Jennie was seven when she first met Tai, her father’s sister. Sadashiv, her father, had been longing to return to India after long years of training and then marriage in London but had hesitated to broach the subject with his very English wife. But Sarah surprised him. When he was invited to head a government project in India it was she who insisted that the family move there permanently. Sadashiv knew that the move would be difficult for his two women but he secretly rejoiced. With his wife deciding for the whole family he was off the hook.
–Jennie has to learn about her Indian heritage, she had argued, and I would love to get away from this brolly-wellington weather and pudding-faced commuters. Plus you’ll get to spend some quality time with your sister who’s had a very hard time since her husband passed away.
So off they went. At first it was a great adventure for Jennie, the steamship voyage, the assault of smells and sounds at Bombay Port, the colourful dresses, the elephants and goats jamming the roadways, the intriguing food, everything. Daily life in Nagpur turned out to be more exciting than Queen Elizabeth’s coronation which Jennie had watched on the telly back home. So much so that she didn’t mind that T.V. had not yet come to India. India was a daily soap opera.
But the adventure had begun to turn stale. The first few weeks in Tai’s strict Brahmin household were a strain. Tai, for starters, offered no tea and sympathy as English aunties did. She was a rather dour and demanding creature. And she was weird, to say the least. She shaved her head, as if she were trying to get rid of lice, only wore a plain white sari through which her pendulous breasts could be clearly seen (why on earth didn’t she wear a blouse!), walked around the house barefoot and eschewed sugar, soap and other “luxuries.” Sadashiv explained that Hindu widows were expected to lead a life of penance but that argument didn’t sit well with Jennie and Sarah.
Tai had a complex set of rules that she enforced with an iron fist. First, you removed your sandals upon entering the house. Then you washed your feet near the well with a brass vessel full of water provided for that purpose, after which you shook off the excess droplets of water and sat on the floor. If you had to go to the toilet, you went around to the back of the house, grabbed another container with water and balancing yourself over a hole on the floor you cleaned yourself (left hand, please!) as best you could. Unless you performed this ritual before your morning bath you were not allowed to eat breakfast.
Mealtimes were fun, though, especially during festivals. First you sat on the floor along the verandah wall and waited for the meal to begin. One of the men in the family would sprinkle water around his food tray while he chanted Sanskrit verses. When he fiddled with the sacred thread slung over his bare shoulder you knew you could start eating (right hand please!) while Tai and some other aunties bent over to pile food on the brass thalis. If you had had enough you waved your hand (right hand, please!) over your thali. But you had to time it well otherwise your hand would be scalded with a ladleful of hot curry, but Jennie was getting quite skilled at that. Ah, and as they served you, you had to take care not to touch the glass or the chapatti while it was still in the other person’s hand.
All in all, Jennie managed to adapt but Sarah was having a hard time. She was a flexible person but was irked at the irrationality of all this mumbo jumbo. And Tai hadn’t been helpful at all. She had responded to Sarah’s request to let her help with the cooking -– and to learn how to make some Indian dishes — by expressly forbidding her and Jennie to enter the kitchen. That was her sanctum. That was where she kept her sari strictly reserved for kitchen use. She did, however, allow her brother to enter the kitchen, not that he was interested.
This saddened Jennie and angered Sarah, who railed against a system that she despised.
Sadashiv was caught between a rock and a hard place. He felt he had left his sister to cope by herself in India while he had a grand time abroad. He also blamed himself for having been the one who taught her the sacred texts and the strictures that a high-caste person was bound to observe. But his years abroad and his student activism had opened his eyes to the arrogance and unfairness of his former privileged life. One of his first gestures while a student in England was to remove the sacred thread he kept hidden under his shirt. The second one was to eat a sausage and drink a pint at the university pub with his class mates. The third one, inevitably, was to bed and marry a woman who was the antithesis of all the traditional girls decked out in their gold and silk finery that he had met at weddings back home.
–Sarah, Jennie, I know that many of Tai’s rules don’t make sense anymore but they did once upon a time. Washing one’s feet after hitting the streets is just a sensible sanitary precaution. So is sprinkling water around the food tray so that the dust settles.
–Right, but why does your sister have to change her sari when she enters the kitchen? It isn’t a bloody operating theatre, for heaven’s sake! And when I tried to help her carry a heavy bucket of water she pushed me away and yelled that I should never touch her!
–Sarah, the child…
–I’m not a baby, dad. But why aren’t mum and I allowed in the kitchen? We’re clean, we aren’t pa-ri… untouchables like the sweepers here.
Sadashiv shook his head.
–In her books you are. You eat meat so she considers you impure.
–Come on, Sadi, don’t give us any of that hogwash. You’ve broken all these idiotic rules and yet she thinks you’re OK.
–Well, I guess it’s because I was born a Brahmin and I’m her brother.
–Right! Your sister’s racist, that’s all.
Sadashiv felt defeated but hoped things would get better once they got their own house.
And they did. Jennie was enrolled in a convent school where the nuns also had their rules but were rather fun at the end of the day. Sarah went about setting up her household. There was an untouchable who swept and cleaned the toilets, a cook who only cooked vegetarian dishes, a dhobi who only laundered the sahib’s clothes but did a wonderful job of starching and folding his shirts, a gardener who could be left to his own devices and a washerwoman who was hard-working but refused to launder the women’s underwear. Sarah had to enlist Sadashiv’s help.
–Have a chat with her, Sadi. I don’t mind washing underwear but this is rather absurd.
After Sadashiv’s chat the underwear was included in the laundry basket.
–What a miracle, Sadi! Did you offer her a raise or what?
Sadashiv smiled smugly.
–All I did was explain to her that as my wife and daughter you have both acquired Brahmin status and that was that.
–You must be kidding!
Come Easter, which also coincided with Holi that year, Sarah invited Tai for lunch at her new home. She made sure all her dishes, both Western and Indian, were vegetarian so as not to offend Tai. That woman was impossible but she was, after all, her husband’s sister and she had been very generous with her hospitality.
Tai arrived in a cycle rickshaw with a bundle of sweets and some strung jasmine flowers for the ladies’ hair. As a widow Tai never ate sweets and did not wear flowers but she enjoyed looking after all these niceties. Sarah curbed her impulse to hug her and led her inside the house. After some awkward chit chat they sat down to eat. As Sarah was about to serve her guest of honour, Tai waved her hand over her plate and shook her head.
–What’s the matter, Tai, are you not feeling well?
–I’m fine, I’m just not that hungry.
Sadashiv and Sarah exchanged a puzzled look.
–Sister, my wife has gone to a lot of trouble to make a strictly vegetarian meal just for you and now you don’t want to eat!
—Arre, a banana and a cup of tea will do.
–I just don’t understand you!
Sadashiv got up, flung his napkin on the table and stormed out. Jennie’s voice trailed behind him.
…Dad, I understand. I do. Bananas have a thick skin and hot tea is sterile. Tai is just following a sensible sanitary precaution.