Second, Not Secondary

My grandmother was married at the age of thirteen to my grandfather who was nineteen years older, and a widower. His first wife had passed away leaving behind a son, and his mother-in-law continued to live with them, presumably having no other family. My grandmother remembered having attended his wedding – the first one of course – as a little girl, related as she was to the bride.

Matching horoscopes was a later practice, so my grandfather sought assurance about my grandmother’s longevity by having their horoscopes matched, not having done it the first time. The thought of a thirteen year old marrying at all, and then marrying someone so much older, is a shock to me now. Earlier I had never worked out their ages, and just the idea of my grandmother having become stepmother to a six-year-old felt wrong to me. But when I asked her about it, she said it was a common practice in those days – in the 1920s – and that her father had to face opprobrium for having an unmarried daughter over the age of nine at home. So, being too poor to find an affluent first-time bridegroom, he was relieved at marrying both his daughters to widowers.

But my grandfather was an honourable man and unlike men of his time, he never treated his wife with disrespect or harshness. He believed more in the division of labour at home, and carried out all his duties impeccably. My grandmother did her part without any expectations, or indeed any mistakes, and did all her work without complaining or nagging, and always wore a sweet smile on her face. Everyone who knew her never fails to mention her red kumkum bindi, all the more bright on her fair skin, and the smile which always greeted them. She was always hospitable and ready with a tumbler-davara of filter coffee, and never failed to ask visitors if they had eaten and if they had not, would make sure they did not go away hungry. She had no servants to help her nor the array of appliances we have in our kitchens. She only had a warm heart and sincerity in everything she did, and a lot of love. To me, she was a saint. She treated my grandfather with immense respect, even through the worst of times when they had very little money and my grandfather would bring home distant relatives to stay or arrange Sai Bhajans on Thursdays and expect my grandmother to feed all the devotees. No one ever felt unwelcome in their house.

My grandmother had a younger sister who was called Chinna and we all called her Chinna Chithi. She was also married to a widower but her husband was not as admirable. He was known to have ill-treated her and she had her own mother-in-law who made sure that she was starved and treated like a slave at home. We did not see much of her even though she was in Madras as my grandparents were, because she was not allowed the freedom even to visit them. My grandmother would sometimes go and see her and it was always a sad tale she carried back. Chinna Chithi’s husband owned a large coconut plantation along with a large house but she was not permitted to offer coconut water to her visitors. Her husband and mother-in-law were jealous for some reason of my grandmother and her family and the visits were neither frequent nor long. Better times, relatively speaking, came along, and one day Chinna Chithi went to Hong Kong alone to visit her by-then married daughter. Chithi was illiterate unlike my grandmother, and we marvelled that she was able to get off at Singapore and take the connecting flight to Hong Kong, and back again. This was in the seventies, before the cellphone or even STD phone calls.

Both of them, my grandmother and Chinna Chithi, and their spouses, my dear grandfather included, have passed on. Twenty years or more have gone, and  the men and women in our society have changed so much, but I wish some things had not. Their hearts full of love, they smiled their way through lives which were so difficult that we cannot even begin to imagine it. I cannot think of many younger women whose granddaughters would remember them with so much love and admiration.

Young women today are proud that they are standing up for themselves but sometimes they fight even when it is not necessary. Tilting at windmills, they lose out on what is already theirs to take, and anger, not love, is what is on display. A sense of entitlement overcomes the need to be fair.

I can only feel, that we may be entitled to many things, but sometimes it is better to pass. Where there is love, making peace is not surrendering to the enemy. For the enemy is within, not outside you. Only a woman who is at peace with herself has love to share.

Lost And Found

My grandfather rarely took my grandmother out, unless it was to a wedding or other ceremony where they both had to attend. In the days I am talking about, which was at least fifty years ago, women did not accompany their husbands anywhere outside the home. As a Tamil Iyer woman, my grandmother’s domain was strictly at home, more so in the kitchen. My grandfather would buy all the household necessities and make daily visits to the vegetable market to buy whatever was necessary to keep the kitchen going. Dressed in a spotless white jibba or kurta and a panchakacha veshti equally spotless and white, he would drape a white angavastram over his shoulder, and visit various shops in the market, keeping a strict eye on the prices and the weights. No shopkeeper could get away with any deception and my grandfather, as a retired schoolteacher of the Hindu High School in Triplicane, would give a stern piece of his mind to any errant merchant.

My grandmother, fair and petite in a voluminous nine yards sari, was in charge of the kitchen, as she had been since the age of thirteen when she had become the second wife of my grandfather,  who was a widowed father of a six-year-old. She had cooked for the entire household which included my grandfather’s first mother-in-law as well, who was a termagant and hated the little girl who had taken her dead daughter’s place. The day began very early in the morning for the new child bride who slaved over the firewood in the kitchen, getting it to light and made coffee by the buckets for the coffee-loving Tamil Brahmin family before starting the day’s cooking – after a bath of course. She told me once that the family wanted coffee even at night so she would fill a thermos with coffee last thing at night and make coffee decoction in the filter first thing in the morning. The kitchen was equipped with a kal ural and an ammi – both stone grinding stones, used every day for cooking the daily staples of idlis and dosas and chutneys , and for adais and vadas less frequently. There was a copper boiler for boiling the bath water which had to be kept primed with charcoal and water. There used to be a firewood-fed stove which was upgraded later to a coal stove and then, much later, to a kerosene Primus stove, which was perceived to be a new-fangled luxury.

In the midst of all the work, the women in most homes, would never have found the time to step out of the house, and their only relaxation was to sit on the thinnai, the ledge outside the house, and talk to the neighbouring women when the morning chores were done.

Once, my grandfather offered to take my grandmother with him to Town, which was the name Parry’s Corner was familiarly known by. I am not sure how old she was at the time, but since they were living in Adyar at the time, I think he was in his early eighties, and she was in her sixties. They went by bus to Town, which was quite a way off, and having bought jaggery in a shop, my grandmother was carrying the bag, and my grandfather must have had his own bag of shopping. Older people of their generation never walked together or had conversations on the road, so, coming back home, he clean forgot all about her. He got on the bus and she was left behind.

Now my grandmother knew how to find her way to the nearby temples or shops but she had never travelled by bus on her own and did not know which bus to take. She carried no money either, and was, no doubt, terrified by the bustling congestion of Town. She thought to return the jaggery to the shopkeeper and find out which bus might take her home, but, the shopkeeper, to his eternal shame, was inhuman enough to turn down the request made by this little old lady whom anybody would have loved. He flatly refused to refund her money to her and my little grandmother, in desperation, finally asked a cycle rickshaw puller for help. Thankfully, he was kinder to her, and safely brought her back home.

I think my grandfather must have realized halfway home that he had carelessly lost his wife along the way, and turned back, and must have suffered through a few anxious moments before he found her safe at home. Of course she was angry with him, but she always took care to take her purse with her after that day.

Each time I remember the incident, I feel very sorry for my dear little grandmother, but when I think of the shopkeeper, I hope his karma has caught up with him, in a hugely multiplied way.

A few years ago, in the Matunga Apna Bazaar, I had just finished my shopping and walked up to the cashier to make payment. The debit card had not yet made its appearance then. At the counter, an old Iyer lady who had bought one thing too many and run out of money to pay, was beseeching the counter clerk to cancel the purchase of just that one thing. But the clerk was a bully and refused her request and instead told her to leave her entire shopping behind and come back with the money later. She was quite terrified of being scolded by her son at home for her carelessness and obviously unable to make a second trip to the shop living as she was at some distance. I remembered my grandmother and feeling very sorry for the old lady, offered to pay and take the purchase off her hands. She was relieved and thanked me over and over again and blessed me saying Sai must have sent me to help her. I told her I was happy to help. I should have ticked off the shopkeeper, which I would be brave enough to do now. I was still meek in those days.

First Local

Foolhardiness must run in our family. When we moved to Bombay from Lucknow, it was a whole new world. It was like moving from a lazy Nawabi city to a brisk-paced metro, where people rushed past and we risked being knocked down if we didn’t get out of the way. Dawdling was not tolerated on the streets of Bombay. It was our first week in Bombay and R thought I and the children should see more of the city than the distant suburb where we had just moved.

So on a Saturday, which was a working day once upon a time, he told me how to take an autorickshaw to the station and the local train to Charni Road station. In itself it would not have been too daunting, although I know many women who would balk at having to make their way through an unfamiliar city with its famously frightening local train network. But I had A, D and S to manage, who were seven, five and two years of age. It was also the first time I was venturing outside the house.

I reached the station by auto, and following directions, bought the tickets and reached the correct platform, and waited for the train to pull in. But a fellow passenger realized I was new to the city, and warned me not to make the mistake of getting into a general compartment and directed me towards the ladies’ coach.

Till then I had not known about ladies having coaches reserved for them on the local trains. I managed to get the children and myself on board and it was only because it was afternoon and the rush hour traffic in the opposite direction was a few hours away that we we were able to get on the train.

It was an uneventful journey and we were met at Charni Road Station by R who shepherded us along the Marine Drive pointing out the sea and the landmark Air India building among other things. But the normally docile and joyful D decided to be cranky for a change. She noticed a group of boys playing cricket in one of the Gymkhana playgrounds, and decided she wanted to play with them. Though we tried to divert her attention by offering to get her candy and tried to convince her that she would not be allowed at her age to play with grown men, she would not be convinced. She threw a rare tantrum and S was bemused enough that he bent from R’s arms trying to peer at the strange goings-on, and A obediently followed our lead while telling D not to cry, and R began to lose his patience. So it was a strange procession that wended its way down Marine Drive, until finally R threw up his hands and ended our first tour of Bombay by getting us all back on the train home from Marine Lines Station.

When I told people about our first local train trip, they were horrified that we had even contemplated it, let alone completed it successfully, though not satisfactorily. Local trains in Bombay are for the brave and the foolhardy, unless you are a local yourself, which we became eventually.

Venture Forth

We decided to send A out at the tender age of three to the store in our compound to buy one single item. It was only to teach her that she could do it. She was born fearless and off she marched to the shop determinedly and going down three flights of stairs she walked to the store which was about a hundred feet away. She handed over the ten rupee note (or was it a five rupee) to the assistant and brought the coconut back matter-of-factly. The triumph was what we felt. Five minutes later the assistant rang our bell and handed over the change. He said he had called out to A but she had ignored his call and walked away. We had told her not to talk to strangers after all and had forgotten to tell her about the change!

In Lucknow, when she was five, there was a day I sent her out to buy milk from the doodhwallah who sold government dairy milk in sachets. It involved going down our street and making a right turn where the milkman waited in the morning for his customers. S, the baby, was fast asleep and inclined to bawl loudly when he woke up and D was three but inclined to take refuge in her pillow when things went out of control. There was no harm lurking on Aliganj streets in those times as it was less a city than a village with long and wide roads which were usually empty. In hindsight I was very foolish (and I can never stop kicking myself even now and feeling the terror I felt on that day), in sending A to fetch the milk. She was smart and wise beyond her years even then and I must have overlooked her age and trusted only in her ability to negotiate anything new. I told her how to get to the milk booth and stood outside the gate but noises inside drew me into the house for a few minutes. I waited for much longer than I should have, then leaving behind S and D, I hurried to the milk booth only to be told that Baby had long since got the milk and left. Shocked, I stood on the road wondering if A had taken a wrong road and how was I going to find her. It must be clear by now that their father was not at home. He was away in some UP district on work. I was terrified that A might have wandered away and there was no one at all I could turn to for help in a strange city, without a telephone or a vehicle and not one person whom I knew. As I stared at the road that stretched far away towards Q Sector from B, completely empty at seven in the morning, I saw a yellow speck. A was dressed in her yellow skirt and top that morning and I desperately hoped it was her.

It was, and she must have seen me too as I stood in the middle of the road, and she walked towards me carrying the bag with the milk packet, and though she must have been a little nervous at having lost her way, she was less fazed by the whole event than I was. I can still feel the relief I felt at that moment and I am amazed that she had the common sense at the age of five to turn back at some point and return to where she had begun. Any other child would have stopped and cried. Of course by that time I already knew she was not just another child, but someone special.

We walked back home to find S wailing loudly and D trying to pacify him telling him “Don’t cry”.