Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mangala Mami

I was baking a fruit cake today. 
One cup flour.
Half a cup each of sugar and butter.
Almonds.Raisins. Sultanas. 
As the kitchen filled with smells of fruit and nuts it took me down the memory lane once again. 
I was fifteen years old and I rode all the way to the IUCAA residential campus on my Atlas bicycle. It was a long way from my place but I loved it because it took me to one of the happy places in my life. It was Mangala mami's house. 
She is better known as the wife of my mom's cousin Jayant Narlikar but for me she has been the switch that turns on all the positive energy in you. Her house used to be fragrant with fresh baking at any given time of the year. She is an artist who was misled into being a mathematician and a really good one at that! I used to go to her place to study maths but it was the least of my interests then ( and I think even now). I was terrible in mathematics and if anyone has successfully made me think of that branch of science ( is it science really?) with some sympathy and compassion, it is Mangala mami. Just to explain how the medians of a triangle can be extended to make many more identical triangles, she once showed me the picture of hundreds of horses fixed into each other like a jigsaw. I never really remembered the triangles but I still remember the picture frame on her wall.
She is a perpetual student and her everyday life is filled with learning little things. My uncle goes around the world as a visiting lecturer in Universities everywhere. She comes back with a new recipe from every country. 
Conversations with Narlikars are really amusing. Jayant mama is frugal with words but whatever little he says is always one of the best jokes of the evening. Mangala mami does all the talking. She has something to say about everything. Whether it is the best place to get red meat in Pune or quotations from the Bhagwad Geeta! She will infuse your minds with bits of refreshing information as she brews a cup of tea with real gardenia flowers. Some smells get locked in your memory with certain incidents. The smell of gardenia flowers and french roses always reminds me of her. 
Sometimes, little things seem really daunting for me. At such times I have pictures of few strong women I have seen in my mind. Mangala mami is one of them. She raised three beautiful daughters and took care of demanding in laws as gracefully as she used to do a postulate on a piece of paper. Her slanting, pretty handwriting that never saw the limitations of margins. She used to write at the speed of light, giving neat "therefore" and "since" signs between all the lines and even saying it all aloud. She was expected to stay at home in the conservative and "cultured" Huzurbazar ( my granny's family) tree.  However you could see her  sitting on the lawn with all the servant's kids teaching them maths. Many of them ended up clearing their junior college exams and getting degrees. 
She is dressed in pastel colored saris and her hair is always falling out of the clip that she wears. Her fragile, porcelain hands and her spectacles that run halfway down on her nose make her one the most charming figures I have ever seen in my life. 
Get her talking about gardening and her face lights up. 
When her ever-so-strict mother-in-law was on her deathbed, Mangala mami encouraged her to walk by giving her one point for every step she took. It brought tears to our eyes to see the happiness on the terminally ill woman's face when Mangala mami gave her two bonus points for taking that extra step. The love of flowers runs in the family too and during her very last days Mangala mami wheeled her mother-in-law outside just to see the jasmine bloom. 

She would have her daughter's friends come over to get their difficulties solved in order to appear for competitive exams. She used to have her legendary "classes" at the dining table. With the oven buzzer going once in a while and her lectures happily intercepted by fruit cakes and tea. 
She goes round the world these days but she writes to me from everywhere she goes. 
When I wrote to her a few days back to get this recipe off her, she merrily wrote back from Johannesburg airport. 

Ten years ago, as I sat at the big dining table in the Narlikar house, eating my big piece of cake awkwardly as was trying to make sense out of a theorem, I would have never thought that I would be baking the same kind of cake one day. Now, as my house smells like orange peel and rum, I thank God for giving me someone like her to think about!!
Thanks Mangala mami!! I wish I could do better than this for you!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Two Brave Ajjis

(It is July and I am putting on a year but this time, instead of being a drama queen and complaining about it I have decided to write about some of my fondest memories as a child. Please excuse the length!! )

My early days of childhood were a bit puzzling due to the presence of two grandmas on mother's side. I was told to call them Tai-Ajji and Kusum-Ajji. Kusum ajji was the calm and serene one who used to read and write. Who used to walk around the house and no one could hear the sound of her feet on the floor. Tai-ajji was the one who filled the house with laughter. She stormed in and stormed out of the rooms and always smelled like cloves. She wore a big kunku on her forehead that was meticulously made by sticking vermilion powder on an exact round plaster of bee-wax. I used to get up early sometimes to watch her make it on her forehead.
When I spent my holidays in Kolhapur and sometimes caught a viral infection, I used to long to hug Tai-ajji and sleep and I can still remember how her sarees used to smell like burnt wood from the bath water that was heated on an earthen stove in the backyard.
It took me several innocent and happy years to realize that in reality she was my mom's step-mother and even now, as I write that word, I feel like I am describing an ugly,hairy mole on her face. All my uncles on my mother's side are my mother's step-brothers but it was so hard to relate the word "step" from the Cinderella story to the word "step" in our house-hold. I still regret the day I found it out, although I do not remember when and how I found out. Maybe it was through the afternoon bicycling sessions with my cousin, who was two years older and made sure that any new information about life reached my head right after it reached hers.

It was so unfair to put Tai-ajji in the class of angry step mothers from the stories I heard from my mom. She raised my mom like a daughter she never had. Took her along everywhere she went which included the houses of her "rich and famous" friends from the Marathi Film Industry that was booming in Kolhapur at that time. I honestly believe that if Tai-ajji had received any kind of advanced education, she would surely end up being a politician. She had the charm and charisma of a glib speaker and the ability to hold anyone in place with her sharp sense of humor. She even got my mom a small role in one of the Marathi movies made by her friend's husband and everyone remembers my mom from the film Dharmakanya.
All my mom's little dreams of tamarind and cucumbers outside the school, of watching Dilip Kumar movies and playing with marbles until the day went off were fulfilled by Tai-ajji.
Every time I think about the relationship between my mom's two moms, I am full of awe. They obviously never liked each other but the circumstances were such that they had to live in the same house while my grandfather was away for his jobs.
The house was big enough to fit three families, so space was not a problem but the crowding took place in everybody's minds. Each of the children including my uncles grew up with their own version of "My Father's Second Marriage".
They blamed and complained, sometimes, even used it as a blackmail but both the women stood dignified as ever. Kusum-ajji draped in her pristine silence and Tai-ajji in her merry laughter.

Tajee, as I called her fondly, had an army of friends. She would have put Orkut and Facebook to shame with her social networking. She helped people meet other people when they were in need. She always had a gang of "ill-behaved" old women around her. Who cracked mischievous
jokes like they were twenty years old.
She was also fond of keeping a nice garden. Roses, Gardenia,Frangipani,Dahlias and Tuberoses! Her garden was always blooming with something fragrant. She was also fond of keeping everything in order. She had pictures from years ago neatly pasted in a yellowed album. Her things had character. Even if she kept a little ten rupee note in her purse, when it came out it was Tai-ajjified.
Owing to my parent's hectic schedules and lack of leaves, Tai-ajji came to Pune every time I succumbed to measles or chickenpox. Away from school, safe in her hands, my sick days used to be the happiest days of the year. She used to leave a big pot with water under the sun and at dusk bathe me in it with Neem leaves. At six in the evening, both of us waited at the door for aai to come back from the institute. Then the three of us would have a relaxed cup of tea in the front yard listening to aai's proceedings of the day.
Whether it was moving houses, weddings of close relatives or just making lots of pickles before the summer got over, Tai-ajji was always a part of our lives. Even more so than Kusum-ajji.
When I think of her, a full spectrum of colours flashes in front of my eyes. She was a rainbow.
Every happy memory is somehow associated with her.
She also had a set of funny stories that all her grandchildren made her repeat over and over again. She let us eat half-dried rice papads as all the moms and aunts tried to shoo us away. She let us sneak out of the house when the sun was pouring anger and have popsicles.
When the girls came of age, she bought them all little things that she would want them to have as grown up women.
She loved my mom. I cannot fathom how she managed to have that kind of happiness in her heart when it came to my mom. It was not hypocrisy because I felt it when she was around me. It either takes immense courage or an innocent heart to do that. She never liked Kusum-ajji and was equally verbal about her dislike for her but how and why she ended up loving my mom so much is a big mystery.

I saw various facets of jealousy and humanity through them and then I came to envy my grandfather for being the man in the lives of two incredible women. How greedily we hold on to little things in life! Our happiness eclipsed by the fears of sorrow and our sorrows half-lived in the hope of happiness. Paralyzed by the uncertainties of things to come and ridiculously helpless we are, for we fear sharing spaces with people trying to own people we love! On this background, the mental image of my little mom holding Taji's little finger to get on a bus seems from a dream.

Kusum-ajji never defended her place. She took it all silently. The anger, the hatred and the scandalized 1950s that never saw a divorce, although a lot of illegal second marriages. She prayed and put all her efforts into turning my mother who she is today. A silent, powerful woman raising another one. Kusum-ajji was all about poetry and classic humor. Well-read and well-bred, she came from a lineage of scholars and mathematicians, and just like her family, she was as humble as humility could ever be.
I cannot imagine why my grandfather would like two women who are poles apart and still be loved equally by both.
People get colors of sacrifice and they add up to make you fall in love every passing day. I think the three of them were somewhat like that. They all liked each other for various things and somehow they were all glad that each one had their position in a house full of three confused and angry sons and a little lost daughter.

When Taji was about to die and she was being taken into the hospital, she made my grandfather put the same big red kunku on her forehead, as though she was sure she would never come back. She was being taken into the ICU when she told the doctors to let her die if she was going to be rendered disabled. She passed away cracking jokes with the nurses and the doctors. True to her spirit. We all miss her.
I miss her the most when I walk by the garden and get a whiff of gardenia!!
Thanks Taji, in your way, you have taught me the most difficult lessons of life. :)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

We just share!

My friends here keep having discussions about "communal living". 
Sometimes, when we are late in the lab and my friend's flatmate calls him to tell him what he is going to make for dinner, my friend goes," Who needs a wife when you have a flatmate who cooks for everyone exactly at seven?".
Housing in Brisbane is freakishly expensive. You pay somewhere between $400 to $500 a week for a decent house. It is easier with roomies though. When you can divide the cost of a three bedroom house between three people and share a kitchen.
Sometimes, you are blessed with flatmates who turn into best friends and living together becomes a constant party. When my firang friends go into one of these "futuristic" discussions about communal living, I feel like it is more like going retrograde. 

How about the Chawls in Mumbai? As a kid, I was fascinated by Pula Deshpande's accounts of the Chawls in Girgaon. Complete with fights at the water tap and young Gavaskar's honing their batting skills in the common chowk. People making booming families in a 10X10 room and neighbors being there for each other in every difficulty. 
The Westerners think that not giving children separate bedrooms has serious effects on their development but I think a moderate amount of communal living that has been going on in India in the form of joint families and chawls has actually helped people more than it has harmed them.
When we live close to people, happiness is shared and so is grief. 
We learn to look at ourselves as a little part of a big family, which is a close estimation of the reality around us. When everything we use, belongs only to us, it sometimes translates into our attitude towards people in our lives as well. 
Getting noticed in a crowd is harder, so we learn to develop something that sets us apart, more often than not, a great sense of humor.
Who can beat the innumerable cups of hot chai at each other's place? Card games going into the wee hours, broken hearts across broken balconies! Watching your childhood sweetheart get dressed for her wedding and leave with someone else, and your friends urging you not to miss the feast just because you think you are heart broken!
Chawl gossip must have eliminated the need for a television for ages and how many recipes must have been exchanged by neighbors from across the country trying to find their destinies in a metro!
I think for all the people who grew up in these intriguing paper-houses, the house left a bit of a character in them as well. I agree that it must be hard, but I absolutely disagree with the thought that it isn't healthy. 
In a country like India, you may not get as much privacy and space as you want but you definitely get a lot of other things that no other place can offer and how much place do we really need? Just enough to forget the abysmal loneliness that an empty heart makes. 
As my best friend puts it, "We are not here to own anything. We just share."

Thursday, July 03, 2008


When I came to Australia, I wasn't exactly expecting that I would make a lot of friends right away. Somehow, I found friendship pretty soon with my flatmates Shruti and Riju.
However, I write this blog on Riju because she is one of the funniest and happiest characters in our lives.
Riju aka Rabdi Devi hails from Patna. She is complete with a glass-shattering voice and a Bihari accent that you cannot miss. A compulsive cleanliness freak, she kicks you out of the kitchen because she likes to wash dishes "her way".
Well, some of the evidently (un)cool things she has taught me are the Bihari Muhawras one for each exceedingly embarrassing occasion in your life.
Like once Shruti came out of her room with a posh dress and not-so-posh pair of osho chappals. Our Rabdi Devi sat on the couch like a Badshah and went ' yeh to jaise hum kahate hain..ke Upar Phit-Phat aur neeche Mokama Ghat"
( Mokama ghat apparently is a not-so-posh area in Bihar).
When I go on my legendary diets and skip carbohydrates for dinner she goes," Saee tumhe itna marenge na..ke baba ka bariyati dikhadenge".
When I don't find something I am looking for and it is right under my nose, she goes," Eh dekho ..aankh ke andhe naam nayansukh" ( Which is really true in my case because I keep getting compliments on my eyes).
When I fell sick a few months back, she put a black thread in front of the "Gods" in our house
(which is a nice cocktail from the North through the South of India) and tied it on to my wrist the next morning.
I have successfully picked up the nice Bihari accent and when I speak Hindi now, I speak fluent Bihari Hindi.
I keep speaking my mind when she is around and sometimes I accidentally tell her what the next item on my wish-list is. Then on a Sunday when I return home from the lab I find a Nike Yoga mat or a purple bandana waiting for me with suppressed giggles.
Cooking and grocery shopping with her is a pleasure. She taught me how to be economical. :)
Although I have still not learned it well, I do think of her reaction when I end up spending too much and check myself sometimes.
She recently got a good job in a child care center so she comes home and practices being "stern" with me these days. :)
Her determination and the sheer kindness in her heart makes her an extraordinary woman.
She is one of the people I thank God for. For without her, Australia would not have been so pretty for me. :)
Cheers Riju. Keep Rocking!