To tell the truth, I was not sure that I was entirely thrilled about Thamma’s visit. I mean, it wasn’t like Dida coming down from Kolkata with her bundles of goodies for the entire brood, including Cousin Roopa’s maternal side.
And this time Thamma had for company the perpetually-moping Susheela Ma with her peppery hair stretched backwards in an immutably skimpy pony-tail. Amma said she moped because she had lost all her relatives in a military coup in a neighboring country called Bangladesh. Susheela Ma had been visiting relatives in Kolkata when the coup had taken place. She had never been able to return to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh because of, Amma said, “political reasons”, whatever that meant.
On being asked where Bangladesh was, Babuji had dug out the huge Atlas from one of the cavernous book-shelves in his study and had pointed with one end of his spectacles at the tiny country – it looked smaller than some of the Indian states. As he found my attention wandering he had firmly tapped me on the head with his spectacles and said that the country was earlier known as East Pakistan but had become independent subsequent to a bloody war in 1971.
An old friend of Thamma’s who’d died of cholera five years ago had entrusted Susheela Ma to Thamma’s care. Susheela Ma had become a sort of companion to Thamma, tending to her, running her errands, and even running her house. She was thirty-something, heavily pock-marked, and wore thick glasses which oddly contrasted to her sparse peppery hair.
Thamma’s litany of complaints had commenced even before Babuji had switched on the ignition key of the old green Fiat parked next to the lamp-post where three beggars appeared engaged in a heated argument.
“The town has become too crowded… it’s too hot in here,” she fanned herself with the end of her white cotton sari pallu and pushed back her steel-framed thick spectacles sliding down her thin nose.
“No!” she shouted; I almost jumped while turning down the window, “don’t do that, not good for my asthma. The young these days, absolutely no concern for the elderly! How is Shivani, by the way? Why didn’t she write to me during my illness? No concern, I tell you, no concern at all in the young these days…” As Babuji swerved the Fiat to the right avoiding a pedestrian, the sun’s rays caught Thamma’s gaunt profile.
Susheela Ma, people affixed ‘ma’ to her name pretty naturally, who was squinting in the sunlight through her thick glasses sitting next to Babuji, looked resolutely sad and lost to the world. Throughout the homeward journey she was silent and remained non-committal and indifferent for the rest of her visit. Amma had had to take a month’s leave from her part-time job at the newspaper office where she was helping with the oncoming Diwali special edition to be at Thamma’s beck and call. Yet nothing she ever did was good enough for Thamma. Not even the most meticulous preparation of her favorite pumpkin dish.
“In my time,” Thamma mumbled to no one in particular, her mouth working toothlessly, “we would roll out the pumpkin to perfection… with our hands, unmindful of the time it took. One of the servants, ah! the glory of those times when Viren’s father was still alive, would shell the shrimps while another,“ she was wiping her spectacles with the end of her sari pallu and continuing to work her mouth at the same time, “would grind the turmeric sticks to a fine powder. But who has the time to do so many things and so efficiently these days….”
The plain, pock-marked Susheela Ma with features set in a permanent melancholic mould, helped Amma and the cook in their ministrations with no apparent interest. Her dress code, a white cotton sari with a bunch of keys tied in a knot to one end, remained constant from one day to the next. She wore no jewelry save for a pair of golden bangles Thamma said had been given to her by her mother before the coup.
When Amma prepared the special malai koftas, cottage cheese balls in curry, which everyone loved, Thamma had remonstrated while picking a speck of dust off one of the side tables, “The posto hasn’t been ground enough to mingle with the onions. In my time we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the kitchen till the whole mixture was ground fine. Short cuts were unheard of. But who cares these days? Who has the time?”
Thamma complained no end when instead of neem sticks she was handed a toothpaste and a brush. “Don’t you know Shivani,” she had growled, “there’s chalk in toothpaste?”
Thamma had been widowed when Babuji was in his early teens. My grandfather, a well-to-do barrister in Calcutta, had left her wealthy, enough to be able to educate her only son in one of the best-known schools of the country and later send him to Cambridge’s Trinity College to study Geology. The wealth, spent frugally over the years, had enabled her to buy a house in Barrackpore near Calcutta.
Once, I think, it was last year, when I asked Babuji why Thamma always wore white, Babuji had replied that Hindu widows were required to wear white at all times. Why was it then, I had asked him, that Mr. Mookerji who’d remarried six months ago was never seen wearing white after his wife had died. I don’t think Babuji had a ready answer since he didn’t reply. I next asked him if Susheela Ma had ever been married to which he replied in the negative shaking his head. “But,” I said, “why does she wear white if she’s not a widow?” Babuji, not being able to hit on a suitable reply, had instructed me to go and play with Cousin Roopa.
Instead of waking up at her usual time of five thirty, Amma would get up at four with the rooster across the lane to light the stove for Thamma’s bath and then prepare her special bland, saltless breakfast sans spices, onions, and tomatoes. Hearing her clinking the pots and pans in the kitchen would wake me up as well. Just in time to hear the azaan, resonating from the old mosque in the next lane. Amma said that was how the Muslims said their prayers to a god called Allah. When I asked Amma if the Muslims celebrated Holi like the Hindus she’d replied no, but they had an impressive festival called Id where men greeted each other like brothers and the women prepared extraordinary delicacies. After her bath, Thamma would sing tuneless bhajans from a prayer book to the beat of a pair of brass cymbals in the Puja room, in a voice loud enough to wake up the entire household. And then she would cry beseeching the Master to whisk her away from this world while Susheela Ma slept on a mat in one corner snoring softly.
Thamma’s entreaties would run along similar lines, “Oh Master! When are you coming to take me away… You and I spent so many wonderful years together, oh my lord!” She would cry, “take me away to join you forever,” as tears streamed from her shriveled eyes behind her thick glasses and her fingers pushed the smooth, brown-colored rosary beads with relentless fervor.
The theatrics would commence precisely at six when Babuji’s alarm went off and last up till the next half hour. One morning, on asking Amma who the Master was and why Thamma cried for him I received a sharp rap on the knuckles. “Mind your business child, don’t poke your nose in affairs that don’t concern you. Now go and get some milk from Parul mashi’s house, tell her I have run out of milk for the evening’s payesh.” Watching me speed away on my bicycle she shouted across the gate, “Tell Parul mashi I’ll send some payesh along this evening.”
That evening I asked Babuji about the Master. My father mumbled from behind the evening edition of the Uttarakhand Times, “She’s crying to God to take her away from the world. Thamma has always been very religious you see.” But, I said, Amma also prayed to God and so did Parul mashi but they never cried like Thamma. “Oh, but Amma has you and me to take care of and Parul mashi has Tara and mesho. Thamma doesn’t have anybody. Now run along, I’d like to finish my paper… and please put those down,” he admonished as I tried on Thamma’s thick glasses which made my head swirl with dizziness as my vision grew blurred. “Why not ask Roopa over today?” he’d mumbled from over the top of the paper.
The mystery of the Master remained unsolved. I had turned to Cousin Roopa who was in a section different from mine at Mr. Woodwards’ Primary School. My little cousin swinging her pigtails had said that Rita in her class often spoke about her demented grandmother who would cry in her sleep that someone from Germany was coming to marry her. Some people became potty in their old age, she had concluded. I wondered if Amma and Babuji would become “potty” with age.
Thamma had never taken to my maternal cousin. “In my time,” she sniffed, “little girls oiled their hair and kept it tied at the back. And we weren’t allowed to spend the night anywhere outside the home, not even at one’s own relatives.” Babuji smiled showing his gold-capped front teeth while spraying the mosquito repellent in the living room, “Come on Ma, times have changed since you were a girl. Rumli child, show Roopa where she can keep her clothes and books. And Roopa, your aunt would like to know if you’d like Horlicks with your milk like Rumli or if you’d much rather have it plain at night. By the way,” just as Thamma opened her mouth to demur, “I have sprayed your room Rumli, so you can both go in now. And please, “this time” his back was turned as he turned the Flit gun to the windows, “don’t keep the entire household awake by chattering all night. You can both start on your homework after breakfast tomorrow.”
“Too thin. And HORLICKS! Tell her to drink her milk plain… “Thamma was saying, loudly enough for Cousin Roopa to hear as she followed me to my room with her clothes and books. “She’s a growing child Ma, like Rumli.” Babuji’s voice sounded somewhat muffled from behind the sofa where he was retrieving a ball-point pen and some stray hairs.
Thamma had never taken to any of Amma’s relatives. When Tara had dropped by last Sunday she had growled, “Aren’t your parents looking for a suitable bridegroom? Oh but you are marrying that Rizwi boy, good God! How can you afford to shame the family name?”
On her last visit two years ago she had complained to Babuji pursing her thin lips, “Shivani’s got her entire brood in this town, that’s why I don’t like coming here.” But I thought it was the cold climate of the valley that kept her confined to the hot and sultry Barrackpore as she’d affirmed to Banerji aunty at the local temple on Shivaratri and later to Sharan aunty at Mrs. Biswas’ kitty party.
The morning subsequent to Cousin Roopa’s arrival Thamma came screaming into the kitchen holding a half-empty glass jar and shaking visibly, “Someone’s stolen my narus Shivani, may hell’s curses be upon them.” The narus were delicious little balls rolled out of jaggery and desiccated coconut. Sometimes Thamma added a globule of condensed milk preferring to consume the goodies herself without sharing them with the family, not even Susheela Ma, after weeping copiously to her lord. Rather involuntarily I turned to look at Cousin Roopa who was wiping a flake from her lower lip and I thought I caught Amma’s gaze intercepting the movement. Nobody spoke a word as Thamma’s tirade raged over the next twenty minutes. Amma, expressionless and tired, continued preparing Thamma’s favorite pumpkin dish, taking care not to mix in the shrimps with the dough, occasionally delivering instructions to the listless Susheela Ma.
I remember Babuji saying during Thamma’s visit two years ago that Hindu widows weren’t permitted to eat flesh. When I had asked why that was the case, he’d simply shrugged his shoulders.
“In my time, “ Thamma was peering greedily over her impenetrable spectacles at the steamy spread over the family’s old dining table while Amma was still in the kitchen preparing Thamma’s rotis from a different kind of wheat, “we would crush the shrimps with the pumpkin dough and mix it with turmeric and chilies. Ah! All the meat curries I used to prepare, I can still feel the taste of it on my tongue,” as she mixed the rice with the dough and put it in her mouth. “No one prepares it the way I used to. How long it has been since I tasted fish,” she sighed as she sampled another helping. “Why Thamma, you just tasted some! “ Cousin Roopa’s squeaky child voice shot through the plaint, “I gave you some of mine which you just mixed with the rice. Didn’t you like it?”
I am certain Amma took Cousin Roopa aside later during the day although neither admitted
Thamma rose late that Sunday and after having grumbled about her bath water not being warm enough and singing her tuneless bhajans, she commenced her wailing to the Master. Only this time she was interrupted by a loud rap on the window. As she stopped her weeping for a second, she heard a nubile, nasal voice rasping softly: “I have come to fetch you my dear Niharika. Get ready, quick! there’s no time to lose. I am your Master….” It was at this point that Babuji’s firm hand clamped on my right ear, dragging me with it to my room. Cousin Roopa had fallen in a heap from my shoulders over the floor along with the crudely constructed microphone rolled out from chart paper stolen from the school’s common room and the loose string off the packet of shrimps, the latter getting between her toes and legs as I turned to look back one last time before being locked in my room, my right ear red and throbbing bringing tears to my eyes.
Cousin Roopa was sent off home while I remained grounded for that weekend. But Babuji did take me to the annual local fair everyone called the “Jhanda mela” – he said the event was historically significant as it marked the advent of the Sikhs in the town – near the over-crowded Paltan Bazaar two days later and permitted me to have chola bhatura and three samosas. He also bought me my favorite glass bangles and didn’t mention a word about Thamma.
Thamma, on her part, did not stop complaining for the rest of her visit although her wailing ceased miraculously. The wicked incident did manage to make Susheela Ma smile though, if only momentarily.