children enjoy asking Appa to say ‘mosquito’; he pronounces it
‘moss-quito’, which makes them laugh. Already the children have a
different accent when they speak English. But no matter how much
English they learn, they will always call their father
one can beat Appa at killing flies. Four, five, six flies dead
within minutes. Appa
washes his hands more often than anyone else in the
eldest remembers a time when she thought flies were harmless,
That was when she was four and the youngest was still a
baby. She remembers
watching a fly sitting beside a sliced tomato in the kitchen, how a
few green seeds were floating in the watery juice. She remembers watching the
fly rub its fine, filament hands, and then, how it rubbed its face.
She watched and watched, and even started to speak with the fly
until Appa rushed up to her and scolded her for playing with a
fly. ‘Flies are
dangerous,’ he informed her. ‘Flies are full of diseases, and they
will make you very sick,’ he warned. Never again did the eldest
look kindly upon a fly.
the children fall and run home with bleeding elbows and knees, Appa
says, ‘don’t cry. Now,
now, stop crying. Your
white blood cells will help you. Your white blood cells will
start working now. Stop
crying. Now go and wash
it out with soap.’ And
that really makes the children quiet. Stunned. They try to imagine their
white blood cells as they peer at their bright red
eldest remembers Appa’s anatomy book. How the blood flows one way
and then another. Red,
blue, red: so the veins are coloured. Appa has explained the
function of the heart and the lungs to the children and has told
them how the blood must flow unhampered.
children learn the names of viruses. There are days when Appa
comes home with Dr Banerjee.
They have their afternoon tea with biscuits while Appa talks
about viruses and bacteria.
Dr Banerjee listens; the children also listen. The word, ‘chikungunya’,
makes the children laugh; ‘chikungunya’ makes them laugh so much
that years later, elderly Appa remembers their laughter when he is
told that his sister has caught chikungunya.
doesn’t know that the children spend their days in the garden
foraging for sour things to eat: raw tamarinds, tamarind
leaves, gulmohar leaves and gulmohar buds and flowers, and even a
strange new clover invading the grass. If Appa knew, he would
remind them of bacteria and viruses. If Appa knew, he would get
angry and tell them that if they get sick it will be their own
fault. It is their
decision. This is what
makes the children feel grown-up and important and afraid.
children have discovered huge mulberry bushes at the edge of an
empty, dry and barren field.
A dirt-dry field.
The mulberry bushes inspire the eldest to sing English
nursery rhymes. Every
now and then the children inspect the berries to see if they are
ripe enough; occasionally they find the berries in a perfect state
of dark blackish purple. And then they have a feast; they don’t miss
a single berry. The
children, however, are basically impatient, and are just as happy to
eat the sour, green berries, especially when they are hungry for
says the children must have eggs and vitamin C. The first time Appa shows
them the small plastic bottle containing vitamin C tablets, the
children are awed. They
are amazed. Appa opens the bottle carefully; and then, solemnly and
ceremoniously, he gives one tablet to each of the children. They love
the sour taste of the tablets.
It is a sour taste which is different from all the other sour
tastes they know. The
tablets, of course, have no trace of leaves or grass or flowers or
fruits. The tablets
don’t remind them of the wind ruffling their hair. The tablets have a pure
sourness all their own, like a sound that exists somewhere but
cannot be heard by anyone.
Not even by dogs.
The first day, the children finish half the bottle. The next day, when Appa
finds out, he is worried and anxious and he examines the children’s
faces. But nothing is
amiss. The children
look completely like themselves. And then, Appa says they can
only have one tablet a day.
time, the children listen.
Even they feel that the vitamin C tablets are more powerful
than tamarinds and gulmohar leaves; and even stronger than
lemons. The tablets
remind them of medicine, and medicine is always dangerous, they
agree. Nonetheless, it’s not as bad as
the time when the youngest, when still a baby, had swallowed
mothballs, and when the eldest had accidentally swallowed a metal
children have a long history with eggs. The children know that
when they were babies, their mother fed them soft boiled eggs;
sometimes she mixed the egg yolks with fresh mango juice. The children can’t imagine
eating such food, but they loved it, their mother reassures them.
Then they progressed to hard boiled eggs and then suddenly it was
Scrambled eggs with ketchup. None of their relatives,
none of their cousins or uncles or aunts or grandparents have ever
eaten eggs, let alone eggs with ketchup. One summer, Appa’s mother,
who is a pure vegetarian, and very strict when it comes to obeying
rules, allows them to cook eggs in her kitchen. Somehow Appa must have
persuaded her that eggs are important. The children, however, feel
neutral towards eggs.
has told the children about rabies. He has told them to stay
away from monkeys. He
has warned them many times.
But no one has told the monkeys to stay away from the
children. If Appa knew
that sometimes the children eat gulmohar leaves thrown down to them
by monkeys in the trees, then he might even faint, the children
believe, and afterwards he would give them more
children would like to be friends with the monkeys, but the monkeys
have different ideas.
The problem is that the monkeys do not really care for the
children. The monkeys
like to tease the children, and the children like to tease the
monkeys. It’s an
endless game. The
children think the monkeys throw gulmohar leaves and flowers to them
out of kindness, but the monkeys don’t see it that way.
Banerjee is the best at giving injections. Even Appa knows that, and so
he says to the children, ‘how lucky for you that Dr Banerjee has
come with me to give you vaccinations!’ The children know the city
is oozing with cholera.
It feels like a huge storm; it feels as if the clouds are
full of cholera, as if a tidal wave will crash over their garden any
moment now, and bring even more cholera.
Banerjee is very tall.
His hands are large and soft and very gentle. When he gives you an
injection you don’t even feel it. Not even a butterfly can be
so gentle. Appa is firm
and competent, but when he gives you an injection you can feel your
veins and your bones trembling. Trembling and
worst vaccinations the children receive are the smallpox
vaccinations in school, brutally and literally screwed into the
insides of their forearms.
The eldest, being left-handed, makes sure she receives the
vaccination on her right arm.
Afterwards, for days she cradles her right arm as if it were
a sick child in need of constant attention. She peers at the blood
encrusted vaccination marks which look like two little wheels;
small, dark Ashoka Chakras.
Sometimes creamy yellowish white froth seeps out, dead white
blood cells. Sometimes
the skin within the Chakra puckers up as if against some mysterious
cold air that she herself cannot feel. Her arm feels like it is no
longer hers. Her arm feels like a piece of wood lying beside a stream in a
huge forest; no longer hers, but reclaimed by the earth.
days the vaccinated arm is kept dry; unwashed until it is clear that
the cut circles of skin are beginning to heal. It’s a miracle that the
children are all able to resist the urge to scratch their
vaccination marks. And
it’s a miracle that their inflamed, irritated and scabbed skin
always heals smoothly, despite repeatedly being branded with the
same smallpox vaccination in the same spot. Years later, there’s not
even a hint of a scar.
makes a note to himself that the children have received their
smallpox vaccinations in school. He seems to nod to himself,
satisfied that the school is responsible, the government is
working. He praises the
children for not scratching their vaccination marks and for looking
after their arms so nicely.
the children complain about their food. This dal tastes like ashes,
they say. And the
milk! The boiled
buffalo milk they have to drink three times a day smells of old
balloons. This milk
tastes like rotten, old balloons, they say.
do they know, their mother asks, have they ever eaten ashes and
the children persist; we just know, they say, and gulp down their
hot milk as fast as they can, trying to smell and taste as little as
One day Appa goes to
Kutch. It will be a field trip,
Appa tells the children beforehand. The children don’t really
know what a field trip is.
They can’t imagine Appa wandering through fields and gardens
in the same manner that they do. They think he might be
hunting down mosquitoes and viruses, and bacteria, of course. As Appa prepares for his trip he
asks the children whether they would like anything special, anything
in particular from Kutch. The eldest is uncertain; she
has just finished reading Beauty and the Beast, and is
under a curious spell of magic herself. The eldest tends to live in
another world. Still,
she decides to be pragmatic and asks for a doll; which would be
better than an enchanted flower, she’s certain. Besides, she loves dolls and
everyone expects her to wish for a doll. What she secretly wishes for is a gigantic, thick book of
stories, preferably fairy tales from all over the world, but she
fears that such a book would be very expensive and surely not to be
found in Kutch; such a book could only exist in
Poona or Bombay.
youngest, for once, is not uncertain. He knows exactly what he
wants. ‘I want a
sword,’ he says without any hesitation. ‘A real sword! Bring me a sword.’ And Appa, to everyone’s
surprise, nods and agrees.
he leaves, Appa summons the children, and in his solemn, ceremonious
way, he embraces them and says good-bye. The children are always
saddened by such occasions.
They do not like to see Appa leave. This time they fear that he
will be gone for a long time, and they’re right, Appa is gone for
almost a month.
there is a week when their mother has no word from Appa. Everyone is concerned; and
the youngest, in order to provide a logical explanation for this
lack of communication on Appa’s part, imagines that Appa has fallen
into quicksand. With
great excitement and drama, the youngest enacts Appa’s struggle with
quicksand. This only
serves to make their mother feel more frightened and worried. But the eldest finds the
quicksand story funny.
The youngest is truly a clown. The eldest has great faith
in Appa; she believes that he is invincible and that nothing will
ever happen to him. She
knows that Appa is simply too busy.
When Appa returns home with a sword from
the youngest is overwhelmed.
But now he doesn’t know what he can do with a sword without
getting into trouble.
Dr Work from Alabama has come
he keeps a leopard in his house. These
are the days when ‘Pune’ is still ‘Poona’. The leopard is tame but
nonetheless wild. Mrs
Work rescued it after hunters killed its mother; the leopard was a
baby then, but now it’s grown-up. The children don’t believe
the leopard is tame. ‘I
tell you it has a leopard’s heart and a leopard’s mind; it will
never be tame’; the eldest tells the second eldest. The younger ones are quiet.
They’re supposed to finish their dinner, but they can’t. They simply stare at the
leopard pacing in front of them. Everyone’s parents are
eating in another room, a room without a leopard. Appa is talking about
viruses with Dr Work again.
The mothers don’t want to hear about diseases while they’re
eating. They want to
talk about flowers; let’s discuss something pleasant, they say. The leopard never
tires. ‘It needs lots
of space’, the eldest says.
The second eldest agrees. ‘Leopards don’t like to sit
or lie down. They’re
not like dogs, you know.’
is not afraid of the leopard; he’s not worried that the children are
eating dinner with a leopard. Dr Work’s leopard is certainly clean,
free of viruses and bacteria.
day, even Appa gets sick, and has to be taken to hospital. The children cannot
understand how Appa could get sick. They focus instead on the piles
of green coconuts that have appeared outside Dr Rao’s doors. Dr Rao is Appa’s boss. The doors to his house are
always open, but not now.
Dr Rao’s house remains shut for days, as many days as Appa is
in the hospital. It has
to do with Venkatesh, Dr Rao’s youngest son, who is at
is also sick. At least
thirty green coconuts were delivered today. At first the children think
there’s going to be a party, a party for everyone. But then they see Dr Rao’s
sad face as he comes out to fetch a coconut. ‘Venkatesh can only drink
coconut milk’, Dr Rao tells the children. Appa is gone for ten days
but to the children it feels like ten years. The children think Appa must
be getting horrible, bitter medicine, and they feel sorry for
him. They wonder
whether he’s getting any coconut milk too.
some extent, the children are not surprised that Venkatesh got
sick. After all, they
have seen him eating food from the vendors. The children are forbidden
to eat food from such vendors and peddlers. Appa has told them that that
sort of food is full of bacteria. But the children have seen Venkatesh
near the food stalls, buying all sorts of snacks from the
vendors. Often they see
him out in the streets, drinking freshly squeezed sugarcane juice
with his friends. That
lariwallah’s sugarcane juice is full of viruses, Appa has warned
them, as if the lariwallah has added a shot of viruses to the juice,
and as if Appa has witnessed him doing that. Clearly, Venkatesh is not
afraid of viruses and bacteria. Dr Rao certainly must have
told him about the dangers of eating food from the vendors. Maybe Venkatesh doesn’t want
to believe or cannot believe what Dr Rao has told him. Even though the children are
much younger than Venkatesh, they have no trouble believing
everything that Appa tells them about bacteria and viruses. When Appa speaks, somehow
you know that it’s the absolute truth and nothing but the
truth. The only
sugarcane the children taste is in their grandmother’s house, in her
fragrant, clean kitchen.
No virus would dare to enter the kitchen belonging to Appa’s
Appa gets sick, Ma follows him to the hospital and stays with
him. Soon Appa’s mother arrives in
summoned by their own mother.
She too stays in the hospital with Appa, all day, every
day. The children have
no memory of that.
Maybe because their mother and grandmother leave the house
very early in the morning, before the children are awake, and return
home late at night when the children are fast
the children remember is that their mother’s youngest brother,
Bha’mama, comes to stay with them. Bha’mama is the greatest
storyteller that the children know. The eldest is always trying
to imitate him.
Bha’mama is also a singer and a musician and he knows the
best jokes. He makes up
new jokes all the time, just like that. To the uninitiated, his
jokes can be very strange.
In the evening, Bha’mama sings and sings, and the children
listen. As they listen,
the children drift and fall, slide and sink into his song; they
begin to live inside his singing. Sometimes they imagine that
they are lost birds and Bha’mama has come to rescue
the children play house, the eldest always plays Bha’mama and Appa
and doctor; the second eldest is Mina mami, Ma and nurse, and the
youngest must always be the baby, simply the baby who tends to fall
ill every day and must be rushed off to the doctor. ‘Medicine is crucial,’ the
eldest says, ‘we have to find medicine for the baby, our baby
Kalyan.’ This means
that the medicine must be made, prepared with great care and
Luckily, there is a neem tree in their garden, a neem tree
with bitter, medicinal leaves.
The eldest and the second eldest gather the freshest leaves
they can find, crush them and steep them in water and then persuade
the youngest to drink this tonic. The youngest is a good
sport, but one day, the medicine is far too bitter, and he has to
gulp down far more than he can handle. But after that day, the
eldest and the second eldest agree that baby Kalyan is cured and
will never need such medicine again.
Sometimes heat and fatigue and boredom make
the children fight. And then, the eldest would say to the second
eldest, ‘don’t follow me around like a tiger’s tail.’ ‘So
that makes you a tiger?’
The second eldest asks.
younger ones don’t care.
They don’t mind being called ‘tiger’s tail’. They
know who they really are.
Besides, they like cats.
is something that makes the children feel like birds. And that is
bolkeri. First the
morning, and then the whole day and then the entire holiday season
is changed by the taste of bolkeri. Salt and turmeric mixed with
the sourness of tough green mangoes on their way to picklehood.
Bolkeri emerging after two days or three days, bolkeri taken out of
the darkness of earthenware jars, bolkeri on their way to be dried,
purified by heat and sun.
The children are each allowed a piece of bolkeri. No more. It makes them feel like
birds. It makes them
feel fulfilled but oddly wanting something more, something
else. Chewing on the
bolkeri, they think of the Monkey Princess, whose mother, a real
human Queen, craves such raw mangoes. The
story of the Monkey Princess reminds them
of other stories. And
suddenly, ‘we want to listen to a story’, the younger ones say to
the older ones, ‘a new story.’
is only one type of ice cream that Appa approves of, and that is
rose ice cream. Not
made from roses, of course, but milk. Not just any milk, but cows’
milk prepared by Appa’s mother. But why not from roses
also? The eldest says,
‘of course there are roses in rose ice cream. After all, we eat roses all
the time; all the time when we want a snack and there’s nothing else
in the garden or in the house.’
bolkeri, rose ice cream changes the holidays. Every year there is one day
when their grandmother boils and then cools litres of milk, the best
cows’ milk. It takes hours to prepare. Then, this milk is taken to
the dairy, and the next day barrels of ice cream are delivered. Rose ice cream. And in the evening everyone
eats bowls and bowls of ice cream. Nothing else. No dal or rice or
vegetables. Only rose
ice cream. Rose ice cream rules the night.
children can stay up very late and eat as much ice cream as they
only ice cream Appa approves of. It is pure, he tells them,
free of viruses and bacteria.
is the blackbird with a yellow beak. Deep dark brown, those kabar
feathers; a rich luxurious brown, coffee and chocolate and velvet,
and a shimmer of silk. A crow is blacker, a crow is truly
the garden is scoured by hundreds of yellow beaks. The sun merges into those
dark brown beings.
Suddenly the birds are there, and suddenly
has the longest, thinnest face that the eldest has ever seen. Rita wears sturdy spectacles
and looks like a thin, old grandmother even though she’s only
ten. Rita always spots
the lone blackbird as if it were her duty, her destiny. ‘One for sorrow,’ she
announces right away, even though the rhyme is meant for
blackbirds they see all the time, not magpies, so they have turned
their kabar into a bird of fate. ‘Now I’ll have sorrow today,’ she
adds. The eldest is
more optimistic; ‘maybe we’ll still have two for joy, there’s always
a second bird, Rita.’
And soon enough, a second bird does appear, and sometimes a
third and a fourth, and sometimes more than a dozen. ‘But sorrow was there
first,’ Rita insists, unable to trust happiness. Rita is Christian. Rita is as Christian
as their teacher, Mrs Sunderajan, who is fierce and strict, and who
likes to believe she is a lioness.
‘But I am a lioness,’ Mrs Sunderajan says; ‘I am a lioness.’ Then she shakes her
head as if that settled the matter and solved her problems. ‘I am a lioness.’ With that statement Mrs
Sunderajan concludes all her private lectures. Her favourite topics are God
and his wrath and tropical diseases, which are perhaps a result of
his wrath. Sometimes it
is hard to know what Mrs Sunderajan believes. On the one hand, she
considers herself scientific and modern, on the other hand, she bows
completely to God. So a
disease is more than a disease; it is God’s will. The pupils think she likes
smallpox and cholera the best.
But sometimes Mrs Sunderajan veers off into other topics,
private stories about her family, her husband and the hardships a
good, Christian woman such as herself face. ‘I shed many tears,
many bitter tears,’ she says to her astonished and embarrassed
pupils who consider her to be the strictest and toughest teacher
Sometimes she speaks of the Vietnam War and then suddenly of the beggars
outside the school gates, and admits that there are people near and
far who suffer more than she does. And then, abruptly she
begins to discuss the evils of coffee again. Mrs Sunderajan advises the
pupils to be careful about how many cups of coffee they drink,
certain that they don’t drink any coffee yet. ‘I mean when you are
older,’ she says. ‘Now
look at me, I drank so much coffee that my lips turned black.’ And it’s true, the skin on
her face is almost white but her lips are black. Unfortunately black, and not
red like Snow White’s.
The pupils, especially the girls, readily believe that coffee
has turned Mrs Sunderajan’s lips black. ‘But I am a lioness,’
she cries, as if black lips can pose no threat to a lioness; surely,
black lips are as insignificant as a mosquito is to a lioness. The word, ‘lioness’,
stresses her femaleness, or so the girls think. They imagine Mrs Sunderajan
as a dutiful, tearful lioness beside her husband, who then must be a
lion. But that is
difficult to believe because Mr Sunderajan is small and meek and
always defers to his wife.
must have many secrets, the Sunderajan family,’ the eldest says to
her friend, Madhuri.
And Madhuri nods, annoyed that Mrs Sunderajan wasted so much
time with her lioness talk when they still have to learn about
typhoid. And then, the
two girls look at each other and turn silent.
eldest enjoys learning about diseases; she is fascinated by the list
of symptoms and possible cures that Mrs Sunderajan describes. Yet she knows that Appa
knows far more than Mrs Sunderajan. Appa knows everything but
doesn’t have the time to tell them; Appa gives them information in
small amounts, in as few words as possible, usually when the
children are doing something dangerous.
day, Madhuri tells the eldest about cancer; it’s a disease the
eldest has never heard of.
problem is,’ Madhuri says, ‘there’s no cure for it. But they’re working on
it. There is radium and
radioactivity, something like that which they can use.’ The eldest is alarmed, she
thinks that every disease has a cure by now. And then, to encounter
cancer, something uncharted, something basically unknown, how
frightened she feels, how disoriented.
parents are doctors, and they tell her so much more about
diseases. The eldest
trusts Madhuri and is grateful to her for sharing this information
about cancer. The
eldest would like to discuss cancer with Appa
but doesn’t know how to begin.
Somehow she senses that cancer is something so horrible that
children aren’t supposed to know about it.