Curiosity

[Part three of the ‘Visiting Home‘ series. To read this as an independent piece, here’s some context: the narrator, an Indian living abroad, is on a visit to Bangalore.]

A few days into my visit, Mr.Aloknath – Pa’s friend and business associate – came home. I remembered Mr.Aloknath from my school days in Ranchi. He would visit us now and then, saying he was just “passing by” and had “dropped in to say hello”. The circumstance of this visit was not dissimilar: he was in Bangalore for a few days, and Pa had invited him home to tea.

You’ve grown taller, young man! Mr.Aloknath said, as we shook hands. It was a response I had frequently drawn from relatives on yearly visits to Bangalore as a child, and listening to it now, well into the thirties, made me laugh.

Mr.Aloknath, a short, round, dark man, sported an acrobatic greying moustache that almost touched his white sideburns, a style that had the curious effect of making him look like a tribal with a painted face. Over tea he enquired about several matters, mostly trivial, and offered his opinion on each. The monotonous drone of his sentences brought to mind my college English teacher Mr.Pundit who, in a Shakespeare class, displayed a remarkable constancy of tone that made Caesar, Cassius, Brutus and Casca all seem like one character. I kept up appearances, answering politely, with minimum effort. Sooner or later I expected the inevitable question.

So you’re almost thirty now, aren’t you? Mr.Aloknath asked, popping a pakora into his mouth. Spots of ketchup on his moustache added a touch of violence to the tribal’s mask.

Thirty three, I replied.

Thirty three! he said, raising his eyebrows. When do you want to get married? You’re growing old, boy!

I’m not in a hurry, I said. There’s still time.

What about children, then? he persisted. You are already thirty three – when do you plan to have children?

I paused. The border between what is private and what isn’t is a line drawn by culture, and in this country the private sphere occupied little space. A colleague would openly ask for details of your recent hike; a neighbour would show no hesitation asking you who last evening’s guests were; a relative from one side of the family would want to know how much property you were inheriting from the other side. I knew all this, and I saw the humour in it too, but the volley of questions had begun to irritate me. I sipped more tea.

You see, Mr.Aloknath continued, licking his fingers. I told my son that I want a grandchild within a year of his marriage, no questions asked. And he delivered. I mean, his wife delivered – you know what I mean. Career and studies will keep happening, but marriage and children are things you cannot postpone.

I don’t intend to have children, I said.

Oh. Why?

Carbon footprint, I replied, keeping a straight face. Bringing up a child would increase the family carbon footprint significantly. Global warming concerns, you see. What are your views on the environment and global warming?

Mr.Aloknath paused, his mouth open, a pakora in hand, not sure how to interpret this. Relief came in the form of Pa who returned, at that moment, after a phone call. The conversation shifted course. I excused myself and wished Mr.Aloknath good luck.

* * *

To be continued.

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