Government quarters are always the ones that are split into two, with fungal mandalas forming on the ceiling and doors held together by cardboard band-aids. Living in this house and going to school with offsprings of inherited land and fancy richness was a suffocating embarrassment that pushed me to wake up ten minutes early to catch the school bus two blocks away, to avoid the eyes of mockery at my misery.
I was scared about them finding out I don’t have a shower, so every time I’ve used the term “shower” instead of bath, it’s been a lie. The warmth of my house was taken away from me by emotions of embarrassment that slowly turned to fear of the looks and statements people had when they entered a specific room — the toilet. One day, a bunch of political campaigners were around the colony, they saw mom in the backyard and asked with shock if she stays in the house that looks like it breeds jirrle (cockroach), pointing at the toilet which was decorated with cobwebs and moss in the backyard. It wasn’t insulting anymore, but it induced fear of how a dysfunctional toilet can become a loop for a stranger to insult even a district child protection officer like my mother, who has worked very hard for the position she is in.
We moved to two houses with nice toilets soon after, and again ended up in a quarters that brought back the cockroach syndrome — where squeaking with fear when you spot a cockroach is a privilege. Instead, the fear is not the cockroach but the shame of spotting one, or to have a guest ask if the toilet has cockroaches. Yes, my home shelters roaches, but they don’t see my mother come back to the same home after a draining day, to begin the rant about all the things she wants to change in this world while tugging on the sleeves of her blouse, gasping for air in her day-long puddled armpits.
With a tired voice — calm, yet with hints of anger from the day, she talks about the cases she handled that day in the orphanage. She complains about a cranky senior officer who refuses to give the newly bought football and cricket bat to the kids. She then marches into her bedroom to unwind and blend into the comfort of her home by slipping into the cotton nightie stained with the chutney from breakfast. After a long breath of ‘everything’s going to be okay’, she walks into the kitchen and washes the rice as a hum of Hindustani music plays from the radio in the background, stops after all the chalk like water is drained from rice and then drizzles a fresh glass of water onto the damp rice with a pod of cinnamon. Just as she attains the satisfaction of getting something done, she and the handle-less cooker lid will tug at each other for a solid 10 minutes, like siblings fighting over kadle mitaayi. When she increases the volume of the radio and the raaga reaches the living room, it’s understood that she’s yet again emerged victorious from battle with her frenemy cooker that’s been with her for 3 years in the same condition.
She smiles standing next to the kitchen door placing high on her hips hands that give off the confidence of having lifted mountains, and positions herself for two minutes of a spontaneous Akashawani talk show, “Do you know the kumul (mushroom) that Kavya Akka gets from Wooluguli [Uluguli] Estate for us? Those are the mushroom she gets after a night of heavy rain and lightning on her way to pick coffee in the morning. Those are the tastiest mushroom ever; it has the taste of earth shook by lightning. Ahh, that kumul curry and akki roti is an assured warm feet sleep.”
She pauses as she gets lost in the image of the steam from a puffed akki Roti when popped to pour ghee into it and right about time the cooker lets out a whistle bringing her back to the ground. “Anyways, my point is, whenever I’m shaken by bad series of events I tell myself that it’s just the lightning and the mushrooms are yet to be bloomed ” she says goofily with hope in her eyes vibrant enough to outshine the embers of the wood burning in the hearth, heating the water for her bath.
She is my very own dysfunctional mother. Who has been tweaking every hurdle to get through life, from her handle less cooker, to her chudidar trousers held with archaeologically old safety pins and the toilet of house #4, where she painted the door with the joke “Run like a racer, sit like a saint and walk like a king”, to make it better for me.
She chose to embrace the cockroach like jugaad, starting from her early high school days when she saved the 10 paisa her father gave her for cleaning his spit bowl, to buy the newly arrived ‘endless toffee’ also known as bubble-gum. As the story goes the bubble-gum if chewed for one more day would’ve caught fire, but the hard earned bubble gum’s life didn’t end there. She would stick it to a pole next to her home so that whenever she went out to clean her father’s spit bowl, she could take a sniff of the hardened gum to get through the cleaning and save up for another treat someday.
And to her college days when she twiddled through fee payment and a constantly growling stomach through everyday classes and exams, barely getting by with one egg puff a day from Antony Annas bakery. She did emerge victorious — being the first woman in the family to get a Masters and a prominent government job as a social worker. When her high school kindled love ended up in a divorce, she got by as an amazing single mother, moulding her life and roles to provide me the love she wanted me to get from a father who should’ve taught me how to ride a cycle, a sibling who should’ve eaten the saved up banana halwa just to get on my nerves and the friend who should’ve watched Heidi on Chintu TV with me every Sunday evening.
She is the prime example of what the millennials like to call ‘it be like that sometimes.’ Right after she bought her car which consumed her in 7 years of saving plans, she rammed into a van the same day and within 2 seconds of absorption of the deed she had done, she slyly looked at the very angry van owner, ready to pounce on her with the ‘pardesi’ brimming at the tip of his tongue loudly visible in his eyes and said, “It happens, now you can also hit my car sir”. Surprisingly her crackhead gut worked wonders, and the angry man face-palmed himself into another dimension of existential crisis as he quickly zoomed away from her in the blink of an eye. Her acceptance of how life is, and working around the situation is either very contagious, or just outright scary because in the end it always works or might be the death of her.
She’s so used to every other thing being dysfunctional, she keeps stuff that is in a way a struggle to get to function — like the cooker, a wimpy legged dining table with shattered glass edges that might be potential reason for serious injury, a geyser that has been taken over by cockroaches because of its abandonment after constant breakdowns. More recently, it is the 15 year old love-hate relationship with the fully automatic washing machine — that finally retired, but she refuses to give it up and has given it a place in the backyard under the iron staircase collecting rusted iron flakes, and used newspapers that are stacked for the hearth, for hot water baths.
She finds a way for everything, to fit every extra person and to untangle every mess, because a wise woman had once put it in her radio jockey lingo that the mushrooms are yet to bloom.
Now, I’ve realized that the fungal flaky walls and cockroach breeding toilets represented something louder, which was always overshadowed by shame. It reeks of individualism, and the struggle of my mother who still is changing houses because the house that promised a settled life didn’t allow her to continue working. I no longer hate house #4, as it is a reminder of all the times she came home late with tired shoulders from burdened fights with the police and the court, for the children abused and enslaved in the plantations and factories that serve the sweet-scented inherited rich — who only cared for the service and not the service providers.
She is fighting the system that I was embarrassed of not belonging to.
Edited by- Anika Eliz Baby