The Earth at Her Feet

Pic Credits: Vinoth Chandar

I no longer remember why, and I no longer remember exactly when, but at some point when Shoni and I were still in school, me in the early years of lower secondary, Shoni still in the primary section, maybe because Mummy was in the big hospital being operated for appendicitis, or perhaps because Dada was being slowly killed by a cancer far up in the crooked North, I really can’t remember why, but for some reason or the other (and I only know it must have been a solid reason because Mummy would never have left us alone with her otherwise), Shoni and I spent a night, just one night, at Baby Mausi’s flat. She was Mausi to Mummy, not to us, but we called her that anyway, Aunt, Aunty, Mausi, Baby, youngest sister of my mother’s mother, my Nani, who was the eldest daughter of the family, the Brahmin girl who ran away with a meat-eating refugee from the Punjab, but that is another story for another time. After Nani came Majhli Mausi, placid and pot-squat, then Aruna Mausi, thick-throated and full-limbed like a God, and finally Baby, Baby, who was not a mother, never a mother, but would very much have liked to be one, only ten years older than Mummy, her skin creamy-creamy white, hair as dark as coals, eyes ringed with kajal so thick they were like moon-suns that shot out black rays of smudge, small-time Bollywood actress, full-time radio show host, Baby, beautiful, so beautiful, pickled in alcohol every day, especially every night.

Amitabh Bacchan, she announced matter-of-factly that evening, he was madly in love with me, he was. Whoever had dropped Shoni and me off, Mummy or Papa or both, whoever it was, they were gone, her husband was away on one of his mysterious foreign tours, and we were alone with Baby Mausi in her shadowy living room, fairy lights blinking on bookshelves, low tables and sofas arranged erratically around us as if some giant had rolled them in like dice. We had a bird’s-eye view of the neighbouring building, a rich-peoples’ apartment block with a green pool and butter-yellow walls and cucumber-cool palm fronds. A purple evening was setting on the city, the homecoming traffic eleven storeys below crawled at a constant hum, and beyond it, there was the splashy sound of the sea that prays at the foot of the rich-peoples’ hill. Shoni and I were silent – I didn’t know what to say, we never discussed things like love and whatnot in our home, also I was remembering when Papa had done an imitation of Baby Mausi saying exactly those same words, Amitabh Bacchan was in love with me you know, and Mummy had laughed loudly but then pulled her mouth straight and said, don’t make fun of my relatives, she did work with him on the sets of so-and-so-Bollywood-movie you know. Shoni I think was silent because she was petrified; Baby Mausi was always declaring how much she wanted to adopt her, Guddu, she would say to Mummy, Guddu, let me have this little one, you already have Ritika, and the little one is such a doll, let me have her, I’ll make her a princess you’ll see, and Shoni would run crying from the room and the rest of us would laugh, but Baby Mausi would look after the little running-away legs the way you’d look at ice cream gone hot.

You don’t believe me, Baby Mausi said with cunning eyes, sipping her dim-looking drink while we clutched our Coca-Colas, but he was in love with me, and so was Vinod Khanna, that one, my girls, was completely lattoo, believe it or not he was, wanted to cut up his wrists for me he did, and he lives not far from here now, sometimes he sees me on the road and looks away, I suppose it is embarrassing for him to remember the things he said, silly man, and she laughed like glasses clinking and took another sip, her sips were so large she seemed to eat her drink. Have you girls had any boys in love with you yet, no? I suppose you are too little for it. She patted Shoni’s head absently, making her back into the wall, then turned to me, but you, at your age I had boys jumping out windows sick with their love for me, and she looked me up and down critically over the rim of her glass, you can’t have much luck with the way your mother dresses you though, and that awful, awful haircut, like someone placed a bowl on your head and chopped off whatever was left outside of it, and those glasses my God, do you really need glasses as thick as that?

Only for reading, I mumbled, self-consciously pulling my loose checked shirt down to my knees, but Mummy said I must always keep them on, just in case I lose them otherwise.

Baby Mausi made a rude sound that involved drink flowing rapidly down her throat, Mummy said this, Mummy said that, your Mummy my girl, she is a dear darling niece and I love her to bits, but she is an awful prude and a first-class bore to boot, pshaw!

We gazed at her, wide-eyed and silent, and the cars hummed and the sea splashed and the ceiling lamp buzzed, zzz-zzz.

She looked down her glass at us silently for a while, seemed to come to some sort of decision, let me dress you like real little women, come with me girls, and proceeded to sway, wind-like, towards her bedroom. We followed timidly, she stopped at the kitchen door on the way and looked at us, top ups? Well, I need one anyway. She pulled a tall, dark glass bottle out from between large tins and square packets of dals and things and poured herself a drink in a very sloshy manner, then gave us more Coca-Cola, also very sloshily, making sticky spots on our arms and our faces.

We continued to the bedroom, where there was a trunk made of tin and painted with brushes of gold. Baby got a key off a high shelf and unlocked the trunk, it took a while because she held on to her drink with one hand and had trouble matching the key to the lock with the other, but it worked finally, she said, ahah bitch, under her breath and then she was off, digging and digging with one hand deep inside the trunk, throwing out all sorts of clothes and shoes, a book or two, jewellery, they flew out of the trunk and around us, like rain made of cloth and jewels and falling the wrong way round. I got slapped in the face by some sort of silky thing that wrapped itself resolutely around me, and a fat coffee-table book got Shoni in the middle, woosh, so she had to sit down very suddenly with a balloon-popping sound. That made Baby Mausi place her glass on the window ledge and turn around, did I hurt you little one, poor little Shoni, but then she got distracted by the book, which had fallen open to a page showing Princess Diana in a bikini, wow, that woman, just look at her Ritika, look Shoni, look how she carries herself, so graceful, and we all looked at Diana gleam glossily and nakedly in the yellow light of the night, and my God she was so beautiful it took my breath straight away, it was a bit like seeing God. Then we went back to the trunk and excavated more, taking sips of our drinks from the ledge, and sometimes Shoni or I mistakenly got Baby Mausi’s drink and had to spit it out it was so bitter and disgusting, and sometimes she got one of ours and had to spit it out too, chee-chee so sweet, the things you young people drink, and after a while it all began to taste the same to us but not to her, judging from her offended squeaks, and when we’d finally dug to the bottom of the trunk we stopped, panting, clutching our favoured finds. I’d chosen a pair of very small khaki shorts, a choice Baby Mausi applauded heartily, wait, I have the perfect top for that, wait, wait, she said and emerged from the trunk a few curses and sips later with a light lacy thing in turquoise that was so beautiful my eyes went half blind. Poor Shoni was too little to find anything her size, but Baby Mausi raised her finger to the ceiling and said, don’t despair my little one, I know just the thing for you, and pulled out a t-shirt in bold black and yellow stripes and a dear white belt as thick as my pinky finger. As we looked at her, mystified, she gently pulled Shoni’s frock off the top of her head. Shoni didn’t flinch and she didn’t run, just stood there in her tiny white vest and navy blue underwear and let Baby Mausi slide the stripy t-shirt on to her, raising her arms obediently for the belt to be fastened around her bony little waist by the gentlest of shaky hands, hands like slight white birds on their first flight, and then Baby Mausi turned her around so she could face the mirror on the wall. We gasped. The girl in the mirror looked like she was out of a children’s fashion magazine, only we knew it was just little Shoni in an improvised t-shirt dress.

I felt shy to change in the room with the others there, but Baby Mausi said, come on, it’s your turn now Ritika, so I turned to the wall and climbed out of my baggy jeans and quickly pulled on the shorts, they really were short and very tight, oof, I had to wiggle my body all ways to get them to climb up my waist and then I had to breathe all the air in my lungs out so I could lock the button in place. Next I threw off my shirt and put on the lacy top so that I wasn’t naked for more than a second at all, and when I turned around I saw Shoni’s eyes big like Gollum’s and Baby Mausi naked in the middle of the room, glowing like milk, my God she was so stunning Princess Diana could kiss the earth at her feet. In one seamless movement, she turned around, and her breasts they turned with her, and her beautiful round bottom too, and the hair that had come undone from the bun atop her head, it stroked the pale skin on her back with dark, black fingers. She climbed into a blue-green silky kimono and began to look like a different sort of dream, then floated to the window ledge in her kimono and downed the rest of her drink.

My bare arms and legs appeared long and unsure in the mirror, poking out of me like deer limbs. Baby Mausi took off my glasses (in three attempts), messed up my hair and pulled bits of it gently across my forehead, and then the three of us looked in the mirror again, Shoni right at the front, me a little behind her and to the left, and Baby Mausi behind us both, her hands on her drink. Beautiful, Baby Mausi whispered, looking at us.

But we were looking at her.

She filled another drink into a Coca-Cola bottle and took us out into the night – she’d remembered we were growing girls who needed dinner to grow. Now her voice was getting slower and sounded like it was made of syrup, the way she would sound a few years later on the phone when Papa would have to go pick her up from the airport where she’d been thrown off a flight for being drunk-and-disorderly, the way she would sound another few years after that, when the drink had finally squeezed her liver with cancer and filled her stomach with liquid like clouds, but that night she only sounded a bit syrupy and then we went out. My shorts were very short, I felt like a woman wherever the night air touched me, it was incredibly exciting, on the way we passed some boys, boys from there, the south of the city, rich boys, cool boys, they actually looked at me twice, I made eyes at them and looked away as I thought pretty girls should do, but I was secretly so pleased it made my heart smile. On the way to the dinner shops, Baby Mausi suddenly had the thought that it would also be nice for us to get some jalebis and kulfi because she’d loved them as a little girl, so by inference we must as well, we walked almost a mile back the way we had come and waited by the halwai’s shop while the jalebis were squeezed out in tizzy little circles and fried. We ate kulfi-on-a-stick meanwhile, I ate pista kulfi, it was green as a pea, and Shoni ate kesar pista, which was more the colour of winter sun. Some rowdies passed by and whistled at us, Baby Mausi yelled at them to go fuck their sisters and mothers, I covered Shoni’s ears because she was still a little girl. When we’d received our hot sticky jalebis, we went again in the direction of dinner, the rowdies reappeared and began to follow us, but Baby Mausi knew the streets like the back of her hand, so we ran off down an alley and came out by the beach. The picnickers were gone, the sands were empty and shone in the light of the moon, and the little waves of the Arabian Sea came all the way from Arabia and lapped at our feet. Baby Mausi kicked off her high heels and laughed into the ocean, one foot at a time, we followed hesitantly, digging our bare feet into the wet shelly sand, and there we stood ankle-deep in seawater and ate hot-hot jalebis and gazed at the stars and the moon that gleamed rich and round, like a pie in the sky.

That Place We Are Actually From

The day after my parents got married and Mummy went to live at Papa’s parents’ place for two weeks, two weeks before they boarded the Pushpak express that would chug them for a day and night across the north and middle Indian plains to the city of my birth, the shiny grimy city by the sea, my Mummy went to the bathroom in Papa’s parents house and had a pig’s nose touch her bottom, yes a pig, the snout of a pig, thandi-cold in places and warm in others and toothed with coarse bristles like the edge of a prickly broom, it is a story Mummy likes to tell again and again, and I think she will continue to tell it till time itself comes to an end. The bathroom was a corner of the house that was cordoned off by a silvery tin sheet fitted with a very questionable latch, and behind the ever receptive hole in the ground there was a gap in the wall that opened directly into the gutter on the street, where the pigs lived and frolicked contentedly, and that was where the curious snout came from to investigate my mother’s bum, blowing heated, steamy breaths intimately onto her skin. She screamed and ran mid-stream to the tin-sheet-door, there she leant her head against metal and wept, for she knew her fortunes had fallen steeply (who wouldn’t when they’d been kissed arse-first by a shitty pig), and that life would never be the same again.

The bathroom was finer by the time I got old enough to notice and remember it, with a happily flushing toilet and no wall gaps or snuffling pig snouts, but the gutters in the refugee colony still remained open, and here the sooar pigs too remained. I remember once being caught out in the rain and sheltering under a measly, ineffectual awning across from my grandparents’ place, Shoni, Mummy and I stood there and watched the pigs stand around and grunt in the thick falling rain, they were either too stupid or too lazy to look for shelter, or maybe they just really, really liked the rain. They simply stood there in the gutters that flowed faster and faster and churned out old stinking rubbish and scum that had stuck and festered over the summer months and was now being pushed and pulled and moved like a storm by the first monsoon falls, the waters rushed grey and brown past the gently grunting, blinking islands that were the pigs, and I watched in amazement as the rainwater ran down their stiffened-hair backs and there appeared under their grey exteriors patches of the softest baby pink, look Mummy, look, the pigs are actually pink, but she didn’t want to look or she looked but didn’t see, she was grumbling under her breath I can’t wait to get out of this godforsaken place, what were my parents thinking .

My father and his brothers and sisters were born and grew up in that refugee colony, crouched on the edge of a royal, Nawabi city. Now the city has grown like a crazed modern monster and sucked the colony right into its heaving middle, the people who live there have gone from refugees to firmly finding their feet, and the colony itself has solidified from tin-sheet hutments into proud pukka houses and is dissected by tarred roads, roads as wide as thick ribbons and pimpled with potholes and cows and people and shit. Stranded cars honk but no one, neither cow nor dog nor human, moves out of the way till they feel a fender or bumper flush against the back of their legs, then there is a horrific squealing and shouting and mobs and at times hot bullets fly in the air, that is how the city goes and goes. The Nawabs are out of style but their buildings still stand, no longer so proud, painted in filth and piss and masticated betel, there are skyscraper statues of those who were once downtrodden and now crush others under their feet, they smile stoned defiance at the dead river that has choked on the city’s bad habits and shit.

Every year, when school broke for the summer, we left our city by the sea and went north, even a bit northeast, past flour-yellow plains interrupted by skeletal trees, through countless grey-platformed, green-railed, monkey-strewn stations, over pebbly rivers and brown humpy hills, we went to this ex-Nawabi city, Mummy, Shoni and I, while Papa stayed behind and kept on with his work, though sometimes he joined us for a week. We spent most of our time with Nana and Nani on the other side of the city, but when Papa’s parents were alive we also went to stay for a few days in the old redbrick house in the refugee colony. I only have hazy memories of Dada and Dadi, Shoni says she cannot remember them well, Mummy sometimes says good things about them but mostly she says things that make me think she might be a little bit biased by life, Papa does not say anything about them at all, when I was younger and trimmed my nails at night Mummy said I mustn’t, every splinter from a nail cut at night would drive my dead-forefathers-in-heaven blind, and I tried to remember then my dead Dada and Dadi so I could better imagine them cringing with stabs from my silly cut-at-night nails. In my memories they were, as they are now, dressed in white, her in a white sari, after he died her loose blouses went colourless as well, him in a starched white-kurta pyjama set, they were little people, maybe not little but curved and stooped with great worry and age, worry they had had enough of, three countries had been made in their lifetimes, they had first met in the west, which was now a distant kingdom of its own, now they lived in the heart of the biggest chunk, the so-called secular state, they had both cheated death written by the pen a disgruntled, spoilt white man had run on a map on his desk, so their backs were bent commas and their hair or what was left of it was the colour of polished grains. He was stern as a stick and sat in the front room and sometimes had guests in the evenings who talked in low, knowing voices, and at those times she ran back and forth from the kitchen with servings of food and drink, little snacks and chai and biscuit in small serving bowls, face flushed and shining.

My sharpest memory is of an evening, and just her and me, sitting in the open courtyard around which the house was built by my Dada brick by brick. She was shelling peas, and her face was a smile, the sky was the pink of fruit tinged with yellow and dawning night, purple clouds came closer and closer and a metallic, thirsty edge to the wind told of a storm on its way. Around us rose the one-storeyed house in the twilight, it held us safe in its embrace, to our right was the kitchen in which she had spent most of her lifetime, which had made miracles and nourished five children to health, sometimes from nothing but salt and plain bread, this kitchen had sprung up and taken shape around her stove, which had in turn moved from the floor to marbled platform, to gas from coal, sometimes she liked to squat and work just because she was so used to it, now that she had to stand while she cooked it made her back ache. She squatted by my side and shelled peas by the dozen and told of the walls around us that had gone from tin to brick, at first unpainted and red as crusted blood, now covered in smooth nerolac paint. She told of crossings and leavings and family who died, and she wept a little when she told of going from home to Lahore and then Lahore to Delhi and of the Partition camps, the sick potato gruel, no meat, her younger brother, who was dragged out from where he hid under their saris on the train and speared like a fish before their very eyes, the riches and house they’d left behind, she wandered down the rooms of that house, to her parents’ bedroom, there she stroked the mother-of-pearl inlay on the lacquered legs of her mother’s bed, then she drifted to the baithak, pristine in laundered white, her feet gripping the soft durrie underneath as the small of her back arched against a masnad, the gritty feel of tile-like Punjabi brick was under her fingers as she ran from room to room, hugging the arching walls, across the stone-paved courtyard to the green sunken garden where she crushed the clusters on the chameli creeper in her palms. She smiled. She told of her engagement to Dada, which took place before the lines were drawn, they were still on the other side, that place we are actually from, but then the batwara happened and they crossed separately, Dada and Dadi, by the time she was in Delhi she’d almost given him up for dead, and then the chance meeting and the joy on her face, it must have been love, it had to be love, the marriage took place eight days after the Mahatma was killed, so it had to be a silent affair, no song, no dance, just a walk around a sacred saffron fire, seven small careful circles, and they were man and wife, and then, she said with the broadest of half-toothed smiles, then your father arrived.

Cheeky-faced red-bottomed monkeys sat atop the boundary wall and beadily surveyed the scene, waiting for a chance to creep into her open kitchen, I looked up at them as she shelled the peas, we sat in that courtyard where my father had spent mornings and evenings dipping a soft wooden pen in ink, here was a spot where my father had studied, here he had cried, there he had taken his first step, there he had slept on hot summer nights. When the storm broke with a crash and bright lights, the monkeys fled, she carried me and the peas to cover, when I got older I found out that when she’d first seen me this old lady had drowned in disbelief, had asked Papa but where is his thing, the small pink pit that had showed when I thrust my infant legs in the air had made her cringe, but there on the edge of the courtyard I knew none of this, I remember the storm brought rain and wet-earth smells and a hint of chameli, she sniffed, I sniffed, turned and gave her a sudden hug, she smelt of ghee and old flowers and something like history and love, that is all I remember of my father’s mother, it is all, it is more than enough.