Ma and Roopa and I stayed for three months at Ajji's house. That was the amount of time a daughter stayed with her parents after the birth of a child.
"Time enough to be pampered and washed, to rest from the pain of bearing life," said Ajji firmly, making sure that Ma heard, because she wasn't willing to keep a married daughter in the house for longer than that. "After that you return to your husband."
For three months Ma went back to being a girl, sleeping when Roopa did, playing cowrie with me. She sat in the back verandah allowing her oiled limbs to soak up the sun, waited for Chinna to summon her for a bath, moaning with pleasure as steamy-hot water was poured over her puffy body. Later on, she stood pliant and drowsy in her blouse and petticoat while Chinna wound a soft, old sari about her belly.
"To bring your mother's waist back," she explained to me, and pulled the cloth so tight that Ma said she couldn't breathe.
Of all the people in Ajji's house, Chinna was the most interesting. She was small and quick, with the look of a darting brown bird about her. Her head was shaved clean as she was a widow and was not allowed any vanities such as long hair or pretty clothes. Fate had deprived Chinna of the joys of normal life, yet she enjoyed herself more fully than anybody else I knew. Chinna loved the latest films, clapping enthusiastically with the rowdy theatre crowds when the hero appeared on screen. She smacked her lips over the chocolates that relatives brought for her from England.
"Ah, I can taste a different land, I can taste the sweetness of the people there," she sighed, delicately unwrapping the silver paper and taking a lick at the little chocolate before popping it into her mouth and sucking noisily. Ajji watched sourly. "Who would think she is a grown woman? Look at how silly she behaves!"
I was frightened of my grandmother, a slow, silent woman who regarded me with what seemed like a complete lack of interest. She never told me stories, like Chinna, nor did she pamper me with sweets and toys. Oh yes, Ajji bought me a new silk lehenga and matching bangles every time we visited, but the gold on the cloth was thinner than it was on Gopal Uncle's daughter's.
"Ajji, why is mine less shiny than Aparna's?" I demanded, piqued by the unfairness.
"What a girl!" exclaimed my grandmother, her mouth stained with red paan juice as if she had drunk blood. "You are lucky that I even got you a nice skirt. Aparna is my son's child, remember?"
Nono, I did not like Ajji very much at all. Thatha, my grandfather, was all right, but he insisted on reading to me from huge philosophy books, his voice putting me to sleep. "Thus did Krishna explain the nature of the world to Arjuna," he droned, his hands waving, emphasizing every word that Lord Krishna uttered, while I looked longingly out the window or watched a large black ant march purposefully towards his twitching foot. Thatha had started twitching when he turned sixty, a couple of years before, tiny shudders that travelled in waves all over his liver-spotted body, as if a creature inside was struggling to get out. My cousins and I had made a game out of guessing when the next twitch would attack Thatha, and when the old man found out about it, he would shiver extravagantly to make us laugh. Thatha died three years after Roopa was born, a heart attack seizing his body as he energetically chopped the green shell off a coconut. He had performed this task for as long as I could remember, his left hand cradling the coconut, his right clenched on a cleaver slicing the thin morning air and thuck! The pale, silver water lay revealed like a secret lake, sweet and ready to drink. Ajji grumbled at this ritual, complaining that Thatha was being silly, performing young tricks with an old body. "To show off to you little ones," she said. "He is fond of children."
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