Cuticura and Shadows

Every day after lunch they would huddle up under the big window to chat. The afternoon sun thrown on the floor around the window, mouths smelling of pan and the shadows on the walls imitating their gestures in happy animation. Lunch was a big plate of Rice and Dal. The yellow in the ghee floating like poison in my Dal. I would be sleepy and Aumu’s mom would pull me to her lap by the window to check my hair for lice. Her hands moved briskly on my hair at first and then when the gossip became more interesting, she would slow down, her hands forgotten between layers of my thin hair. I didn’t appreciate the lice removal because it meant time away from my cousins and having to sit in one position for the longest time. As long as it took for another story to be remembered, another running cousin to be caught and dragged to one or more of the empty laps. They were 4 sisters and their mother- my grandmother, mouma. They were an excited bunch. Always full of stories and laugh, always full of drama and cries, always full of lesson and well meaning advice. They were a combination of a Sooraj Barjatya and Priyadarshan movie.

I wouldn’t understand their stories. They talked fast in a Konkani I would hear only during the vacations. It was comforting because it wasn’t Kannada. Kannada was what dad spoke when he was mad at me and when he would teach me math. It was a language that I dreaded hearing and talking in because it reminded me of math and school and discipline. Konkani was gossip and laughter and summer.

Their stories were all larger than life, Aumu’s mother – the story teller would add detail after embellished detail to her already dramatized and well rehearsed version before mouma would cut in and present an alteration, sometimes more exaggerated, sometimes mellowed down if she liked the people in the story. Even before I had the chance to ask who someone was or if I had ever seen them, they would have erupted into a volcano of noise – disagreement, surprise and laugh. Occasionally, there would be tears – stories recollected under disapproving nods and shared sighs of bad and beating husbands, of the son that threw his old and aging parents away, of the daughter in law that wore the same sari to two different functions.

I was fascinated by the people in these stories. They were always bad, like the people in movies. They said the meanest things in the most casual of ways. It is here, this moment that I keep going back to when I think of speech and judgment. In my head, I was asking, what if he didn’t mean it like that? Would he know that the women here in my world had written off his character certificate? Would he ever know that the thing he said became a caricature here, between these walls? And all for not realizing what he was saying. It could be here that I became an over thinker, making decisions about what words would never leave my mouth, wondering if they did without my noticing it.

Money talk was rare and if heard, would always be inspired by mouma – the bra thief. Every time one of my aunts’ left a room, they would look knowingly at the other and hide their suitcases. Somebody would complain about a lost bra last seen in the bathroom. The aunt that I don’t know well asks me if I have seen it. Behind me, I can hear my mother’s voice breaking into a laugh. I will buy you one, she says. They all know their mother took it.

There would be jewelry and house conversations, some uninteresting bank talk, at which point I would drift off and sleep. My head would be warm and now and then I could feel the sun on my hair, slightly burning the exposed scalp, now I would feel it on my cheek, the red in my closed eyes imitating the warmth behind my ears. I could hear the blood, I could see the red.

I would shut my eyes unusually tight if I heard a name that I recognized. In my head, I was begging them to go on, hoping nobody would notice I was awake. When this wouldn’t happen, I would look at the shadows their hands were making and sleep.

Back home, I would wonder what mouma stole that day. It is only later that I learnt how to remember her by the things she stole. Before that I remembered her by the smells she left behind. She smelled of Vibhooti and Cuticura. Two of my favourite things today. I loved looking into her bags. I would always find a packet of Vibhooti there, and a bra that wasn’t hers.

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