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.