Sunday, 9 February 2014

The trip to a dusty old town

Riti had grown up listening to tales of her mother’s girlhood. Some or the other uncle or aunt or their children kept drifting in and out of Riti’s home. After they left, her Ammu would recount some interesting event or anecdote related to them or other relatives.

Ammu had a way of infusing life into her storytelling by associating her subjects with a colour or with a dish she was cooking or some chore she was performing at that hour.

Thus once, while kneading dough, she told Riti about an aunt who hated being given this task. The child, who was fascinated by the way her mother could roll out a wonderful ball of dough using powder-looking flour and water, could not imagine why the aunt would not want to do it. “That was because she did not like anything to stick to her fingers. But that was precisely why Grandfather insisted that she prepare the dough daily for the entire family.”

“But you had a huge family, Ammu!” Riti  cried. She began counting on her fingers: “Your grandfather, grandmother, my grandfather, his brothers … five of them, and two aunts. Ten in all!”

“Of course ours was a huge family, and you haven’t counted my mother and five of us brothers and sisters,” Ammu smiled teasingly.

“Oooh, your poor aunt! But then your uncles were also married, so there were other aunts as well?” Riti asked.

“No, not till then. This aunt was last but one of the brood. You forget that we used to be put to work in the kitchen even before we were 10 years of age,” Ammu reminded her.

Riti was curious. “I don’t understand, Ammu. You had a large house with marble staircases and all, with many servants. Then why did you girls have to cook?”

“My grandfather said hard days do not ring an alarm before they arrive. And servants may not always be around to wait on you. You should know how to run the kitchen because that is the most critical role in a household. Our schooling was secondary for him, though we did attend high school.”

“Ammu, why did your mother or grandmother not knead the dough?”

“Like I said, Grandfather wanted to prepare his daughter for her life ahead,” Ammu told her patiently.

“Besides, my father was the eldest child and lost his mother quite early, like I did. Grandmother, who brought me up, was actually his stepmother and just a few years older than him.

“My stepmother was much younger than my father and he pampered her a lot to keep her happy. She had little time for us after she had children of her own, so Grandmother took us under her wing. That meant she had plenty to do anyway. ... I was very attached to her,” Ammu added, a little sadly.

“Is she dead?” Riti asked innocently.

“My grandmother? Oh no, she lives with my youngest uncle,” Ammu replied.

“Do you meet her often?” Riti seemed full of questions.

Riti and Ammu going to see Grandmother.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Something had upset Ammu. “Sometimes, when we visit my uncle,” she said vaguely. Riti was sent off on a trivial errand and the rest of the story was forgotten.

But it all came back to Riti when she was 14 years old. She had accompanied her mother to a dusty old town to attend a wedding. It was a chilly day and the girl looked out of sorts. The ceremonies were over before noon, and Ammu asked her if she would like to meet Grandmother.

My grandmother,” she said in response to Riti’s questioning look.

“She lives here? You never said a word about it when we left home,” Riti pointed out accusingly.

“It was to be a surprise. Grandmother lives in a colony close by, and is not well, so I would not have missed this chance to look her up,” said Ammu.

Against the drone of the lumbering bus that took them to Grandmother, Riti hurled a volley of questions at Ammu. “Why does your uncle live in this faraway place and not in the city, the way your other uncles do? Why does Grandpa not look after his stepmother? All your uncles are much richer than him, no, so why doesn’t she live with any of them? Do they all send money for their mother?”

Ammu had no plain answer to any of these. But she did tell her daughter in a roundabout way that Grandmother preferred to be with her last-born, probably feeling closest that way to her departed husband.

Riti did not fully understand that one, but she could make out from her mother’s grudging words that the rich uncles were only too glad to have an ailing mother off their hands. Ammu could not tell her that Grandpa, who was a fearsome father to her in his heydays, had turned mute witness when his much younger wife frittered away all his wealth on her own siblings.

Ammu’s uncle’s place turned out to be an apology of a house. It was one in a row of shaggy flats strung across one side of a square, built around a large open space. The square had just one entrance, and Ammu’s grandmother – a mere bundle of bones, actually – was heaped on a rickety cot near it.

Grandmother seemed to have been plucked from her bed and plonked there, ostensibly to stay warm in the weak sun, but the strong wind was chilly and unsparing. Yet her withered face was all smiles when she recognized Ammu’s voice.

She struggled with the blanket covering her, as if to get up, but Ammu’s aunt suddenly swooped down on them. She must have spotted the duo when they entered the square. She hustled them indoors, ignoring her mother-in-law completely. They were served tea and biscuits, treated to a litany of the woes that had befallen the family, and then escorted out.

All Ammu managed to get out of her aunt was that Grandmother had spilt hot tea over herself some days back and the burns had not healed fully yet, so she had to be kept uncovered with just a blanket around her.

Ammu stood her ground as she reached Grandmother while Aunt fluttered around helplessly. She spoke a few loving words to the old woman but out of sheer politeness to her aunt, Ammu did not mention the injury. It was with great effort that Grandmother mumbled a few endearments into Ammu’s ear, her eyes nearly shut but with love shining through. No complaint about her current state or suffering passed her lips.

Riti was quiet on the return journey. A distressed Ammu kept glancing at the girl, but she could only guess what was going through her mind.

“What sort of love exists in this world, Ammu?” Riti spoke up when they were seated in the train taking them back home.

“Uh, what love are you talking about, dear?” asked Ammu in turn, apprehensive about what was coming.

“So people stop loving their parents when they grow old and frail?

“What is the use of being wealthy and keeping servants if you won’t attend to the needs of your own mother?

“Why do parents live only with their sons? Your grandmother could live with us otherwise, no? 

“Does no one visit her here? Do they know of her condition? Imagine, she doesn’t seem to have any flesh left!”

Where was this going to end? Ammu wondered.

She was bracing herself for more when Riti said, too sagely for her young years: “Well, obviously there is another sort of love too. Your grandmother still loves you, she still loves all her children, I am sure, and she loves her youngest son most because he is the poorest of them all. Perhaps he needs her most, emotionally, I mean.”

“I can’t say your aunt does, but at least she hasn’t turned her out,” she added cheekily.

Ammu knew then that her daughter had grown up during the short trip to a dusty old town.

1 comment:

  1. Good indeed! I read the latter part of the story with a lump in the throat!
    V.B. Arora