The Button


Not just once but many a times I feel that I am a very strange creature. My Mother often said, ‘Son, you are a very strange creature indeed!’ Being a creature is fine but being a social creature (modification of the term, ‘Man is a social animal’) makes hell of a difference.

When I was fifteen-sixteen I was found dashing from mirror to mirror in the home, desperately trying to fix my unruly hair fully doused in imported BrylCream (thanks to my Kuwait Aunt), in a hairstyle I frequently changed. Tells my Grandma at a much later day that there have been times when she said a prayer or two for my hair to obey the style I wanted so that her blessed Grandson would get ready to school/college!

Now, I am nearing sixty. Everyone knows my night cap is a good movie. I have my own, separate TV and DVD and no one or nothing dares to disturb me when I am having my night cap. But the other night my dearest black cat, "Kappu" came up to my recluse and started her ‘meow, meow’ which finally got on to my nerves. I just picked up my slipper and threw it at her. The scream and the look she gave me, clearly established me as a very strange creature.

I hate the papers on my desk, fluttering. There are umpteen paper-weights on my desk but at times, I prefer to switch off the fan and sweat out just to avoid the flutter of papers. Am I not a strange creature?

And those, unexpected 90 degree twists – sit to watch a movie, the electricity goes off; at a tambola game I am craving for number 23 but all the numbers in the twenties come but not 23; I am happy that the flight is taking off on time but the captain announces a technical snag. Why, why, all this just waits for me? Why do I bite the same spot on my lips again and again, why do I trip and hurt my right toe every week?

No, the worst is yet to be narrated.

This ‘worst’ is just unbearable. You have picked up a clean shirt and have put it on, and lo and behold, the laundryman has knocked off the third button. Now where do I find one of the same color? Even if I find one where is the needle and the thread? Even if I find the needle and thread where is my beloved wife to thread the needle?

On whom do I mash these grapes of wrath?

Yes, right you are! On the laundryman.

A simpleton to the core. He takes immense pride in addressing me as ‘boss.’ Yeah, I think he knows I am a ‘mahaan’ Konkani novelist. I have told him time and again, not to call me ‘boss.’ Cannot blame him, the Konkani readers have not given me any decorative title till now. Perhaps they will and this chap may start addressing me in that title. Wishful thinking. But damn-it, I hate when he quietly brings the laundry packet without mentioning that he has been successful in knocking out a few buttons. I flare up and when I do under the circumstances, atlas shrugs!

The day after one such incident, swallowing my wrath, I addressed him as ‘boss’. ‘Hey boss,’ I said. ‘Have planned on opening a button shop?’

He looked at me, baffled. ‘I do not understand, boss!’ he said. "You see, I am not as intelligent as you are.." he looked ruefully at my wife standing next to me.

‘That,’ I said, grinding my teeth. ‘That I know’

‘Let him be,’ said my wife. ‘Poor guy. I will get a box of buttons of assorted colors, multi-colored threads and sharp needles. Why do you rag this poor chap?’

I gave out a desperate sigh.

‘I will even check every shirt he brings in….

""…My mind was clouded as I entered the elevator and absent mindedly I buttoned up my blazer….""

‘And spoil the creases?’ I cut her short. ‘Listen, boss,’ I again turned to him. ‘I will be the chief guest at the opening of your button shop, okay? What do I have to do? Cut the ribbon or some Konkani thread and speak in Konkani? I do not need any shawl or powdery garland of wood shavings.’

Now he was fully flabbergasted. ‘Really, madam,’ he said. ‘I really do not understand what the boss is saying.’

My wife inhaled a sigh, exhaled a sigh.

‘You are dumb, aren’t you?’ she said with compassion. ‘You are regularly knocking off buttons from his shirts and that is why….’

‘Yes, yes, I get it now!’ he chirped gleefully. ‘But this happens boss, you need not increase your BP for this little thing. I will fix the things for you. Check every item that I bring in; if a button is missing, give the shirt, trousers or whatever, back to me and I will bring it back in two days…you will never see the difference!’

I was seething and wanted to strangle him.

‘I will do better than that!’ I said. ‘After every wash and ironing, YOU wear my shirt first, check for the missing buttons, fix them, iron the item again and bring it back to me!’ Pretty smart eh, I said to myself.

‘That sounds good too,’ he approved. ‘I run the laundry in my home itself and many a times someone or other finds the buttons fallen on the ground.’

My wife gave me a look which said, ‘Did you have enough of his simplicity?’
Suddenly, I found myself out of place.

I backed up slowly and I heard my wife ask him. ‘How is your baby son? He is two years now, right?’

‘No madam, no!’ he was all excitement. ‘Just one and a half year. ‘He is so smart and chirpy and active, he crawls all over the house.’
‘Hum,’ I muttered to myself. ‘Silly stupid sentiments.’

Days passed and our laundryman was having a field-day nipping the buttons with his coal-fired iron. I meekly accepted my failure and embarked on a new strategy: buy only white shirts, an ample supply of white button and at least a dozen needles, threaded and keep ready. This should work, I told myself. This strange creature’s brain does work at times, I told myself. Good.

Duty calls.

It was New Delhi this time. It was still chill and windy in Delhi I was told, and I pulled out my two dark blue blazers which lay moth-balled in the wardrobe for years. Capital City and a literary conference, Festival of Letters, the Konkani novelist should look in his best, right? A kurta set would not keep the Delhi winter away and to have a heavy sherwani stitched would be a sheer waste.

I told Mr. Simplicity: I am leaving on this particular date and I want both my blazers dry cleaned and pressed to fit in suitcase. Oh yes boss, he said merrily. Still fifteen days to go, he assured me and himself too, I guess.

The fifteen days just flew past. I was so busy that fortnight and my wife took on the task of packing my suitcase, laptop etc. That evening, the next day being my day of air travel, she dropped the bomb.

"He hasn’t brought your blazers yet!"

"Couldn’t you remind him!" I yelled. "I do not know what would befall this home after I forget to breathe." This usage of words is typical of me, she always said.

"He should have come on Tuesday….there is malaria all around….might have…"
"Where is his blessed laundry or house or whatever….?" I reached for my car keys.
"I do not know!"

"You do not know? This is sheer nonsense."

"Why so? He makes the door delivery and why should I know where his laundry is? When you buy a broiler do you got to see where the poultry farm is?"
Aha, Aha, this was really below the belt. I skipped the dinner and went off to bed, hoping she would come to pacify me and lure me into eating.

She did not. She had known this strange creature for thirty years plus.

Next morning, after having made three rounds to the loo and gulping down three cups of tea, my internals which are mortally scared of flying did not consider settling down. My jitters during air travel are internationally known.

"The laundryman’s son had come!" my wife announced. "He has brought your blazers. No harm done, there is still some place in your suitcase."

I was already up thirty-five thousand feet and cruising at 700 km/H.

"The son is sobbing and refuses to tell me why!" she said, trying to fold in my blazers to fit in the suitcase. "He even refused to take the money."

"I couldn’t care less!" I snapped at her.

I gulped down a dry toast, my fourth cup of tea and barged into the waiting cab. I did not forget to place a peck on my wife’s cheek.

"Do not be nervous on the flight," she said. "These modern aircraft do not crash that easily. However, you have that Rosary we brought from Lourdes, don’t you?"
How is that for professing Faith?

I was in the Capital that same evening. Delhi was cold and windy.  Dialed a call to say I have landed safely. Took a hot shower, had a good meal, went quickly through the papers for the next day’s program and signed off. Tomorrow is another day, I heard Scarlett O’Hara whisper in my ears.

And it was.
Who is prepared for the next day whatever be your preparations preceding?
I was in deep slumber when my cell squeaked.
It was my wife.

"The laundryman had come!" she said.
"So, you had to disturb my million dollar sleep?" This question was certainly warranted or was it?
"There is very sad, tragic news!"
I sat bolt upright. "All is well in Bangalore?"

"All is well with us," she said promptly. "The laundryman’s baby son….died!"

There was a brief silence from either side.
"What happened? Malaria?" I mustered courage to ask. I felt in my gut that worst was yet to come.

"No," she was fumbling for word. "No…he swallowed and suffocated on a button…he must have picked it up from the floor, a five-rupee coin size button…Jesus, how that child must have choked and suffered. It was too late when they took him to the hospital." She sobbed uncontrollably.

I was lost for words.

After a long time, very long time I felt, that I said. "I’m sorry but the life must go on."

Yes, the conference. Mechanically I dressed up, knotted a tie and put on one of the blazers and stepped out into the lobby. The elevator was to my right.

My mind was clouded as I entered the elevator and absent mindedly I buttoned up my blazer.

I groped and ran my fingers up and down the lining of the blazer. The top most button – a gold button of the size of a five rupee coin – was missing. All my fingers could feel were three or four feeble strands of thread.

My knees buckled and I sank slowly to the floor of the elevator.

(This article was originally published by Raknno in Konkani. Translated by the Author)

Edwin J. F. D’Souza

Author: Edwin JF DSouza- Mangalore