“Naanu, what is the purpose of life?”
I lounge before him, testing what insight he might have for me. Unbothered by such questions, he says life mostly passes by in our little routines. He starts going through the stages of life (as applied to him at least): when we’re babies we start by playing around, then school becomes our aim, and so on. He describes how he went from place to place looking for a job after graduation, landing responsibilities with casually-made decisions. He skims over the years, “In 1967, I started working, in 1969, I was engaged. I told my boss to delay my transfer because that month I had to give this exam and get married. Then I got a project here…”
I’m engrossed by it all.
My Naani, who’s been occupied with her routine and listening uninterestedly — save for little nudges reminding Naanu to stop chatting and go shower — now jumps in with a raised voice, “So when I was a little girl and used to go to school…” she says mockingly.
Her humour is a front; a thin veil on her need for attention. I get annoyed, unable to understand why she can’t just let me listen to Naanu. There was a long way to go in his story. His unwavering nonchalance with the world makes him more interesting.
But she’s talking now, so I listen. She tells me bits of how she grew up, jumping then to getting married and coming to Delhi.
She had always wished to keep living in her home-state, Himachal, but had to come here as a bride. Two days in at her new household, and she was already being chided for waking up late. “At 6 am!” she chaffs. Naanu’s family of his parents and seven siblings would have meals in the morning before leaving for their respective workplaces. Naani would have to prepare the meals on time for them all, struggling to ignite the unfamiliar angithi, fanning coal as she hunched and offered it sweat. Its crude mechanics had to be coerced to cooperate with her image of virtue.
Seeing her struggle, her brother-in-law would secretly sneak in a spoon of kerosene in the initial days to help. Naani would bring out quick successions of rotis to the table where the family neatly sat, before getting to leftover scrubbing. Later in the afternoon, she could get around to her three cold rotis from the morning, to be downed with the cold dal, with nothing to heat them up but that ignoble angithi. The hunger was enough for her to eat the meal enthusiastically.
I ask who prepared the meals before her. She shrugs and says now that there was a bahu, why would anyone work? I cannot help but think of how everyone in that house was probably just waiting to have someone come in and take over the chores. It makes sense that marriage has historically been about exchanging women. Her mother-in-law’s escape from that life would’ve been to wait for a new bride too, I suppose.
Did Naani know what she was in for? She does keep telling me to learn housework in preparation for married life. I suppose she was prepared more intensely. But could she have guessed the silent isolation of having to serve everyone first? All this while the ghoonghat was pulled over her face? It must’ve been very hot.
She would then go on to do all the dishes and wash everyone’s clothes. Down from the wintery mountains where she grew up, she sometimes poured water over the cement floor and would lie there. In the evening, when Naanu was in town, they would sometimes sneak out to get ice-cream or roam around Connaught Place. I smile, I never saw them as a young couple before.
When Naanu was not in town, she would have to quietly return to her room. Naanu was living the officer life – that he so distinctly remembers in his story, at his on-site Himachali station. Naani longed to go there too. I wonder if he thought about Naani enough for her to be in the story. She didn’t seem to be.
I turn back to raise my eyebrows at Naanu. “Why’d you do that to her?”
“Huh, what happened?”
“Why did she have to do all the work for everyone?”
He says he too went out to earn for everybody. His immediate response shows how fair he believes the justification to be.
I don’t think he sees that he was at the top of wherever he was — Naani says this too. He would put on his tie and go to the office where everyone waited to salute him. There was dignity in his work. Perhaps more importantly, he could choose what to do and where to go.
I’ve long judged my Naani for her self-esteem. How she doesn’t do things for herself, instead complicating them because her desires do not feel valid enough to her. If she wants dessert, she will press others in the room relentlessly until someone else wants it too. With that excuse, she can then eat her own. The thought of enjoying something by herself? Horrific.
It’s now clear why this is so.
I think about my mom. She lived the ‘70s joint-family life, which I idealised. She mentioned how living with so many people wasn’t all that fun. Yet, growing up, I couldn’t help but think of its charm — friends and acquaintances dropping in unannounced, the creativity involved in finding droll entertainment, spontaneous singing in the garden with the neighbours. Lively.
I never thought of the ones slogging in the background, catering to everyone else’s life. But my mom got married and lived with just her husband. Her equal. She has the self-esteem Naani doesn’t. And my life is affords me even more freedoms than hers. I feel a surge of gratitude towards the women who came before me. I wonder if I could ever learn to love or respect myself, much less get anywhere in life, if I were born two generations ago or in a different household.
Naani did eventually go with Naanu to his posting in Himachal once my mom and uncle were born. She lived there with the pride of a restful life. She keeps mentioning just how many servants they had — collecting some contentment in having people follow her orders, displacing her experience of gender onto the class of others. She could breathe in the step farms, kicking up her feet as she adjusted for space in her slot of the hierarchy. She employed her education and teaching experience to rise to the position of a principal in a high school. A working, respected lady.
The responsibility of all his younger siblings, however, still weighed on Naanu’s heart, and soon he decided to come back to Delhi. If he’d gone on relating his life’s timeline to me, he would’ve probably mentioned when exactly his father died, how he approached his manager to get back to Delhi, and the logistical and career decisions that went into it.
Naani simply states, with a surrendered smile, that they then came back to Delhi. And how she went back to the kitchen to start scrubbing.
Shreya Sharma is a student of Ashoka University, studying Literature and International Relations.