Dear Mr. Prime Minister

Dear Mr Prime Minister,

Thank you very much for the greetings on my birthday. It was a surprise and much appreciated.

May I ask for a favour?

Today, I am an 84 yr old officer commissioned in Dec 1952 and belong to the 1st Course of the National Defence Academy.
From Jan 1949, when I joined the NDA, I have only seen a steady decline in the status and financial state of the Armed Forces. If this decline is not arrested we will have an abundance of fine soldiers (due to unemployment) to be lead by mediocre or below par officers.

Field Marshal Carriapa said at our Passing out Parade in 1952 that the Jawans are always good, it is the officers who have to be capable of leading them.
It is sad that due to the neglect by successive governments only mediocre or below par officers are being inducted as the cream of the youth available has been skimmed off by the civil services and the corporate sector due to poor financial and social status.

Till mid 1950s we used to be equated to the British company officers and the civil services were considered nowhere near AF Officers.
Most senior officers in the police were seconded from the Army who were medically unfit for army service, and the senior most officer in the police held an appointment of Inspector General which was junior to a Brigadier.

Unfortunately, the scene has changed completely.
The AFs are being undermined consistently and relentlessly as though the bureaucracy’s only agenda is to belittle the soldiers.
Previously, the governments were least concerned and aim was how to stay in power and milk the Nation.
While the AFs continued protecting the sovereignty, with inadequate equipment due to rampant corruption, the civil services quietly continued up grading themselves vis a vis the soldiers.

After the biggest national victory in 1971 the slogan being chanted was “India Is Indira & Indira is India”.
While the 3rd CPC inflicted the most grievous wound on the AFs, by lifting the pensions of civil servants, reducing the pensions of JCOs and OR and not giving any additional benefit to the officers.
It looked as though it was the civil servants who had created a new country and taken 93,000 POWs.

The cunning and cussedness of the IAS started from the time FM Ayub Khan declared martial law in Pakistan.
They started putting fear in the then government that the Indian Army may also take over the nation. By playing on these fears and the insecurity of inexperienced politicians the IAS ingratiated itself with the ruling party and started eroding the status of the AFs while consistently upgraded themselves.

When I was commissioned an IAS officer felt that he would be happy if he retired as a deputy secretary at age 55.
The AFs aspired to retire as Lt Cols at 48 yrs after commanding their regiments.
The difference was in their pensions.
A Dy Secy took home less than Rs 400 pm while a Lt Col took Rs 675 pm.

Now every civilian entrant, whatever be his performance, retires as an additional secretary at age 60, while the Lt Col retires at 52 and both take home 50% of last drawn pay.

As the IAS had to carry other civil services along, except the AFs, crumbs were thrown at them also.
Now these services have more additional secretary level officers in a cadre strength of about 15,000, than all the AFs together, which have an officer strength of about 60,000.

Something is radically wrong in the cadre management, which is costing the country a pile while providing poor administrative support to the citizens.

I would like to bring to your notice that in the military academies, the Sword of Honour winners among the cadets do not become the Chiefs of the services.
The order of merit (O of M) is decided on the performance during training and then it is revised based on the performance during an individual’s service.
However, in n the civil services the O of M is decided by the performance in the UPSC entrance examination and they carry it through out their service, whatever be their contribution to the nation’s well being.
It is ironical that with NFU the civil services have thrown performance linked promotions out of the window, which is ensuring that we stay at the bottom of the comity of nations despite paying much more than our civil servants deserve.
Ask any HR professional and he will give an adverse report within minutes, on the way the cadre management of civil servants is being done.

The worst part is that to maintain the supremacy of the civil servant this gang will not hesitate to feed wrong data to any committee being set up eg., the 7th CPC.
They have become so confident and brazen that they are not even worried about committing contempt of the Supreme Court by supplying wrong data, just to prove their point.

I had written to the RM a few months ago that the integration of the MOD with the AFs must be done, as recommended by a knowledgeable civil servant, Mr K Subramaniam in his report, post Kargil operations. This will ensure that decisions by the civil servants in MOD are not taken in silos and the RM receives well considered advice.
Otherwise, he will always keep telling the Services, “I will look into the matter” after every biased decision is announced by the MOD.
As it happened after the recent announcement of an unfair revised equation between defence officers and civil servants, in the MOD.

This one sided decision making is not new. In 1975 when I was Military Attache in our Embassy in Paris I was paid Foreign Allowance (dearness allowance abroad) equal to a 1st Secretary, even though I was entitled to FA equal to a Counselor as per a MEA letter, because the MOD had issued a letter giving arbitrary equations.
It is still happening because the MOD is always looking for ways to belittle the armed forces.

May I therefore, please ask as to why the government is ensuring that the soldiers not only have to fight our enemies on the outside, but also the known enemy within?
The latter fight is more debilitating and demoralising.

Your government has its objectives clear, but regretfully a major portion of the bureaucracy is not with you, as it still owes its loyalty to earlier masters.

With warm regards and wishing you and the Nation a very Happy, Healthy and Prosperous Diwali, under your leadership.

Lt Gen SK Bahri PVSM

birthday-greetings

Am I Proud To Be ……?

Recently a Facebook post asked with some derision
Are you Proud To Be Hindu ?…..
Proud To Be Muslim or for that matter…. Proud to be an Indian ?
The responses swung between embarrassing soppy-ness & belligerence. Between declarations of patriotism nationalism & sheer illogical bile….
If nothing else it set the cat among the pigeons ….

Shorn of any labels as an individual & as a human I was born into a family that lived in India who had the privilege of food on the table, a roof over their head and access to education.
I was told I was an Indian around the age of 4 when my father went to War. I remember hoping that the Indians on whose side I found myself to be on, were winning this War.

It was much later when I was in a school that I came home and asked – What was I ?
And the response was – Indian.

The question is deeper I thought & these people are just fobbing me off with Panchantara Tales & stories of this obedient man who had a horrible step mother but kept his fathers word & left with his wife & younger brother for the jungle.
The ten headed Ravan who was burnt down once a year which meant that cracker season & Diwali was on its way.
The story of a carpenter & his pregnant wife who sought shelter in a manger and…. the bald old man in a dhoti who without picking up a gun threw out the British & while in his youth he got thrown out of a train coach meant for white people.

A grandmother taught me to say the Gayatri Mantra at night before bed & patiently heard me recite the school prayer Our Father Who Art in Heaven thereafter.

Yes I was an Indian.
Till one day an uncle came visiting & showed us a handful of photographs of a beautiful home, a big red car, a pretty garden & a family with blonde hair.
Why, I asked my father, weren’t we Germans ?

So coming to the question am I proud to be an Indian ?
The response would be – Frankly I had no choice.
But true to the traditions I grew up with –
We make the best of what we have.
We love it. We enjoy it.
We learn & experience whatever we can about it.
We take pride in its progress & are saddened & angered at its missteps.
Because it belongs to us we want those who betray it & cause it harm to be punished.
But most important – We take Naam Namak Nishaan to heart.

Now to the identity that I discovered later.
Am I proud to be a Hindu ?
Hand on my heart – I had no choice in this matter too.

But as I have grown older & as I have seen & experienced the world around me.
As I have studied read & discovered –
I thank and I’m eternally grateful to That Being who was distributing babies all over the world on that given day that he chose to give me to a set of people who follow the Hindu faith.
So rather than- Am I proud to be a Hindu ?
I would say I’m grateful for being one.
It allows me to waver, falter, digress & return without fear. It allows me to question & to reject. And above all it allows me the Freedom To Be.

So with no hesitation I salute with great pride a land that made me who I am & gave me what I have – & a faith that holds me in good stead.

“The First Step On The Way To Victory Is To Recognise Your Opponent…..”

Put aside for a brief moment the wave of OROP that has swept the country.
Put aside the lessons learnt about how little your country men actually know about the Armed Forces.
Do not not dwell on what was promised & that which was eventually offered.

Cast aside the pain of how you were talked down to by people who know nothing about your lives & you. Easy with keyboards clicking ‘respect’ & ‘disrespect’ one day to the the next. Snug safe & smug with limited information.
What hope of understanding from people who do not even know that successive governments over six decades have fought disabled soldiers in court ?!

Don’t waste your time explaining how the Babu has appropriated Rs.22000 crores AND it is reviewed EVERY year too. The tax paying citizen not being any the wiser…..
Those who grudge your medical facilities don’t know they have been paying for the Babu’s Sloan Kettering & other such like medical centres bills for years.

Ignore the accusation that you are being unreasonable & demanding – when all you are asking for is a restoration of your rights…..

Why not use this rage that has overwhelmed you ?
The realisation that offering your life is just not good enough for them.
( Remember you get ‘free’ rum )
Take a deep breath & focus on the goal ahead. And work on how it is to be achieved.
Identify the road block & how you are going to overcome it.

What brought about the degradation & de scaling of your service conditions right after a victorious war?
Who brought it about ?
Who benefited over the years from your slide ?
Who is in control of your lives that are willingly sacrificed – no modern equipment not adequate
clothing but expected to fight a 21st Century war in hostile terrains ? The Babu delays- bargains & scouts for every piece of silver in commission of armaments & equipment unmindful of lives lost & soldiers maimed meanwhile.

Who stays when politicians come & politicians go ?
No matter which way you look at it.
Your answer will be the Babu.

So Veterans using football parlance.

Mark Your Man.
* marking is an organized defensive strategy which aims to prevent a member of the opposing team (usually a striker) from taking control of the ball. Several marking strategies exist in football, and they mostly differ to each other according to duties assigned to defenders, positioning and off-the-ball style *

No matter where you live – City Town Village. Mark your Man.
Keep one Babu in your cross hair.
Check his history. Check his reputation. Check his credentials.
And if he is like most of his breed ….Work towards proving his crimes naming him & shaming him.
Behind every scam of mind boggling numbers is our Babu.
He shows the way – he sniffs the opportunity & facilitates the process for the politician.

It’s about time you called his bluff & exposed him.
If those who have fed on the fat of the land can surreptitiously & quietly take what is a brave &
honest man’s right – why should you let him get away ?
Why should he speak with his forked tongue for you ?
If you can be ordered to fight & shed blood why do your political masters find it below them to speak to you directly ? And why aren’t you on those committees that decide your lives & working conditions ?

Make the Babu work for his living. Like you do for yours.
For a highly professional lean & fit military you are put through the paces – whereas you know competent or incompetent the Babu can only go up.
So help remove a leech from the system. A termite that’s hollowing the core.

Mark Your Man.
If OROP is not given to you why should it be to him ?
Mark your Man.

Why must the funds for OROP be taken from the silent & helpless ? Why does the PM feels he has to snatch from the poor to give it you ? Why not stop instead the loot of the Babu ? Take it from his carefully nurtured money draining turfs. From Air India – failed PSU’s or if push comes to shove check their box beds !

This is not a war with Pakistan or China.
This is a war with the enemy within. The Babu.
Your last assignment again in the service of the Nation.
Expose only one lakh of them & you’ll have OROP many many times over !
Mark Your Man.

Meanwhile re strategise your OROP demand. Don’t back off or another forty years will be lost.
Agitate when necessary. Negotiate where you can.

But.
Mark Your Man.
The serving soldier will remember you for ripping off the mask off the enemy at home who plots while his back is turned.

And if you can – convey to the political class a simple message.
Pay heed.
Read what is put before you. Check. Double check what is being done in your name.
Remember you stand for elections.The Babu only laughs all the way to the Bank.

Mark Your Man.

A Complete Family – Sand In My Teeth

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?”
“Tomorrow!”
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?”

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.” 

Closed Spaces – Sand In My Teeth

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.
“So?”
“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.

********

Parukutty Amma – Sand In My Teeth

It was only two days ago that we had returned from Madras.
As the car had approached the house Ma had begun to shriek. I had cringed in the back seat holding on to my baby brother and had looked at my father in utter disbelief.
“Even Daddy doesn’t know what’s happening!” I thought, suddenly petrified.
Ma had to be dragged in and within minutes my father was on the phone asking if we could change our house on compassionate grounds.

Yes, I remembered the day.
The day everybody said that everything had changed.
I had been in the sandpit and Parukutty Amma, with my brother hoisted on her hip, was near the guava tree. She was coaxing him to drink from his bottle.
We had been but a few days in Trivandrum and everything seemed new and unfamiliar. Even our baby was fretful and cranky.
Parminder said that perhaps he missed Anjali because Parukutty Amma was so different from the cheerful, chatty Anjali. She rarely smiled but did her work well because Ma was always saying,
“Thank God, we found someone for the baby.”

She had no time to tell me stories of her village. There were no tales of little boys who never washed their hands.
Parukutty Amma looked like a brown sparrow with a tight little bun, always doing this and that and that and this. Her afternoon nap, when she spread out her mat on the veranda floor, was taken as seriously as her duties.

“What are you making?” Ma had asked me as she approached the sand pit in her white salwar and blue and yellow flowery kameez.
She had looked so pretty and warm on that morning.
Who was to know what would happen next.

Her dupatta, as usual, lay flung somewhere.
She would put it on only when Parminder came in or when we had visitors.
“Too damn hot!” she would say and remove it immediately.
“Cakes!” I had announced, “Come and have some. They are warm and freshly baked.”
And then her eyes had moved to Amma.
“What are you doing?”
I think she was surprised at seeing the burning twigs in Amma’s hand. There was no response. With her eyes closed Amma was waving the twigs around my brother.

In the next few minutes so much happened.
Ma ran to her and almost snatched the baby,
“Don’t you try anything funny. We don’t believe in all this!”
Amma gave up whatever she was doing and flung the twigs at Ma who recoiled with the baby in her arms.
For a moment it looked as if Ma was rooted to the ground then suddenly she turned and ran, along the way pulling me to the safety of our new house.

“You ignorant Punjabis,” Amma had watched us cower, fearing something we did not understand.
“I was only asking the Gods to make your child drink milk. Don’t you know boys are fragile creatures? They need special care. You disturbed my prayer. I curse you! And beware of the curse of a woman who leaves her young ones everyday to look after your spoilt ones.
You all,” she said through clenched teeth, “will never be happy here.”

With my brother still in her arms and me clinging to her kameez, Ma collected Parukutty’s little bundle of belongings and half threw and half kicked them out.
By now the baby was wailing and I could hear myself whining.
“Leave my house,” she screamed, her hair quite undone.
“Now! Otherwise I will call the Military Police.”

Parukutty picked up her things very calmly and left. It was almost as if she had never ever been there.
Ma had then sat down on the steps, drained of all her strength.
Her chest heaved and her breath was short and raspy and she had broken into ugly sobs.

“Ma,” I had begged. “Get up. Let’s go inside.”
But she had sat there with my brother in her lap till my father returned from work that evening.
When she did go in, she continued crying till we had to call the doctor.
“It’s just post-natal depression.
These modern convent-educated types have the luxury of this depression, you know. It’s a Western problem. Call her mother. She probably finds it too much. Baby, no ayah, new language.”

Ma, who had always gone around drawing open all the curtains in the morning now sat all day in her nightie keeping out the bright sunshine. Her mouth always sour and unbrushed.
She did not touch either my brother or me. In fact, when I went to her she looked at me with a vagueness that frightened me.
And more than once she had screamed, “Get out! Get out!” on seeing me. The betrayal was incomprehensible.

My father, with Parminder, tried managing it all but it was getting impossible. He was advised to take some casual leave.
“The change will do her good,” they all said.

A plan was made to drive to Madras and spend a week with Ma’s cousin, an army doctor.
On the morning of our departure I had watched my father get her into her travelling salwar kameez. She had looked just like my doll, limp and lifeless.
“Go bring your Ma’s comb and help me do her hair,” my harried father had said.
“Which sandals do you think Ma would like to wear?” I had busied myself folding things, putting them away.
After all it was such a long time since someone had needed me.

As the car had left the gates of the house, Ma had turned around.
I remember waiting anxiously for her to burst into tears but instead she had smiled at us,
“Sweetie, do you want a sandwich and some juice?”
There was a long silence in our car.

In the company of cousins and family Ma had played Ludo and she had gone shopping for buttons and ribbons with Aunty.
She had said that she was going to take out her sewing machine once we got back. In the mornings after I had helped oil massage my brother and had put him to nap, I would get down to my crayons and drawing and Ma would read her magazines.

My uncle had given her a talking too. “Come on! You are an Army Officer’s daughter. An Army Officer’s wife! Pull your self out of this self-pity business.”
Yes, Trivandrum had seemed very far away.

Everybody was so busy talking about it but nobody could tell me what was happening, except for Parminder.
He had come to fetch me from school on his bicycle where I had spent the morning chanting
“Tree-vaan-drum, Kotta-yum, Kooochi,” while Sister Melanie walked between the desks with a ruler,
“Louder, louder, faster, faster,” and so we had carried on, “Tree-vaan-drum, Kotta-yum, Kooochi,” till the bell rang.

Upon our return home I had busied myself setting out my wooden bright pink and blue tea set and invited Parminder to join me for a cup of tea.
“Sugar?” I had mimicked Ma.
“Three teaspoons,” Parminder Singh had replied.
Pretending to stir I had handed him a tiny cup.
Slurping, Parminder delicately held it in his large hands and said, “Good tea.”
“Why didn’t Anjali come with us?”
“She couldn’t because her family is in Wellington.”
“How come you always come?”
“I am a soldier. I go where my Officer Sahib goes.”
“Don’t you have a family?”
“Yes, I do in Punjab. I have a father, mother, two brothers, one sister and a wife and a munna. A little boy just like this one,” pointing to my brother who lay in his cot sleeping.
“Why aren’t they here with you, Parminder?”
“How can they be with me? Who will look after the land, the fields, the crops, the buffaloes?”
“Another cup?” I asked politely.
“Yes, yes another cup of your delicious tea, Memsahib.”
I had taken mine and settled down. “So what do you think is wrong with my Ma?”
Parminder had continued slurping.
I had repeated my question, desperately wanting an explanation.
“It’s these damned Madrasis,” he had burst out.
“Madrasis?”
“These short, black, thin people, they are Madrasis. Eating fish and rice. Arre, eat roti, daal shaal, meat. What is this fish and rice?
And coconut oil! My God! That coconut oil makes me want to vomit.”
“Is Sister Melanie a Madrasi?”
“That thin black sadi-bhooti, that sour puss with glasses? Who stands with a ruler when I come to fetch you? Of course she is Madrasi.
We Punjabis, we are seede saade bande, very straightforward people you know. Not like these too, too clever Southies.”
“Am I also Punjabi?” I had asked wanting very much to be like Parminder Singh.
“Arre, hasn’t your Daddy told you. You are a Punjabi. A good Punjabi from Kapurthala. And I tell you, that Madrasi ayah did jaadu-toona, on your mother.”

So overnight, upon our return from Madras, as soon as Ma had been dragged in shrieking, we left the house with the big, airy rooms and the shining, red oxide floors.
The house, which everybody said we were so lucky to have found.
The house with the large windows from which the sunlight streamed in and the dancing dust which I tried so hard to catch.
We left the rambling garden, the guava-laden groves and the frangipani trees.
The house and the walls that held the curse of Parukutty Amma.

********

Coup d’Etat – Sand In My Teeth

“Stop staring!” hissed Ma.
The girl had her eyes closed and her head was on his shoulder while he read his book. He held her hand on his thigh. I watched fascinated as his thumb massaged hers while he continued reading.
Dragging my eyes away, I whispered, “She’s not wearing anything underneath, is she?”
She made herself comfortable, squirming a little and then having found just the right position, sighed and kissed his ear lobe.

My father, who, till now, had been going through the newspaper and looking out of the window, suddenly got up.
“Want to stretch your legs?” he asked my brother who readily agreed. And then pulling me up, not giving me a chance to reply, he took us out of the compartment into the corridor.
“What cheapies!” exclaimed my brother.
“So you were watching,” I was surprised.
“Of course, I was. But not like you. With your mouth open!”
My father peered into the next compartment and invited a young Major, who was travelling with his wife and baby, to come out and stand in the corridor with us.
“We’ve two Germans with us,” I proudly informed him. He poked his head in, wished Ma and then, glancing at the Germans, hastily withdrew looking quite embarrassed. She must be all cuddled up with him, I smiled to myself.

We were on our way to Delhi. Leaving Ahmedabad behind, the train meandered through Rajasthan.
“We’re keeping good time,” my father said to the Guard who tipped his cap at him.
“Yes, sir. But when we come to Haryana Sir, kuch na kuch to hoga.”

Outside, the waves of heat swirled through the parched countryside. The buffaloes seemed the most comfortable, standing in muddy waters with just their heads above. They nonchalantly chewed cud and watched everything go by. Approaching the pond was a serpentine line of women ablaze in colour, carrying earthen pots. Oh to be in a tub of cold water or better still, under a strong shower and have the satisfaction of watching the red sand wash away.

Just this morning, the Germans had got on board with their enormous haversacks.
They were quite relieved to see that we spoke English. He was a doctor who had finished his Military Service and she was a student of architecture.
The ice broke within minutes of his ordering a thali for lunch. He suffered a nosebleed and my father got out at a station to get him some ice.
“That’s adventurous of you,” Ma had said watching him dip his chapatti into a red hot Rajasthani curry. We were eating our homemade sandwiches!

They had toured Rajasthan and after a break in Delhi were heading for Kullu.
They said what they had really liked about India was the gentleness of its people. “Always smiling,” said the doctor. “With so much poverty, still smiling.”

I’d never really seen foreigners that close.
On Janpath, bargaining for clothes or the better-dressed ones at the Intercontinental where Ma’s Delhi friends invited us for coffee. We never saw them in our Cantonments and some of the places where we lived were unknown even to Indians…..

The girl must have come from a good family to be a student of architecture.
But she wore this strange pyjama and a sheer cotton bandhini blouse. She was very thin but strong, as she managed to lift up her huge haversack all by herself. Her silver jewellery, her greasy hair all crunched up with what looked like a knitting needle made her so different from anyone I knew. She was a hippie and I liked her all the more for it.
She stroked his hair, kissed his earlobe, lit a cigarette for him, jumped up and pushed her haversack onto the berth above, revealing that she hadn’t anything on underneath and didn’t once look at us and wonder what we were thinking.
Watching them as discreetly as I could, I lost myself with the rolling of the train in a dream of carrying my own rucksack somewhere across the world with a man like this German. Her flat chest had given me some hope.

The train drew in at Rewari.
People got off. People got in. The guard blew his whistle. The train blew its whistle. But we were still in Rewari. There were no more passengers on the platform but it was teeming with young, loud, raucous, and aggressive boys.

“What’s happening?” We could hear the Guard being questioned. “Why aren’t we moving?”
“You are not moving because we are not allowing you to move,” replied a boy with particularly bad skin, who was walking about rather importantly. This was followed by a great deal of laughter.
A pack of them approached the train windows. The bogey door was hurriedly shut and then the passengers banged shut their individual compartment doors.
“Put down your glass windows,” rushed in the Guard. “But don’t put down the wire mesh windows. You must be able to see outside. These boys set a train on fire last week.”

A train on fire!
One of them saw my fear and came near me as I struggled with the window, in panic. Stroking my arm, he murmured something that I did not understand. But his look made me recoil.
My father lunged at him but he merely stepped back, out of reach and looked mockingly at us. Pulling the jammed window down my father snapped, “Don’t sit here.” I moved closer to Ma.
The Germans were bewildered. “Where are the police?”

Hearing a foreign voice one of them shouted out to the others, “Oho! Oho! Look here! We have a firangi here. Arre! A Goddamn firangi!” Then putting on what he thought was an American accent, “Want to give, baby? Arre, give, give!”
A call from his friends distracted the lout and he moved away.

“Why isn’t the train moving? What the hell is happening?”
We were told that some of the boys were lying across the tracks. Their college was on strike and they wanted to travel ticket less to the next station. Some of them whooped and jumped onto the roof. Others screamed expletives and thumped the sides of the train. And we were all locked up, waiting for the train to move.

I avoided looking out of the window so that I would not make eye contact.
Ma said that would only encourage them to misbehave further.
“You!” he pointed to the German girl. “This is not for you” pointing to his crotch.
He was clever enough to keep his distance and yet could be seen clearly.
“You look like my younger brother. No hips, no breasts.” She turned her back to him. Not understanding a word but understanding it all. “And you!” he pointed to me, “I’ll come back for you in a few years.”
I cringed.

My father sat impassive with his fists on his knees.
The enormity of his rage was there in his clenched jaw and expressionless eyes. By now they were all rolling with laughter and a few others were standing outside, looking at us and urinating in full view. The first boy moved on. We could not see him but could only hear him. “This is for you my love. My beautiful Bobby. My Dimple Kapadia.”

A terrible roar brought us all to our feet.
The Major in the next compartment was getting his rifle out of his bedroll. “I’ll kill you, you bastard! I’ll kill each one of you bastards! Talking to my wife like that!”
“Arre chutiya! Robh jamana fauj mein, idhar nahin!”

The Guard who had been trapped in our bogey and my father, who had rushed into the next compartment, tried to calm him down.
“We’ll use the rifle later,” my father told the Major.
To the Guard he yelled, “Start the damn train. So what if they are lying on the tracks. Run them over.”
“But Sir, each time we start, they pull the chain!”

The boys outside saw the argument inside and thumped the train.
They pulled at the doors and windows trying to get in. The Guard blew the whistle. The train let out long hoots and with a violent jerk, which sent us sprawling, it started.
They began pelting us with stones.

Ma pushed both of us down but one came crashing through the window and hit her. Shards of glass flew through the cramped space of the compartment. We shrieked. The boys were so excited with the mayhem they had caused that they rushed towards the train holding on to the bars of the windows and trying to get a foothold on the doors.

The train gathered momentum.
It gathered speed. Outside the boys kept thrashing at the windows.
I watched my father and the Major open the windows and with the rifle butt and their shoe heels grind their fingers till they gave up and fell away.
They yelled at their mates who had managed to get in, to pull the chain.
Other passengers tried preventing the boys from doing so. There was pandemonium.
“Use your gun,” said my father with unimaginable coldness. “Use it!” This was a man I had never seen before.
This is what he must be like when he went to war.

The Major took aim. With his ruddy complexion and brown beard he was a burly cheerful giant when we had met him in the corridor.
It had been easy to picture him laughing with a steel glass of lassi in his hand, seated on a tractor. Maybe his brother had inherited the land….
He crinkled his eyes and fired. Everyone fell away.
There seemed to be a space around him and his weapon was simply an extension of him.
Everybody’s eyes seemed to be on those solid hands that were moulded to the rifle.

Those outside let go, preferring to fall off from a speeding train rather than getting shot.
The Major fired again.
The hooligans inside quickly and quietly sat down, hoping to disappear amongst the passengers. But the irate passengers were not going to be bullied any more. They were all rounded up and bundled into the toilets, which were then locked from the outside.

It was over.
The horror of the past few hours was suddenly and immediately over. All it needed was a gun.

The hooligans suddenly turned meek….
“Sorry Sirji! Sorry Sirji!” they begged from inside.
But when they were handed over to the Railway Police, at the next station, they turned insolent and threatening again.
Making obscene gestures at us, they swaggered off,
“We’ll be back after a cup of hot tea with our chachas!” The policemen pushed them along, looking sheepish.

From then onwards until we reached Delhi, someone or the other kept coming into our compartment to thank and congratulate my father and the Major for handling the situation so well. Others just came to stare.
A middle aged man, resplendent in his white kurta pyjama, silver and pearl rings on his pinkie fingers, suddenly appeared. In a voice that was as greasy as the cold pakoras sold on the station, he said, “Myself, Shukla. Harish Chandra Shukla.”
With an elaborate Namaskar and more than a lingering glance at the girl’s bandhini blouse he made himself comfortable on our berth and appointed himself our social secretary.
“You!” pointing to a man who was still deciding whether he should come forward.
“Say what you want and move on. Others are waiting, bhai.”
To another passenger he declared, “Colonel Sahib has had tension day, now let him rest.”

With everyone back in their seats he turned to my father
“You military people must take over, sir. This country is going to the dogs. Just because these boys are supporters of the local MLA they create havoc every other day. They want to travel ticket less to the next station. Nobody can touch them. Nobody! Arre! Three police officers have been transferred in the past year. Sabki pant utaar di.”

Then he turned his attention to the two foreigners.
“Where are these people from?”
Upon learning that they were Germans he exclaimed,
“Germany! What a country! Your Hitler was such a great man. May God bless us with one!”