(Part I last para: “Okay, we will accept you in the fold if you smuggle for us ‘cigarette mittai’ from Chitta’s shop,” set my youngest uncle a condition.)

I surveyed Chitta’s shop a few times. It was my debut, after all. Chitta mama was dosing, after lunch. He was frail and in his mid-sixties. ‘Even if he catches and beats me up, it won’t be unbearable,’ I visualized the worst scenario.

The shop was at a raised level. My hands could at best get to the top of the bottle from the ground. I had to be sure to lay my hands on the right bottle, and not end up collecting Orange mittai instead. The gang leaders would still enjoy the booty but disqualify me for wrong delivery – though executed with no less dexterity.

I measured the distance, made a mental calculation, stretched my hand on the right bottle, and tried to open it. It was tight and won’t oblige. I tried hard; in the process the bottle touched the others in the row and made a rattling noise. “Oh my God, I am done for. No time for strategy, just lift the bottle,” I obeyed my inner voice.

“The full bottle,” my uncle, the gang leader, asked, overjoyed. “Doesn’t matter, we will finish it in two days,” he said, as we emptied the contents in the next thirty minutes. I got inducted. (Later in life, I wrote off this solitary incident to childhood pranks – not sure if Chitragupta ji above has noted it or not.)

On the brighter side, my mama taught me cycling, how to swim, climb tall mango trees, and many other things – more importantly, how to tie a dhoti, so that it didn’t disown me at a crucial moment, which it did once. I had just mastered the art of jump-mount the cycle, instead of the conventional pedalling for a while and then mount on the seat. I missed it miserably and my dhoti fell apart much the amusement of the girls watching my, till then successful, gimmicks.

**********

The other member of the Thatha family who gave us company was my aunt, Chitti (Mausi). Just ten years older to me, like my youngest mama, she was my friend, philosopher and guide. I shared with her things that I would not even tell my mom. I confided in her, and never in my mom, the dressing down I got during the Active-Passive Voice class. Rama killed Ravana, said the teacher and asked me to convert it into passive voice. I could not. He prompted me, “Say it the other way, my boy – Ravana…”. I took the hint and responded promptly, Ravana killed Rama. “How dare you re-write the epic Ramayana?” a devout Hindu, he thundered and gestured me out of the class. He threatened to tell my grandfather about my audacity. It was a small community, and everyone knew everyone else.

I was six years old when once we went to my maternal grandparents home for a short stay. My Chitti, just 16, offered to take me to Kalpathy Ther (car festival), a famous annual event in Palakkad, very crowded. Viewing the vast collection of bangles she spent a little more time in a shop as I strayed to see things of my interest. In the melee I couldn’t find my way back and began crying. A police constable held me, first in his arms and, when the cry assumed alarming proportions, rested me on his shoulder for the crowd to view me in full and possibly relieve him from me the soonest. No luck.

“Your father’s name?” he asked, frustrated. “Samikutty,” I said. “That is a nickname; full name?” he insisted. “Samikutty Anna”, I clarified. Still clueless. Luckily, by then he spotted a frantic young girl rushing towards us. After checking her credentials he handed me over to Chitti. Her next worry. “Don’t mention the incident to your Dad, okay?” She wanted me to swear, as bought me a chocolate from the money given to her for bangles. “Sure?” she re-confirmed as she handed me yet another to be doubly sure I didn’t.

While waiting on the wings for a suitable bride after her school education, Chitti qualified either Visharad or one grade above that, from Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha. It was in that year that Hindi was introduced in our class. One homework assigned to us was: Kamron mein khidikiyaan kyon hoti hai? I would take Chitti’s help. Acchi hawa aur Roshni aane keliye Kamron mein khidikiyaan hoti hai. None of the other answers could match that. Thereafter the teacher would ask them to learn from me, and thus they began pouring in for clarification. I always dodged them saying, ‘Will tell you tomorrow’, and clarified with Chitti in the afternoon. Unable to bear my increasing popularity, my village and class friend, Choodamani, spilled the beans. Thereafter none of the co-students ever looked at me, let alone clarify doubts.

Now in her 90s, Chitti lives in New Jersey. She is agile, takes a long walk alone every afternoon along the ocean beach. Should the situation warrant, she is game for a one to one dual. While on visits to the US, I might forget to call up a few, but never her.

Yes, Chitti and I ended our last talk on a final note, Guzra hua zamana, aata nahi dobara, Hafiz Khuda tumhara… (1956 film, Sirin Farhad). For those who have an ear for music, please listen to Lata ji’s soulful rendering in Youtube – and tell me if you did.

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Sundaram Venkatesh

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