Jan 31, 2014

Listen To Your Mother: Kolkata, Kenya and a faded coverlet

My mother was a housewife. Not a 'homemaker' but a wife who stayed at home. The mom part went without saying, though I'm sure I said it a lot anyway. It was “Maa! Maa! Maa!” for me constantly until I turned 6 and went to school for the first time. She defined my world in every possible way.

We left Kolkata, India when I was around two. It was known as Calcutta back then. As the oldest son, my father had the responsibility of supporting a large extended family in the traditional Indian way. A young electrical engineer in state employ had only so far to go in the early '70s though and East Africa needed electrification.

So they packed up my 7 year old brother, me and a few essentials and went off to Nairobi, Kenya where a job awaited. It didn't pay a great deal more than the Calcutta Electrical Supply Board in those days, but they were itching to broaden their horizons and well, to have started on a journey was something after all. The future seemed somewhat less moribund when thrilling new adventures shimmering on the horizon. Especially when that horizon held acacia trees, Mount Kilimanjaro and the promise of many new experiences. Not to mention the lure of unseen opportunities to better their circumstances,

My brother started school but there were no nurseries or playgroups for me. Or maybe there were but out of my parents' price range: they sent home every spare penny. So I hung out with Maa in our little duplex flat everyday, waiting at the window for the little red Lancer in which my Dad drove my brother home. A quick, hot lunch later they headed back to resume their respective days leaving Maa and I in our familiar little unit of two.

I have very clear recollections of my days though of that peculiar freeze-frame quality that little children are prone too. The 'bogayah mama' drove up in a truck sometime in the morning, laden with fresh produce. We would trip down a spiral staircase towards the bouquet of mixed, fresh smells and the happy chattering of communing Kenyan women. To this day, a snapped stalk or bruised leaf of fresh cilantro brings back those morning bargaining rituals. The air filled with a mix of broken English (from African Mamas) and hodge-podge Swahili (from my Bengali one) and mingled with the earthy smell of vegetables only just plucked from their beds. No one minded the curly headed little girl bobbing curiously around the van, a VW I think though it might have been a pick-up truck. They all looked the same to me: BIG. I was affectionately handed tender little carrots and other treats to nibble on while I skipped around in circles, happy for the company and space.

Back in our flat, Maa set to work converting her purchases into multi-course hot Indian lunches, carefully timed for the boys' arrival, and I busied myself with contraband. See, with my brother away, I could appropriate his toy cars - with impunity. He was kind and generous to a fault but a boy and his Matchbox cars have a special bond that pesky little sisters manage to always desecrate. The wooden parquet flooring offering up endless rows of pretend parking spaces for my stolen adventures. Though my parents took us frequently on safaris, our urban perspective was apparent in that I passed on dramatizing Savannah adventures in favor of reenacting parking dramas on our trips to the grocery store. More relevantly, I relayed a blow by blow narration to Maa in a squeaky lisp, usually high pitched to out-compete her whistling pressure cooker. And she responded to each and every one. Or at least enough that I not once felt I was playing on my own. How she managed to logically answer most of my rhetorical queries or even hear them, above the sizzling-steaming-whistling of her orchestral cooking range, I don't know. My squeaks couldn’t really have penetrated that din. But she did. When I eventually tired of cars and teaparties and scribbling in notebooks, she let me into the pantry attached to her kitchen. Safely out of range of the pressure cooker (that had a sinister reputation of unexpectedly exploding), I was allowed to play with her many plastic tubs of provisions. I can still see the cream plastic jars wearing masking tape labels with Bangla letters scrawled on them in her hand. Long before LEGO entered my life, I got to build worlds and stage adventures with jars of rice, lentils, beans and spices. Again, with a blow by blow narration that elicited loyal, periodic responses. In hindsight, I strongly suspect she employed the same ruse I do now with my 7 year old: catch-all responses alternating between the exclamatory ("Wow! Really?!") and sedate ones ("Aha! I see!"). Everyone’s happy and adult brains haven’t shrivelled from hours of inanity. Well, not completely anyway.

My mother tells me that in time I picked up a few words of Swahili just as she did and between us, we occasionally managed snatches of conversation with the African servant girls in the servants quarters by our flats. They learnt enough English to come to an agreement on some affordable part time assistance for Maa. She seemed tireless and invincible those days but really wasn’t either of those things. It couldn't have been easy cooking fresh lunches, handling a toddler, washing clothes in the bathtub (including the 5 yard long sarees she still wore) and still retaining energy to have the few Indian families in the expat-oriented neighborhood over for frequent impromptu dinners. And everything punctuated with tinkling laughter at the slightest reason and frequent snatches of song from the homeland. The soundtrack to my childhood was varied and rich.
My father marveled at how she could stretch a shilling so far too, and revelled in being able to afford her some rest. It wasn't much. The part-time woman, Agnes, gave her a hand in the kitchen and swept the floor from time to time. She eased her load just enough that she could breathe and have some company. They shared tea and stories on their work breaks and soon enough she started bringing her toddler son over too. My Maa couldn't stand the thought of the little boy languishing, barely supervised and unloved in the stark darkness of the servants quarters. I 'm sure she also appreciated the company it brought me. Though the number of toddlers underfoot doubled, so now did the number of moms in the house. I remember boo-boo healing hugs doled out by Agnes as often as Maa and my little friend had his nosed wiped on the end of a worn saree as often as on his moms kerchief.

With the house to ourselves in the afternoons though, came my alone time with the lovely lady of the long hair and dazzling smile who was finally, finally still. She lay down with me for nap time, drawing the curtains in the hope that the partially filtered African sun would invite sleep. I'm sure we possessed more than one bedspread but my afternoon memories are inextricably linked to a brown plaid cotton that still lives today in Maa's Kolkata flat. (It's tucked away in the linen drawer, resting in well earned retirement and faded grace.) 

The endless succession of stories I managed to wheedle out of her those hot afternoons, bargaining with false promises to sleep, stun me now. The exhaustion of her physical labors invariably outstripped my greedy pleas and she invariably slipped into gentle snores about 4 stories in. As a mother myself now, I can fully identify with my exhausted little son, fighting off impending sleep to take in just one more experience, one more imagined adventure. Like his mother, he too is mesmerized by stories and manages to get more out of me than I had usually resolved to give. I haven't learnt in all his 7 years, to resist the twinkling, fascinated eyes and partly open mouth accompanying the bated breathe of a child whose imagination is kindled into flame by a well told tale. It must have been the same for my Maa in her turn. I know for sure though, that I was informed by the hypnotic play of filtered light on a plaid brown coverlet finally lulling me to sleep. I bought my son a pillow pet for Christmas last year, one that projected a starry sky on his darkened bedroom wall. I knew just how it would ease his way to much needed rest.
When he finally slips into slumber he isn't clutching the end of a soft cotton sari the way I used to. But I hope he feels the way I did.
Oyon-isms (7+), February 2014
Fiercely hugging his beloved Penguino  after returning from school. (Penguino is a starry-sky projecting pillow pet recently acquired at Christmas)
Oyon: I'm not being mean to you Mammam, but I think I love Penguino more than you.
Me: I understand Oyon. It's kind of how Baba and I feel about you.
Oyon (now on the couch, on his back, legs up in the air, holding the Penguin nose-to-nose and staring into his glass eyes): But WHY does he have to be so cute?!!
Me (struggling to keep my hands off HIM): Dunno kiddo. He just is.

1 comment:

  1. Sunanda K SanyalMay 12, 2016

    Lovely ruminations. I'm sure Oyon will appreciate these essays one day. Keep it up.