Saturday, January 12, 2008
Those days back then
Sitting in my closed terrace and gazing at the steady rain. He sleeps. There is so much he needs to do during the week, so I do not wake him up. The rain falls in straight sheets. Calm and beautiful. I sit in the quiet amidst the given chaos on Hill Road, but the old bungalow¸ Rebello House, that I can see from my terrace, gives me the refuge. Old house this one. Now quite mouldy. It still provides for some people who dwell therein, I see at times come and go. Young girls. Happy and private. A car cleaner, cleaning a car parked in the small clearing near the entrance under the old trees that flank the house. I have seen some playful kittens on the tiled roof of the bungalow during last summer, scrambling around their sun warmed and soporific mother on sunny days. But today it is raining. And no one is quite seen around Rebello house. There is an obscure Bay City Club that barricades the traffic on the left hand side. For some time now renovation has been carried out in the club. The loud screechy welding machines and iron rod cutters leave me gritting my teeth at times. But overall, the rain manages to cut off most of the sound. It is pouring heavily.
Something about rains leaves me nostalgic. It could be my hometown. Shillong. I was conceived and birthed there. So was my Mother. And Shillong is to rains what Sahara Desert is to sand. Cute cozy cottages nestled amidst rounded hills. Shillong is not amidst great hills but on plateaus, part of the eastern Shivalik ranges that have abandoned sky searing loft for full bodied scenic little hills. And Shabira Cot is just another little cottage. More about the in-mates later but in a nut shell, my maternal home was this charming little world of remarkable men and women. One of them is gone. My granny, Nani. She was a cookie, that one. And the raining morns were special.
The day break in Shillong would be marked by crowing cockerels. And the distinct shuffling footsteps on wooden floorings that have to belong to a person fighting sleep, battling cold and the urge to urinate. I would get up at once, wear my pull over, pull up my socks and the morning ablutions would follow. Shillong is cold almost all mornings. Sometimes bitterly sometimes not so. But every morning is crisp, fresh, and clean. Perhaps Cat Stevens sung “morning has broken” keeping Shillong in mind.
Shabira Cot resides in Laban in Shillong. Except for the first born, who died when barely a year old, my Grandparents were prolific and bore seven more kids. Four sons and three daughters. And the last one helped name the house. That last one is also my Mother. Her elder two sisters had enough of handling three younger brothers, quite a handful they were, it is said. So when came along Mom, she was named Shabira, The house was called Shabira Cot. And my Grandparents took peace and never had any more babies. I never met my grandpapa. Nani was a different story. I more than met that fiery but warm, sharp tongued but talented lady
Coming back after that little confusing detail, let me muse about those mornings. Some twenty years back. I was little. Don’t ask my age. I shall not want you to deduct how old I am now. So once Ali,the main house help, would get up after Nani would call out from her bed, he would freshen up and kick Horu, the young twelve year old help, awake. Horu (HO-ROO) literally means small in Assamese. I hated that Ali kicked Horu awake. But Horu always refused to service any of my demands. Horu was a zit in the rump. So the kicks aimed at him lost their pain for me after my initial indignation. I would howl with fury for all those irritating nothings he would subject me to. Pull my braids. Show me his tongue. Push me in the corner and keep me waiting for my early morning glass of milk.
So once the two helps would be up and about, the large electric heater would be switched on in the kitchen. This heater was around till I was 17 or so. I loved it. Brown, rusted with two big coils. On one side Horu would keep a huge ketlee ( kettle) of water and the other would have an indigenously made mesh toaster. So as the water would boil, heaps of freshly cut breads would be toasted. And slaved with butter. And placed on that old steel tray, which always looked new because of the never ending tray cloths Nani churned out. Delicately embroidered casement pieces. The hakoba and lace ones were kept for ‘guests’. ‘Guests’ were a constant fixture in that house. More on that some other time.
But early morning plaid trey cloths would suffice, placed on the trey along with a pile of saucers, three cups of tea with sugar in them and a huge plate of hot bread with soft butter. Whenever Papa would be there, he would be given milk tea, but most of the elders preferred red tea. And Papa would come home every two months to see my pretty and slowly getting rotund Mother. Papa was in the army and away for a field tenure in Tawang. Irfan was on his way. I got to know much later that Mom was expecting him. And that explains why Mum and me and of course not a very visible Irfan were living with my Nani.
I mean my parents really took my everyday post school bawling seriously. I would harp on how all other kids had “brothers and sisters” and I dint have any. So they pondered and thought they might as well have one to keep me quiet. So now Irfan was coming. Had I known he would be so tiny, evidently fragile and unable to be my playmate and the main reason why I suddenly stopped being the centre of my parents’ constant attention, I would have thought about my stupid demand. And once his milk teeth sprouted and he would bite me to massage his tickling gums like I were his teether or broke all my toys after his were long gone , I would have seriously reconsidered my unreasonable demand. Back then I was oblivious what was in store for a “BIG SISTER”. Twenty years down the line, the equation has only grown in order. He still tries my patience and generally bores deep holes in my wallet and makes it up by acting all sweet and ready to kill for my sake.
Again I digressed. So once the trey would be ready, it would be taken to my Nani. She would always rebuke Horu, the dunce, to have forgotten to give her the two empty quarter plates for which she had to remind him everyday. Sadly those days I did not know anything about Uriah Heep. But once I read David Copperfield, some two or three years down the line, and my simmering hatred for Horu The Horrible was still alive and smouldering, my mind gave Uriah Heep a twin. Horu!!! I would almost every time enjoy seeing Horu getting scolded. It was mutual. He generally tattled about me to Nani or Mom about some mischief I would make. And those days, mischief would happen even when unintentional. I was not exactly a quiet young girl. No, I was quite a brat. On retrospect no one realized how boring life can be for a young girl, with no company, all adults and a terrible tattling servant boy. Life at times was tragic. I would draw list of all misdemeanours carried out against me to show it to my Dad, who returned home, like I said every two months or so to look us up from Tawang.
Anyway , so Horu would get her the plates and after another angry prodding from Nani, two large canisters would be pulled out from under her bed. One would have cake and the other Marie biscuits. Loads of them. The cake, needless to say would be made at home and it was stored under the bed because Horu and cakes dint get along very long. The cakes would disappear whenever left in the kitchen. Poor cakes, I mean when they rather be filched by me. I must confess I did filch few cake pieces too. But even if Nani knew, she never had the heart to scold me. Everything is fair in love and war and I loved food.
Once the biscuits, the tea, the cake and the bread would be ready, Nani would take her tea cup , take a saucer, place the cup there. Then she would daintily pick a slice of bread and take a bite. I would be busy sipping the milk I hated. Then she would call me, fold me a slice and hand it over to me. And I would blissfully munch on my bread. And would quickly take a cake slice and some biscuits before the trey be taken from Nani’s room to my uncle’s room. Oh I forgot to mention, my uncle too lived with Nani. He was unmarried and kind of looked after her. Well, he was very fashionable and would recklessly spend most of his money on good clothes. And I would love to munch my bread and tag along Horu to my uncle’s room and I would most often poke him out of sleep. He would jump and sit up with a start, very viciously tell me how inappropriate it was to wake someone like that and would dismiss Horu unceremoniously after his tea and bread and cake would be delivered. My Uncle and I shared two things in common- love for music and dislike for Horu. My uncle is tall and this is Uncle Number 4. The last son my Grandparents were blessed with. He was always running short of hair. But he was tall and had quite an arresting personality. He was always jittery when with kids because they would break into his reverie of his next big hocus bogus story that he would like to articulate. Because the real world and the imagined ones did not have too much of a difference for my uncle. But he played the guitar in the quiet cold mountain evenings when he would return from work and sang country songs and I sang along with him, and in those times I would gladly forgive his constant tame-my-niece stance towards me. And he sang well and he would often say that I sang well and I would glow with pride. Till my short span of attention would disappear and some mischief would happen and I would be banished from his room.
So while he would sip his tea and do funny antics with his voice, I would take a bite of his cake and prance around his room, touching this and that and he would be so jittery that he would get up and go to the toilet and once in a while I would hear him fart. That would lead me to giggle, eat more of his cake and go back to Nani. She would have her second cup of tea and as every time she would pour some on the saucer and slurp up most of it. I would find that fascinating. Once I tried it and spilled tea on my home knitted white sweater. Nani was livid, Mom was furious and Horu sniggered. I never tried it again. Nonetheless the art of mastering saucer tea drinking was in my agenda of list but much lower in order. There was Horu to take care of.
Mom?? I let her be. Or she made me let her be!! She would be up in our room, adjacent to Nani’s, with her morning sickness. Get up, throw up, freshen up and then have a light brew on my Nani’s bed, sitting close to my grandmum. She could not tolerate most of the odours. Poor thing looked sick every morning. I would keep looking at Mom’s face to see if I could get away with some brave confessions of some mischief I made before r, till Nani would tell me to stop staring at her daughter and let her be. I would shrug and go out of the room to the kitchen . That was where all the action was.
For breakfast, Ali would knead flour into dough with scalding hot water. How he managed such hot water, left me awe struck but I always tried to look intelligent and not show too much respect. But still the mind wondered about little wonders. He would add salt and keep kneading the dough relentlessly. His long crooked fingers would assault the poor flour and before I knew he would start making small balls out of them. I would take one or two, making Ali the Dour dourer. If Horu was a pest, Ali was sour natured. And I would make my small rooti (bread) with the long discarded rolling pin I discovered in a hidden corner of the kitchen during one of my scavenging afternoons. Ali would make some balls out of the dough bigger than the others. Place those on the wooden plate and with the rolling pin start making parathas. He would deftly apply some oil, neatly cut the spread bread from the centre to the edge, roll it like a cone and press in down to make a spiral small cake which he would spread again with the rolling pin and put it on the tawa , flip it around , apply oil , flip it many times again and keep it deftly in the thermal casserole. This he would repeat more than a dozen times till close to twenty parathas would be made. Then he would take up the smaller balls and spread them just once, make them real thin to make the famous Shabira Cot rooti. And keep them over the parathas.
Next he would bring out the chicken minced meat. He would peel and dice the potatoes real small and quickly make some minced meat with potatoes. While that would cook, he would bring some squash from our kitchen garden, wash them, peel them, slice them and make the succulent squash dish. All this great food would be made in just an hour. Once the cooking would be over Ali would bark at Horu to lay the table. Horu, in his slow way, would do the needful, simultaneously irritating me; put the table mats and plates on the table, dole out some jam, butter, jelly and the required cutlery. My Nani has lots of cutlery and crockery. Soon I would run to inform Nani, my mother, and my uncle that breakfast was at last ready. Having done my page boy duty, I would go to the kitchen with whoever of the three was first to get there.
You see we did most of our daily eating bit on the large family table in the kitchen and not in the dining table in the dining room. For one, the kitchen was cosy and second my Nani could sit there and supervise the cooking which was quintessential for her. And she would sit on the head of the table, where porcelain chrome colour bowl with warm water would await her to dip her hands and perfunctionarily clean them. I would follow suit. Only the elders got dedicated fresh finger bowls. The younger ones would quickly dip and get down to the basics. It was a norm followed in most houses in Shillong because after the British left India, most of the tribal work force who did not inherit estates or legacy, started working in Indian households. Several of such servants worked at our place before Ali the Dour and Horu the Horrible came in. They were primarily responsible for sharing tips with most house matrons and wives and by and large most families in Shillong had imbibed a large proportion of British habits. Like the trey cloth bit, and kettle bit, four post beds and many other details. However, food was most about what piqued my interest and having seated next to my Nani, opposite my mother, I would get down to eat.
The parathas, steaming hot and soft would be handed around. Next the minced meat with potatoes and the squash preparations would follow. Meal times were the only time when I was quiet, focused and absolutely angelic. Baring few incidents, most meals went without having to remind me of minding my Ps and Qs. The minced meat with potatoes would have a dry consistency and the squash was slightly gravy-ish. The squash would particularly have small whole cloves of garlic. The jam and the jelly would always be served in small porcelain white bowls and the butter in a cut glass butter dish. Jam, jelly, spicy preserves and pickles were Nani’s specialty amongst other culinary wonders.
Jam would be made from the fruit and jelly from the juice of the fruit. Both required tremendous amount of patience to be cooked in large cauldron like pots. And would be cooled and jarred in large bottles. From there they would be spooned out every day for daily consumption.
After I would quickly gobble up one paratha with the minced meat with potatoes and the squash preparation, I would have one rooti with the jam du jour. I always like the jams better than the jellies because they were more crunchy and yielding. Jellies were slightly more solidified. Sometimes when the regular jams would exhaust, fruit preserves of slightly spicy-sweetish flavour would be served instead. Preserves like pear with cinnamon and ground pepper and the famous plum with red chilli powder were often served. I long for those even now.
I do not know what was larger; the hearts of the people in Shabira cot or the kitchen, but in the far corner of the kitchen, a long table and a bench was placed. There Ali and Horu sat and ate along with all of us. There was an unspoken belief that the family that ate together lived together. I guess that’s why Ali, later looked after Nani on her deathbed much better than a son would.
I always felt I and Horu contended for a wee bit more jam to establish our supremacy over the other and both liked to believe the other got less. So our constant bickering and “getting evens” would continue. There post meal, Horu would quickly scurry to get the chrome bowl for Nani with fresh warm water and the small aluminium mug with more warm water to assist Mom wash her hands. And then he would grudgingly help me wash my hands too. Tea would follow again.
So those were my idyllic days. Long gone now. That same kitchen, where sumptuous food would be cooked, served and eaten, I have not visited for so long. We are eleven grand children. All of us have lived some parts of our infancy in Shabira Cot. Rains are a part of everyday life in Shillong. The kitchen would have clothes line drawn from end to end, above the heater, where all the baby clothes damp and necessary would be dried. The warm cosy kitchen is so nostalgic, where new years’ cakes were baked and iced and served, the kitchen where feasts for marriages, births, birthdays, Eids and milads (Muslim social get together) were cooked. Where plans for everything big and small was carried out. How can I not love it and miss it painfully. Irfan came along soon. We moved away. Horu found a girl, moved out, got married and I heard four years back, he died of consumption. Ali got married and has two kids and lives in the outhouse. My uncle got married, lived there for a few years and he too moved out of that house with his wife and child. Uncle number three, his wife and three kids moved in. And now Nani is gone. I miss her at times and her knack to spruce me up. Make a lady out of me. And give me a bite of her tea soaked biscuits in the morning. Giving in to my cajoling to draw the impossible fox my insane drawing teacher told me to draw as my home assignment. Giving in to my pleas to tell the Arabic teacher who always came on bright Sunday mornings to teach me Arabic, precisely when Doordarshan would air Mickey and Donald.
I never really learnt the art of “saucer tea drinking”. But I mastered the art to deliciously recall those memories of Shabira Cot, twenty years later, on a Saturday Monsoon morning, alone in my terrace of my Mumbai home, having just red tea and nothing else.