Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Short Story Mrs Blarsingdale - Gouri Dange (first published in Stories Around the Coffee Table, Caferrati

Mrs Blarsingdale

From seven floors up, all Anandi Joshi could see was the young woman’s straight black hair, ‘ape cut’ in the style of 1970s Singapore. Pale shoulders showed from a halter necked t-shirt. Neat ivory coloured legs emerged from under the shortest of shorts – hot pants, they were called, then. And with her, always, there were two Pekinese dogs on red and green leashes - their silky blonde coats groomed in the same ape-cut style. 
     It was the dogs that 12-yr-old Anandi, seven stories up in Taman Sarasi Apartments, wanted to make friends with. She’d been watching the threesome for over a month now, but her gawky adolescent Indian looks and frizzy hair - which she hated even more, now that she was in this land of nifty figures, translucent skin and unreal hair - stopped her. And then there was her Indian convent school accent that no one seemed to understand here, except the Mehra kids upstairs on the 11th floor.
    Anandi begged her mother to come downstairs with her, to help her make friends. “But this is a good opportunity to learn how to deal with total strangers in a new country,” Aai had said, nudging her to go and just introduce herself, ask the young woman her name, play with her dogs.
    The dogs were named Chok (bamboo flower) and Bo (precious). And she was Mrs Blarsingdale. A very western name on a very oriental person. She lived in the other wing on the 9th floor. They talked very little at first, Anandi and Mrs Blarsingdale, mainly about dogs. But they fell into an easy rhythm, meeting every day around 5 in the evening. Chok and Bo walked ahead of them,  waddling grandly at an imperial pace even when off their leash.
     In a few weeks, Anandi was calling her by her Chinese name – Lien, which meant lotus. Aai had suggested she should call her Lien Didi – but Anandi had vetoed it as odd-sounding - and anyway she’s not my Didi (older sister) she’s my Friend, she said firmly to her Aai.
     On their walks, Anandi would talk a lot and Mrs Blarsingdale would listen much, smiling, nodding, asking her briefly worded questions in her chopped-up Singapore English: “why for say that?” or the slightly breathless: “andthen?”  Anandi would fill her in about the Singapore American School that she went to, in which, confusingly, even the Singaporeans spoke like Americans and she could spend an entire school day without having understood a single thing that she heard and saw. Not words, not tones, not expressions, not even gestures. The school counselor had wondered, in a report to her parents, if she was Slow. Mrs Blarsingdale had doubled over and laughed at that, like a little girl. Anandi had then asked her age. She was 25.
    She was the prettiest, best dressed person Anandi had ever met in India or in Singapore. Shorts, leather skirts, belts, enormous watches, boots, flipflops with big flowers on them, rectangular hoop earrings, square bangles – funky stuff (but that word didn’t exist then – it was called ‘go-go’ or ‘psychadelic’, back in ‘seventies Singapore).  Anything she wore looked terrific on Lien; Anandi marveled at this silently. “Did your mother always let you wear these things? Does your husband like them?” Anandi had asked, and Mrs Blarsingdale had smiled and asked her what kind of dogs they had back in India.
     Anandi’s mother was pleased with this new big sister friend she’d made. And on the day that Mrs Blarsingdale invited Anandi to go see her apartment and her clothes, her mother nodded yes from the balcony, seven stories up, when Anandi had shouted up in delight asking if she could go.
     The apartment smelt of incense and dogs, with an undertone of cigarette smoke. “Does Mr Blarsingdale smoke?” Anandi asked. No, she had nodded vaguely. “Do you smoke, then?” – and Mrs Blarsingdale had said with a solemn face – “I tell you secret -  Chok and Bo smoke. Chain smokers they are.” The image was so funny that they’d laughed hard enough for the dogs to bark in alarm. 
     One wall of the living room was fully covered, ceiling to floor,  with a blow-up of her Lien’s face in black and white. That was the first thing that you saw when you entered. The next thing you saw was the TV cabinet, which was in black and white checks that became small and big, big and small - making your eyes feel all wheely – Anandi had later told her mother. The transistor radio could be worn like an enormous pink bangle around your arm. And the telephone – she’d only ever seen black ones, and maybe a red one and a white one once in India – was a fluorescent green, with pink flower-power stickers all over it.
     The bedroom had red and pink satin throw cushions everywhere. There was a mirror on the ceiling and no furniture except an enormous bed, on which Mrs Blarsingdale invited her to sit. Anandi politely declined, but she insisted. When Anandi did sit on it, she was immediately engulfed by the mattress and gently tossed about. It was the first time she’d ever seen or even heard of a waterbed. The more she struggled to sit up on it, the more the bed bounced her around. With a straight face, Mrs Blarsingdale asked pretend-severely: “Come on, sit up, sit down like a lady, why are you rolling about like this?” Then, with a grin, she gave Anandi a hand to help her get out of the clutches of the waterbed.
     The second bedroom was not a bedroom at all. It was a walk-in closet of huge proportions. Dresses, suits, pants, hung pressed up against each other in long queues along the walls on hangers. A rotating thing, like the one you saw in clothes stores, held belts and watches. Jewellery hung on a panel of tiny hooks and overflowed from baskets on a dresser. Rows of footwear sat neatly in the longest sloping shoe-shelf that Anandi had seen anywhere outside a shoe shop. A big Chinese lacquered vanity case, the only old thing in the house, stood propped open by its mirror. It held several paintboxes of make-up. Anandi took it all in with a slow 360 degree turn. Mrs Blarsingdale giggled and held a soft white hand under Anandi’s chin – “Close your mouth, or fly go in.”
     Every time that she visited, Lien would urge Anandi to try on her clothes, her belts, her shoes…but Anandi just couldn’t. Her mother had told her not to overstep her welcome; and she herself, once she’d held a few clothes and trinkets against herself, had decided that they looked yukky on her. Only Mrs Blarsingdale could wear them.
    The kitchen door was pasted over with a poster of Snoopy dancing, and the words ‘Feeling Groovy’ above his head. The lettering glowed in the dark, and Anandi waited for when she would be invited to see this and all of the other wonders of this apartment at night. They would drink tea in Mrs Blarsingdale’s little kitchen balcony, taking turns to sit either in the swing chair that looked like a giant American football, or in the turquoise blue bean bag.
     Chok and Bo, the two potentates, sat on their own tasseled  cushions in this balcony.  With the Beejees or the Eagles playing on the small cassette player in the kitchen, they’d watch the world go by below. They would see the fat Malaysian taxi driver with his too-tiny prayer cap, the Chinese grocer and his wife unloading their little truck, beefy white people, forever going in or out of the swimming pool, Indians coming home loaded with shopping bags from Mustafa’s.
     On Wednesdays they would turn up the music loud, to drown out the intermittent, muffled gunshots from the Botanical Gardens nearby. Wednesday was the day for ‘monkey population control’ as the Singapore government called it. 
     Sometimes, Anandi wouldn’t see Mrs Blarsingdale and the dogs downstairs for a few days. She’d fret about the house, and Aai would say “You know her well enough now, go upstairs and find out where she is – ask her if she’s unwell.” But when Anandi did ring her doorbell, sometimes there’d be no answer and sometimes she’d open the door a crack and say “I’m little busy, Mr Blarsingdale is here.” Maybe she has her Period, Anandi told her mother, a condition that she had only recently learnt about.
     A few days later, Anandi would see her and the dogs in the garden again. They’d walk together and Anandi would fill her in on the latest crimes of her tormentor in school, one Matt Danielson; she had begun to understand the American accent well-enough to know when she was being called names. As for baseball, she’d set a record of sorts, never having connected her bat with the ball in school even once. At that, Mrs Blarsingdale had said, with unusual vehemence, “What so great about hitting ball with round bat. All this Matt Danielson type American boys, baseball hit them in head when little – so they become mean and stupid.”
     Whenever they met after one of these gaps, Mrs Blarsingdale would have something new to show her. She’d invite her up to see new clothes or a tiny new 9-inch counter-top TV for the kitchen, or abalone earrings from Australia. And when they settled down with their tea in the balcony, Anandi would realize how much she missed this when Mrs Blarsingdale was busy. But she didn’t have the words to tell her. 
     On one such afternoon on the balcony, Anandi looked below to see her mother’s Indian friend and neighbour who lived on the 11th floor, Chandra Aunty, gesturing urgently to her. She was also shouting something that Anandi couldn’t hear up on the 9th floor. She said a quick bye to Mrs Blarsingdale and hurried down, where Chandra Aunty was waiting near the lift. Pushing her back into the lift, she asked rapidly “Why were you in that appartment? How do you know her? Does your mother know you were there,” as the lift rose 7  stories up. When Anandi’s mother opened the door, Chandra Aunty pushed importantly past, settled into a chair, signaled the Tamil maid to get her water quickly, and asked Anandi to go to her room, as they wanted to talk about Something.
     From her room, Anandi caught parts of a sentence: “God knows how many Mr Blarsingdales…” And then a brittle sounding word: “Call-girl.”  She thought she must look it up in her dictionary. When Chandra Aunty left, her mother told her what it meant, trying hard to explain why it also meant that she couldn’t be friends with Mrs Blarsingdale anymore; but that Mrs Blarsingdale wasn’t an evil person either. It was a facts-of-life conversation in which nothing made sense.
     From then on, for the next few weeks, she simply avoided going into the balcony during Chok and Bo’s walk time. She would now be careful not to go to the lift in the other wing, taking the stairs when she had to go to a birthday party on the 6th floor there.  Once she’d seen them from 7 stories up and waved her book at Mrs Blarsingdale, miming ‘I-have-to-study’, pulling a fake regretful face…and had felt sick to the stomach.
     Months passed, the smell of incense, dogs and cigarettes almost forgotten. She heard the Wednesday garden gunshots clearly now, unmuffled by the Beegees. Her stories of Matt Danielsen’s fresh crimes and, most importantly, how she now had Periods, remained untold. Mrs Blarsingdale was now just someone Anandi didn’t speak about and had to avoid. 
     Till the day that she read the notice at the Chinese grocer’s:  Missing: Grey Pekinese, answering to the name of Chok. Finder will be rewarded. Contact Mrs Blarsingdale, 9th flr, Wing B.     
    Anandi had run home, cheeks aching with unshed tears, heart pounding as she jumped into the lift. She could almost hear her mother saying a firm No even before she asked if she could go see Mrs Blarsingdale.
     But Aai had stood very still for a few seconds after Anandi had sobbed out the news of the missing Chok. She had then picked up the house keys and gone with Anandi up to the 9th floor. Mrs Blarsingdale opened the door, eyes swollen, a tissue held to her nose, car keys in one hand. “I look for Chok in Bukit Timah Road today,” she said briefly, as they headed out. They got into her little green Datsun, the lone Pekinese Bo getting in quietly besides her in the front, Anandi and Aai getting in at the back.
    She drove slowly down the thickly wooded road and parked where the road forked into three. Without a word to one another, they fanned out into the paths. And above the persistent whine of the Singapore palm-beetle, they raised their voices together, the three women calling: Chokkkk, Chokky, good boy, Chokk-Chokk, Chokku, come home, come home, come to Mamma. Anandi’s voice shrill and urgent, Mrs Blarsingdale’s now hoarse from the crying, and Aai calling out, clear and reassuring, “Don’t worry Lien, we’ll find him soon…he’ll come home.” 


Gouri Dange (Caferatti – Stories at the Coffee Table)

1 comment:

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