Crazy Crone8 mins 369 8 mins 369
Our flat faces the lane, across which lies the DDA (Delhi Development Authority) market.
I am a partial insomniac. Often I wake up around midnight for visiting the washroom and then sleep eludes me. I go to the balcony, flop into the easy chair and spend time looking at the sleepy stars, the changing hues of the sky every passing hour, and listening to the rhythmic breathing of the night.
One day, around 3:00 AM, I notice an eerie, amorphous shadow moving about, changing into non-descript shapes and size, across the lane.
When the horizon begins to blush in the East, lending a fluffy softness to everything, I find an old woman, squatting on an upended broken plastic crate in a corner of the main entrance to the market. Years have creased her face, but her eyes have a weird patina. About six feet away from her, a much dented aluminium katora (begging bowl) perches on a piece of brick. She has drawn a line in half curve around her -- Lakshman Rekha -- which she treats as sacrosanct. And noteworthily, she is wearing a homemade mask. She has become a permanent fixture, but despite my being in the balcony most of the time, I have never seen her come or leave.
The location she has chosen is strategic, as most of the residents in the surrounding Housing Societies use this entrance. As the day breaks, people flock to the market to buy bread, butter, veggies and other essentials. They see this haggard old woman and their instinct of charity spurred by the fear Corona Virus, makes them part with generous amounts.
She does not implore the passers-by for alms, nor does she ever utter a benediction on anyone who gives her money. Yet, her begging bowl overflows with currency notes of various denominations. Twice or thrice during the day, she furtively cleans it up and shoves the money into a small bag tied to her waist under her soiled, crumpled sari.
Soon, she starts passing acerbic comments on people who violate the rules of the lockdown. A group of four men passing by cast a sympathetic gaze at her – an old woman forced to beg during such times. But she hurls a cantankerous shout at them, “Hey, you morons. Is that social distancing?”
All of them look at her surprised.
“You are walking within kissing distance of each other.”
They get irritated but continue walking.
“Keep distance, you idiots. No less than the Prime Minister of the country has requested you with folded hands.”
But they do not move apart from each other.
When they are on their way back, she picks up a stone from the small heap, lying by her side and hurls it at them. It does not hit anyone, but one of them flies into a rage.
“Are you insane, you old hag?”
“No, all four of you are raving mad … you more so.”
The man makes as if to move towards her, but the others restrain him.
“And remember, you have the pre-existing condition of high blood pressure,” she says and adds, “Corona might get you faster than the others.”
Then it becomes a recurring feature.
Another time, she yells at a man, “Where is your mask, hero? Why are you spreading Corona?”
The man looks embarrassed and walks away briskly.
A particular incident earns her the sobriquet of ‘Crazy Crone.’ One day, a man drops a fifty-rupee currency note into the bowl, but in the process crosses the Lakshman Rekha. The old woman raises hell.
“Are you blind to not have seen the line I have drawn? Are you a village bumpkin?”
The man stands dazed.
But soon collecting his wits says, “You are absolutely crazy? Heavens have not fallen by my getting inside the line.”
“Do you want the heavens to fall? If there are more idiots like you, they would for sure and everyone would turn into debris. But the more pity that I and other innocents will be the collateral loss.”
He seems regretful to have parted with so much money to a fanged old crone who has a vile tongue spewing venom and wants to pick up his money. No, she does not deserve a paisa. But he sneakily looks around, and finding many eyes riveted on the scene, walks away feeling foolish.
“Crazy Crone,’ that is, what she is,” says the bakery products shop owner to his neighbour.
The veggie shop man concurs, “Undoubtedly!”
Before long everyone coming that way gets familiar with her offensive behaviour and the human ego being fragile throttles the charity instinct. Now the bowl remains almost empty the whole day. But does she bother!
She continues to bawl at those who violate the norms laid down by the government to fight the Corona demon.
Whenever she espies anyone without a mask, she goes all shrilly.
“You are behaving stupidly.”
To someone else, “You can’t afford a mask? I will sew one for you.”
Her voice is cannily hoarse and abrasive.
She has the eyes of a hawk and the memory of an elephant. None without a mask could pass her without earning a rebuke. Sometimes, she begins to scream, and waive the dried up bougainvillea twig she keeps by her side.
“This is the second time I’ve seen your uncovered face. Be careful. Or you will have to pay.”
A majority of people, out of embarrassment to be called out by the old woman, begin to comply. But there are exceptions, though few, who treat her ranting as age-related eccentricity.
One such, who comes without a mask for the third time, arouses her almost uncontrollable ire. She hops over her Lakshman Rekha and plants herself in front of the fellow, maintaining the six feet distance, of course.
“I’ve told you a hundred times, but nothing gets into your dense head. What’s wrong with you, man?”
He is peeved to be ordered about and that too by a beggar.
“Who the hell do you think you are … the CM (Chief Minister) or the PM (Prime Minister) … issuing orders?”
Contemptuously ignoring his retort she hollers, “It is my duty to help the government to save lives in India, whereas you are the enemy of your family and the people and the country. You will carry home the Virus, infect your wife and children who in turn would infect your neighbours and friends. Your folly will prove costly.”
Looking disgusted, he walks away.
“I should not see you without one the next time,” she screams to his retreating back.
But his ego bloated into a balloon clouds his reason and judgment.
His defiance continues the fourth time which sends the old woman berserk. She lunges at him and begins to slash his bare legs under his shorts with the thistly bougainvillea twig. I could see drops of blood spurt like red boils.
When he catches hold of her wrist and twists it, she shouts, “I am Corona positive, you fool. You are a dead man already!”
Scared and baffled, he gallops away.
The onlookers are stunned. A debate erupts among them -- some clucking for the victim and the others supporting her.
“The fellow did not heed her warnings.”
“But who is she to beat up people?”
“What do you do to those who obdurately contribute to Corona rampancy? We know, the government has made the mask mandatory. A violator can be fined, even jailed for not wearing one.”
“She has saved him the jail. The next time, he would be careful.”
“I think she is mad …needs to be sent to a loony bin where she belongs.”
Incidentally, right then two policemen pass by. Looking at the crowd, they get off their motorcycle and make inquiries. After listening to a couple of people, they speed away without a word.
In about a fortnight, everyone is wearing a mask. People also keep a distance from each other -- even friends who go for a morning walk. The old woman falls silent as there is none to scold. She is bereft of the alms she used to get, but looks contented, even happy.
Now she starts a new practice. She folds her hands to everyone who passes her and thanks them.
“You are good people. I bless you from the core of my heart.”
At times, she asks someone, “Everyone fine at home?”
Nobody responds, as her sanity is in question. But she goes on, “Stay safe, stay healthy.”
Mad or not, she has done everyone here a big favour; there is not a single case of Corona infection in our area which has been declared as a Green Zone.
Then she disappears as mysteriously, as she had appeared. People wonder what happened to her.
“She could have caught the infection.”
“But she said she was Corona positive already.”
“I am sure, that was to frighten the defiant bloke.”
“Whatever, if Corona has claimed her, I’d say ‘Good riddance!’” says a lone voice who is frowned upon by everyone else.
“You are being ungrateful. We’re compulsive violators of the rules. Look left and right stealthily, and if there is no traffic policeman, then jump the light at the crossing. That is what most of us do.”
This evokes a mild self-deprecating smile on every face.
After about eight months, the situation has considerably improved, with minimal restrictions like social distancing. Dipika, my wife, and I are watching an interview on the telly.
The lady being interviewed seems to be in her late thirties and is remarkably beautiful with sharp features.
I almost spring up from my chair and shout, “It is her.”
My wife gets irritated. “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you ever behave normally? Every time you see somebody remotely familiar on the TV you begin to find resemblances, and you are invariably wrong,” she grimaces.
“Look at her closely. You also saw her many times when we had our evening tea together in the balcony and talked about her.”
Then a flicker of a smile begins to hover in her eyes.
“For a change you are right.”
“But how did you manage to look an old hag so convincingly?” the interviewer asks.
“She smiles. NSD’s (National School of Drama) Make-Up department gets the credit.”
“How did this idea cross your mind?”
“Can’t say. One day I asked myself if I could contribute in any way to supplement the government’s efforts ... and the idea zoomed in, 'I am an actor.'"