My Mama died after I was born. Papa and I used to live in a small town. Papa travelled to other towns, near and far, to sell sarees, and I went with him. But as I grew older, Papa said it was no life for a child. He sent me to live with his sister, Madhu aunty.
Madhu aunty lived in a big town with her two daughters, Meena and Veena. They were a few years older, so I didn’t always understand what they talked about. They didn’t take me to play with them or let me join them when they went out. I didn’t think living with them would be a wildly exciting experience. Papa said that it was because they were older. “You listen to Madhu, aunty, and be a good girl, okay? I’ll come and see you in between. Study well and help aunty.”
It was more fun to travel to all the towns with Papa. But I had to stay. I was also secretly afraid of Madhu aunty. Papa consoled me, “It’s okay, Soundarya. You can make them like you if you are nice to them.”
It was still summer vacation, and school was closed. I didn’t know anyone there, so I spent all the time in the kitchen. Ruchi mami came every morning to cook for the family. She made such delicious food! “Mami, the biryani smells so wonderful! How do you make your chapattis round? Is that tadka for the dal?” I asked Ruchi Mami all the questions I wanted, and she answered me patiently. She even let me help her in the kitchen. Madhu aunty was very strict with her.
“Ruchi, how many chapattis are you making? How many cups of rava are you using for the upma?” Sometimes, when I was hungry, Ruchi mami saved some tidbits and gave them to me secretly.
Two weeks after I came to live with them, Madhu aunty called me to her room. Veena and Meena were sitting on the floor next to a pile of clothes. “Girls, it is important for you to keep the house. From now on, you must wash, dry, and fold your clothes. Start by folding this pile.”
“Mama, we have a bhai to do the work for us. Why do we have to do this?” Veena protested. But Madhu aunty had left the room. I pulled the lehenga on top of the pile and started to fold it. “Mama…..,” Veena went in search of her mother.
“You are good at folding!” Meena smiled.
“That’s because I used to do all the work when Papa and I travelled around,” I said.
“Oh goodness! Please can you fold these? It is so boring!” I was so excited! I wanted to help Meena. After all, I folded the clothes for Papa too. I nodded, and she smiled again and watched me for a few minutes.
“Meena, can you help me here?” her sister called out from the hall. It took me some time because it WAS a big pile, but I finished folding all the clothes.
“Mama, Soundarya is so good at folding clothes; that should be her job every day!” Meena smiled at me again. “Madhu aunty, I can fold everyone’s clothes. I’m used to it,” I blurted out.
“Oh, my brother has raised you so well!” aunty smiled. I felt happy.
I, I, I, I, I,
Will, will, will, will, will,
Not, not, not, not, not,
Tell, tell, tell, tell, tell,
A, a, a, a, a, a
Lie, lie, lie, lie, lie!
There! 95 times done. Only five more to go, I thought to myself as I put the pen down and stretched my fingers.
“I WILL NOT TELL A LIE!”
My mother doesn’t believe that I did not tell a lie. I just didn’t give all the information about where the jalebis went. That’s not the same as telling a lie, is it?
The new girl walked into the kitchen.
When my mother told me that a new girl had come to live at the house where she cooked, I was sort of excited. She was my age! Maybe she would be friendly. Tells you how clueless I was! It was the most boringest place ever. All they talked about was clothes and jewelry, and giggled stupidly. Well, at least two older girls did.
Those two were giggling even now as they made their way to the terrace. Do people really have to brush their hair a thousand times? I’d go bald if I did that! The third girl Soundarya, now she could have been okay, but no such luck! The silly girl mooned around them. So, I just finished my punishment and decided to read a book.
Mmmmm, I smell freshly made rice! So delicious! Oh! Ruchi mami must be here!!!
I ran to the kitchen. Mami’s face set into a frown when I told her how I was helping my cousins. I grabbed a ball of dough and rolled it out. Cooking always helps me when I feel edgy. Oh, I just realized something. I am nervous. Why? Was it Mami’s frown? My chapati looks like a flower with petals sticking out everywhere, not like Mami’s perfect circle. Nirav was in a corner with his head in a book. I swear his glasses looked thicker every time I saw him.
That night, we didn’t have enough plates. So, aunty asked Veena and me to wash some. Veena poured a whole bucketful of water to wash three dishes. I showed her how to clean the plates properly, and she laughed prettily. “Ha, why don’t you wash these if you think you can do a better job? Mama, Soundarya is so careful with water when she washes the dishes. She should do this every day.” Aunty gave me a sweet smile, and I felt happiness swell inside me. You know, Papa was right. You just have to be nice to people, and they will like you for it.
I started my new school. My cousins’ school was quite far, but mine was nearer. So, I had time to wash all our clothes and dry them in the morning. When I returned, I quickly folded the clothes, went to the market to buy vegetables for the next day, and got them ready for Ruchi mami. After dinner, I washed and dried the dishes and finished my homework before bedtime.
Every week, Veena and Meena had dancing and singing lessons. I loved to watch them practice their steps after they got home. And when no one was looking, I practiced the steps by myself.
“Do you think Madhu aunty will let me join dancing classes too?” I asked Ruchi mami as she slid a poori into the sizzling hot oil.
“I know who I’d like to watch twirling in pretty lehengas, and it is neither of those two!” Ruchi mami mumbled.
“Aw, ma! Now SHE’s going to start walking with her head in the air and swooning in front of the mirror!” Nirav looked up from his homework, his eyes bulging from behind his glasses.
I frowned at him and continued to stir the aloo bhaji on the other stove. But he was not done. “You better do something about that dance class. Otherwise, your sighs are going to blow the stove off!”
“Nirav!” Ruchi mami stopped his odious comments.
But thinking about his irritating comments gave me the courage to go to Madhu aunty that evening. When I pushed the door in, Veena and Meena were sitting around a red lehenga with a zari border. An odni with green tassels lay on top. I ran my fingers over the silky skirt and whispered, “So beautiful!”
“Isn’t it? I’m going to take it to a tailor to add a border with these crystals….”
I jumped at the chance. “Oh, can I do it? I learned to sew sequins, beads, and even crystals at the shop where Papa got the sarees.”
Aunty’s eyes were round as the sun. “How many things did you learn travelling with my brother?” she said.
I spent the following weekend sewing while my cousins oohed and aahed. And when they tried their lehengas on, I felt a thrill. Tomorrow I will tell that Nirav how much my cousins loved my work.
“Aunty,” I started.
“What is it, girl?”
I was taken aback by aunty’s tone. My courage flew out the window, leaving me standing all alone. “I want to go to dance class, too,” I mumbled.
“What is it?” Aunty asked again.
“Mama, she wants to go to dance class too,” Meena told her mother.
“Oh! You want to learn dancing! At this age! Oh, my dear, Meena and Veena have learned dance since they were five years old. You have to start young to learn classical dance. I’m afraid you are too old to start learning now.” Aunty shook her head.
“Oh, but maybe I can show the teacher. I’ve been learning the steps from watching them practice,” And I twirled and moved my arms just like I had seen my cousins practice.
“My dear child! I wish you’d started to learn dance as a little girl. You see, to be a good dancer, you must begin as young as 5. Besides, the dance classes will tire you out. You are already so thin and hardly have time after work at home. I’m sending them because they are no good at housework.”
I was confused! Aunty sounded cross, but there was a smile on her face. My cousins were watchful and silent. Was I making a fool of myself? I slunk away from there and hid under my sheets. Strangely enough, things got busy after that. I never found time to watch my cousins practice their dance. Along with my usual chores, I dusted, went to the market, or swept the leaves in the garden. There was always something to do.
To be continued…