The sun’s rays heralded a new morning, rising earlier and earlier, as the Up Country summer heat increased by the day. Then would come the loo, that fiercely hot, moisture-sapping dust storm, which blew at periodic intervals through the Northern summer months, lowering the searing heat a few notches for brief periods, through this season. Exams over, my school closed for the summer holidays.
Just as I would begin thinking that we might get baked, broiled and fried, out would come the iron trunks, leather suitcases, canvas bed rolls, the sweet smelling wicker food basket, and namda-lined iron ice-box, from their annual storage. These spelt preparations for our long train journey for the annual holidays, to my grandparent’s home.
My friends would chatter excitedly of going up to the cool climes of one of the many hill stations peppering the Himalayan foothills. While into our army-issue iron trunks would be packed warm woolens, shawls, raincoats, and umbrellas, to their puzzlement. They always wondered why we were packing warm wear for summer months. At the height of a blazing Northern summer, we would be chugging homeward bound, into the middle of the fragrant South West Monsoon rains, which first wet the Southern Peninsula. And in the thick of the Western Ghat ranges, our home district nestled, among cold monsoon winds, heavy rain, leeches and the all prevailing mist and damp. During the long train journey south, we shared what we had, ate the deliciously strange foods that fellow travelers exchanged warmly with us along the way, and finally arrived, to a rapturous welcome by Family. Our first halt was always at Mysore. Grandparents, uncles, aunts & cousins, my maternal family medley, who never failed to all come to meet us at train journey’s end.
The head of the family was the Patriach, my grandfather, long since retired from forest service. Now he was a wizened little man, but in his hey day, a lithe, ruddy complexioned athlete and an excellent shot. Diabetes and fading eyesight non-withstanding, it didn’t hamper a sharp memory, or a naughty chuckle, seated in his favourite spot. An Easy Chair, usually reserved for the Master of the house, strategically placed under the curve of the staircase, where he could keep a watchful eye on the entrance gate. His favourite dog, a Tibetan Terrier, erroneously named Pepe, stretched near his feet. He would recount hilarious incidents, family secrets, delivered in stage whispers, to a rapt young audience, usually about his wife’s vast family. Then there was his never ending repertoire of jungle tales, of his many years in the forest, which would have put the Brothers Grimm to shame. Of how, during his years of Service, living in isolated hamlets, deep in the jungle, my grandmother just needed to tell him that the larder was out of fresh supplies, so it had to be simple fare at table that day. Going out with his rifle, within the hour, he said he would return with fresh venison, plump jungle fowl or succulent partridges! He just might have single handedly contributed to some part of the decimation of the fauna that roamed our dense jungles, such a good shot was he. We would hang on every gory detail of his hunt, lapping it up thirstily. These, and a myriad other tales entranced us, for many years, his three oldest, and I suspect, favourite grandchildren. Memories of my gentle Thai, my grandmother, are of an ever smiling, untiring cook, slaving over the smoky kitchen fires, churning out vast quantities of the most mouth watering and varied fare. She had expert, unerring measuring spoons for fingers. Her cooking was always just a pinch of this, a dash of that and for the final gastronomic pop on your tongue, she seemed to throw in a secret ingredient, a handful of love. She was asthamatic, but after the midday meal, while most of the house slept, and we kids played silent games so as not to disturb the siesta, Thai would be seen settling down, wheeze and all, to cook somebody’s favourite snack, laborious in the making, but melt-in-the mouth delicious. I always associate with my Thai the fragrant heady scent of a special local jasmine, Mysuru Mallige. If I got the waft of this, I knew my grandmother wasn’t far behind. She may have been a slave to an ever hungry Family up to the evening, but thereafter, she would have bathed again, redone her hair, and with freshly laundered clothes, smelling sweetly of fresh mallige, my Thai would join my grandfather. He too would be changed into clothes suitable for going out, looking point de vice, walking stick in hand, they would enjoy the evening air with their daily visit to the neighbourhood temple. Back home, they joined the family for gossip sessions, or often, a drive to the ‘City’. Mysore of those days, was as much a half-way watering hole, as today, between our native Kodagu and Bangalore. At any given time, this venerable couple’s home would seat at table a complement of ten resident members, give or take a few. Always welcomed were relatives and friends who dropped by, for a visit, or to stay. Not only was the pot never empty, but even the rooms seemed to expand, to feed, sleep & accommodate all. It was unthinkable to turn a visitor away, during meal times, or for a bed for the night. In later years, I wondered how often my grandmother might have herself gone without many of the treats she made for us, probably even a stomach full, on account of unexpected guests. Her warmth and smile rarely slipped.
The bread winner of this Mysore household was “Madam,” my oldest aunt, a divorced single mum, whose life story had all the makings of a good film. Married soon after her SSLC, or ‘O’ Levels, she had a nightmare of a marriage, to a very iffy man, definitely not kosher. He came from a family with close connections to Croesus. Combined with that factor, and with a family of four younger children, can you blame my grandfather for eagerly marrying off the eldest? Divorce was a bad word in those years, but they reckoned without this gutsy mother, pushed to the ends of matrimonial trauma. My grandparents provided my aunt and her two children, sanctuary, after she finally walked out on her husband. She went on to complete her college education, landing herself several good Professorial jobs at University, and this brought in the much needed bacon. Hence came her “Madam” title. Madam had a smile that made the Mallige bloom, warm and beautiful. It seemed to encompass her entire personality. I don’t remember ever seeing her in the dumps, no trials and tribulations in her life fazed her, other than her personal OCD. It’s a miracle that she’s surviving to this day with her skin intact. If one wanted to discuss anything of urgency with her, one had to ensure that we caught her before her ablutions, or we could easily forget about her for the next couple of hours. What she did in the confines of the bathroom, only she and Freud knew. It must have been the stains of her marital past on her psyche and her personality, which took her bath so many hours, trying to vainly scrub these away. Her daughters and I were close in age, especially the older, quieter, and very charming one. To this day, she remains the sister to me that I, as an only child, never had. Her sibling, my younger cousin, was a brat, one of the two apples of our grandfather’s eyes, the other being my mother. Vivacious and artful, this cousin, from as far back as I can remember, managed to coax and cajole more pocket money, treats and favours, than the two of us. Much to our chagrin. Anyway, we both would get even, by locking up the Brat in dark rooms, leaving her out of our escapades, sending her to Coventry, sneaking on her, and various other lovable methods of torture. After all, we too were children. My mother, who must have been the more poised and personable younger sibling, was intelligent enough to win herself a scholarship for her college education, and was quite my grandfather’s unabashed favourite child. He was probably proud of this daughter, his “Princess Margaret,” who was the first graduate in the family, and that too a girl. Apparently when my mother and aunt were young, and my aunt would hear her father referring to my mother as his Princess Margaret, my aunt would counter with, “In which case, I am Queen Elizabeth!” Madam Queen Elizabeth, has long done with teaching. Retired, she lives with her daughter and her family. She keeps indifferent health, age has shrunk her and so she doesn’t get out of the house. That smile is intact, she is content enough, but has not got over her OCD, trying to scrub off her deepest demons, spending long hours, and vast quantities of water, in the bath.
Two brothers, younger in age, came after my mother. Mundane personalities, maybe interesting enough, as the older ran away to sign up in the Army. Some of us thought it was to escape the disciplinary rod of the Patriach. The younger of these, also left home, to try his luck in the Mecca of Bollywood, known in those days merely as Bombay. He did well for himself, joined an airline, and now lives in a plush apartment in a tony Mumbai neighbourhood. Their immediately younger sister too lived a sheltered life with my grandparents in Mysore. Her most daring escapade being a long drawn out , secret love story, which started while she was in junior college. This romance culminated in her marrying her sweetheart, soon after she graduated. She proceeded to follow her husband to where he worked, and was kept busy, at fairly regular intervals, bearing and rearing four children, my younger cousins. These cousins including my uncles’ children, were additions to our grandparents family in later years, by which time, I am convinced, us three ‘senior’ cousins had firmly wormed our way into our grand parent’s hearts, establishing the ‘favourite’ tag!’
Full Stop, was the sixth and final child of my grandparents. A boy, born a short couple of years before us favourite grandchildren. But for this interesting personality’s story, you may well have to wait a while.