So many stories about my mother told to me by her friends start like that. And even though I bet they’re all watered down versions of richer anecdotes, they make me proud.
Which is quite in contrast to the face I make when I’m told god, you look just like her! Whenever, whenever I meet a friend of mommy’s who says you are your mother 40 years ago, I wince. It’s out of habit. I see the compliment, because she was -- and I do recognise traces of it -- a stunning, spitfire of a woman. Yet I make a face.
Thought bubble reads Oh, Please!
It’s one of those kiddie things that just stick, I guess -- like if you were taught to count on your fingers – one, two, three, four, five; the way I was, the long way -- and not dabbing your thumb on the natural three markings on your fingers way – to me that looks stupid and earnest, you’ll count like that all your life. In something of a vague parallel, I will forever take with a pinch of salt, the line; you look just like your mother. It’s just how it is.
Faces or no faces, I love listening to what she did. It helps me piece together my tendencies. Would I put pepper in a pilot’s oxygen mask? I’m not sure.
I met a 94-year old lady on Friday, the morning of Diwali, the mother-in-law of my mother’s school friend, Meera.
We’re in Meera’s house. The excitement of hi-hullos-Happy Diwali to the peeps we’ve come to see – Meera and Mr Meera -- has piped down. The come, sit motions are happening. As I walk in, I see a frail white haired figure in a pink chiffon sari. She’s in a wheel chair by the giant window overlooking a perfect lawn, devouring a paperback.
I go across, bend a little, fold my hands, and assuming she must be deaf, say loudly - ‘namaste’, and then softly – ‘aunty’. You don’t usually see such perky faces in wheelchairs. She smiles at me and gives me a kiss. Ten minutes from then, in beautiful, clear diction, she will take to asking me questions and calling me girlie. But right then, she’s already made my day because I’ve seen what she’s reading.
I repeat the title to myself a few times. I’m tickled. I'm surprised. I want to be her. I want a bouffant, a silver cigarette holder, a Chanel accessory, and most definitely an exciting, horse-riding conversant gentleman friend who will refer to me as nothing but darlin' – or in keeping with the morning, I guess, girlie’s okay, too.
Anyway, so I went to Meera and her husband’s home with my parents to wish them Happy Diwali. I couldn’t tell if Meera was calling him Dev or babe – ‘babe, babe, not Dev’ my mother told me later.
Meera apparently had a very sad childhood; both parents dead, older sister and brother-in-law would not always want her to come to their home for her holidays, so from boarding school, she’d sometimes go home with my mother. Their stories are fun to hear. I can just
My grandfather remembers Meera as a little girl always scratching her lice-infested head. She in turn dotes on my grandparents -- all talk that warms my innards. Meera – or aunty, I guess, if I must show conventional respect -- said I look just like my mother in her younger days. I told her not to say that. She laughed, said okay lets go in and have coffee. I like her.
Meera’s sister, or even the nuns who took care of her, didn’t want her to become an air hostess. It didn’t matter because she joined my mother and they flew all over the world possibly driving unsuspecting men around the bend.
Sitting make-up less in her fabulous, spacious bungalow, she’s pouring for everyone in yellow square cups on white saucers strong Brazilian coffee and serving plates of sweets -- ladoos and homemade chocolate -- she’s made them -- bitter with roasted almonds, and doesn't buy the market ones anymore. “Aren’t they the best?" For my father, our hosts imagine, doesn't have a sweet tooth, there's even giant mathri, to go with, "does anyone want pickle?”
Then, in my rough direction, “Your motherrr and I... “
There’s the line again.
“God knows what we used to do but we were forever in trouble with the nuns for giggling.”
That sounds a lot like a different set of nuns who 40 years later gave me much grief for pointless, out of turn laughter in Convent of Jesus and Mary, Shimla, 1997.
In the living room, there’s her husband, Babe, wearing a Harvard t-shirt and shorts, counting a neat mountain of coins from the previous night of gambling. He asks me what I do. I deliver my practised line. He tells my mother, good looking kid you have there. I revel in that for a second and quickly get distracted by the old lady. Since I can’t get over it and I don’t want to forget the name of the book, and suspect that’s exactly what’ll happen if I don’t write it down, I enter in my phone memos:
Led Astray by a Rake.
Thought bubble reads Tee Hee.
The mother-in-law’s maid has wheeled her into the informal circle of conversation. She wants to speak. My mother beats her to it, says, aunty, you look lovely, how come you don’t have a single wrinkle?
Of course, she has wrinkles, a warehouse full of them, but to my mother’s way of thinking, this excessive, unbelievable, way out flattery will make her day.
Would I say this? Maybe not. I might’ve complimented her earrings or something as unremarkable. Another mommy dilemma pause; I’m having a pepper in oxygen mask moment.
“I try every new cream in the market”, says the old bird.
Everyone laughs and says things like what a spirit, what a woman. My mother told me that at the last dinner party they threw, she was dancing in her wheelchair. I should find out, to what song. Implausible as it seemed, she’ll win hag of the year if it’s my new favourite.