December 25, 2005

Paddy on my mind

This piece I wrote is in the Hindustan Times today. In print, it got cut: one uncle got left out and the title changed to "Those were the days".

So here it is with him restored to his rightful place -- in this and in many hearts.


Paddy on my mind

The house was at the end of Seven Bungalows Road in Versova. Though as I was always told, this wasn't one of the seven bungalows. Didn't matter, because in my eyes, it was nicer than any of those bungalows anyway. So Christmas meant the long drive, trembling with anticipation, from town where we lived out to that lovely house. And that meant the city, more or less, until Andheri; but once we turned left from there, the road out to Seven Bungalows cut through, I can hardly believe it as I write, paddy fields.

Yes, paddy. Visit the area now and it is hard to imagine paddy anywhere, let alone where the concrete forest now is. (Which is why I try not to visit the area now). But those years ago, things were different. From the upper floor of the house, we could look across the lilting, rippling green at the traffic on the distant road. And that's how Christmas always started: run upstairs for a gaze.

The entire clan gathered at the Versova house for Christmas. It was our chance to meet cousins and uncles and aunts we didn't see that often. Like in most families, it wasn't always clear that not seeing them often was a bad thing. Still, with Christmas spirit all about, we'd hail each other with usually genuine affection, tell stories, laugh a lot.

There was the uncle we always found mildly funny just for his manner. He was an unfailingly polite man, ever-willing to pass things to you at the table, for example. The family gossip mill had it that at the altar marrying my aunt, when the priest asked if he would take this woman as his lawfully wedded wife, he responded with "After you, Father!" (Or, by way of familial variation, "What about you, Father?")

So that uncle was always good for some good-natured Christmas rib-tickling.

There was the other uncle whom we also found mildly funny. He had a car he was very proud of. One New Year's Eve, he offered to drive the other men of the family to a ball in town. Everyone got spiffily togged out, and then the car wouldn't start. So they got out and pushed, with this uncle sitting regally in the driver's seat and directing operations. Up the sloping Versova driveway to the gate they pushed, back down they pushed, back up again they pushed. In minutes, their clothes were drenched in sweat. Not quite so spiffy any more. But the car, that stubborn car that filled the uncle with pride, it wouldn't start.

Then somebody leaned wearily in the driver's window and asked, more for something to say than anything else, "Have you turned on the ignition?"

Came the startled reply, "Gosh!"

So that uncle was also always good for some Christmas rib-tickling.

And by the time all the tickling was done, Christmas lunch would be ready. Browns and greens, whites and reds, and that's just the food. Plates heaped high with rice and mutton curry, the clan would settle down to this real business of Christmas. In part, it also involved shoving away the family dog, Bee-rownie, who was anything but brown. Bee-rownie was a cheerful sort, but had an unsettling way of nuzzling his damp snout in places it didn't belong. Like plates heaped with food, or unwary crotches.

Bee-rownie was also something of an alcohol enthusiast. Wine or beer, there was always someone quietly feeding him a few sips. And when discovered, there'd be an outraged snort from an older cousin. "My," she'd say, "he's such a toper, men!"

For this skinny teenager, aching to grow up yesterday, longing to belong with his older cousins, that suave word seemed so ... well, so adult! I didn't know what it meant, though I could guess (drunkard). But in my mind, it got mixed up with "teetotaller" (its near-opposite, of course) and "topper" and "super" -- ordinary words, sure, but perhaps it was Christmas that gave them a certain aura -- and drinking and laughing about the places dogs sniff at and everything that was so insufferably cool about being an adult.

And as Bee-rownie nuzzles more crotches and the shadows grow longer, as the
stories get more fanciful and the guffaws louder, I steal upstairs for one final gaze. In the slanting sunlight, swaying in the gentle December sea-breeze, the paddy looks even prettier than in the morning.

And prettier still, in my memories.

Bee-rownie and my uncles, paddy and the house, all are long gone. I'm an adult now, finally. But when Christmas rolls around, that voice always rings faintly in my mind. "My," it says, "he's such a toper, men!"


Anonymous said...

Accha hai mamaji. Merry Christmas to you!

Anonymous said...

And to the greatest aunt who ever lived. And to the unrepentant babou and the little devil.