I’m not sure that any of the homes I have ever lived in had a distinct smell. Or if they did, I don’t remember them now. What I am sure of is that other homes certainly had smells. These were either relatives’ homes or more peculiarly what I can only call tuition homes. But they were each different and very memorable.
My sister and I went to the same tuition till the 7th Standard. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one’s sibling is a rank student then you will be jealous all your life. And my sister has always been a good student – did her homework, did extra credit, corrected people’s spellings, stayed back and helped teachers carry books, and topped the bloody class year after year. But mother still made her go to tuition so that I wouldn’t die of inferiority complex. But I think having her in tuition didn’t actually work in my favour because she was better than me even there. It just gave her another space in which to be really good at.
I knew of friends who did badly at school but they would always do well in tuitions. I saw no such thing happen with me. I was equally bad everywhere. And teachers made no qualms about hiding it. ‘Born gift’, ‘knack’, ‘natural talent’ were words that were thrown around when they talked about my sister.
Mother couldn’t control what other people said but she developed her own ways to curb my growing competitiveness. She celebrated both our births even if it was only my sister’s birthday. As far as I can remember, there were always two birthday frocks, two birthday cakes and two birthday presents. This often led people to assume that we are twins.
In Mangalore where we went to Lady hill convent, an old lady would take tuitions for us after school. She was tall, pulled her grey hair into a bun, wore gold-rimmed glasses and was only seen in nightgowns at home. My mother and aunts wore the same –only they called them nighties or maxis.
This old lady was fair and had kind eyes. I don’t know if it’s because of her but I continued for a long time after that to believe that all Christians were fair and had kind eyes. She was soft-spoken but very stern. Like one of those people who are very nice to you but you don’t want to piss them off because their meanness is already implied in the way they have been kind to you.
Her home always smelled of meat and wood. And for a long time after that, I continued to believe that Christian homes always smelled of good food and nice furniture. My father had warned us to not accept food if offered because ‘they will give you dhana mamsa’ (cow meat)
This got me more curious. But she never offered us food. I never even stepped beyond the living room. Although I tried very hard to peek into the bedroom on various occasions — she would look at me quietly and I would go back to reading.
The table we all sat at was their dining table. It was faded brown and long. There were two long benches on either side for all of us. There were nine students and we all went to Ladyhill. I did a stupid thing here, like I have done stupid things everywhere else. We were writing our finals and our third standard timetable was out – I gave this to my tuition teacher. The next day, the timetable was cancelled and we were told to wait for the new one. My tuition teacher was anxious when I told her about this. She said to let her know when the new timetable is announced. I forgot about it but she called twice that week to find out. The third time she called; I felt bad so I made up a fake timetable and dictated it to her over the phone. I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps because I didn’t want her to be upset or because I was tired of saying no.
Next morning, things got very unpleasant. I was mugging multiplication table for twelve when Miss Rose, my class teacher dragged me by the ear to meet Madam Principal. Apparently they frown upon things like leaking fake timetables.
At tuition the same day, my teacher pretended like nothing had happened, like my parents weren’t called to be questioned, like I wasn’t hauled out of class and yelled at. I was determined to look angry – here I was trying to protect her happiness and she goes around calling the school to confirm the timetable I had given her.
I don’t know what happened to her after we left Mangalore for good. But everytime I think of her, I remember the smell of her home and her eyes. The skin around her eyes was loose and white and wrinkly. I would often wonder what it would be like to poke it. But I was so convinced that the skin would just stick to my finger, like hot wax.
The other tuition class I remember very well was in Belgaum. This one was a stone’s throw away from home and the lady here was rather old. She had a small head full of white hair and she had wise eyebrows that would disappear under the creases every now and then. I looked only at her eyebrows when she taught. I like to think all her wisdom came from the eyebrows.
She wore cotton nighties with lacework down the front. The home had red-oxide floors and we would sit in the veranda on a bamboo mat. I had a spot I liked to sit on – it was in the corner, and a window opened right above my head. I had marked my corner on the mat – I would dig holes with my pen to open up the bamboo lining. I don’t think she noticed it and if she did, she never mentioned it. Her home had a musty -old lady smell to it. After a point, I couldn’t tell if it was her smell or the home’s. Either way it wasn’t a pleasant one. I would take a deep breath before I entered and would hold it in for as long as I could. And when I couldn’t hold it in any longer, I would exhale and take all the smell in one quick swoop.
Near the gate was a small pond with a moss green spread on top. My sister and I would sit here sometimes after tuitions. There were a couple of frogs with creepy eyes. Barring that, I didn’t see anybody else living with the old lady. I heard very often about a son who left her but I never saw him or her husband. She lived alone. Sometimes when we were leaving, I would turn back to see her standing by the gate, waving at us. I wondered what she would go back home to. She had no TV and nobody to talk to.
I think my father made us stop going to her tuition because he saw no improvement in our marks. He made mother go tell her we won’t be coming anymore. I felt a little bad but got over it quickly because mother decided she would teach us so we didn’t have to go to tuition anymore.
Much later when we moved to Bangalore and started our tuition, I found it strange to go to homes that didn’t have old ladies. The first one that I went to had a middle-aged lady and sometimes her husband and their daughters. The oldest one I saw very rarely. But from what I could gather, she had an interesting life. She had male friends who would drop her home and hang out later. This made my father be very cross with her.She went off to the US after a while.
H – The lady’s niece was my age. She had been living with them after her father passed away. She was a quiet girl who would walk to school and back. Her uniform was a brown skirt and a white shirt. Her hair was combed tightly into the neatest partition I have ever seen. She wore two ponytails and let them hang by the shoulders. From the edge of my terrace, I would watch her walk down the street in the evenings. She would walk with her head bent down, carrying a water bottle with a big white cap. And every day I saw her empty the bottle into a plant near the gate. When I started tuition, I noticed how quieter she seemed. They all spoke Marathi and I found myself growing amused with words like zhaale and haal. Often I would see H – all cried out and red-eyed. P, her cousin would say ‘She is missing her father’
The next home I went to was interesting. An old couple lived right behind our house with their two children. The boy was in senior year, degree and the girl had just started college. I don’t know how but my sister got out of tuitions here and it was only my brother and I. The lady taught us from 4:30 to 6:00. At 6:00, her husband would wake from his nap, sit in the hall, his legs folded up on the chair and ask for tea. Occasionally, my brother and I were given snacks.This home too, had a red oxide floor with green borders.
My first day in each of the tuition homes has been very scary. It took a while to get used to the people who lived in these homes, the mosaic floors, the red-oxide floors and the smells. The tuition homes also meant that the children who grew up here had to have been rank students. They were doing something right in these homes that I wasn’t doing in mine. They woke up at the right time, drank milk without throwing any down the sink, they did their homework at the same time every day, they went out to play at the same time every day. In so many ways, these homes reminded me of what a perfect student’s life must be like. It never occurred to me to look into my sister’s. I was fascinated with these homes just as much as I was afraid.
I couldn’t imagine living in these homes after 6:00 pm. It made me very depressed to look at red-oxide floors in the night. It is strange how I don’t remember the men in these tuition homes at all. I don’t remember what they looked like or what they said.
Stranger still is the fact that even after all these years, I have forgotten what the homes looked like but their smells have never left me.