I remember vividly, my fifteenth birthday. All these years
later, the events of that day still stand before me in sharp focus. The passage of time has dulled nothing.
I had a birthday party – the last time I had one. It was my
farewell to childhood and a carefree, uncomplicated way of looking at life. And
the beginning of acute self-consciousness and self-awareness, of a mindfulness
of my (probably imagined) flaws, my mother’s moodiness
and frequent silences, my father’s eagerness to please, the creaking strains in
the relationships between the members of my family.
That year, my birthday fell on a Saturday, so the party was held on the actual day itself. I did not enjoy any part of it, not the new clothes my parents got me (hopelessly unfashionable), not the presents I received from my friends (each one of them instantly recognizable as being recycled from other birthday parties) and least of all, the party itself. It was an embarrassing and strained affair, with long moments of un-party- like silence and unenthusiastic participation in the games my father had organized, which were far better suited for a seven year old's birthday party.
I had invited two groups of friends, one from my school, and
one from the neighborhood, and they did not get along. They separated into two
hostile camps, one at each end of the balloon and banner-festooned dining room,
each eyeing the other with the kind of nastiness that only fifteen year old
girls can muster up so effortlessly, while I, with a desperate, fixed smile on
my face, tried to split my time evenly between the two groups, trying to be a
good hostess. I was horribly conscious of the laughing eyes of my friends on my
unfashionable clothes (which my mother forced me to wear), and I was in a state
of uncomfortable torment over the snide comments the school group and the
neighborhood group made about each other.
To add to the awkwardness, my father was quite drunk, all
the better to deal with a dozen eye-rolling, sniggering teenage girls, I
suppose. He threw himself into the planning and organizing of this party, far
more than my mother did. And I got swept along with his enthusiasm, although
later on I did wonder how on earth I agreed to the games he proposed: Pin the
Tail on the Donkey, Musical Chairs, Pass the Parcel. Oh, the shame of it, made
far worse by my father’s prancing about, flinging himself with drunken abandon
into the games, loudly urging the girls to have fun and participate. And all
the while, my mother remained silently in the kitchen, frying up batch after
batch of bondas and vadais. And I remember my grandmother, my father’s mother who stayed with
us, peeping through a crack in the dining room door, only adding to my
fifteen-year old discomfiture and mortification.
It was with a huge sense of relief, then, that I bade farewell to my guests at the allotted time. It was the sign of a failed party that all the guests left en masse at the dot of 6 o’clock. Nobody lingered, nobody begged to be allowed to stay on a little longer. Glad that the ordeal was over, I started to make my way upstairs to my bedroom, to indulge in some solitary angst, but no, I was not to enjoy any peace that evening. My grandmother beckoned to me and asked me to sit beside her.
Let me dispel any notions you might have of a warm and
cuddly grandmother-granddaughter bond. I disliked my grandmother. She had lived
with us ever since I could remember. She
was a bitter, prying, nosy old woman, grim, stern and angular, with no softness
in body or mind. She delighted in
getting me into trouble for the most trivial of offences. She was endlessly
critical of my mother and how she ran the household. Even towards my father,
her only child, there was coolness, a distance, something which was
reciprocated by him.
My grandmother’s “room” was at one end of a long and dark passageway that led to the kitchen and washing area, near the back of the house. In this niche, there was a narrow cot, a Godrej almirah which was always kept locked and which I never once saw opened, a puja shelf with pictures and idols of various gods and goddesses, and a large metal trunk in which she kept her collection of saris. It was a gloomy, poorly ventilated area, with a damp, stale smell that lingered over it. A lamp with a 40 watt bulb, placed precariously on one corner of the puja shelf, provided the lighting. My grandmother, when she was not meddling into domestic or my affairs, spent her time on the cot, praying, or rocking back and forth, muttering about how bad fate had been to her.
As much as possible, I avoided walking down that
passageway. If I had to go to the
kitchen, I would take the longer route, through the dining room. Even though we
both lived in the same house, there was barely any communication between
us. She rarely asked me about my day,
and I never asked her about hers.
So, I was naturally quite surprised when she called out to
me and asked me to come to her. Patting
a space next to her on her cot, she bade me sit down. I did so gingerly, barely
managing to conceal my distaste and lack of enthusiasm. The sharp stench of
urine hung about the bed, and I found it hard to breathe. My grandmother cupped
my chin in her hands and peered into my face. Unaccustomed to this level of physical closeness with her, I sat
stiffly, ill at ease. She then released my chin and dropped her gaze to her
feet, and cleared her throat a couple of times, as if she were unsure of what
to say. I was puzzled: she was a person
who never seemed to be at a loss for words.
Clearing her throat yet again, and gazing fiercely at the row of gods and goddesses on her shelf, she said, “So, you had a birthday party.”
“Yes”, I responded, a bit curtly.
“Well, you didn’t invite me for it, here I am, sitting all alone, nobody to talk to all day, I would have been so happy if you had asked me to come and watch.”
I did not bother to reply to this. Surely, she did not need an invitation to my party – nothing, nobody stopped her from joining the “fun” if she wanted to. Besides, she had been peeping through the door most of the time, so at least she got some vicarious kicks out of the whole thing. She was not going to make me feel guilty, or more miserable than I already was.
But she abandoned this line of thought, and subsided into silence for a few minutes. I got up to go, but she held my hand tightly and pulled me down to her cot. Now she looked directly at me. Her eyes shone hard and bright. She said,
“I have a story to tell you. I think you are old enough for it now.”