The tiny man at the gas agency who dashed my hopes of getting a gas connection but had his fill of looking at my breasts was wrong. The doomsday picture he had painted of India going through a major gas crisis was not true. Not while the black market thrived, in any case. My encounter with the black market, which came sooner than I had thought it would, proved tiny guy otherwise.
We had a “double gas cylinder” connection earlier. When I moved out, I brought with me a gas cylinder, leaving the other one for Professor X to use. I had hopes of getting a connection in my name soon enough, but since that did not work, I asked Professor X if it would be possible for me to take the second cylinder and get the connection in my name. He responded exactly how I thought he would respond. He would think about it. There could be legal ramifications of a name change, he didn’t want anything to trouble him while he worked, he might get a cook and finally, he would need more time to think about it.
I would get worked up earlier when he would say things like this, his procrastination and his inability to take a decision on anything driving me up the wall throughout our marriage. But this time I didn’t. My friend B had told me once, “we are all being taken of” and that’s what I liked to believe. No, not that the cylinder of gas would last forever, but that something would work out even if it did get over at an inconvenient time.
I was coming back from a job interview with the nosy lady who was more interested in understanding the date and place of my separation rather than my knowledge of HR, when I got frantic calls from my dad. I had asked my dad to come live with us for some time, to help Ik in the process of separation from his father. To be a stable male influence in Ik’s life. In the midst of hyperventilating, which all parents do as a matter of principle, aiming to be as irritating as possible, he told me that while the cooking was half way through, the gas cylinder finally gave up. While listening to his tirade on how irresponsible I had been in not being able to procure a gas connection, I mildly suggested that we might order in and I would do something after I got back. While my dad doesn’t like eating outside, he occasionally does eat out. But this I guess would not be one of those occasions. Especially since there was no cooking gas, we HAD to eat at home and nowhere else.
I took all of this in my stride and called K informing her about the crisis at home. She very graciously agreed to let us finish the rest of the cooking at her place. I reached home while my maid had finished the cooking at K’s place.
I knew that black market was full of cylinders for the taking, I just needed to find out the where and the how. Now, as a professional, I am very meticulous with my work, and I decided I would be nothing less in my search for the black market gas cylinder. I started asking at the first shop on the street if they knew anything about gas cylinders in the black market. No one seemed to know or wanted to tell me anything, but most didn’t seem to mind. The only person who took affront was the electrical shop owner…..an upright citizen of mother India, I am guessing.
I almost felt like an undercover agent when the grocery store next to the electrical shop then told me to talk to the newspaper vendor under the big Peepul tree. He then directed me to the man sitting next to the big cooler. I had never done such cloak and dagger moves before and I could almost place myself in the shoes of the undercover cop Leo Di Caprio played in one of my all time favourite movies, The Departed.
My stride was miraculously incorporated with the swagger and bravado that I imagined all undercover cops having. But my tone belied the bravado of my stride. I am pretty positive noundercover cop would plead with a reed thin guy sitting in his striped underwear, to “please pretty please” tell me “how to find out where to get the black market gas cylinder from”, even while being a million miles deep undercover.
But even thin striped underwear guy wasn’t able to say much, except that we should try out the gas godown down the road. Imagining it to be some kind of gas cylinder heaven, my dad and me decided we would go there in the evening to try our luck. Hopefully we would find something. If not, let me see how the one taking care of us handled this one. I mean would it be even possible for God to take on the black market in India? I think that is one ground even He would fear to tread on.
My Dad and me brought the 7 kg empty cylinder down the stairs in the hope of catching a rickshaw to the cylinder heaven. While my dad waited with the empty cylinder, I went to get us a rickshaw. But before I could reach the rickshaw stand, I saw the equivalent of the Promised Land. Only, for me, it was a small van full of gas cylinders. This was the black market for the gas cylinders. This is the person who would literally save me and my family from certain death. I know I am being overly dramatic, but still, not having a gas cylinder would shut down my kitchen and with a 5-year-old child and a 70-year-old father, that was an extremely uncomfortable situation to be in.
The uniformed gas delivery man, who held the key to my future in his greasy palms, immediately told me that there wasn’t a cylinder to spare. The black market thrives on the desperation of the millions who are denied basic services. But a discourse onsocio-economic reasons behind the survival of the Indian black market was farthest from my mind then. All I cared about was getting one cylinder for my family. And I would go to any lengths to get it.
The Delivery man seemed like a hard nut to crack. He kept insisting that there weren’t enough cylinders to spare. Or maybe he was checking to see if I was really an undercover reporter doing an expose on the Indian black market. I think I caught him furtively looking around for the hidden TV camera used in such stings. I guess I didn’t seem sincere enough for him. But I did seem to impress the man in his twenties standing next to him. My harried expression must have touched a chord, since he told the delivery man “oh you can do it. Just give a cylinder to aunty. Don’t you see how troubled she looks?”
I was too stunned to react. The A word was being used!! By a man in his twenties!!! It is the word that is most dreaded by women in Delhi. No one wants to be an Aunty. It signifies you are old, dowdy and definitely past your prime. How the Delhi male categorizes women is extremely interesting. You start of by being a ‘baby’ in cute pigtails, grow up to be a respectful ‘didi’ or sister when you are college going and then between a ‘madam’ or a ‘aunty’ depending on how you present yourself to the world, finally resting on a ‘mataji’ when you no longer care to dye your white hair black.
Now I had been called an aunty before. It’s not like I haven’t. But mostly by boys in their teens. Never by someone in their twenties. I was planning for a sharp repartee as I usually do whenever someone calls me an aunty, but I stopped myself when I heard the delivery man nodding his head and telling me disdainfully, ‘but it will cost you Rs. 200 more’. I guess I must have dressed very shabbily. Because not only was I an aunty, I was an extremely poor one too, unable to give the man the confidence that I could shell out an extra Rs. 200 for the cylinder. I didn’t waste time. I showed him the Rs 500 note I had in my hand and had the delivery man deliver the gas cylinder to my home.
B was right. We are indeed being taken care of. God just helped me navigate the great Indian Black market. He did make the man call me Aunty, but I wouldn’t mind being called an aunty a thousand times over if it meant having food on the table for my family.