“Your capitalist bosses have grown fat on the backs of these workers. Have you even seen how they live?”
“You’re a fake Leftist. You enjoy the perks of my job yet you complain.”
“You talk like you’re doing me a favour. I pay for stuff too, run the house, look after Maya. You barely acknowledge she exists. Now don’t say she wasn’t your idea!”
Since it’s a small house, I was always within earshot. On that particular day, I was right there in the living room, reading my book of Russian folk tales for the tenth time. I got a real kick out of the stories of Baba Yaga and her hut that stood on chicken feet.
The one good thing about having parents from Cal was that they knew books. No Mr Men for me; I was started off on illustrated Shakespeare. By the time I was fourteen, I’d been through the Complete Works, read most of Austen, Maugham, Orwell, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Daphne du Maurier was considered light reading at home.
“What did you mean when you said ‘don’t say she wasn’t your idea’?” I asked Mini later.
After thinking for some time, Mini told me I was adopted.
My parents were Parsi, a couple known to her, Mini said. They’d been unable to care for me for reasons she didn’t go into. Relief! Joy! Finally, I knew why I resembled no one in my family. Thank god, for the Debs were generally loathsome. What a pleasure to know there was no blood between me and my odious cousins in Calcutta! (Mini’s side of the family didn’t bother me; it was small and full of adults.)
Those over-achieving brats with whom Shivaji never failed to compare me. Montu, who at the age of eight was showing signs of a career as a concert pianist; Bhombol, who wasn’t far from becoming a chess grandmaster; Rani, who had at the age of ten exhibited her paintings in a gallery, a series of mother and child works clearly similar in style to Jamini Roy, whose prints were all over her house.
There was also fear. What had made my real parents give me up? Were they alive or dead? Would they one day return to take me away from Mini? To be snatched away from this chubby creature redolent of Eau de Cologne, who’d spoken to me as an adult for as long as I could remember, indulged me, introduced me to great literature...
The thought was unbearable and I decided immediately not to ask any questions or repeat the one Mini hadn’t really answered. What had she meant by “don’t say she wasn’t your idea”? Mini said she would tell me more when I was old enough to understand and that suited me fine.
Mini had a word with my teachers in school. I knew by their bright smiles and sudden affection. Naturally, word spread and for a brief period, my classmates treated me as someone special, a godly incarnation in their midst, a child with a supernatural gift. Unused to attention, I was unnerved – and pleased. When the class bully taunted me – “Maya, your parents didn’t want you or what?” – my friends retaliated, “Just shut up, you stupid!”
Naturally, as an adult I followed the mill lands issue with interest. When I crossed Lower Parel, past the malls and apartment blocks that glinted like crystals in the sun, past the rubble of mill structures that would be cleared to lay the foundations of high-rises, I felt joined to the city’s history. Later, when I learned Burjor had lived for years in the mill district of Lalbaug and secured jobs for people as textile workers, I would experience this bond more keenly.
I could lay no claim to the Zoroastrian tradition – the flight from Persia cradling sacred fires, assimilating into the alien culture while holding on with (foolish) doggedness to the old country by the thread of blood, throwing up giants in every sphere of public life. In Parsi restaurants, I felt the strangeness of my situation. The food should have been familiar in an everyday way yet it was exotic.
On the other hand, I was too removed from the Bengali centres of Calcutta and Delhi to feel Bengali. I didn’t know the songs my cousins and Purnendu sang or their street-level vocabulary. Instead I felt like a daughter of Bombay moulded by its great upheavals.
Sometimes on Sunday mornings, Kersi and I would walk around the Lalbaug area, taking in the derelict mills behind locked gates and the chawl-like buildings that housed former mill workers, before winding up at Ladoo Samrat for a deep-fried snack. On those walks, I felt a pleasant gravitational tug, a cord tying me to the earth.
Once Mini told me I was adopted, I instinctively knew that I was Mini’s idea and that somehow Shivaji resented her for it, and that I was the taper kindling their daily spoken and silent feuds. Till then I’d assumed their fights arose from a general incompatibility, Shivaji’s food habits – and Ratna.
Shivaji sprang Ratna on Mini one Sunday. It was a cruel surprise. He pretended he needed a haircut and when he returned, Ratna was with him. She’d arrived at VT on the Bombay Mail from Calcutta, wrapped in a cheap, polyester sari, her oiled hair in a severe bun, her lips stained orange from chewing paan.
Shivaji’s mother had poached Ratna from a friend’s home and dispatched her to Bombay. Her daughter-in-law was no good at being a wife. Her son needed a vegetable or a fritter, a daal, a fish or meat curry and rice every day. Mini cooked like a novice and when she was tired, she made sandwiches. Sandwiches! How was her son to sleep if he didn’t get rice!
Ratna had been briefed in Calcutta. She was to take orders from Calcutta on the dinner menu and how to run the house and she would gather intelligence on Mini, where she went, the kind of friends she had, what time she came home. So when Ratna arrived, she had the look of a conquistador. Seeing her superior gaze and Shivaji’s guilty eyes, Mini knew she didn’t stand a chance.
In Ratna, Shivaji found a comrade for she was as xenophobic as him. Finally, another Bengali in this cosmopolitan building! Mini had tried to change him with art and people. She’d drag him to galleries in the hope that art would open his mind. But he got bored. She’d have her bohemian friends over for dinner so he could see what he was and what he was missing. But he thought they were degenerate and phony. It was always “those bloody Gujjus” or “that demented bava” or “that Punjabi has zero class”.
He sought Bengalis out like a hungry dog nosing for scraps. That’s how he joined a group that organised an annual Durga puja, enthusiastically taking on dull administrative responsibilities.
Mini, who’d never been a fighter, didn’t have the stamina to sustain a protest. She argued with Shivaji for some days before giving in. And picked a few fights with Ratna before realising she was up against a gladiator. Because to fight with Ratna for the smallest thing – could she use less oil while cooking, did she have to make a racket while washing the steel dishes, why was she so rude to the bai who cleaned the house – meant starting her off on an angry tirade that could last hours.
She had a real athletic voice; once it got warmed up, Ratna could rail tirelessly. It didn’t matter if Mini shut the kitchen door and locked herself in her room. Ratna went on till she was spent. It was always the same outburst, starting with how much she did and how little she was appreciated, segueing to her impoverished childhood in Rakhalgachhi, her father squandering their land to pay for his debts, moving to Calcutta to do what was once unthinkable for a high caste family – work in people’s homes – losing all hope of marriage because she had to work and send money to her parents, losing all hope of having a child, the one thing in the world she most wanted.
The only times Mini felt a pang of affection for Ratna was when she’d utter a piece of village wisdom. When peacocks cry, it means the rains are coming. If a lizard calls out three times in a row, someone is remembering you. Whistling at night attracts cockroaches.
Mini and Ratna had one common ground: me. I arrived at the Debs’ not long after Ratna. She loved me from the moment Mini entered the house with my swaddled frame in her arms. Shivaji, her other love, behaved like a stranger. He issued no fatherly hugs, no tender cuddles, no childish gibberish. At the most, he’d scratch my head when I scored well in a test.
Not that I minded. Ratna and Mini swamped me with hugs and kisses and fought with each other over how I should be raised. Ratna liked braiding my hair in two tight plaits. But Mini thought the hairdo looked provincial. Mini wanted me to eat healthy. But when she was away at work, Ratna fed me tasty, fatty things.
Mini took me to the park and let me loose to run around and play with other kids while she read a book or strolled. Ratna, on the other hand, kept a vigilant eye and issued a stream of instructions – don’t run too fast or you’ll trip and scratch your knees, don’t get on the slide your pants will get muddy, leave that dog alone it’s filthy.
When it came to education, Mini gave me books, showed me movies, took me to art galleries. Unlike most parents, she didn’t bother with my homework, didn’t care when I did poorly in a test. “You won’t learn a damn thing in school,” she said. True but I had to work with what I was given. Shouldn’t Mini have taken some interest in my studies? Pulled me up for bad test scores, asked what I was reading in class? She was deliberately laidback to impress me – which kid wouldn’t want a hands-off mother – and make a point to Ratna.
Appalled by Mini’s laissez-faire attitude, Ratna was a strict minder. She pushed me to study every evening, quizzed me on multiplication tables, made sure I stuck to the study schedule tacked to my soft-board when it was exam time. She soaked almonds for me because they were good for memory, forced castor oil down my throat to lubricate my bowels, made me do breathing exercises.
Excerpted with permission from Half-Blood, Pronoti Datta, Speaking Tiger.