Every parent goes through these ‘Uff… yeh bacchey’ moments; grandparents to, parents to children. I’d say, they are entitled to it, as it is universal. Nevertheless, a child realizes how terrible he/she was only when he/she becomes a parent. And, when their mother’s curse comes true – Like mine did. Mom would always say, “You should have kids, just like you. Then you’ll know what I’m going through.” I am blessed with a mini-monster who is also a question-bank. His name Kittu. His escapades and his adventures will be part of the second story. How the family dynamics, kinship roles and relations redefined the term ‘feminism,’ forms the third part of the sequel.
This is how the cookie crumbled!
Growing up in the 70s was interesting to say the least; as kids, we made our own toys. There was no end to our imagination – matchboxes, cola bottle metal-caps and injection bottles ending as towers, temples or forts. Fevicol brought forth new joy into kids’ lives. Hyderabad was yet to gain the monstrosity of a concrete jungle; independent houses were still the norm. Most houses had small kitchen gardens. Joint families were fading away. Nevertheless, I grew up in one.
Three generations living amicably under one roof is not an easy feat. I can say this from experience. There is a constant clash of systems, ideologies and methods. Favoritism begins to creep in erratically and unknowingly. With kids added to the family, the dynamics constantly keep shifting. Women of the house gain new roles to play, which are trailed by changes, and relationships are tested. If a daughter-in-law has a boy child as her first progeny, she automatically attains a superior status compared to the one that birthed a girl. My mother had the status of an untouchable in the house, like we were living in ancient India. She was the first daughter-in-law, yet she was demoted in her rank for two reasons – One- She did not have kids for seven years after marriage. And two, when she did, she had me, a girl. By the time Mom had me, Swethapinni (second daughter-in-law) already had Madhu. Mom never regained her status. The other two daughters-in-law had sons first, sealing her fate forever.
Yet until the day I turned 13, I’ve had that fortune (or misfortune) of being raised in one. When six kids of varying ages and four couples with tangential worldviews live under one roof, the ambiance it creates is nothing short of a live Circus Ole, 24/7. Nonetheless, for me it spelled both joy and misadventure. I never acknowledged all these facts growing up. But in retrospect, I see everything in new light. In a way, the roles and relationship demands made by kinship systems in India, redefined my understanding of what feminism is all about, to say the least.
Looking back at things, the six of us were a handful. Madhu, my cousin was the oldest and probably dumbest of the lot. I was two years younger than him. After me were Sami and Bujji. That was our gang. At the time, the other two, Preeti and Mytri were still toddlers and unfit to join our club of pranksters.
Finally there was Vidur, my cousin; he was my aunt’s son and PushpaAtta was my father’s only sister (amongst three boys). She had the status of a queen in our house and her son was the reigning prince. He would visit us during his holidays. One summer, he came for a long haul. I might have been 12 at the time. He is three years older to me and was a hep, handsome bloke and had the quirks of a city-bred. He had been newly initiated into the ritual of shaving. With shaving, came the sense of being a man. He carried himself with reckless abandon.
He was good at everything he did – An A+ in academics and an ace athlete. He even played the flute flawlessly. God, how we hated him! To us he was nothing but a detestable villain; pain in the rear. Nevertheless, for all the elders, he was the yardstick for being the ‘best’ kid around the block – The Onida-TV advertisement kind- Neighbors envy, owners’ pride.
One Saturday evening, the men of the house announced they were going to the woods to hunt for rabbits.
Grandpa was boisterous.
“Who wants keema balls from rabbit meat?” his voice thundered.
“Me,” said Madhu raising his hand in excitement.
“Me too,” seconded Bujji, smiling ear-to-ear.
“I want fish,” said Sami.
“I want chicken,” I said, standing defiantly, with hands on my hips.
The men ignored Sami and me, like we were second class citizens. They turned to Vidur and asked him what he wanted to eat.
Shrugging his shoulders, he replied, “Whatever. Meat is meat. How does it even matter?”
I was seething by now. Vidur comes for a visit and we cease to exist! Our choices are automatically nullified. I was however hell bent on eating chicken.
The men left with their guns and ammunition on their mission – To kill Rabbit. They would return only in the early hours. I needed a plan before that. I tossed and turned that night unable to sleep and unable to come up with a plan. Towards early morning as I was beginning to doze, I woke up with a jolt. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and looked around for the water jug. It wasn’t there. I got out of the bed and walked towards the kitchen. I saw light in Vidur’s room. I peeped in and saw him reading. He turned his head around, smiled and went back to his book.
As I turned back, an idea flashed. I whistled gently and walked in quick strides towards the kitchen. Finally gulping a big glass of water, I ran to the backyard.
My eyes fell on the big bamboo basket in the corner. Under it was the subject of my plan. Raising it lightly, I pushed my hand inside. The warm, soft, feathers brushed against my palm. After groping for some time, I was finally able to take hold of a chicken. Grabbing it by its neck, I took it out and placed it under my arm. I could feel the chicken flutter under my arm, unable to move. I rushed into the kitchen and opened the rice can. Taking a few grains of rice, I inspected the ends for sharpness. Finally, I started executing my plan.
I held the chicken tight and inserted a rice grain into the tympanic spot, next to its eye. I made sure that the grain was neither completely in nor out. The chicken under my arm felt the discomfort and shook its head vigorously, trying to shake the grain off. But, it couldn’t. It was uncomfortable and restless. But I could feel the excitement mount within. Finally, feeling satisfied with a job well done, I took it back to its family and put it back in its pen.
As I turned around, I saw Vidur standing with his hands clasped in the front, smiling.
“Nothing,” he said shrugging his shoulders! I did not miss the sly smile on his face.
I quietly walked back to my room like I was caught weeping, watching a soap on TV. I hope he doesn’t tell on me.
Outside, the sky broke into a dawn, while I waited in anticipation.
That morning, as we kids stood brushing our teeth at the mori, one of the servants came and let the chickens out of their pen.
I was waiting for this precise moment. I looked at the chickens as they ran, looking for grains and tidbits of delicacies. The one I experimented on was running, still shaking its head. I smiled to myself, joyous that my idea had worked.
Brushing my teeth, I said trying to look very casual, “MadhuAnna, look that chicken is shaking its head like it is about to get unwell.”
He stood watching the chicken for a while. He forgot to even brush his teeth. He ran into the kitchen to announce the news. Grandma Veni came running behind Madhu and stood watching the chicken.
“Yadammma O yadamma!” Grandma yelled, “This chicken looks ill. Before it spreads its disease, kill it, clean it and bring it in. I’ll cook it.”
“But… We already will have fish and rabbit meat?…” My Mom murmured.
“Don’t I know?” scorned Grandma, walking back to the kitchen.
“Sare amma gaaru…I will do it,” Yadamma yelled back amidst the clutter of washing utensils.
I suppressed a secret, victorious smile. I looked up and saw Vidur coming out on to the porch. I saw him stand still, observing the charade trying to control his smile.
Our eyes met.
I didn’t like the look. I looked away. I was sure he was going to tell on me.
My wait for ‘The Call’ began that minute.
In a joint family, there is an added pressure on all sets of parents to display their child grooming skills. Parents would often be pressurized to showcase innovative techniques in resolving kids’ issues. Parents were often ranked by their elders, based on their competence. My parents were also running for the prize in the household and expected best behavior from Sami and me, at all times.
I knew the call was coming. It was just a matter of time.
The hunters came back with four rabbits and some fish. The servants got down to skinning, cleaning the animals and removing the scales off the fish. The ladies of the house got busy, preparing the ginger garlic paste, masalas and chopping onions, as part of the preparation.
That afternoon, a feast was laid out and everyone devoured the lip-smacking food; all except me.
After the trouble I went through, I could not enjoy the food, from the fear of The Call.
That evening, Mom finally called me to their bedroom. Her eyes were red and I could feel myself trembling.
“Amul, was that you?” she asked in low, menacing voice.
“Yes.” I whispered. I knew it was useless to hide anymore.
She gave me a tight slap and said, “Why did you do it? Couldn’t you wait for one day before you had chicken? You killed an innocent animal.”
“Why does Vidur get to have a say and we never do? I wanted to eat chicken.” I stood my ground.
Smack! Another slap landed on my cheek.
“Shut up Amul. Don’t argue with me. What you did is wrong. Admit it. Moreover, he’s a guest.”
“I am sorry,” I said half-heartedly.
“You have to set an example for your little brothers and sisters. This behavior is unacceptable,” she said and sermonized for a few more minutes.
“Go now. Abbaabba, ee pillalu,” she said, smacking her forehead with her palm.
I walked out rubbing my cheek. I hated Vidur even more. I saw him leaning against a pillar, his legs crossed, looking at me, giggling. Only a cigarette was missing to complete the 70’s Bollywood hero’s look.
I’ll get you, I swore to myself, I’ll drive you out of this house within a week.
Finally, one morning, an idea germinated and grew like a banyan tree, gaining strength at its roots. In two days, it was fool-proof and ready for execution. All I needed was an accomplice.
I debated between Bujji and Madhu and finally decided on Madhu. He loves his cousin too much, to tell on me, I rationalized.
That afternoon, after lunch when everyone was taking a nap, I dragged Madhu into the mangrove across the house and asked him a question that was nagging me since a long time, “MadhuAnna, do you like Vidur?”
“I don’t. My Mom always compares me to him and says, he is smarter than me, like I am dumb. We have to do something about it.”
I was relieved. I didn’t have to use the questionnaire that I had prepared, in case I had to convince Madhu. He readily accepted that he wanted to do something to Vidur, paving way for my plan to unfold.
“Okay. Here is the plan. But promise me you won’t say this to anyone, ever.”
“Yes, yes… I swear on my Mom. Now tell me, fast,” he said leaning forward.
I whispered the plan to him in a detailed manner.
“He he he… You are wicked Amul. I love it. He’ll pee in his pants for sure.”
“I’ll spread the rumor.”
We came back into the house with Madhu promising to procure all the necessary items before the curtain raiser.
Next morning, I gathered Bujji and Sami and said, “Hey guys, I heard a story from one of the servants about a demon living on the tamarind tree, next to our well. They said she comes out at night and dances in the house until she finds the person she likes to kill and eat. I am scared to stay in the house.”
“I will go and telling Mommy,” said Sami, and ran off, peeing his pants.
“Yeah, but first learn proper English,” I teased.
Bujji looked at me with disbelief and said, “No, It is not true. I don’t believe you.”
“No, Yadamma said, every now and then they hear the sound of her bells, while she dances, you know…” I said with a stern face.
He too ran to the elders to get conformation on my story. The first person he ran into was our Grandma Krishnaveni – Lady Gaga of the house. Her word was absolute in all matters of the house. Perfect, I thought. My plan was unfolding better than I had expected.
Bujji asked, “Is it true that someone died hanging herself on the tamarind tree?”
“Yes. That was a long time ago. Who told you all this?” She said, walking towards her room.
Vidur heard the rumor and asked Madhu if it was true. Madhu outdid himself.
“Actually, you know it was in your room that the incident took place. The old man strangled her, dragged her by the noose around her neck and hung her by it on the tamarind tree,” He said in a solemn tone.
I was elated. The rumor was becoming more colorful and macabre by the moment. By the time I heard it back, it was a tale of a man killing his wife and child together, and that, the man did it for dowry to feed his alcoholism.
“Hmmm… I don’t believe all this,” said Vidur.
Madhu and I smiled at each other. We knew it was time to execute the second part of the plan.
Next day evening, Madhu and Vidur went cycling and it was my duty to play-out the next card in the sequence. I took my small, old, wooden box into vidur’s room and smiled in glee at what was inside. Hurriedly emptying the contents of a large wooden sandook in the room, I replaced it with the content of my box. With breakneck speed, I dragged all the old clothes from the big sandook out of the room and dumped them on the couch of the musty store room. No one came to the store room. They wouldn’t know!
I was enjoying Vidur’s fear. I wanted to test how long he’d last.
When the boys came back from cycling, I winked at Madhu indicating that the job was done.
The following morning when we were all lined up at the toilets, Vidur said, “Hey I heard the bells ring throughout the whole of last night.”
“What?!” Madhu cried, clearly over playing his reaction.
“Yeah man! I think the story is real. I am peeing in my pants dude.”
“Nah, it must be your imagination,” said Madhu pretending to calm Vidur down.
“I better leave,” said Vidur.
“No, no… stay for one more night and if you hear it tonight again, wake one of us. We’ll see what to do,” I volunteered.
“Yeah, good idea,” Madhu said.
The second night we made sure that the noise remained. The following morning, when we woke up, Vidur was not there.
Vidur had left! He had gone off without informing anyone.
Only when my aunt called, to find out about the demon, did we realize that, Vidur had had left.
Although I felt elated, at the back of my mind a little gloom settled. I would not be privy to his snobbish ways anymore. But that was un-settling in more ways than one.
Two days later Madhu and I were celebrating our victory.
Patting my back, he said, “Amul, you are a genius. Tying bells to a mouse’s tail and leaving the mouse in the sandook was an ingenious idea. It worked so well!”
“Thank you, thank you,” I said dramatically taking a bow. Even as I said that the old familiar gloom returned.
Two days later, one morning, as Sami and I were wresting, screaming at the top of our voices, trying to snatch the newspaper from each other’s hands, Mom screamed from the kitchen, “Stop fighting. Amul, you go and clean your room.”
I sighed. That was her response to most of the problems.
Just then, Dad and Grandpa walked-in. They were all sweaty from their morning walk. Dad took one look at us and smacked Sami in the head.
“Let her read it, first,” he said walking inside.
Sami reluctantly let go, looking scornfully at me. He walked into the kitchen to complain to Mom, his constant solace.
“That is no way to teach a boy,” said Grandpa, looking condescendingly at my Dad.
“Please Papa, don’t start your sermon now,” Dad dismissed him.
“Uff, yey bacchey,” muttered Grandpa, looking in the general direction of my Dad. He gets into his Hindi-speaking mode when he’s angry with my father. If my Dad can get angry in English, he too can, in Hindi! He then walked towards the washroom yelling, ordering Grandma to bring him a towel.
Mom marched in holding Sami’s hand and roared, “Amul, didn’t I ask you to go and clean your room?”
Sami stretched his tongue at me. I bared my teeth, trying to give him an evil look, running after him. He dodged me and we chased each other. He hid behind my mother and she stopped me holding my arm and said, “Can you for once behave like a normal child. Be a girl for God sake! I have to listen to your Grandmother because of you.”
I tried to wiggle my hand out.
“Shut up and go to your room. You and your father have vowed to torture my little boy. He always gets snubbed, when it is the two of you that are involved in a fight. That is not fair to him.” She ran her hand over Sami’s head affectionately and Sami hugged her smiling. “Come, I’ll give you some jaggery.”
“Yeah, whatever…” I stomped off towards my room fuming like a bull on leash. Sami laughed victoriously walking behind my mother into the kitchen.
“Uff… Yeh bachhey,” I heard my mother mutter from behind.
Mom seems to have learnt the words from Grandpa’s over use of it.
I was on the footstool trying to reach for the book in the top rack of the book-shelf. I stumbled and dropped all the books in my hand, but managed to remain erect on the stool.
I got off the stool, and sat squatting on the floor to gather the books.
As I was picking up the books, I saw a pink envelope with big blue letters on it – To, AMUL.
I put the books aside and smelled the cover. It had a faint rose fragrance. I tore open the cover in a hurry.
I am sorry that I had to leave without informing anyone. I could not leave without saying bye to you. I was scared all night and the sound of bells drove me crazy. I came once or twice to wake you guys, but, didn’t want to disturb. I couldn’t sleep and I was scared as hell. I didn’t know what to do. So I decided to leave. I am ashamed that I am such a coward and not as brave as my uncles or our grandfather. I hope you forgive me for being so pathetic.
Nevertheless, I have to clarify a few of your assumptions.
Do you remember the day MeeraAtta slapped you for torturing the chicken?
I thought the idea was ingenious. I couldn’t have come up with a better one. I shared my appreciation for your intelligence with Madhu.
I didn’t realize your Mom suspected, when she saw Madhu and me walk hurriedly away to our rooms.
Just before she called you, she called Madhu and asked, “Tell me what happened?”
He stood mute.
She said, “I’ll give you a piece of jaggery.”
And, he narrated the whole story. I was a witness to it.
I didn’t tell on you. Please don’t hate me for it.
I like you a lot and would like to be your friend.
Waiting for your reply.
Lots of love,
The letter slipped from my hands. I could feel my cheeks burning hot. I was drowning in a deluge of emotions – embarrassment, anger, shyness and remorse, and finally a sweet tingle in the heart.
I smiled. My heart swelled with joy as I sat down to reply.
Madhu and the ‘tell’ vanished into the background.
To be continued…
Series Story 2 – Meddling is thy middle-name.
“This blogger contest is supported by Kid Social Shell, a unique digital parenting platform with 11 gaming-learning apps. Use it play 3D nursery rhymes, counting number games, shapes games, fun math worksheets, coloring games and more!”