The enumeration of the eccentricities of the Ghyldiyals was received rather enthusiastically by those in the family who were ‘half-and half’. Most of the full-blooded Garhwalis reacted by a studied silence or by retrieving superior anecdotes from their own store of tales worth telling. My father, from his Kumaoni vantage point of an objective onlooker, was the most appreciative.
“But you haven’t written about our Ghyldiyal”? he encouraged hopefully.
Our Ghyldiyal, is of course my mother, Aruna - or ‘Urhna’ as she complained her mother-in-law, my Dadi, insisted on calling her. The youngest of Nani’s three daughters, the family traits are not immediately apparent in Mummy. Her brief and acute comments bear little resemblance to Saroj Mausi’s detailed drifts from corruption to Chaucer. Or to Guni Mausi’s enigmatic utterances, darting between gardening lore, unusual recipes, child-rearing, and much else. Mummy’s adamant adherence to a clockwork schedule, come rain or shine, is also rather different from the untrammeled space and time-cycles of her elder sisters.
It takes the privilege of proximity to realize that in Mummy, the Ghyldiyal connection manifests itself more in deed, rather than in word (though she has not entirely escaped the particular family feat of carrying on a conversation quite independent of the listener’s response). Having apparently inherited all her seven siblings’ share of my grandmother’s legendary order and neatness, as well as the clan’s ‘do-it-yourself’ motto, she is akin to an extraordinarily efficient whirlwind. You have only to say something. Like Maggi Noodles, Mummy has already done it in what seems like 2 minutes. You need not say it either - and she will still have done it.
“Chotti didi bahut jaldi karti hain”, Nani spluttered with laughter as she remembered the resigned comment of a harassed family servant in her father’s house years ago. My mother, all of perhaps nine years old, had passed through the room on her way out to play. With an already characteristic quickness of eye and hand, in the short interval that the servant returned with some matching thread, she had tidied away the special buttons lying around, destined for the coat of Pandit Haridutt Shastri. This was Nani’s father, the head of the household, the Rajguru of Tehri Garhwal, and from all accounts a stately and stern personage. Then with a useful ‘out of sight-out of mind’ philosophy, she forgot where she had put them, or even that she had put them away.
Mummy’s energetic efforts at ensuring neatness in her neighbourhood often leave me at a loss too. Within the space of the half-hour that it takes me to pick up my daughter from school, I return to a sparkling and unfamiliar kitchen bereft of its usual merry mix of organic dals, herbal teas, powdered orange-peels, and dried neem leaves. Mummy - instead of reading the many interesting books that I have pointed out for her edification and entertainment, or admiring the squirrels on my terrace – has been ‘clearing up’. The empty bottles and jars which jam my cupboards (owing to my reluctance to add them to the garbage heap, and my ambition of someday using them to make interesting ‘bottle-walls’) are now suitably stuffed with useful things – or packed outside to be thrown. The kitchen is wonderfully clean, but it takes me rather longer than usual to find what I need. And since our notions of necessities don’t really match, where and when I find them is often a surprise.
Such as the one I got on a damp morning several years ago. My brother and I were about to resume our progress on Delhi’s roads, after unsuccessfully sheltering under a bougainvilla bush during a brief burst of rain. It took me an instant to realize the identity of the blue bundle, with which Vivek was briskly mopping up the seat of his mud-spattered motor-cycle. By then, it was too late. Dust and grease stains had joined together to render my much cherished T-Shirt emblazoned with the memories of NASA – National Association of Students of Architecture - unfit for wear. Which, it always had been, according to my disdainful parent. I feebly drew attention to it, whereupon Vivek turned surprised. “Oh is it something you use? Mummy gave it to me to clean my bike.”
I therefore, like the rest of her family, regard my mother’s skills with admiration tinged with trepidation. One of her self-imposed tasks is to bring some order into her busy sisters’ houses whenever she is visiting Dehradun. The methods she uses to transform an untidy room into a marvel of neatness at lightning speed, are direct but effective. The results are a bit like a conjuring trick. She simply bundles unsightly things into bags, under beds, and inside cupboards. From where, as my cousin Manishi giggles, they roll out when least expected.
Naturally enough, it is in combination with her sisters that Mummy manages to make most of her memorable moves. As on a visit to DehraDun a summer ago. We were at Saroj Mausi’s digesting a lunch of delicious Garhwali dishes accompanied by her quintessential turns of speech. It was then that Guni Mausi called up in a state. She could not find her phone anywhere – either in her own house or in the one across the lichi trees where Nani stayed with my younger uncle’s family. Had any of us seen it? We diligently scoured Saroj Mausis’s overflowing house to no avail. Sometime later I heard a low buzzing in the background. Recollecting my frustration at getting through to Saroj Mausi on the phone, I firmly directed her attention to it. But, both hers and Onial Mausaji’s phones were lying decorously silent on the table.
“It is coming from Sarojdi’s bag,” observed Mummy. We fished out Mausi’s black capacious bag, which she contrives to fill, like Mary Poppins, with an array of surprising articles. After some delving, we discovered a phone, ringing insistently. A visibly astonished Saroj Mausi, expressing wonder at this Mystery of a Strange Phone, tentatively answered it. “Hallo? Who??”
Audibly excited tones carried to us. “Your phone?”, said Saroj Mausi. “But how did it come inside my bag?”
Almost immediately, an indignant Guni Mausi arrived in person down the two short lanes and little length of road that separated her house and Saroj Mausi’s. “Everyone knows how absent-minded you are - but to put my phone in your bag and to not remember it even when I ask whether you’ve seen it, is really the limit”!
They were still trying to reach a satisfactory explanation, when Mummy who had been exclaiming with us over the discovery, was struck by a possibility.
“Sarojdi, I put a phone inside your bag in Guni’s house. I spotted it on the divan when I was tidying up at the time that the maid was sweeping the floor.” she explained.
“Since you say it isn’t yours,” she added wisely, “then it must have been Guni’s.”
“Though really, I did not expect Guni to be as careless as you.” By the time her sisters could collect their answers and their bags, Mummy was on her way out of the room, pausing to point out thoughtfully in passing - “Just as well that I kept it away safely. What if the poor maid had been tempted to take it?”
Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji