The Magic Metro Card

by Siddharth Chowdhury 0

At the time of this covert caper, Innocent Baby Chandy (IB to friends and classmates) was 10 years old and studied at a senior secondary school near the Guru Dronacharya Metro station in Gurgaon, NCR. She lived with her mother in a cosy 450 sq ft, one-bedroom-hall-kitchen flat in Sector-38. Her mother, Radha Mercy Chandy, was an Assistant Manager at a large South Indian sari shop, in charge of the Kasavu section, in Vyapar Kendra.

For a 10-year-old girl, not yet four feet tall, Innocent was fairly self-reliant. Every morning she made her own breakfast of two toasts buttered with Amul and a hard-boiled egg. She also ironed her school uniform with exemplary precision and polished her black Bata shoes to perfection.

Innocent’s father, Bijou Jolly Chandy, worked as an AC mechanic and all-purpose electrician in Dubai. He came home once a year for Christmas and then they would catch the Kerala Express from New Delhi Railway Station and visit their relatives in a small village near Khasak in the backwaters of Kerala for a month.

Illustration: Tasneem Amiruddin

Illustration: Tasneem Amiruddin

It was two years earlier, when Innocent was in the third standard, that Bijou Chandy went to Dubai for the first time. Both Innocent and Radha missed Bijou very much and at nights, sometimes, Innocent would lie awake for long, remembering the good times the family had when Bijou was home. But in the day she did not show her sadness in any manner, lest her mother too start to worry about her. Innocent couldn’t bear to see Radha unhappy and thus both mother and daughter tried to shield each other from their collective pain. It worked because when they were together, they were like two peas in a pod, never feeling any discontent. And a Skype call to Bijou after dinner cheered them both up immeasurably. Then they would watch a Shah Rukh Khan or Tiger Shroff movie on cable TV for some time before drifting off to sleep.

For a 10-year-old girl, not yet four feet tall, Innocent was fairly self-reliant. Every morning she made her own breakfast of two toasts buttered with Amul and a hard-boiled egg liberally sprinkled with black pepper washed down with a glass of cold full-cream milk. She also ironed her school uniform with exemplary precision and polished her black Bata shoes to perfection. While the family was not very well off by Gurgaon standards, they did not think of themselves as poor. But Innocent knew she had to be careful with money as her mother worked very hard for it and her father had to save a lot so that they could finally start building their own house on the 25 sq yard plot that her mother bought last December near Sohna, just outside Gurgaon city limits.

Once every few days, Innocent and Radha would take out the floor plan of the house, which Radha’s brother Lancy had drawn for them, and pored over it with much absorption. When the time arrives for construction, so will Lancy Uncle from Palakkad. In Innocent’s maternal village near Thasrak, Lancy is much respected as a master builder.

Innocent opened the top-loading lid of the machine and peeked inside. In the shadows, she saw something dark and flat. She foraged inside, while Radha held her by the feet and after some effort, enveloped in fumes of Surf Excel, her fingers touched something solid, something plastic.

The house of their dreams has two floors. On the ground floor, there is a kitchen and the sitting room; on the first floor, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom; and on the terrace there is a small room with an attached bath, a barsati, which Radha wants to rent out to offset the cost of construction. But Innocent wants that small room on the roof for herself. There is much discussion on the merits of Innocent’s claim every time the blueprint is brought out and after they are both satisfied it is locked securely in the steel almirah again.

*

One Thursday morning in late March, as Innocent got ready for school, dressed in her crisply ironed white and blue uniform, her mother gave her 20 rupees for her lunch of chhole-bhature from the school canteen. On other days she had puri-bhaji, masala dosa, or egg curry and rice. Though Radha would have gladly packed her a tiffin, as she did for herself before leaving for work at 10 o’clock, Innocent preferred eating in the school canteen. To her it seemed like a grown-up thing to do and she liked doing grown-up things. She couldn’t wait to grow up and wear kajal and burgundy nail polish like the 10th standard didis she so admired. Also she loved North Indian food, and the chhole bhature made by Varmaji at her school canteen was out of this world.

Innocent put the 20 rupee note in her skirt pocket and her fingers touched the flat keys that she carried. When she returned home every evening around 4.30, she opened the two Godrej locks and let herself in. She was, as previously mentioned, a very self-reliant and brave girl. She felt reassured while touching the keys and said ‘bye’ to Radha, who ruffled her hair and then smoothed it back again.

Innocent went down the stairs, hopping two steps at a time. The landlady, Mrs Tomar, lived on the first floor. As she opened the front gate, her sixth sense told her that something was amiss, and she again put her hands into her pocket and touched the keys. She then realised that she was not carrying her Metro Card. She had left it upstairs and it was already 8.15. Innocent checked the front pocket of her Wonder Girl satchel and then ran up the stairs and pressed the bell. Radha Mercy opened the front door.

‘Mumma, I forgot my Metro Card.’

‘It must be on your study table, Inu Kutti.’

But it wasn’t there. ‘Look in the steel almirah,’ but the card wasn’t there either. ‘Check the kitchen shelves, the top of the fridge.’ No, nothing there. ‘Maybe you forgot it in the bathroom, let’s look there, Inu.’ But the card was not there either and then  Innocent remembered that she had washed her skirt the previous evening as she always did every day when she came home from school, ever since the semi-automatic Samsung washing machine had arrived in January. Radha and Innocent had bought it from a shop in Vyapar Kendra on monthly instalments. After checking the pockets of the dark blue skirt drying on the aluminium clothes stand, Innocent rushed to the small balcony, where in the corner, by the side of a red tub, out of which marigolds grew in orange abundance, the silver-grey washing machine sat imperiously.

Innocent opened the top-loading lid of the machine and peeked inside. At first she couldn’t see anything other than the spotless white interior but then in a corner, in the shadows, she saw something dark and flat near the drain. She foraged inside, while Radha held her by the feet and after some effort, enveloped in fumes of Surf Excel, her fingers touched something solid, something plastic. It was the Metro Card. Wet, bent and misshapen. The thin outer plastic covering wrinkled and peeling off. All that fuzzy logic had done its work well.

‘Oh, Innocent, you should have been more careful. See, now your card is ruined. And you recharged it with 200 rupees only yesterday. Now all that money is lost too.’

‘I am sorry, Mumma. I don’t know how it happened. I will be more careful from now on. I promise.’

‘Yes, I know you will. Don’t worry. These things happen. Here’s 200 rupees. Buy a new card. But we won’t be able to buy the fountain pen you wanted this Saturday. We will buy it next month, Inu.’

‘Thank you, Mumma,’ Innocent said and put the 200 rupees wrapped around the bent Metro Card into her pocket. She really wanted that grand gold and maroon Chinese fountain pen with the long steel nib. She would make a fair copy of her Hindi poems with that fountain pen in her red leather secret diary which Bijou had got for her from the international airport in Delhi the previous year. Well, she could wait for a month, she was certainly not an impatient girl.

Innocent Chandy walked down to the Metro station deep in thought and in eight minutes had reached the security check-point at the Huda City Centre Metro station. As she walked towards the customer care window to buy a new Metro Card, a thought occurred to her. ‘Perhaps I should try out the old card once. Maybe it will work after all.’

Innocent walked briskly to the card barrier and put the old, wet, wrinkled card on the sensor and, lo and behold, the screen that usually displayed the balance amount on the card crackled with zig-zag lines, as if it were jammed and there was lightning inside. The only thing missing was a bit of smoke. But the barrier parted.

So it worked! The Metro Card was still functional. She ran up the stairs, the Samaypur-Badli train was waiting and as she stepped in, the doors closed. First IFFCO Chowk and then MG Road stations passed by and seven minutes later, at the Guru Dronacharya Metro station, the same thing happened with the Metro Card and the sensor display. The lightning, the crackle, the zig-zag lines of static, the works! Again a thought arose in Innocent Chandy’s hyperactive mind. ‘Perhaps I should check the balance at the Customer Care booth.’ The young lady at the window, in the crisp yellow shirt and bright maroon tie, told Innocent, ‘You have 175 rupees left in your card.’

‘Oh my God,’ thought Innocent, ‘even yesterday evening, the amount was the same. That means there has been no debit today. Oh my God, the Metro Card has turned into a magical one. I can travel anywhere with this and there will be no charge ever.’

All these thoughts came tumbling into her highly strategic mind at the same time. The young lady in the yellow shirt then sniffed at the card and said to Innocent cheekily, ‘You don’t actually have to wash your card in Surf or Tide, you know. You can just wipe it clean with your handkerchief if it becomes dirty.’

Innocent put the old, wet, wrinkled card on the sensor and, lo and behold, the screen that usually displayed the balance amount on the card crackled with zig-zag lines, as if it were jammed and there was lightning inside. The only thing missing was a bit of smoke

‘Yes, of course,’ said Innocent and quickly retrieved her Magic Metro Card, lest it be subjected to more official scrutiny. She pondered what to do with her unexpected windfall. Well, she had always wanted to see the Qutab Minar. It was only four stops ahead on the Yellow Line. Her mind thus set on this new adventure, she re-entered the station from the other side, went past security check again and put the card on the sensor. Again the hiss, the crackle, the zig-zag lines and, as the barrier lifted, so did her heart.

She was on her way to see the Qutab Minar. Thanks to her Magic Metro Card. Ten minutes later, at the Qutab Minar Metro station, she asked the security guard at the exit gate the way to the monument and he told her to turn left at the stairs below and walk for five minutes and it would be on her ‘ulte haath’, on her ‘left hand’ side.

Innocent bought a ticket at the gate, and then as it was still quite early and she had all the time in the world, she spent quality time observing the street vendors who were setting up their mobile shops, selling toys, wooden elephants, parakeets with glossy red lips, ceramic peacocks, ash trays, clothes and snacks: samosas, aloo tikkis, jalebis and her favourite chhole-bhature. Over the weekend she would write about them in her secret diary.

The thrill that Innocent Baby Chandy felt at her initiative, her independence, her good fortune, lightened the burden of guilt she felt at cutting classes and hoodwinking her mother. But then she thought, ‘I am not actually duping her, since what she does not know can’t hurt her’.

After a while, Innocent Baby Chandy went inside and tagged along with a tourist group from Osaka, Japan that had brought along their own guide, Mr Mifune. ‘Made of sandstone and marble,’ Mr Mifune informed them solemnly, ‘the Qutab Minar at a height of 73 metres is the tallest minaret in the world.’ It was started in AD 1193 by Qutab-ud-din Aibak and completed in 1220 by Iltutmish, his son-in-law. The tower had five distinct storeys, the first three made of red sandstone, the last two of sandstone and marble. She learnt all about 12th and 13th century India and the Slave Dynasty, the Khiljis and the Tughlaqs, in particular Firoz Tughlaq who in 1368 had the monument restored and constructed the top two storeys, the British who much later had constructed the iron railings which encircled the projecting balconies, and she also saw the magnificent rust-free iron pillar from the Gupta era. How truly advanced India was in steel-making in ancient times and how over centuries, with self-regard and complacency, they had lost that ability. The pillar was inside the courtyard of the Quwattul Islam mosque which was built from material reused from over 20 Jain and Brahmin temples. Looking at the pillars of the mosque, Innocent Baby was very glad that her country had come a long way from the chronic barbarism and rude unsubtle ways of the Middle Ages. No temples, churches, gurudwaras and mosques were destroyed in India anymore. In her Civics textbook, she had read that her motherland was the largest secular democracy in the world.

As it was widely believed that whoever could span the circumference of that seven-metre-high iron pillar with their arms while standing with their backs to it, all their dreams would come true, Innocent quickly climbed over the steel barrier protecting the pillar and stood flush against it before Mr Mifune could stop her. She then took several deep breaths, puffed out some air, limbered up and fluttered her arms like a butterfly about to float up for the Nikons, Yashicas, Canons and iPhones focused on her by the good and now somewhat anxious citizens of Osaka, and slowly started encircling the pillar, inch by hard-fought inch, a prayer for Bijou to be back home on her lips, but just as her fingers were about to touch, she heard the loud toot of an indignant whistle and the ominous sound of running feet clad in boots. It was the poor watchman Baankay Khan Gujjar, ever vigilant about intrepid dreamers and interloping schoolgirls. Innocent quickly climbed over the barrier and made good her escape. Mr Mifune bowed to the watchman in greeting and pointed his Mamiya at him. Baankay Khan Gujjar bowed back with a smile and twirled his mehndi-orange handlebar moustache and struck a regal pose. That magnificent moustache over the years had added lustre to many a reticent living room, from Patna to London to Madrid to Atlanta to Addis Ababa.

Innocent then saw the magnificent Alai Darwaza, named after Alauddin Khilji, whose tomb it contained, and Sanderson’s Sundial which was still fairly accurate in the times of Timex and Titan. It had a legend carved in Latin on its side: Transit Umbra Lux Permanet. Innocent quickly copied it into her secret diary, while Mr Mifune looked over her shoulder. ‘It means “Shadow Passes, Light Remains”,’ he told her sternly. Innocent dutifully wrote that down. ‘And it is “Permanet”, Latin and not “Permanent”.’ Innocent made the necessary corrections.

After the Japanese left, Innocent took out her olive green windcheater which doubled up as a raincoat from her satchel and wore it over her white shirt and blue-and-gold tie to camouflage her school uniform. It made her less conspicuous. She then tagged along with a group from Tamil Nadu that had come all the way from Kanyakumari in a Volvo bus. She made the circuit again and hung on to the words of the guide, Mr Nazir, with much concentration. But more than that she observed keenly and memorised everything that she saw. This time she steered clear of the iron pillar and the ever-vigilant Baankay Khan Gujjar.

She wandered looking at books and dresses and, importantly, the fashions, the hairstyles, the talking, the snatches of English, Haryanvi, Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam and Bengali. She observed everything and told herself, ‘I might one day turn out to be a very good spy.

The thrill that Innocent Baby Chandy felt at her initiative, her independence, her good fortune, lightened the burden of guilt she felt at cutting classes and hoodwinking her mother. But then she thought, ‘I am not actually duping her, since what she does not know can’t hurt her.’ Very true! And the monument itself, the Qutab Minar, the victory tower, was so magnificent, such a proud and sturdy structure of fortitude and ambition which sought to touch the sky, made Innocent Chandy’s brave little foray into misdirection and duplicity totally complementary, fully justified. Most dreams, if they come true, are let-downs but the Qutab Minar had made Innocent’s heart soar and given her an adrenaline rush which even a plate of Varmaji’s exquisite chhole-bhature would be hard put to match.

Around 1.30 in the afternoon, she began feeling a trifle peckish. She went out of the gate and had a plate of aloo-tikki with tangy imli chutney with the twenty rupees that Radha had given her for lunch. After she had a long draught of a drink from the Teen Titans water flask that she carried in her satchel, Innocent walked back to the Qutab Minar Metro station, feeling like a bona-fide superhero herself.

There were three hours left to 4.30. If she reached home early, her neighbours, especially Mrs Tomar, would notice and she would have to invent a lie. She didn’t want to have to do that and on the other hand she did want to see the Chhattarpur Mandir, which was just a stop away on the Yellow Line. So with her mind made up and her tummy fortified with crisp double-fried tikkis, their crusts brownish red with heat, Innocent made her way to the elaborate Chhattarpur Mandir complex. She realised soon that she would need a full day to explore the vast perimeter and its various attractions. She would need to return, probably in the winter, when Bijou would be visiting. She spent an hour there and on her way back on the Metro got down at the MG Road Metro station and spent an hour and a half wandering around a grand mall looking at books and dresses and, most importantly, the people, the fashions, the hairstyles, the talking, the snatches of English, Haryanvi, Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam and Bengali. She observed everything and told herself, ‘Given proper training, I might one day turn out to be a very good spy and work for the Intelligence Bureau.’ IB in the IB. Now that should be fun. Thus sated with her unexpected adventure she made her way home on her Magic Metro Card.

The first thing she did when she got home was to take out her precious Metro Card and put it in the skirt pocket of the next day’s uniform. Then, exhausted by her memorable day, she fell into a dreamless sleep on the yellow rexine sofa-cum-bed. When she finally woke up around 7.30 in the evening, the tube light was ablaze and Radha was ironing her skirt and her fingers were once again just about to touch, spanning the cold iron pillar.

‘Oh dear,’ Innocent Baby rubbed her eyes and thought, ‘My Magic Metro Card is inside the skirt pocket, I hope it won’t get damaged again.’ But, of course, she didn’t say anything to her mother.

‘Oh, so you are up now, Inu Kutti, you sleepyhead. You didn’t even have your dinner, I had made meen moilee and rice for you. And you didn’t even change out of your uniform.’

‘I will have the fish curry now, Mumma. Somehow I felt very tired today when I got home.’ Innocent loved the coconut-rich meen moilee that Radha made and since the age of five could eat the fish clean like a cat. The bones arranged in a neat sunburst, around a dollop of yellow dal, on her plate.

When Radha went into the kitchen to warm up her food, Innocent quickly went over to her neatly ironed shirt and skirt and fished out her Magic Metro Card, which was now as warm to the touch as a pop-up toast and as crisp. All the magical wrinkles of the morning were ironed out. One might as well as spread Kissan Mixed Fruit jam on it and eat it.

‘Oh no,’ despaired Innocent Baby Chandy, ‘I hope the magic has not died. I do wish to see the Red Fort tomorrow!’

This story is for my daughter Tara.

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