A life too short

The whiff of life has turned putrid today, the scent of wilted,wasted youth. J, my mother’s youngest brother died today , suddenly, unexpectedly, at 44 years of age. Drank off to his end.
A bright lad, he’d shown promise – a head for science and art both – a contrast against a background of school drop-out brothers . The brightly red coloured pin-hole camera he’d made and sent me (my first precious parcel, packed in straw) once contributed to my my interest in science.
He taught me cycling , chess and “smart” stuff like sleight of hand tricks.
But by then his zenith had been over, peer pressure egged him into the murky realm of college politics in Kerala. A lost election led to a lost year – and a lost education – he too dropped out of (pre-univ) college – a lost cause (I’d discovered IIT-JEE forms unfilled, amongst his old books).
Pragmatism led him to take up a clerical post in the para-military in the rough North-East. And life seemed settled for a while. Diligence paid off in promotions. Back in Kerala, he dated a rather attractive young woman and fell hopelessly in love.
Life seemed perfect when they married. And then they had a daughter.
Differences of some nature crept up and threatened to derail the marriage. My uncle found solace in the bottle.
The bottle grew into a monster and he was discharged of his job, and returned to Kerala.
With some savings and by renting out auto-rickshaws he made a house.
The liquid monster grew stronger and the wife gave up, fled with the kids (a girl and a boy now). That was the final nail …
The house was sold and fed back to the liquid monster, as was all the rest of the savings and stuff in the house. What was left was fed to the lawyer to the contest the divorce notice and to “on-the-house” drinking companions.
In and out of a host of rehab centres in the past five years, life seemed better (even if just so) when the last rehab ashram decided to give him a job after his de-addiction. But he again gave in to the monster before he could take it up.
Now living in the ancestral home, drinking endlessly (and sometimes on empty stomach) with his elder brother for solace (who too had had decided to substitute the bottle for his wife who too had deserted).
Everyone thought that he would drink his way into poverty and then get back to senses.
But before that could happen, today, abruptly, the body gave up. Deserted.
A life cut too short.
And I could never thank him for the things he taught me.
And I could never even try to help him with his problems.

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New Bharath Hamam

There is a scraggy hand-painted sign on the Outer Ring Road, through which I commute daily now, which proclaims “New Bharath Hamam” (lit. Bath-house of the New India or new Bath-house of India).
I was not absolutely sure about the business transacted in this hovel sitting on the edge of a card-board and metal scrap-yard. The name of the place and the fact that only sari or maxi clad creatures dwelt there made the seediness of the place apparent. The presence of trucks in front of the house added to its self-incrimination.
Yet it didn’t seem to fit in as I had thought bath-houses to be a Western or Turkish phenomenon, we Indians use dance (Kothas), rather than baths as the facade for practising the world’s oldest profession.
Then I saw a show on Nat Geo, called the “Ladyboys of India” which followed the lives of a handful of transgenders living in Mumbai and Bangalore. One of the them seemed to be surprisingly proficient in English and had lived as a male through schooling and college, but had taken the flight after “his” marriage had been arranged. (For lack of a proper pronoun let me address them in third person as “hse”) .
Hse told us that every one of them adopted by the Community (an association of Ammas with a tight hierarchy) had to work in a bath-house for a fixed number of months/years before being castrated and Bobbitised – which was the Initiation ceremony into the fraternity of Hijras. The Hamam was an euphemism for a brothel usually attached to truck-stops and also provided with a name-sake bathroom.
Even after the Initiation (which is usually conducted by a pseudo-doc under extremely unhygenic conditons and causes life-long infections and revisits to doctors) – these people are not free to choose their vocation. One enterprising fellow in Mumbai left the tradition of begging and prostitution and enrolled hserself as a loan recovery agent with one agency and was quite successful.

But hse was ostracised from the community for the this. Apologies to hser reporting Amma didn’t help. Isolated by the only people in the society who would accept hser, hse joined back into the fold.
One group of three individuals (showcased in the documentary) lived a happy life in Bangalore – or so it seemed. They lived disguised as women in a rented house, shared amongst themselves in a middle-class locality. They moved around on scooters wearing burqas at night to solicit customers on the streets of Bangalore. Most customers too thought of them as women.
After work they had parties in the house. And music. And they went shopping.
And they never missed their annual pilgrimage to Koovagam (in TN, which is their mecca) where after enacting wedding and widowing with the Lord, they settle down for the highly-anticipated beauty-pageant.
Given the limitations, they’ve been trying to enjoy life as much as possible. Most are disowned by their parents, can never marry (though one of them seems to have a steady boyfriend) and can’t do any work other than to beg and/or retail sexual services. They try hard to forget these limitations …
This show changed my perspective from one of abhorrence to one of empathy. I still can’t forget the day, when my arrival at a restaurant for lunch coincided with the extortion rounds of these blokes. I was groped by one of them ( I felt for the first time  what most Indian WOMEN, esp in Delhi and Kerala must be feeling daily) – when I was paying the bill after having lunch. So embarrassed was I that I went back to my table without collecting the change.
I still avoid them as much at traffic signals and while traveling on train – their trademark claps put me on high alert and  I vanish into the nearby toilet till they’re gone.
I still pass through New Bharath Hamam everyday to work and see them doing immense amounts of laundry.
Cleaning the filth of the society …. while living on its fringes. Disowned.

PS: Apparently TN is the first state in India which recognizes the Third Sex on its voters’ ID and ration cards. There is a pan-India movement for this – let’s hope it succeeds.