(Reading time: 5 minutes)
On a crowded, grimy, slow-moving local train, I met my friend, Ara. Usually Ara is a hit-and-miss acquaintance but that day, she elbowed her way to me, usually a symbol of chatter. I knew that a long-winding monologue would ensue and I shushed myself with arms akimbo.
“I’m usually not the one to complain about space but look at this train, we are travelling like goods. And there, that ripe south Bombay property, is brimming with toys that no one plays with. Let me tell you, Ms Hothi, let me tell you that when I walked inside the store, Art Is In Us, the owner, an old woman with older money, pulled herself up and offered to give me a guided tour. I yawned in anticipation of boredom and thought of the two toys my sister and I shared while growing up. ‘This Santa’s factory is everything that’s wrong with kids,’ my mother would have said. ‘What is the point of toys? They either break, are forgotten or left behind.”
“Forgive me Ms Hothi, I wasn’t looking at toys out of choice, but because of a vile, desperate need. One morning, I had heroically decided to quit my soul-crushing job and venture in to the arms of uncertainty and while my soul stayed full, money had clunked out. Someone then introduced me to Aisha, the old woman and owner of the store. When I called her about creating a catalogue for her scattered children’s museum, she sounded unconcerned and proceeded to give me full directions to her shop, with road names and landmarks, twice. I thanked her and said, ‘I’ll just use google maps’.”
“Inside the store, you won’t believe Ms Hothi, I saw cabinets stuffed with books (not necessary spine first) and a vast aztec floor interrupted by mats that displayed untidy origami, you know the kind made by moderately trained fingers? I looked around and noticed paper folded into gymnastic sizes and shapes. There were swans, tulips, and weird modern art structures that required deep contemplation. And then a girl, possibly an employee said, ‘I can’t look at any toy with a face.’ Clearly, Ms Hothi, her choice of workplace wasn’t appropriate, but despite her squeaky voice and out-of-country accent, she didn’t amuse me as much as Aisha did.”
“Aisha, the freckled old woman who looked like she would need to sit down any minute, was already chummy with me: she had ordered me to put my phone away so that I could ‘feel’ the ‘art’ and ‘her creation’, she had also begun to take the liberty of thrusting toys in my hand. At one point, she threw a ball at me and commanded, ‘Play!’ Can you imagine my discomfort of moving from a mother who thought of children’s games as ‘succumbing to status quo’ to meeting a grandmother who ordered I enjoy myself?”
“But Ms Hothi, after I had ‘touched’ and ‘felt’ toy didgeridoos and heard all about aboriginal folklore, I tried to tear myself away by showing fake-excitement for a book of Roald Dahl. I thought I’ll take it easy and not inundate Aisha with dreary work talk but when I turned around, Aisha was gone. I whispered to ask the store girl who signalled to say that she was inside. Overcoming my petulance, I started talking to the stranger in this toy land or Rubina, as I found out later. While we were discussing Rubina’s childhood (she is from Karachi, who’d say, but it explained the accent) I discovered that she detested Arabic, much like our kids hate Marathi, as much as toys with faces. Aisha, in the meantime, was arguing animatedly with another employee, Alia.”
“Ms Hothi, I felt like my childhood had returned for Rubina obviously bored, challenged me for a game of Connect Four. And very soon, I was inserting my winning fourth disc in the grid. I screamed, a little too immaturely, ‘I won’ and immediately wished I hadn’t. Aisha, clearly not short of hearing arrived, wiggling old body and all, to say, ‘You already won? But you just started to play.’ A little perplexed by how Aisha knew, I said, ‘Yeah, it was a quick game.’ ‘No. Let me see,’ she insisted and took the grid to inspect a series of potential fouls she could correct to get her nation a gold. I was expecting Aisha to challenge me for a game when she asked me to talk about myself. I suspiciously eyed Aisha, surely an 85-yr-old can’t be so energetic? Would you believe, Ms Hothi, that she had been on her foot for two hours breathlessly talking, shouting, and trying to clear the messy place, she called her creation.”
“And don’t you think, Miss, that the ‘creation’ was brimming with worthless knick knacks. Apart from a skipping rope and some travel boardgames (often with fun magnetic coins) from Chor Bazaar; imported Russian dolls beamed at you, elephants and camels made of jute kept you company, and for the besotted, the Rajasthani dulha-dulhan were right around the corner. Oh, how wonderful it was. There were books, encyclopaedic, pop-ups, and children’s novels that defeated the purpose of literature by printing gravely inadequate words on a page. All of them written by the who’s who of children’s literature, a market with more attention span than luddites or non-luddite adults today, I say.”
“Though Aisha had cast a net for my experiences, it’s funny that I uttered my first word only after Aisha had received 4 phone calls which she hung up only to narrate the conversation, word-by-word, on both sides. As a picture, Ms Hothi you can imagine that we were a little coterie around the grand old lady. She was sitting on a chair flanked by a round table, and we, Rubina, Alia, and I were sitting on jute moodas. On her left, she demanded a tray with a pair of scissors, tape, pen, and a few sheets of paper, in other words, her weapons, and asked the maid to clear the shop of everything that wasn’t ‘beautiful.’ She then asked the maid to switch off the AC and then in a few minutes, yelled at her for switching it off. Finally, she asked me to speak.”
“I’m a political journalist – I had begun but ‘Ah. I’m most disturbed by what’s happening in Syria. Muslims are being butchered all over the world,’ Aisha continued.
Though she wasn’t a wastrel as her passion for art had shown, Aisha came from a family of riches, you see, and was treated with abundant adulation and respect. ‘One of the top 10 muslim families of India,’ as she liked to say. Ms Hothi, her employees would hover around her, putting up with the most annoying eccentricities with a smile, while Aisha went chattering about her day.”
‘Of course, it’s absolutely terrible,’ I conceded but Aisha was caressing a stray thought. She took out her iPad to click a photograph of me, completely out of the blue Ms Hothi, and while I was confused with the sudden surge of grandmotherly affection, she began to accuse Alia of being careless and letting children scratch her precious table with scissors. When Alia went to check, Aisha looked at me sternly, squinted her eyes, pouted her lips, got her finger and thumb close as if demanding a little tea, and said, ‘Aisha is a little hmmpph.’ She cocked her head to call me close, and to my absolute horror said, ‘Alia’s brother has been missing. I think he has joined the IS’. Though I was abreast with current affairs and knew about people marching off to the mountains of Syria, I least expected to hear this in a children’s centre full of snakes and ladders. After revealing this clandestine information, Aisha began to shout Alia’s name. When Alia arrived, Aisha said, ‘I never asked you to go anywhere,’ which was fair because she hadn’t.”
“From hereon, the conversation was mostly one-sided. I introduced the topics and Aisha took them to their conclusion, often stopping to compliment someone’s earrings, bag, or compelling us to eat some snacks. When I asked a couple of work-related questions, she spoke for 20 minutes about the terrors of technology, which for some reason, also included how her daughters discourage her from working. Soon, Alia, Rubina, and the maid decided to leave. I made up my mind to leave with them when Aisha asked me to hang around. I took a deep breath. What else would I do, Ms Hothi?”
“When they were gone, Aisha began to scold me, ‘Why were you asking me about work?’ I haven’t offered Rubina a job yet. I don’t want her to feel bad.’”
“‘Oh. I thought she worked here,’ I said in the form of an apology.”
“‘No. She is a little hmmmph,’ she said with the same squint, pout, and finger action. ‘She has come from Pakistan with little paperwork, and she has a husband’ she rambled.”
“‘So when do we talk about work,’ I bravely interrupted, desperate for confirmation.”
“‘Um, you see, my daughter usually takes these decisions and she’ll be back only next week,’ Aisha said.”
“‘Of course. I see,’ I replied, counting the hours I spent at Art Is In Us. Okay, Ms Hothi, I’m off here.”
With that, Ara left and I thought of the one hour that felt like a year.