Sunday, February 23, 2014

Of T.Akka and Telephones

I remember her vividly. I don't see a reason why I should. But I do.

Every summer, until I finished high school, we split our summer holidays between the Andhra coast and the Karnataka coast travelling second class on long train journeys from wherever we happened to be stationed at then. The journeys were almost never without event, colored largely by my mother's anxiety at seeing my father step off the train in search of idlis to feed the brood. Idlis were the only train food we children(my two sisters and I) were allowed by mother. 

I digress.

This is about Telephone Akka,Palakol, West Godavari District,(where my grandparents, migrants from a wholly different culinary culture had migrated to in the early 1950s). Telephone Akka, who never aged. While we furiously outgrew our favorite clothes, T.Akka looked the same every year. Not that we were particularly attentive to detail, but since all three siblings concur on this point, am assuming there must have been some merit in this observation. 

Grandfather's Udupi restaurant in the heart of Andhra was doing as well as the 1980s would allow it to. Well enough to afford a telephone anyway. The telephones from the era followed the same aesthetics that came to define another beloved symbol of that era, the Ambassador. Generous curves, stately heft and an aura of indestructibility. There were two phones at their home, one in the hall, and another in Grandfather's bedroom.

Not having a telephone at our own home, the contraption in the privacy of the bedroom afforded me immense possibilities to spend a quiet afternoon gainfully occupied, confirming that dialing 100 would indeed, following a couple of rings, like in the movies, be answered by a strident "Policetation! Cheppendi".
The accompanying local telephone directory was used to dial the numbers of random but similarly upstanding members of my grandfather's social strata inasmuch that they too could afford a telephone. Frantic "Hello, yavarendi. Yavarendi" responses were responded to, first with raspy nervous shallow breathy sounds and as the many exploratory attempts went unpunished, unconvincing adult voice impersonations(followed inevitably by amused self congratulatory giggles). 

The adults adopted an economy in expression rarely associated with my family, when using the telephone. We children were forbidden to use it except under strict supervision to say Hello to father calling from a STD booth (he usually returned home after his railway security escort duties for brood were done). 
I still have trouble making phone calls when I have nothing to say and one overpowering memory from childhood is a bunch of indulgent adults telling me to ask father if he had dinner or if he was riding the scooter carefully and all I managed was a shy Hello.Hello at which point my father would be exasperated and ticking off seconds he was paying for, ask to handover the phone to my more verbose and vocal sisters.
The telephone was respectfully covered with white embroidered lace and placed on a velvety mat. Everyone bustling by would stop to adjust the lace cover, if it had slipped off, exposing some part of the instrument to the vagaries of the Costa summer. Somewhere in the 1990s lace slipped out of fashion as preferred dust deterrent ,reflecting the changes in the aesthetics of a generation seduced by all things plastic and lace found a new calling as preferred choice for middle class ladies' honeymoon lingerie until then, I imagine, monopolised by burlap cotton sacks.

I don't exactly remember when I first saw/met(never spoke to her) T.Akka. All I can say is that the earliest memories of my grandparents' house predating her fleeting presences are few, if actually any. T.Akka with her SINGER sewing box.
Every month, once or twice, T.Akka would arrive unannounced to the house, when we were playing under the parijatha tree in the courtyard or lost in comics bought for the train journey which we reread again and again.
Immaculately draped in pastel toned saris, the pleats millimetrically aligned in flowing layers, she carried a little bag on her shoulder and glasses which now seem rather large for her face. I've never seen her break into a smile. Strange for a girl of twenty and a bit. She walked into the house and after a brief exchange of perfunctory greeting with whoever was in the hall, got straight to the job.
She placed the bag next to the telephone stand and deliberately opened it to extract a SINGER Sewing box. A red box with SINGER written in an archaic font. She placed the box next to the telephone and then slipped off the lace, carefully folding it. She then opened the box like a surgeon and extracted from it, a little blower, the size of her index finger. She squeezed the head in little squirts pointing the end at various tricky crevices in the phone where dust would settle in like the cradle, the mouth piece filter and such like. After a few more squirts, she would ceremoniously place the blower back into the SINGER box and then extract a bottle of Dettol and cotton wool. She wiped the entire set, including the spiral umbilical cord between the handset and the base. She probably took a good couple of minutes working her way over the phone after which she would wait for the antiseptic to dry out completely. She would then place her Dettol bottle back and subsequently extract a vial of rosewater. She would pluck another wad of cotton and soak it with the rosewater and then repeat the religious cleansing of the telephone.
Finally, extracting another piece of lint free cloth(not unlike the ones that are thrown in for free by opticians), she would rub down the telephone .The air, now permeated with the smells of a Madras Apollo hospital florist.
She would then repeat the exact same process on the telephone in the bedroom and then leave without ado.
I've never seen her getting paid, though I am sure she was. 
On days when we were not at home when T.Akka arrived, I would suspect she had come by the tinge of rosewater hanging in the air. A quick sniff of the telephone from close quarters would confirm my suspicion and I would inform grandmother that I knew T.Akka was here if only to hear her tell others in the room, what a fine sense of smell I had. 
And all this would repeat the next time, she came home.

I dont know if T.Akka remembers me, but I do remember her vividly. I suspect with good reason that she would not remember me, which would be as good a reason for her to think I don't, in case she does remember me,but I do(remember her). So good reasons can usually go take a long hike, when it comes to all matters memory toned.

Sometime after high school, I stopped going to my grandparents place, instead opting to cauterise my brain in a cram school through the holidays and the broken link has never quite mended since. I've visited them four or five times thereafter (they thankfully visited us more often) and like the telephone which now no longer warrants a special place in the hierarchy of middle class megalomania that it used to in the 80s or the services of T.Akka, have filled the glorius summer holiday sized hole in my years with less impressive fillings none smelling of rosewater on a summer afternoon.

I will continue hoping T.Akka is fine wherever she is growing old gracefully in them perfectly pleated saris and wishing her present summer days have less cause for regret than mine.

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