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Once upon a time, there were three wretched women. Nanamma[Grand mother], mom[STEP mother, actually. Strictly for purposes of writing, I will refer to her as mom going forward] and our servant girl, Rangamma.
1994: Saturday afternoon in my hometown of Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India.
I was walking back from school from the main road. I usually aimed my gaze at our closed front door on the 2nd storey of our home until I reached a point on the side road where I was no longer physically capable of doing that. It was a hot afternoon and I hurried to the Iron gate. I stretched myself on my tip toes and put my hand over the gate to unlock it from inside. I carefully pulled back my hand not to scratch it on the rusty notice board that hung on the left side.
Beware of the dog.
We had no dogs. I swung the gate open and stepped onto the concrete that was surrounded by our small garden of red clay pots and turned right to reach the stairs. Mr. Rangachary lived with his family on the first floor. He was a Brahmin tenant – cooked no meat or fish on Sundays. Meat smells bad and so do people who eat it. My parents and Nanamma strongly believed this.
I walked upstairs and looked for the key inside a red clay flower pot next to the door. We had red clay pots everywhere. A few new ones would be stacked even in our bathrooms from time to time during the onset of the spring season until there was place for them in father’s shop.
Once inside, I removed my shoes and looked at the dining table in the living room. There were 7 or 8 grains of lentils and many dried cooked white rice grains on one corner. Yes, nanamma must have had her lunch. I carefully and quietly put my heavy book bag next to one of the legs and sat down to eat at the table.
I took the lid off the white rice bowl and used it as a plate to eat. The minute I made the first ball of rice and pickle inside my fist and put it in my mouth, I heard the door to the bedroom that I shared with Nanamma open.
She wanted in on all the action. She came and stood next to the left side of my face and rubbed her creamy white belly while she egged me on to eat. Food is God. Do you have enough curry? I could hardly swallow under such scrutiny although from my vantage point I could not see what her eyes were looking at. I knew she did not have much company, but this afternoon ritual of getting stared at while eating was brutal. Not even words like, “We need to talk.” from my mom would make me that uncomfortable!
We heard the Iron gate rattle downstairs.
“Cover that side with your hand. It is too much food. Rangamma is not a nice woman, she has the evil eye!” Nanamma then waited for the right moment to see her shadow come through the living room to yell out. “You are late again?!”
“Why do you care? I don’t work for you!” Rangamma screamed.
As she continued walking towards the dish washing area in the back of the house, Nanamma turned around and followed her. For my 16 year old self, that shift of gaze eased the neck and spirits tremendously. I finished eating and ran to hand over the empty plate to Rangamma who had already started washing dishes.
She was paid 50 Rupees a month in salary. Her duties included washing dishes and cleaning the floors and mopping them twice a day. Now malls in India have changed the culture of domestic help all over. Girls from poorer neighborhoods want to work minimally and yet feel the draft of the air conditioner at full blast. A cousin of mine told me this recently.
“Why don’t you start with sweeping?! Lakshmi[The Goddess of wealth] doesn’t enter the house if it is dirty.”
“You have stacks of monies in your trunk[suitcase], right? Why do you need more? Stop telling me what to do! Or, I will leave!” Threatened Rangamma as she stood half bent over at the dishes washing them under a stream of water from the tap.
“You keep saying that, but you keep showing up day after day!”
“You keeping saying you are going to die, but you haven’t died yet!”
“I am the owner of the house, how dare.. !!!” As Nanamma heard bare foot steps coming from the living room, she hushed. Mom was here from work at her school after a long day and she needed her peace. Atleast for a few minutes, everyone obeyed.
Nanamma and Mom didn’t see eye to eye much. The cold war between them almost felt civil compared to how things were between her and Rangamma. Mom walked into the kitchen and emptied her cotton lunch sack under our watchful eyes. No one spoke a word. She started making milk tea in a steel sauce pan and waited for it to boil. She drank some water while she waited. Then she filtered her portion of the tea and left the sieve and the rest of the tea in the sauce pan on the platform near the stove.
As soon as she left the kitchen with a couple of Marie biscuits from the cupboard, Nanamma filtered out two cups. She never touched Rangamma’s cup that was at the far corner of the countertop. She just managed to pour tea into it, avoiding spillage. The rest of the tea stayed there until father showed up a few minutes later. If it was any other day, he didn’t need tea, as he stayed in his shop until all the women in his life called it a night before he walked into the house.
Father walked into the living room, looked at all of us for less than a second and turned to the wall directly above the TV. He switched on the power source and dragged a chair. Those were the days when no one had heard of the Satellite TV yet. You just watched what they showed, just like now of course, but a lot less bull shit to wade through. They had a special movie game show on Saturdays that father looked forward to religiously. I sat down next to him on a moda[Cane stools with woven jute rope seats].
As Rangamma swept the floors one room after the other, Nanamma followed her. She stirred her steel tea cup in circles as she walked, even though her sugar was rationed and she had none in the cup. Habit, she had told me smiling. One of those sad looking and manipulative smiles.
“Stop watching TV and carry on with your business! See, you left some dust here in this spot!” She screamed.
Rangamma stopped, turned around, dropped her broom and stood in a confrontational pose, with both hands on her hip. “You want to get into a fight with me? You don’t have any more teeth left to lose! This is not a dream come true, sweeping floors for you! You are shedding hair like a cat. These are your hairs everywhere. Why don’t you comb and eat at one place?” Tollywood(Yes, we have one too!) would be put to shame from their histrionics.
“The tea is getting cold! Everyone, just shut up!” Father always protested halfheartedly worried that the revolt might turn on him. He had his eyes glued the idiot box. At a minimum, every man has three wretched women in his life.
I chuckled as this was going on and had not realized mom was sitting on the divan[a long, wide sofa with no arms] next to me until she started shooing me. “Don’t you have homework? What are you watching TV here for? Go, mind your own business!”
As I opened the door to our bedroom, I expected to see Nanamma on her cot frantically beckoning me but softly saying, “Close the door, close the door! Quickly!” She usually did this when she was eating from her stash of Chicklets Gum or Cadbury Gems that she secretly bought at the Chemist’s store.
But I saw her back facing the door, and her blouse pulled up and acres and acres of creamy white skin of her back exposed. “Nanamma, pleaseeeee!” I wailed.
“Just 10 minutes, here, take this balm and rub it.” She said pointing to her shoulders.
“But, you say the same thing every day! I smell balm in my hands, my body and even in my hair.” I protested as though she would relent with self-respect. As you grow older, you are supposed to grow rational, and I would be rational, I thought.
Truth be told, most days I smelled like Talcum powder. She applied a lot of it on her face and insisted that I do the same. There is a name for people who are this fair in that part of the world. Pure white!
“Ahhh, deeper, there, see, now I can move my hands.” She would then make imaginary circles with her entire arms stretched out not completing a circle either forward or backward because the cot interrupted her motion. There, that was the most I saw her exercise.
Her neck was fat and lumpy much like mine, and like the rings of a tree. She tried to engage me with some stories so I couldn’t keep track of time. Usually, there were two central ideas and every small story spun off from them.
Her father was the richest lawyer in town under the British Raj and the English men respected him greatly. She liked mangoes a lot and ate them whenever she pleased. Sometimes she would crave for them in the middle of the night and her wishes would be granted. Her mom died early and she was raised by her 3 older sisters. Imagining 4 motherly figures was a subject of utter anxiety for me.
All the girls had brought in a lot of wealth into their marriages only to see it washed away.
Annie Besant and Gandhiji visited her hometown in 1935 when she was a baby. Gandhiji held her in his hands and waved at the crowd standing on the porch of her father’s house.
At the end of the stories, she would take the end of her saree, put her index finger under one layer of it, hold the cloth in place with her thumb and then clench the rest of the fabric with the remaining fingers and gently bring it towards her eyes and wipe them. I never saw any tears. I remembered that part of the scene so well, as if it was part of her childhood itself.
After the balming session, she walked into the bathroom for a shower. I changed into my night dress, an old maxi of my mom’s and sat down to do my homework.
“You really think I can have an affair?! You are out of your mind! I can’t deal with you women, you think I will stay out late looking for more female company?! That’s outrageous, now get out of the way, I am watching this movie.” I heard my father shout from the living room.
“If you remember, this was the third movie we had watched together right after we got married! Of course, your daughter was there too! Now, it is your mother! She has to be everywhere!” Mom began crying.
I could not hear what father said. And then mom said again.
“Why did you tell your mother that I was doing that? Now, she will think that I have a pay raise. And your damn business, will you ever make a paisa[a paltry Indian currency denomination, now not in commission.]?!”
I stopped paying attention to their conversation as I saw Nanamma step out of the bathroom in an old white towel wrapped around her. She never asked me if I could go out of the room until she tied her blouse and saree. And I never cared to ask her that myself. She asked me to hand her folded saree, the matching green blouse and the white petticoat.
Afterwards, she sat down on my cot which was in the middle of the room – so the air from the fan would reach me, combing her white velvety hair. It would take me less than an hour to count her full head of hair, I would self bet.
“Are you good at math?” She asked me as I took a break from my homework to draw smiley faces on my eraser.
“Yes, I am! I get first rank in my class, Nanamma!”
“What will you do after learning math? I will look for a tall and fair boy for you!” Years later, she was there at my wedding when I married my tall and dark husband.
That was her, demanding more than she gave. Never making any worry or hurt go away. Not contributing much to my psychological and physical development. But, I could tell that she was proud of me even though she never hugged me.
Giving her staring session a break, she got up and walked around to the other side of her bed. She opened her trunk and counted her sarees, took out the folded blouses and gently peeled at their creases. She arranged everything back into place and took out a tin can of Threptin biscuits. She turned around and gave me one, as if they were made of gold.
Apart from her trunk, our room had a rusty wind chime, a small mirror with dark brown spots, a silver beetle nut box – which I was to inherit after she died, two curtains and a calendar of Lord Balaji, an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.
When father hollered from the dining table, we both went and began eating. We occasionally helped one another reach for a vessel or spatula to scoop up some gravy and white rice. No one spoke. A few times someone would knock off a steel tumbler full of water. That was the most drama that dining table ever saw.
Finishing up dinner, I bolted to the bedroom. I packed up my books and set them aside for the day. I went to the bathroom and washed up. Back in the room, I turned off the light and switched on the purple night bulb. I lied down on my cot and pulled the blanket over my head.
A few minutes later, Nanamma walked inside, closed the door behind her and sat down on her cot which was two feet from mine. Her mattress was old, the cotton had hardened at spots like blood clots.
“You sleeping?” She said gently into the air. I pretended to sleep. In the purple twilight, Lord Balaji showered his blessings on us.
The next morning, on a warm and sultry Sunday morning, Nanamma woke me up with urgency. “The hawker is waiting for his money!”
“What? Nanammaaaaa!! You woke me up for doing math?”
She had already left the room.
From the balcony where I stood, I could see the hawker staring at us impatiently from the road. He had his vegetable cart that he pushed with his hands as he shouted out. “Spinach, Okra, Brinjal, Potato, Tomato!”
“For 25 paise, you give only two bunches of spinach now? Stealing from a Brahmin widow will not take you too far in life!” She was shouting at him and then asked him to make a round around the block and come back to collect his money. As if it would take me a half an hour to tally the amount for 4 vegetables!
“There is a cow inside the gate, shoo it away, it is eating all my Hibiscus.” She screamed at Rangamma who was leaving after finishing her morning chores. Hindu traditions and ceremonies treat cow dung with reverence.
“I don’t work for you!” She yelled as she hurried down the stairs and walked next door.
I saw father walking behind her down the stairs. He bought the morning newspaper every day at the near by shop. “There is no milk in the house.” Nanamma said.
“Don’t give orders to my husband!” Mom had ears for everything she said. “Get this, get that! He is a man, show him some respect!” She said that committing herself to be the single source of orders for my father.
As they were bickering, I saw auntie, father’s younger sister, walking up the road towards us. It was good times when auntie visited. Father and she briefly talked and father continued on his trip. She looked up and smiled at me as she started walking towards the stairs.
She lived 27 kilometers away and rode the bus to visit us now and then. “Are you taking your medicines on time, are you eating?” She asked Nanamma as she walked inside.
“Does she look like she is starving?” Mom took jabs when father was not around. “She is also eating my head!” This is one figure of expression I have never been able to understand. There has to be something lost in translation from the original language this phrase was picked up from.
“I am signing my pension to you every month!” My Nanamma spoke emotionally. Like most women, she always cried to get her way.
“OK, you both, don’t start again! Mom, let’s go, we have to be there by 10:30!”
As I accompanied them to the doctor in a hired rickshaw, Nanamma asked me to remind her to buy safety pins on our way back. She wondered why they were disappearing inspite of the lock on her trunk.
When we reached the clinic, we were ushered directly into the doctor’s office without having to wait. He was the son of my Tatagaru’s[Grand father] best friend, so we never waited – if it was Nanamma who was to be seen. I walked behind auntie and Nanamma into the room and raised and pressed my palms before my chest in a half-baked Namaste as I saw him.
No matter what the height of the chair, Nanamma’s feet always dangled. She tucked the pleats of her saree between the legs as she sat and listened to the doctor. “No way for a lady to sit like that!” She always told me staring at my knee-length school uniform skirts.
After the business at the clinic and a few errands, my auntie continued on in the same rickshaw that had brought us back home from the doctor. She had a bus to catch in 10 minutes.
Lunches were always late, especially on Sundays. A while ago, Mom had declared freedom from cooking on Sundays. In the kitchen, father was attempting to cook. Nanamma looked at me and smiled. I knew she was tired. She asked me to wash and bring the vegetables that we had bought earlier in the day.
She liked okra and she never bothered that there were people who liked other vegetables. She started cutting them up one by one. She made it every Sunday. If father had a chance to pick what he wanted to eat, it would have to be potato. He never got his wish.
As I sat there staring at both of them in boredom, she pointed me to the wooden shelf in the corner. There she kept her kobbari louzu[balls made of ghee and coconut shavings.], the other thing she “cooked”. A few times she made me wonder if a grandmother’s love is mostly exaggerated. But, I felt differently when she gave me sweets.
2014: Saturday evening in Atlanta, Georgia, United States.
“Mom!! Can you tell your Nanamma not to stare at us! She is freaking us out!!”
I came downstairs with a book in my hand. As I walked towards the dining table, I saw her standing next to Shivani and her 8th grade friends who were playing board games and eating pizza in the kitchen.
I had brought Nanamma over to the States after father died in bed one day, her hand resting on his head. She also did not particularly love mom or Rangamma anymore than she did back in the day, just because they are both dead. At 83, she was no longer as plump as she was in my childhood.
“It’s OK, you silly girls! She means well! Shivu, you know that! Girls, please be nice to her!” I said politely but firmly. The girls looked at one another and giggled.
Nanamma turned to look at me as if she had been wronged. She seemed to tell me now that her eyesight was bad, she just had to stand closer and stare harder.