Megha S Nath | January 2023
Katya is my grandmother. No, I have no Russian ancestry. She was named Katyayini but probably went by more aliases than Charles Sobhraj. This was a result of her long and difficult-to-pronounce name being morphed by people.
She handed out a glass of warm milk and turmeric to all of us kids who sat in a row. It was 8pm and although we held the opinion that it was sacrilege to go to bed so early, we had no choice.
She dumped the bedrolls, mattresses, pillows, and other paraphernalia in a corner of the sprawling living room, thereby emitting a small cloud of dust. “Better sleep early, all of you,” she instructed as she turned off the powerful lamp that lit the hall. The one left on now was breathing its last, dangling from a grimy red and blue intertwined wire. Sateesh, my aunt’s son, whispered, “you think this bulb is as old as her?” and it set off a riot of laughter amongst all of us cousins who had gathered at Rajapur, a tiny town, for the summer vacations.
Granny’s house was always a place for fun stories and adventure, a perfect holiday spot. For me, it was the only place where I was not embarrassed by the fact that my mother had six siblings, each with two children and that made a dozen of us. Ajji loved us to bits but pretended to be a disciplinarian. I don’t blame her. Imagine having a dozen troublemakers around! She did all the cooking as she liked no interference in her kitchen. I guess that was her way of having some peace. Our parents helped with sourcing raw materials for the same, outdoor tasks like fetching water and cleaning. Needless to add, we, the infamous twelve, were practically useless.
The houses or rather bungalows in this small town were of the British Raj era. Huge windows, tall pillars and ventilators (which were called gawakshis), in the walls and ceilings were characteristic. Summer afternoons were hot and people usually went to bed a little earlier than in the cities due to pure exhaustion. Besides, there was nothing else to do.
We were bored to death once we were done playing and gossiping. Used to late dinners and constant snacking, the hunger pangs got the better of us often. We then feasted on roasted peanuts and chickpeas that we stole from Katya’s well-endowed storeroom. The terraces were all connected and one could just jump from one house to another. We children of the locality, therefore, shared rooftops and midnight sob stories.
One evening as we played gully cricket our neighbour Anil who was a hardcore Sridevi fan gushed, “Chandni has been released in theatres and it seems Sridevi is looking like a Goddess.” We could see the admiration and the yearning in his eyes. My cousin Deepu who was also a fan joined in, “Eh, Anil, shall we go watch the movie?”
We stared at him and his bravado open-mouthed, “Katya will skin us alive,” I yelled.
He kicked the ball in disgust. “Yeah! Kids from respectable families don’t go to tents to watch movies!” he said, imitating her mannerisms. We laughed even in this little heartbreak.
There were no theatres in Rajapura, just tents which were makeshift sheds that had huge white cloth screens. People sat on floors and wooden benches borrowed from the nearby school. Hence shows were only late at night.
“I am going. Sneaking out tomorrow. If anyone wants to join, let me know. My friend is getting tickets,” Anil declared with a snobbish air about him.
“Sneaking out?” Deepu seemed interested. “How?”
“Idiot. Just keep jumping over all roofs. Once we reach the road end we’ll hit the road with the help of the berry tree in Pujari’s house.” The ease with which Anil said that we knew he had tried it earlier. He looked proud of his proposal.
We looked at each other and the plan was hatched. It would be the next night. We quickly pitched in money that we had got as gifts from our parents and a fund was ready.
The following night, Katya didn’t have to persuade us to sleep. We went to bed without a whimper. After an hour when we made sure the entire household was sleeping, we rose to the occasion.
Suresh, our oldest cousin, had his room on the first floor of the three-storeyed building. Every floor had just one room and open space. This was our dressing room for the night. We quickly changed into our best clothes and followed the plan of operation.
We were careful while jumping lest we wake up someone who was not yet in deep slumber. I forgot to add that most people slept on the terrace to enjoy the cool breeze.
So it was roof hopping till Pujari’s house and then a rendezvous with Chandni. Sridevi looked ethereal and with dreams of a romance like that, we walked out of the tent after the movie. We were famished. An emotional roller coaster of a movie, it drained all our calories. Unlike cities, there was no popcorn or cold drinks here. Only goli soda and masala dosa. Now 13 people eating dosas would mean so much more time. It wasn’t a risk worth taking. Suresh suggested we quickly gulp down the sodas and have the dosas packed. We could sit on our terrace and eat in peace. The idea seemed brilliant to us and it was implemented.
As we walked back home with our dosas bundled in banana leaves Anil stopped. “I just saw a friend you guys carry on. I’ll go home a bit late.”
We nodded. It was too risky staying out longer anyway. “I’ll eat on your terrace, my mom sleeps on ours, the masala dosa aroma will wake her up,” he added.
“This idiot will get all of us killed if he gets caught,” Suresh muttered.
Anil heard that. “Don’t worry even if I’m trapped, Sridevi kasam man, I won’t put you guys in trouble.” We could only giggle at his madness and walked ahead.
A few minutes after we reached home, we ate quickly and quietly crawled into our beds. After a while, the huge lamp in the hall was turned on. We were horrified. Were we trapped?
No, it was Katya who came hobbling and wailing, waking up the entire clan! She sat in the middle of the hall clutching her knee. She smelt of various ayurvedic oils and ointments.
Mom slapped her forehead ” Oh! it’s her knee pain again. She will bring the house down now.”
Sudha, our youngest cousin, whispered, “House down? But Anil Anna must be there,” she pointed to the roof. “Shut up, over smart idiot” I scolded. “Just watch.” She understood the assignment and kept mum.
Mom looked irritated. “Bah! Drama and we are inseparable.”
Dad quietly pushed his spectacles higher up on his nose and smiled. A gesture which meant “Yeah, I know.”
This got mom more agitated but she wisely decided not to add to the pandemonium.
Ajji was crying, shouting rather. She began calling out the names of all the Gods we knew. “Shankara, Mahadeva, Vasudeva Krishna…..”
Neeta my elder sister quipped “she’s not mentioning even one Goddess. Only God huh! Patriarchy!”
Mom gave killer looks that made her stop mumbling.
Ajji went on, “Mata Durga, Amba Bhavani….”
Neeta smiled. “That’s
like a good girl.”
We laughed, our chins buried in our necks.
Suresh sauntered down the stairs pretending to be sleepy. What a fine actor he was, I told myself. Probably this is what dad means when he says, “Acting is in your blood,” to mom.
“Oh, is Ajji planning an all-night bhajan? You didn’t tell us?” Suresh blurted and proved dad’s theory right.
Even my otherwise quiet aunt smirked at this. My uncle looked proud at his son’s wisecrack.
“She’s having knee pain. You know how she reacts” he added.
Mom tried to salvage the situation” Amma we’ve just given you tablets. It will take time to act. Relax and try sleeping” she softly said, hoping to calm down Ajji. But Katya being Katya, went on. “Ramachandraaa,” she called out, “If my husband was around he would have found a way to make me feel better.”
This was getting more dramatic and interesting now. The giggles were getting audible. Some kid whispered, “Man.. get out the popcorn. The real movie is screening here.”
My uncle decided she would calm down only with mind games when she saw some effort. He decided to go fetch some Parijat leaves and make a concoction of it. On drinking of which her pain would be alleviated. “I’ll go pluck some leaves from the terrace,” he said and marched out to the stairs. We looked bewildered. What if Anil was around, savouring his dosa? Doom was inevitable.
We looked at each other’s faces. Suresh ran after uncle, “Mama wait I’ll do it” but it was too late. Mama had already reached the roof.
Meanwhile, Katya was looking heavenwards for a miracle from her dear husband.
Anil was on our roof as planned and was about to unwrap his dosa when he was spotted by my uncle. In his excitement, he tossed the dosa and fled.
Proving that it was a jinxed day for us, the dosa fell into the waiting arms of Katya through the gawakshi. Eleven scared faces watched as the dosa ‘ air-dropped ‘ into her lap.
She wiped her eyes with her Madurai sungudi saree end. “Shankara Devaa….my husband sent me medicine,” she exclaimed and unwrapped the packet only to be startled.
My mom’s sister had by now gotten a rough idea of the situation and was laughing like a crazy woman. Suresh’s face peeped down from the ventilator in shock. Mama stood behind him exhibiting all avatars of Ravana.
“Since when has heaven begun making dosas that smell like the ones from Shetty canteen?” Katya questioned as she placed the masala dosa dripping with butter, on her forehead “my Swamy’s prasadam ” she said.
Sudha quipped. “Seriously is she that dumb?”
Katya heard that and winked at her in reply.
Deepu sheepishly pointed out what he noticed. The movie tickets that Katya had tied in her saree end. In our urgency, we had dropped them when we had entered and sure enough, it had fallen into the hands of our ever-alert Ajji.
Somewhere in the distance we also heard a boy wail in pain as choicest abuses rented the air.
Megha S Nath is a dental surgeon and loves the world of books. Writing has been something that she enjoyed since childhood. She has self-published a book of short stories ‘By two coffee and other stories brewed in Bangalore’ in October 2021.
Photo via Unsplash
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