By Arti Jain
“You can’t play with those boys under the jamun tree!” warned his grandmother as Amit reached out to push the heavy black metal gate open.
“Why?” He wanted to scream the why out, but knew better.
“Because they’re dirty, filthy scum…those jamadars and bhangis!” She turned her head up just a little to seal her words with her stern stare. The permanent frown lines on her forehead dug deeper.
He dared not disobey. One word from his nani would light up his mother’s temper. He didn’t want to set off the fireworks. Despite his mother’s short temper and ferocious love for the 12-inch wooden ruler from Kumar Stationery, he had avoided being beaten up in his nani’s house so far. He wasn’t going to start now—not in front of all his cousins.
In fact, even his mother hesitated to use her favourite wooden ruler to teach him a lesson when the house was full of aunties and cousins. Adults don’t mind being cruel as long as there are no witnesses.
Amit decided to bide his time. He pulled out his History homework book, planted himself on the cool grey steps next to his nani’s charpoy and waited for the soft rumbling sound of her snoring.
Amit and his little sister, Amu, spent their summer holidays at his nani’s house every year. All his mother’s sisters and brothers, along with their families, came together to spend at least a month of living, laughing, arguing, eating and drinking together.
This summer, however, was special. Seven-year-old Amit’s 24-year-old cousin, Rohit bhaiya, was getting married. Nani’s house was abuzz with activity—mathris and ladoos were being prepared in advance, and the children were being measured by the seamstress who lived across the street. New clothes were being made. Amit’s mother and his aunties went out shopping almost every day. Copious cups of tea were being consumed and constant chatter filled the house. Only when the adults napped after lunch in the afternoons did the house get any time to breathe.
The adults left the children to their own devices as they played their game of ‘shaadi-shaadi’. The cousins hung out in their age groups: the ones of marriageable age, the college-going ones, the teenagers, and then there were Amit and five-year-old Amu—the youngest in the family, who didn’t really fit in with the others. But it didn’t matter.
For a few days, at least, there would be no holiday homework reminders, no spankings for pulling Amu’s hair, no one to keep a watch on who he ended up playing with under the jamun tree and report back to his mother.
The best thing about this summer was seeing his mother happy. She hadn’t raised her voice even once since they’d got here. This was going to be a summer he’d remember fondly and maybe even write about truthfully in the inevitable essay he’d be assigned when class restarted. Last year, he had had to borrow ideas from a film he’d seen. His mother had been very quiet and spent most days locked up in her room in his nani’s house.
Nani’s snoring rumbled on in a steady rhythm. Amit knew. He ran to the door and whispered to his sister, “Amu, come now if you want to go out to play. I’m not waiting.”
Amu had been trying on her new baby blue frock when she heard her brother. She knew that she had to hurry or she would be left behind and forced to take a nap or worse—learn the dreaded three-times table by heart. Her brand new frock had arrived earlier that morning. Her mother had decided that she would wear it for the sangeet ceremony.
The frock was a cloud of fluffy frills. Pale blue frills covered the frock and followed Amu like a new puppy when she jumped up and down. She loved it. She jumped up and the frills jumped with her. She landed on her feet and the frills landed flat, too. This was fun. The edges of the frills had been picko-ed (hemmed) with a slightly darker blue thread. The frock reached her knees and had no sleeves. It was perfect for the summer—cool and fluffy like the whipped cream on top of the pineapple pastry she so loved to eat when she went out shopping with her mother. It didn’t happen often, so their mother always treated them both to a Campa Cola and pastry when they went out with her.
“Amu…AMU! Don’t cry later.” Amit’s last call to board rang out.
It was now or never. She dashed out of her room, crossed the verandah, heart beating fast, praying that her mother would not catch her before she reached the black metal gate.
The last hurdle was her nani, who spent all day sitting, eating, lying, sleeping, issuing orders or cursing anyone who had displeased her that day on her beloved charpoy, a few feet away from the metal gate, under a pink bougainvillea, pregnant with multiple blooms, clinging to the chhajja (overhanging eaves).
Her loud snoring meant that the coast was clear. As soon as Amit, with practised patience, placed the half-moon latch back on top of the gate, without a ‘ting’, they broke into a silent sprint and ran towards the Jamun tree.
The jamun tree stood resplendent in the middle of the playground. The purple jewels glinted in the hot midday sun, winking at them. There were no swings and no slides. The heat had scorched the few patches of grass into dust. There were little mounds of mud, a few rocks, and lots of yellow dust. Little clouds of dust rose around children playing gulli-danda or kanche. No one looked up or stopped their game. Amit and Amu ran to their friends and waited their turn.
The jamun tree was one of the reasons Amu and Amit loved coming to their nani’s house every summer—the main reason. Their nani was not like the other nanis. She didn’t cook treats for them or tell them stories or give them hugs. She only sat on her charpoy just inside the big metal gate like a disgruntled guard, and complained about anything and everything: from the sweeper boy who missed a bit to the daal that didn’t have enough ghee to the unopened bud of the red hibiscus she had planned to offer to her God that morning but couldn’t because it had not bloomed yet.
“Oh! That’s what happens when one becomes a widow,” was her usual lament. “My sons are too busy to notice that I eat like a beggar. Oh! Mere Ram…why do you keep me alive?”
Amu often wondered why nani never complained about her daughters, why all her complaining was aimed at Amu’s mother’s brothers. Amu loved both her uncles, her other reason to visit nani’s house. They never forgot to bring sweets like gulab jamun or barfi for Amit and her when they came back home after work in the evenings. Sometimes, little Amu wondered if her uncles loved them more than any other children in the house—even their own.
That afternoon, someone had brought a gulel (slingshot) to the jamun tree. Two pieces of innocuous wood bound together with black rubber cut out of an old tyre could be lethal in the wrong hands. This was David’s answer to Goliath’s girth.
But in Gullu’s skillful hands, the gulel turned into a magic wand. Squatting down on his haunches in his off-white kurta pajama, 10-year-old Gullu would squeeze his right eye shut—just as he did when he played marbles—roll his tongue out of his puckered lips, arch his back just a little, aim and shoot. He hardly ever missed. The rest of the children stood in a roughly formed circle around the tree to gather the fruit in their hands or hankies or whatever was available.
Now, jamun is the king of sensitive fruits—it bruises easily. You can’t enjoy it if it falls to the ground, as the soft flesh gives way too easily and the purple pulp just becomes a messy blob. If shooting the fruit down with a sling shot required skill, then catching the fruit before it hit the ground needed speed, agility and the perfect hand-eye co-ordination. The fruit is only an inch long and half an inch wide. One has to be very, very careful.
Gullu was in excellent form today. The jamuns were falling thick and fast. The kids resembled whirling dervishes as they danced around the tree. Gullu conducted his orchestra of children with precision.
The frenzy was gaining momentum.
The dervishes kept whirling. As if in a trance, Amit put his hands out to collect.
His hands were getting full. It was raining jamuns today. He had to collect more…eyes peeled at the fruit tree, Amit rummaged his pockets, but there was no hanky. All the fruit you collected, you took or ate. There was no time to run back home and get a bowl or a hanky. Pulling Amu towards him, he placed her right in front of him and lifted the frilly hem of her baby blue frock to make a net for the jamuns to fall. This was such a clever idea. Now other boys were taking their vests off and using them to catch the fruit, too.
Gullu was happy to practice his aim. He didn’t even like jamun; they gave him little blisters inside his mouth, and he hated how his tongue and mouth stained purple for hours afterwards.
Without warning, he stopped.
Carrying their loads, the children scattered. Some stood around and gobbled hungrily, spitting the seeds out like rockets. Some decided to barter their loot for tiger-eyed marbles. Amit and Amu couldn’t wait to show their bounty to their mother who loved jamuns as much as they did, but never came out with them to collect from the tree. She always bought them from the fruit vendor who came around every summer with a wicker basket on his head calling out, “Jamun le lo…buy my jamuns…sweet, sweet jamuns.”
Thrilled with their loot, the brother and sister walked back home. Amu held her frock up and walked like a wallaby carrying her joey. Amit kept tucking her frock frills in to stop any errant jamuns from escaping.
Jamuns weren’t the only things the children collected from under the tree. The dirt patch around the tree was a classroom of colourful language—Amit’s other reason to look forward to his nani’s house. He liked the taste of these forbidden words as much as he liked the taste of jamuns, if not more.
Every summer Amit visited his nani’s house, his Hindi vocabulary swelled. He embellished it with wild words like ‘kutti’ (bitch)—BAD word—or ‘harami’ (bastard)—REALLY BAD word. He didn’t dare to use these words once he got back inside the adult-ruled world. Oh! But the thrill of using these forbidden words with all his friends, out in the open under the jamun tree, was unimaginable.
The sound of the slap silenced Amu’s world for a few seconds. Angry red welt marks on Amu’s cheeks cried out in utter horror to her mother—“Why?!” She couldn’t figure why her mother was so angry. They had brought all the jamuns home to share with her.
Blotches of purple on her dress mixed with her tears, as she let go of the frilly hem and all the jamuns rolled onto the grey verandah floor…bruised and dejected.
“Your frock! What did you do?” Her mother’s usual flair for harsh words failed her. She looked at Amu in disbelief and then she turned to Amit.
“Didn’t I tell you to look after your sister? Have you lost your mind? How could you let her go out in her new frock?”
Amit’s world lay shattered. His mother’s shrieking insults had emptied his older cousins out of their hideaways and into the open verandah.
“How old are you?” taunted his mother. Her anger would stain this holiday, too. “You imbecile…why do I bother with you?” Disappointment dripped openly as she spoke.
His aunt came running out to douse the fire.
“Amit, say sorry…apologise beta. Come on son, don’t make it worse. You know your mother beta, she can’t help it,” his aunt whispered just loud enough for him to hear.
Angry? Why should she be angry? Is she the one being laughed at right now? Is she the one who’ll be made fun of under the jamun tree tomorrow? Is she the one who has to think up things to write in her essay? His mother’s anger ignited Amit’s rage.
“Beta, just say sorry and finish it.”
“If only he had that much sense! He’s good for nothing, takes after his useless father,” hissed his mother. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“Sorry, kutti. SORRY!” Amit spat his apology out and stood straight, staring right back at his mother.