Monthly Archives: February 2015

And Forgive Us Our Sins – Sand In My Teeth

In a far off hill station, hidden behind majestic pines, was a deceptively beautiful chalet. The cars had to be parked below and a long walk led to the office of the Mother Superior.

A coolie carried my newly painted black trunk on his back. My father, holding my brother’s hand strode ahead while I clutched Ma’s, my heart pounding so loud that I could hear it in my ears.

Oh yes, I had wanted to be here.
A boarding school had sounded so exciting. Fed on Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St. Claire’s, I was looking forward to midnight feasts and tuck shops.
Ma too had chipped in with wonderful stories of her stint at Nainital. But by the time we walked past large pots filled with geraniums, an exquisite stone grotto and into a well-appointed ‘Parlour’ where we met a very cheerful Mother Superior. I just wanted to go home.

We had been but three months in our new home, a little hamlet of a Cantonment, only two hours away from school.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, with apple blossoms lining crazy little paths. Larkspur and candytuft grew wild and purple pink hydrangea filled bed after bed. Pretty cottages dotted the hillsides and larger bungalows sat on hilltops.
Ours even boasted of a chapel and an orchard.

We were woken every morning, without fail, by Chippy, a wildly enthusiastic yellow Labrador pup. In the clear mountain sunshine, warmly clad in our jumpers and jeans we would run down to the stables, for our eggs.

“Horses for the white Colonel Sahib and chickens for the brown Colonel Sahib!” my father had chuckled when he decided to house the stables used by the British, with hens.

We would find the smoothest golden brown eggs for our breakfast and hand them over to Prabhu, the cook.
Overlooking the valley below, in our Sunroom, where Lord Dalhousie, the Viceroy of India, once breakfasted, we too enjoyed toasts, omelettes and homemade guava jelly.

We always had plans for the day.
Trekking to some hill or a splash in the sparkling stream. Sometimes we spent the entire morning simply rolling and sliding down the slope to the orchard, where we would help the malis pluck apples or better still, catch the yellow butterflies.

On a quieter day, Parminder carried my easel and I followed with my paint box, stool and Chippy.
Vikram, Sujata, Sanjay, my brother and I were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
There were only two rules: Breakfast with my father at eight and home as soon as the streetlights came on. In between it was absolute freedom and complete joy.

But now I was in the Parlour.
“Say farewell to your Mummy and Daddy,” said the Mother Superior in a rather quaint way.
For a moment, Ma had looked unusually uncertain but my father just shook my hand very formally, and gave me a little punch. “Go on, girl. See you soon.”

An Ayah led me to my dormitory through a large room with a shining stone floor. Dark wood cabinets with marble counters ran along the dazzling white-tiled walls and shining chrome taps. Numbered white-and-blue enamel basins were placed in a perfect line on the counters. In the middle of the room was a highly polished brass towel rail with neat triple-folded towels, each an inch apart from the next. The dormitory itself was a long room with beds, which carried on forever.
Large windows on one side overlooked a green, shrub-strewn hillside while on the other was the rest of the school.
The ticktackticktack on the rich wood floor unnerved me and I tried walking soundlessly on my toes, but it was impossible.

The Ayah put my small case on my bed, which thankfully overlooked the hillside as I was already beginning to feel claustrophobic.
“Sister is coming. Wait.”
“Where is my trunk?” I suddenly had this desire to have all my things around me.
“Don’t worry. It will be soon put next to your bed.”
I felt myself choking, thinking about the whole term ahead of me.
“Oh God, how would I last here? Would I die before I saw my parents again? Would someone remember that I was here in this God-forsaken convent?”

I waited endlessly, very close to tears, when a bell jangled me out of my reverie. A stream of girls in grey skirts and sweaters trooped in. The empty dormitory was now full.

I felt my breath returning. Would I ever be able to sleep with so many girls in one room? They gathered around my bed and questioned me curiously, just like all the girls in all my other schools.
“What is your name? Where have you come from? Which class are you in?”
This didn’t look so bad. Maybe it will be like St. Claire’s after all!
My trunk was soon next to my bed.
The Ayah opened it and took me to wardrobe number 24 where she laid out my things in neat piles.

Underwear, warm vests, socks, all labelled with my name by Ma. My towel was triple folded on rack 24 and my night suit was put under my pillow on bed 24. I was to use basin 24 with my toiletries in the drawer of the same number. Basically, I was now number 24.

“Girls! Girls! Girls!” strode in a small bespectacled nun, in a spotless white habit.
Without a glance at me she clapped her hands and everyone scuttled away. “Change and go for Study. Come on, come on. Haven’t you seen a new girl before?”

A set of my clothes had been put on my bed. “It doesn’t match,” I complained to Ayah. “I don’t wear this trouser with this blouse.”
“Just wear it,” she replied, so menacingly that I quietly took them.

While I was removing my clothes and standing in my underwear and vest, I realised all eyes were on me. For the first time Sister Christine looked directly at me and said, with some disdain, to the girl next to me
“Teach her to be modest. Explain to her what it means to be a modest Indian girl.”
With great pride my little instructor put my dressing gown over my head and then, inside that makeshift tent, I was told to remove my clothing and put on my new set without revealing any skin. All around me, each girl was in her own tent, sitting on her haunches on the side of her bed, shielded from the eyes of the other girls, all of our own age.

We emerged all sweaty from our warm dressing gowns fully clothed and not one inch of our precious Indian skin revealed, wearing completely mismatched clothes.

Frocks with churidars! A combination of jeans and dresses! Long-sleeved jumpers poking underneath from short-sleeved blouses! The Ayah, who only wore saris, had had a field day selecting our clothes and seeing that every bit of us was covered!

Then we moved to the Washroom.
Here, three splashes of water, two wipes of the towel, a dot and a half of Charmis all purpose cream and a comb in hand, we stood in a line to get our hair done by two Ayahs and Sister.

Yank, brush, yank, brush, brush. A deft bow of the ribbon and we were ready to escape for Study.
The hairbrush, however, made a mean weapon. All scores were settled with it.

“So Geetanjali? Talktalktalk last night?”
“Noo, Sister.”
“What do you think? I don’t know anything. Baby Jesus has given me eyes and ears in the back of my head, you know.” Yankyank.
“Ouch! Sister, that hurts.”
“That hurts, does it?” A harder yank.
“Next time I hear you talking…Catechism at five in the morning. Understood?”
“Yes Sister.”

When it was my turn, Sister was gentler. It was the first day after all and the account book was clean.
“Where have you come from?” Brushbrush.
“Bakhloh, Sister.”
“You speak good English.” Brushbrush.
“Thank you, Sister.”
“What does your father do?”
“He’s in the Army, Sister.”
“Oh ho! Army!” Brushbrush.
Then turning to the Ayahs she said in Punjabi.
“My sister’s brother in-law is in the Military. A real Sahib, that brother in-law. All tan tan, toon toon in English. Gentleman, you know. Now after the British, these are the only gentlemen left.”

“See,” she said to the other girls, pushing me away gently. “Learn to speak English like she does. You are in a Convent, not some vernacular school. No Punjabi and Hindi. Understand?” And the next girl got a hard yank. “Understand?”

This beautiful convent with its large classes and sparkling corridors with potted flowers; pretty rockeries and fountains in manicured lawns could have been in Switzerland.
Not that I had been there. But I imagined it so.

Life in school got divided into two neat compartments. Classes, games and meal times being the happy hours and the time to retire to bed became a time to be dreaded and feared. Once in bed, the lights would be turned off but we were not allowed to sleep. Cane in hand, Sister Christine walked between the beds imparting Moral Science.

“Amrita, you did not turn the tap off properly. Do you how many people don’t have water to bathe? My dear Lord! People don’t have drinking water and a sinful creature like you leaves the tap on.”

And on and on she would continue. How God would punish us. How we would burn in hell and there we would beg for water. No one would come to help us. We would die of thirst. Oh yes! We would die a miserable death.

Tapping the cane on the bed of the child who made the mistake of going to sleep she would rant and rave till she was exhausted and ready for bed.

Every night she found some girl to pick on and every night it was the same story. “I asked you to sow a button, Deepika. I gave you 18 inches of thread. What did you do with the rest? You only need 15 inches for a button. You threw it, didn’t you? You spendthrift! When you go to hell the Devil will tie you up with all the thread you have wasted. You can say all the ‘sorries’ you want but he will tie you up and you will die a miserable death.”

To shut her out, my mind would wander… to the orchard, catching butterflies, Chippy in our apple blossom scattered drive, pretending to be a lion waiting for his prey, the squirrels, absolutely unaware that his tail was swishing madly behind him.
How Prabhu once tried making naans for us. He swirled the dough with such flourish that we had to scrape it off the fan! NanaNani.
Even that terrible fruit market. My brother, my old friends Rajan, Ketaki; my new ones, Vikram, Sujata…

We cringed with every tap of the cane. And we waited with horror for our name to be mentioned.
However, every morning we got ready, left the dormitory and never spoke of what happened there.

“What do I hear? You were playing piggyback. Throwing pillows and fighting on the beds. You dirty girls. Touching each other like this. Wrestling is it? Have your parents sent you here to wrestle? Anyway, as if they care. Your rich parents! Do they want responsibility? No, they’ve dumped you here and I have to look after you. The cheek! In front of my Baby Jesus you were wrestling.
Catechism at five for all those wrestling. Stand up. Come on. Get out of bed you bold pieces. Tell me your names.”

The poor things would then have to own up, as others would be encouraged to tattle on them.
Wasn’t standing up for your friends a big thing in Mallory Towers, St Claire’s, and The Famous Five? One was respected for not ratting.
Once I got home I would check my beloved collection of books and tell them that this is not what it was suppose to be like.

But these unfortunate ones would stand on one leg or on their knees on the hard wooden floor till much after we were all asleep. Baby Jesus would finally forgive them and they would be allowed to get into their warm beds.

On every alternative weekend I would go home, only two hours away. It was a rough ride through the treacherous, crumbling limestone mountains and the landslides but nothing would keep me away. In the safety of my house,
I would beg not to be sent back.
“You are doing so well!” my parents would say. “Mother was telling us all about your essays and the prize you won for the drawing competition.”
Looking around at the warmth and familiarity at home,
Sister Christine seemed a world away. My father, sitting in his shorts, nimbu pani in hand, on our wide veranda after a game of squash. Ma on the carpet with her recipes scattered all around. Cuttings of Woman & Home, Home & Garden, and Femina.
“What should I make?”
She would ask. And we would point to the most tantalising picture. Chocolate doughnuts, soufflés, barbequed chicken, baked fish, mutton biryani…
My brother polishing shoes with great flourish alongside Parminder Singh.

How could I explain Sister Christine?
How could I explain the physical sensation of having my chest constrict when I was near her. How could I tell them that those magnified eyes behind soda bottle glasses left me shivering? There were no words to explain the fear at hearing her cane rub noisily against the steel beds.
“She goes on and on about Hell and Sin, Ma. Where is this Hell?”
I could see Ma struggle with her answer, “We believe that one’s deeds make a Hell or Heaven right here on earth.”
“Well, Sister Christine’s Hell is a hot burning place where one is perpetually thirsty. And you know something, life is very, very sad because Baby Jesus dies everyday, every time when we do naughty things.”
“Poor Sister! She is so new to it,” Ma tried to explain. “She hasn’t understood anything.”

I did tell them about the new classmates.
Ma had nearly fallen off her chair laughing when she heard how we were to protect our modesty by not revealing even a tiny bit of skin.
It was not the reaction a friend got from her parents. They were very grateful, she told me, to have found a school, which was so attuned to Indian culture.
With all these foreign nuns they feared their daughter might just want to start celebrating Christmas.
Who knows?
Worse things had happened to these convent-educated types.

On my last weekend home, only Ma had come to fetch me.
My father and his Regiment had moved to the Front. There was a fear of War.

We knew all about the refugees who had flooded across the border in millions because we had to put a pink refugee stamp on our letters home.
Sister Christine had also told us that if we sinned we would also have to carry a little bundle and become refugees like those Bengalis.

As the ranting about refugees, the bloodshed, and our sins, became more frequent I slowly came to the conclusion that War was my only escape from Sister Christine.
Every night, I said a dozen Hail Mary’s. Every night, I prayed to Baby Jesus.
No Gayatri Mantra.
Only Sister Christine’s prayers to Sister Christine’s God. If this was the hot line, I was going to grab it with both hands.

It was a prayer for the War to begin, but with the condition that my father is kept safe.
I made a deal with Baby Jesus : I was willing to eat, ugh! An egg yolk! I

While Sister walked between the beds, tapping her cane on some unfortunate’s bed, I prayed and prayed for the Pakistanis to attack if the Indians didn’t have the sense to do so.

Finally! One morning, a hurried Assembly was called and we were informed that School was going to close, as War was imminent.
All around me, girls started sobbing and spoke in hushed tones. I alone whooped in my heart with a pious look on my face.

The very next day, Parminder came to fetch me and I was ready and waiting.
With my black steel trunk. I went into the Parlour and got a hug from Mother.
I went on to tell the Ayah that I was leaving and was on my way to Sister Christine when I suddenly stopped.
I turned around and with a delicious shudder of rebellious pleasure I just walked away.
I…. was….not…. going ….to….. inform….. her…………. that I was off.
No goodbyes.
No doubt I was an ungrateful wretch, No doubt. No doubt.
I was willing to take my chance in her Hell.
••••••

Bright Lights City Lights – From Sand In My Teeth

We had arrived, as always, with sticky fingers.
After the blinding white glare outside we had to close our eyes and then slowly, slowly open them in the cool, dark living room with the chickspulled down and the curtains drawn. Nani had waited, as always, for us with glasses of brightly coloured, chilled sherbet. “Go, wash your hands and then come and meet me,” she had ordered.
“I’ve never understood how you can stand in this heat and eat an ice-cream.”
She had critically eyed my brother and me as she did every time we visited her. “Thin! Dark! Not to worry, I’ll fatten you both up!”
While leading us to the bedroom that we were allotted on our visits she told us about the how Sher Singh, her oldest and most reliable Major Domo, a retired Kumaoni soldier, had to rush home as his wayward son had eloped with a girl.

The cook was good but had developed what she suspected was a weakness for gin and ‘what did the fool think that everyone else was a fool too that they didn’t notice the bottle was being replenished with water?’ Anyway, Nani was going to be one smart on him. Close her eyes to the gin swigging while we were here and then out he would go once we left. But giving him the sack wouldn’t be easy, said Nani unless the Chopras, Kapurs and Tiwaris made arrangements or she found a quick replacement. Seeing our mystified expressions, she laughed and her eyes crinkled up the way we had always pictured her.

“Weelll! We have something special,” she said. “Something everyone wants. Something everyone envies. But only your Nana and I have it, for the moment, at least!”
“What? What Nani?” We jumped on her lap, pulling her face towards us.
“What? Please tell us.” But she was adamant. “Washup, washup first and come out fast.”

We rushed in for our bath, the door ajar, not wanting to miss any bit of this excitement. But she had moved to other subjects.
“Anita’s daughter was here yesterday. So fair! What a pretty girl! The raunaq on her face! Of course, I didn’t say anything. If the girl comes down with a rash or heat stroke tomorrow they’ll say it was my nazar. But let me tell you it took a lot to keep my mouth shut. Those apple-red cheeks!”

Ma, who naturally looked drawn after a long, dusty, hot train journey didn’t seem to be enjoying the way this conversation was going. But Nani had carried on regardless.
“Anita was telling me, how they have this big glass of fresh orange juice. All of them. Then, you know, they have at least two eggs each for breakfast. Her parathas are always made in pure ghee. “What is a little weight Auntyji? I want my family HEALTHY! Plus at least three glasses of milk for her children. I believe her husband can’t touch his food without a good mutton curry.”

Ma could be heard opening suitcases and shutting cupboard shutters a little too loudly but Nani carried on. “Her jar of pistachios and almonds on the sideboard is always full. If-you-will-see-it-you-will-eat-it. I must say Anita is such a sensible girl.”
Nani always felt everyone ate better than us, looked better than us, was healthier than us, and saved more sensibly than us.
Ma had snapped. “We eat very well Mummy. My children are thin but healthy. They are dark because they play outdoors. And anyway I am dark and the children have gone on me.”
“No, no!” My beautiful milky-white grandmother had backed off not meaning to take it so far. “You are not dark! How can you say that? You are wheatish like your father’s side.”


We were the ones who always came to NanaNani from new places, new houses, new schools, new friends while things usually remained unchanged with them and their Delhi house.
We couldn’t believe that Nani had a surprise for us. Something new and so unimaginably exciting, she had said.
Her sofa chairs were always blue or grey with an embroidered head and arm- rest.
If they looked worn out, Nani would replace them with another blue set because the drapes were still in good shape. And if the drapes needed changing, the sofas were still as good as new. So it was always blue, blue-grey, or grey-blue. The Chinese plate on the wall had been there for years, as had the pewter urn on the mantle piece. The coffee table in the centre with its dark top and spindly legs had the day’s newspaper. The Persian carpet underneath was a beautiful red with a design, which was like the imprint of an elephant’s foot, Hathi pao. Here, after lunch, we played innumerable games of Sweep and Judgement with Nana, while the rest of the family enjoyed a siesta.
Even her dining table, with its chairs, never changed.
“No more MES for me!”
“Nani!” we would say, “You are always in the same house. You have the same garden. We can still see the zoo.”
“Thank God! I have done my share of travelling.”

She herself always wore an embroidered sari. It was mostly white and always pretty. “I went to this Ball at Fort William with your Nana,” she had told us the story many times over. “Only four Indian Officers with their wives had been invited.”
“But last time you told us that seven Indian officers had been invited.”
“Four or seven! What does it matter? For days I wondered what to wear,” Nani always knew how to stretch her stories.
“Whattowear, whattowear. So I took the easiest way out. A simple white embroidered chiffon. You just can’t go wrong with that. And anyway you know your Nani, she always believes it’s better to be underdressed than overdressed. So there I was very, very nervous. All these British and their hoity-toity wives! But… but the Commandant came up to me and said? Tell me what did he say?”
And in our best put on British accent, biting the Vs and whistling the Ws, we would huff and puff, “Mrs VA-dhe-ra, WH-ite really becomes you!”
So white saris it was.

Her red bindi and red lipstick enhanced her glowing skin. She looked very smart, my Nani, with her dark glasses and her matching handbag. There were only three things on her dressing table: A silver jar of bindi powder, her one and only lipstick and Afghan Snow cream which, one-day, she changed to Ponds Cold Cream.

We had arrived just this morning. We hadn’t been here in two years.
“There’s Nana!” Nana with his twinkling eyes, his neatly clipped moustache and his middle parting with his hair brylcreemed smoothly back. Forever the Colonel Sahib, he stood very erect on the platform, looking out for us.
Amidst a lot of hugging and hand shaking, the coolies had clustered around. The smart ones, as usual, picked up the suitcases and bedroll and told the others to move away.
“Arre Sahib, give us whatever you want.” But once we reached the car they began complaining, “Five rupees! What are five rupees today?” Phool Singh, Nana’s driver, had taken charge. “Jao, jao,” he growled. “You want to loot us or what?” Then out of earshot “Marroon kya?”

The railway stations where we usually began our journey from were small and maintained by the Army. Painted benches and ‘USE ME’ trashcans. There was no “loitering” allowed and the Military Police diligently patrolled the platforms.
Delhi Railway station was so different.
It always overwhelmed me. The noise, the crowds, the smell of rotting fruit and the faeces on the tracks. The bored-looking people spitting out of the windows or throwing away peels. The beggars touched you and put on a pleading nasal voice. And then, once they were given a few paise, they would move away abruptly, not the least bit grateful, and in fact would suddenly look very clever and nasty. Sometimes they forgot that they had just been given something and would come back. And when they would be reminded of it they would saunter off. I guess we all looked the same to them as they looked to us.
The sweeper who, without once looking up, carried on mopping the platform, with his long pole and wet, large swab. It was always our responsibility to see that we didn’t get a wet swish on our shoes.
I was petrified of getting lost. Clutching my mother’s hand, descending and mounting countless stairs through the never-ending sea of people.

Phool Singh had honked wildly and had muttered under his breath while we went past a street of fresh fruit on carts and rotting discarded fruit on the pavements.
“Why do they have this market here? It delays everybody coming and going from the station.”
“People like to carry fruit for their journey. And others buy it for those they will be staying with,” Nana had explained.
“Can’t they buy it near their house?” my brother and I had argued. They must be like my Nana. Once our holidays were over and we were again heading towards this station, he would invariably say, “Look at those delicious chausas! We must pick some up for you.”

That was last thing I wanted. What I wanted was to get through that chaotic to-the-platform-to-our-train-to-the-compartment-and-my-berth rush. Only then could I breathe.
“Come on, there are hours to go before your train leaves,” and all our protests would be of no avail. Those crates of mangoes already packed and readied for us by Nani didn’t matter. He had to give us these chausas. Nana would pick each mango, sniff it, exchange it for another, and then sniff that. He would haggle with the fruitwallah, and, not getting the right price he would go off to the next stall.
The cacophony of the vendors, the squelchy fruit at his feet, didn’t matter. The whole procedure would begin again.
“Nana!” I would wail, “The train will leave. Please.”

Now on our way to the house, we had driven through beautiful Connaught Place with its wide roads, jamun trees, shops and fountains. We had never seen water flow so freely. The tin tub in our tent and our prized tap…. Ma had squealed “Cottage Emporium! Queens Way!”
“Are the beds being put out on the lawn at night?” my brother had enquired.
Nana had nodded. “I bag the right side.”

Yes, that was the fun part of Delhi.
The mosquito nets and the beds put out for the night in summer. Sometimes there was a cool breeze and sometimes not but at least it was better than being indoors. Nana had these stories about Quetta and the bursting orange orchards they had left behind during Partition. There were scary ones of blood and murder and of best friends turning on each other.
“Religion is a dangerous business,” Nana would say.
“It only divides. The British were masters at using it. And we were fools for falling for it.”
“What are you teaching them?” Nani would mumble from her bed. “Religion is very important. Religion is who we are!”

In his not so serious moments he would make plans with us on how to hide the lion in case he escaped from the zoo and strolled into our lawn. With each loud roar, plainly heard from our beds, the plans would get wilder and funnier. Till Nani would tell us all to shut up and sleep.
Nana would pretend to be chastised. He would cover his face with his sheet and snore loudly. Once he was certain Nani was asleep,
“Let’s go to Nehru Park tomorrow. Let’s see you roll down those grassy slopes. And then, of course, we’ll have lots of ice-cream.”

Or he would inform us, “I have a large basket of mangoes waiting for a mango fight!” The idea was to eat as many as possible then with sticky hands find someone to smear. We shuddered with pleasure.
Oh! He was so wonderful, our Nana. You just had to mention the word chaat and he would bundle us into the car and take us for a nice spicy round. And while we were at it he would order hot potato tikkis and delicious kachoris.
Phool Singh had stopped the car at an ice-cream cart. He knew the routine. We had to have a Kwality Choco Bar before we got home. We had waited two years to get our mouths on that cold crumbly chocolate with the dripping vanilla within.


So we arrived home, as always, with sticky fingers and were pushed immediately into the bath.
Having washed off the grime and dust we emerged two shades and a few pounds lighter. We excitedly followed Nani into the living room where she flung off a tablecloth rather dramatically, from what seemed like a box.
“Here! Here is my surprise! You say there is never any change. Well, even your Nani can have change! See! Our new television! Television baba, TELEVISION!!
“Really! Really!” spluttered Ma. “Can you imagine — a television? I see it in ‘Woman & Home’ but you actually have one.”
“How does it come on?” asked my father.
Nani switched it on and we gazed with much admiration at a dark screen of flickering snow. The programmes only began at six in the evening.
Krishi Darshan! Oh! Oh! What a miracle! An hour of farming and gardening tips for our farmers.
“Can you imagine the WHOLE country is watching this programme? Now! Right now! Doordarshan has bound us. United us Indians!” Nana would exclaim.
“But Nana I don’t think they know that nobody has electricity in Dharangadra except for Mr Dwivedi and the Palace.”
And then Bachon Ke Liye.

On Wednesdays, Nani informed us, we could look forward to Chitrahaar. For the News we had to keep absolutely still and silent.
“Just see the beautiful saris Salma Sultan and Pratima Puri wear,” Nani would whisper. “White with black or black with white.”
Night after night we noticed the two newsreaders wear this colour combination and then we realised that in fact all of them did. Was it a Doordarshan uniform?
When my father heard of this he couldn’t stop laughing. “It’s a black and white television, silly,” he said. “If it was a colour television….”
“Colour television!” snorted Nani. “Arre, who has heard of a colour television?”

On Saturdays we watched the regional film not understanding a single word.
But it was Sunday that was the Big Day. The sherbets, nimbu pani, and beer would be ready in the refrigerator. The cook had no idea how many would be eating so dinner was prepared in abundance.
He knew his job was secure till the Chopras, Kapurs and Tiwaris got themselves a television or if Nani replaced him that was unlikely in these days of scarce domestic help.
At 6:15 there would be a rush for the good seats in the living room.
The doorbell would ring and the Chopras, Kapurs, Tiwaris and other assorted neighbours, friends and relatives who were not fortunate enough to have a television of their own, would stroll in and occupy seats that they had taken the week before. The children would be relegated to the carpet. On the dot at 6:30 the Sunday evening film would begin. Only Nana could switch the television on, adjust the brightness and contrast, increase or lower the volume.
The privilege was entirely his. The rest dared not and the children were chided and sometimes whacked if they were even within two feet of this magic box. The rows of spectators began exactly six feet away from the screen. We were warned that we would soon be bespectacled if not blind if we sat closer than that.
Trips to fetch drinks or visits to the toilet were relegated to the Rukawat ke liye khed hai. The cook would hurriedly serve dinner during the News with the women chipping in.
Within half an hour the cook was back on his stool watching the latter half of the film with the rest of us. How we looked forward to Sundays!

In between there were visits to the Rail Museum, Doll Museum and the Arts and Craft Museum. We were like two little village urchins being given a crash course in culture and refinement.
“Leave her with us,” Nani would say. “We’ll put her in your old school, Jesus and Mary. How many times are you going to move her?”
“I did it,” replied Ma, “She’ll do it too.”

At least every other evening the pedestal fan would be out in the garden, the cane chairs arranged in a circle, and we would expect friends and relatives over. Nani said that it was very important to be seen getting along with one’s relatives. And my cousin told me that aunties especially, were very important. They were the ones who handed out the envelopes with cash. Li-tta e Di-tta were very important Punjabi words.
Nani kept a black dairy in which she noted that on Ma’s wedding in 1959 so-and-so had gifted Rs 21. So on their daughter’s wedding Nani had to do at least the same if not more, considering inflation and all.
Every thing that was received was li-tta and everything that had been given was di-tta. Meticulous records were kept and God forbid if you messed up.
Family battles raged over trivial bits of money. It was not the sum that mattered as much as the gesture. But then sometimes the gesture didn’t matter as much as the sum. Basically, you never got it right.

“Aren’t civilians strange Daddy?” I asked, after one such evening where all I had done was to go into the kitchen, a hundred times, and ask for more nimbu panis and sodas to be sent out while our guests sat in a circle in the garden. “They always say Namasteji instead of Good Morning or Good Evening.”
“My dear you three are also civilians,” My father poked me. “According to the Government of India only I am in the Army.”
“No, Daddy we are not civilians,” shrieked my brother and me. Ma insisted that she was definitely not one since her father had also been in the Services.

Civilian was a very strange word indeed. Not a bad word but not quite nice either.
Civilians were always late. If someone had been invited for tea at four thirty, and didn’t arrive till five, my parents would fume, “Civilians!”
Civilians never exercised. (They looked healthy according to Nani.) “You look just the same!” they would say almost accusingly to my parents who were so proud that they did. No fluctuating waistlines and bottoms.
They did not like animals.
Most of them were scared of dogs. Imagine! They asked for the dogs to be put away before they entered the house. And if one was allowed to stay, they didn’t want to be licked. What is the use of having a dog if it didn’t lick you!
They didn’t serve tea in a pot but put the tealeaves, water, milk and sometimes sugar too in a saucepan.

Nani had taught me the science of making tea in six minutes flat. I would start the entire exercise at six minutes to four and on the dot of four would proudly emerge carrying the tray, laid out with cups and saucers, teapot and tea cosy, for the family. If I were a minute late, I would be told off. No civilians in this family!
Then there was this bit about their money. It had a different colour, you
know. When my father saw a foreign car, while proudly driving his much-awaited Fiat
he would say, “There goes a civilian with black money.”

When Ma began packing our suitcases for our journey back home, Nani sat on the bed and watched her emptying the cupboards.
“Thank God the Chopras and Tiwaris have bought a television for themselves. At least eight less to feed next Sunday.”
We realised the Chopras were now proud owners of a television themselves when we noticed their absence from our Sunday evenings. No little thank you note to say that they had enjoyed the Sunday films and dinner. No nothing. They simply did not turn up and we had to be smart enough and understand. Noformalityyouknow.
Ma had A Book of Life she told us. Some rules were cast in stone and some were made up along the way. Saying ‘thank-you’ was definitely cast in stone and perhaps even written in blood.
According to Ma and Nani, Mr Chopra had shown us where he “came from” (across the street, I thought) “who he actually was” (not a spy, surely) and his “background” (“very simple” was that not nice? Not quite, I gauged)
As for Mr Tiwari, his landlord on the ground floor had acquired a television and they were now in his living room. Moreconvenientyouknow. However Mr Tiwari’s conduct was a notch better as he had at least complimented Nani with a ‘nothing-like-the-dinner-you-serve’ when they bumped into each other during their morning walk.
However, the Kapurs and the other neighbours remained our Sunday guests and quietly took over the empty seats, which they had been eyeing for a while.The cook was beginning to see the Sunday numbers dwindle too and even the four of us were soon going home. He realised he was no longer going to be indispensable so at least stopped swigging the gin.

During Nani’s chitter-chatter Aunties would drop in to say their byes and we would move to the living room. Some brought fruit and boxes of mithai. The best ones brought envelopes, which they stuffed, into our hands.
We always protested at least thrice (instructions from our worldly-wise, Delhi-based cousin) and the fourth time bashfully (and readily) accepted them.
On some occasions Nani and Ma would protest. Then it would be quite a tug of war.
The Aunty pushing the envelope in our hands, Ma pushing it back. It was quite worrying. What if Ma won? But most times the Aunties were stronger. When farewells were finally said and done. My brother and I would pounce on the envelope.
“Ekvaaanjaaa!” Fifty-one! Quite a magic number.

Now we were ready to catch our train and go through that dreadful market with the chausas and return home. 

Sand In My Teeth – From Sand In My Teeth

“Let me take it, let me take it,” I pleaded,
But Mridula Dwivedi just raised the shining, stainless steel tiffin box higher.
“Please, please,” I begged. A frown creased her big, red bindi and her smooth moon face showed irritation.
“No!” She hissed. “No!” giving the tiffin box to her son. “You take it and don’t let this one touch it, otherwise Ba will not eat.”

We were going to the edge of the village where the women-who-wore-no-blouses-and-had-shaven-heads lived.
Ketan, Rajan, Ketaki and I went every evening to give the tiffin box to Ba.
The three of them were allowed to hold it while I was not.
There was a big shindig the day Ba saw me carrying her evening meal. She had shouted at her three grandchildren.
“You fools! You idiots! Look at my kismet! Oh! What sins I must have committed in my last life that I was blessed with fools like you. Life has taken everything from me and now you are even taking my dinner away.”
“What happened Ba? What happened?” we had asked.
But Ba had just sat in her thin white sari. Her hand on her head, rocking and muttering,
“It’s bad enough you play with this one,” pointing her finger at me “but to let her carry my dinner is too much.”

So from that day onwards, the three of them took turns carrying the dinner while I just went along for the company.
Whereas Rajan and Ketaki took their task seriously, Ketan let me hold it if he got busy kicking a tin, or throwing stones in the pond. But always out of sight from Ba’s eyes or those of her tale-tattling friends.

The cool desert breeze would make us forget the blazing sun of the day. After being indoors the whole day we had so much energy to expend.
While Ba ate, we sat on the steps of her little hut and tried to push each other off. Or if Mongo, the buffalo, waddled by after an afternoon of grazing, we all jumped off the steps and shouted out her name. Each time she would stop, moo and then swishing her tail, walk on.

“Oh! Ho! Stop it!” her owner would sometimes complain.
“I have to go home and cook the evening meal. You’re delaying us.”
So we would yell “Mong-goooo!” one last time and one last time Mongo would answer back.
Sometimes Yashoben, Ba’s help, would allow us to make cow dung cakes.

Ma wrote and told Nani the first time I made cow dung cakes.
“Oh God!” said Nani, “Send her to Delhi. We’ll put her in the Convent of Jesus and Mary.”

We would play hopscotch with Harshad. She was Ba’s granddaughter, (the elder sister of Rajan, Ketaki and Ketan) and lived with her. Just a year ago she had finished school and married a boy in Rajkot.
When the wedding date had been fixed Ketan and Rajan had hopped across from their house and done a jig outside ours.
“Harshad is getting maaareed, Harshad is getting maaareed,” they sang, “And our father is coming to give a card to Major Sahib.”

Mr Dwivedi had walked across in his spotless white kurta and soft white slippers, his gold spectacle frames glistening in the sun.
He was the richest man in Dharangadra.
At least that is what his children had told me. Of course, the King and Queen who lived in the palace were richer but Mr Dwivedi was a rich man too.

In the veranda he had clasped my father’s hand, “Major Sahib! First big responsibility I am taking care of. After that, there is Rohini and Ketaki. We have fixed Harshad’s marriage. Good boy from a well-eating-drinking family from Rajkot. Boy is in father’s cloth business. His sisters are also married in well-eating-drinking families. Yes, he’s only son. Only son! You must come. Please, to stay and eat with us. Must come,” indicating my mother.

His sons giggled and laughed.
His wife, who stood on her steps, with her head covered and her pallu in her teeth smiled widely and waved her hand.
“You, you naughty girl, you also come,” she pointed to me.

That was the first time in a year she had spoken to me directly. It did surprise me as I was in and out of her house the whole day. I even helped with filling the brass urns with the hand pump. But I was not allowed in the kitchen.

Well, we had all gone for Harshad’s wedding.
The night before Ma and my father had spoken about our having the wedding meal.
“What if they make us eat separately,” laughed Ma. I think she was a little nervous.
“Can you imagine if Dadaji heard of us being treated in this manner? He would splutter and splutter and take them to task.”

We had all laughed at the thought of it. Dadaji would have lectured them on our Kshatriya lineage. We were the warrior class; he had told me many times. “Be proud. We are warriors!” while thumping me on my back to stand straight.
“The audacity of these grass-eating Brahmin johnnies!”
He would have gone on and on till Mr Dwivedi would have begged for mercy and allowed us to eat wherever we wanted.

It was decided that if some fuss were made about the eating arrangements, we would make a polite excuse and leave. Otherwise we would stay and enjoy the pure vegetarian Gujarati fare, which is so watery and sweet.

Mr Dwivedi had, however, proved to be very cosmopolitan (Ma said) and introduced my father, “Major Sahib, who lives across. He is Punjabi.”
At the time of the wedding feast Mr Dwivedi joined us at a separate table specially laid out for us while the others sat on the floor, as is the custom.
Seeing the warmth we had been greeted with my parents insisted on joining the others.
“We will baiso with the others,” said my father in his limited Gujarati.

“Baiso, baiso,” repeated everybody. “Baiso, baiso.” The men seemed overwhelmed and the women couldn’t stop staring and giggling.
My father had pulled off a great social coup and Mr Dwivedi took the entire credit for inviting this Punjabi, who ate meat and drank alcohol.

“In the Military you have to,” he explained. “Dhandho! Work demands. Work demaaands, you know,” he emphasised.
Only a Gujarati could understand what all a man has to do for his work and business.

Harshad had looked surprisingly very pretty in a red and gold gauzy odhni.
Harshad the bully. Harshad the darkie. The only one not to inherit her mother’s colouring sat with such serenity in her finery amidst the celebrations. Smug in the fact that no one could take away her day from her.
“I want exactly what she’s wearing for my wedding,” I told Ma when we went to take a peek at the bride.
The women engulfed us and in conspiratorial whispers spoke of the large trousseau her father was sending with her. You have to give more when your daughter’s complexion is not like a freshly baked roti.

Five months later I had come running in from a recce at large, to drink my milk and rush out again.
“He has sunstroke. Harshad’s husband,” I reported.
Then a few days later a car had drawn up the Dwivedi house. It had attracted a lot of attention because the only other car in the neighbourhood was ours.
A dazed Harshad emerged with her father. The Dwivedi women had stood wailing. Harshad’s husband was dead and she had come back home.

It was absolutely still with no breeze and no dust storm. Just the killing sun.
Ketan, Rajan and Ketaki did not come out to play. Ba, it seemed, had also moved in to share their grief.\
Our evening trips to deliver the tiffin box had come to a halt and I had stayed the whole day indoors, poring through the Illustrated Weekly and reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica with Ma.

On other days, the Regiment Panditji came to teach me Hindi.
There were no English medium schools in Dharangadra and there were not enough houses in the new Cantonment so we were on the outskirts in a new housing complex.

We really had the best house. We had a tent for a bathroom. There was a sparkling white tiled bathroom within, but it had never been used as the Municipality sewer lines were yet to be connected. Instead, we had a tap with a cement platform as a bathing area and four thunder boxes, commodes in the tent.
An in-house cleaner checked on them every now and then.
Ours also happened to be the only tap outside for miles so it was not surprising to come into the tent and find a goat in the steel tub or a mangy dog cooling off. My brother and I would squeal with delight while the cleaner would shoo them off.

My best experience ever, was when I was once in the midst of a bath, and something like sandpaper scraped my wet back.
It was a camel! I had jumped up in naked and dripping surprise. With a bored look he just withdrew his head the way he had come in.

Things had been so bad since Harshad’s return that my friends weren’t even tempted to slide down our prized tent. Something we did first thing in the morning and the last thing before we all went indoors.
“I can’t keep tightening the ropes,” the Junior Orderly had complained to Parminder.
“Not only are the Major Sahib’s children sliding down the tent but even these dehaatis go screaming and yelling down.”
“Let them be,” Parminder had indulgently looked on at the rollicking time we were having. “What else is there to do?”

With the blazing heat outside, I would sit in my odhni, with Vividh Bharti playing on the radio, watching the Dwivedi house for some sign or indication that things were back to normal.
“Don’t disturb them,” Ma had said. “Let the family be.”

One afternoon, however, loud wailing and screaming had broken the stupor we were all in.
Ma had put on her dupatta and rushed to the Dwivedis. I had followed her despite being told to stay at home. All the noise and commotion seemed to come from the courtyard.

There was Harshad in her white sari being held down by two women.
She was screaming. “Ma! Ma! Help me! Ma. Don’t let them do it. Please! Please!”
But Mridula Dwivedi just sat sobbing into her sari with her girls sticking to her like frightened goats.
Ba was also there. Somehow, she seemed to be enjoying herself. She had the same expression when she would watch the garba during Dusherra. She looked as if she was remembering something, very far away.

A friend of Ba’s took a pair of scissors and cut off Harshad’s hair. How Harshad howled.
Mridula Dwivedi always said, “Talk softly Harshad. Who will marry you with a voice that sounds like the six o’clock siren?”
But today no one said anything about that terrible sound that came out of Harshad’s throat.

There was so much wailing and sobbing.
To me, they all appeared to move in a slow motion and everything that was said had an echo.

“Ma where is Harshad’s Daddy? Why isn’t he stopping them?”
But Mr Dwivedi was not to be seen.
He was like Joyshree and Maithali’s father, never there when he was needed most. Even Ketan and Rajan were nowhere in sight. This was a women’s business. The women were handling it.



That is why we played hopscotch with Harshad at Ba’s place where the head-shaven-no-blouse-women lived together.



The big majestic gates slowly opened.
I held my breath while Ma drove our red and white Standard Herald into the palace grounds.
A uniformed Durban bowed low and led us to a beautiful carved wooden door, which was silently opened by a young woman in a sari with her head covered. She led us across a black and white shining marble chequered courtyard. There were several women with covered heads, smiling and not saying a word.

We were expected as we were taken to a huge room with high ceilings and glittering chandeliers. There, at one end was a lady sitting behind a wrought iron table with a beautiful white marble top.
“Hello, I’m Rukmani.”

With her straight shining hair, her pretty chiffon of summer flowers, her cigarette holder in mother of pearl, she flicked the ash off, ever so casually that I was mesmerised by her frosted nail varnish on exquisite long nails. With the other hand she stroked Fluffy, her poodle.
Oh! To be in the presence of a princess! This was a dream come true.

Rukmani Devi, the King’s sister, lived in the Zenana of the palace. Tucked away in a desert kingdom she kept herself busy with the young ladies of the court, embroidering handkerchiefs, Victorian nightgowns, tablecloths and baby clothes.
It began as a respectable pastime permitted by her mother, the fifth and youngest wife of the late king. She was radical enough to allow her daughter to a have coffee mornings where the gentry of the kingdom were invited to view the Princess’s handiwork. With no prodding, pretty baby clothes flew off racks and the bowing and scraping gentry felt privileged to actually have their children wear sailor blouses and frilly skirts that the Princess’s fingers might have touched.

Ma had heard of the Princess’s work and on an impulse fixed an appointment to pick up some clothes for us children.
After a week, when she had almost forgotten about it, a call came confirming the appointment.

So here we were. On a Major’s salary Ma realised that she could not afford any of the pretty things on display that day.
But on that morning in that old palace with thick walls and cool floors, with the sun blazing outside on the brown sand dunes and the wind just beginning to whip up a dust storm, an unlikely friendship between two women took seed.

Out of nowhere a woman appeared with chilled khus in silver glasses. Ma and the Princess chatted and I watched in fascination. The rings on her fingers, the way she occasionally plucked tobacco off her tongue with her ring finger and thumb, the absolute right moment when she flicked the ash as I waited breathlessly for it to fall, her smoky voice and her beautiful blackened teeth.
I made up my mind. Come what may, as soon as I grow up, not one minute late, I was going to smoke.

Ma and she were still talking like long lost friends.
We were invited to stay for lunch but we declined.

On the way back I made up for the silence I had maintained all morning. A princess, a real princess, I carried on and on.
Ketan, Ketaki and Rajan were going to hear it all.

Over the next few weeks Ma was invited several times. First for coffee, then Ma met the Raj Mata for lunch. The Queen, who had come from Delhi for a few days to sort out some affairs, was soon introduced.
And finally, His Highness, Aunty Rukmani’s brother, met my parents and found them trustworthy enough for Aunty Rukmani to visit.

If the visit was meant to be discreet, it was anything but so. As the white Fiat with the fluttering State flag came to a halt outside our house our neighbours, the Dwivedis, had gathered around it.
Some of their visiting friends also came out to see the royal visitor.
Aunty Rukmani emerged, head covered in her now signature pastel chiffon.
“Bai Sahib! Bai Sahib!” blubbered Mridula Dwivedi. “The honour of having you here. Please come and privilege our humble home.”

The Princess just bowed her head and folded her hands and walked into our house.
The shock on Mridula’s face! What! It couldn’t be true! Our Princess was going into that meat eating and alcohol-drinking Punjabi Military man’s house? Yes, yes we invited them to my daughter’s wedding but that was my smart husband’s idea. Surely there must be some mistake? “Bai Sahib!” She tried again.
But by now Aunty Rukmani was inside.

Flinging off her sandals, pulling off her veil, and dragging on her cigarette she walked through our four-room house with a gleam of excitement in her eyes, “Lovely! Lovely!”
When my brother and I showed her our wonderful tent with the thunder boxes she clapped her hands with glee. The palace bathrooms looked like those out of ‘Cleopatra’, sunken marble tubs, walls of mirror, innumerable pretty glass bottles of ittar, but ours, oh, ours was special.
You had to grant us that and not surprisingly, Aunty Rukmani recognised the fact.

There were many mornings thereafter that she spent with us, playing Scrabble, drinking coffee, and baking cakes from carefully stored recipe cuttings.

Once an entire expedition of an old trusted chauffeur at the wheel of the white Fiat, the State flag aflutter, two chaperones, Ma and Aunty Rukmani drove all the way to Rajkot and picked up the entire stock of 10 dusty packets of gelatine from a startled general store owner. For the next fortnight we dug into one mousse after the next.

While whisking something or the other, in a bowl, she told us stories of her English Governess. “Princess, we cannot have you eat with your fingers! What will you do when you are invited to dinner by the Queen of England?” her exasperated Governess would ask.
“I’ll teach your Queen of England to eat with her fingers! And you wait and see; she will never touch cutlery again.” Who could chide such a cheeky Princess?

We heard stories of the beautiful hounds and stallions that lived in air-conditioned splendour.
“You don’t know how lucky you are to have one Ma,” she would say to me when I would answer back. “Imagine having five.”
Her father, who she dearly loved but always referred to as His Highness, spoke to her only thrice in his lifetime.

Being the youngest of a royal brood was not easy. Then there were the funny stories of the exotic but jealous cockatoo, which belonged to a Maharaja and cackled “Meeaaow” every time the Maharani walked in.

I would run barefoot on the dusty, unpaved streets with the Dwivedi children, and in the afternoon, all scrubbed and clean, go off for lunch at the Palace. Or after a stint of garba through the village, spreading my odhni for rice and bajra I would wear my pale green silk ghagra choli and dance in the shimmering lights of the diyas on that chequered courtyard with the Raj Matas watching benignly from the filigreed marble balcony.

Some evenings I would go squelching on the lakebed with a red beach bucket to collect clay for my latest passion, pottery.
Aunty Rukmani accepted with pleasure the ashtrays I churned out for her. She put my tortoise ashtray in bright blue and green between her Limoge and Bohemian cut-glass collection and asked for a pencil stand in yellow and orange.
When the stand was ready she put her pencils in it with a flourish, “What can I give you?”
“You know my friends Ketan, Harshad, Ketaki and Rajan’s Ba, who lives in the other end of the village. You know the one with the head-shaved-and-no-blouse. She won’t allow me to touch her dinner.
Can I tell her, I know the Princess and she will cut off your head if you don’t let me carry your tiffin box!”

For a moment Aunty Rukmani’s eyes widened. “I am just a Princess,” she said. “But I will definitely put up your request to my brother, the King.” 