suddenly her feet were jelly, and although she told herself to open the door and go accost him, she found she was unable to turn the doorknob with her clammy palms.
She saw Babu heading for the refrigerator. She saw him settle before the television with a Coke can in his hand. He seemed very much at ease. Her head was pounding now.
She closed her eyes and leaned against the door. In desperation, she opened the door again, just a little bit. He could be seen now pottering around the kitchen. Glimpses of his blue uniform came and went into her narrow rectangle of view.
The aroma of eggs filled the air and a wave of nausea hit her. Sliding down to the floor, she sat bent over her knees. She wanted to shout but her voice stayed trapped in her throat.
Then an abrupt silence invaded the house. The television set had been switched off. Nothing, nothing at all moved. The silence pressed against the door; she heard the sound of her heart fluttering.
After what seemed like an eternity, she peeped out of the door again.
He was not visible anywhere. Maybe he had left. Maybe he had been hungry and had stopped by for a quick omelette.
With a surge of determination, she opened the door and came out into the living room. Nothing!
She went into the second bedroom and there he sat on the bed leaning against the wall, a book on his lap, fast asleep.
Abruptly, her head began to pound afresh. Her eyes could barely focus… and then she crumpled.
“How do you feel?”
The voice came from a long way off. With a great effort she opened her eyes.
The room was unfamiliar and she could see a lot of green. Then Navin’s face floated into view and she felt a wave of relief.
“How are you Puja?”
Suddenly she remembered. She struggled to get up but she could not find the strength.
Navin pushed her gently back into the bed. “Be still. You are in the hospital.”
He patted her head and she could see the worry lines on his forehead.
‘Why am I in the hospital?” she asked in a faint voice.
Navin patted her hand, “You have dengue. You passed out at home. It was lucky the security guard was passing by. He brought you here.”
Puja was too weak to speak or think. Her mind was wandering. She was looking through the chink in the door. She could smell eggs.
A line floated into her consciousness as she went under again: “A home is where you can walk about without shoes…”
She tried to remember if Babu had had his shoes on.
A few weeks later as the Pandit couple passed through the gates of Mansfield Park at 8 am on a Monday, Babu bent down to Puja’s window: “Hope you are fine ma’am! Is there anything I can do for you?”