Naanii, the mom’s mom, has always enjoyed a special place in the fraternity of grandparents. The child’s naanii, figures in innumerable poems, songs and fables across cultures and time. Every kid of India would recall having learnt the seemingly silly rhyme ‘Naanii ke ghar jaoonga, main doodh malai khaoonga …’ or singing the all time antaaqshari favourite, “Naanii teri morni koh mor leh gayeh …’ When Jagjit Singh decided to lament the loss of childhood in ‘Kaagaz ki Kashti’ it’s the naanii, her kahaaniyan, that he recalls. The Little Red Riding Hood was surely heading for her naanii’s house when she encountered the big bad wolf. Central to this fixation with naanii, has been the special attachment with the idea of ‘Naanii-Ka-Ghar’. A very special, home-away-from-home. A place where one is supposed to have the ultimate chill-out. My naanii’s house was no exception. Or ‘21C’ (Ikis Si) as everyone in mom’s clan called it.
‘Ikis Si’ seems a weird name for a naanii’s house or any house for that matter. But that’s what it was nevertheless. It was located in Block C of Sector 21 of Chandigarh. Come summer vacation and mom’s entire clan would descend upon 21C. Naana-naanii had seven children and fourteen grand children! Any joke about the number of aunts and uncles would draw a fiery reprimand from my maasi who considered such references inauspicious. Both my parents were college teachers who had the luxury of sharing the summer vacation with their children and no budget to go to any place other than the naani’s house! The bags would be packed even before the vacation had started. At the first instance we would be off to Chandigarh. The enthusiasm of the start of a holiday would not be dampened by the three hour journey in the hot and humid weather in the State Transport’s overcrowded bus. We would be occasionally accompanied by my maasi (mom’s younger sis) and her children and we would chuckle with delight when she would hurl colourful invectives at the ubiquitous ill-mannered loafers that populate the Indian buses. Her famous temper inspired much awe and laughter in the family. Awe when you got caught in her line of fire. Laughter when somebody else bore the brunt. A warm and affectionate aunt, who was always game for travel and partying. The bus journeys ended after she bought a cute white fiat car with a red roof that would be airborne from the word ‘go’!
On alighting from the bus at the Chandigarh Bus Stand one would be greeted by a boisterous horde of rickshaw pullers who would descend upon the hapless passengers and compete with one another to forcibly grab the baggage of the protesting passenger in order to deny him the opportunity to cross check the fares or bargain. We were, however, regular visitors to the City Beautiful and pros of sorts. We would make our way patiently through the sea of crooks to the rickshaw pullers waiting with their rickshaws parked at a distance as these guys knew that there was no point in trying to cheat the old timers. We would then start haggling with the rickshaw puller over the fare. ‘Ikis si chalnah hai bhaiyah? Scooter market ke ekdum pichhe.’ ‘Market peh utro geh- ke sector keh andar jaanah hai?’ he would want us to clarify. ‘Market ke saath hi hai’ we would lie glibly. The house was close to the scooter repair market located on the road dividing blocks B and C but in the summer heat even the extra few hundred yards were unwelcome. The guy would discover that the house was not ‘ekdum pichhe’ as he anyway suspected and would grumble loudly to register his protest at having to pedal that extra distance. A distance too short to pick up a quarrel about, yet long enough to want to protest about out of irritation. We would congratulate ourselves for having struck a hard bargain and having cheated the poor bugger of his legitimate extra 25 paisa or whatever it was. Strange things one does in one’s life.
The rickshaw would roll to a stop in front of a 1000 yard house with a green lawn and trees, a driveway and an annexe, a garage and a white Ambassador. My naana had retired as a district judge. An honest man with a huge reputation and no money. His own dad, a money lending farmer, had bought the ‘Judge Saheb’ the house and the car. The car was stately but rarely saw the road. It was usually a minor event in the household when the Ambassador was to be rolled out of the garage. The car battery in those days of obsolete technology would be invariably discharged- largely because of disuse. Naana would try the self starter expecting a miracle every time and then finally give up and grumble as he went to fetch the mechanic from the filthy scooter market. The market had repair shops and spares shops for all kinds of vehicles but for reasons not understood was called scooter market. The head mechanic would detail some loutish oil soaked apprentice who would waste the mandatory half hour trying his hand at finding a solution and eventually shrug and inform us that the battery was discharged. The housing would be unscrewed and the battery would be removed with much ceremony and carried by him on the under-repair noisy scooter that he would be unashamedly using without the knowledge of its owner. Hours later a semi-charged battery would be returned. Once it was reinstalled we would wait patiently until Naana tried the self start. The old lady would eventually oblige. And a bus load would happily clamber aboard!
On occasions, the radiator or some other part would give way and the car would get stalled on some busy road with its tightly packed load of passengers (aunts and kids of all sizes and hues) creating a fuss because of the sweltering heat. Naana would be clueless. But he would make up for his lack of knowledge of auto mechanics by summoning all the authority that his long years as a judge had given him. He would hail his would-be-saviour with an ‘O bhi nalayak, zarah idhar aao!’ He would feel free to requisition help from any unsuspecting prey. It could be the rickshaw-puller lounging in the shade of the tree. Or the taxi driver waiting for a passenger. Or any bystander who committed the folly of having accidentally cast an inquisitive look in the direction of the stalled car. Anybody who had the misfortune of catching naana’s eye would have to answer to the call of ‘Nalayak’ and be expected to fetch water for the overheated radiator or help in push-starting the relic or at least offer directions to the nearest road-side mechanic. Somehow nobody ever protested. It was either the respect for naana’s white head or his natural air of authority or the association of Ambassador car with authority or just the goodness of the days. He got away with it every time.
We would invariably land unannounced in the middle of the afternoon and ring the front doorbell. Naanii would appear at the wire mesh door. A small statured, slightly built lady, with a kind heart and the energy to smile and greet her large band of guests. The kids would race into the long narrow gallery that ran through the centre of the house to the rear verandah and the annexe beyond, where my youngest maama’s room was located. He was a hot favourite with the children, a friendly, cheerful maama, twenty years younger to my mom. In fact he was more an elder sibling for the older kids than an uncle. His room was full of knick knacks to fascinate any kid. Enough to make even Tom Sawyer jealous! A magnet. A mouth organ. A stapler (it was a novelty in those days). Glass paperweights. A transistor and later a stereo system. Imported Colognes. All kinds of fancy stationery items. He did not seem to mind the ruckus we created but would shoo us off all the same to save his valued possessions. We would then rush back to the front lawn at top speed banging the verandah doors on the way out of sheer excitement at the start of the holiday.
Naanii was called ‘Mummy’ by all and she violently objected to being addressed as mataji or beeji, that was common for her ‘tasteless’ and ‘rustic’ peers. She liked clothes with bright cheerful colours and disliked the fawns and greys as they were meant for the ‘elderly’! Naanii’s family had migrated from Lahore. She would tell us about the family’s mango orchards. The channelized irrigation system, the horses and the bagih (horse-carriage), the attendants, the distribution of baskets of mangoes to the servant families. The horror of the creeping nags (cobras) that the men folk would shoot down. The acid tongue of her bhabhi, whom she blamed for her lack of formal education. Her name was tattooed on her forearm and this fascinated the kids. She would sigh as she remembered the days of lost glory. We only half believed her tales until she shocked us years later when she effortlessly rode a pony on way to the Vaishno Devi shrine despite her frail health. She had been indignant at our surprise and had reminded us of the days when she rode horses. She would rue the setbacks on account of partition and eventually get up with resignation to return to the endless chores that any mother of a large family has to handle.
Her taste for gardening set her apart from her generation of women. She had a huge collection of beautiful potted plants. The front lawn was lush green with a well grown hedge and lovely roses. There were four mor-pankhi shrubs at the corners of the lawn. These strategically placed ‘arsenals’ bore a green, fleshy fruit with small spikes, the size of a marble which would serve as a readymade projectile. The kids would mercilessly pluck these fruits which would be rained on the ‘enemy’ during the pitched battles fought on the 21C lawn. The garden hose was invariably pressed into service to turn the tide and this invariably got us a helling for wetting our clothes and wasting water. She would be managing her plants with virtually no help apart from the gardener who would be engaged to the mow the grass.
Naanii’s passion for her garden and her exotic potted plants was matched by naana’s dedication to his kitchen garden. He would be tending to his vegetables and fruit trees with patience and attachment. The house had lemon trees, litchi, mango, guava and papita. We were told that he had always grown vegetables for his family and had always a kept cow in the backyard of the large official residence. That he would himself tend to the cow despite the busy court routine. He believed that kids who ate too many rotis and drank buffalo’s milk grew up to be dull. But we rarely talked to him and generally steered clear of him, overawed by the aura that surrounded him.
TO BE CONTINUED