Annual Ritual, Then Alone Again

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Sheela Jaywant


“They’ve come, Aaji-Bai, they’re here.” Alka yelled like it was unexpected.

The old ladies’ eyes clouded over with emotion. Bai lay in a corner, upon neatly folded layers of clean sheets, her frail frame curled up in a fetal position possibly due to some orthopedic condition. Maybe arthritis, maybe osteoporosis. Movement was possible, but painful. The skin was wrinkled, fragile. Aaji sat upon a string bed, legs dangling lifelessly post-stroke, a little distance away, her back resting against a single thin pillow helped up by the wall behind her. Both had bald gums. They incessantly moved their chins, drooled, and found it difficult to form words correctly. A stale odor of decay seemed to hover around them.

“Alka,” they said, all choked up, “warn them, tell them how we look, they will be afraid. They will think we’re witches.”

“How can you think like that? They are your grandchildren, grandnieces, nephews. They see you every year. They won’t be afraid. They have to come in.”

Bai: “My eyelids have curled outwards, they look so red and horrible.”

Aaji: “Old people look scary.”

“I shouldn’t have held the mirror for you. I shouldn’t have.” Alka sounded exasperated.

“Is that the taxi?”

The twenty-something servant girl, Alka, scurried out to help with the luggage, wiping her hands on the back of her frayed, once-colorful skirt.

The vehicle rattled and growled into the narrow, winding lane, the fauna on either side scraping its windows. The neighborhood children ran after it, touching and patting it as it passed by. It stopped by the giant peepul tree that stood sentinel over this ancestral house for at least a hundred years. Four bedraggled adolescents crawled out of the rusty, black and yellow Ambassador, stretching and twisting the tiredness out of their limbs.

The villagers, crowding around, gaped at the clothes: “They’re wearing shoes,” somebody whispered loudly. A snigger went around: these city-types thought they were Portuguese or British, hah?

One local smart aleck could tell them something: he had, oh yes he had, actually sat in a car once. And he knew, he had seen, the trees running alongside the road. One of the grandchildren sniggered right back. The sound reached Bai’s sharp ears. She could see but blurs through the window, but she could hear their voices clearly. Aaji couldn’t hear too well. But she didn’t have cataracts. She remarked to her sister-in-law who lay as helpless as she, and as excited: “They look so fair, so plump, we must get someone to rid this place of the Evil Eye.” She spoke up with authority, though her voice wasn’t strong. “They must be hungry, Alka, hurry up and put the rice on the stove.”

“Let me fetch the luggage first,” Alka retorted in a complaining voice, the sound echoing through the doors of the compartmentalized rooms of that huge old mansion, balancing a bag on her head, hugging a hold-all to her chest.

“Have you washed the rice thoroughly?” Bai took up the thread.

“Aaji-Bai, your grandchildren won’t get a single weevil or stone in their rice, I promise you. I’ve ruined my eyes cleaning the grains.” Alka swung the luggage to the floor of the large balcony, then scurried inside.

Sudanmama’s voice boomed through the thick, old, mud walls. “Everybody, washed your feet? Hands? Go in, then.”

The two old ladies were always referred to as a single entity, Aaji-Bai. Sisters-in-law since the ages of eight and nine (they married young those days, remember?), one was widowed before she reached puberty, and had come to stay permanently in her brother’s home, forever devoted to his family of nine children. The two ladies had grown together, slogged together, shared food, suffered grief, never separated, and were now, in the eventide of their lives, handicapped and lonely together. To the rest of the family, they seemed to share an identity.

Of the brood, Sudanmama was the only offspring of the clan who’d opted not to go Bombay or beyond so that he could be close to the Ancestral Home and Aaji-Bai. He lived in nearby Vasco and monitored their care. He had picked up the children from the harbor at Panaji and brought them here, four hours away by bus-ferry-taxi.

Aaji-Bai were frail and immobile, totally dependent on the servants to do every personal task. If something itched, they couldn’t scratch. Alka did it for them, guided by their instructions… where, how much, how long. Their grey, sparse hair was oiled and tightly tied into little knots behind their heads. Their necks stuck out from drooping shoulders, hunched backs, hollow chests. Wrapped in nine-yard saris, neither wore a blouse. The loose end, padar, of that unstitched garment covered their torso.

“Start frying the fish,” Bai ordered gently. “Feed them, they must be hungry.”

Aaji: “Before lunch, get rid of the Evil Eye. Throw four red chillies into the fire, then a fistful of mustard seeds. Make sure they splutter.”

The grand-teenagers smirked: “… these … superstitions …”

“You aren’t afraid of the Evil Eye?” Aaji-Bai chorused.

“No.”

“How,” exclaimed the two grannies, “brave they are, see? The Evil Eye doesn’t affect the brave. Alka… lunch.”

“Oh I won’t keep anyone starving,” the exasperated Alka mumbled. “They’ve only just arrived and you’ve begun fussing already.”

The visitors, Sudanmama, his wife Sushilamami and the children, Geeta, Savita, Raina and Trilok, entered the kitchen where the two grannies and the servant were. The traditional formalities were done: in turn each touched the feet of the elders and bowed before the family deities. The rice and curries agitatedly bubbled in copper and brass cauldrons on the wood-lit stoves that squatted in a row at one end of the wall; slices of fish sizzled in coconut oil alongside them on a huge griddle. Smoke and aroma crept over and around, adding micro-thickness to the blackened walls. They sat on individual wooden platforms on the floor, chatting with each other, exchanging news about the family.

Each year, of the 43 members of the clan, at least 15 came here, to Canacona, Goa, during the holidays, either from Bombay, or Delhi, or even abroad. Some for a week, others for a fortnight, or a month. This was a ritual most of the families from the western coast did each summer vacation. The previous generation, until the 1950s, had seen a mass migration from the villages to Bombay and the longing to keep ‘in touch with one’s roots’ was strong. In the Native Place, the oldies made sure the dabbas or tins were full of sweet ladoos and savory shev or chivda.

Aaji-Bai repeatedly said of the children: “How clever they are, they speak English, they seem to know everything, so young, and yet so knowledgeable.” Hearing them talk about their young, city-bred lives was like stepping into another century, another world.

When, after lunch, the floor was smeared with cow dung, Alka spread her fingers to make circular designs so that it looked pretty when it dried. The children balked, and told her and Aaji-Bai about tiles. Glazed, smooth, white and clean that could be wiped so they’d look like new. No one used dung anywhere, anymore. The women nodded in appreciation: “Living in Bombay is something else,” they agreed. “We’re bumpkins.”

Aaji-Bai were as interested in feeding the children as they were in listening to the stories about their schools/friends/games/teachers/neighbors and more.

“How was the journey?”

The four grandchildren took turns, interrupting and overlapping their conversations constantly: “Ma made us get up before five.” “We took a taxi to the docks.” “We climbed a plank to the deck.” “We had to find place to spread our mats and luggage comfortably.” “Savita and Trilok got sick.” “Our water-bottles and food boxes were kept away from the edge.” “We saw some people from last year, too, you know, who were coming to their Ancestral Homes during the vacations.” “The ship stopped by Ratnagiri at night.” “One boat came close to our ship.” “There were men with lanterns and ropes and car tyres who helped everyone climb down… who wanted to go to Ratnagiri.”

Savita had flown in a plane. The grannies didn’t quite understand what it felt like to be in the sky. They had sat in a car. Maybe once, maybe thrice, they couldn’t recall. They were in awe that she knew something they could never experience. They asked her a hundred questions about that. How could something that was not a bird fly?

These annual guests were their link to a world beyond terrible loneliness and the 24×7 fear of death. Once, during a chat, Raina asked what would happen if one of them died. “Stupid,’ her cousins hissed and chatted on awkwardly. Aaji pragmatically replied: “The other will live on.”

Unpacking was an event. The ‘hold-all’ was a large, rectangular green canvas sheet with large pockets at either ends that held pillows, shoes, gifts, old clothes for Alka, new saris for Aaji-Bai, some steel utensils, an umbrella, books, underwear, footwear, talcum powder, soap, even one bedpan.

“So useful,” was Aaji-Bai’s appreciative comment when the last item was shown off. How big, they marveled, must be the market in Bombay, and how much money all these things must have cost. The biscuits, the chocolates, even fresh carrots and peas, for these were luxuries here, not easily available.

They had even got with them a plastic toy phone to show them what a phone looked like. Aaji-Bai were touched.

Each dawn, the children raced out to greet the buffaloes before they were taken to graze. For their morning baths, the water had to be drawn from the well and heated in a huge copper pot that stood on a frame above a pile of smoldering coconut husk.

“Aaji-Bai, in our flats, water flows out from taps.”

“We have electric geysers and proper bathrooms.”

It was hard to explain. Here, the single toilet shed was a distance away at the back of the house. The excreta that lay on the sloping shelf was eaten by stray pigs.

“We use a flush,” the children said. It took them an hour to tell them how it worked, what it was. Also, every flat had not one, but two toilets. Aaji-Bai couldn’t imagine why, but they listened, fascinated. Here, for a family of twenty, one toilet sufficed.

Trilok, the most talkative, told them more: “There are two or maybe four flats per floor in buildings. And how many floors? Four, five or even ten in a building.” The girls drew a sketch to describe what a building, a street, looked like. A map was drawn to show the locality where they lived.

“See Aaji,” said Bai one day. “These girls have our genes, our blood, and they can read, write, draw.”

“You are confusing illiteracy with intelligence, Aaji-Bai,” said Geeta, comfortingly. “You forget that you calculated what provisions you needed for an entire year. You stocked it with care. You supervised the harvesting of the coconuts and the threshing of the rice. Without stepping out of the house. That, too, for an extended family of so many members. Who taught you to preserve mangoes with precision? In so many different ways?”

Long forgotten pride fibrillated in the aged hearts. They blushed.

They had once learnt to write on a slate, with a chalk, but the memory of it was erased decades ago. Geeta put a pencil in their hands, one at a time, and helped each write her name on paper. They had written on paper before, but it had been an unaffordable luxury. The feel of the act of writing… what joy! The paper was held close to their faces so they could see.

Bai tremulously sang a song. Tunelessly, but in rhythm. Aaji said, “She made it herself, words and tune.”

“You wrote it?” asked Raina wonderingly.

“I don’t know how to write,” said Bai.

“When did you make it up?”

“When I was about your age.”

“You still remember it?”

“There are many more that I remember. But most I have forgotten.”

Geeta quickly got out her notebook to write down whatever she did remember. Aaji-Bai were embarrassed, overwhelmed by this unfamiliar attention. It was a strange feeling; the third generation was leading the way. Tradition said elders were wiser and better. “Here,” thought Aaji-Bai, “these children are our gurus.”

The house, with its load-bearing walls, was dark because of the few and small windows. The inside hadn’t been whitewashed for decades. The pyramid-shaped, high, tiled roof rose above a geometric network of wooden beams that rested on a central, enormous tree trunk that was the main pillar of the house. A thin cloud of cobwebs dispersed the few beams of sunlight that entered through the glass pieces located at some places on it. At night, little oil wick-lamps, diyas, were lit to dispel the darkness. One couldn’t call it light, so dim were the flames. Time and again the children tried to explain what electricity was. But for Aaji-Bai, who hadn’t stepped out in many, many years, and when they had, in the years gone by, it was never without an escort, a good reason… and then, too, to the home of a relative… it was fantasy.

Did they have friends? Why no, only menfolk had friends. Women had sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, nieces, moms, grandaunts… no friends. The children asked questions that evoked peals of laughter from the grannies.

Somehow, the roles had changed. Seasoned elders were learning from the raw young. “You don’t know what a switch is? It’s on the wall. You press it, it makes a “pit” sound, and the bulbs come on. You don’t know what a bulb is? Wires?” The children laughed at their ignorance, exasperated, but tickled. The grannies joined in, not minding them, not considering it ridicule but fun. No matter what, the company of the young ones gave them joy, brought them knowledge.

Evenings were long and interesting. Aaji-Bai were carried out, bundled in their sheets, to the balcony by the front door and kept there on the cement bench or a reclining armchair. The rustling trees, the singing insects, the starry sky, were unchanging. They tried to imagine bustling streets with cars, people, brightness. It was hard. But they were curious. And they asked questions, questions, questions.

In their turn, they told the children about the mangoes, bananas, jackfruits, pineapples, the different kinds of fish… stories about the other members of the family, from the past, the characters that lived in the village, the days of their youth. Untouched by ‘civilization’ it was a life of routine, little drama, robust struggle. Rupees weren’t needed. Bartering of goods was the system. Music, dance, drama were known of, but seldom witnessed. They were hungry to know about the lives of their progeny. They saw films? Plays? Tell us more, tell us more, they pleaded.

Through words, imagination, they skipped through two generations. The battery-operated transistor crackled alive occasionally, but the sound was so distorted, and Aaji-Bai hard of hearing, that it was practically of no use. It wasn’t just the big things that impressed them. Blackboards in schools, teachers—women teachers—wearing skirts, girls in trousers, swimming in large pools, cycling, traveling alone by train, all this was magical, incredible. They lapped up every word hungrily. Under the Portuguese, the information they had got was often only by word of mouth. Newspapers weren’t available. They had known no personal, social or economic freedom. Independence, governments, had made no difference to their lives. As females, they were ‘destined’ to cook, clean, tidy, chop, peel, wash… have babies. Families were large, tasks endless.

“Even leisure hours had to be used to stitch clothes, grind flour, or cook seasonal snacks.”

When the children gossiped about their friends: ‘she said this’; ‘he always does that’ and stuff, they were amazed at how human nature, no matter where, no matter how well-read, didn’t change.

After a fortnight—how the days had sped by, how much they’d learnt—the taxi from Vasco was hired for the day so the children could be taken to the ferry. Beyond the river, they would travel up by bus to Panaji to board the ship to Bombay.

*

“Alka, we can hear the sounds of the children. Doesn’t seem like they’ve gone.”

“Did they eat the snacks?”

“Do you remember, about the cinema they talked of? Something about photographs moving, talking, on walls?”

“There are little machines that do the grinding… this electirissitee… what could that be?”

“The phone… Raina got us that toy, that was nice… couldn’t see properly because of my eyes…”

“Next year they are going to get us spectacles.”

And the wait for the next summer visit, the countdown of eleven months, began.

pencil

“I’m a hospital administrator who enjoys writing. I do a weekly column for a local newspaper, write for TC and www.chowk.com.” E-mail: cmjaywant[at]gmail.com.

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