The Singhs lately of Long Beach, New Jersey were a large family, even by Indian standards. Mr and Mrs Singh, second-generation Americans having met and fallen in love at a Target store during a pre-Christmas super sale (she on colliding with Mr Singh had dropped four tubs of her favourite Rocky Road ice cream all over his pants making a mess she was later thankful for, as it led to a rather unusual date at the laundromat where she promised to undo the damage and which ended with their first kiss), went on to produce four sons in the quest for a daughter, who eluded them.
Mrs Singh had taken to dressing her youngest in girls’ clothes and tying his hair in ribbons till he was two years old – if there was any lasting damage done to the young lad, it was yet to be ascertained. Having decided – after their third of four boys had been caught smoking pot and agitating to drop out of school to pursue a rap career – that perhaps the laxity of America was more than their boys could handle, they moved to repatriate the whole family in the hopes of sorting the boys out.
It was this musical progeny that was the first to tumble out of the SUV that morning, still plugged into his iPod, pants slung low on his hips. He stood there while boxes of various sizes and shapes were flung at him, which he caught and placed on the ground stacking them up to make a rather unwieldy tower. The automobile now empty of its inanimate objects, started clearing out the animated ones.
Limbs appeared out of its many doors eventually lining up the entirety of the Singh family, eldest to youngest in descending order. The boys set to unloading the tempo while Mrs Singh looked around her new surroundings sizing it up, as indeed was Mrs Mody up on her perch sizing the Singhs up, for these were the new tenants that would occupy the empty first floor flat opposite the Ranganekars.
Mrs Roy, arms on hips stood staring down the elevator shaft, as if giving it one of her sternest looks would manage to restart the darned thing.
The elevator was public property and Mrs Roy was furious that one family had managed to appropriate it for the bulk of the morning. So engrossing was this blatant disregard for common utilities that she had quite overlooked the appearance and hasty disappearance of her neighbour and sworn enemy Mr Patel. She stood there, draped in a crisp white cotton sari, her long wet hair patterning a damp patch on her blouse, intermittently stopping to interrogate passers- by on the status of the movers. Not satisfied with the smattering of intel coming her way, she wound her hair into a bun and, adjusting her pallu, set off to gather it first-hand.
The first floor was a chaos of cartons, discarded bits of masking tape and red and white stickers with the words FRAGILE printed on them in capitals. Baulking at the hysteria of it all, Mrs Roy drew the end of her pallu to cover her mouth and nose as if to prevent contagion, and peered into the Singhs’ flat through the slight gap in the door when it opened to reveal a rather crumpled-looking boy whose clothes seemed to be patched together with pins and slogans!
Her eyes widening, she muffled a hasty greeting that was reciprocated with an upwards jerk of the head as the boy meandered around her to salvage another box from the landing. Mrs Roy shook her head in disapproval of this blatant flouting of building protocol and punched the doorbell with her pinky finger while the others kept her makeshift mask together.
This time, it was Mrs Singh who appeared, dusting her hands on the sides of her jeans before holding it out in greeting. “Hello. Nina Singh,” she introduced herself in a twangy accent that looped its Ls a little too much for Mrs Roy’s liking or comprehension. “Sorry about the mess, we should be done in a couple of hours and then I ought to get cracking on my groceries...gosh, the day seems unending.” Mrs Singh offered, sending Mrs Roy into recoil, that someone would so freely share information with a stranger seemed exactly the kind of overzealousness she had a particular distaste for. She nodded her head in assent, and for once being at a loss for words, turned and climbed back up the stairs, leaving Mrs Singh a little nonplussed.
Unbeknownst to the two women, their entire awkward exchange was keenly observed through the peephole, the other side of which stood Mrs Ranganekar.
A reedy looking woman with a strength and industriousness that belied her structure, Mrs Ranganekar had finished more in the modest hours after waking than everyone in Paradise Towers put together. She had bathed, offered flowers and prayers to Lord Ganesha, brought in the newspaper, read the newspaper end to end, prepared breakfast for Mr Ranganekar (pouring only a cup of steaming, frothy black coffee for herself) after whose departure she had dusted and swabbed her flat, and tackled the preparing of food that went into the rows of aluminium lunch boxes, dulled from years of wear, that lined her kitchen counter.
The Ranganekar home was a modest place sparsely furnished with what looked like second-hand furniture. No imagination was put into the choosing of upholstery or curtains and, apart from a large mirror that adorned one of the walls, there was no art. Sporadic potted palms dotted the living area and the only real decoration was a medium-sized stone statue of Ganpati playing the drums. A creaky pedestal fan was blowing the pages of the morning’s newspapers, which lay on a small wooden dining table that was covered with a white table cloth that had brown paisleys around its border. One could say the only defining characteristic of the place was its cleanliness.
Within an hour of battling with spoons and pans, a fortifying vegetarian meal, generously portioned and low on spice and oil, had been ladled into the gaping mouths of the containers, stacked and fastened, now standing ready for pick up.
Abhorrent of the kind of polite chit-chat one was forced to make on encountering ones neighbours, Mrs Ranganekar stood glued to the peephole willing the ladies to end their conversation and leave the coast clear so she could slip out and hand over her steaming hot lunch boxes to the dabbawallah, who stood by the gate absorbed in the crackling commentary from the watchman’s secondhand smartphone. A couple of minutes later, a rather furtive Mrs Ranganekar would make a dash for the gate and its attendant dabbawallah. Ignoring a salute from the watchman, she hastily thrust her lunch boxes into his hands, turned and skittered off as one would when a huge burden, not just in the literal sense, had been lifted.
Excerpted with permission from Paradise Towers, Shweta Bachchan-Nanda, HarperCollins India.