[After Arrival, Progress, and Curiosity, this is the fourth installment in the ‘Visiting Home’ series. The narrator, an Indian living abroad, is on a visit to Bangalore, discovering and interpreting facets of life in the city and at home.]
The days passed quickly. I woke up late each morning, completed my exercises, and settled down to read English, August after a heavy breakfast under Ma’s watchful eyes, quick to notice my empty plate, and her nimble hands, ready to refill it with another helping of uppitu or akki rotti or idli. Friends I intended to meet were at work all day, so I spent the afternoons indoors, reading, writing, and scanning the irregular Bangalore skyline through the window of my room, avoiding the heat outside.
The only birds I saw were kites, circling above crowded tenements in search of prey, and pigeons, lodged on apartment windows. A pair of pigeons had nested outside my window, and the two eggs I’d seen on the first day had morphed into small yellow creatures that barely moved. I had taken to watching over their growth, returning many times each day to check for progress. The chicks, soft lumps of flesh with yellow hair, tiny grey beaks and dark slits for eyes, could both fit into my palm, but I did not try and pick them up. Three or four pigeons were always perched nearby, like relatives who had come by with compliments for a newly born.
The pigeons piqued my curiosity, so on a hot afternoon I put down my book and looked up the Internet to find out more. The technique beneath a pigeon’s homing instinct, an unsolved riddle when I last read on this subject a decade ago, was (Wikipedia said) still an open matter. One theory pointed to the pigeon’s ability to detect Earth’s magnetic field, another more recent finding suggested an orientation facility based on environmental odors, and yet another fell back on the conventional notion of visual clues in the landscape. The mystery had not affected the pigeon’s role in delivery: until as recently as 2002, when India’s Police Pigeon Service in Orissa had been shut down due to rising costs and competition from the Internet, pigeons had been used to deliver messages; there was even a method, blandly termed ‘IP over Avian Carriers’, to transmit Internet messages using pigeons.
In the middle of this brief exploration my thoughts began to wander. Do pigeons know exile? Are there deserter pigeons – ones that leave home never to return? Can a pigeon have two homes?
The heat soon got to me and I decided to take a nap. When Ma woke me up, she reminded me, gently, that the driver would soon be here. What driver? I asked, still half-asleep, but then I remembered: I had to visit Janaki dodamma that afternoon. I had put off visiting relatives for a while, but Ma had been persistent and I finally relented. I couldn’t drive by himself (Not in this chaos, Ma! I’d said), so a driver had been called for the afternoon.
The driver was half an hour late and offered no explanation for the delay. I did not bother to ask. He was a thin, young man in a crisp navy blue shirt, black pants, polished shoes, and his oily hair was combed flat. With a tie, he could pass for a salesman. He bowed slightly as he collected the keys, a mannerism that indicated years of habit. Traffic was moderate. I spotted a few new brands – Chevrolet, Skoda – but the big names were missing.
What about Audis and BMWs? I don’t see any of those on the road, I asked the driver in Kannada.
Those are rarely seen on weekdays, sir, the driver replied, in a loud and confident voice that belied his quiet manner until then. You’ll see them on weekends when the traffic is less. And many of them will be driven by owners.
Have you driven any? I asked.
Yes sir, he replied, turning towards me. When I was a full-time driver, my owner had a fleet of cars. I drove a Bentley, a Mercedes and a BMW.
Bentley? I was surprised. Why did you leave?
Full-time job has no flexibility, sir, he said. I have to go at times decided by the owner. In this job I can decide when to take up something.
Continue reading “Deliverance”