A shrill sound jerked me awake. I raised my head and looked around blearily for the source of the noise. The door bell rang again, causing me to wince from the shrillness of it. I had a headache, and my mouth tasted like a cat had peed in it. This wasn’t a motivating start. As the bell rang again, insistently, I groaned and reached for my shorts and T-shirt and hurriedly pulled them on as I hobbled towards the door. The living room was bright and the light made my eyes squint and tear a bit.
Fumbling with the key, I unlocked the door. “Good morning,” I croaked. It was Mrs. J, my neighbour from downstairs. She smiled and I caught a disapproving gleam in her eye. I sighed inwardly; this couldn’t be good.
“Your apartment looks beautiful,” she said after she stepped in and peered around.
I thanked her for the compliment.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you?”, she said, taking stock of my disheveled looks.
“I’m sorry, I just got up.”
“Oh, then I won’t disturb you. However, I wanted to ask about that cot on your balcony outside. Is it yours?”
We have a traditional village cot which is a bamboo frame about five and half feet by two feet, atop the four legs on the corners. And around the bamboo sides is a widely spaced net made of tightly bound twine. You may find people setting this up on their terraces, or out by the side of the street in poorer neigbhorhoods. I’d seen it at a German friend’s house and that had sparked my idea of getting one for my work room. Now it usually sits by the wall in the living room with a few big cushions on it for comfort.
“Yes, yes, it’s mine. Nice isn’t it?” I smiled wanly.
“I just wanted to check. You know, in India, it’s inauspicious to stand your cot that way. You should have it lying down or stand it along its breadth,” she frowned lightly as she peered at me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware of that. We have it standing outside because we’ve just applied a termite pesticide and it stinks, I hope that’s not disturbing you,” I replied, not really catching the gist of what she’d just said.
“I see,” she said and beamed at me, “that’s all good, but it really isn’t an auspicious thing to have it standing that way. I was just walking in the street downstairs when I noticed it and thought I’d mention it.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry if I upset you,” I said apologetically.
“Oh, not at all, but I won’t disturb you further. Good day!” She smiled a final time and headed down the stairs.
A few hours later, feeling somewhat restored – thanks to the ministrations of the wife – I pulled the cot in. I wondered as to why it was inauspicious. I’d hear of the expression, “Teri khaat khadi kar doonga” and it sounded more like a threat. As I was on my way out of the house, I heard Mrs J. on the landing and stopped to say hello and apologise for being so disheveled earlier. I assured her that I’d pulled the cot in but I was curious.
“So, why is having a cot standing that way inauspicious?”
“Well, it’s not a nice thing to stand a cot that way. It’s really something not done.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard the expression ‘khaat khadi karna’, but I’m curious. What does it mean?”
“You see, usually when a person passed away in the earlier days, they made space and put up his cot that way. It is a sign that the owner of the cot is dead. I just wanted to make sure that there was no misunderstanding.”
And the light came on in my head. I thanked her and marveled at these signs that are so embedded and perhaps, even eroded in the Indian and other cultures. My mom used to scold me every time I stood my glass in the plate. That was sign of death too. And I wonder what other symbols I use and how many I must miss unconsciously.