My mother hadn’t always been weird. I kind of blamed Chand for the changes in her. Until I was three-and-a half, Mum had been warm, attentive, loving and a whole bunch of other good stuff, but it had all gone out the window one fine day – the same day that my younger sister came along. At least, that was the way that my traumatised younger self remembered it.
No one ever told me anything, and this was especially true in the days that I went to Model School, a ramshackle shed posing as a preschool. I had no idea what was going on with Mum and why she’d suddenly become fat, tired and cranky all the time. After some indeterminate bewildering months of this fat-crankiness, Mother dear suddenly disappeared. After a couple of days, when I made my enquiries, I was informed by other family members that she would be home soon enough, and could I please refrain from dropping raisins all over the floor like that.
My fondness for kishmish, as well as several other moronic tendencies, had been instilled at a very young age. As a small child, I spent several of my waking hours in a little red playpen, solemnly picking up and consuming raisins that our enterprising housekeeper, Saraswati, had strewn in zigzag patterns on the playpen floor. Apparently, this kept me out of harm’s way and allowed the harried woman to get on with her work. My own parents seemed to think this was a rather quaint and admirable solution. They simply patted Saraswati on the back and went off to their own busy days at work. My love, nay, obsession with raisins had continued into my fourth year, and it was my comfort food now that Mother had vanished, seemingly forever. I chewed on, moodily.
It was only my grandfather, the kind old man ubiquitously known as Papa, who appeared to think that I deserved to be enlightened as to my mother’s whereabouts. “She is in the hospital,” he revealed to me, with a huge grin.
For a moment, my love and respect for Papa wavered. Why on earth did he look so happy about the fact that Mother was sick? She was vaguely related to him too, to the best of my knowledge. He continued, his smile turning dreamy, “And she’s going to come back home soon with … Chand.”
This mystified me even further. Mother was in the hospital – and she was going to come back with the moon? That was a very strange and disorienting thought and I couldn’t wrap my mind around it at all. I was very disturbed that night as I went to sleep. I needed my mother to tuck me in with her nightly parting words, “Goodnight. Sweet Dreams. I love you.”
Daddy tried, to his credit – but he wasn’t even a close substitute. He even messed the order up; despite my explicit instructions, he said, “Goodnight. I love you. Sweet Dreams.” It was all just wrong. Very wrong. And then, my traitor of a mother returned with a whole new human being, a tiny thing that wailed piteously in a relentless bid to grab the spotlight, and whom everybody affectionately referred to as Chand or Chanda. Oh yeah. So that was it, was it? I could see the writing on the wall. It wasn’t as if I had been born yesterday.
I had been ousted from my mother’s affections forever. She never let that thing alone so that I could have a go at it.
I could only stand by helplessly as the little pink puckered-up stranger raised hell and carved out its place right in the centre of the whole universe. I watched as my mother fed the baby – she winced, and I concluded with certainty that the process was hurting her. My hatred of the thing grew. I had known it was evil from the moment I saw it.
My brother didn’t seem perturbed by the new arrival, just vaguely amused. He was always in his own world – occupied by his books, his cricket, bullying the neighbourhood kids and hogging the TV. How could he be so cold, so unaffected by the new creature? It didn’t occur to me then that he simply might have already been through this earlier when I was born. He was older than me by three-and-a-half years, exactly the same age difference as between me and the new arrival. But then, he would always be the oldest. It was me who had lost my position as the baby of the family. And thus had been born, shortly after Chand herself, my middle-child persecution complex.
I had to admit now that I was older and wiser, things didn’t look all that bleak. Chand was, by now, a skinny and loyal eight-year-old. In fact, she had turned out to be a pretty good companion.
I finally had a willing partner in crime; or to put it another way – a guinea pig, who protested only weakly even against my wildest schemes. It was true that the poor child was often bullied into being the scapegoat in our joint childhood escapades, but I tended to wipe away all feelings of guilt with the conviction that I was greatly contributing to her education. And she was never stuck alone in a playpen with only raisins for company. As the more experienced sibling, I told myself sanctimoniously, it was up to me to teach her all I knew about life so that she would not have to suffer the various troubles I had.
Sometimes, I even switched roles with her so that she could pretend to be a pet owner and have the pleasure of walking me as a dog. I was a large black labrador majestically named Tipu Sultan. It was a name that had jolted me out of my bored trance in history class one day – then, as the teacher droned on about him as the ruler of some place at some time, I tuned out again and rolled it over in my mind, filing it away carefully for use. By contrast, in our dog-owner game, my sister agreed to be a fluffy white pomeranian named Bonbon.
We found ourselves with a lot of free time because both our parents worked. Dad was a dermatologist and it was a while before I understood what the good Dr Lal actually did for a living. I’d wrinkled my nose in disgust the day Mum told me he helped people handle their skin problems. I was just glad Dad had this religious, cheerful obsession with washing his hands, which he did with a great deal of gusto, with soapy lather right up to the elbow every time he came home.
Mum was in the government’s Customs & Central Excise Department and what she did proved impossible to comprehend, although I vaguely understood that part of it involved checking up on people about money, something called crackdowns.
As a family, we generally exhibited a remarkable lack of curiosity about each other’s doings – but we coexisted, sometimes amiably, in our shared infrastructure, our home in the green little colony of Pandara Park.
Excerpted with permission from Those Days in Delhi, Yashodhara Lal, HarperCollins India.