‘Gudia. Come here. Read this!’
I glanced up towards her. It was no use telling my mother not to call me by that ghastly pet name. She was currently giggling about something as she read from a book. What was she up to now, I wondered, but abandoned my own reading to scoot on over to her like a good obedient daughter.
My mother was shaking with the silent laughter that meant she was really tickled. She handed me her book and said ‘Go on. Read.’
What was this, now? Hang on, this was one of the adult books. I knew because I had seen it amongst the other adult books on the high shelf in my parents bedroom that we had been warned to stay away from and which of course, I regularly nosed through when my parents were away at work. I looked at her uncertainly, but she nodded and pointed, ‘This paragraph right here.’
Okayyy. Fine. I read quickly. It was a paragraph about a guy who appeared to be undergoing some sort of medical check up. I frowned as I read, mouthing the words silently and unconsciously starting to read aloud towards the end.
‘...They then held us by the testicles and instructed us to ‘Cough’. There was one unfortunate fellow who heard the instruction as ‘Off’, and he applied himself to taking off with as much speed as he could muster from that crouching position.
They were still rubbing him with ice when I left.’’
My mother went into paroxysms of laughter again as I finished reading. I smiled politely, waiting for the shaking to stop.
‘Isn’t that hilarious?’ said Mom when she’d caught her breath. ‘Very.’ I agreed, and then hesitated ‘Er, Ma?’
‘Yes, dear?’ Mom said indulgently.
At this, Mother dear stopped laughing all of a sudden. She appeared to be seeing me for the first time and examined me closely. She then demanded. ‘How old are you?’
‘Twelve.’ Come on, she knew that, surely. I knew she could be a little woolly headed at times, and I was after all only the middle child, but still.
Mom opened her mouth as if to say something and then closed it again. She frowned. And then the frown cleared.
She informed me in a very matter-of-fact, decisive way.
I didn’t. How was I to know? No one ever told me anything. But once my mother said ‘of course.’... That was it – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and there was no point arguing it. Without offering anything else that might have been mistaken for an actual explanation, Mother dear turned back to her funny adult book and was soon shaking with silent laughter again.
Taking this correctly to be the dismissal that it was, I turned back rather morosely to my own Sweet Valley Twins book.
Somehow it didn’t seem very exciting anymore. *****
My mother hadn’t always been weird. She had been warm, affectionate, loving and a whole bunch of other good stuff, but it had all gone out the window the minute that my sister came along. At least, that was kind of the way that my own traumatized four year old self fondly remembered it.
Like I said, no one ever told me anything – especially in those days, and this was 1983 and a half. In today’s day and age, we have access to books like Topsy and Tim meet The New Baby, but in those days, there was nothing. Nada. Zero. The concept of telling a child that a sibling was in the offing was unheard of – children didn’t need to know anything!
Of course, there is a remote possibility that some attempt was made to apprise me of the impending arrival, but I was perhaps too distracted by a butterfly or something to register the fact. A very remote possibility, though and I only mention it in a bleak, martyr-like attempt at fairness. I was no moron.
As it happened, Mother Dear suddenly disappeared off the scene for several days. After a couple of days when it came to my notice, I made my enquiries only to be informed that she would be home soon enough and that could I please refrain from dropping kishmish all over the floor like that.
I must admit that when I said earlier that I was no moron, I may have been a little biased favorably toward myself . After all, in later years I was informed that I used to spend hours in a little play pen as a toddler, solemnly picking up and consuming little bits of kishmish that our enterprising maid Saraswati had strewn about in zig zag patterns on the play pen floor. This apparently kept me out of harm’s way and allowed the harried old lady to get on with her work. My parents seemed to think this was a quaint and admirable solution. In a later era, we might have considered this ground to fire a maid’s ass, but they simply patted Saraswati on the back and went off to their own busy day at work.
It was only my grandfather, ubiquituously known as Papa, who appeared to think that I deserved to be enlightened as to my mother’s whereabouts.
This further mystified me. Mother was in the hospital - and she was going to come back with the moon? That was very strange and I couldn’t wrap my mind around it at all. I was very disturbed that night as I went to sleep. I needed my mother to say her usual ‘Goodnight. Sweet Dreams. I love you.’
But the very next day, my traitor of a mother returned with a whole new baby, whom everybody affectionately referred to as Chand or Chanda. I could see the writing on the wall: I had been ousted from her affections forever – it was easy to tell. She never let that thing alone so that I could have a go at it. I could only stand by helplessly as the little puckered-up stranger raised hell and carved out its place right in the center of the whole universe. I watched as my mother fed that baby - it looked as if the feeding was hurting her. My hatred of the thing grew. I knew it was evil from the moment I saw it.
My brother didn’t seem perturbed by the new arrival, just vaguely amused by it. He was more interested in his cricket and bullying of the neighborhood kids and hogging the television. It never occurred to me that he simply might have already been through this earlier when I was born. He was older than me by three and a half years, exactly the same age difference between me and the new It. We were now a well-spaced out family. And also a – well, spaced-out family.
That little stranger had grown up now to be a skinny eight year old who was no longer a stranger. Well, no stranger than the rest of us. In fact, she had turned out to be a pretty good companion for me; my sister and I were always together, constantly inventing games for our own amusment.
Most of the games were invented by me, but the point was that I finally had a willing compatriot and partner in crime or to put it another way, a guinea pig with the slight advantage that she could talk and therefore protested at times. It was true that the poor child was often bullied into being the scapegoat in these childhood ‘games’, but I tended to wipe away all feelings of guilt with the thought that I was greatly contributing to her education. As the more experienced sibling, I told myself sanctimoniously, it was up to me to share life experience with her so that she would not have to suffer the various troubles I’d seen. Besides, sometimes I even switched with her, so that she could pretend to be the pet- owner and have the pleasure of walking me as a dog instead.I, of course, was the majestically named Tipu Sultan. I think her dog-name was Bonbon or equivalent.
Since these were the days before iPads and iPhones or anything even remotely as mind-numbingly absorbing as these devices, we found ourselves with a fair degree of free time. My parents were both working and had limited time for us.
If ever my sister and I were bored, and there were many such moments, we would take the problem to Mother dear, only to be summarily informed ‘Educated children are never bored.’ Having solved the problem so efficiently for us, she would go back to whatever it was that she was doing: which on the rare occasions that she was home, was either cooking, reading, knitting or Sorting.
Sorting was a fascinating activity – whether you were blissfully occupied with it like my mother, or simply passive observers like my sister and I. It was my mother’s lifelong belief that nothing should ever be actually thrown away, and that if it was meant to leave your home, it would eventually disintegrate. However, in order to manage all the rubbish that accumulated as a result of such a wonderful principle, regular Sorting had to be done. Thus was born the concept of Sorting Saturdays, which wasn’t really the official terminology until much later. For us, it was more like ‘What the heck is wrong with Mama’ day and we watched curiously as she lovingly rearranged a chosen section of the messy house. Somedays it was our book shelf, consisting largely of Archies and Hardy Boys and she painstakingly arranged the books in alphabetical or numerical order, which we would ensure would last for about a day and a half. At the end of Sorting Saturday, Mother dear would heave a sigh of satisfaction while the rest of us, including my father often huffed and puffed in resentment at having been ignored by her for so many hours at time. It didn’t seem to matter to Mom that the sorted area looked exactly the same as before, minus perhaps, to give her some credit, one layer of dust, accidentally removed as a result of her enthusiastic fiddling.
Since my sister and I were normal children who gained no pleasure from making the world around us a tidier place to live in, we were left to our own devices on weekends. I had stoically taken charge of the situation at a fairly early age, and by now we already had a fair repertoire of games to choose from in order to keep ourselves occupied.
‘Want to play German-Referee?’ I asked my sister conspiratorially, as if it were a rare treat for her, rather than the game we played every other day.
This was a rather unique Game invented by Yours Truly. I, as the Referee was the one who would glide about on skates while hanging onto the collar of my sister, who, as German, was assigned the task of building up to a certain speed before suddenly wrenching herself free and veering off, leaving me hurtling towards some corner, or wall, or door, and on one or two occasions a rather surprised and disapproving Dad. The game was incomplete without the pretence that we had somehow ‘lost’ each other by mistake and wailing dramatically ‘Germannn....’ ... ‘Germannn...’ and ‘Referreee!’ The names of the principal characters in this
‘All right.’ My sister grumbled. As German, she kind of had the short end of the stick but being an innately good sport, she would soon get into the spirit of things. She didn’t have skates of her own yet. In our family, every novelty item was bought only once for the oldest child, and then years later when he had cast it aside, it would come to me. I had yet to cast anything aside in the direction of my sister, and it would be a few years before she had her own skates. For now, being German was the best she could aspire for. Her countenance brightened considerably at the realization that this was also yet another God-given opportunity to send me whizzing out the front door and maybe even down the stairs from our first floor flat.
And so another few pleasant hours passed on that lazy weekend. Mother busy with Sorting, Abhimanyu in something akin to a stupor, forwarding and rewinding the tape of Escape to Victory until my father finally lost it and banished him from my parents bedroom, which of course was the only place which could house the television. And me and Chanda alternating between barking at each other and filling the house with our cries of German-Referree, while Kajal, who had replaced her aunt Saraswati some years back stood muttering malevolently to herself in the kitchen about how things were so much better on weekdays when she was allowed to actually do her work without the interfering presence of the crazy members of this Family.