by Megha Mehta
For as far back as I can remember, ammaji was the driving force in my nani’s house. With a thin, wrinkled face, a slight stoop, birdlike, seemingly brittle bones, jet white hair which shone blonde in the sun (thanks to her sarson ka tel), photo chromatic glasses and no nonsense colloquial Punjabi, ammaji was quite a character.
Growing up, she was, by turns, my playmate, storyteller, confidante and nemesis. Our most epic fights were always around the same subject – my tendency to bury my nose in a book rather than trying to learn all the ‘essentials’ (read cooking, stitching, knitting et al).
‘Jal gayian twadiyan book-an’ (May your books burn) she would screech/ mumble/ mutter – a comment which was always a red flag to me. Of course, I had a temper to match hers, and once, in a particularly nasty mood (she snatched away my Wodehouse so I could learn crochet), got back with a ‘tussi te padhde likhde nahi ho, mainu te padhan dyu’. (You didn’t read and write, at least let me).
This was one of the few occasions when she didn’t get her way, and my self-righteous sulk carried me through the day.
Our other favorite epic-fight-subject was my weight. She would go on and on about how I should do jhaadu poocha ‘paban bhar’ or squatting, and it would be my turn to screech/mumble/mutter at her to mind her own weight. Which of course, was never a problem – she was the most active person I knew – she usually cooked her own meals (her doodh wala gajar ka halwa was legendary), washed her own clothes, kept my nani’s (dubious) garden alive and was the afternoon langar destination for all the neighborhood strays.
Outspoken, blunt, too much like me and yet just always ‘more’, ammaji always made me feel ‘not-there-yet’. It took me nearly two decades to realize – much less admit it – my academic efforts and general grab-life-by-the-horns attitude was as much a proverbial middle finger to her criticisms, as it was a reflection of her legacy.
No matter how our day went, or what stand-offs we got around to (the rest of the family knew better than to interfere or try to reason with us), evenings always found me upstairs in her rooms, listening to her stories and telling her about mine over a glass of Bournvita, the milk heated to just the right degree and the Bournvita stirred endlessly till it was dissolved just-so.
Some days I would describe the book I was reading, some days she would describe the brand new sparrow which had taken to feeding in her balcony, our disagreements banished to the graveyard of familial hurts and insults.
Sometimes, she would talk about life in Pakistan, in her beloved ‘Pindi’ (Rawalpindi). But these occasions were rare and far in between, and when she did, it sounded like she was narrating a fairytale – beautiful, colorful, happy stories, but dreamy and other worldly – they felt like they had no place in our reality. Only in our twilights, the moments between wakefulness and sleep.
One such hot (is there any other sort?!) summer evening, we all dutifully trooped upstairs to the terrace. We were in for another 8 hour power outage, and just the thought of staying in the stuffy, steamy indoors was unbearable. It was the last summer I was able to spend a big chunk of time at my nani’s, life was changing. I had gotten admission in a prestigious engineering course and long summer vacations would now be a distant memory.
The person most pleased by my admission was, unsurprisingly, ammaji. Not only because I was her beloved (and first!) great grandchild, but also because I was to be an engineer. Her husband, after all, used to be an ‘overseer’ with the British government, the closest thing to an engineer in those days. Bauji later resigned from his job to set up a successful business, but ammaji never forgot that she was married to the most educated man in the pind.
So upstairs it was, with buckets of water poured on the concrete floor to cool it down after the fiery day, our chataais sprinkled with rose water rolled out on the floor itself, ammaji and I settled down with our heads together, comfortable in our daily recap rituals. Maybe it was the upcoming change, the starry night on the terrace or the exceptional dahi wada we had for dinner, but our stories were mellowed and the fairytale seemed to slide right in.
Kaushalya sat on her opulent dressing table (dressing table! Who would have thought of such a thing!), going through her earrings to pick a pair. “Paiyaji aande honge, Pabi!”(Brother must be about to come home, sister-in-law), her youngest nanad poked her head in the room and whispered.
Kaushalya bent her head and nodded. The degree of laaj in the nod must’ve been satisfactory – she heard Paro giggle and run downstairs to convey the response to Kaushalya’s saas.
Sighing, Kaushalya picked the earrings for tonight and proceeded to brush her hair, it wouldn’t do to be anything less than presentable when she went down to help serve the evening meal.
As the newlywed daughter-in-law of one of the most respected families in Pindi, she wasn’t to help with anything more than that around the house yet. Her henna had started to fade, but it had been only 7 days since her marriage.
“I won’t let her in the kitchen for a full 30 days”, her saas had proudly proclaimed at her munhdikhai. And why not, her saas had handpicked her for her beloved elder son after all!
Kaushalya paused with the surma on her fingertip, leaning in to get a closer look at herself. She was the ugliest of her 7 brothers and sisters – all of them tall, well built, fair and smooth-featured. The ‘ugly’ had never bothered her, she knew she looked like her father – the color of khameera aata (sourdough), with sharp features and an angular, thin frame.
Evidently, it didn’t bother her saas either, and so far, her husband hadn’t commented on her ‘peculiar’ appearance either….he had just been overjoyed to hear that she could read Urdu and manage to write a bit too!
“Well, time to get going, can’t be late for the evening meal” she thought, adjusting her ghoonghat as she walked downstairs.
At the sound of the sniffle, Kaushalya froze! Waiting for her dadi saas to wake up and catch sight of ‘Kaali Kaushi’. “Here she goes…” she thought and mentally prepared herself for the string of recriminations and creative taanas on her upbringing and family. But vaddi bebe simply turned over, let out a fart and went back to her snoring.
Holding on to her giggles with difficulty, Kaushalya wrapped the masala gud in her pallu and eased through the door to meet Paro, who had been standing guard just outside the door. As they ran to the safety of the terrace, the two burst out laughing – co-conspirators in all crime!
Kaushalya knew she would miss this nanad, her last link to her own childhood, when Paro got married in the winter. Paro had made the transition into a new house so much smoother for Kaushalya, and the past 2 years had just flown by.
Being the beloved youngest child, Paro had managed to delay her gauna till the ripe old age of 16. At only one year older than her, Kaushalya still felt vastly more grown up, specially now that she was a mother. Ved was the most adorable toddler, and her saas and paiyaji were both pleased as punch.
“Ek kudi jaan lagi hai te dooji aa gayi”, her saas had exclaimed. (As one daughter is about to leave, another has come.)
“Well, today, we have this fresh and freshly stolen gud”, Kaushalya turned to Paro, “may your life be the same as this gud, sweet with an underlying spice!”
As she stepped out of the rickshaw with her son, Kaushalya wished she could bounce in her excitement like he did…paiyaji had bought a second shop! They said it was at least 3 times as big as the current one…just imagine!
Paro had pestered him endlessly to take them there and paiyaji had been unable to refuse his darling sister, home from her sasural for her first delivery. It had been a tough pregnancy at first, but finally, after 5 years of marriage, Paro had carried a child through the first trimester.
Now, in her 6th month, looking happy and healthy, she exclaimed, “Look at the dukaan, pabi, the name is written in angrezi! Look how modern it is looking, and it is colored blue! Oh, and paiyaji, he looks so handsome, so authoritative!”
“You can read angrezi?” Kaushalya asked her husband that night.
“Yes of course, my bauji had arranged an English tutor when I was young, he wanted his sons to be able to speak the language of the sahibs”.
“I want to read your shop’s board, can you teach me?”
But how was that to happen, in a house of 17 people, how would the eldest son and daughter-in-law ever have time to themselves. One day, Kaushalya saw a book on her mantle….
“Book?! Aap books bhi padhte the? Mujhe to bada sunaate the meri book-an ko leke,” I interrupted ammaji’s story to ask.
“Paiyaji had bought it for me. It was a book of angrezi ABCD, and he put my name on the front page – Smt Kaushalya Devi, that’s how I knew it was for me.”
“Phir kya beta. Tere chote nanaji aa gaye, phir Ved got married, my saas died, my devar shifted to Peshawar”, she laughed, “life happened.”
“And you lost the book?”
“Not right off, I packed it when we left Pindi to come to India, and then….”
I knew what had happened then. My great grandfather had died the day after they reached the refugee camp, when my nanaji was only 18, leaving ammaji a widow at 38. The vultures had descended and taken over the business and everything of value while the widow and her two sons were shell shocked and struggling with their grief.
The erstwhile ‘rani’ had stitched clothes, done odd jobs, begged her brothers for scraps and survived most days on a meal of roti and pyaaz (even pickle was a delicacy and only available sometimes as a result of people’s charity). For the next decade of her life, till both her sons had settled and things had stabilized.
In that moment between wakefulness and sleep, I saw an ammaji, who was not yet ammaji. Just a girl like me…
Ammaji’s funeral was the biggest family get-together I had ever seen – at least a third of the relatives were ones I had never seen before! We spent two days full of laughter and anecdotes – her 98 years and essential contrariness had supplied us with enough ‘material’.
As we went to Haridwar, to immerse her ashes, the mimicry and recollections continued – the mood one of celebration rather than funereal – my mind ran through a kaleidoscope of the last 3 days. The strays we had fed every day, the carefully hoarded dabba of Bournvita in ammaji’s belongings which she was saving for my next trip, her white saris being packed for distribution to widows…
Guruji’s ashram was the last stop on our trip, just needed to sign off the donations in ammaji’s name and we would leave for Delhi the same day. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was leaving her behind, this beloved friend, and the fear that I would forget her and the best parts of my childhood.
I slipped out and, wandering around, I found myself at a tiny shop crammed floor to ceiling with my favourite thing in the world. Bookan. Small town bookstores are fascinating, some of the most eclectic and disparate bits and pieces are usually to be found there. This one at Rishikesh was no exception.
I picked up what looked to be an ancient and much-out-of-place children’s English alphabet book, and started to flip through it. The sight of the inscription on the first page gave me goosebumps.
There, in faded ink, were a couple of words in Urdu!
I did not need to get the inscription translated, for the heart knows what it knows.
This story was written as part of the Writer’s Gym program for participants of my Short Story Writing workshop.