Two things drew me to her. One was her long shiny hair, fit to be in any shampoo ad, except that it was white ( not gray). Another was the fact that she spoke English. All at once she broke two of my prejudices- that all old people need not tie their hair in a bun, that people above 60 could speak more than a few words in English.
I remember the first time I met her. I was in the backyard, with an intense curiosity about everything in the world, with a need to experiment. She saw it differently. She called out from her backyard that was behind mine and told me that it was wrong to break leaves, regardless of the reason. I could manage only “sorry Auntie”. Aunties spoke English. Grannies spoke tamil. That was my logic. She asked me my name, and reminded me about its meaning, and somehow related it to the leaf that I was breaking. I wanted to ask her if she knew stories that she could tell me. Whatever my intense curiosity for the world was, it wasn’t as much as my craving to tell my classmate a story they hadn’t already heard.
Almost immediately I became her friend. When I’d come back from school, I’d leave the backdoor wide open, with an immense faith in all of humanity- especially in the lack of thieves. My mother called it irresponsibility. We’d sit in a little cement platform that covered the sump from which the back door of my house could be seen. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that Auntie did that so she could keep watch at my house, without spoiling my innocence, without instilling me a sense of fear – I would get it eventually anyway.
Soon, I found myself telling her my deepest, darkest secrets. For an 8 year old, my deepest secret was to be A’s best friend and my darkest secret was a hatred for B with whom A was best friends with. I’ve always felt that my mom never read enough child care books. Any complaint I had would be brushed off with a “it happens”, or a “ be friends with C”. My dad came home at 11 or later, and could never quite understand the best friend pledges. Looking back, I think they handled me well. It helped quell my obsession for a best friend. Eventually, almost magically, I did become best friends with A, B and C. For an 8 year old though, all I needed was someone to tell me that I was better suited for B than A, and that C didn’t deserve me. Auntie never did that, but she nodded her head as I recited every opinion animatedly. She would smile at the way I moved my hands. I’d take it to mean that she agreed with me and it was a perfect arrangement.
Her husband had been a high commissioner with the Indian embassy. He’d been all over the world and so had she. I saw photos of her standing next to Nehru, next to Rajaji and a lot more people who in my mind were as fictional as Darrell or the O Sullivan twins from Enid Blyton. My respect for her was ever increasing and so was my awe at how big the world really was, or rather how small it was that I knew someone who knew Nehru. She spoke of cocktail parties and ballroom dancing and dips for chips. She would speak about compassion, about faith, about honesty which was just as interesting as everything else.
I remember when she spoke about dreams. She said that when the eyelids act as a projection for dreams. My obsession with dreams, with building castles in the air or indeed everywhere started then. Somehow if there was a theater somewhere in my head just so I could see things at night, they had to be important. Getting my wishes to be projected on that screen was therefore as real as making them come true itself. Often, when I tell people this conclusion, I get a laugh. Sometimes it’s a reaffirmation of their belief that I’m a slightly wrongly wired person. I feel that all the time. But while most of my friends were vying for A’s attention I was planning bigger things in a childish fashion, and that made the absence of A a lot more bearable initially, and later not even missed.
Haven of peace was what she called her home. That was what it was. Spick and span, tidy, everything had its place, and everything was always in its place. The sink would never have unwashed utensils in it. There would never be a bucket with clothes waiting to be dried. It wasn’t a castle that was elaborate with decorated with gorgeous silk. I didn’t feel lost like I would in a castle that was grand and disorienting. There was a little swing that fit me in the hall. Everytime I went there, I’d sit on it for 5 minutes, singing loudly, listening to my voice, listening to my echoes. When I got much older, she took me upstairs where there was a room that had wooden swings- two small ones and one big one. Adjacent to it were many trunks full of books. I never got to reading all of them, but by that time I knew what “haven of peace” meant.
She had two children. They were almost as old as my parents. One of them, I was told got lost in an avalanche in the Himalayas. The other was in the US. The relationship we had was perhaps symbiotic. I filled a void of a missing daughter, of loneliness that she felt without her children and I felt without siblings. It was the first time I saw in a person unshakeable belief. When she told me about her daughter, I blurted out, insensitively “ is she dead ?”. I got a calm reply, “she’s not. She’s there somewhere. Perhaps she’ll still come back. Perhaps she won’t. She’s somewhere though”. Her faith in God was equally unshakeable. With my parents maintaining a strong silence about God, limiting themselves to the prayer said during festivals, with my dad telling me that the diya lit in the pooja room was simply saying thanks to the energy of life. It was unnerving when she’d recite Sanskrit slokas and try and to explain its meaning. She told me to choose an idol, merely as a symbol of faith, or belief that my dreams will come true and left it at that.
Some of her stories were imagination. I gobbled them all up, the line between reality and imagination always receding. If Nehru was real, so was the incident about the shadow of a man standing atop Eiffel tower, seen in the sky. Later, I’ve had to sort it all out in my head, with some difficulty, but with a love for all things magical. We shared a kitten. A beautiful cat named Leoni. She gave him solid food. I gave him milk and a place to come sharpen his claws in. It deepened the bond that we had. So much so that I became a proud owner of a new best friend.
She’d write a series called “Oh Auntie”, based on our talks. I’d read them every evening with a sense of pride that I was being mentioned on paper, with fascination that I was capable of saying so much, and sometimes taking home the subtle hint that would be left there to show me that I was wrong. For a very long while, she was a big part of my life. The major part of my evenings would be spent with her on that cement platform, with her stroking my hair and telling me that I had wonderfully large eyes. “You’ll have trouble lying with such expressive eyes”, she said. I do. Not because of large eyes, because she grilled in me, the importance of honesty. When I was much larger, she said “ you’d have trouble eloping. I don’t think you can keep love a secret”. I think I blushed, because the entry in the “Oh Auntie” series said I did.
When her husband died, she began maintaining a distance from everyone. I had been gone for almost a year, and when I came back, I saw an Auntie who was looking dejected and despondent. My parents told me to leave her alone, and I did. The last time I saw her, she wished me all the happiness in my life and I felt a sense of finality in that statement. It was one of the few times I came into the house from the foreign front door, instead of the familiar fence in her backyard. I held her hands tightly, hiding my tears. She looked at me “ you still have trouble lying, I see”. I didn’t know what to say. She seemed to know and bid goodbye. With almost a bollywood style, I turned back and told her that A, B, C and she were my best friends. It was time to leave her – forever.
But there are memories of her that I continue to savour, an obsession for dreams that I continue to cherish as well as an obsession to keep the child within me alive. Everytime I pass by the now reconstructed house, I look at the window on the right side and imagine the swings, and the number of days I spent there with the creak of the swings as solace. Everytime I pass by that house, I get transported to a haven of peace, and I am determined to be there for longer and longer.