The house was always filled with incessant banter, with uncles surrounding the only wooden-framed television set, mothers and grandmothers cooking in small kitchens, and children forever jostling for space. Growing up in a middle-class Gujarati joint family in the 80s was not a cakewalk. Autonomy was irreverent, and co-existence (not always harmonious) was the norm.
My grandfather, a simpleton from Gujarat, moved to Bombay in the 40s. The epitome of a self-made man – he not only established his own business, but also raised a huge family in the burgeoning city of dreams. His struggles, unsparing hard work, and tenacity of making it on his own also meant that he held a tight rein over the household.
My father was forced to join the family business when he was barely a teenager. Although he played a significant role in expanding the business, he had no financial independence – and little changed after his marriage, and the birth of his daughter. My grandfather continued to control the house with an iron fist and a tongue laced with the fiercest temper.
I was a nine-year-old who never complained.
Growing up as a single child, I had none of the special privileges that the stereotype suggests are bequeathed to us. I would often see my parents seeped in worry over finances. Children are usually perceptive and attuned to their parents’ emotions. I was a nine-year-old who never complained. There were no dolls or cooking sets, and the much-coveted Luna Staedtler pencils were not purchased until much later.
I would spend hours being my mother’s ‘helper’ in the kitchen – holding her saree and walking behind her. Evenings were reserved for teaching my diligent student – my father- Bharathnatyam dance steps, followed by mandatory harmonium practice of hindustani classical ragas.
The walls of the balcony, where my grandfather rarely stepped out, were my hiding place. I spent hours recreating stories with my Camlin crayons. But every artist has a bad day, and mine was when my grandfather strolled into the balcony, before my mother could clean the walls. I remember hiding behind my mother while my grandfather reprimanded her. In a fit of rage, he threatened her with severe consequences, including expulsion from the house if she didn’t discipline me.
During my school days, Milton water bottles were the rage. I orchestrated my first-ever tantrum, and refused to go to school without a new bottle. My parents gave in, and I was the proud owner of a maroon Milton water bottle with a beige strap, a shiny logo, and a set of instructions from my mother.
For a nine-year-old, the joy of conforming to peer pressure is irreplaceable. I was the happiest kid in class that day and made sure everyone saw my new bottle. As luck would have it, someone stole my bottle on the very first day. My teachers and the peon launched an exhaustive search operation – combing the entire classroom, canteen and corridors. But the bottle was gone, and I was asked to get a lost property note signed by my mother.
My face was white with fear and I snuck away under a secluded parapet below the stairs where nobody would spot me. I don’t remember how long I sat there. I recollect my mother frantically looking for me, shouting out my name. When she found me – tears rolling down my plump face, uniform soaked in sweat – she was fuming. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you home yet? I’ve been waiting for over two hours!”
I cried – “You said dada doesn’t know we have a new bottle. I didn’t want him to scream at you and ask us to leave the house.” Between stifled sobs, I told her – “I didn’t know where else to go, so I thought I would come home only if I found the bottle.”
My mother picked me up in her arms and burst into tears. I wiped her tears and assured her that I would never ask for another bottle. She bundled me in her arms, took me to the grocery store, and got me a packet of my favourite orange Ravalgaon sweets! The shiny maroon water bottle was already forgotten.
I don’t hold my mother’s saree and walk behind her anymore, but I revere her.
We moved out of the joint family set up, but I continued interacting with my grandfather on a regular basis. I feel immense pride in stating that I have imbibed all his qualities. I am frugal, a disciplinarian, and terribly proud of my achievements. My grandfather and I would have joyously painted the balcony wall if he were still around, I think.
I don’t hold my mother’s saree and walk behind her anymore, but I revere her. That small girl who refused to go home without the water bottle lest her mother face trouble, still considers her mother’s words as set in stone. But the winds of rebellion have started gently blowing in our direction, threatening to disrupt our lovingly nurtured bond ever so often. I still listen to my mother, and keep her warnings in mind, but if I make an error in judgement, I don’t beat myself over it, anymore.
And I always come back home.