There was something about the air in this place that never got us enthused. The moment we finished unpacking we began wondering where we would be going next. Usually, we behaved as if we were going to spend the rest of our lives in the new place. Though, of course, we knew better.
While Ma hung up the curtains with Parminder, my father gently unpacked the glassware and crockery from wads and wads of newspaper and straw that he himself had packed in the last station.
This was his job, his alone.
While Ma wrapped the dinner set, tea set, beer and whiskey glasses he would sit down with a bottle of beer, on a Sunday morning listening to Radio Ceylon and carefully lay them in crates.
Then when he unpacked them in our new home, with a very high success rate he would ask,
“And why is it our glasses don’t break?”
We would always chorus back, “Because you are an Artillery Officer. Artillery Officers are smart and their brains are not in their feet, like the Infantry’s.”
The trunk stencilled ‘Curtains’ was as important as the kitchen trunks. The moment the curtains were up, we were home! It was always so exciting!
Then Ma would take out the photos and pictures and put them up. “This one somehow doesn’t look quite right in this drawing room. Where shall we put it?” she would ask.
Carrying it from room to room she would decide that this time it should be in the study, or perhaps in the hall.
By evening, with the lamps on, the pictures up, the cushions all stuffed and welcoming, the curtains drawn and the rest of the world shut out we would wait for my father.
“Welcome home, Daddy!” we would yell, and then the four of us would once again make a new home.
My father would begin with inspecting the trees in the garden.
An Officer before us had planted the fruit and vegetables we so enjoyed and someone else would enjoy what my father took so much pain and pleasure in planting.
The cycle carried on with no difference at all in the level of enthusiasm.
But this time, as I said, it was different.
There was a certain listlessness and a feeling of being truly in transition. Even after drawing the curtains the world wouldn’t stay out.
Parminder said the beginning was just not auspicious.
We had arrived in Ranchi in the dead of night.
There was a curfew on and our train drew into a quiet and eerie railway station. We had driven through a ghost town littered with burning cars, tires and buses. While my father had sat in the front with the driver of the Jeep, we sat behind clinging to Ma.
Parminder followed with the trunks in the one-tonner.
“How long are we going to stay here?” I whispered. I already hated the place.
Officers’ Quarter 4C was a yellow non-descript house, one among four in a compound which was heavily guarded.
The MES (Military Engineering Service) was not at its most imaginative. Maybe they thought that a square block of brick and mortar would make it easier for its occupants to leave without looking back.
It was on the outskirts of the Cantonment but we were well protected with serious Hindu-Muslim riots raging outside.
There were strict instructions not to step outside our compound walls. Once in a while an Army Patrol went by and asked our Guards if all was well and on other days an Officer came by with the supplies.
The nights, however, were terrible.
The wailing and screaming in the far distance would make my brother whimper.
In the evenings, my father with Ma by his side would go to the terrace and look at the fires all over Ranchi.
“It reminds me of Lahore,” Ma would say, shaking. “This is terrible. The haze! Oh God, it’s Lahore again!”
In the three months that we were in Ranchi, we went into town only once when I needed a pair of shoes.
It was such an expedition.
All dressed up to go and buy shoes!
It was not much of an outing though, with no one on the streets and only a few shops open.
All the signboards in English had been vandalised and re-written in Hindi.
The Hindu-Muslim riots were over, it seemed, but the anti-English language riots were in full swing.
As we drew up near Bata someone threw a stone and shattered the windscreen.
Ma stifled a scream and my brother began to cry. I, for one, didn’t want shoes anymore.
“Angrezon ki aulaad! Number plate Hindi mein likhon!”
So we stayed within our compound with only our neighbours, the Chatterjees and the Brars for company and the Adivasi woman who came in to clean the three houses in the compound as the fourth was unoccupied.
She was thoroughly frisked every morning by the Guards and then allowed in.
She would stand there, staring without seeing, when the Guards touched her all over. Her baby wrapped up and slung on her back looked like a black, shiny doll.
He slept while she swept the floors, washed the clothes, drank her tea or cleaned the vessels.
Sometimes she slung the cloth, baby and all, on a branch. Even then it didn’t move.
Only when she put his head in her blouse could we see the head bob up and down and his fat hands press and push. Then with a gurgle and burp he was done.
The very first visit we paid to the Chatterjees was quite strange.
And Ma decided that Mrs Chatterjee was, for lack of a better word, different.
We had waited in the living room where there was a couch and two hard chairs. In a corner were a brass diya and a wedding photograph of Mrs Chatterjee.
She looked very pleased.
It seemed as if it was taken only yesterday. Then there were four big photos of a baby with lots of kohl and one where you could see right away that it was a boy.
The other strange thing was there was nothing to show in their house that they had been anywhere.
Maybe they were civilians. Usually an Army house can be read like a map.
If one had been to the Northeast, spears were definitely put up in a cross. A driftwood arrangement meant Assam, phulkari tablecloths told you about Punjab and wooden elephants-in-a-line came from down South. Mirror-work cushions meant Gujarat while pretty, white embroidered tea linen meant the Convents of Lucknow or Madras.
They had nothing!
Two girls about my age peered through the curtains and smiled at us, but made no attempt to come out.
The first rule of good Officer-like upbringing is that the baccha log always come out and wish the guests.
Mrs Chatterjee came out with a baby in her arms and her thick, long hair was open.
Not tied up! Open hair was as good as wearing nothing.
“Hello, hello! Welcome to Ranchi! Sorry, I was in my bath.”
What was she doing having a bath when she knew we would be calling?
“A cup of tea, coffee?” Looking at my brother and me,
“Some juice for you?”
“Let the children play outside,” Ma smiled at the girls still hiding behind the curtains. “And I’ll have some tea.”
Mrs Chatterjee held me back with one hard hand while holding her baby with the other. “No! The children will not play. These girls,” pointing to the two behind the curtains, “are naughty. They are being punished.”
My brother and I sipped juice, getting fidgety.
Mrs Chatterjee was telling Ma how Elsie, the adivasi girl was not allowed in their house.
“Only outside work. Outside I say. She is Christian! I asked her where her husband was. She doesn’t say a word. I tell you she is not married. That black thing on her back is a bastard!”
We were quickly sent back home as whatever Mrs Chatterjee was saying was clearly making Ma quite uncomfortable.
It was quite the opposite in 4A where there was a Sikh Colonel, his wife and four children, Timmy, Simmy, Kimmy and Jewel.
They were a wild lot who had been everywhere. We spent a lot of time together as there was nothing else to do.
Our cars were in the same garage.
My brother and I would get into our red and white Herald, with me behind the wheel in sunglasses and a scarf whereas Timmy would get behind the wheel in his father’s car, with his sisters.
We would then race the parked vehicles.
They always won, because they were four of them and they could shout louder, “We WIN! We WIN!”
Parminder Singh and their Anoop Singh would also join in. “Come on! Come on! Baby,” Parminder would yell.
Anoop would hoot.
On other days when Timmy was bored he would come by in his chappals and shorts with his shirt never quite in and his long hair never quite done. Through his two missing teeth he would suck in his breath and half-yell half-sing his favourite Shammi Kapoor song:
Aaj kal tere mere pyaar ke charche har zabaan par,
Sab ko maaloom hai, sab ko khabar ho gayi!
“Go bray somewhere else,” Parminder would chide him.
Sometimes we could hear him running at breakneck speed with his mother behind him, with either a slipper or the Colonel’s baton.
If she were not really up to it, Anoop Singh would, in a couple of long strides, catch him and hand him over.
He would then be brought in for a court martial. “Sardarjee, what have you got to say for yourself?”
Timmy would then have to confess to pulling Simmy, Kimmy or Jewel’s plait or having said a bad word.
(‘Idiot’ was allowed but ‘Bloody Fool’ was certainly not) With three sisters what else could one do?
Timmy said that Mrs Chatterjee was a witch.
“She is not Joyshree and Maithali’s real mother. Their mummy died and then …” pausing dramatically, “their daddy got married again.”
Without any fear he would go up to their veranda and yell “JOY-SHREE, MAITHA-LEEE!”
“What is it?” Mrs Chatterjee would snap.
“We’ve come to play.”
All the while I would try and get a glimpse of her feet. Everyone knows that witches have their feet attached backwards!
With Ma in our veranda and Timmy’s mother in hers, Mrs Chatterjee had no choice but to call out the girls.
“Come back in exactly 30 minutes. Otherwise I shall fix you.” She was always saying that. “I shall fix you.”
But Joyshree and Maithali were quite unused to playing.
They would stand around awkwardly, clutching each other and die to get home in exactly 25 minutes.
Timmy also said that the well at the back was full of Muslim blood. “Who told you?” I gasped.
“I know. I know. Anoop Singh and the guards killed 10 of them yesterday and threw them in.”
“How do you know they are Muslims?”
“Oh! I can recognise them anywhere. They have red flaming eyes and purple tongues!”
I never went to the rear of the house after that.
Once, when my father and I were going for a stroll around the compound, I told him about the well.
“Daddy why are Muslims bad people? Why do you sleep with a gun? You want to kill them, don’t you?”
When I told Timmy very smugly that my father, yes my father, had told me that were only bad Indians and good Indians, Timmy didn’t agree. “You’re a baby that’s why your Daddy has told you this stupid fairy tale.”
“I’m going to stop you from playing with that boy Timmy,” said Ma. “He is filling your head with such stories.”
I then turned to the Chatterjees, first a bit hesitantly, and then a little more confidently.
But not once did Joyshree and Maithali come to my house.
They carried the baby the whole day. If he cried even once, Mrs Chatterjee would come and first give a tight slap to the girl who was carrying him and then cooing, take him away.
Even when their father returned home he would just carry the baby around, while Mrs Chatterjee would complain and complain about this and that.
“Why does your Daddy listen to her?” I would ask.
“You came first. Doesn’t your Daddy love you?”
“No, he loves Biswajeet. He’s a boy,” they would say.
“We are just girls,” Joyshree, the older one, would tell me. “He’s special!”
“What’s special?” I persisted.
“He’s our brother.”
“So?” I had one too.
He was nicer than this cranky, soo-soo, potty baby.
At least he played.
This one just lay and stared at the wall or slept.
In fact, one day I pinched him when I found myself alone with him.
He was so shocked that he just looked at me.
I quickly glanced around and not finding anyone there, I pinched him again and this time he screamed and screamed.
I got quite a fright myself and hurriedly moved away.
“What happened? What happened to my little prince?” Mrs Chatterjee had asked in her baby voice, which she reserved for him. I was safe as long as her little prince could not speak.
But in my nightmares Biswajeet, all of six months, would be sitting up in his cot with his kohl-smudged eyes. Podgy and fair in his diapers, but in a man’s voice he would say,
“She! Yes, she is the one.”
Rocking each other Joyshree and Maithali would intone, “Never underestimate the power of little boys. Never ever!”
I would protest and I would deny my crime but each night they would throw me out of the compound to the mercy of those men who wanted us to speak Hindi or worse, to those purple-tongued Muslims.
“Naah, he’s not special,” I said. “He’s just a baby.”
“Were you happy when I was born?” I probed Ma.
“Was Daddy happy too? Were you happier when my brother was born?”
“I’m going to stop you from playing with those Chatterjee girls.
Their mother and her stupid ideas,” said Ma.
“When are we going to leave this God-forsaken place?”
Elsie stopped what she was doing.
She had heard Ma say this again and again.
With a jerk she adjusted the lolling baby and looked at Ma.
“What is this Memsahib? All the time you say, ‘When we go out?
When we go out?’
Who told you Memsahib, that it is different outside?”
Elsie was feeling very good these days.
She smiled a lot, flashing her white teeth.
She certainly had taken her revenge on Mrs Chatterjee.
A few days ago everyone in the compound — that is the Brars, the Guards, the Orderlies and us — had heard Mrs Chatterjee screeching, “You bitch! You Christian thief! Is this what those foreign priests taught you?
Stealing! Stealing my best silk sari! Hiding it with your baby!! What you think? I can’t see? I am blind?
Arre, I have big, big, Bengali eyes! You bitch, you…” She beat Elsie on her back and shoulder.
Elsie just flung the sari in question at Mrs Chatterjee who had nearly toppled over.
“Sahib diya. Sahib khush tha!”
Mrs Chatterjee shrank before our eyes and was suddenly half her size.
Then like a panther Elsie strode over to our veranda and picking up the broom, calmly began her day’s work.