“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.”