Pooja had taken her along to the ration shop. She was two and her sister Pooja all of ten. They had been standing in the question for half an hour. It was mid noon and the sweltering heat was unbearable. There was a reason they had been sent at this time. Their mother was good to them but her little brother was unwell. Noon was the time when the queue was the shortest.
They were there at last. Her sister passed the ration card but the shop assistant said that he couldn’t issue sugar and rice rations because there was no stock left. All that he could give was the five kilo allowance of stone fortified wheat. Pooja could see the sacs of wheat and rice behind them but all she could do was plead.
Pooja avoided the lecherous eyes boring her from the tip of her head to the bottom of her chappal clad toes. Keeping her voice low but firm, she requested her due. Unnerved by her disposition, which was far beyond the capacity of a ten or twelve year old, the freak gave her the full measure.
Pooja paid and turned to hold her cousin’s hand.
She was to little to understand why the shop owner was shouting at her sister but she was our enough to experience the unpleasantness of it all. She tried to shut it all off.
Then she saw them. Beautiful red globes flying in the air. They were floating them and she drifted with them as they drifted away, entranced by the beauty, knowing not where she was going.
Pooja screamed and yelled and ran around the walls of the remand home, desperately trying to locate her lost little sister. She was just over two and very trusting. The place where they lived was run by gang lords……not a safe place to get lost.
She finally mustered up the courage to take her aching feet and swollen red eyes to her mother
. She waits at the foothills for her husband to come back. She’s dying….a painful death. Nothing could be done. The tickets… they were already booked….the coupe…a tiny room, just for themselves. The journey it has been heavenly….but now, she was in hell. Not the one burning with flames but the one chilling her bones and clogging her chest. She pukes but the relief lasts a few minutes. Then it’s back, with a vengeance.
There’s this local who has taken him up the mountain to look for a hotel. He asks her to join. She refuses…let my husband come days she. He swears and goes away. Her husband comes. He’s found a room..,it’s all the way up the hill. He doesn’t understand. Breathless..she slowly struggles up the hill.
On the bed, she’s coughing away..He is kind. He gives her a bucket to puke on.
They come with their beautiful shawls and sweaters. He wants to buy them for her. She cannot speak. Where do I find a doctor he says.
There must be a hospital but he doesn’t know where. They get a taxi. She is take for a ride. Up another mountain.The old doctor doesn’t talk. He gives her a jab. Her asthma’s gone
Since he was about our fathers’ age and his hairline was just starting to recede, we called him ‘uncle’.
Indians will find it perfectly normal that one guy can be an uncle to a hundred odd kids.
There are advantages and disadvantages of doing this depending on which end of the of the bargain you are at.
The uncle gets respect and a right to shout at the kids or be nice to him as he deems fit.
In Indian culture… especially in the good old days, children were supposed to listen to the elders. Even expressing a contrary opinion was considered rude.
So if the uncle gave a tirade about being careful while playing, because the cricket ball went through his grills, you just had to hang your heads down and swallow the whole thing till the uncle got exhausted and chucked the ball out…. no matter it was his son that sent it in in the first place.
No one squealed….no matter what.
But there is the other side of the coin. Once deemed uncle the guy gets family status. So we can go like Uncle….. can you switch your lights on….we can’t see the ball…
One rung above the uncles were the aunties.
Aunties generally had their own kids in our gang (obviously uncles did too but they wouldn’t bother much) and would occasionally indulge us with homemade sweets.
And the most important thing..,, water.
We would target the houses on the ground floor… they could just pass the stuff through the balcony….refilling a glass we would pass around to the fifteen or twenty of us. We weren’t allowed to sip.. we had to pour the stuff down our throats.
No time wasted on climbing up the stairs. There were exceptions of course.
We couldn’t attack the same aunty over and over again… they had their limits..and we didn’t want to be permanently banned by anyone.
And no one wanted to bother with water bottles… you go home to refill them and chances are that would be the end of your play time…,people think kids are innocent but we were master strategists.
In summer, the houses that got most attention were the ones with a refrigerator. We would go ‘Aunty…. thanda pani’….
The rule was stick to the good aunties but bother them in turns.
Too much trouble and the doors would shut. Don’t blame them, in those days there were no purifiers and boiling so much water was a pain.
Then again there were some banned houses.
Our mothers were well informed about which residents didn’t boil their water. How in the world they figured out but these houses were blacklisted.
As for the fridge walls houses the parents had no clue. Even if they did they couldn’t stop us. We were no saints although we pretended to be.
There was a once a week trip reserved for a particular house. It was a pain climbing up to the third floor but it was well worth the effort…chocolates guaranteed!
We had to be extra sweet to the first floorers because that’s where our cricket and lagoori balls or shuttlecocks would land.
A ball lost means a fortnight’s game lost as none of our parents would easily sponsor another.
And is some uncle or aunty got hit by a missile…well we had an unbeatable tactic….everyone on mute mode till the aggression subsides… then everyone goes sorry aunty or sorry uncle till the injured person feels we are being too apologetic.
There were the bad days when window panes cracked and our parents had to cough up the money.
Play was inevitably banned for about a week… till things cooled down.
There were the villains as well…. but very few.
One place we loved to play in was the badminton court…. there a quite a few around…but this one was our favourite…it was wider and had a ledge from which we could jump down.
There was no restraining us and we would shout and whoop in abandon.
On hindsight I understand this must have been daily torture for the ground-floorers……but it didn’t matter to us then.
So there was this uncle who would literally chase us with a stick.
We were much faster than him of course. But we weren’t too fond of him and so our way of getting back was to call him Hitler.
But since Hitler was the most irritating we got back at him by ringing his bell when coming down after our third floor sweets. Then we would wait for him to turn up in his lungi and stick.
Then there was another ground floorer uncle who would glare at us ….no matter his son was part of our team….so he was designated owl. Owl must have been on night shifts and the poor guy was probably being deprived of his daytime napping.
Well to get going on the Alpha and the Omega… there were this couple who didn’t have kids.
No, these are not their nicknames.. they were just uncle and aunty.
What I remember most about them is that they were very loving and their love literally poured out of their window.
Since they didn’t had to spend half their salary on raising their brats, they must have been relatively rich.
Also since they didn’t have kids making noise all the time, they must have been bored…. because they bought a monochrome cube we used to call the idiot box.
And the jackpot for us was that they lived on the ground floor.
From that day on, we played only on that particular court so we could peep straight into the TV once it was switched on.
There were hurdles though. The TV was well inside the living room which was separated by a grill and windows from the balcony.
If the windows were shut, that was the end of show time.
Anyways once Doordarshan relayed its Chaya Geet, we would all jostle for space to see couples dancing around trees singing melodious classics.
Except for the tallest boys, I don’t think anyone could see much and the songs were drowned by our cacophony.
None of that really mattered. We were having the best time of our lives.
Then there was Tabassum aunty interviewing the Bollywood demigods….we were all smitten by the local film industry story.
For this one, the jostling was at its peak!
Then the grand finale of the week…. the Sunday movie.
Uncle and aunty’s house was transformed into a very cramped cinema hall with entire families camping in….what one would call worse than a railway station.
Most people had a couple of kids on their lap…some bawling away to glory.
We preferred the freedom of standing and gossiping outside…the melodrama on the box didn’t appeal to us at all.
With our boisterousness, it was a matter of time before the windows were shut. Then we went ‘uncle please’, ‘aunty please’ at the top of our voices till the people inside realised that the disturbance was less with the windows open.
Then there was this sharing…no I’m not referring to the gossip that would go on inside the room….the aunties came armed with steel boxes which we impatiently waited for to be opened. Out would come delectable stuff like laddoos and pedas.
The think with Indian idiosyncrasy is you take one sweet and the donor will vigorously offer you the next…and the next…and the next.
It is bad manners to take two but worse if you don’t oblige when you are asked ten times.
So we would wait for the aunties to plead enough of times, praise their creation to the hilt and gobble down the stuff.
There were some outstanding health freak aunties who would come up with some bitter stuff.
Politeness demanded that we accept them and after the necessary ‘verrry tasty aunty’, they were fed to the cats and dogs. Of course even the dogs wouldn’t eat them, but we hadn’t committed a crime by wasting food.
One day all of this came to an abrupt end. It was 1982.
You’re wrong…neither China nor Pakistan attacked us although they entered our territory and fought against us.
It was the Asian games in Delhi’s f the government of India decided it’s citizens needed to watch them…,in colour.
So all the bonuses were used to buy Colour TVs.
We were enthralled with the new idiot box spewing out eye candies like swimming and gymnastics.
The old black and white was killed in a day. No one hung outside uncle and auntie’s house any more.
As for uncle and aunty, they stopped watching TV. They would sit in their balcony and watch us play.
And serve us water whenever we asked for it. We stopped going anywhere else for water including to the chocolate aunty in the third floor.
Somehow, even as kids, we sensed their loss and did the best we could.
The Monochrome May have died, but not our bond with aunty and uncle.
Now they are old, and we have outgrown that badminton court, but kids continue to play….and still ask them for water.