Nobody had remembered to tell me that there was going to be a wedding – let alone my own father’s wedding.
But then, what else can be expected from grown-ups? They are always so anxious, so afraid, and so insecure. But of course, I knew. I knew in the way children always know everything. Of course, I lapped up the bribe, but there had been No Knead. I had just saved Kaalu’s life and I couldn’t have been happier or cared less.
The woman who had fit the job description of a new bride for Pup-Pa – of playing with me – turned out to be the exact polar opposite of what the books had taught me about wicked stepmothers.
Far from being evil, she was elegant, beautiful and sweet. She had a silent, royal grace that I had not seen in anybody except for Thamma, who was actually blue-blooded and hailed from a zamindar family in present-day Bangladesh.
Even to my child’s eye, she appeared much, much younger than Pup-Pa. She seemed calm, secure, not needing to prove herself, not needing to call me nicknames to establish familiar affection. Instead, she offered me a red and yellow packet of chips that I had never seen before, incidentally called Aristocrat, together with a small pack of Pickwick wafers.
With these offerings, she invited me gently to play with her. There was this purity, this innocence about her, which would have made it so easy to take advantage of her, but it was because of exactly this quality within her that I did not want to trouble her, not even in jest.
We became Fast Friends. Her presence in my life also posed a dilemma. If I were to call my latest mother figure, “Ma”, then what would I call Maa by, I asked Pup-Pa.
“I have Maa, even if she is dead. If I am to call my new mother Ma, then what would I call Maa?”
“Call her Ma,” he replied instantly.
Grown-ups love planning and being prepared for anything and everything. Clearly, he had been expecting this question to pop up and had already rehearsed the answer in detail.
“She is giving up her entire world in the big city and moving to Nandurbar for you, so it would be mean if you didn’t call her Ma,” he explained. I stared at him. “You can call your Ma, Amaar Maa (my mother),” he said, putting the matter to rest.
Mother No 1 had two as. Mother No 2 had one a. And with this simple twist, the mothers in my life settled into their newfound names, fitting as perfectly as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. An ease that I envied as a growing misfit, a Complan girl misfit, who would try her whole life to fit in, in vain.
The days were pleasant. I returned to a school where I had studied briefly and where Mother No. 1 had taught science to high school students. I threw a tantrum once, something my stepmother did not stop me from doing. Years later, I’d realise that I had done this because I wanted to cling to my original memories of school (kindergarten) with Amaar Maa.
Mother No 2 let me wear my chocolate brown overall skirt that had been my kindergarten uniform instead of the deep V-neck pinafore for first graders and up. Finding no audience for my rebellion, I gave up and donned the appropriate uniform after a few days.
Amaar Maa had never allowed me to eat at the snack vendor’s stall next to the school, preferring to feed me puffed rice balls glued together with melted jaggery. But my new Ma was much younger and less traditional. She bought me kachoris and samosas from this guy, inculcating in me a lifelong love for tamarind chutney.
After I had rested, she would wake me up and gently make me solve notebooks full of question papers that she had painstakingly made for me.
Naturally, I topped the class that year. I also won my first certificates in speech and poetry competitions.
Ma worked patiently with me, not once losing her temper until I aced my multiplication tables. She got me a big black and golden hexagonal Ajanta clock and taught me to tell the Time. This new knowledge caused great upheaval in my life. It turned Time, which until now had been my servant, into my master.
Sometimes, she let me wear her beautiful white and blue HMT bracelet watch. She introduced me to spicy street food, to Aamir Khan, to her favourite movies, Qayamat se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya, from her college years in South Calcutta. She told me about hip and happening South Calcutta. She let go of my long, tall frocks and dresses and introduced me to denim and to miniskirts too. It felt incredibly cool to be with her. She was so classy.
It was the most normal and most stable year of my childhood yet. It was refreshing to be just another kid whose life revolved only around school, studies, play and unconditional love. I finally got what all the hype was about. Having a real mother, finally, was absolutely magical!
One afternoon, one of Pup-Pa’s many Railway friends, Gandhi Uncle from a town called Gandhidham, whom I called GandhiGandhidham Uncle, visited.
He fussed over me as anyone would over any small child they knew and made me sit in his lap and listened intently to my tall tales and endless chatter. Much to my delight, he gave me a Five Star.
Pup-Pa was out and Ma had stepped inside to bring him some tea. He pressed my chubby arms so hard that they hurt. One arm had trapped my arm, crushing me painfully to his chest, while his other arm had tightly trapped my thigh.
Inside me, the Tentacle suddenly grew tall, reminding me that I was being held captive as he planted a porcupine kiss on my right cheek – a kiss so prickly that my dimpled baby fat hurt all over. I shuddered, I grimaced. That strange and disgustingly familiar hardness in his lap confirmed the Tentacle’s message.
My body froze. My eyes looked into GandhiGandhidham Uncle’s eyes like a trapped animal looking into the hypnotic eyes of its predator. His face had changed, as had his attitude. He had changed. Changed into something I recognised so well.
My mouth opened, but my voice, now so used to living in Eden, was in such deep shock that it didn’t produce a single sound, not even a whimper. My past life had returned to ensnare me.
“What’s going on?”
“Manga, Nimba, where are you? Is this how we treat Sa’ab’s friend?”
Ma had appeared out of nowhere and was staring at GandhiGandhidham Uncle in the eye, pulling me out of his clutches and into her arms, as if it were the most natural thing to do.
“You, little Miss, it is time for your nap!” she said, as she gently carried me into the other room. This was unusual, as we both knew that unless I was at Big Mother’s, I never napped during the day.
Shaking uncontrollably like a deer, I burst into tears. Perhaps the sudden quiet had warned her, even if it had been only for a few seconds. She said nothing, just held me close. It was the first time a grown-up had saved me. It was the first time I realised how only a girl could understand what another girl was going through and save her.
After a long time, when I pulled away from her, I noticed a tiny puddle on the floor, the dampness of my frock and her saree. I had wet myself – and her – in my fright.
When we returned, the room was quiet. The cup of tea and the biscuits lay untouched. There was no sign of GandhiGandhidham Uncle. Perhaps he was mortified at what he had done. Perhaps, he had killed himself. I don’t know and I never saw him again. Thank god!
Excerpted with permission from The Water Phoenix: A Memoir of Childhood Abuse, Healing and Forgiveness, Rituparna Chatterjee, Bloomsbury.