Going back from sixteen to six – when I was in Calcutta. The neighborhood that I stayed in Salt Lake City was surprisingly mostly a neighborhood of Marwadis and North Indians and I was exposed to very little Bengali because most of the neighbors and area kids spoke Hindi. As a result of this, within 2-3 months of living there, I became very fluent in Hindi but lost the fluency when I moved back to Bangalore.
Unlike in Bangalore where most adults and teachers insisted that we should speak English at home and school, everyone there was conversing mostly in Hindi and were not very good at English. Because of the sudden move to Calcutta as well as financial constraints, I was admitted to a below average neighborhood school that had just been established. This was quite disheartening because I was studying in one of the oldest and best girls’ schools in Bangalore till then. Later moved to a co-ed in Bangalore when I returned.
Since the Calcutta school had just been opened, it had very few students. There were only 8 students in my class and I was the ninth one to join. All the teachers were called “aunties” and most of them spoke quite bad English or Bengali or Hindi. It would have continued to be very depressing if not for Tania – who was the tenth student to join our class.
Her family had just moved to Calcutta from South Africa and she also had a problem getting admission into a better school. But she was from a good school back in Johannesburg and could speak English well. We became very close friends and were always together. She also lived in Salt Lake City, but somewhat far from my neighborhood, so I never met her after school hours. She would tell me interesting stories about South Africa – about her father who had been dealing with elephants and ivory etc. Though I was only eight years old when I left Calcutta, I actually kept in touch with her via letters and postcards for almost two years, before I slacked and stopped. Still vaguely remember her address that I wrote letters to and will try to check her up if I visit the city, but have no idea whether her family owned the house or rented it.
After school, I used to hang out with quite a big gang of kids near my house, we played various games and always spent some time at the house of a Punjabi lady. She had a couple of kids who were around my age and was very boisterous, fun and spent a lot of time with us. I’ll refer to her as “Bollywood aunty” because she was very much into Hindi films and played a lot of film songs in her house. When we all would gather to play, she would very often make “chaat” and other snacks for us. Then she would divide us into groups and make us play “Antakshari” that I used to really enjoy. So apart from becoming fluent in Hindi, I picked up a lot of knowledge on Hindi songs as well. Sometimes she would tell us stories of the films she had seen and her favorite actor was “Amitabh Bachchan”. Though I never actually saw many of his movies, I knew most of the stories 🙂 🙂
She would also treat us to “puchka” (panipuri) often whenever the vendor came by. I had been strictly prohibited by my uncle to not have any street food because it can cause serious illness, however, could never resist it. I never understood why only I was forbidden to have them, while all other children are happily consuming them. Also surprisingly, despite having an American Ph.D., my uncle turned out to be quite wrong about the illnesses. Never had even a single episode of illness after eating puchkas!! But, he would complain without fail whenever my mom visited that the main problem with me was that I eat a lot of food in neighbor’s houses, despite being told not to do so. Besides this issue, he was okay with whatever I did, unlike Ammamma (grandmother).
I happened to be the only South Indian child in the whole group that would gather in Bollywood aunty’s house, and she would always tease me and say lightheartedly “Aparna, when are you going to get some idlis for me? It’s a long time since I had some idlis”, or “Did you remember to bring idlis today” etc. I had absolutely no idea that she was only joking and took her words very seriously. And this issue became a huge problem for me.
Though idlis were prepared very often in our house, it would be very difficult for me to take some for her. I knew that my aunt would be okay with the idea, but not Ammamma. She was already complaining every day that my parents were not sending enough money to cover our school fees and other expenses and would be very mad if I wanted to distribute things to neighbors. So this problem was weighing me down heavily and I was scared that the aunty would not allow me to play in her house unless I took some idlis for her soon.
One day, when the breakfast was idlis, I told my aunt that I was much more hungry than usual and wanted four idlis instead of usual two. I got the four idlis in a plate with chutney powder – some days we had chutney and at other times, it would be chutney powder. At the moment when I thought that everyone at home was busy and wouldn’t notice, I ran to the aunty’s house with the plate of idlis and knocked on her door aggressively.
She was surprised to see me so early in the morning, and even more surprised to see the plate of idlis that was looking quite messy and not very appealing. However, she took it and thanked me and told me that she’ll return the plate later. I was too nervous and anxious and missed the fact that everyone would get to know that I’ve given her idlis when she returns the plate. So, I went to school, as usual, relieved that my problem is solved.
When I returned in the afternoon, I saw my aunt and Ammamma sitting in the verandah looking very angry, and as though they were waiting for me. Then my aunt took out a plate and showed it to me and asked “What’s the meaning of this? Since when have you started doing such things? Why did that aunty return this and say you’ve given her idlis today morning?” And she added, “You could have just told me truthfully that you wanted to give her some, I would have packed enough in a box and sent them with some good chutney and not with that old chutney powder. There are more than four people in her house and you gave her only four! They’ll think that I’m really cheap while you keep eating so much stuff in their house.” etc. etc.
Of course, after this outburst, Ammamma took over and added a lot more to it, and she continued adding to it for a long, long time to come. There were two major outcomes from this unfortunate incident – Bollywood aunty stopped asking for idlis, and I started hating them.