I was still what many would call an adolescent boy when I first met Shabnam aunty. I had just started junior college and I was sixteen when my dad passed away following a difficult battle with pancreatic cancer. There’s something about being confronted with the mortality of your own, or someone you love and still consider invincible for the most part, that is simply heart wrenching. I remember how dad had changed in the fifteen months or so that he was alive for after being diagnosed. I didn’t see it then, but I now see clearly the stages of him coming to terms with the life changing news and how they manifested in a person you look up to and live under the same roof with.
My father was a good man. Flawed and tenacious. He had worked all his life to reap the rewards of what was a lifetime of confronting his problems, making peace with his own demons and learning to love himself at last. I’m sure he never stopped dealing his with his own battles, but somewhere it was more important for him to be a good husband to my mother and be a good father to me than be insecure and vulnerable.
In the last few months, however, I saw all of that change. The first 3 months were the worst. He wasn’t in as much physical pain as he was toward the end but the anguish and disgust of being the chosen one by life or God or fate or whatever construct people put their faith in to explain all this. He was angry, very angry – mostly at himself, as I understood much later.
He wasn’t angry at me when he yelled at me on top of his voice when I left the door open one day when I left for college. I remember wondering why he was so angry at me for leaving the door open. Sure we could get robbed but he was at home. It was much later that I realized that he wasn’t mad at me that day, but himself for not being able to protect us from things like that and I guess he couldn’t yell at himself about it any longer so his restraint cracked.
I wish I had a brain that could process it at the time because from his knee jerk reaction came mine. I slammed the door shut in his face, screamed “Fuck this!” and left, with no clue where I would go or what I would do. I just couldn’t stay in that house any longer. I walked quite a distance before cessation of the sobs. I saw grant road station in the distance and with no money in my pockets, I decided to seek shelter there for the night.
From the corner of my eye, I saw her approach and that was the first time I met her. I had been sitting on the platform for an hour and it was well past the time for the last train in either direction. She was smiling – it was a smile I couldn’t at the time understand or appreciate. It is distinctly imprinted in my memory though. There was just something so haunting about it.
Before I even realized, she was right in my face. “Mera naam Shabnam aunty hai. Tumhara naam kya hai?” she asked in a playful yet assertive voice. I looked around, knowing full well that there were just the two of us on the platform at the time and there couldn’t have been anyone else she was addressing. I had seen her pace directly towards me but in the few moments of trying to avoid eye contact, I had gotten lost into my delusional world of hating my father.
When her words broke the chaos in my head and cut through my lambent consciousness, I told her my name then hung me head back down, as if trying to convey my desire to be left alone through cupped deep breaths. She persisted though – Train chooth gayi? was the swift follow up question.
I thought about saying haan. Just to end it there but something told me that it wouldn’t have ended there. In that moment, something inside me snapped and I began telling this absolute stranger I just met things about myself that I hadn’t told very many people. I told her that my father was dying and that I was mad at him and mad at myself for being mad at him. For not being able to handle my feelings. She listened. Quietly and intently.
After I was done talking, she grabbed my arm and said Chal! Kahan? I asked but her grin only widened and she said chal na, beginning to tug on my arm. It was probably the first time I had been invited to do anything with a member of the opposite sex. In fact, it was the most attention I had got from a member of the opposite sex in my entire life. There was no way in hell I was going to say no. I wanted to go where Shabnam Aunty was taking me.
She walked ahead and led the way as I followed her sheepishly, not fully sure what was going on. It was the first time in weeks that I was feeling excited about anything. The weight of my dad’s condition seemed to feel lighter in those few moments of the climbing the foot over bridge with her. A policeman saw us get out of the station with the kind of prying indifference that is recognizable as their specific brand of judgment.
Shabnam Aunty must’ve been in her early thirties at the time – her face bore small permanent scars that had healed but the smile that her face contorted into, made the scars seem like they had been drawn to provide misdirection that was reserved for her uninhibited chortling. Why was she so happy, I wondered. As we wandered on the streets, I began to put two and two together.
She would turn back intermittently, as if to see if I was still following her. Of course I was. Where was I going to go? In about ten minutes, we reached the entrance of a barely two story building. A black Sintex plastic tank greeted us at the gate, blocking half the entrance. We entered and she zipped my mouth shut with her thumb pulling an imaginary zipper, sensing that I may have questions.
We climbed a flight of stairs to see a tinfoil clad door, barely held in place by an assortment of nails haphazardly banged into it. A small cable lock was used to keep it shit that she unlocked using a key strategically hidden somewhere near her left breast. We entered her house. She asked if I wanted to eat something then offered me a seat on the only place there was to sit other than the floor – a cot that didn’t look half bed to my tired eyes. I was feeling sleepy but the adrenaline pumping in my blood was not going to let me sleep.
She slowly began to undress – just the accessories and the topmost layer of clothing. She first took her ear rings off, then undid her hair and shook her head. There was no intent to seduce in her eyes, she was just going about her day as she would’ve if I had not been there. She reached for her phone and began playing old Bollywood songs from the 90s and started dancing in all her half naked glory.
I watched her feel happy, disregard everything that mattered with reckless abandon and just exist. It must’ve been at least 4 a.m. when she stopped the music and sat next to me, exhausted, with her head resting on my shoulder. Ghar kab jaayega? She asked. I did not know what to say to her.
My anger had subsided but there was no way to go back now. This late, how would I enter my house? What would I even do there? Nahi jaana hai wahan, I burst into tears. She tore a piece of paper and wrote her number on it. Ghar ja, she said. Kuch chahiye toh Shabnam Aunty ko phone karna.
I last met Shabnam aunty at my son’s fifteenth birthday. She doesn’t live in the two storeyed building anymore. My son is fond of her. He has been since he was a child and she would come bearing chocolates. The funny thing is, we both call her Shabnam aunty. She has white hair now and it’s mostly confined to a bun but even now when she opens her hair and her face conjures up a smile, I’m reminded of the empty platform of Grant Road station and her face staring down at mine saying Mera naam Shabnam aunty hai. Tumhara naam kya hai?
Photograph: Sudharak Olwe