Anamika Mukherji is a brand new mom and an avid old time blogger. She tells us this beautiful story about human relationships, about a little boy and his “sister”.
He woke up and smiled as he stretched his long legs – they almost hit the bedpost. Not long before he was nearly as tall as Baba (father). He saw his sister sleeping beside him and remembered it was Bhai Phonta*, and it was Sunday. He must ask Ma for an envelope in which he could put the stickers he’d been saving to give her.
It was starting to get chilly. He shivered as he waited for his water bucket to fill up; his mother insisted on cold water baths, only relenting in December to allow hot water up from the kitchen. Hurrying through his bath he ran down, gulped down the tall glass of milk that sat in an ancient brass tumbler waiting for him. Before his mother could see him, he sneaked out of the house.
He was only 10, but this was Allahabad in the 1960s, and children were safe to run around on their own. They did know to be careful of the fake sadhus, of course, the ones who dressed like holy men but actually kidnapped little children and sold them as beggars in big cities. He followed the familiar route to his didi’s (sister’s) house. The young widow lived a spare life in a spare room at a relative’s house. He felt the rumblings of hunger as he reached her lane, knowing the feast that awaited him, and the gift.
He covered the last few metres with a hop, skip and jump, narrowly missing the drain running parallel to the row of houses. He leapt over the slab that served as a small bridge, and entered, unannounced. The doors were open. They always were back then. Her relatives were huddled around cups of tea. The patriarch was reading the newspaper and had his back to the entrance. He lightly ran up the stairs to her room, his nose filling with the smell of hot, frying luchis (deep fried flatbread).
She had been up since dawn. Folding up her thin mattress and sheet, she had swept the floor. Now there was a small aashon, or mat, waiting for a skinny little boy to sit on it. For the last few weeks, she had skimped on a potato here, an onion there, while cooking her own meals. Last evening, she’d bought fresh maida (flour) for the luchis. And there she sat. Bathed, draped in white, her back straight, the maida dough ready for frying. On a massive brass plate with upturned edges sat various bhajas – deep-fried potatoes, deep-fried onions, a dollop of mango chutney, and a growing pile of luchis. She heard the footsteps and turned with a smile. She knew it was him; no one else came to her door.
He smiled, and held out the flowers he had picked along the way from the park. She placed them in front of her frowning gods. He knew the drill and sat down on the aashon. She reached for the small silver dish with incense and some sandalwood paste. She dipped her ring finger in the paste and held it to his forehead, mumbling the lines about immortality. Done three times, the ritual was over, and he just had to touch her feet in thanks for all the worlds she had just wished him. He sat back more easily, waiting for the next bit.
She turned to her little stove, the blue flame sprang to life and she got to work, smoothly rolling out the luchis, small white moons that slithered into the oil and puffed up immediately in indignation. The pile on his plate grew. The ones that failed to puff up were rejected, landing on a tiny plate instead, which was her share for later. It was a treat for her, too. Right now he was the bhai, the king. It was his day.
He looked around at the room as she cooked, taking in the bare shelves with a few religious books on them. Kali glared at him from a giant calendar where the dates formed just one-tenth of the whole page. He quickly looked away. A small trunk had all her clothes. No cupboard. This woman had no jewellery, nothing that needed to be locked away.
When she had fried enough luchis to keep a healthy young boy busy for a while, she handed the plate to him with a smile, and sat back. He ate fast, talking the whole time. Who he was trading stamps with at school, imitations of school-teachers, things happening at home, arguments in the cricket team. She listened with a smile, drinking in the stories of a busy world packed with characters and the great big outdoors. A life lived outside the house.
When he was done, he rinsed his hands on to the plate with his glass, and looked up. She knew what he was thinking. He had to go back to get his own sister’s phonta as well. Her time with him was up. As he wiped his hands on his shorts, she stood on tip-toe and took the gift off the top-shelf, saved over the last year when she went up to the terrace each evening at dusk.
They slipped from her hands and cascaded onto the floor in a rainbow of colours. And he gathered them up with delight. As he picked them up with a wide smile, the sunshine caught the colours on the thin paper and created colourful patterns all over the small room. The chaand tara, the dabalia, the dugga, multi-coloured kites that had been cut and landed on the roof and never retrieved. He would take them home and change the string and they would fly like new, carefully preserved as they were. He stacked them neatly, touched her feet once again, and slipped out of the room, until next year.
You can read more of Anamika Mukherji’s blogs at http://righttowrite.blogspot.com/.