That’s how people described the area we first moved into. We moved to Thane (Mumbai’s do-i-need-a-passport-to-get-there suburb) some 20-odd years ago; a place that was a reclaimed dumping ground.
Andhon ke shehar mein kaana raja – literally, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Sure, I stayed in a so-called-fancy ‘flat’ in the area among the sprawling chawls around, but once every year, I was made to realize where I really stood in the universe.
Every May/November, we would pack our huge suitcases and travel for three endless days in the train, to head to our native home in Kerala.
Once there, the days and weeks would be spent visiting first-cousins, aunts, grandparents, and do-you-remember-who-i-ams. I was a different human being here, an anomaly who spoke a weird mix of English-Hindi-Malayalam and wore ‘fashion’ clothes (I was 7 or 9, I have no idea why they thought I dressed well).
Here, the houses were bungalows. Every house I knew had a minimum of 3 bedrooms, a backyard, a frontyard, a car porch – all of which, was essentially our playground.
Summers meant getting pampered by everyone, seeing a snake or two, trial-and-error methods of figuring out the henna plant and/or discovering new species of itchy plants and insects. Want buttermilk? Stroll around your house for the herbs and spices. Want milk? Ask grandpa to milk the cow. Hungry? Look around and grab a pineapple, mango, banana, tomato or any fruit that was waiting to be picked.
Then, the inevitable happened. An uncle’s family decided to visit us in Thane. I froze. We lived in a building where a mongrel frequently slept in the unlit corridor. There was no elevator. My neighbours didn’t know a word of English. A calf was allowed to be housed in the corridor above ours. A whole calf!
I was too lazy to wait for the vehicles to slink by. “Can you run?” I asked him.
Among the visitors, I was handed charge of 3-year-old Shankar. His Malayalam was better than mine so we managed to get along just fine. I took him out grocery-shopping, showed him the Kali temple, meandered around claustrophobic gullies… my version of Slumdog Millionaire. We were opposite the milk shop, and a long line of vehicles were piled up. I was an expert at running across roads, and was too lazy to wait for the vehicles to slink by. “Can you run?” I asked him.
He grinned and nodded.
We zapped across the street, just before the vehicles zoomed by.
He laughed so hard! The milkman was mildly amused.
We came back home and made custard. The little one loved it greatly (his grandma had a no-egg policy, so he had never tasted custard, sheesh.)
I was slightly disappointed – now that my visitors had seen our shabby hovel, they would tell everyone in my ‘gaon’ how my house didn’t even have 24-hour water supply, let alone the 1+1+1+ yard. I would go back there and they’d realize that it was past 12, and I’m just a Cinderella with her goddarn pumpkin (“Make pachhadi with it,” they’d say).
A few weeks after they left, the aunt called me.
“Shanku just can’t stop telling his friends and everyone about you!” she giggled.
What? Is the brat manufacturing his version of poverty porn? That’s the problem with too much TV, I thought.
“Oh, is it?! What’s he saying?” I gulped.
“About how he and chechi (elder sister = me) swooped across the street and bought milk from a shop! The kids here can’t believe you can get milk in a shop!”
Then it struck me. Everyone I knew in Kerala would either have milk delivered from a neighbour’s house or had a bovine output in their own house. ‘Buying’ milk was unheard of!
Well, well, well. Still the one-eyed queen, I guess!