Monday, March 16, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 5

Chapter 5 - The Birds

My grandmother is a crafts aficionado. To use a polite term for unhealthy obsession. Some of her work is truly exqusite. But she stores everything - and I mean everything - the peel-off paper tops off of ice-cream cups, coconut shells, sweet wrappers with Lacto-king written on them. At first, it was a charming quirk; then when the house started to overflow with newspapers from the previous century and bottle caps of bottles long lost, it lost its dubious appeal. Someone decided it all had to go.

I don't think my grandmother ever fully got over losing her treasures. A couple of months ago, right after she was bed-ridden, she began making birds from whatever scrap material she could lay her hands on. Scary looking feathers from a hat, tongue depressors, carbon paper. There were gray birds with plastic wings. A cardboard cut out of a pen drawing that looked like a cross between a chicken and a dinosaur. And then insisted on showing them off to anyone who visited. Embarassed visitors would smile and then make some excuse to change the subject.

My aunt would almost die of mortification. It got so bad that the three of us would stiffen up whenever the word 'birds' was mentioned.

I haven't watched Alfred Hitchcock's aviary thriller, The Birds. But I know it has something to do with terrifying feathered denizens of the sky. We experienced the same thrill of horror when Achamma inevitably said, "Geetha, bring the birds. I want to show it to them", referring to whichever hapless victim(s) was visiting her then. My aunt would attempt to bluff it out, "No, they don't want to see that!" But Achamma was adamant. Geetha aunty would then proceed to display them with a ghastly smile.

Things went from bad to worse. Nightmares of embarrassment abounded. We were haunted by the phantoms of those accursed creatures during the day. My aunt decided something had to be done. She hid the birds where (she thought) they would never see light of day again. Everyone breathed easier. Achamma's questions were swept under evasive answers. The maid was vaguely blamed.

I don't know who left the maid unsupervised in Achamma's company. The next time we had visitors (posh relatives from Cochin), Achamma said, "Ah, let me show you the birds."

Achamma: Geetha! The birds!
Aunt: Oh, they're missing! I have no idea where they are. (with a genuine smile of relief)Achamma: No, no, didn't I tell you? They're in that drawer over there - we found them!

(Curtain: Knife-stab music from Psycho)

The House of Four Women - Chapter 4

Chapter 4 - Too Many Cooks

Every Sunday at 4.00 PM, the women in my house settle down to a household ritual. No less sacred or seemingly pointless than any other ritual. Achamma sits up in bed with interest when the clock strikes the hour. "Geetha! Ammu! It's begun!", she calls out in a surprisingly strong voice. My aunt assumes position by her side. Even my placid mother has a gleam of fervour in her eyes as she draws up her chair. From the TV filters the initial theme music of Asianet's "Eastern Cookery Show".

Host: So today we are featuring Chicken Curry...
Achamma: Always non-vegetarian, why can't they show some good vegetarian dishes? In the Bhagvad Gita -
Host: Followed by "Gobi Manchurian" for our vegetarian viewers.
Mom: Anju! Can you bring me a pen? I need to write this down.

My mother has dozens of cookery books. Hundreds of notebooks filled with thousands of recipes that she never makes. My aunt is almost as bad.

Host: The ingredients are, 1 cup coconut, 3 green chillies...
Achamma: What is he saying?
Aunt: One minute - (mumbles to herself as she writes) 1 cup - no, 3 cups?
Achamma: Eh? What did you say?
Aunt: 3 CUPS FLOUR!!
Host: 4 chicken breasts, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper...
Mom (to Aunt): It's 1 cup flour.
Aunt: Oh, oh..(scribbles something down)
Host: Then we mix the flour with the salt, and add the pepper...
Aunt: Wait, how much salt?
Achamma: What are they adding to the flour? They should add it to -
Aunt: Mother, one minute. (To my Mom) How much salt?
Achamma: What?Aunt: ONE MINUTE! I DIDN'T HEAR!
Mom: Umm, I think it's 2 teaspoons. (Consults her notes)
Host: After you simmer it for 3 minutes, the dish is done.
Aunt: It's over?

I saw my mother's book afterwards. In cryptic code were the words, "1 cp flr. 3 tsp chick. Add water. Sim 2 mins. Done" No wonder she doesn't make any of those dishes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 3

Misadventures of the Maid Servant

Omanaamma - try saying that out loud twenty times - came to us last year. She's older than my mom and aunt, but unfortunately(for her), slightly younger than my grandmother. Omanamma liked to talk. About her grand-son incessantly. The neighbour's kidney removal. Sensational news. And she truly believed that we liked listening. We tried, anyway.

To give her credit, she really was a sweet sensitive old lady. With a very low Achamma-tolerance threshold. And my grandmother disliked her on sight. To give my grandmother her due, Achamma IS ancient. They probably hadn't abolished slavery when she was growing up, way back in 1753.

Oh, the drama! It was the War of the Geriatrics. "Omana spoke rudely to me!", indignantly exclaimed my grandmother, who has almost certainly never spoken nicely to the household help in her life. "She doesn't give me enough to eat", weeps Omanamma, coming from the kitchen after neatly polishing off six idlis and a vada. The battles usually ended in my aunt and mother trying to pacify a hysterical Omanamma threatening to leave. We expected denture-grenades any day. Then came the show-down.

It was lunch-time. Achamma was sitting at the head of the table with her back to the door of the kitchen. She has a disconcerting habit of saying embarassing things in what she thinks is a whisper. Like most near-deaf people, she thinks none of us can hear either.

Mom: Omanamma, I think we'll have our lunch now.
Omanamma: So then I said to Shanta, my grandson is very bright. The other day he -
Aunt: Yes, yes, I'm sure. Omanamma, lunch.
Achamma: What?
Omanamma: So then I said, Shanta, you see my grandson is very intelligent -
Aunt: I told Omanamma to bring lunch out.
Achamma: What?
Aunt: LUNCH! (O takes the hint and goes into kitchen)
Achamma: (In loud, audible whisper she thinks only we can hear) She's always talking. Switch On all the time. How many times will we hear about her grandson?

There was a loud crash and a wail just behind her. Rice all over the floor. Omanamma left the next day in a storm of tears. Last I heard, she was companion to another old lady, reputedly worse than Achamma. Some people just never for Achamma, she just smiled. Victoriously.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 2

Chapter 2 - The Case of the Would-be Assassin

Let me tell you a little about Siren. He was a huge kitten when he decided to adopt us. Afterwards, he became the Lord of the Back Door of the House. Siren and I shared a love-hate relationship; I did all the loving and he did the hating.

His favourite gesture of affection was to hook his claws into human flesh. Any flesh that came into his direct zone of attack. I'll say one thing for him, he wasn't particular. This meant that 3 grown women (and two of them substantially built) would indulge in peculiar acrobatics to step over the threshold where Siren held sway. It wasn't a pretty sight. Feeding him every day turned into a deadly game of Dodge and Retreat. My grandmother made vague crooning noises from a safe distance.

I should explain that Atchamma is bed-ridden now.

I don't know if you've heard the story of the king who saw a sweeper's face first thing in the morning and caught a cold. He put the sweeper to death. So the clever minister pointed out that the sweeper who saw the king's face first thing in the morning caught a death sentence which when you look at it, is worse than a cold (although that point is debatable).

A few months ago, Atchamma went out at dawn for her customary walk around the front yard. Siren had evidently decided she had not been receiving enough of his loving attention. Either that or he had some darker purpose, we'll never know.

He jumped in front of her. Ninja-kitty style. Achamma fell down and broke her crown, er, hip bone. Which is why she's bed-ridden now, but she's healing fast. Siren died a week later, under suspicious circumstances. There was no way that Achamma could have had a hand in it, of course, but I wonder...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 1

Chapter 1 - The Homicidal Coconut, or Time For Lunch

I live with my mother, my dad's sister and my paternal grandmother in a little town that thinks a lot of itself. It's fun most of the time. My grandmother is very hard of hearing. She absolutely refuses hearing aids on the grounds of the prohibitive expense, which when translated means vanity. She also wears dentures, has recovered successfully from a coconut falling on her head (I'm not kidding, grown men have died that way) and remembers everything. I call her Atchamma. I've never been particularly close to her but I think we're getting on better as we both get older. She's 86. Entertainment in my house mainly consists of listening to conversations between my grandmother and my aunt Geetha who has a very short temper and a shrill voice when she gets angry. Today, for example,

Aunt: Are you feeling hungry? It's almost time for lunch.
Atchamma: What?
Atchamma: Yes. (nods her head)
Aunt: (bringing her lunch) We made your favourite curry today.
Atchamma: Is it already time for lunch? I'm not even hungry. Did you all eat?
Atchamma: (hears this) I never said anything of the sort.

By this point, I'm rolling on the floor drowning in my tears. Of laughter. My mother, who is the most aggravating person on God's green earth, says nothing. I think she's trying desperately hard not to laugh, but I could be wrong. I told you she was aggravating.