Published in ‘The Reader’, No. 14. http://www.thereader.org.uk/magazine.aspx
The first time I met Mrs Feroza Jamshed Karkaria I stared quite hard. She had brown hair that sat in perfect static curls on her shoulders and dangerous eyes. I had heard the hair was a wig, like Dev Anand’s. Mummy would have been appalled by my stare. She would have ticked me off, “Don’t be appalling, Lizzy!” I loved big words like that, they made me sound like I was a grand bad sort.
Mrs Scary-face stared back at me. She had beady eyes and well plucked eyebrows which were housed within the weight of her starched wig. She looked like a mean Womble. Wombles were creatures I had read about. They were not given to meanness though. So in a way you can’t be a real mean Womble. There were no stray hairs on her chin. She obviously went to the parlour often. Even mummy who rubs her chin probingly with her fingers and tweezers her hairs has a couple of stray pokies.
We were in the corridor of her family’s apartment that overlooked the railway tracks and it was a dark, sooty space. I was nine, going on ten. I had finished the Famous Five, Nancy Drew and had sneaked a bit of ‘Endless Love’. I had read all of my Pramilla Aunty’s Mills and Boons on the sly on the pot earlier that year while on holiday in Delhi. Mrs-horror was old enough to be my grandmother, about sixty. I asked for her sister-in-law, who I had come to visit. My mother was parking our Herald downstairs and would be at my side to rescue me any minute. I had to be brave. I said, “Feroza Aunty may I go in and see Sheroo Aunty?”
My mother appeared. Feroza Aunty’s plan to swallow me, Bata shoes and JB Petit blue school uniform included, if she was short on time, was foiled. I squeezed past her as mummy said, “Hello Aunty, kem cheo? All well?” Mummy fled too, into an inner room, not waiting for her to speak.
Once in the cool space of Sheroo Aunty’s room I ignored the faint smell of Mrs Feroza Jamshed Karkaria’s shadow as it filtered through the door hinges. As a Parsee I was another generation of gatekeepers of oddball stories and half-demented souls. I knew about weirdoes. We Parsees were small in number and fast depleting. “Soon we’ll be bred in zoos,” says mummy. “Visitors will say, ‘Oh there’s a Parsee next to the emus and giraffes,’ and we will perform our daily rituals behind a glass screen. ‘9am to 10 am – Sadra-kusti hour at the Zoo’, the sign will say. ‘So cute, no!’ the children-visitors will exclaim.”
My mummy doesn’t want to have my Navjote or thread ceremony, like most Parsees have by the age of eleven. “I don’t believe in ritual,” she says, “Rituals give you the chance to be bad and then get away with it by praying and putting sukhar, sandalwood, in the fire. To be a true Parsee all you need is good thoughts, good words and good deeds.” My real dad wants me to be a real Parsee, do my sadra-kusti in the morning, wear my sadra vest and tie the string or kusti the way a good Parsee is supposed to. But my real dad won’t pay for the ceremony and the banquet after. Even for the sake of it mummy can’t do it because she has no money for it.
“Have something cold? Duke’s lemonade?” I am asked. Duke’s lemonade was the ultimate Parsee drink. Some grownups drink Parsee Cinzano. That is Duke’s lemonade with Goan red wine.
I looked at mummy anxiously, she nodded, I said, “Yes, please, can I help myself?”
“No, the fridge is locked. I’ll get it.” Sheroo Aunty said.
The refrigerator was at the door of the room, in the passageway, and it had been locked to keep Lady Feroza, as mummy called her, out of the food. She loved poisoning it. I stood behind Sheroo Aunty as she unlocked the ancient white door which had been fitted with a metal latch from which hung an enormous lock. I knew that the Lady was lurking behind her daisy-printed curtains. Her feet, in English Scholl’s, were visible below the hem. Parsee ladies love wearing Dr Scholl’s. Mummy has a pair too that her Pappa gave her; she looks beautiful in her cotton dresses with her wavy brown hair tied up in a bun and her Scholl’s on her feet. I can’t imagine anyone liking me when I grow up. The minute they see my beautiful mummy, I’ll be forgotten.
We ate lovely chocolate cake and Sheroo Aunty and Framroze Uncle made me feel like their granddaughter and I was allowed to sit on the cot bed and shake my legs. We wished Sheroo Aunty happy birthday and mummy gave her the box of prunes. I wanted to touch the soft smooth skin on her nose. She had knowing eyes, that shone like a teddy bear’s. Her hair was short and she was slightly hunched, though she wore her little sleeveless dress with an air of clean elegance.
The Lady was Sheroo Aunty’s sister in law – her husband’s brother’s wife. She was as different from Sheroo Aunty as a crow is from a pigeon. Pigeons, you see, are the vermin of the air and crows are Parsees reborn as crows. Pigeons are for shot-guns and poison-seed and crows are for choicest titbits of malai-soaked-rotli or bread soaked with cream. The doorbell had rung and we could hear voices in the Lady’s room. Her only son, Ratan, ‘dayo, obedient, good Ratan’ had returned from a flight. He was a purser.
“Aré muo! You are back again! You son of a devil. Why didn’t you die on the aeroplane?”
“Mama, aren’t you happy to see me? Look I brought you cheese and chocolates from Switzerland.”
The packet must have been handed over, because there was a moment’s silence, when she must have looked into her bag of goodies.
Then suddenly “Chal, ja ja,” she said, screaming, “Shoo! GO away! Next time I hope your plane crashes.”
Mummy was embarrassed for Sheroo Aunty because of this bad fight between the Lady and her son and she said we were to go home. I said thank you and jumped off the cot and made my way past the daisy curtains. I tried hard not to look inside. In the kitchen, a meal was being prepared on a kerosene stove. Smoked chicken livers in onion sauce, fried gharab or fish eggs. Sheroo Aunty was a cook. My grandfather said of her, “She is no ordinary stirrer of vegetables and broiler of chickens but a sensual keeper of culinary magic – a chef!” I could taste the liver, fresh and succulent. It made me drool just like a packet of tomato Chipnick wafers or a Marmite sandwich did. The only others who drooled like this were dogs and Kalu or Blackie, the crow who visited our kitchen every day. “Greed, my dear, greed,” that was what mummy said.
But we had to go and that was that. Sheroo Aunty would send us food on my birthday, or anytime she felt like, she was a doer of good deeds, a keeper of gracious ways and kindnesses, a giver, a pickler of mangoes. Those who pickle know the soul of food, and if you know that, well, you know a lot. Mummy didn’t say that, but I read it in granny’s recipe book. I’ll ask granny if she made it up. Granny writes poetry and paints. She has a great rhyme about monkeys:
As mamma fries purees
Fat and round
From the coconut tree
The monkey jumps down –
In from the window
Out through the gate
He snatches the purees,
The monkey sits
On a Gulmohar tree
And strips off the flowers
So wicked is he!
Into his mouth he pops them
One by one,
Till the mali shouts
And makes him run!*
Sheroo Aunty was saying to us as we waited for the lift, “Sorry, ah, really sorry. She does that every time he visits. I don’t know why he comes. She should be put away, but her husband loves her so much, he won’t allow it. He worships her. Su kariye, what can we do? This is their house also. Sorry darling, sorry.”
We went on to Lohar Chawl to buy panties – you got them on the pavement, three for twenty-five rupees. Nice soft cotton panties. We also bought a small blue bucket to soak socks in.
On our way home we decided to buy two little spring chickens for dinner. I think we were inspired by Sheroo Aunty. It was a rare treat, a break from mummy’s cabbage and chappati. It was five in the evening. Fortunately Francois Maison, the butcher’s place, opened after his afternoon siesta at four. He weighed two chickens and it came to seven hundred and fifty grams for both of them.
We roasted the chickens and ate one each, listening to a cassette of ‘Camelot’ on the stereo. It was my favourite tape and I sang along.
Three days later, I returned from school at one o’clock as usual in my carpool and decided to play a practical joke on mummy. The front door was open. I wrote a ransom note and stuck it on the floor and hid in the toilet. Time passed, I think maybe about five minutes. There was no sound of panic. I waited and waited, maybe five more minutes and finally, hungry, I was too impatient to wait any more. I emerged to find mummy making my daily lunch of cabbage and chappati.
“Mummy!” I said, “Look I was kidnapped, see, here’s the ransom note. I escaped just in time.”
She laughed and hugged me. Then I sat in her lap and she cuddled me. “Would you like mushrooms for dinner?” she asked, “To celebrate your escape?”
“Yes, please,” I said, mushrooms were my favourite, made with white-sauce and pepper.
I ate my lunch. I washed up the dishes and went and played with my Lego. I built a house, for the hundredth time. Mummy was sleeping and I kept it aside to show her. Then I took out my small blue uniform for ironing. The ironing board was in a cupboard built by Bachubhai, the best carpenter in the world. He was six foot five inches tall and very gentle. When mummy fell off a stool and broke her jaw he was so upset by the blood that he fainted. I ironed my uniform and sat on my cane chair at my desk and did my homework. I was glad that we had five days to ourselves. Mummy and me.
The phone rang and I ran to it, barefoot. When daddy, my stepdad, was at home I was not allowed to run to the phone, I was not allowed to walk barefoot, he would come home from the office and examine the top of the fridge for dust and scold mummy if there was any to be seen, he would check if anyone else had used his bathroom. His bathroom always smelt of anti-dandruff shampoo, Selsun.
“Mummy,” I shouted, “It’s Sheroo Aunty.”
Mummy didn’t like being woken up from her nap. It gave her a headache. She came into the hall and sat down with the phone in her hand.
She was silent after the phonecall. She didn’t say, “Oh how inconsiderate people are to call at three in the afternoon. Such bad manners.”
I went into my room, and finished illustrating my composition book. We had been asked to write about aliens and draw our own alien. Mine was purple with many arms. Mummy says, “You are what you eat.” They ate only brinjals on the alien’s planet.
Mummy came in after making a few phonecalls. She sat down on my bed and said, “Sometimes it’s good to have a TV. We could see what was happening on the news. There was an Air India plane crash. Ratan, Feroza Aunty’s son, was on the plane.”
*From the unpublished poems of A.S. Shroff, the author’s grandmother.
Published in ‘The Reader’, No. 14. http://www.thereader.org.uk/magazine.aspx