Thursday, January 16, 2014

Tess

I love a good story...who doesn't? I've always read for as far back as I can remember my own existence.  That's my earliest memory.

Well that's not perfectly true. My earliest memory is possibly burning my nose by rubbing it vigorously against my mother's electric kettle, its gleaming surface attracting me because of the distorted reflection of two ponytails, an upturned nose and a shiny forehead peeking back at me. So my stupidity, impulsiveness and peeling nose is actually one of my first recollections of myself. But another strikingly clear memory is when I was pre kindergarten'ish, sitting on a chair outside the kitchen and pouring over a book. I was no child prodigy, so I obviously couldn't read then, but I made up the words in a desperate attempt to make sense of the unintelligible text.  I would ramble on out loud until my mother or sister would tell me to shut up.  Well past my learning to read, this habit of reading out loud unfortunately stuck and the "shut up's" continued well into my teens.  But for me "hearing" the story out loud just made it even better.

But it wasn't only books that gave me some of the best or most entertaining stories.  I must credit my grandmother - my nani, for being quite a master story teller.  Tess, as my nana called her (short for Teresa) has a veritable treasure trove of tales.  The one I remember from my childhood was about the bubble gum tree growing in the tummy of a child who always swallowed their gum and someone having to go in and chop it down eventually. Or my sister's favorite of the pink bunny who had a tiered pink birthday cake, a confectionary masterpiece that soared so high that the bunny had to climb it with a ladder. Marvelous stuff was concocted for our entertainment.  She has her own quirky words like 'I'm feeling grubby', which would generally mean one feeling like a quick wash under the arm pits, but no, to nani it means 'hungry' or feeling like eating some grub!  Her idea of a dirty joke is
literally potty jokes where erstwhile Indian presidents and notables featured in some stand-up number 2 humour (these jokes were always preceded by 'don't tell your mother I'm telling you this").  Or if I'd break into an impromptu jig, she says "looks like you're doing the bull scratch'.  We're never quite sure what that means but if one were to take it literally it's definitely not a compliment!

A few years ago when she came to visit me in Delhi, I decided to record some of the stories of her interesting life  with the aim of some day documenting it in a book. I bought a dictaphone and tested it 1,2,3 and told her that I'd ask her a couple of questions and she could answer them any way she liked and not to feel conscious with the dictaphone.  She, of course, sat ram-rod straight and nervously asked if she should start with "I come from a good South Indian family and we were always well taken care of".  I said no, instructed her to keep it casual and I wasn't carrying out a sting operation on her so no one would ever care if she slouched a bit and relaxed.  She said alright and so I began "Nani, what is your earliest childhood memory?" She stiffened, sat up straight and a
panicked, "I come from a good South Indian family and we were always well taken care of".  Sigh, there went casual-ness! But as she kept talking, the stories of her life flowed, devoid of stiffness or any sort of carefully practiced articulation...just plain and simple stuff.

Of her fathers workshop on MG Road (I think there was more than one) where all the fancy cars in Bangalore were worked on. Including the Maharaja of Mysore's car, which her father supposedly took them for a ride in one night. I imagined a bunch of excited children with their father, a gleaming smile on his face as he drove them around on a moonlit night - I call that one 'A night in the Maharaja's car'

Of quietly smoking a cigarette and letting her sister take the blame - 'Sneaky Sister'

Of her darker skinned Anglo Indian friend, calling her 'Indian' in a derogatory way and my nani
feeling very insulted - 'With friends like these who needs enemies?'

Of marrying my nana when she was 18 and leaving her sheltered life in Bangalore to live on army bases and life in Northern India, an alien culture to her.  Meeting my nana's family in Sialkot and gradually learning to understand some Punjabi and passing on all the food that she didn't like to my nana :) 'The Great Divide'

Of partition and taking a train to drop my nana's sister back to what then became Pakistan. Of sitting in silence, in darkened carriages and wearing large crosses around their necks and calling each other with westernized/anglicized names to protect themselves from being mistaken for Muslims or Hindus  - 'Dolly and David take a train'

Of the Sutlej overflowing and being caught in the flood, too embarrassed to get out of the water when my nana and some army jawans tried to pull her out. The current had peeled her sari off , a proper upbringing making her think it may actually be better to drown than be seen in her petticoat and blouse!  Of being carried on the backs of the jawans on their stilts as they made their way through the water to a makeshift shelter where exhausted and famished, she wolfed down some aloo in a watery gravy and said she thought it was the best thing she had ever eaten.  'Where the River flows'.

There were so many more.  She's not keeping very well nowadays, but when called she always manages to sound cheerful and ready for a joke or a story, even though she may be having a crap day!

So that's Tess...story teller extraordinaire, expert dirty joker, one of the strongest women I know, never forgets to paint her nails and dress up, and can wipe the floor with us when playing rummy...take a bow nani!