Mumbai News

Covid-19 Short fiction: Bombay Mixture by Manu Bhattathiri – Hindustan Times

“And who decides Bombay mixture is non-essential?”

Dada stood at the foot of the bed, back arched but eyes glittering in the moonlight from the window. Ma and papa pulled their bed clothes further up their necks, as though they hoped that might stop the remaining sleep from being drained out of them. Papa switched on his bedside lamp.

“Ok,” papa said, suppressed temper showing up as a vein on his forehead. “Why don’t I give you some money, daddy? You can go out now… Er… let me see, yes, it’s only 1am. Why don’t you just walk down to the supermarket at the end of the street, make them open it by explaining how essential Bombay mixture is, and buy some from them?”

“Cursed be the times when sons send fathers out in the middle of the night,” wailed dada. He looked like an old crow crouched on a branch it couldn’t trust to hold its weight. “Remember, Raj, my son, who I taught to walk and talk and back answer; you too shall reach my age, and in not too distant a future, by the looks of it. And then your son will drive you out of the house, shove you out with his foot, to buy essentials in the middle of the night.”

Before my father smashed the lamp on his father’s head, ma stepped out of bed, held dada by his frail, twig-like arm and led him back to his room with soothing words. She told him they would get him his Bombay mixture by morning if they had to go to Bombay for it.

“No, Bombay mixture is not just made in Bombay,” dada corrected her urgently. “In fact, it was in the Nineties that it came to be called Bombay mixture! The bloody English and the Irish called it that, what do you know. You will be surprised, in Bombay itself it is not called Bombay mixture. It is called chiwda —”

“Ok, ok daddy,” ma said, not blaming papa for wanting to kill this man. “I was just joking. We will get you your Bombay mixture in the morning.”

That was her mistake because the next morning, first thing, dada scrooched before papa again as he was drinking his tea, asking if the Bombay mixture had been obtained yet. “There’s a supermarket at the end of the street. Did you try explaining to them the simple logic that ‘essential’ is different things to different people?”

For the fourth time that week papa explained to dada that there was a global pandemic on and we were under a lockdown order and that the world, unfortunately, did not consider Bombay mixture as essential to survival and so it was rather impossible to acquire it.

“Perhaps the world hasn’t got its definition of essential right,” said dada. “Even the air is essential only to the drowning man. Explain to the supermarket guys that when a man is old enough to die any moment and wants Bombay mixture, Bombay mixture becomes essential to him. Very essential.”

“But you are not dying, daddy,” papa seemed to chew and spit out each word. “Seems like you will be around for my funeral party.”

“I am eighty-four. At my age, anything I want could be my last wish. What can be more essential than a last wish?”

And precisely this was my grandfather’s specialty: he could lay a foundation of pure nonsense and then build upon it a skyscraper of pure logic. You see, he was a lawyer in his time and people said of his mouth that it didn’t go blah-blah, it went snip-snip.

Dada’s wildest fantasy: A mound of chiwda waiting to be packaged at the Poona Merchants Chambers in Pune on October 31, 2018, ahead of Diwali.
Rahul Raut/HT Photo

Ma explained to me that dada had always been a fan of Bombay mixture. Before his days of dementia, he had told her once that it was with a plate of Bombay mixture that my dadi had lassoed his heart. “Her father used to call me home to discuss a family property dispute,” dada had told ma. “And amidst the heated discussion this girl — your future mother-in-law — would come into the room with hot chai and a plate of Bombay mixture. She would wait till I had finished all of it. She loved to watch me get distracted from the case because of the mixture.”

Last week dada said he dreamed that dadi had come in (old and toothless but in her bridal dress) and put a plate of fresh, irresistible Bombay mixture by his bed. And so, for six days in a row, he had been at it. Mornings, afternoons, evenings and sometimes nights he stood before papa, gaunt but eyes afire, pleading, commanding, persuading, ordering, coaxing, threatening, reminding, reasoning. Papa made him watch the Mahabharata and the Ramayana on television so that his spiritual side would kick in and he would stop yearning for material things. “It isn’t your age to get cravings like pregnant women,” he told dada. “Of all people, you should be teaching the rest of us how to be happy with just the essentials.”

“Essentials, essentials,” snip-snipped dada. “For that matter how is life itself essential? If I die or if you die, what difference does it make to the world? So why is the rice and dal given to us to keep us alive so essential, when we ourselves do not matter?”

Papa gulped his acidity medicine. His vein throbbed, like it was a worm his brain was trying to push out. “I’ll kill him, hold me back,” he told ma tiredly and it really distressed her to see him so distressed.

“If you commit parricide now and they send you to jail,” ma whispered, “you can’t even ensure social distancing. Who knows if the prisoners lining up for food keep a metre between them?”

That was our home for you, about a month into the lockdown: Ma still finding her metallic humour at times, mostly pulling my grandfather out of his own son’s angry claws; papa already on edge with lack of exercise and thoughts of what this virus was doing to his business; dada not giving him a moment’s rest, going on and on, and after that on and on again. Papa snapped at me a time or two, threw coffee into the kitchen sink because ma hadn’t added enough sugar, banged doors, thudded plates and glasses, yelled into the phone very often and almost chewed dada’s head off. But dada wasn’t discouraged. Right in the middle of a pious episode on television he turned around and yelled: “If it was any one of you that wanted Bombay mixture, it would have been on the table already. Lockdown or no lockdown.”

I am ashamed to admit that at this time it wasn’t just the words ‘Bombay mixture’ that made us want to pull our hair out. The very sight of dada seemed to annoy us, particularly me and papa. The tap-tap of his walking stick, his grating, droning voice and his burp at the end of his meals were revolting to us. Papa further tried to nudge and push and shove dada into spirituality, as though that would help us hate him less and free us of our guilt for it. In the mornings, after ma and papa bathed dada, papa began to smear holy ash on his old man’s forehead. He hung the pictures of gods on the walls of dada’s room. He made him repeat the thousand names of Lord Vishnu after him. He even read out to dada verses from the Bhagavad Gita every evening. Once at the end of the reading dada asked with a yawn: “Is prayer an essential item? I hope you are enquiring?”

On the side, papa was indeed regularly scanning the various shopping apps on his mobile phone to see if anyone, anyone at all, might be selling a little bit of Bombay mixture. He phoned all the numbers he had of local stores. He even asked his friends if any of them might have some in an old tin they had forgotten on a kitchen shelf. A shopkeeper whom papa had telephoned for the third time to ask the same thing insulted him a little: “Sir, you talk like Bombay mixture is a vaccine for Corona. No, I still haven’t got it.”

Meanwhile dada, whom spirituality quite failed to engage, kept at it:

“Who says a cure for this virus is essential? I don’t think ninety-nine percent of living beings think this vaccine is essential.

“Why say the world is ending? We are ending. The world will be around. Hee hee hee!

“Can’t make an eighty-four-year-old’s wish come true. Do you deserve to survive? I haven’t asked for the Kohinoor diamond.”

Finally, one afternoon while papa was taking his siesta dada approached the bed like he might have approached the bench in his prime. He addressed Your Honour with his most verdict-clinching argument yet: “You cannot deny the possibility that I die tonight. At eighty-four, I could die any moment. Will you be able to forgive yourself for the rest of your life if you couldn’t get me a little bit of Bombay mixture before I breathed my last?”

That evening papa fitfully put on his shirt and pants and combed his hair. Ma asked about a mask and he said, “Mask be damned. If I die, I die.” But ma made a mask out of a handkerchief and some tissue paper and tied it around papa’s nose. Shoving his wallet into his trouser pocket, he ran to his scooter mumbling: “I come back with Bombay mixture, or I don’t come back.”

Now, after his scooter vroomed out our gates, we only have papa’s account of events to go by. The reader should keep in mind that papa had the same blood as dada running in his veins. Well, he says the police promptly stopped him at the first junction and asked him if he wasn’t aware there was a lockdown on and what his emergency was. “My emergency is Bombay mixture,” papa told the policeman, losing his cool at the most inopportune moment and turning spitefully honest. “I either get some Bombay mixture or I murder my old father tonight.” The inspector himself came over to see if this was a madman or a rebel of some sort. Being not just a smart officer but also an empathetic one, he quickly judged that papa was in fact overwhelmed with frustration and despondency. Also that he was speaking the truth.

“Sir, I understand,” the inspector apparently told my papa. “I have an old mother at home. Sometimes you just cannot make them see reason.”

Such an angel was this police man, he then whispered to papa, “Of course, you will not find Bombay mixture anywhere now. But I’ll tell you what. It is sundown already and the bar at the end of the next street will have its shutters halfway up. They’re selling liquor right under our noses. It isn’t permitted, of course, but we turn a blind eye. You know, many people think alcohol is more essential than rice and dal. Who are we to block it?”

Papa was wondering where this was leading.

“Sir, you know the people who do ‘standing’ in these bars? The poor, labour-class drinkers who do not have much money and can’t be bothered to even sit down for a drink? They do ‘standing’: they just crowd around at the counter and gulp their drinks standing. Yes, you know them. What do you think their snack is? What’s the free stuff the barman serves them on pieces of old newspaper?”

Manu Bhattathiri

Manu Bhattathiri
Courtesy the author

“BOMBAY MIXTURE!” papa exclaimed.

“Shhh! Yes. Please run down to that bar and ask them. They’re sure to have some. And … please, don’t tell anyone that I told you this.”

This might read like a fairytale, but papa says he then rode up to Sreedurga Bar and Restaurant which, sure enough, had its shutters halfway up. The barman and the standing drinkers began to snigger at papa’s special request. “First time someone’s asking for Bombay mixture alone,” guffawed the barman. He told papa that he had Bombay mixture, of course, but he couldn’t just give that solo, like at some provision store or bakery. “You need to buy liquor,” says the barman. “And if you want a kilo of it, you need to buy enough liquor for that much. The mixture is free.”

So my papa, in whose veins run my dada’s blood, was back at our door before long, carrying a cloth bag in which clanked a big bottle of whiskey against a big bottle of club soda, at the side of which snuggled a kilogram of Bombay mixture in a newspaper tied up with a dirty thread. “I was forced to buy whiskey,” he explained to ma. “Bring two glasses.”

“You are not making your father drink!” ma said desperately. “He has dementia. He has a weak liver. He is eighty—”

“Can’t have the mixture alone. It is free only with the whiskey.” But then papa smiled at ma. “Relax. Remember the old days? When me and him used to have a drink on the balcony and talk about this and that?” Ma still wasn’t convinced. “I won’t give him too much. Just a bit. I promise.”

And so, Barrister Sadanand and Contractor Rajkumar shut themselves up in the old man’s room to enjoy the lockdown. Long after I and ma had gone to sleep they were at it. Later papa had such fragrant words to describe his merry time with his father. He said the Bombay mixture lived up to their expectations. The fried lentils were the first to get up and fly out of the newspaper wrap. Soon the chickpeas, the sev, the corn and the paper itself flew around the room. Dada got up and switched off the light. They could still see the mixture float about in the moonlight, smell the fried onions and the curry leaves in it. As it fell like confetti, father and son held their mouths under it.

Unlike dada, papa felt no compulsion to be logical when he narrated an event he had enjoyed immensely.

Manu Bhattathiri is the author of Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, and The Town That Laughed. His new novel is set to be released by Aleph Book Company later this year.