The Unlocking: Secret lives of my neighbours
Posted on July 8th, 2020

By Indu Balachandran/

Lockdown in Chennai? Well, not quite in my building. In the past three months of lockdown, a lot of un-locking has happened — unknown talents, unspoken dreams, unexpected actions.

Don’t tell anyone, but I am going to reveal a few things about my neighbours I believed I knew for years — without really knowing them at all — till a virus made them break out.

Aunty, your bra is showing…

I really never thought I’d see Mrs Ambujam of 5B walking around my neighbourhood in her bra.

Whoever thought this conservative Mami from the flat downstairs would be out hobbling about at 7.30am, in her bright flowery home-made face-bra, (the size looked to be a single 34A cup), standing before me on the fourth circle in the queue? She even pulled the elastic downwards seductively at Ponnusamy, our vegetable man, but only for a brief moment, to admonish him for not putting back his own mask hanging rakishly around one ear.

Ambujam Mami stuffed her yellow LG Asafoetida cloth bag with fresh keerai, and quickly walked past me. Who had time for idle chit-chat when there was so much housework to be done before sitting down to stitch more and more of her home-made face-masks — all from her granddaughter’s unworn dupattas?

Now that the face-bra had become compulsory over-wear, as obligatory to wear in society as underwear, I was so pleased to see that even Ambujam Mami was looking at the fashion industry, excited by the new business opportunities ahead. At first Ambujam Mami had been shocked when that bold Mrs Acharya of her Mylapore Ladies’ Club had suggested this word: ‘Face-bra’ for her home-made masks. Her son had set up something very complicated called Zoom on his laptop for her, but she was thrilled to see familiar faces from her neighbourhood pop up in small squares (even though some were unrecognisable as all she could see were big nostrils and diamond nose-rings) but over time, they learnt to ‘adjust’ and present better angles of themselves when they met twice a week. Face-bra?! Many had giggled in embarrassment over that word, hoping their family wasn’t listening in. But Mrs Acharya’s helpful demos soon had them all raiding their cupboards for new soft material to cut up, pin and stitch and even embellish — what about one with a touch of zari for that postponed wedding of her grand niece, coming up in February ’21?

Of course her cheeky teenager granddaughter had spread the word that her Paati was now making face-bras. And even getting made-to-order requests from her friends. ‘Paati, my friend’s father now wants one, too! But you must make it a plain, manly bra. And how about calling it a ‘Face-Bro’ just for guys, Paati!’

‘Thatha is behaving like a teenager…’

I met Cheenu Mama of 3C just as we both stepped into the lift. Without appearing rude, we both took extreme corners of the small lift, keeping at least a 3-foot distance till our respective floors came up. But in that 15-second masked encounter I did see what Cheenu Mama had furtively picked up in his red plastic shopping bag that day from Surya Greens: pizza bases!

I grinned unseen behind my mask. So Cheenu Mama was fed up of the daily Tam-brahm sambar-rasam-poriyal routine. I simply had to find out What Happened Next.

So I brought up the subject with Meenu Paati, Cheenu Mama’s wife, when I saw her one day at our common corridor. ‘Ayyo, any need for all this? Is he a teenager or what? But he quietly went and bought so many, many things just to make two small pizzas! A whole bottle of some red paste, a box of cheese cubes, expensive coloured koda-molagas, even some horrible mushrooms! Any need? And not to mention one herbs bottle from Amma Nana Stores! So what next, are you going to buy an oven just for this one day, from Viveks? I asked. No need! he says. I saw a YouTube video called Mangala’s Kitchen” where we can make pizza on our gas stove itself, with our tawa. Oho what a fine mess he created — trying to make it all by himself. I spent one hour just cleaning up the kitchen…’

But, hey, did I detect a mischievous delight and pride through this rant about her husband’s bold foray into the kitchen? ‘Meenu Paati! So that’s the great smell I was getting last week from your kitchen! Tell Cheenu Mama, next time, he has to make an extra pizza, just for me.’

Lipstick under my hijab…

It was on an evening terrace walk that I bumped into Jamila Aunty. Well, ‘bump into’ is only an expression; who does that anymore, even accidentally?

I thought I saw an extra spring in her 70+ legs during her walk these days (of course, I guessed the reason, but pretended I didn’t know a thing). ‘Hello Jamila Aunty! How’s life…’ I said, as I saw her emerge from the far end of our mottai-maadi. We stopped a respectful corona-dictated gap, but I felt there was no generation gap between us any more. If what her daughter-in-law Farah said was true!

Well, if I could only be a lizard on the wall of Flat 2B, I would be able to see for myself Jamila Aunty’s guilty secret.

Every Wednesday, at 7 pm, Farah, my good friend from 2B, would be ready, closing herself up in the drawing room for an hour, wearing her dancing shoes and red lipstick, for her Zoom online Salsa classes to begin. But it was only after a month of Wednesdays that Koki Ma’m, Farah’s Salsa teacher, began to spot a face in the far background intently peeping in, inside Farah’s square in the Zoom grid. ‘Watch out, Farah, your ma-in-law is spying on you!’ Koki messaged Farah after class that day.

Farah decided in her next class to see if it was true. Yes! There she was peering from the small grill window in the kitchen, into the drawing room. Farah danced on regardless with her class of eight happy young women — but did notice a huge big smile on her mother-in-law’s face, especially during a rather sexy Latino hip-swing that ended that day’s session.

It was Koki’s cheeky message after class that started it all. ‘Pull her in, Farah! What’s the bet she wants to dance too…’

And that’s how Jamila Aunty’s life changed. ‘Ammi, come, I’ll teach you some basics of Salsa…don’t worry, Ammi, my teacher says there’s no age to start learning; there’s even a 67-year-old lady in her Jive class who doesn’t miss a single day’s session!’

Farah laughed and told me all about this saas-bahu pact that had got Jamila Aunty swinging her hips again — just as she had years and years ago at Farah’s mehendi ceremony. ‘We had all forgotten how surprisingly well she danced. So now it’s our own little secret. Even my husband and kids don’t know a thing! We play Despacito on her cell phone in her bedroom, and I teach her beginner’s ‘shines’ or basic steps of Salsa, but I’m worried if she’s going to get better than me soon… Who knows, she could even join my class, Koki Ma’m insists!’

And you won’t believe what Ammi said today, after a fit of giggles… ‘But what about Koki Ma’m’s rules of your Wednesday class, Farah beti. Okay, I do have some heels I can wear again, but I need to borrow something from you. And only then I’ll be ready to dance — with lipstick under my hijab!’

(Originally published in Lockdown Journal Chennai, July 2020)

(Indu wrote advertising slogans for a living, till the travel-writing bug bit her.(Free travel, free stays, free food!). Her 30-year advertising career at JWT led to her first best-seller, Don’t Go Away, We’ll Be Right Back: The Oops & Downs of Advertising. As a travel/humour columnist, Indu’s writings appear in Lonely Planet, Sunday Hindu, Firstpost, Readers Digest; and five anthologies of stories. Her romantic novel Runaway Writers has been republished in the UK as The Writers Retreat:

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