Way back I don’t even know when, Amit bought a Sony twin deck cassette player. If you’re 20-something and you’re reading this, you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. But this was a Sony cassette player and it served us well for many, many years. Towards the end, when we’d given up listening to tapes, we used it as an amplifier and speaker system to rig up to our WorldSpace receiver. Yeah, that was before WorldSpace went bust, which was devastating for me, because where else can you get to listen to that diversity of music all in one place? Granted that all I ever listened to was UpCountry, but hey, there was tremendous diversity on UpCountry too.
Anyway, when we moved out of that house and into this one, we didn’t rig up that system – we didn’t have WorldSpace anymore anyway and tapes had become fossils long ago. We still had a much loved collection of cassettes, but, like our collection of much-loved books, it remained boxed up in our store room for many months.
Enter V, our newest cook and all-in-one. She, her husband, and their three-year-old daughter are caretakers of the empty (haunted, so they say) house just behind ours. When we go up to our terrace, we are talking distance from their bedroom window. From our kitchen, we can hear pretty much everything that goes on in their small home. Apart from their occasional tendency to turn the music up too loud, it’s ok. In fact, it’s quite convenient when we need to tell them something.
Theirs is a simple life. Some might call it tough. They are employed by a wayward father-son duo. The son always wants to kick them out, the father wants them to stay until they are old and grey. Apparently, their employers don’t appreciate large families, so V and her husband have concealed from them the fact that they have an older daughter – who stays with an uncle and aunt in another part of the city. She is 7, extremely pretty, and calls V – who is her biological mother – auntie.
Their younger daughter is small and seems a little under developed for a three-year-old, but she’s healthy and happy. She’s never had a single inoculation or vaccination of any kind because her mother has a thing about injections. Recently, when she had a bad stomach upset, the doctor gave her a de-worming medicine. V threw it away “because she didn’t have worms.” Now she has live worms in her stool.
V and her husband can’t ever leave the house at the same time, not even on weekends, because their employer might turn up at any time and he expects them to be around. So they can never go out loafing or to the market together. They buy all their groceries at the nearest (but not necessarily cheapest) corner store. V had to leave a job at another house because her employer said it kept her away from his house for too long. On top of it all, there’s always the danger that their employer might actually succeed in selling the house (at an exorbitant price) and then the new owners might throw them out at a day’s notice.
V and her husband are from Darjeeling. They grew up together, fell in love, and ran away together. V’s mother died when she was young and her father remarried. She has no contact with any of her family members anymore. She says she had an election ID card in Darjeeling and maybe a ration card as well, but here she has no documents. No address proof. So they have no bank account. We are their bankers. Their other employer is more of a Shylock, paying them salary arbitrarily, frequently three weeks late, and not always in entirety. They have no recourse.
What they do have, is a mobile phone. I don’t know how they got one, without address proof, but it’s all they have. It’s their music system, and their movie hall. They might not be very literate, but they do know how to get movies onto that tiny device and watch them on the postage stamp-size screen. That’s their daughter’s primary source of entertainment (and education). Apart from that, they play music as loudly as they can as often as they can. Thankfully, it’s Hindi oldies, so we don’t mind.
Some months ago, I gave them the old twin deck cassette player. It needed some fixing and it took them all these months to get it fixed. V wasn’t keen to leave it at the shop because, she said, they might take out good parts from it to use on other systems. But they got it done at last, at a grand total of Rs 240. I’d given them half a dozen tapes along with the music system – all Hindi oldies. Yesterday evening, I was treated to my namesake song, Anamika, wafting through the kitchen windows with all the robust roundness that a Sony music system can produce even in its old age – and it was quite a treat, after months of suffering the tinny sounds produced by a cheap mobile phone with the volume set to maximum. This morning, V’s husband was lustily belting out an old Hindi Bollywood love song in accompaniment to one of our old tapes. They hadn’t ever played that song on their mobile phone, but he knew all the words anyway. V, who was working in our kitchen at the time, was telling me with subdued enthusiasm that only three of the old tapes I’d given them were currently working. The rest were being dried out on the terrace. They’ll probably work once they dry out, she said, smiling happily.
The fact that their employer actually managed to sell the house yesterday and that they don’t yet know what the new owners are going to do with them didn’t seem to dampen her joy much.