What is rich? What is poor? I am called an elite and I do not disagree because it happens to be true if taken in the context of the economic and social standing of the majority of people.
Recently someone told me, someone who only knows me though my writings, that I seem to reek of wealth.
A few months ago I met this person in Delhi and he said, “You look…you know…like very upper class.”
Sometimes it bothers me. We end up being judged by these superficials, although I am aware that my life would have been vastly different had I been of a different ‘status’.
Back to the early story, and a comment that was made, no one was trying to be rich, and dignity is certainly not dependent on wealth.
In this case, the reason was deeper. My Nani and even the children did not want to depend on anyone. She came from a wealthy family in Zanzibar and lived in a haveli where a gong announced meals. Nana had money and belonged to a zamindar family in Gujarat, but he had run away from home and was making it on his own. It wasn’t what she was accustomed to. Yet, it was fine. My mother recollects how he would take lots of coins and put it in the pocket of his achkan before he left for work and called out to the kids. My mother was his favourite and would ask in Kutcchi, “Ketro ginaa? (How much should I take?)” and he would say, “Jetro hath mein achi sake (As much as can fit into your hands)” and she would come out with her swollen fists.
They had a good life and it did not change them much when they went through those years of privation.
What I find remarkable is that even in those days my grandma made sure that the boys too helped with housework. Of course, they would try to sneak out and the girls made a deal: we will make the beds if you give us money.
Nana was strict. For one, they were not allowed to watch movies...well, not regular ones. They could only go for mythologicals like Dus Avtaar, Harishchandra, or some such; Muslim religious films were not common. Once he took the two younger girls (the eldest was married) for a film with a deceptive title – Maa (Bharat Bhushan, Shyama, Leela Chitnis). The girls always looked forward to the interval and some treat. This time, just before the break he said, “Hallo (Come on…)” Ammi asked why and he said there was nothing left. My aunt, younger than mother but sharper, whispered, “Be je veech ki theen waalo vo (Something was going to happen between the man and woman)!”
Once he heard Ammi singing, “Chhod gaye baalam, mujhe haae akela chhod gaye”; she was quick in picking up songs and had heard S Maamu sing it. Nana heard her; he rarely shouted at the girls, so he told her, “Hedaa geet saara naaee…gaayan jo aae to Khuda jo nam waalo ga, kedo bhi (If you have to sing then choose those about god, hymns, bhajans, anything.”
Nanima would put her finger on her lips and later wickedly ask Ammi to sing “Chhod gaye…” She was herself a film buff and when Nana went off to work, she and the neighbour Aunt Cecilia would go often on the first day of release.
This did change during bad days. She cooked, as many women in those days did irrespective of how well they were brought up, but no other work. Suddenly, she had to supplement the income; no one told her to, but she wanted to. She decided to sew clothes, but did not know how to. So she would turn the garments over and see how they were cut. She became so good that she was much in demand. All this was done through a decoy because Nana may not have liked it.
The ability to learn stayed with her till the very end. Remember how I mentioned her trying to read English through the cartoons that appeared at the bottom of the Gujarati paper? And how we had this barter of my learning Gujarati?
Later in life, things looked up and rather well. Hard work paid.
Nanima had always been large-hearted; she remained so irrespective of the situation.
No one romanticised poverty just as they did not wealth. These were aspects of their circumstances
And, yes, I am an elitist type, but as a colleague once said, “I don’t know of many elites who take a look at the other side.”
I may not have inherited courage, patience, even the ability to smile through it all, but I hope I have internalised the legacy of not being ignorant about others.
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jo bijli chamakti hai unke mahal par
woh kar le tasalli, mera ghar jalaa kar
Dua kar gham-e-dil, khuda se dua kar – Anarkali
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music Director: C Ramchandra
Lyricist: Rajinder Krishan
Actors/Actresses: Pradeep Kumar, Beena Rai