I took my mother, who is visiting me in Chennai, for a walk this evening to the Jiva Park – with well laid out walker’s tracks, a children’s playground, in the heart of the city in T Nagar – where we live. At over 75 years, mother tires quickly, so we were sitting on a bench to the side, under the trees. I suddenly heard the familiar ringing of a bell from outside, and turning around noticed the Walls ice cream cart pulling up right behind me – beyond the park wall. I don’t know what it was, that made me get up instantly, after telling mother my purpose, walking in the direction of the ice cream man.
Perhaps it was the pleasant weather right after a drizzle just before we left home or childhood nostalgia from being home alone with mother as husband is out of town, and then sitting on a park bench with her. She had narrated but yet again, now that she tends to forget and repeat herself every so often, how as a child I always insisted on the maid carrying a duster to clean the park bench, when taking me for a walk to the park in Delhi or Calcutta where we lived then.
After some deliberation over the choice, I found myself holding a Choco-fudge Cornetto in one hand, with my wallet in the other, to put away the change the ice cream man was to return from the hundred rupees I had handed him. I was distracted, invoking reminiscences, of walking over with father to the Kwality ice cream parlour in our neighbourhood in north Calcutta every Sunday of school vacations, returning with ice cream for everyone at home. It made me sad that I could not take one for mother this evening as she suffers from acute diabetes, even though she seemed so happy to see me get up to buy myself one, even urged me to go ahead, assuring me she did not care for one herself. But the light in my eyes, the smile on my face, from the vivid recall of the excitement in returning home with father as a child, with half a dozen ice creams in a paper bag, both froze with a sudden loud and resounding clap right in front of my face.
I was so shocked at the sound of what I was to soon comprehend, that I might have dropped my ice cream thereon, was the trademark clap of a eunuch demanding money. I was shaken to the core from noticing a group of half a dozen of them surrounding me, as I looked at their much painted faces with overtly dramatic expressions staring at me, hands outstretched theatrically, clapping randomly, dressed pretty well at that in good salwar kameez.
“Give us some money” one of them said so close to my face, eyes boring threateningly into mine, as another added, “God will bless you, and fulfil all your wishes.”
I swiftly placed my wallet into my hand bag and instructed the ice cream man – “Please give them the change, I’m off from here.”
The ice cream man looked at my troubled face helplessly, while another two men watched this spectacle from the gate of the park – even as two of the eunuchs in turn stroked my hair, my face, their eyes theatrically provoking me as they added “we are so many, how will the change do for us?”
I was exasperated, at this intrusion to my revisiting my childhood – with this seemingly insignificant, but soul satisfying act, of buying myself ice cream, from a road vendor outside a park, on a rainy evening. That I left the ice cream, along with the change the vendor tried to shove into my hands, on the cart, and marched inside. I wanted to cry, from this outrageous stealing of my rainbow of happiness, as it felt to me like the snatching of a balloon or an ice cream from my hands as a child.
I walked back to where mother was seated on the bench, on the way feeling very sorry for letting her down as well, by not returning with the ice cream and giving her the pleasure of my having it in her presence, the way she looked forward to it. On the way, I recalled, how the aggression and bullying of eunuchs had on other occasions robbed my joy and anticipation. One such was when working for an airline, in 1997, I was on my way to an interview in Mumbai – at the head office at Andheri Kurla Road, for a coveted senior role, and a large group of eunuchs stopped my taxi on the way from the airport. They had pulled my cheek, stroked my long hair, pulled my arms – in a beige business suit, called me a heroine and what not, and then let go after I paid them five hundred rupees. With an added cost of my walking into the interview meeting, as pale and shaken, as having a nightmare and seeing my own cremation, and with no opportunity, to explain why I was so shaken. Thankfully there were a series of interviews and I had the opportunity to compose myself, and clinch the role never to be attacked by another eunuch in my weekly travel to the city thereon.
Another encounter with eunuchs – who had me started on my marital life on a wrong foot, was when they appeared at my in-laws place in Kanpur, in a large group the morning after our wedding (Bou-bhaat). I was woken from sleep, rushed out by my newly acquired relatives, to touch the feet of the eunuchs and seek their blessings as is the custom, much to my horrified indignation and refusal and then the humiliation of actually doing so to please my mother-in-law. The eunuchs had again robbed me of the joy of my last week of wedding ceremonies and the setting foot into a new life, along with the start of a misunderstanding right from the starting line, with my parents-in-law.
In a few minutes of sitting at the Jiva Park bench again this evening, retelling my mother of the harassment by the eunuchs, the ice cream man called me aloud – “Madam, come and take your ice cream.”
Though surprised, having lost all interest in it, I walked outside only out of respect for the elderly vendor’s calling me and perhaps to find out how much the eunuchs had taken from him. The vendor replied “Ma’am, I only gave them 10 Rs. Here’s the rest of your money. And here’s your ice cream.”
He looked at me as my face lit up, and in the eyes of the poor old man, I saw the compassion and satisfaction of one who gave me back a handful of my rainbow, the eunuchs had tried to rob. The man might have left with the ice cream and the Rs. 100, as he seemingly had more need for them than the eunuchs – but he didn’t. What right do they have – these eunuchs, in spite of all the injustices they suffer, to go snatching, extorting, humiliating people?
There are many others far more poverty stricken, like the ice cream vendor, or much harassed by life’s circumstances, but still look to share a slice of hope, joy and sunshine with humanity, as the ice cream man did with me.