The sour taste is to the Andhra tongue what sweet is to a Bengali. A giant mango tree rose like an unmbrella over the house with its roots in a neighboring house. In the summer mangoes hung from its great branches in clusters. The mangoes were tantalizingly close to grab and yet, owing to the fact that its roots lay in another house, they were beyond the grasp. The owner of the tree, a certain Mr. Subba Rao, considered his sole right to every mango on the tree, even to those that were not visible from his own backyard. If anyone tried to pluck a mango he would shout abuses from his part of the land. The owner never came face to face with his neighbors but his booming voice was heard all over the neighborhood. The women of the house looked up at the bunch of fruit hanging like green lightbulbs, but could do nothing to possess them. Therefore, they whispered among themselves several nicknames and uncharitable words to describe their neighbor. The children were so much aroused by what seemed like unfair treatment by their neighbor would go around the house shouting ‘Dubba Rekula Subba Rao’; they lifted their faces at the tree and raised that slogan in chorus that meant nothing more than a caricature of the man’s name.
The little boy, fondly called Babu, joined his older siblings in denigrating what he considered the neighbor’s meanness. He often went up the stairs to the first floor and lowered himself to the balcony that had the neighbor’s wall on one side but had no guard rail on his side of the house. From that vantage point he took up the chanting in earnest, thereby believing that he had raised the sloganeering to a new high. He made sure that he was safely away from the unguarded edge of the balcony. He also made sure that he had his escape route clear of debris in case the offending neighbor chose to appear suddenly over the dividing wall.
The neighbor believed that any tree arising out of his soil belongs to him even though it spanned the neighboring houses. He did not apparently subscribe to the belief held by Babu’s family that anything that appeared with in the four walls of their house, from the ground below in the bowels of the earth to the limitless sky above, is theirs to take. Babu did not know which belief was actually correct; nor did he care. He knew clearly which side he was on and so went about aiding his siblings in raising the ruckus against the offending neighbor.
In matters concerning arcane beliefs Babu often consulted an octogenarian on the premises. He believed that there was a reason behind her sunken eyes and frail figure. She had no doubt seen much from the very beginning of time. She seemed to wail when she spoke, her gnarled hands rose in resignation and her toothless mouth opened and closed like a frog’s. She sat in a corner or on the stairs and in dim lighting she appeared like a ghost, for her dark skin blended in the surroundings. Babu listened to her as if she was giving a discourse on the Vedas, even as she interrupted her monologue with screams and rants at her daughter-in-law. She told him about the time when Razakars rode roughshod over the people. Babu could sense fear in her marble eyes and some of it entered his heart that had not seen many a summer. When she spoke of the bearded goons of the Nizam, her words trembled on her frayed and ugly lips. The beard for Babu became synonymous with terror. The old woman lived with her son and her daughter-in-law in the upper story of the house. Often Babu sneaked upstairs to peek into the esoteric life of this aging relic of humanity. Once he saw her draping a sari round her sticklike body; the crafty old woman caught him spying and shooed him away, gesticulating like a witch in a seance.
Babu went upstairs for several other reasons as well. For him growing up in life meant climbing those stairs to begin with. Lowering himself to the balcony promised a thrill that was unlike any other. It was not a place where children were allowed to wander about. Lacking the guard rail, the balcony meant danger. Looking down into the house from the balcony, especially in a casual manner, meant that he was staring danger in the face. It also sent a message to the elders in the house that he was brave. It also notched his esteem in the eyes of his siblings a peg higher than he would have earned it by other means. It also afforded him a way out to conceal his other fears even from himself.
From the balcony, on the adjacent side of the mango neighbor, was the Student’s Institute, a school whose windows opened on his side. Looking through them seemed like participation in a secret rite. For the children in the school, the windows were set high and couldn’t possibly notice a peeping Tom. He loved to hear them repeat what their teacher said. He memorized snatches of English rhymes and numbers tables and repeated them to his family members verbatim. The elders thought he was very clever and petted him: he became a hero among his elder siblings for he learnt subjects without books or going to school. He was very proud of his achievement and rose in his self esteem.
The balcony taught him many things, opened doors to new subjects and experiences.