“We had no money, no capital to invest in. We couldn’t afford even a second-hand car. God knows how many weddings we missed because it was raining and all your father had was a broken Bajaj scooter”, she remembered her days as a young mother with an emotion that was half disgust, half gratitude. Ma was kneading the dough for a late Sunday breakfast at our ancestral house, mixing the curd and water with the flour at minutely measured proportions that only mothers managed to get right. “But poverty, or I think they have invented a better term, what do they call it, yes, urban poverty, teaches you to acknowledge and appreciate the value of what’s given to you, it’s a blessing in its own way.”
She lets the dough rest and closes the kichen door, for Pushi the cat was always on her paws for anything that remotely tasted, or smelled good. (Pushi is a funny name, I’d always wondered, till only recently I realised it is only a more local, household version of the English word used for its kind.) She then goes on to dry out the clothes on the yellow plastic rope that she made Baba purchase from the Saturday haat on his way back home. I held out the basket of clothes pegs, and even though we hadn’t practised this ritual in quite a few years, it didn’t feel unfamiliar at all. These little things of hers, like how she was always so careful not to hang two of different bright coloured clothes together, like there was always the risk of their colours wearing off and seeping into the other. “Careful!”, she always used to tell me, when I had tried to help her as a child, giving in to her precautions and getting back to carrying the basket of clips, the one thing that didn’t require me to be careful.
So we grew up, left the house in flying cars (that’s what we used to think airplanes are, until Baba told us otherwise), leaving what remained of us in our torn Yonex racquets and Enid Blyton novels that became a warehouse of dust over time. Ma stayed, and so did Baba, handing us homemade lunch for the journey in stainless steel tiffin boxes, like they did when we went for excursions earlier, carrying our bags all the way to the airport, but keeping our baggage. “Keep the suitcases chained to your seat”, the only thing Baba would say amidst Ma’s innumerable concerns. He didn’t know, until several years later, inside a Jet Airways plane, that the seating arrangement of airplanes and trains are not exactly what we call similar.
“What do you do when the sole of your shoe wears off? Some people get a new pair, but people like us, what do they call us, yes, the middle class, we go to a mochee (cobbler) and get it fixed. Same with people, beta, same with people”, she’d told me after my first high school heartbreak. People like Ma and Baba, they don’t understand that some people can’t be fixed, the more you try, the more they break. But she did, “only elastics can be stretched and outstretched, other kind of strings, they tear when you try to stretch them beyond their limit.” I couldn’t tell her then, the only elastic I’d known was herself.
She goes back to the kitchen, picking up the flattest ladle from the wooden rack she uses to store her cutlery. I offer to help, but she refuses straightaway, she wouldn’t like the paranthas half-burnt, she laughes her half-laugh, a perfect combination of wit and sarcasm. “When I’ll visit you in Dilli, be my host. Here, at home, only I am the reigning queen. You, my precious, are only a guest.” Sometimes, her words sting right where they’re directed at, and I try my best to defend my indifference by shuffling through some magazine, three months old. “Her sense of humour is a little weird, frivolous really, don’t let it affect you”, Baba keeps on reminding me. But Ma and I, we share more than half of the same genetics, we forget to rub words off us, if anything else, we implant them more carefully.
“Go call Baba and the others”, she tells me, signalling breakfast is ready. She wipes the drops of sweat on her forehead and nose with the ends of her dupatta and sometimes I can’t help but think that everything about home is almost everything about how Ma likes her first cup of tea in the morning, or how Baba is always the first to wake up amongst all of us. If I sit to jot down the things that I do from morning till the time I get to bed, I’d probably forget to mention a third of them. But this is the thing about routines, you get conditioned to them, you don’t forget the things you can’t remember.
Like in exactly seven and a half minutes, Ma will tell me I should bathe before breakfast, not after, and I’ll try to argue for the nineteen hundredth time in the last nineteen years, why it’s okay to not follow rules on Sundays, while Baba, with today’s newspaper in his left hand, looks over in diffident despair.