Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol XXXI No. 22, March 1-15, 2022
The Woman from Madras Musings has been binging on crime documentaries of late. The stories of artful scammers are particularly fascinating, she finds – it takes both cunning and charm to convincingly play a role that everyone buys into. (Wo)MMM is rather pleased to say that she has had a close encounter with a rather nice, self-declared trickster in our very own Chennai.
In the halcyon days before the pandemic, (Wo)MMM and the nephew had the habit of watching a movie at the theatre once in a while. These were usually late-evening or night shows to accommodate work and study schedules. On one such jaunt, the nephew arrived declaring that he was famished. There was time enough to grab a bite before the movie began, so (Wo)MMM and the nephew sauntered to the frankie shop across the road. It was a lively place, quite crowded even at that time of night. As the nephew waited his turn, a small figure materialized at his shoulder – it was a little girl, not more than ten years old, carrying a bunch of large picture books under her arm. She looked him up and down in frank appraisal and proceeded to subject (Wo)MMM to the same unnerving assessment. She must have been satisfied in some manner for she held out a rather tattered, grimy book and fixed us with a glittering eye. ‘Buy books’, she ordered crisply. (Wo)MMM demurred, explaining that she was well past the age of picture books and so was her nephew. ‘Buy them for your children,’ she demanded, waving the book insistently; when she learned that (Wo)MMM had none, she harrumphed in disbelief. ‘You’re old,’ she said with a touch of condescension. ‘Why don’t you have any yet?’ (Wo)MMM could do nothing but goggle at her. The nephew had gotten his order by then and was tucking into his frankie with wild abandon; the little girl watched with great interest and piped up when he was halfway through his meal. ‘It is rude’, she sniffed indignantly, ‘to not offer me any. You’re making me watch you eat!’ The nephew froze mid-bite. It was a terrible accusation and the only polite thing to do was to offer her a bite or a frankie of her choice. She grinned most impishly before declining – she only wanted to tease him, she kindly explained to the nephew’s mortification, for he seemed to eat like there was no tomorrow. She settled down comfortably on a nearby chair and declared that her name was Priya before holding forth at length to her mesmerized audience of two. The books were entirely forgotten – they seemed to not be of consequence anymore, for she had more important things to talk about.
The amount of information she packed into her ten-minute monologue was quite astonishing. She spoke of her home and her mother; she proudly said that her mother’s biriyani was quite possibly the best in the city and was waiting for her when she returned home. She spoke of school; she had many favourite teachers and a few enemy teachers, and she had just submitted a small project about Gandhiji that she received good marks for. She digressed into a short, heartfelt thread about one fellow at school who seemed to be her nemesis; she efficiently listed all his physical and mental weaknesses before concluding that he wasn’t worth wasting one’s breath on. She wanted to know if her audience were a couple and declared herself amazed that it was an aunt and her nephew. To his chagrin, she informed the nephew that he looked like the older one before smoothly moving onto (Wo)MMM’s style, which was not to her satisfaction. (Wo)MMM waited until she paused to take a breath and pounced on the opportunity; there was a movie to watch, she explained, and they had to leave. Perhaps she could buy a few books from her after all? ‘You don’t want to buy these books,’ she said, horrified. ‘You seem like nice people. I wouldn’t want to sell them to you – they’re pure junk.’ She looked at the books disdainfully. ‘Full of spelling mistakes and terrible colours. I offload them on people who don’t know better.’ She looked up at (Wo)MMM and flashed her thousand-watt grin once again. ‘Enjoy the movie,’ she said merrily before disappearing into the crowd.
As (Wo)MMM and the nephew waited to cross the road, she suddenly appeared by her shoulder once again. ‘I couldn’t let you go without telling you the truth,’ she said mysteriously. (Wo)MMM felt rather thrilled at this climactic moment. ‘My name isn’t Priya,’ whispered the little girl. ‘I can’t tell you my real name, but it’s not Priya.’ And she melted into the crowds once again, leaving (Wo)MMM gaping at her.
The car was waiting at a red light near the Marina beach when a sort of strangled gasp of astonishment escaped the cousin sitting in the backseat. The lad urged the Woman from Madras Musings to look upon an auto coming up on the left; he felt it presented a sight that was audacious even by Chennai standards. (Wo)MMM stole a glance at the vehicle and immediately saw what he meant. The auto itself was quite ordinary but for the fact that it was practically bulging with people from every nook and cranny. (Wo)MMM couldn’t help taking a headcount of the passengers; the auto carried six adults and two children, not including the driver – two grownups flanked the driver on either side, while the others occupied every inch and more of the backseat, hips and arms jutting out into the road. The young ones were perched on a confusion of knees and laps at the back. It was a wonder that the auto had not tipped over to one side.
When the signal turned green, the auto shuddered to life and trundled along the road, keeping a judicious distance from other vehicles and pedestrians. (Wo)MMM doubted that the driver could see anything apart from the passengers in his rearview mirror – he was essentially blinkered to anything but the road straight in front of him. It appeared as if he couldn’t even reach the horn, for an arm came snaking out at regular intervals from the backseat to honk it.
(Wo)MMM watched as the wobbly auto approached a traffic checkpoint. It rattled on unconcernedly, its cargo tilting dangerously with every swerve and turn; it trundled right past the checkpoint with nary a problem, honking its thanks to the traffic policemen on watch. The bike right behind it, on the other hand, was swiftly collared – its rider was not wearing a helmet. He stood to the side, looking rather piteously at the auto which had turned a corner by then. (Wo)MMM rather felt for him at that moment – it looked like he felt rather unloved by the city, given that such an atrociously full auto had just been given a free pass. He won’t forget his helmet again in a hurry, though. The auto driver, on the other hand, is quite unlikely to change his ways.
It was the driver who brought up the subject. The cab had just gone past when he piped up all of a sudden, asking the Woman from Madras Musings if she had cast her ballot for the local body elections yet. He didn’t really wait for an answer – the question was just a convenient preamble to the story he really wanted to tell. It transpired that he had been approached by many candidates in his ward, promising him and his family a number of things – he whispered confidentially that some of them offered him monetary perks, too. Naturally, (Wo)MMM asked him what he did. ‘Who on earth would refuse Lakshmi when she’s willing to come? I took it and cast my vote for my favourite candidate, anyway,’ he said with a grin. Fair enough, really.