They were at it again. As usual, the sounds of arguments were faint initially and at some point, the voice of one of them rose to a high decibel. Today, it was Kalpana aunty screaming at Mahesh uncle.
“Don’t think that you are the only one with brains and others are fools” she shouted. I could not catch what uncle’s reply was but I could hear him splutter something in anger.
I turned around to Nisha, my classmate in college, who was staying the night at my place so that we could complete the joint project we were working on. She looked perplexed and said “Oh my God! Who is fighting like this?”
By that time, the verbal duel had reached a crescendo with “shut up!” and “you shut up first” and Nisha, alarmed, had half risen from the chair as if an intervention was called for. She looked at me with an expression of bewilderment and said “why do couples fight like this without any sense of decency?”, and added “I am not going to marry at all”.
I smiled at her and said “ignore them and continue with your work. They are not husband and wife but siblings – brother and sister”. This had the expected effect on her. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open slightly. Married couples who squabble and fight are treated as somewhat normal in our society!
I told her in brief about the duo, whom I had seen since my childhood, as neighbours who lived in one of the apartments in the block in front of ours. Their rear balcony overlooked our front one and we could hear them bickering all the time. These apartments built by the Development Authority of the city are placed cheek by jowl and privacy takes a back seat.
Much of the information I had about the siblings was garnered from what my mother told me, now and then, in her daily ramblings about the world in general. Kalpana aunty and Mahesh uncle must be in their early fifties now and uncle is the older one. Uncle had had a bad marriage and is either divorced or just separated from his wife and aunty did not marry at all. After their parents’ death, within a span of two years, they continued to live together in that house. They have always been quarrelsome but with age, which mellows down most people, they became worse. They fought with their neighbours, with the vegetable vendors, with the maid who comes in to clean but the most vicious altercations were reserved for each other.
One morning, a few days after this incident, I came out on our balcony with a cup of tea, to catch some breeze and destress from the night long study. The final exams were approaching and the uncertain future loomed large on my mindscape. Questions like whether I should take up the campus placement or follow up with admissions to the shortlisted Universities in USA for higher studies were forever buzzing in my overwrought brain.
And then, I heard the lilting voice of a small child from the balcony of an apartment from the adjacent block. I could only see a mop of curly hair and a tiny forehand now shot up above the balcony wall, holding up a yellow rubber duck for display. Moving my glance upwards, I saw Kalpana aunty on her rear balcony, a beaming smile on her face. She was engaging with the child with some baby talk about how she was and what was in her hand.
Intrigued and fascinated, I continued to watch the scene of the little girl explaining how naughty the duck was and aunty nodding in acquiescence and putting in a remark or a question, here and there, to continue the conversation. The sudden appearance of my mother in the balcony, calling out for me, diverted the attention of aunty. Looking in our direction for a brief moment, her expression hardened and she waved a goodbye to the child and vanished inside.
“Ma, who is this little girl”, I asked my mother following her into the living room. “Aunty was in a new avatar altogether!
“They have recently moved into an apartment in the next block”, said my mother. “They are a young couple with a two-year-old daughter”. And then, she added a few other things, and not very kind ones, about aunty and uncle and their family values.
So, that day onwards, in the midst of all the tensions and my preoccupation with examinations and deadlines, I managed to eavesdrop, now and then, to catch bits and pieces of the conversations between aunty and the little one. I took care not to stand prominently in the balcony and could hear them from the settee near the window in our living room.
Quite often, the exchange would start with the little girl calling out insistently “balcony aunty, balcony aunty”. Soon enough, Kalpana aunty would appear on her rear balcony and leaning on the balcony railings, she would enthusiastically start talking to the girl and responding to all that the little one had to say or show. Sometimes it would be “this is my new frock” or “Goofy is very talkative and I scolded him” or “my happy birthday is tomorrow tomorrow”. Aunty kept up with the happy ramblings of the child with “wow! So nice” or “really?” Somedays, I would hear a rhyme that the child has learnt, perhaps accompanied with endearing actions. I could not see the child at all now but I could see a portion of aunty’s balcony and her profile.
Gradually, Mahesh uncle was also drawn into these exchanges though his appearances were always brief and his conversations with the child did not flow freely and naturally as aunty’s did. Also, he always made a pretense of coming to the balcony only for some work like dusting the railings or picking up dried clothes from the clothesline. However, there was an unmistakable softening of expression and voice when he talked to the kid.
“Ma, this little girl seems to have changed aunty and uncle for the better”, I said to my mother one day. She smirked and had a lot to say about tigers’ stripes and revelation of true colours, sooner or later.
I watched the transformation in the demeanour and behaviour of these two oddballs with fascination and, I must admit, with a twinge of envy. After all, they must have seen me and my younger brother also as little children from their balcony but I do not recall their exchanging any pleasantries with us. Perhaps, their stance towards all neighbours had become rigid over the years. Their image in the eyes of all as an unpleasant and quarrelsome duo was often reflected in the limited interaction they had with others. In fact, my mother was more vocal in her opinions about them and aunty just ignored us altogether. “Aunty and uncle must have seen in the little girl the first non-judgmental approach in the surroundings”, I mused.
As I moved to the US for higher studies and got sucked into the whirlpool of academics and adjustments in a new environment, I had very little time to think about home and the life I had left behind. Occasionally, fleeting memories of Kalpana aunty and the little girl would cross my mind but gradually, these thoughts blurred as other new and engaging visions were getting imprinted on my mind.
I was not even conscious that I had not thought about them for a very long time till I stepped out onto my balcony the morning after I had returned home for a vacation after two years. I was taking in the familiar surroundings with new eyes when, all of a sudden, I thought about Kalpana aunty and the child. I looked up and then to my right. Both the balconies were empty.
Somewhere in the midst of all the eager enquiries I made to my family about things that had happened in my absence, I asked my mother about aunty and the little girl whose name I did not know. Kalpana aunty always called her “beta”, the generic term of endearment used by a senior while addressing a child.
“The little girl’s family has shifted to some other locality”, my mother informed me. “But, these two are very much there”, she added. When I asked her how they were, she just shrugged and said that being loud and creating a nuisance was in their blood. I did not think any further on this matter as I sank into the pleasures of homecoming and catching up with old friends.
Two day later, after dinner, as I reclined on my bed with my laptop and was engrossed in what I was doing, I heard voices in conversation with occasional laughter and clinking of glasses. I sat up and listened attentively. I could hear several voices and now strains of an old Hindi film song, sung in a male voice, came wafting through. Certainly, there was a party going on as I could hear other sounds of applause, people chatting and loud guffaws, perhaps when a joke was cracked.
I went to my brother at his study desk in the next room and asked him if all these sounds were coming from aunty’s house. He grinned and, nodding in the affirmative, said tongue in cheek “shocking, isn’t it? What are people coming to nowadays?”
My mother too had to concede, though grudgingly, that they have started socializing more and were also civil to the neighbours. Not one to give up on her prejudices easily, she added, “Earlier they were quarreling and now they are partying. Disturbance it is, in any case”.
My father looked up from the magazine that he was reading and added “they do fight still but not so often and do not fly off the handle as before. The other day, Mahesh actually stopped and greeted me when I met him in the market”.
A few days later, when I had gone to our balcony to water the plants, I saw Kalpana aunty on her balcony, her back towards me and busy with something hidden from my view. As she straightened up and was turning to go indoors, her glance fell on me.
Putting aside the years of conditioning, where I saw her mostly as a monster, I smiled tentatively, half raising my hand in a hesitant wave and said meekly, “Hi aunty!” There was a moment of suspense before I saw aunty smile and moving to the end of her balcony that was closer to our side, said “Hello beta! Back from the US?”
I replied something appropriate which I do not recall now as I stood transfixed at the beautiful smile that had lit up her entire face and suffused it with a radiant glow. The five-year-old child in me felt happy, included and everything felt alright with the world.