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Anjali Gera Roy

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Anjali Gera Roy - 'Moongi di Dhuli Dal and Roti'

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Short Fiction

Moongi di Dhuli Dal and Roti

Visits to another place are often visits to another time. The scene in front of my eyes played itself like a nightmare where known figures, even loved ones, are defamiliarized. She stood before me dwarfed by arthritis and tragedy. Despite making room for the gap of a quarter of a century after which I was meeting her, the midget-like creature who emerged from her room to greet me had no trace of the towering matriarch who had made grown male members of the Arora family quake in their shoes. At barely five feet, she had never been tall. But her stature within the extended family had made her dominate every family gathering. I had been raised to fear her. But now I felt nothing but pity for this lady who had ruled the Arora clan for half a century. Yet, the moment I mentioned the house in Delhi and memories of my visits, the old arrogance returned and she commanded that we stop grieving and get down to the business of eating. It was this matter-of-factness that had shocked me thirty years ago. But today it made me sadder. I recalled the day the telephonic communication of her young niece’s death did not delay our dinner schedule. I had spent the whole night ruminating if age had anything to do with emotions drying up. That might have been the reason partially. But Aunt had learnt to manage crisis very early in life, which, I guess, made her immune to the sufferings of others and of her own.

They say that women with a hairy upper lip are born cruel. Aunt certainly had a hairy upper lip and a complexion that I have not seen in Punjabis. Duskiness can be pleasant in Bengal and even in parts of UP and Bihar. But she had appeared like a blotchy grey ever since I could remember her. Quite a contrast to my ivory-skinned grandmother or all other elderly women who had provided me the template for Punjabi old ladies. Her taste in colours was on the gaudy side and when she appeared in one of her favourite bright yellows or parrot greens, I had to try hard not to utter anything that might upset her. She switched over to the somber beige, a colour she had abhorred until middle age, only when she lost her husband when she had turned sixty. What she lacked in looks, she made up by being immaculately groomed. She had once been a very fashionable Punjabi woman. One of the few who had dared to wear sleeveless blouses and lipstick before partition and had sported a tight bun instead of the common braid! Unfortunately, her notion of style had gone out of date by the time I got to know her. Her habit of never stepping out of home without the mandatory bright lipstick became an eternal source of embarrassment to me when I accompanied her on outings. But I soon realized that these grooming essentials had been drilled into women of a certain class growing up during the British raj.

I am not sure if Varshi had ever come into direct contact with the British. But she embodied the manners and lifestyle of the pre-partition educated middle class. She was the youngest daughter of a Jhangi entrepreneur who had set up a cotton mill that was burnt down by an accidental fire before her birth. The family’s fortunes had sunk so low by the time she was born that she was betrothed to the son of an up-and-coming businessmen when she was only six months old. The elder Arora, whose matrimonial alliances had been forged with a view to upward mobility, was only too willing to turn a blind eye to her complexion as was his wife whose duskiness he himself had exchanged for a fat dowry. Varshi had moved through her school years constantly being teased about the family she was marrying into by her friends. It was understood that once her fiancée completed a degree and took over the family business, she would move into the family. While she had quite fancied her plump, fair fiancée, she had dreaded the thought of living in a joint family, particularly with the uncultivated Arora clan. With her honeyed tongue, she had begun to rehearse winning the affection of the younger members showing signs of that controlling streak that were to become her trademark in subsequent years. The unsophisticated Arora women - the mother and older daughters - were already apprehensive about the young Varshi’s manoeuvers.

Both Varshi and the Arora clan were saved by the providential offer of a gazetted officer’s job that her fiancée was offered immediately after graduation. The family decided that the job was not only prestigious but would be an excellent opportunity for the young man to learn the ropes of the family business he was soon to take over. Varshi was, of course, overjoyed for killing two birds with one stone. The government job not only rescued her from the rustic Arora family by taking her to faraway Meerut but also gave her the chance to lead the memsahib’s life she had always dreamed of. Although Vivekanand had intended to serve only the training period, she talked him into delaying his return on the pretext of learning things better. The young bride’s self-centred act turned out to be a blessing in guise for the entire family and a curse for her.

A government job in the British raj was a highly coveted thing and the ultimate middle class dream. It entitled Indians to privileges that the British had arrogated for themselves. In addition to a handsome salary, they were entitled to perks such as a free or subsidized palatial bungalow, a full time manservant, a part time gardener and other support staff. For Varshi, life in Meerut was a dream come true. She emulated the manners and habits of the imagined memsaabs by dressing to the Ts, instructing the servants, and ladying around the place. As the spoilt brat in her own family, she had been spared the mandatory cooking that all teenaged Punjabi girls are expected to do and had taken great delight in tidying the house and decorating it. With the manservant at her beck and call to chop vegetables, knead the dough, fetch groceries and any errand she wanted him to run, she was free to lead the imagined life of the ladies of leisure. Being young and without a child, she had the added bonus of accompanying her husband on his field tours to the hills, which served wonderfully as a delayed honeymoon. In this manner, the modern Heer from Jhang-Sial got to travel to all the hills stations the British had established for their dainty wives to get away from the heat and dust. It was in one of these, Nainital to be specific, that they heard the news about the March 1947 riots. They had checked into a hotel and were in the dining hall when the radio broadcast about the killings began. Vivekanand, whose attachment to his family was the stuff of legend, dropped the morsel of  roti he had bit into and hustled his young wife out asking her to pack immediately. They left for Lyallpur immediately and were relieved to find that none in the family in Lyallpur was affected. But the landowning uncles who lorded over vast tracts of land across the Indus were brutally murdered by Muslim marauders and the visit to the maternal village where they found their bodies in the well scarred the young men forever and added to their responsibilities after partition. Having been assured that the family was safe in Lyallpur, the young couple returned to Meerut with the promise of a family visit as soon as the children’s vacations begin. As the family was in the habit of vacationing with their eldest son, there was nothing out of turn about their descending in Meerut in May. Having dispatched his wife, children and a married daughter to safety, the old Arora stayed behind to safeguard his Empire. But fate had other plans for him and for his joint-family-hating daughter-in-law. The vacation visit extended into a prolonged stay as partition was declared before the end of the school vacations. With the announcement of partition, more relatives and friends began to arrive in the Meerut bungalow in search of shelter. The five roomed bungalow, way beyond a newlywed couple’s needs, was made to accommodate forty to five people and the handsome salary having to feed the same number of people seemed meager. But this was no time for selfishness. Varshi, who had resented the family’s intrusions in her nuclear existence, could not grudge hospitality in a time like this even to those she knew remotely. Instructions were wired by the elder Arora from Lyallpur. NOONE SHOULD BE SENT AWAY HUNGRY. ONLY MOONGI DHULI DAL AND ROTIS. Instructions that the Arora daughter-in-law tied up with the knots in her sari pallu! And partition 1947 transformed the twenty five year old woman into a provider - an image she began to relish over the months.

A few months later, she would graduate to the female head of the family by destiny getting bhabiji out of her way. Although family lore has it that bhabhiji suffered from insomnia and slept through the greater part of the day, she was the first to have intuited the dominating strain in her new daughter-in-law. On one of her rare visits to
biji, she had expressed her anxieties about Varshi weaning her children away from her. But after partition, packed off to the same daughter-in-law’s unwelcoming home with all her children, she had resigned herself to her fate. Partition had made some women scream, some wail and some weep silently. But the thought of running a household without a regular income and raising the dowry for a past marriageable daughter had turned bhabiji into a somnambulist. She would sit for hours on the low wall of the rooftop half asleep until the day she sleep-walked backward instead of forward while her seven year old daughter was sweeping the rooftop and tumbled down to a sleep from which wouldn’t ever awake. Helpless in life to resist, she had had her silent revenge by transferring all her responsibilities, sans anxiety, on her twenty five year old daughter-in-law. The elder Arora, with a gift for oblique statement, consoled the children by announcing “Think of your sister-in-law as your mother from now on”. So Varshi, the pampered youngest daughter in her family, became mother to two teenage boys and three pre-pubertal girls at the age of twenty five. She had indeed won the children over to her side but she couldn’t gloat in her victory.

She had always had a soft corner for the older of the two boys who had shyly greeted her as ‘bharjai’ whenever she crossed him on her way to school. It was to her he had turned when the bankrupt older Arora, repenting his idiosyncratic decision of not transferring bank accounts and property on the eve of partition, had raised his downcast head to tell the adolescent that he couldn’t pay his school fees. Varshi had readily agreed to pay his fees and transformed into his beloved sister-in-law forever. He was the one who had been closest to his mother. But this small act had helped him transfer his affection to her when he lost his mother. The younger boy resigned himself to accepting his status as the errand boy. The three young girls were shocked into quiet submission. The beyond marriageable age daughter was the one who posed a problem for hers was the sole voice to rise in rebellion against perceived injustice. Bright, intelligent and articulate, she had been the older Arora’s favourite daughter until partition turned her into disposable baggage and unseated her from her favourite position.

The elder Arora, a staunch Aryasamaji, had allowed his daughters to remain unmarried well beyond the permissible age by joining the reformist movement against dowry and other forms of ostentatious display. The matronly figures of the two older daughters didn’t help much in the marriage market either. Fortunately, the eldest Shakti had been accepted by the same rich business family as a bride mother when they fell on hard times financially and emotionally at the loss of the mother and had migrated to new sufferings in India as a married woman. The younger Rani, with her ample figure and wide smile, was unlikely to find a suitor without the gold and dowry mandatory in such alliances. But Arora had hoped that his pre-partition status and goodwill coupled with her son’s coveted status might make them appear like an attractive proposition to his son’s ambitious young subordinates. The family turned a blind eye to the interest that one of them, a pleasant man from their own caste, displayed in her and even offered him free hospitality for a year. But the young man’s aspirations were higher than the daughter of an impoverished Lyallpuri entrepreneur and he vanished into the hills into a better alliance the moment he sensed the family’s intentions. Unmarried and jobless, Rani made it her business to poke her nose in her sister-in-law’s affairs. Varshi had mastered the art of dealing with her plain-speaking sister-in-law with honeyed barbs that hit hard and got rid of her unceremoniously by marrying her off to the low-skilled scion of an impoverished aristocratic Punjabi family who was happy to strike an alliance with the sister of a gazetted officer. Later, all the girls would find matches with the same qualification. With Rani out of her hair, Varshi became the undisputed queen of her domestic Empire with two traumatized boys and three petrified girls vying for her affections and the biggest share of the halva.

It couldn’t have been an easy task teaching domestic skills to three pre-pubescent motherless girls. But the girls, who had been left to their own devices by their ailing mother, were grateful to let someone take control of their lives. In fact, traumatized by their twin loss, they were too numbed to recall the absent mother and readily submitted to her authority. They had learnt early in life that the best route to a decent meal was flattery, an art that they had mastered before they grew to be full adults. A compliment to the sister-in-law’s looks would earn an extra helping of the favourite dish, ironing her clothes would earn a visit to the shops and helping her dress a treat at the family friends’ places. So the girls would compete with one another to shower Varshi with compliments about her taste, her manners and her skills transforming her into a paragon of virtue. This was the image they circulated among the ever growing circle of friends and family who wouldn’t stop singing the praises of the sacrificing, responsible young daughter-in-law and exhorted their own daughters-in-law to follow the young woman’s example. Circumstances beyond her control had turned the fashionable young woman, who had sought nothing more than a good home and life, into a self-sacrificing mother figure who existed solely to fulfill the family’s needs. So long as it permitted her the luxury of being fashionable, Varshi didn’t object to her new avatar.

To be fair to her, Varshi did make a genuine attempt to be the mother to the orphaned children. But her idea of motherhood was based on a strong sense of justice rather than the complex bonds that bind a mother and her children. All her actions and behaviour were dictated by an eye to public applause or censure. No word or action that could be misconstrued by others would hereafter be hers. So while mothers followed the time-tested practice of setting young daughters to work in the kitchen to train them in domestic skills, she did not let any of the girls within the sight of the coal fire. What would people say if they were to see the girls slaving away in the kitchen? They were strictly instructed to pay attention to their studies and let her handle the kitchen with generous help from the manservant. Although the elder Arora had offered to bring his widowed niece to help with the housework, she had turned it down after watching the niece’s extravagant rusticity. Cooking the meals offered an indirect means of controlling the domestic expenses. Every spoonful of oil saved went into her cosmetic allowance. She prided herself on her small, thin phulkas that no Punjabi woman could make. She strongly believed that thick rotis were signs of rusticity and anyone who ate more than three was an animal! Their impressionable age made the three young girls imbibe this ethic so well that they observed the three roti formula all their lives. The two growing boys virtually starved on the three mini-sized roti diet particularly after the long hours of playing in the field. They survived by crossing the field to appear in biji’s kitchen for a sip of water and staying over for generous helpings of biji’s giant paronthas served with home-made butter and lassi.

Fear of social censure prevented her from discriminating between husband’s young siblings and her own children on any grounds. Varshi’s sense of fairness coupled with her firm conviction that high carbohydrate consumption was a sign of rusticity made her subject her own children, who appeared a year or two later, to the same rationed diet. Dividing rationed portions of everyday food and special treats equally between all the members of the family, she genuinely believed that she was teaching them the virtues of sharing, a virtue that most partitioned families were forced to cultivate in view of their straitened circumstances. Little did she know that the earning males submitted meekly to her philosophy of equal sharing because they had the option of supplementing the lean diet with a continuous inflow of samose, chhole bhature, pakore and fresh fruits that arrived by the hour at the shop. The three little girls, trained to stop after the third roti, grew up to demand nothing, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise when they moved into their marital homes. The teenage boys, on the other hand, developed a hunger that nothing could satiate all their lives. Her own children, whose age entitled them to a treat no bigger than an extra helping of dal, made a religion of restraint until they moved out of the joint family home. Varshi earned brownie points for her excellent home management skills as well as for imparting the right moral values.

The large refugee influx from Punjab to Lucknow, particularly from her Mianwali biradri, forced Varshi to lead a double life. She had transformed quite happily from a dusky lailpuri girl to a fashionable Class 1 officer’s wife within the few years of her marriage. Like all trendy Punjabi young women, she had discarded her salwar kameezes for imported synthetic saris worn with long brocade or velvet cholis. She had picked up conversational English along with the art of applying make up from the British mems and had learned to command the government staff in unaccented Hindi. Her circle of friends in Lucknow, courtesy the location of their government bungalow, included wives of other government servants, professionals and businessmen both Punjabi and local Lakhnavi. The ladies in these circles in post-partition Lucknow emulated the departing memsaabs by creating opportunities for inviting each other to high tea after completing their daily chores. The tea parties were as much an occasion for displaying their latest clothes and jewellery along with bone china and lace tablecloths as for striking matrimonial alliances. Much as Varshi would have liked to remain within her exclusive circles, the need for approbation by her native Mianwali biradri and inability to keep up with their lifestyle made her seek a support network among the provincial Punjabi women. It is to them that she turned to in moments of family crisis and they never failed her whenever she needed them. Awestruck by the young officer’s wife who had not forgotten her Mianwali dialect or manners, they opened the gates of their affection wide to offer her unquestioned loyalty. Varshi was also astute enough to know that she was more likely to find prospective matches for the girls in their own homeless community rather than among settled Punjabi families in Lucknow. While the ladies in fancy bungalows entertained her lavishly and heaped praises on her for being the ideal daughter-in-law, they were not going to marry their daughters, or sons, into the crowded family. Varshi learnt to shuttle easily between the polished Punjabi or Hindi accents of Sadar and the rustic Punjabi of the refugee camps. Covering up her barely concealed frugality behind heaped quarter plates of snacks and sweets, she enjoyed displaying her status to the displaced landowners from her home village. Over the next decade, she earned a good name and goodwill among both groups making sure that the two never did meet.

In her Mianwali support system, biji, who had lived a few lanes away from their house in Lyallpur and had been a family friend, played a major role for several reasons. For one, biji was a trained medical assistant and could be relied upon in all minor gynecological matters. A few years her senior, she was also more conversant with the customs and rituals of the Mianwali biradri than herself. But more than anyone else, biji became that trusted confidante with whom she could be her old self, speak a forgotten dialect and share anxieties that seemed out of place in a new land and a new position.  Biji, reduced to living in a refugee camp after partition, was only too glad of reminders of her old status and flattered to have friends among those who lived in the bungalows. Tending to identify more with her peers from her former life than her uprooted refugee neighbours, the visits from the ladies from the bungalows affirmed her social status that justified the airs she put on. Little did she realize that the Lyallpuri family friend’s daughter-in-law turned to her because she could unveil to biji the part of herself that she concealed from her new friends and extended to the younger woman her whole-hearted support. Biji’s Mianwali notions of beauty would not permit her to acknowledge kinship with her newly adopted sister but if it elevated her stock in the neighbourhood, she was quite willing to admit intimacy with the dark, hirsute young woman. Besides, Varshi embodied the habits and tastes of Lyallpur’s mercantile class and Lucknow’s bureaucracy to the rustic landowner’s daughter. She began to trust the younger woman in trying to adapt to the ways of the new land.

It was to Varshi she turned when she had to put together the dowry for her eldest daughter in a record period. Only too glad to get away from the household for the legitimate task of helping an old family friend, Varshi turned up almost every afternoon to accompany biji to Aminabad to choose jodas for the wedding. Partition and the unexpected proposal for her fourteen year old had surprised biji into helplessness. Where was the time to embroider six pairs of linen and the wedding phulkari? Where was one to find the right fabric and craftsmen who could sew typical Punjabi salwar kameezes? How would she find brass and copper ware in this strange land? Varshi’s business-like presence proved to be extremely comforting. In any case, Varshi loved shopping and shopping without having to spend one’s own money was even better. The two women joined hands to throw themselves into the pleasant duty of creating the most exclusive Punjabi daaj or dowry in a newly adopted country. It was after all biji’s first daughter, her favourite one and she didn’t want partition to tone down her enthusiasm for dressing up her beautiful child. The fourteen- year-old had a dowry fit for a queen’s harem. Biji went the whole hog. She wanted zardoji and salma sitara, tillewala kam and keem khab, mukaish and kinari and all in pure silver. Each of the salwar kameezes, they say, cost what a tola of gold did but biji did not want to make any compromises and Varshi was only too happy to oblige. Forget the fact that the teen bride would grow out of the succha embroidery jodas within a year, which wouldn’t have any takers in any generation, and that the friendship would not survive the marriage that followed. But at that time everyone admired Varshi’s taste and biji’s style.

The decade after partition went by in fixing matrimonial alliances of the children under her care. Education was always a last priority for girls. The boys were forced to put their educational aspirations on the backburner in order to bring enough business to keep the home fires burning. While Varshi took over the commendable task of raising her husband’s siblings along with her two children, she made it quite clear that the household expenses would be shared equally between her husband and his father after the initial months. Desperation drove the elder Arora to set up his business once again at the advanced age of nearly sixty in a new land of which he knew the neither language nor the people. The boys had no choice but to help after college. He set the elder who was a smooth talker to bring business and the obedient younger one to join him in the shop. He earned enough to put the five children through college and pay for their weddings. He had never been extravagant even when he was trying to make his first million in Lyallpur. Now circumstances justified his frugality. His decisions affected the boys’ career the most. They couldn’t focus on their studies to aspire for a high position and did not have the business acumen to take the business further. But Varshi came out with flying colours at least in the public eye. Her sins, if any, were those of omission rather than that of commission. While she ruled the house with an iron hand, she could not be held guilty of spanking or scolding. If anything, her own children received the brunt of her disciplining. They grew up equally deprived of hugs and kisses but received additional attention with their studies. They wore the same budget clothes that the others did but were sent to the best missionary schools in the city that gave them an edge over others and prepared them for careers beyond the ken of anyone else in the family. As children of the adored elder brother, they received affection rather than envy from their father’s younger siblings who took great pride in their success. It would take them several decades to realize that the one playing the mother’s role to perfection can never take the place of the mother, even if dysfunctional. Varshi did what she could to the best of her ability. She did not fail in matters of duty but only in those of affection. It made a deep dent on their emotional make up. They could rehearse perfect sentiments but permanently lost the ability to emote.

Varshi took her social responsibilities as seriously as anything else and made it a point to visit friends, relatives and acquaintance religiously. Punjabis lay great store by being milansar or sociable and one is judged according to one’s bani banai or social networks. The Arora family was reputed for its bani banai in Lyallpur and they worked hard to cultivate the same reputation in the new land. They kept an open house with men bringing home guests for a meal without prior warning and everyone’s friends dropping in at any hour of the day. Varshi used the Arora milna milana philosophy to get away from the Arora brood on a legitimate pretext. The rest of the family found in visitors a perfect access to goodies locked away in the net cupboard. The elder Arora’s Arya Samaji ideology forbade conspicuous consumption of any kind. Unlike most Hindu families where rituals, fasts and festivals, marriages and childbirths are fun occasions that disrupt the regular routine, the Arora clan was forbidden both traditional and modern forms of entertainments. The elder Arora’s progressive views prevented them from observing sanatani customs like cooking elaborate meals on festive occasions, buying new clothes or jewellery, or observing extravagant rituals. Even the children knew better than to argue with their grandfather about the logic of lighting firecrackers on Diwali. While they followed the established business practice of personally delivering a box of sweetmeats to their cherished customers, the family members received no more than their annual ration of half a barfi and half a gulab jamun. Like all Aryasamajis, he considered cinema immoral and film music corruptive. So the entire Arora clan apparently missed the golden age of the Hindi cinema even though the boys’ knowledge of starlets of the 50s betrayed their secret visits to the houses of sin. Made to practice the Gandhian ideal of simple living and high thinking, the austerity drive at home drove the Aroras to find ingenious ways of entertainment. The easiest was to invite friends over and to pay return visits with the active connivance of Varshi.

Varshi welcomed the visits for the opportunity they offered to transgress the elder Arora’s strictures related to dressing. The Punjabi Arya Samaji patriarchy opposed Muslim and Sikh patriarchy by laying a strict code for their women that forbade them to leave home without covering their heads. Unlike Muslims and Sikhs, however, they deorientalized the veil by stipulating the wearing of a plain white cotton chunni. The unmarried girls were dressed in severe Arya Samaji fashion in full-sleeved cotton kameezes with white salwars and chunnis, their hair tightly plaited and faces free of any embellishment the moment they entered their teens. During partition, families often resorted to this uglyfying trick to prevent beautiful young daughters from catching the Muslim marauders’ eyes. A decade after partition, the precaution made the girls, who were not particularly beautiful in the first place, anachronistic in Lucknow where young women took great delight in dressing up. But the three girls, their heads modestly covered like nuns, earned the reputation of being good girls. While the rules did not apply strictly to married women, Varshi was happy enough to follow them within the boundaries of the house but did not want to risk being left out of Lucknow’s fashionable circle by appearing outmoded. She had her way in this matter, as in all others, by twisting the rules.

The daily visits were preceded by elaborate rituals of dressing up. The three young girls vied with one another to dress up the sister-in-law like a queen. One would lay out the sari she would wear and iron her blouse. The second would do up her hair in the infamous bun while the third went about pulling out matching accessories. They knew whoever pleased her would get to accompany her the next time and get her fill of the goodies served by the bharjai’s friends. They would dust talcum on her throat and arms, apply a coat of compact to cover her rough, pitted face and leave the dark red lipstick for the end. Since the Arora daughters-in-law were expected to completely cover their faces, Varshi could escape with the banned lipstick right under Arora’s watchful gaze with one of the girls in tow. To avoid his suspicions, they made a habit of disappearing and appearing through the back door. The back door entry became a way of life for doing things not allowed in the Arora household.

By the end of the decade, Varshi’s circle of friends had expanded so much that she did not have to visit anyone more than once a month or even later. The girls acquired their own set of friends as they grew up and as girls were not allowed to visit unaccompanied, the girl whose friend was being visited would accompany Varshi. While she complained endlessly about meeting her social obligations, she needed her afternoon visits for her daily cup of tea and gossip with samosas and gulab jamuns as an added measure. The girls, who had their share of fun, would have been the last to complain and, in fact, pressed upon her to fulfill her duties if she slacked. At these tea parties, Varshi was permitted to be the woman that she had left Punjab for. The woman, dressed in their finest clothes and jewellery, perfected their etiquette and the fine art of hospitality and made formal conversations about the major events in their lives. Even though she couldn’t keep up with their expanding collections of silks and georgettes and had to repeat her saris, she squeezed enough from her tight household budget to build a basic upper middle class wardrobe that enabled her to participate in conversations about the best places where they could be acquired. And what she lacked in clothes, jewellery and furniture, she made up by her proverbial hospitality and conversational skills. Unlike her plain-speaking Punjabi compatriots, Varshi developed the gift of understatement by making the unkindest remarks in the sweetest voice or even by a turn of the head. I should know because I watched her practice this skill three decades later when she would let her expression convey more than any words could. Varshi could kill, as they say, with a look or curl of her thin lips. The girls who had no other female role model emulated her and acquired similar skills. By the time they left their parental home, they had learnt to say many things between the lines and direct the cruelest barbs with the widest smiles, which stood them in good stead in the families they married into. It was not uncommon for the Arora females to break into Ekta Kapoor dialogues about loving everybody, doing good to one and all and fearing god while plotting against their real and imaginary rivals. Varshi’s training helped them to oust all threats to their authority with the most righteous and sweetest manner. Like her, they all served the joint families they were married into until the proverbial death of the mother-in-law.

Sixty years later, she was still rehearsing her skills on her son’s visitors holding forth on how she would make besan ladoos before arthritis had struck her down. She looked completely out of place in a land, which left women little leisure for hospitality. Her rekindling of those gracious memories over a barbeque dinner of pre-cooked veg-burgers reconstructed an era that had equally vanished in the homeland. Her reminders of her usefulness to the son’s family in the past was a cry for a less forgetful time when family obligations, though unavoidable, earned one lifelong applause and merit for several lifetimes.

Veiled allusions to her famed hospitality in the face of the overworked son’s wife’s grudging dinner party, made me ask her the question that had been hovering on my lips for decades. How did you feel when forty people turned up in your house after the declaration of partition? They had to be accommodated, was her matter-of-fact reply.


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