BY SANJANA SHETH
Between all the beautiful houses on Altamount Road and their adjoining garages overflowing with now-unused cars, one garage had the sound of strained whispers whizzing out from it every night. If you weren’t listening closely, you’d probably miss it, and the Kumars were counting on your lavish carelessness. After midnight, when the Aggarwals were having their thread-count thousand sweet dreams, the two maids of the house would sneak out of their quarters (yes, quarters) into the garage to meet the house’s designated math tutor. It was a strange sort of family reunion, but then again, just as the Aggarwals kept reminding each other again and again like senseless chatter between rabid parrots - these were strange times they were living in.
This piece is a satire of the cultural phenomenon, ‘Parasite,’ re-imagined in Bombay to depict the schizophrenic realities of India’s lockdown.
It took a pandemic, but it had finally happened: the Aggarwals were talking to the Kumars. “So, what? You just don’t have college until this all ends?” Aanya asked, sitting at her desk, looking out of the window onto alien clean streets. Anand shook his head. Aanya’s jealousy was as palpable as it was misplaced. “IIT isn’t doing online classes,” Anand said, his tongue now so used to lying in English that the translator in his head was working overtime. Full disclosure, even before this whole Corona situation, he didn’t really spend his time poring through theoretical balderdash in some godforsaken IIT that he had convinced the Aggarwals he attended. Like most of his knowledge, Anand’s mathematical skills came from recycled textbooks in alleys after school, making friends with raddiwalas. His prowess in politics was credited to hearing political theory from the paanwala who could predict the exact number of seats a political party would win with a 55% accuracy rate, which was more than any political scientist could say.
Oh well. This humble training, while not enough to get him a ‘real’ job, was more than enough to tutor seventeen-year-old Aanya Aggarwal – “mathematically disinclined” according to her mother, and plain stupid according to everybody else. Aanya and Anand sat fiddling with her slick, shiny stationery for one hour a day with the bedroom door propped wide open (“you can never be too careful with these kinds of people, Aanya”) in uncomfortable silence interspersed with throwaway explanations of algebra.
Aanya had always said that boredom was humanity’s greatest curse, its fatal flaw, its Achilles’ heel if you will, and these math tuitions were especially torturous. If only Anand wasn’t renting a room a couple of houses down! Then she would have been fortunate enough to not have tuitions anymore like all of her friends, leaving her more time to focus on her budding Tik Tok career. Her boredom was a small price to pay, though, and she was self-aware enough to see that. In one year, after this had all died down, she would be glittering away at college in New York, or Boston, or wherever else they offered courses in her deepest passion - Clubs With Expensive Cover Charges. Maybe she’d even do a summer abroad in Spain…or Seoul? (‘Parasite’ was her summer’s favourite movie. She didn’t know Korean guys could be, like, that cute.)
And Anand? In one year’s time? He hoped that the Aggarwals wouldn’t find out his family was lying to them about his education, and their being a family. Even sitting on furniture next to Aanya in her room was enough to get him seriously screwed (‘screwed’ being a euphemism for being a victim of a violent crime). If his family got kicked out of the Aggarwals’ during the pandemic, he didn’t know what they would do or where they would go…his father had been on one of those trains that never reached anywhere. The ones with lotuses on their tickets and fire in their seats. Anand knew what aatmanirbhar translated to - clanging vessels, scalding diyas; nobody is coming to save you.
Anand showed Aanya how to transpose an equation. She did it wrong, and Anand repeated it numbly until it was time for curtain call. When the hour was up, Aanya requested Anand to do her a favour and frame the angle of her phone for a photo. “The cyclone clouds are making the lighting so aesthetic, no?” Aanya said, brightly. As Anand repositioned the iPhone he pictured a particularly powerful gust of Vishnu sweeping Aanya up to make like Holika, and hurtling her through the tempest air. It was petty, but he smiled nonetheless.
Downstairs, it was almost time for Mrs Reshma Aggarwal’s daily Zoom Yoga session with Instructor Shanti, which meant that Jyoti had better hurry up and put Reyhaan down for his nap so that she could assist Mrs Aggarwal with the Downward Facing Dog pose. Jyoti had a couple of creative insults for Mrs Aggarwal that sounded eerily similar to that aasana, but Reyhaan was crying and she had to go parent him before Mrs Aggarwal got disturbed. Reyhaan and Jyoti had a handshake agreement in which Jyoti would let him play on his iPad for fifteen extra minutes if it meant he would say nothing about the fact that Jyoti was clearly Anand’s brother. This agreement was the most ethical deal that Altamount Road had ever seen, sealed tightly with Reyhaan’s being a one-year-old baby. Reyhaan’s nerdy little fingers scaled the iPad greedily to reach the app that was teaching him the alphabet through song, “A for Antilla, B for Birla...” Jyoti laughed in bitter amusement and told Mrs Aggarwal she would be right there.
Once, after Mrs Aggarwal was feeling wild after just having watched The Help for her weekly book-club, she asked Jyoti why she, the maid, and Gita, the other maid, looked so similar to Anand, the tuition teacher. The stunned Jyoti had paused, sighed mournfully and confessed the state secret: that was just how people from the village looked. Mrs Aggarwal had nodded solemnly. “Of course,” she’d whispered intimately, “that makes perfect sense.”
Mr Sunil Aggarwal wanted to know what was for dinner. He was the Chief Outsourcing Officer at Multinational Capitalist Footsoldiers Inc. Industry stalwart Mr Aggarwal had earned his way to the post of COO by pulling himself up from the bootstraps, never giving up in the face of adversity, and bravely forging a path forward by marrying the CEO’s daughter. If they worked hard, maybe someday the Kumars could be like him. Or at least his assistants.
He pushed the little bell next to his bedside and waited impatiently for Gita, the lazy maid, to appear. It was weird, since the lockdown, he felt like his work had multiplied…there were always meetings to attend, emails to forward, proposals to look over, and wives to avoid. He was supposed to be composing a speech as a guest speaker in a quarantine webinar for aspiring entrepreneurs, but so far he had come up with nothing. Last week, the lower-level employees who would’ve ordinarily written this for him had unfortunately been laid off (by him), which had really put him in a bit of a fix. Sunil chuckled. That sly Modiji. This lockdown was another bold move (to eradicate the virus, boost productivity and weed out the freeloaders) whose implementation could perhaps have been better. The charitable Mr Aggarwal forgave the Prime Minister wistfully; collateral damage is a natural part of any great leader’s policies, and at least NaMo was doing something, unlike his nepotistic predecessors. Or Gita.
“Sahab, you called for me?” Gita said as she scuffled into the study. “What’s for dinner?” he asked, continuing to stare at his blank screen. Eye contact was above her pay grade. “Chole and paratha,” Gita responded, and Mr Aggarwal’s silence sent her back to the kitchen. Chole. He liked chole. Gita always made it in this particular way, with ginger and - suddenly, Sunil was inspired – he couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly had sparked this breakthrough, but his speech was finally coming together! He could talk about the importance of delegation and the dispensability of labour! If there was one principle he’d lived his life by it was a steadfast trust in outsourcing and delegation. He had outsourced cheap factory workers from poor villages willing to work for peanuts, ideas from subordinates, business sense from Trump, and parenting to the maids! Genius. Luminary. Iconic. His audience would be mesmerised. And why shouldn’t they be? Times were tough, and he’d kept the company going. He had persevered in – where did Gita go? He hadn’t dismissed her…this was the problem with these people. If they wanted to get anywhere in life they needed to learn how to follow basic instructions. For god’s sake. Right when he was getting excited about the chole, too.
Gita laid the dining table while humming along to a song whose name she could never remember. As she cheerfully placed the bowl of chole on the table, she noticed Mrs Aggarwal watching her disapprovingly. She stopped humming. She didn’t know the rest of the song, anyway. Jyoti danced into the kitchen and whispered the next line into Gita’s ears before dancing right back out to Reyhaan. She smiled cautiously. She began to put the table mats for each person and Mrs Aggarwal retreated to a sofa where there were WhatsApp forwards aching to be shut-eye re-shared.
Later, when Gita was arranging the flowers in the vase, her body betrayed her. Gita’s stomach was empty from meals passed to the illegal refugee, Anand, and it let out a soft, gurgling rumble. She gasped, and instinctively coughed loudly to cover it up. Years of sleeping hungry will leave their own personal knee-jerks, she thought, grimly. No sooner did Reshma Aggarwal leap up from the couch than Gita realised her mistake. She had just coughed loudly, repeatedly, and affectedly. In the middle of a pandemic. When Mrs Aggarwal turned to face Gita, her nose was pinched in angry disgust. “Sorry, mehemsaab, stomach ache,” Gita helpfully offered, but the poisonous seed had already been planted in the ground, or if we’re being crude, the virus had infected its host.
Mrs Aggarwal’s gaze was unwavering, “do you have it?” she asked, with the threat, and only the threat of letting her worst thoughts about these kinds of people erupt all over the kitchen floor. “No!” Gita assured her fervently, “I am only in this house. Where will I get it from?” An innocent enough response, but it set off a dangerous chain of questions in Mrs Aggarwal’s head, each more repugnant than the next. “Do you think I’m stupid?” Reshma flamed at her, “who knows where you people go and what you do!” Reshma paced back and forth, fumbling with fury. Something had to be done. She had been so careful, so vigilant, so clean. And adding insult to injury was getting it from one of the maids! She couldn’t risk it. The whole lot of them had to leave. “Take your things and leave. I have a baby. Reyhaan can’t fall sick,” Reshma said, her eye line refusing to meet Gita’s.
Gita had been hit with a building. Of all the ways she’d imagined her life would end, a cough was not one of them. “Mehemsaab please, you know there’s no way I could have caught it,” Gita pleaded, throwing rationale to the wind, indignantly honest, “where would I catch it from?” Reshma knew that Gita and Jyoti had both been in quarantine since the lockdown was announced, and the only time they left was to go to the weekly community vegetable market that Reliance organised for Altamount Road. Reshma had been in charge of creating slots last week for everyone to come and buy their groceries which was no small feat; some society women are completely tactless. New money, she thought, disdainfully.
Of course, it was Anand who had calculated the right quantities for rations, and Gita who had called every household to set up a time, but it was Reshma, the leader, who had to run the event to perfection and diffuse the snark that inevitably came with women and their house-help buying vegetables. She had been distracted by the women’s fights over the last fettuccine and truffle oil. Maybe Gita and Jyoti had stayed behind to flirt with the vendors, (Jyoti seemed like the type) or snuck out to meet some friends, or they might not know how to sanitise themselves properly – it could be any number of things.
Reshma looked at Gita like she had never seen Gita before, like Gita hadn’t worked there for five years, like if she made any sudden movements she’d catch whatever it was that Gita had. Reshma was sure of one thing: even if Gita didn’t have covid-19, she definitely had something. Mrs Aggarwal had a family to look after. “Leave,” she said firmly, already doing mental gymnastics as to how she would break the news to Sunil and the kids, “and take Jyoti with you.”
Gita fell, a punctured body crumpling onto the floor, with police lathis already burning her skin and the sound of a train track thumping her brain, “but where will we go?”
The Kumars sat scrunched up on the edge of the garage, filthy wet, like a crushed rag. Cyclone Nisarg grinned punctually at 8 pm as he shook the door and the walls, blew icy wind through the cracks in the windows, and threatened to trigger the car alarm at any point. Tomorrow Anand would ask the Aggarwals for a month’s advance on his wages. His mother and sister would try to buy some food. Maybe the Aggarwals would say no to the advance and fire him too, ‘you can never be too careful with these kinds of people,’ they would say, sensibly. Maybe someone would discover them in the garage that very night. Maybe the police would find Gita and Jyoti in the streets looking for food and teach them a lesson about breaking the rules. All doors were closed, and there were no rooms. How long did a pandemic last? Anand’s paanwala friend never taught him. The inevitability of starvation dripped like the patter of rain at dawn; a sign of mornings that would never fully give light.
Meanwhile, the Aggarwals were learning that they did not, in fact, get along. Reyhaan was fussy, Aanya was vapid, Sunil was entitled, and Reshma was to be blamed for this unsolicited education into aatmanirbhayta. When Reyhaan’s tantrums demanding a special cereal grew deafening and Reshma’s banana bread turned brown, Sunil remembered his own wise words. Labour is dispensable! Outsource everything! The new, (tested, thank you very much) maids and math tutor cost an arm and a leg, but that’s okay, because spare limbs are inherited with the Aggarwal estate, of course. What was more, his diligent daughter had picked up his penchant for proxying things to people far away, and when Aanya posted an all-black photo on her Instagram story for #BlackoutTuesday, Sunil and Reshma glowed golden with pride. This was what good parenting looked like, they both thought to themselves. Aanya would go to the Ivy League, and then on to inheriting Sunil’s post either as COO or strategic spouse. Whichever paid better, really. “Black Lives Matter!” the clever girl had typed in pink letters. Compassion, awareness, justice. Empathy.
The makings of a future leader.