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His wife Shantabai works as a maid servant in some houses. Both earn erratically with money and food always a daily search. The couple need a lot of money to feed their brood of six children. The oldest is a girl about 10 and the siblings are a year younger, successively. Well, that works out to a child every year. The brood is always hungry and the couple is always angry at them and at themselves. The kids make a racket in the early morning, afternoon, evening, night, in fact throughout the day.
An important aspect of life in the slum is that one should be honoured and respected and be envied by the neighbours. All want this. Everyone is a snob. Just imagine, they do not have enough to eat, they wear torn clothes, still they want to play the game of “my shack is better than the Patils’ shack.”
So how does one earn the envy of neighbours?
To start with, occasionally, Shantabai picks up discarded chocolate wrappers, empty pizza boxes and ice cream cups from the trashcan of houses where she works. She brings them home and ‘casually’ strews them outside her hovel late at night. She threatens her children not to pick them up. Her female neighbours wake and see these empty boxes and burn with jealousy that Shantabai manages to earn so much that she feeds her brood with these expensive items. Thus Shantabai gets jealousy and respect.
Bapu is innovative too. He begs empty “Inglish” liquor bottles from the shop owners. Next he goes to a far-off rural liquor shop, buys hooch, pours it into the Inglish bottles, and brings them home. He and his wife consume the brew and he keeps the empty bottles outside his door. His male neighbours choke with rage that Bapu drinks Inglish and does not even invite them. Thus Bapu gets jealousy and respect.
The neighbours decide to ostracise the two of them, not openly, but subtly. They do not say the namaskar greeting when they meet Bapu in the morning, when they squat in the bushes to relieve themselves. Shanta does not even get a return smile from Jamuna, the labourer, when she stands in the line early in the morning to get a pail of water.
“Ah, this is what we want,” squeals Shanta. “The neighbours are jealous, that is why they do not speak to us.”
“You are right,” Bapu exults. “We now have respect.”
Now Bapu struts around in his dirty dhoti, head held high, chest stuck out. He even manages to mimic an insolent scowl on his face just like a rich shop owner he works for. Why, Bapu has become so insolent that he dared to stare back at the neighbourhood loan shark on his collection rounds with his recovery agents.
Bapu now thinks of another ruse to create respect. He asks his wife to get an extra pail of drinking water.
In the evening, he whispers to his hungry brood, asking them to pick up their dining crockery. The crockery consists of a few dented aluminium plates and bowls that someone used for years and then discarded.
Now Bapu pours water in the bowls and places dry stale rotis on the plates. He gestures at the children to drink while making loud smacking noises while he shouts “Drink the soup, eat the mutton kebabs.”
The children, for they are children, willingly play the game and become water drinkers who feast. The water and stale rotis fill their stomachs. Belches come naturally.
So every Saturday night they have this ‘feast.’ All the neighbours in their large, small, or tiny shacks that leak, have holes in the walls, have mud floors, become jealous and give respect.
In the morning, when the brood is hungry, Bapu shouts loudly so that the neighbours can hear: “Why you wolf-bellied pests. Yesterday you ate a full plate of butter chicken, now you want more? Keep quiet.”