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. :)