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.
“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.