reading daughter’s daughter by indian author mrinal pande brought my own memories of childhood, and how nasty children can be…
like anita. she lived in a bungalow next to our three-storey building, and she always smelled of dog fur and flies. so did her little brother, whom some of us used to tease because he had a speech defect. no, he didn’t stutter or stammer, but he seemed to have difficulty with any word that began with the letter ‘p’…so pankha laav (in marathi, it means switch on the fan) became fanka laav, please became flease, and the most unforgettable of them all f-words was when once he said “frofessor gupte“…
anita and her brother loved animals, and you’d find at least three pet dogs in her home at any time. besides she also brought home wounded or hungry stray dogs who invariably whined in front of her. her father was a milk distributor (perhaps still is), which explains why there were always huge blue containers of plastic milk bags and three steel drums stocked with milk — with the constant buzzing of flies all around the house…on the tables and chairs, on the sofa sets, around the milk drums, on the wounded dogs, and on anita. but of course, we were all kids, and none of us did mind. we enjoyed playing with the dogs, and our mothers collected milk from their milk-shop every morning.
sometimes we played hide-n-seek in her big house or watched anil kapoor- or dada kondke-movies on her video. sometimes we played catching-cook or dabais-pais in our society or on the terrace. when we were not playing, we were narrating ghost stories or tales of strange grandmothers or uncles or grand-aunts who never returned from somewhere…it could get very eerie, yet it was at the same time, well, very childish.
apart from being the only quiet and wide-eyed non-maharashtrian pair in the noisy gang, (by their standards) my sister and i were known for having the “strictest” parents in town.
it wasn’t their fault…no matter how interesting a game or how less time deepu and i had been outside, we were to report home by 7:00 pm, while the others enjoyed play-time till 8:30; we were not to play under the sun during weekends and other holidays, while the others happily got tanned all afternoon and screamed till their voices got hoarse. there were more of these rules, but you get the point.
anyways, we were indifferent to what they thought about us — i loved the storybooks and endless amar chitra katha comics my parents got for me to devour at home, while my sister was still too young to even know what ‘strict’ meant. she was to find out soon enough, but in what way…
one evening we decided to play on the terrace. my sister and i had some extra time that day, because my parents had gone shopping and would return by 8:00 pm they said. the terrace, with all its tv antennae, cables and water-pipes sticking around, was not the best place to play jhatapatti — a game where one person catches another, and then the two together catch another, and so on…thus forming a ring to catch the last player. we had never played this game on the terrace before, but we decided to try anyway.
about 20 minutes into dodging and running in the exciting game, we heard a dull thud and a yelp, then followed by a loud wail. no doubt, it was my sister. she’d fallen on one of the water pipes and hurt herself. luckily, the aunty living just a floor below was also on the terrace with a neighbour that evening, and they immediately carried my sister downstairs to examine and treat her if necessary, pacifying her all along that she would be rewarded with a chocolate if she stopped wailing, and that mom and dad will return soon with icecream, and so on…
fortunately there was not much damage to be concerned about. after some soothing iodex and sweets, she seemed alright, but strangely quiet…
soon my parents came back from the market, and she was sitting on my father’s lap, narrating what had happened. after dinner, she went to bed early. i was doing my homework, when i heard some muffled sobs behind me. i turned around to see my kid-sister finding great difficulty in crying without a noise (which was very unusual). a little surprised and amused, i gently asked her what was wrong.
she first shook me away, refusing to even look at me. now i was really curious, and pressed further, threatening her that if she didn’t tell me i would never speak to her again. i think that worked …for a while, the sobs increased with more intensity, and finally she looked up at me with red eyes full of big tears and said “oh what are we going to do? our mother is a stepmother”.
i was speechless, stunned no doubt at how much my otherwise bubbly, noisy and quarrelsome kid-sister suddenly seemed to be falling apart in just four years of her existence on earth. i asked her if she knew what it meant, and why she felt so. in between sobs, she explained to me that stepmothers always scold children, they’re always ‘strict’, and that our mother fit the role perfectly.
by now i was thoroughly amused, and also sure that it was somebody else’s imagination that was running in her head. i told her firmly that’s not so, and that she’s our real mother and that i could prove it to her. getting my parents’ wedding album from the next room, i flipped the pictures one by one, and then realised that wasn’t really the appropriate evidence…because the very next sentence that popped out of her was “but can’t you see chechi (elder sister), we’re nowhere in any of the pictures!”
having seen just three more vacations than her, i wasn’t really a big girl myself, and could see the situation was getting out of hand. i explained to her again, that our mother really loved us, that’s why she scolded us. i was just wondering where she heard the new words from, when she wailed again “but anita said our mother was strict because she’s our stepmother! why would anita lie to me?”
some fifteen minutes later when she calmed down, half wondering if she should believe me or anita, she told me not to tell this to our mom, or “she’d throw us out of the house”. i promised her i wont breathe a word of it to amma, and gently stroked her hair till she fell asleep.
switching off the lights and tip-toeing out of the room, i took my books and went straight to amma, telling her what happened.
i think my mother really laughed that night.