Grandmothers and Granddaughters: The Walk Home From School

When I was a child and too young to walk alone, my grandmother would pick me up from where the bus would drop me after school.

I would get off at a little grassy knoll near the INA market. To get home, I had to cross a busy road and walk through Dilli Haat (full of fond childhood memories of the infamous momos there) and pass through many rows of houses that looked disappointingly the same – fading blue paint on colonial architecture with a front lawn and a backyard nobody cared about. There was an occasional expression of individuality in the form of a potted plant or an old Christmas star swaying in the breeze long after the last crumbs of plum cakes had been brushed off the table.

My house was the 27th of those houses (I’ve counted) – the bungalows had been built for English officials working in colonial India and came complete with a fireplace. The government then converted the bungalows into residences for officials. The new residents, ever-resourceful, converted the fireplaces into a variety of creative-use spaces (talk about jugaad). Our own became a safe spot for building card-houses. Safe, because it was sheltered from the determinedly destructive wind from the fans that ran incessantly through the summers. The fans were a necessary addition to the ACs and desert coolers that make Delhi summers bearable.

Dry and dusty, summer in Delhi is a test of survival. In the sweltering heat of May, the harsh sunlight would play tricks on your eyes, and the tarred roads would appear to be little puddles of glistening oil. I wondered how the cars ran on the watery tarmac until I was introduced to the concepts of light refraction and mirages.

My grandmother and I would wade through the liquid roads each day after school during the hottest part of the day. She would bring me a packet of Lay’s, usually blue or green (red was a disappointment and yellow an unspeakable abomination) but we quickly realised that packaged potato chips every day were unsurprisingly but heartbreakingly unhealthy. But I needed an after-school snack to munch on during the 15-minute walk, and we were loath to let go of potatoes.

So, my grandmother would make these fried potatoes seasoned with red chilli powder and salt, dripping with oil stained red by the spices. She would pack them in a bit of aluminium foil. The foil crushed the potatoes into a little ball of spicy wonder that I would eat on the way home, devouring it savagely with scant regard for social propriety and notions of decent consumption of food in public spaces. My fingers and mouth would be splattered with the fiery red oil.

The potatoes were fried, yet not crispy. They were well-cooked on the inside with golden-brown skin. But the real magic was in the spice mix. In later years, I tried many times to recreate that flavour unsuccessfully. It had only red chilli powder and salt, two ubiquitous household ingredients, but mine never tasted the same. That is the price of nostalgic re-creation. Something is always lost, and most often, it is the most important thing.

One day, I saw a hornbill fly across the road. I was certain it was a Grey hornbill; I had learnt about it in school. I had even seen a photograph of one sitting majestically with its horned beak amidst a lush green backdrop. When I told my father about it, he opined it was impossible that a Grey hornbill would be flying around in Delhi. But then, nothing is truly impossible in Delhi.

The hornbill sighting aside, the other fleeting phenomenon my grandmother and I would look forward to spotting was a little purple car. We loved its colour. Looking back, it was a very common Indian car – a Tata Indica. But I had never seen a purple car before, and it seemed to be straight out of a Barbie movie. I was enchanted. Every day, we would wait for a glimpse of that little car speeding away, leaving behind dust and glitter in its trail.

On the day of the mugging, we saw the purple car. It was like an omen. It tooted along, fast and angry through the road, warning us to do the same.

There was a bright red mailbox outside the door to our house. Every day, my grandmother would stop to check it. Across the street was an old wall, covered by plants with tiny multi-coloured buds. It was like a curtain of flowers, the kind that smelled lovely and attracted butterflies as well as oblivious little children. I was fascinated by them. I was looking at the butterflies hovering over them when I heard my grandmother scream. I turned to look and saw a short, stout man in a tight-fitting grey t-shirt running away. My grandmother was on the ground.

The man had snuck up behind her and snatched the gold chain she was wearing, pushed her down and run away. All while I was looking at the butterflies.

Later that day, a policeman with a potbelly and a kind face came to our house. He sat on our green diwan and asked us to narrate the incident while sipping on a glass of lemon juice. Even policemen need to stay hydrated in the summer.

He spoke to the lady next door, who happened to be looking outside the window during the crime. She was terrified of talking to a police officer, but I was excited. When I told him I was looking at the butterflies and did not see anything except the man running away, he laughed. After that, my grandmother resorted to wearing gold-plated jewellery. I wondered how a prospective thief would know the difference.

Grandmothers and granddaughters on after-school walks make for good mugging victims, but the next thug might be disappointed with his spoils.

Sobhana Pramod is a first-year student at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She likes to cook and play with her cats when not mulling about politics.

Featured image credit: Pixabay(representative image)