I met her during the heady days of 1994, when I enrolled for the Grundstufe 1 intensive batch with Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai to learn German. Actually, it was after I passed on to the next level - Grundstufe 2.
Chanamma was a tall, wheat-complexioned girl, maybe a couple of years older than most of the class. What initially attracted attention to her was the unapologetic regal way she carried herself. She was a girl, who was always in her element and extremely confident even in her inadequacies. Hers was an enigmatic personality. You could easily imagine her entering uncommon situations without batting an eyelid, the kind portrayed in the “James Bond” movies. No they don’t make them like that anymore, no-offence to all the ladies out there!! And there are innumerable life-lessons (though I recognized these as such much later in life) I learnt from her subconsciously in the two years, that we were fellow-students!!
Both of us were poles apart, she appeared to be a young woman of the world and I was a naïve and immature 19 year-old, just out of college. She was attractive, though today when I think of it, I would not call her beautiful, but there was something unmistakably avant-garde about her. I was thin as a rake, with typical tired intelligent eyes and reserved to the extent of obscurity. One thing going for me, though, was my aptitude for languages in general and German in particular. I don’t know how, but Chanamma soon became my constant companion. Maybe it was because we both stayed at the other end of the world on the Western Railway Route, she in Virar and I in Nalla Sopara.
Let me not be far behind in admitting, I did not suffer this companionship in good humor initially. I found nothing common between us, absolutely nothing. I made all sorts of excuses to get rid of her company, not because I did not like her, but because I felt threatened, I don’t know why. At one point of time, I thought of this feeling not as a threat, but as jealousy! When I reconsidered, I discovered I did not want to be like her, or have anything she had. Suffice it to say, to some extent our wavelengths didn’t match. She had this quality of a being a character right out of a thriller, melodramatic and larger than life, though she never portrayed it in her behavior to others. It was not how she conducted herself it was she “the person”!
It seemed she had adopted me, taken me under her wing so to say, a helpless creature needing guidance in the ways of life. She dragged me to theatres with the entire group. We studied our conjugations together, playacted our group discussions and labored over our Aufsaetze (compositions). Whenever I refused to be part of some activity she was keen on, invariably would I hear myself named “Nerd” in English and “Dummkopf” (stupid) in German!!
She hated the name Chanamma and insisted - nay demanded people call her Anju. To do justice to her, the name did not suit her at all. The name has an old-world charm, which could not be attributable to her, though her liking for gold jewellery likened very much to the jewellery bedecked statues of Indian goddesses.
Some incidences of this two-year long “Friendship” (am I allowed to call it that?) still come back to remind me of her and the lessons learnt. I remember, during the Grundstufe 3 classes, once we were gathered in the breakout area of Max Mueller Bhavan. It was early and there was some time for the class to begin. I was wearing a sweater in cream and ash, one of the guys complimented me on it, do you know what I turned around and did? I told him I had bought it from a roadside stall. The talking to I received from Chanamma, how could I be so immature, it was not good etiquette, being a girl I did not know how to accept compliments gracefully with a thank you and so on and so forth!! I promise, never ever have I committed this faux pas again, especially with guys (its fine to blush though).
Then there was this episode, when she turned up suddenly and unannounced at my house (we had still not heard of mobiles being used by middle class folks like us)! It was raining cats and dogs, a 26/7 kind of day, circumstances 100% conducive to all life coming to a standstill in Mumbai and suburbs, especially the railway. This madam wanted me to dress up and go out with her for an English movie all the way to Victoria Terminus (we had also not heard of multiplexes then). And I was shocked to witness my parents being taken in by her sweet tongue - they actually pushed me out the house. We got wet, we watched the movie (shivering away to glory in the theatre), we were blissfully at peace and without a haranguing crowd surrounding us – not in the trains and yes not in the theatre as well. Bohemian experience to say the least! And no, we did not eat hot corn, actually I don’t remember what we ate, I also don’t remember the name of the movie. But sure as hell, I remember that day and the pleasure in small things of life and doing things spontaneously – absolutely unplanned.
Another experience I always reminiscence, is the day she forced me to board a Virar fast train at Andheri station in the peak hours of evening. My God, the journey left me scared, the way we pushed into the ladies compartment, Chanamma had to literally pull me inside the compartment, right through the milling throng of people gathered to get off at the next station. My thin frame could not take the pressure of such a lot of people! I was used to travelling by train, but not from stations in-between the route, I stuck to good old stations at extremes, where I could get in and off easily. Lesson learnt, to survive in Mumbai (anywhere for that matter), you had to be strong physically and mentally.
I don’t know why I always had this feeling, that she was an accident waiting to happen. She got married – yes you guessed it – to a jeweler, who wooed her with diamonds and delivered a splitting image baby girl all in the course of one and half years!! Life was on a roll for her, it was as if, she was running out of time. Doggedness was Chanamma personified, if you wanted her to do something, tell her not to do it, and it would invariably get done. She loved travelling by crowded trains, and that’s exactly what she did, six months after her delivery. She never did reach her destination. The accident finally happened, the train was so crowded, she was pushed out and was seriously injured. She went into a comma and never came out of it. Her daughter must be about 16 now, a chip of the old block perhaps?