The transition from staying in a joint family to living in a nuclear family is often not as simple and joyous for children, as it is for adults. I have tried to put on paper an incident from my life (as much as I could recollect) when I didn’t return home from school one day, much to the panic and dismay of my mother.
“Mali-kaka, take me to the old home, mom said so.” I lied through my teeth, just when he was about to take a left turn and change directions. He must have been tired or gullible or careless, probably a bit of each to give in to my demand without a counter question. Or maybe he loved me enough to sense the desperation.
‘Mali’ is a hindi word for gardener and ‘kaka’ is uncle. Till date, I do not know his real name; we called him ‘Mali-kaka’ as longed as he lived. And by profession, he was a gardener indeed! Paddling kids to and fro from school was his overtime, a hard way of earning those extra bucks, considering that he was built thinner than one his 6th grade rider.
He hailed from a remote village in Bengal and like many others, came looking for work to the city as a young adult. Ours was a government colony consisting of bungalows for senior officials. His polite demeanor and hard working attitude soon earned him the up keeping of lush green gardens of all the bungalows and he could be seen all day in the community, going from one yard to another always carrying a tool or a plant.
Few years later, one of the residents offered him some money to drop and pick up their son from the neighboring school and since then, he could be spotted on his bicycle at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. with a couple of kids taking a ride as he paddled away furiously, making a couple of rounds. Parents trusted him and kids like me saw him in and out of the house long before they started going to school.
Up until last month, he used to drop me in front of the red brick bungalow along with the other 2 kids of the adjoining houses. Grandma would be standing at the door, waiting for me. I would jump off the small seat fitted on the center rod of the bicycle and rush into her arms. Many years later, when I mentioned it, Mom said it wasn’t only grandma, she also stood at the door a little behind grandma, but I never saw her. It was as if I was content to be in grandma’s arms and had no need to look any further.
When we moved and left the extended family behind, a lot of things other than just my address changed. They say, children are highly adaptable and that they have superior abilities to welcome change. I guess, I just wasn’t one of those blessed children.
From a huge bungalow and a big joint family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, we moved half a mile away into a modest but an adequate accommodation for our family of three, Mom, Dad and me. For the adults in question, it is perhaps a very natural phenomenon that happens in the course of time; staying in the joint family and slowly moving out to reside in their own space just like the birds who fly out of the nests to find their place in the sky. When I was a kid, for some adults, it never happened, and for those who got the opportunity, it was probably after a decade or two of communal living. For them, the changeover to being a nuclear family brought freedom, privacy and perhaps more happiness. But if you asked the kids, they would beg to differ, I would.
The change in homes hit me hard. The very first day, it felt strange going to school from a different route. When Mali-kaka came to pick me up last, I felt singled out. The other kids rode the bicycle from the same old place and by the time he tinkled the small bell of his bicycle in front of our new home, my favorite seat was already occupied. More than the going part, it was the coming back part I dreaded. The familiarity and comfort of going back home via the same road and ending the ride with all the kids were missing now. I would be the first one to be dropped off and the others would keep on with their chatter and giggles, assured that Mali-kaka had nowhere to go once he dropped them. He would go to his small room constructed at the farthest end of one of the bungalows, take rest and resume with his gardening duties by the time the kids came out to play in the evening.
And more than anything, I missed my grandma at the door. Every late afternoon when I returned from school, the ladies in the house had their tea, sitting around the kitchen in a circle. I would sit next to grandma and she would keep a separate saucer for me besides her tea cup. She would then pour tea from the cup into two saucers, raise one of them to my lips for me to drink the tea and once I was done, she would drink hers from the other saucer. I was allowed two saucers of tea, while she had three. It was only after this tea routine that I changed out of my school uniform and did anything else like having a snack or sit at the desk to finish the homework for that day.
The first few days in the new home, I felt miserable but kept it to myself. I thought, if I felt so lonely, the grownups who had stayed together with each other longer than me, would conclusively figure out this wasn’t working out. But when neither of them showed any signs of reconsideration or gloom, I voiced my misery by whining. But of course, nobody took me seriously. They acknowledged it, even talked about it with neighbors and visitors, “Yes, it is hard on the kids; she misses her old home and her cousins.” But that’s about it. It wasn’t an issue that needed to be addressed or taken care of. It was an expected emotion, a child’s reaction of feeling separated, a memory that would fade away with time, they assumed.
When nobody came to my rescue, I decided to help myself. “Mali-kaka, take me to the old home, mom said so.” I lied through my teeth, on the way back from school this Monday. And as my heart stopped a beat in anticipation, he turned the bicycle in the desired direction. Thank god, it was the 80s’ and so written permission notes or emails or submission of prior-pick up plans from school weren’t a norm.
Grandma was surprised to see me at the door and happily so, I could see. She had questions for me, but she put them on hold, I think. Now, grandma or ‘Jiji’ as I called her really wasn’t my grandma. She was my aunt, my dad’s oldest brother’s wife. But since my uncle and she had raised my Dad since he was 10 years old, they had been automatically bestowed the status of being my grandparents. Not that it mattered to either of us, they had a special place for me in their hearts and I adored them.
I sat down in the kitchen and got ready for a sip from the saucer like the afternoons before we moved out. My other aunt who still lived there, was quick to ask if my mother knew about this adventure. I refused to raise my eyes and kept drinking away from the saucer making a sound that may have sounded like a yes or no, depending on what you wanted the other person to hear. The subsequent portion of tea was already in the saucer and on its way to reach me when the bell rang a couple of times, loud and impatient.
Somebody opened the door and even today, the rest of that afternoon is a blur except for this one sequence of events. My mother stormed inside the kitchen, put the saucer down, slapped me directly across the face on my right cheek and dragged me out of the house, into the waiting Auto Rickshaw. She was shaking with rage and fear (which I NOW know, after being a mother). At that moment, she looked like the meanest mom in this world to me and I even told her so in between sobs.
Strict instructions were given to Mali-kaka, that day on and so none of my future attempts to return to where I thought I belonged were successful.
Today, my daughter is the same age as when I ran away to ‘home’ from school. And when I reflect on that particular incident etched in my memory forever, I see it in newer light. I smile at the sweet innocence of childhood when I thought going back the same road from school would take me to the same place and time forever again. I feel the warmth of grandma’s arms around me and the joyous surprise in her eyes on seeing me at the door, even today, thousands of miles away. I shudder at the mere thought of my daughter not arriving back home from school at the scheduled time. I wince at the horror of what could have been had Mali-kaka not been as trustworthy and I feel guilty about putting Mom through so much panic and stress that day. I wish I could take back my words for calling her the meanest Mom in the world and thankful that she doesn’t remember it today, I don’t know if I could myself be as forgiving as a mother. And I hope my daughter never attempts to do what I did back then, because she is definitely going to get into more trouble than just one tight slap.
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