Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From The City of My Childhood

I’m brimming with memories these past few weeks. Not happy, not sad, just random, yet heart warming recollections that suddenly peek out at me from nowhere, surprising me and making me smile- memories from a simpler, more relaxed time; a time that doesn’t seem like very long ago. A time when we only had one channel on TV, Doordarshan, and that was enough and when Sunday morning entertainment meant, rushing back home from church service to catch Mougli and his animal friends on Jungle Book, while mum whipped up breakfast for me in the kitchen.

 It’s been two years since I’ve been married and have started living a life that I earlier used to associate with “Older People”, and by that I mean working at my job, making important decisions on various matters, having an insecure moment sometimes, or suddenly being seized by frustration, and on rare occasions deciding what to cook for dinner (clearly, I don’t cook that often). Patterns of behaviour I had earlier associated with “Grown Up’s”, well, welcome to real life!

Lately I’ve been having this nagging and absurdly fearful feeling that now life is going to pass me by at such an insanely, accelerated pace and before I know it I’ll be an old, old lady wondering where life went by so hastily. And so, driven by this ridiculous fear, I’ve decided to lock my memories in words, so that when I do get old, I can go back and read, and smile, and know how wonderfully fulfilling my life has been- good and bad, happy and not so happy, laughter and tears- just as our parents told us life would be.

I was born an only child to much older Anglo-Indian parents in Delhi, a rarity in the nineteen nineties I grew up in. I remember the very shocked and sorry responses I’d get from people when they’d find out I had no siblings, like I had a dreadful disease or something, which at that age I couldn’t comprehend. With both my parents working full time I spent most of my time with my reed thin, elderly and devout Catholic maid (my parents made sure of that) from Bihar, whom I shall call Lily. Lily, who always wore soft cotton sari’s and perpetually smelled of Lifebuoy soap and coconut oil and whose white hair would be tied into a tight little knot behind her head. Lily had a particularly shrill, sing song voice and I often heard her singing church hymns in a language I couldn’t understand, while she sat on the veranda floor in a patch of sun on winter mornings and picked the grit out of the rice. The only word I would catch onto was “Yesu”, which she had told me, meant Jesus.

I’m sure Lily couldn’t have been very old when she began looking after me, but to me she was the oldest person I had seen… around the house at least! She had skin the colour of chocolate, eyes as dark as charcoal and fine wrinkles around her eyes and laugh lines around her mouth- she was as quick to anger as she was to laugh. To me Lily was friend, caretaker, sibling, playmate and grandmother all rolled into one. She was the one who soothed my bruises when I’d hurt myself, amuse me when I’d play with my dolls, feed me lunch, rock me to sleep and tell me unbelievable (and sometimes scandalous) stories from her tiny little village, where apparently tigers roamed free in the jungle and where fruits as sweet as honey hung low from the branches of trees.

I remember winter afternoons when she’d lay me down on a string cot in our front yard and vigorously rub warm mustard oil on my body(she didn't believe in the new fangled Johnson’s Baby products), constantly trying to get me to stay still while I giggled continuously; her calloused, work worn hands firm, yet gentle as they massaged the pungent smelling oil into my skin- it’s funny how even today the rich and balmy scent of mustard oil is capable of effortlessly taking me back to a time, when Lily would sit on the stairs with me as a toddler on her lap, assuring me that Mummy would be back home real soon.

Even after my parents were back from work, I’d still hang around Lily, following her to the kitchen and playing besides her feet while she washed the dishes. She used to tell me to go to my parents but I’d still follow her around until it was time for me to have dinner with my parents and be put to bed.

Being Anglo-Indian's, my parents only spoke English at home and I learned no Hindi, which they decided was important for me and they thought who better a person to entrust with this responsibility but Lily. But the consequences of that were not as they had hoped, and instead of learning Hindi, I picked up the dialect Lily would pepper most of her broken Hindi with and I ended up calling rice, bhaat, jhaal was my new word for spicy and to my mother’s horror, instead of learning “Ek, do, teen, chaar” I picked up Ek tho, do tho, teen tho and so on. It was then that my parents decided to pack me off to day care right next door, as they thought I needed to interact with children my age; daycare was something I was to hate for the next couple of years that I was kept there.

Lily still remained with our family, but I no longer stayed with her during the day and I would spend afternoons  longingly look into the direction of our home hoping for Lily to come rescue me from my misery of being teased by the nasty little bullies from day care who made fun of me not knowing Hindi. On afternoons like that I would stand in the veranda trying to catch a glimpse of Lily, aching to bury myself in her lap and instantly be surrounded by the softness of her sari and the comforting fragrance of Lifebuoy soap and coconut oil and just be there while she patted me to sleep, telling me stories from the Bible and how Jesus gets angry with little girl's who didn’t take afternoon naps.

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