She was quiet, shy and highly attractive; and she lived like she never belonged there. We lived opposite each other, in flats set upon a narrow lane at Malviya Nagar Khirki Extension, one of the many bustling and bursting middle class colonies in Delhi. Our balconies almost touched one another, jutting out of our fourth floor flats. And often we passed smiles from our balconies, even exchanged a few words at times. I was living there for three years, she came a year after. I was putting clothes to dry in the balcony when she arrived in an autorickshaw. Behind it came a small van with a bed, a wooden almirah, three-four suitcases, a chair, a table and three buckets full of utensils. From all the stuff that emerged out of the autorickshaw and the van, it seemed she must have been around in the city for a couple of years.
I saw her arrange her rooms from my room behind the balcony. We all lived in two-room sets, rooms that were set one after the other like train coaches. So our bedrooms were partially visible from the other side, despite the curtains put up for privacy. She often moved about her flat in shorts that highlighted her beautiful legs and tank tops that clung to her beautifully toned body. Her skin shone like gold and there was something extremely attractive about her. No wonder she flaunted it, I thought. But with time, as I understood it, she wasn’t flaunting her beautiful skin and body, she was just being herself! The way she walked and talked complemented the casual manner of her dressing. And she was friendly in a very casual way. As if she couldn’t decide if she liked me.
Given the proximity of our dwellings, I invariably caught up with the little details of her life: talking on the phone for hours as she looked at life in the streets below, shampooing her hair and toweling it dry or coloring it late in the night, the almost every other night ritual of applying nail paint that gleamed through the gaps the curtain failed to fill, etc. Often, she hosted parties too. Those days and evenings would be flooded with people who had eyes like her, and who spoke a tongue I couldn’t decipher. From the northeast yes, but which part of the northeast were they from? I was from Goalpara, a town in lower Assam, with much proximity to Bengal in physical as well as cultural sense. After school, I completed my studies from Presidency College, Kolkata and Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad. Thereafter, I came for my first job to Delhi. Hence, the trajectory of my life has been such that before encountering the balcony that almost touched mine in Malviya Nagar, I had never met many others from rest of the northeast. Like those boys and girls singing and chatting and strumming their guitars. The noises created by them did not much create a stir in the already noisy neighborhood. There were vehicles plying past in the lane below, which accommodated only one vehicle at a time. So many a time during the day, one could hear screams and curses as two vehicles came face to face, none wanting to be the one to back out.
Then there were times when I had to rush to shut the balcony door. A stench would come wafting from her flat. “That’s akhuni,” a Naga colleague of mine said when he came visiting, “Fermented beans. Very tasty, but it is an acquired taste like bamboo shoot.” The next day was a Sunday and we saw each other at our balconies. She was there with her clothes to dry and so was I. We smiled at each other as we put up the clothes on the line. “You from Assam?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I smiled back. “You from Nagaland?”
And that’s how our friendship started. With the exchange of smiles and a few words from the balconies. Unfortunately, it never went beyond the balconies. We introduced our cultures a little to each other through our balconies too. I learnt about the Tetseo Sisters from her as their music played in her bedroom, and fell in love with their “O Rhosi”, just as she picked up a few songs by Bhupen Hazarika, Jayanta Hazarika and Papon from me. “The eldest of the Tetseo Sisters went to school with me!” she had once boasted. I felt I needed to show off too. “Papon and my cousin were neighbors here in Delhi,” I beamed. “Those were the days when Papon was struggling and lived in a one-room studio cum living accommodation.”
I felt a little privileged because I never saw her speak to anyone else in the neighborhood beside me. She did of course speak to her landlord who came to collect money at the start of every month, the grocery shopkeeper right under our flats, the vegetable guy who came by during the day with a cart full of water-sprinkled vegetables, her maid, and me. She particularly avoided the landlord’s son who ogled at her when he accompanied his father for the rent. He even ogled at her on the street below every time she left for work in the evenings. I have seen her throw dagger-piercing looks at him at times. But she would never utter a word to him, not even respond to his leering, “Chinki Chameli, where to?”
“That son of a bitch!”
“Who?” I asked one Sunday evening as we lazily leaned against our respective balcony railings.
“The landlord’s son,” she said. “He is the devil, I tell you. I can’t stand the look of him!”
“Come now, chill. He is harmless.”
“You think he is? Well let me tell you, he likes to grab women’s bums!”
“How do you know?” I blurted out. Then bit my tongue when I saw her face. She pretended not to hear me.
The landlord’s son was a bad case. There was something about his eyes. Even I had noticed that. But I was a man too, and the fact that she felt safe with me and could confide about her feelings about the landlord’s son to me somehow made me very proud of myself.
She told me other things too, standing there in her balcony. That she is from the outskirts of Kohima, that she grew up singing in the choir at Church, that her parents were actively involved in the movement that revived the folk in Nagaland, that chicken is so expensive back home that they usually get chicks, feed them and wait for them to grow big before killing them for the cooking pots. That going back home is a long route. First a train journey to Dimapur, she said she never saved enough money for flight fares, and then a taxi ride that took her past Kohima to her village.
After more than two years in Delhi, a time when nobody from home ever visited me, one day I got news that mother was coming. “I want to see how you are living,” she told me over the phone. “You know you are an eligible bachelor! All of us are so proud of you! There are about fifty mothers at least who want you to marry their daughters!” I could sense her pride even over the phone. “I have never been to Delhi. Is it like Kolkata? I hope it is because I love Kolkata!”
She came with a lot of home-grown vegetables, which managed to stay fresh even after the 20 hour plus journey. “Rajdhani is AC, silly boy!” was her pat reply when I raised my concern the day before she boarded the train. And she came with about twenty photographs of young women. “I like all of them. And we know their families too. All you have to do is decide which one you like. The rest will be taken care of.”
My mother came with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of pride to me. But she was disappointed from day one. “You live in this rat hole!” “What kind of a locality is this? Why are these electricity lines hanging in front of your building? This is dangerous! Do something!” She thought these were serious issues until she saw the girl in her shorts and tank top across the balcony.
Her long list of complaints hurled at me when I came back from work in the evenings got even longer then. “What kind of a place do you live in? There is this half-naked woman right in front of your balcony lounging there all day. And in the evenings she puts on nice clothes and make-up and leaves for god knows where! This is not good for you. I’ll never come to visit you again if you don’t look up a decent place to stay!” The conditions I lived in had made her forgo thoughts of my wedding for a while. “Where will your wife stay if you got married? Here? No, no Babamoni, you have to change the place. You have to look up a nicer neighborhood. Like the one where we live in Goalpara, no? All decent people living together. Don’t you know anybody else from Assam living in Delhi? Go live somewhere where there are a lot of Assamese people.” I took her to the balcony and pointed out flats here and there around my building, “Do you see that flat? An Assamese doctor who works at Safdar Jung hospital lives there. He is from Dhubri and we listen to Protima Pandey Baruah’s Goalpariya folk songs on weekends. Happy? The fourth balcony from mine, there, you see that? A girl from Guwahati lives there. She teaches at Delhi University. Her room-mate is from Assam too and she works in the Human Resource department of ICICI Bank.” I showed her a few more flats around my building where many Assamese lived and whom I didn’t know. Some were working professionals and some were students. Yet her taunts went on for one whole week and stopped only when the unexpected happened.
The girl was at the grocery store downstairs when Mom was laboring with her miserable Hindi to tell the autorickshaw-wallah who brought her home from the nearby market that she knew the exact fare and that he was charging a full hundred rupees extra. The autorickshaw-wallah maintained no decency and aggressively argued with my mother. It was then that the girl walked up to the scene, demanded what was going on in her equally miserable Hindi, slapped a fifty rupee note at the backseat, and threatened the autorickshaw-wallah with a tryst with the police if he continued opening his mouth. And then, with a final “shut the fuck up!” screamed at the autorickshaw-wallah, she held Mom by the hand and escorted her to our flat. At the door she said in Nagamese, if ever anyone troubles you again let me know. That evening when I returned home, mother related the incident with an emotion-filled voice. After that, for as long as Mom lived in Delhi, she took food over to my balcony friend every once in a while. But then even the change of heart couldn’t prevent a sarcastic note or two when smells of akhuni and bamboo shoot came wafting over from the other side. “I wonder how she still survives with all that rotten thing going into her stomach!”
Last January, after a two-year old balcony friendship, when days passed as usual, I came back home one evening to find the police right in front of her building and spilling out of her flat. “Worked in a spa!” a policeman was telling another with a particular look on his face. The other policeman let out a big, knowledge-filled “Oh!” As if that “Oh” held the answer to many questions.
A tension built up inside me. “What’s happening?” I addressed the crowd gathered there. A guy replied, “Some girl from the northeast has been found dead. Acid on her face!”
I panicked. There was sweat all over me. “What! Where?”
Somebody pointed up and said, “Fourth floor.”
Nagamese: Is a language spoken in Nagaland that shares a part of its lexicon with Assamese