I looked curiously at the little bundle as the nurses gathered around us. “We are going to keep this little boy, this chinnha tambi,” they giggled. “We are not going to send him home.” I couldn’t believe it! Even Ma was smiling.
“No!” I said very calmly and clearly. “He is mine.”
Just this morning Anjali had rushed me through breakfast. “How long are you going to take to eat that egg? Come, hurry, hurry. Don’t you want to see your little brother? You are a very, very lucky girl, you know.”
Then losing patience, “Okay, okay, leave it. Let me wipe your face. You have egg around your mouth.”
Hustling, bustling, Anjali had cleared up. She had taken me to the kitchen sink and with her hard, bony, wet fingers deftly wiped my mouth and then with the corner of her sari dried it.
She would have never done that if Ma had been here. First, she would have dabbed my mouth with a serviette, then gone to the bathroom where, a pretty convent hand-embroidered towel would have been used…. but today was different. Anjali was in charge.
Anjali with her long arms and legs, her jaggery-brown smooth skin and her thick rope plait that had a life of its own! Sometimes swishing back and forth as she rushed about her work or lying primly against her soft plop-plop breast as she sat me in her lap.
“Once I have the baby,” Ma would say, “I’m going to get down on my haunches and mop the floor like Anjali. None of those ‘Woman & Home’ exercises for me. Mop, mop, mop. Firm hips and good breasts!”
Anjali would throw back her head and laugh, blush and laugh some more.
Now she pushed the party frock over my head with one hand and with the other tried pulling the arm out of the puffed sleeve. “Oh! Ho! Girl, come to life!”
“You are being so rough!” I complained. “And why are we rushing?”
“Why are we rushing? Why are we rushing? Arre! We are rushing because we have been blessed with a brother. BROTH-THER! You understand? Not everyone is lucky to have a brother. You know Bhagwanji looks down and sees a good girl. ‘Oh! Ho! That’s a good girl,’ he says, ‘Give her a brother!’ I don’t know what you have done. Because I have neverever, neverever known you to be a good girl. Have you ever said a prayer? No, never! Even your Ma. Never! But then you must have done something because he’s decided to give you one.”
A matching hair band was then found and stuck on. A crisp white-initialled handkerchief pinned on my chest. Lacy socks and white shoes.
“Ready! You are finally ready! Come, come.” Anjali had been so excited.
Actually, the excitement had begun last evening with my father’s appearance. He was smiling, as usual, but something was different. He had picked me up and had waltzed me up and down the living room.
I had had dinner by myself for the very first time, feeling truly alone. Anjali had been nervous and snappy, “Where is your father?” She would say one minute and then, “Eat, girl, eat. When there will be two, you will have to look after yourself. Your Ma and I will be very, very busy. No running after you and saying ‘Eat, eat.’ You are a big girl. Three years old! Imagine three years old.”
Now with my father here she could no longer contain herself, “What is it Sahib? What is it?”
“We have a baby brother!” my father had announced grandly.
Anjali had clapped her hands and laughed. “Thank God! Thank God!”
Parminder Singh had looked so pleased.
“With God’s grace the family is complete,” they repeated over and over again.
I had not known that we were incomplete. Daddy, Ma and me. It had always sounded complete.
The excitement slowly got to me. “When can I see him?”
Then he had poured two glasses of a beautiful red liquid from the casks that he had got from Goa. Two years ago, my father had been among the first paratroopers to land in Goa and it had been set free from a tiny country somewhere in Europe.
“We’ve thrown the damn British out. And the Portuguese think we’ll let them stay?”
Now sitting on his knee I had drunk to Ma and my new brother.
I had not seen Ma for three days. It was strange to wake up in the morning and see my father have tea all by himself. I would stand uncertainly at the door, all crushed and sleepy, and he would pull the bed sheet aside and get me wrapped up. All cuddled, I would sip warm cardamom milky tea looking out of the windows at the gently rolling blue hills of Wellington. The morning mist would clear away to bright sunshine.
Every now and then my father would look up from his newspaper, “No spilling milk on my bed,” and I would reply with all the seriousness and responsibility, “No Daddy.”
Parminder Singh would come in carrying an enamel mug of boiling water, “Shave, sir,” and click his heels.
While my father shaved and I sipped my tea Parminder Singh would lay out the uniform and go through the whole drill of buffed shoes, ribbons and medals. One for fighting with the Chinese in 1962, one for Goa, also in 1962, one for serving in Kashmir, one for….
“Can I wear one please?” I would beg.
“You can’t wear one till you earn it,” Parminder would admonish me, lovingly hooking them on.
“Did I tell you about our neighbour’s cow?” Anjali would ask. “The cow that was actually my dead grandfather. Arre baba! What a fright we got when it called out to my grandmother, ‘Stupid woman! Get me fresh hay! Another day of this stinking hay and I will kick you’.”
“How did you know it was your grandfather?”
“Arre! Who else could dare call my grandmother stupid?”
My favourite story was about the little boy who refused to wash his hands. Even after potty. “Wash your hands! Wash your hands! But no! One day he burped. How he burped! And Ohmygod, Ohmygod thousands and thousands of worms came out of his mouth. All tumbling and tumbling, fat ones and long ones, pinkie ones, brownie ones…”
I missed Ma most before bedtime so they all made much of the nightly ritual of laying a trap for mice. They would put a large piece of cheese in the wooden trap and put it in the kitchen. I wouldn’t let them put a roti as the English people in my storybooks always left cheese for their mice.
“Aha! Your mouse is a Sahib, is he?” Parminder would say. Ramrod-straight in the presence of my father he could turn into one laughing beard and turban with me. “No roti-shoti for him! Only cheese! What a shaukeen mouse! What a dandy he must be.”
Next morning they would check if there had been any visitors and invariably there would be a big, ugly fellow in the trap. Nothing at all like the sweet ones in my storybooks. Parminder would go out with it.
“Where are you taking it?” I would ask with some anxiety.
“To his Mummy, where else?”
This morning Anjali and I had locked the house and we had half-run, half-walked down the slopes till we came to the stream where our dhobi, with his wife and daughters, was washing clothes on huge, big stones.
Mid-morning usually meant a trip to the dhobi family to deposit our laundry bundle and catch up with the gossip. He had stopped what he was doing and looked at me all dressed up in my party frock. But he had spoken to Anjali.
“A chinnha tambi, is it? Captain Sahib must be very happy.” Then looking at his wife: “Any man would be happy.”
But she had continued thrashing the sheets on the stone.
The dhobis had already heard about the fright that Ma had given everyone a few days ago. We had gone visiting one of Ma’s friends, the one who always wore smart-looking slacks, matching blouses and had a mop of curly-curly hair. “Permed,” they said. “Ava Gardner if you please!”
After saying bye Ma had tripped and fallen down a long flight of stairs and landed in one heap at the bottom. I had watched her roll, helpless and frozen.
Her friend had given one long, blood-curdling scream and run down after her. Cradling her head, she had yelled out instructions, “Bring some water. Can’t you see she needs water? You! Come here! Sit here with Memsahib. I’ll call the ambulance.”
Someone had scooped me up and had bobbed me up and down. “Hush, hush.” I wasn’t saying a word. But still, “Hush, hush.”
Ma had moaned, “I think I’m going to lose it.”
Her friend consoled her while desperately jabbing the phone, “Be brave, be brave. Hold on! I know it’s a boy. I know it.”
Ma was not glowing and most certainly looked worn out. These were good signs. These were signs of a baby boy’s arrival.
I had suddenly found my voice, “But I want a sister.”
I hadn’t really, really thought about it. But it did seem a good option.
“No!” Ma’s friend had glared at me. “Say I want a brother. I want a brother.”
Did it all depend on my saying it?
Now standing in the stream with the dhobis, Anjali had grinned, “Yes, yes we’re going to see Memsahib and the chinnha tambi.”
The dhobi’s wife had looked up from her work, “You look very happy, Anjali. What are you going to get?”
She herself was certainly not a happy sort. Always looking, always watching and always touching if I had worn something new. But never saying it was nice.
“A sari with a big gold border. I told Memsahib if it were a boy I would take a sari. ‘Boy or girl, Anjali you will get a sari,’ Memsahib has promised. Come!” turning to me, “We must go.”
But then she herself couldn’t resist one last juicy bit. Drawing me close to her and hiding my face in the folds of her sari she revealed, “You know she had an operation. They had to cut her up. I told her, ‘Eat ghee, eat ghee Memsahib. Otherwise how will it slide out?’ But she would turn up her nose. It smells, she said. It smells! Imagine pure home-made ghee smelling.”
The dhobi’s wife smirked, “Operation, huh? All cut up? Mine just slid out and that too without ghee.” Then waving in the general direction of her daughters and me, “These just slide out. It’s the precious boys that give you so much grief.”
Muttering she had got back to work, “If there is no pain, if there is no screaming, how will we know the chinnha Raja has arrived?”