The Chasm — Shashi Khuranna


“So, what’s new?” He asked casually.

  1. “New? Oh….everything…..everyone…like….there….”, he replied equally casually jostling his way from the platform.

Nupur was inching her way into the coach of her home-bound train and looking around for a place. One vacant seat reserved for senior citizens….no, not for me. She stood on the side, content that she was inside because the platform kept crowding up at the peak evening hour and in another twenty five minutes, she would be nearly home. These new modes of commute were predictably efficient. Nupur began pulling out her phone and began to message her location and pick up time from the station nearest home. She smiled as she got a prompt reply from her waiting mother, waiting to take her home. It was a new experience for mother and daughter—this connect.
Looking up, Nupur turned towards an emptying seat. Before the train stopped the customary change-over took place. On got up….one sat…one looked on…another requested…another gave up for yet another, and so the familiar patter wound and unwound amidst the repeated ongoing computer recorded messages—with what seemed a sixth sense of what was coming next. “Almost human”,  thought Nupur, feeling relieved on being able to occupy a seat next to where she had been standing. She had removed her dark blue skin tight stockings—mandatory extension of her uniform in her job as a Relations Manager. It sounded alien. She wanted to be a Media Reporter. But that kept evading. She wrote for herself and hesitantly switched to the idea of adapting herself to a Communications opening, one of the many new job profiles, doing the rounds. How easy it was for her. “There were so many hopeful candidates,” Nupur shared her experience with her mother.
“Perhaps, you are cut out for this…or a doled out start to your Writing aspirations. Good for you,” mother said in an encouraging tone.
In the Ladies coach, Nupur finally got the full seat to herself. Without her stockings, she felt comfortable and relaxed by stretching her legs.
“Did you ask , what is new?”Nupur  overheard. “Look at the first Ladies’ seat….some invite”
Nupur caught the gaze, drew back her legs and plugged her ears with the mobile headphones.
“The next station is Greenery Park. The doors will open on the left.” She managed to hear through her plugged ears. The Hindi version of the announcement ended and she prepared to walk out of the train. She ‘sensed’ the “New” guys right behind her as she briskly left the station to where her mother was waiting in the car. 
Suman enjoyed the short drive to the Metro station morning and evening. Most of the day she remained occupied with various chores and all the time, preoccupied. There was hardly a smile on her face when alone. Some moments of sunshine would be clouded out , too soon. She was becoming increasingly obsessed with a range of regrets. Looking out of the window of her parked she saw Nupur’s brisk figure, backed up and readied the car for Nupur to step in . The ignition had to be switched off.  As a matter of precautionary habit, Suman was inclined to keep the car locked, when sitting alone—a habit cemented because of the increasing spread of city crimes.
On reaching the car, Nupur opened the door, stepped in with a ‘Hi’, a semi-hug and a kiss, and the mother and daughter duo moved out.
“So, how was the day?” Mother and daughter spoke up almost simultaneously. They were so accustomed to each other—the silences, the outbursts, the predictable queries, that it was only age that separated the two.
“Very good, except that I feel quite desk-bound…you must have spent your day on your toes…did you rest for a while in the afternoon?”
Suman had grown into a more restless person after her retirement. What to her was restlessness appeared mobility and productivity to others. Now a widow and a retiree from what was considered to have worked upwards to a good position. Yet, Suman began to wonder more and more about what had been good about her life.
A six-minute drive brought them home. Through the gate into their housing society, after parking to ascend to the tenth storey and into the rooftop flat, shared by mother and daughter—each with a room of her own.
“So, what was new today?” Nupur pouted at her image in the mirror. “Ah, a new work place, a new little cabin…who would have thought so much could be done out of a three by four feet rectangular space, loaded with a wall hanging cabinet, a table for digital devices and some squeezy stacking space. Most of the space was still empty, “but would be filled up when I take my Tiffin bag and water flask from tomorrow,” mused Nupur, “and, of course an extra pair of long stockings to feel fresh,” not liking the idea of wearing stockings. Such were the new offices for the young recruits, mostly girls who managed the social media units of BPOs which were brought in by the new wave globalisation. Males were visible when they moved through the office in their management roles reporting to higher Managers. Nupur found it difficult to believe that she had taken on the profile she had indifferently moved into. The chatty, imaginative aspiring media reporter settling for a communicator from machine to machine! “Oh, well, it is new and this is  not the end of the world….right now, I have the advantage of an accessible work place, a smart uniform and the scope to make new friends,” Nupur consoled herself compromisingly.
In the fourth week of her job, a salary in hand, Nupur’s daily life seemed to have cemented to such  a predictable patten, that she could close her eyes and with ears open carry on with the assigned order of the morning….into noon….into evening and night. Before stepping out of office, she removed her long stockings and felt relieved at the touch of fresh air on her day-long cloistered legs.
“So, what’s new today?” stressing the last word , Suman asked her daughter on the routine ride back from the station and that also became a routine query.
Nupur wondered what was new. “Oh,yes, my salary message. The payroll is……” Nupur took out her mobile phone and read out,”twenty thousand and after due deductions Rs.seventeen hundred and five twenty five/- transferred to your account no. …blah…blah…blah.”
“Take the hard copy of your Statement” advised Suman with her years of experience as a salaried employee, musing over the underpaid youth of the day caught in the openings of multiple call centres and B.P.Os sucking in half educated youngsters laughingly working day and night, night and day. Some, like Nupur, with a higher qualification moved into positions with regular 9.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m. routines.
“Oh yes, Ma, as you know the new Metro line has opened…so, now I can use the other side which is closer to the road you take.”
“So, how is the new side? Took them forever to open it, though one got used to all those narrowed diversions and single file driving. Yet not as bad as when there is a road reconstruct.”
“ The new side is more spacious with the addition of brand new floor matting, looks clean and slick, what some would  say, ‘world class’“
Nupur had walked through the new side along with the usual commuters who also seemed to prefer the ‘newer’ side. The men who had habitually exchanged their bits of talk on, “So what’s new today?” merged into the canvas of the daily ‘to and fro’. They would follow up to a point till Nupur stepped out of the newly matted station. “Nice and clean….one could walk barefoot” thought Nupur.
Weeks piled into months and the Autumn festive season burst upon the city. The crowds surged, the jostling increased…the indifference grew…Nupur couldn’t stand it. The silver grey of the spread mats turned dull and, on the mat leading to the escalator, a stain, like a coin stamped into it looked up distinctly. Another week of sweeping, cleaning and commuting, but the stain remained….an indelible symbol of neglect, of indifference, and an indelible mark of something lost….like a hollow feeling when looking at the black holes of the cosmos. The chasm kept deepening, as more and more thronged for space and air, moving between stations and on trains. Once in the train, multiple eyes darted with heads lowered, with heads raised. Nupur swung from mood to mood, comfortable only when she could get out of her stockings and slip into loose fitting clothes, legs stretched across a chair at the dining table where mother and daughter had a simple quiet meal with the radio news, first in Hindi, then in English followed by a topical issue for discussion and analysis. Occasionally Nupur would stay on for the discussion slot with her mother who would always linger on to listen and offer her comments. As time went by, it seemed they were both becoming recluses, each in her own way. When Nupur slipped onto her bed, she felt comfortably pampered.
 A new Flat in exchange for the old one, which was acquired with such excitement against years of monthly Instalments. Every year for nearly thirty years of her work life, Suman had got used to the monthly deduction of Rs.899/- while her husband had forsaken Rs 1000/-as part of the hire and purchase housing scheme. So, why did she take that decision of moving away after cremating her life partner of so many long years. She recollected his stagnant, consistent routine—going to college as a lecturer with more time spent in the staff activity room over carrom and chess and less time in the class room and the laboratory. Students too would happily while away their time.
Nupur liked her new Flat. It gave her greater anonymity. People didn’t know...she could be herself and yet put up the façade of a career girl, with a job in a well-known Company and yet live on with the realisation that she could not make it to the electronic media for which  she had undergone anintensive, exorbitant course. “Oh , Well,” she thought, “it’s good to be on the move—home, office coffee break chats and my bed-- the commute, the Metro, the jostle, the fading newness of the New Metro Line, the stained mats, wouldn’t they ever get replaced, did they ever get washed? The small stains seemed to merge—and then there was one—amoeba-like blob, which remained conspicuously indelible. “Nupur’s own days seemed to lie back like an enlarging amoeba. “What’s the marriage scene like?” she was often asked. “Haven’t thought about it”, lied Nupur. The truth was that she could not come to terms with the stereotyped norm and yet found it reasonably acceptable.
Suman had grown weak. She sensed her daughter’s vacillation over the idea of marriage and waited to broach the matter. Occasionally, mother and daughter hedged around the subject as though it was an expected need. Suman couldn’t get herself to open up and say outright—you have a good place to live in—stick to your source of income, move on and forget about marriage. “Moving to a new place has heaps of benefits,” thought Suman and shared with Nupur, ”people are unassuming and if you stay reserved, you can feel free.”
“Yes, but a couple of not so unassuming people in the park asked me, ‘Don’t you want to get married? Isn’t mama looking for a boy?’ I made small talk and moved on. Sweet elderly couple moving together, morning, evening to the park and back.”
“Yes, yes, also at the Supermarket” added Suman.
“Is it common for parents and children to be reticent at home?” Nupur asked obliquely over coffee sitting with two of her colleagues.
Of course, the new age jobs, night shifts, odd hours, graveyard shifts—I haven’t seen my brother for weeks now…in fact, we hardly meet—one coming and the other going. Thanks to Swiggy, I eat what I want to. Good thing I don’t see my mom much―these days she harps on the range of C.Vs she has piled up for me to select—but no shaadiwaadi for me.”
Thinking about the office chat