For one school year, when I was eleven, my family lived in two cities in the northern plains – one, an ancient city, which according to Hindu mythology defies time itself, and the other, a former village now galloping towards urbanization, on the brink of a new millennium. We also belonged to two large families living in a third city, on the southern coast line, but except during the summer vacations when we spent time with them, my sister and I didn’t count them as ours. This extended family included businessmen, housewives, office clerks, milkmen, watchmen, high school students, middle school students, unemployed, government employees, and retired army men. My father, a draughtsman, had removed himself from this lot when an opportunity presented itself to him, and after marrying my mother, moved to Varanasi in 1987. I was born the following year.
Varanasi is an important city to the Hindus, chiefly affirmed by the Sanskrit scriptures, which praise the city as Shiva’s and as an important pilgrim site. But, to my family, more importantly to my sister and me, we would learn much later, moving to the city was a climb out of the tight socioeconomic reality that our extended family lived under. As young children, I remember we lived a different life than that of our parents, or it was that they had created a thin separation between them and us. My sister and I frolicked in and with toys, used new stationery each school year, and wore clean clothes. We read English comics, invented games, and were oblivious that the house our parents had rented was not ours. We dreamed, while our parents worked, most of it, hard work.
When we were not at school, my sister and I spent most of our time at home with our mother. We would have her completely for us in the evenings, when she would sit us down next to her to do schoolwork; for those few hours, my sister and I pretended that we were attending evening school, our pigtails neatly made, carrying our schoolbags, making one complete circle of the room, to enter our pretend-classroom. But when mother was not available, we would pass time, playing cricket or You Can’t Touch the Wall game, an ingenious game played with a ball and a hockey stick, invented by us. Or when it was too hot and we couldn’t play, we would spy on the people walking up and down the road. On one afternoon, by chance we saw a grunge-looking man dump an empty bottle of alcohol in the vacant plot next to ours. I noted the time and remembered to be in the balcony the next day. On the second day, to our excitement, the man dumped two empty bottles of alcohol. The investigation kept us worked up, until one day the man saw us spying on him. We ran, shutting the balcony door behind us. That put an end to it.
When the school closed for the summer break, we travelled to Madras, the city that our parents called home. This is where they said we truly belonged, but to us, the difference was not visible. Besides, we were too busy being the favourite cousins or nieces, who were to be pampered during their short stay, and who needed to be taught games and tricks. There is a picture of me with two male cousins, who were training me to play cricket with an actual leather ball. I am wearing a frilly frock in this picture, and a red bucket hat covering my shaven head, holding the heavy cricket bat in position before the wicket, with help from the older one.
But among these many cousins, I shared a particular bond with Geetha. A year older than me, she and I were firstborns oddly-paired by circumstances. She was dark-skinned with knobby joints and a large forehead. I was round, with bowed legs and dark. So, on those long summer days, the St. Bede’s Ground, with its rows of rain-trees and Indian lilacs, became our hideout, where we felt less ugly. There, dressed only in our shimmies and panties, we played marbles or dug the granular earth beneath us for finding water. We would often return home, covered in sand and dirt, and with itchy bumps on our arms and legs, bites from the red ants on the rain-trees. But we would always return the next day, and the next. Sometimes we talked.
“Does your father beat you?”
“My mother doesn’t like me.”
I believed her and was believed by her in return. So, in most pictures from those years, both of us stood side by side, holding each other, by just a finger.
* * *
When my father learned about his transfer, he waited for a year before uprooting us. Our parents sat us down one evening, and explained what was to follow, what this promotion and transfer meant for the family, and to us. At the end of the conversation, which would be the last of its kind, my sister and I believed that Gurgaon was a city of dreams, waiting to embrace us, and that we had moved upward.
“What does that mean?”
“We will have more money. We will live in a bigger house.”
“Bigger than this one?”
My father moved out first. It was decided that we would have to stay back till the end of the school year. I was in the sixth grade and my sister was in the fourth. It was stressed, especially by our father that we would have to study harder and score better, if we wanted to enrol in a good school in the new city. That advice was soon forgotten, because before he left, he gave us each a hundred rupee note. My sister and I were elated, holding the crisp new bill in our hands, and imagining what we could do with it. When we asked mother, she told us to save the money. Each month, without delay, my sister and I started receiving money from our father, and we saved it in our little money-purse. In the winter, when the school introduced a wool blazer as part of the uniform, we bought them with the money that we had saved. We felt proud when we told our father about it.
I remember, one summer, for two months, my father didn’t receive his paycheque. For those two months, we had tabs running at various places including the grocery store and with the vegetable vendor. We didn’t go to Madras that year. My mother saved empty milk packets, old bottles, and scraps for selling them. I don’t remember how our parents managed but that was the first time, I thought that we were poor. So if father’s new promotion was a way out, we were excited, inside and out. And it looked so, at least for a while. When my father first returned for a short visit, he came back with a small Casio keyboard (a waste, according to mother), two brand new school bags, and a student Oxford dictionary. On his next visit, he came back empty-handed and changed.
At the end of the school year, we busied ourselves with the move. My sister and I were part of the work, but mostly, we picked up a random item and spoke from our memories, a story or two about it. There were many. There was my old baby walker, which had enabled my sister and me to walk independently and for leisure. There was the little red tricycle – another item that had been shared between us – which had lured my baby sister to stand on it, resulting in her big fall. In our house, before we used ice cubes in drinks, we had used them to reduce the bump on her head. That night, I swore to God that I will stop hating my sister and always protect her. There were many things, many memories, and many stories. Crouched over our playthings, we nodded yes or no to our parents’ questions; we learned that not all things move on with us.
It took us a week to put twelve years into boxes of different sizes and importance.
* * *
Last year, my father and sister went to Varanasi, as a walk down the memory lane and to get his driving license renewed. It was planned as a family trip. But I have learned over the years that not everyone wants to travel back to their past. In our family, it was my mother who did not want to do back, so I stayed with her. As a token, my father and sister visited most places that we had frequented as a family before – the river Ganges, the Goudaulia market, the Shivala ghat, the Kashi-Vishvanath temple, the house that we lived in, and the shops that ran our tabs in the neighbourhood. When I asked my sister what she thought about the city now, she said, the city had remained the same as we had left it. Of course, there were changes – new buildings were erected on old foundations, people we had known had died, the river looked older, and the markets were brighter. But the city was still the same and so were its stories. I believed her. After all, that is what all scriptures also say, Varanasi is an ancient city that defied time itself.