I was going to see my grandfather about a matter of inheritance. I had every intention of inheriting my home, sparse and secluded as it was. It didn’t look like I would succeed, but I was determined to try.
The train was between stations, somewhere in the middle of small-town silence. A comforting, clove-scented fog settled inside my head as I lit up the first cigarette of my trip at the door of the coupé.
My mother is not an easy woman. This long-drawn fight over my claim to the house that stood on our ancestral land was necessitated by her need to give things away. She wanted to donate this house to some godforsaken NGO now.
Amma was not like those irritating commies you ran into on Twitter: well meaning, politically correct, snarky and cutting people to size. The ones that turned up to work stoned, or wrote things like “rest is revolution” and “self-care is work” on their social media.
She wasn’t the kind you would identify as a jholey-wali. Amma was old school; a hardened, hit-the-streets, hold-that-flag-up kind of commie. A trade union lawyer who took after her leftist father.
She dressed like nothing special – cotton saree, a maroon pottu on her forehead, wedding chain, toerings, her hair oiled and braided. She lived her ideals, didn’t dress up for them as if they were something other than life itself. I admired her and her work. But her ideals had begun to encroach upon every little comfort I could access. Now she was after the place I’d called home since I was eighteen.
What kind of parents leave their city-bred, teenaged daughter alone in a mofussil town to take care of an old home that was under repair? At that time, my brother was studying in Bangalore and my father was travelling to the smaller cities every week on work. Amma was needed in Chennai, she was busy, busy, busy. So I, all of eighteen, was in charge of our old house in Chengalpattu.
At first, I only went across on the weekends, but soon after I graduated, my parents tore down our crumbling ancestral house and built a new one.That’s when I was asked to stay close by in a cheap, dingy women’s hostel and help the maistry.
From afar, my house looks bucktoothed and genial.The windows on the first floor make up the eyes, and when you close one of them, it looks like the house is winking at you.The main door and the beam on top are the house’s mouth.The balcony that runs right across the middle has plants that I’ve never been good at looking after.
When the new house was ready, Amma asked me to pack up and come home to Madras. She wanted to rent it out. I didn’t because I was upset. How dare she use me like a watchman? If she thought I was old enough to oversee its construction, she had to know that I was old enough to make that home mine.
It’s not as if she paid for the repair work, or the new house, she hadn’t even paid for my stay. My grandfather had sponsored it all. So I stayed put as nights turned to weeks and then years. Every once in a while, my mother recruited someone from the family to camp out in Chengalpattu.To threaten, cajole or blackmail me into leaving.
Amma had failed then. She’ll fail now too.
I have often wondered if she really is my mother. There are no pictures of her pregnant with me. I know, I’ve looked.
The thought really came upon me because of my brother. When I was seven or so, he started calling me Jujube Kumar. He said I came from a village called Jujube, deep in a forest, where people lived in circular homes, and that our mother bought me from the market in exchange for a few sprigs of curry leaves. She brought me home in a basket to be his pet animal, my brother said.
He’d point to my deep jaggery brown, hairy arms and say, “See how dark you are,” and then point to his own fair arms and say, “See how I am like Amma, fair.” I would laugh, never giving him the satisfaction of a win. But deep inside, seeds of doubt had begun to appear, and I’d conducted tests on my mother over the years to see if she really had me. There was no Google, internet or computer in our homes and lives back then or I would have called his bluff right away.
When Amma sent me away, this suspicion grew very strong. It was only after I refused to move out of the Chengalpattu home that she told me why she’d sent me there. My father had maxed out his credit card and had no money to pay the bills. He had gone on a long leave of absence from his government job, and had started to work for a multi-level-marketing company, to sell soap, toothpaste and hair oil.
The first month when he made no money, he started to use his credit card, and by the fifth month, he was like an addict, swiping wherever he went. Burly, intimidating men, collection agents, would show up at odd hours, Amma said, to collect credit card dues.
One of these men, she said, made an unsavoury remark about daughters and wives, and the kinds of “occupation”, whoring one presumes, they must pursue to pay their bills instead of cheating creditors. That nameless asshole had changed the course of my life, words can do that. He was why I was sent away.
There were other reasons too that I was fleeing to Banaras from Chengalpattu. One of them was in my hands; a yellow-brown, ink-stained letter my grandmother wrote in her youth to my thaatha. The romance it hinted at took me by surprise.
Why had I never asked the women in my family how and if they loved? We didn’t talk to each other about love, come to think of it, ever. We lived as if love had nothing to do with us, all of us, daughters, wives, aunts, grandmothers and grandaunts.
We lived in a world where everything, like marriage, was arranged to cause the least confrontation between people. Yes, even flag-waving leftists had arranged marriages within “the community” in our family. A family of Telugus and Tamils, intermingled indistinguishably, speaking a language of its own that was neither here nor there, of migrants who criss-crossed the lands over hundreds of years, before states in independent India took on linguistic identities.
“What people are your in-laws?” you’d be asked, if you went to invite a relative to your wedding. No one used words like upper caste or brahmin in our educated homes. It was always subtler than that. You’d have to give them the sub-caste or regions your would-be’s ancestors hailed from. Velanadu, Mulakanadu, Palakkad, Thengalai, Vadagalai and the like. Love marriages, especially with those from outside the community, were rare, and invites to those weddings were always prefaced by hand-wringing and long explanations from parents on how hard they’d tried to stop the wedding from taking place.
Excerpted with permission from What We Know About Her, Krupa Ge, Context.