Friday, September 02, 2016

The Locked Gate

As the sun rose, pressure cooker whistles sounded off, the Bombay Municipal Corporation pulled the lever to release Bandra’s allotment, and the water at Christina Bungalow grumbled up the pipe, sputtering, angry, making its way to the water tank on the roof.

Savio D’Souza had switched on the motor and was watching the pipe from downstairs. He called to his wife “Florence! Florence! Has the water reached the tank? We need to make sure there is enough water in the tank. Florence? Florence!”

Florence grumbled up the stairs, more angry with each step. Why does he always make me go up? He knows my knees are bad, she thought to herself. She slowly reached the top, peering in; the water had trickled into the black rubber tank, filling to the brim.

“Yes, it has Savio”, she called back down, hoping he would not call her again.

She waited a moment on the balcony; the crows were hovering around the courtyard. She noticed the iron-wallah at the neighbor’s house, soon he would ring the bell and Savio would be shouting for her again. She quickly resumed her morning chores. Her grown son, Sebastian, worked all night at the call center and had slept at 6am. Florence’s daughter, Violet was a college student and had a Mathematics Class at 10am. Florence quickly prepared Violet’s breakfast, swept the floor and ironed Sebastian’s shirt.

Violet was skinny like her father, she had his complexion and short temper. Like Savio, she hated eating but was picky about her food. Tall and broad like his mother; Sebastian had inherited her wide smile. At home he was painfully shy, preferring to stay upstairs when others were home or people were visiting. Though Sebastian was grown, he still gave is entire paycheck to the family. Florence hated this fact because Savio had lost his job last year and had not looked for another one since. He felt he made enough money with the various paying guests he kept in the house. The paying guests were mostly foreigners so Savio didn’t have to make 11 month leases as was expected by Indian rental laws. The entire downstairs of the bungalow, except for one family room was given to the paying guests, mostly pronounced PeeGees (PGs).

What frustrated Florence the most was that the big kitchen downstairs was given to the PGs. And though Florence didn’t like to cook, nor was she particularly good at it, she resented the fact that her and the children were squeezed into such a small space upstairs.

Their bungalow was like others on a side road in Bandra, the Queen of the Suburbs, as it was nicknamed in Bombay. Bandra was known for its sea-sides laced with dreaming lovers intimate in anonymity, film star sightings and posh eateries. Nestled between coconut trees and busy roads, Christina Bungalow was a beautiful Portuguese themed home with a classic Goan Catholic feeling. A grotto with a large cross was visible through the gate on the right side, and Savio’s scooter was in front of it. It stayed parked there for a long time after Savio was gone. This road, which led to St. Andrew’s College, was one of the only streets left in Bandra that had not given up the bungalows for expensive flats with hundreds of residents. Most of the residents were Catholics, for the local housing society had decreed that all owners should be Catholics of Goan descent, preferably.  

Florence had just given Violet her breakfast of omlet, pav and chai, when she heard Savio again.

“Florence! Florence!” he called from the downstairs family room.

“Coming,” she responded going down the windy staircase.

Heavier in her middle age, Florence was always a bit clumsy but beautiful. Photos of their marriage that hung in the family room downstairs showed Florence smiling wide as she and Savio looked up from cutting their cake. She was wearing a white dress and he, slim and waif-like was smiling a forced side smile, his eyes glancing sideways with a skeptical grin in a black suit. Friends had jokingly said they looked like the number eighteen; he was ‘1’, so thin, he almost seemed one dimensional. Florence was the ‘8’ round and plump, with color in her cheeks.

“I never wanted to get married,” Florence told the PGs, “I was about to pass age 30 and my family was getting frustrated with me. So I met Savio and decided to marry him”. Both were Goan Catholic and the families had agreed. They had few common interests but the pressure of time and society bound them together. Sebastian was born the next year and Florence kept herself busy with the child. Savio began working for an international transport company as a courier.

When Sebastian was one, they had moved into Christina Bungalow to care for Savio’s ill uncle, Anthony D’Souza. He had dementia and needed daily care. Florence cooked and cleaned for the old man, and he was grateful and appreciative. When he died, he left them an amazing gift, but no way out of it. He left the bungalow to Savio and his 12 cousins. Family wars at the Bandra Court prevented them from selling the house without sharing the profit with all the cousins. The D’Souzas stayed in Christina and made it their own.

The left part of the first floor of the bungalow was for the PGs. It had three bedrooms, one office and 3 bathrooms, all with hot water showers and English toilets. Savio wanted the PGs to be as comfortable as possible. He enjoyed drinking and smoking with their friends when they held parties in the courtyard. They always bought expensive liquor and sometimes Savio helped himself to it when they were at work, filling the missing portion with water from the Aqua Guard filter. For Savio, the PGs were a welcome relief, a breeze of fresh sea air in Bombay’s stale, musty climate. They reminded him of being young in Bombay, roaming around aimlessly with friends, smoking and drinking feni liquor from Goa. For the PGs, Christina Bungalow was as close to home as they could find in this foreign country. Florence did not mind them, they were good company at times, but then she had to share her washing machine and kitchen with them.
Florence came to the family room and saw Savio on the sofa.
“Florence, where is my breakfast?” he asked.
“Savio, I am preparing food for the children. Can you please come upstairs? But please be quiet as Sebastian is sleeping” she responded.

“Bloody kids”, he muttered loud enough for Florence to hear, “always bloody sleeping”.

Savio had never shown much interest or affection for his children. They seemed like an afterthought and a nuisance to him in general, like unwanted pets. Their tension had come to a painful culmination where Sebastian and Savio had a hurtful fight about keeping PGs in the house, Savio wanted them and Sebastian didn’t—resulting in the fact that both men had not spoken to each other in 2 years. Florence had to make sure they steered clear of one another. Though the job was tough and tiring, she was relieved when Sebastian took the night shift at the call center.

As a family that wasn’t very close, they made extra efforts to avoid one another. Savio wanted to make sure the PGs were happy. Sebastian and Violet cared if their mother was content and their father was not asking them questions. And Florence had to make sure no appeared outwardly unhappy. All the avoidance did not stop the bitterness from building, like a tumor growing slowly within one’s body, waiting to take aim and destroy everything being held together so precariously.

Florence often complained to her sisters about Savio. The three sisters did not like him because he never treated Florence well. Her sisters were all happily married, according to Florence. They had nice husbands who cared for their health problems and bought presents on holidays and occasions. These facts burned Savio’s pride and he banned Florence’s relatives from coming in the house when he was home.

“And then on my birthday, all he did was drink feni and sing Goan songs with his friends all night. I had to keep serving them and serving them. I was getting so tired”, she complained. The sister, plump like Florence, nodded, hating him with every new story. Florence smarted from Savio’s ill treatment of her, but never raised her voice or fought back with him. It just wasn’t worth it, he was a stubborn man, she would say to herself. But at times, she would feel so angry, she would shout at whosoever was around. After some time, she would reconcile herself to her fate, a surprisingly Hindu conclusion for a Catholic.

Her anger rose in the monsoon months of 2005. During the massive floods that July, when the sofa was floating in the family room, the refrigerator was filled with dirty rain water and people were swimming down the road, Savio was cross with her for not saving more items during the flood. During the flood, Lloyd had taken rope and tied a chair to his porch—sat in the rain and waited for the storm to pass—ignoring everyone’s pleas to come in during the torrential rains and flooding.  

“He didn’t know how much I did. I took care of the PGs, cooked food and carried that TV up the stairs”, she said to her sister from Mahim, rubbing her knee, remembering the pain. Though the sun came out, the water rescinded back into the sea and the electricity returned, not all items were spared from long term damage. Hurt feelings could not be dried out in the sun on a hot and humid Bombay afternoon.

Florence was still upset from when Savio had forced her to give up the family dog. Chip, a large mixed Labrador was always tied to the main gate, which was always locked.

“Savio makes us keep the gate locked. Every time the servant comes, I have to fetch the key and Savio always misplaces it, why do we have to be locked up inside?”, Florence complained to her next door neighbor.

Chip was allowed to howl and bark at all those who walked by, but never let to venture out further than 10 steps outside the gate. One day, he broke free and ran away. Somehow, Savio found him and dragged him back home. He was morose, tied to the gate again.  When Savio felt he was trained enough to take him for a longer walk, he broke away and ran too fast and far to be caught again. Neighbors speculated they saw him at Bandra Bandstand, by the sea with stray dogs, playing and running around, but Savio never wanted him back after that.

The only time Florence and Savio seemed to enjoy each other’s company was at the Bandra Gymkhana. Relics from colonial times and taken over by Goan Catholics, the Gymkhanas were traditionally racket clubs, typically where sporting events took place. Over the years, they had evolved into social and sports clubs, with exclusive membership fees and tiers of access. All Catholics were allowed, and Hindus with deep pockets were considered for membership. The Bandra Gymkhana had music and dancing on Wednesday evenings. Savio, Florence and whichever PGs were available would go and enjoy the beer, chips and music from the 50s and 60s. They would return home slightly drunk and smiling, and the next morning the angry water would be pushed up the pipe once again.

The following April, Savio began complaining of back pain, and already rail thin, rapidly started losing weight. When Florence finally convinced him to go see the doctor at Holy Family Hospital on Hill Road, the diagnosis was Leukemia, and it was too advanced to treat. Savio never went back home. In that hospital for the next month, he met visitors and spent time with his family. His death was imminent, so Savio and Sebastian reconciled. Savio passed in early May and his funeral was well attended, with past and present PGs telling stories of his kindness and generosity. He had a family plot at St. Andrews Church, where he would be buried next to his parents Winifred and Vasco D’Souza. Florence felt conflicted about his death. It was so sudden, everything had been so normal. She wondered how she would manage without him around yet thought she would finally be free.

When visitors left and the PGs moved out, Florence joined the widows group at the church. She began doing yoga and lost some of the extra weight. She went on a group trip to Kerala with other widows. She was financially comfortable, her children were supporting her; Savio had left money for them in an insurance policy. While sorting his piles of papers from the family room, Sebastian discovered a file that Savio had created about everyone in his life, including Chip the dog. The file documented various incidents for the humans, rent paid late, and dinner not satisfying. For the dog, it contained transgressions that included barking too loud when the PGs came home and attempting to bite the pav-wallah.

When friends came to pay their respect, she would say she missed him, but found herself complaining about his stubbornness. Every day, she had to climb up the stairs to see if the water had come up to the tank. Her knee ached in the winter. The children were busy with their lives; Sebastian had become outgoing and had a girlfriend. Violet was the lead in the college play. Florence began to resent these changes and felt guilty for her conflicted feelings. A few weeks later, the neighbor came home late and saw Florence sitting inside the family room with the TV on. There was a large lock on the gate.

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