The making of chhoti maami
Maami, maama and Nitya returned to an eerily quiet chawl… the train was late by almost seven hours and they were really tired. There were no children playing in the compound, the group of ladies squabbling at the water tap was missing and Shanti’s home was wide open. Also there was an overpowering stench coming somewhere from the back of the chawl. “Where was everyone?” wondered maami as she took the keys out of her bag to unlock the doors, knowing that Sivakumar would be away at cricket practice. “Kiricut, Kiricut, Kiricut, that boy had nothing worthwhile to do except roam around the district and state playing that dumb game! What would he write in his Board exams? Sunil Gavaskar’s biography?,” she complained to no one in particular. But the key stuck in the lock refusing to open. She rang the bell while Nitya and maama waited impatiently outside. There was no answer… she again rang the bell and held on for a few seconds till she thought the sound would irritate the boy out of slumber if he was indeed sleeping. Maami heard a shuffling sound, a few muffled voices and finally, the door opened. There was Sivakumar and a group of boys (his friends from school) and a new contraption in front of the TV. “What’s this VCR doing here?” asked Nitya indignantly, quite sure that Sivakumar had pulled an all-nighter and had spent all-day watching Amitabh Bachchan movies. The friends mumbled a few hellos and quietly slipped out while Sivakumar hoped that he could blend into the background for a while.
He began, “Amma, Ramya Akka,” and maami temporarily forgot the VCR and what it entailed while maama decided to take up the matter later, for he was sure the boy was watching porn! “Ramya enge… what’s she doing out of the house so late?” “She’s at the municipal office with the rest of the chawl women. They are staging a sit-in there,” he said in glee, thankful that the focus had shifted from him and the VCR taken on rent at Rs. 50 a day.
“Sit-in, what do you mean, sit-in,” asked maami , quite confused. It was then Sivakumar explained that two days after maami had left for Palakkad, the restaurant and bar in front of the chawl had not waited for the municipality truck but dumped a week’s waste into the gutters, choking the entire drain line of the chawl. Which meant that only did the stench seep its way into the chawl but even the toilets of 10 houses got choked with the litter. Entreaties to the restaurant manager did not work nor did complaints to the municipal office who claimed that it was the restaurant responsible for the clean up. A few hands were of course, greased leading to the impasse, where both parties refused to budge. When the men of the chawl admitted defeat, Ramya decided to round up the women and march to the municipal office. Today was the day three of the sit-in that started at 6am and ended at 6pm.
Maami was excited. Her gossip, Hindi film loving Ramya, an activist? She could hardly believe it! She quickly washed her face and hands and headed for the municipal office. There she was, her Ramya, shouting slogans and holding a placard in her hand. They were there, all the women, Jayati, Kanakavalli, Rohit and Reena’s mothers, (who had forgiven their children and had finally joined hands for a common cause) VSRVV’s amma Archana, Susilaben, Malatitai and who was that, Shanti… who was capably assisting Ramya with equally high decibel levels. On spotting maami, the entire group ran forward and almost choked her with their hugs. And in an incessant stream, came out the woes. Maami was told that the commissioner was in the building but refused to give them an audience and they were not emboldened enough to crash into the office.
“Enna bhayam,” (What fear?) said maami before she remembered that she was at Nagpur and not Palakkad. “Kya darna, aao, aao (what’s there to fear, come, come!) and this war cry was what made the group barge into the commissioner’s office and literally outshout him into action. Three municipal trucks made their way into the chawl soon after, the waste and the drain cleared. Finally, the residents could waft in the sweet smell of the jamun and chikoo trees. A small battle had been won, thanks to the women of the chawl, and specifically Ramya.
The next day’s Hitavada featured the chawl group on Page 3 (sandwiched between a Haldiram’s advertisement and news of Hema Malini coming to town!) The chawl women were thrilled… and Ramya was the resident star, and Jayatidi playfully began calling her chhoti maami.
Meanwhile, a phone call that came for him at VSRVV’s house would change Sivakumar’s life forever…