SHE CRIED ONLY WHEN SHE LAUGHED

Many people have a tendency to cry when they laugh a lot. My grand mother was one of them. I have never seen her cry otherwise. I am sure she must have considering the difficult life she led but I have never seen her do so. To me, she was the human embodiment of the Laughing Buddha.

She was born in Iran and came to India as a small girl, travelling with a caravan of traders. She landed in Bombay. It was still Bombay then and not the  charmless Mumbai as it is now known. She knew nobody in Bombay. She could not understand any of the local languages.One of the traders who was part of the caravan knew a Zoroastrian family in Bombay. My grand mother, being a Zoroastrian (as are we all) took  my grand mother to meet them. The family, whose name was Karanjia were good people. They agrees to keep her with them and asked only that she help out with the house work. Being the youngest of seven sisters had inured to hard work in her village and so, doing a little house work in a proper house in a large city did not bother her.

She stayed with them for more than twelve years. Unfortunately, she did not get an education. Girls were not supposed to get an education in those days, especially a refugee from Iran. However my grand mother did learn to speak Gujarati, the language spoken by all Zoroastrians in the city, otherwise educated or not, including me and the rest of my family, though sometimes not much. My son speaks it hardly at all. In my grand mother’s time it was the lingua franca of all Zoroastrians. All Zoroastrians in those days and even today are called ‘Parsis’. Very likely because we came from Persia to India many centuries ago when Iran was part of the Persian Empire. 

But I digress. My grand mother, I am told, even in those days was very cheerful and had a very hearty laugh. She stayed with the Karanjia family until she was about 18. This was, at that time, an eminently marriageable age. And so, the Karanjia’s did some match making and found a suitable groom for her. He was a young, good looking gentleman staying in Poona, a fairly large city about a 120 miles from Bombay. He was the only child of a good looking widow, intelligent and street smart. The entire locality she stayed in respected her and consulted her for any small problems they had. She, however, had spoiled her son. He could get anything and get away with anything. She was also a virago. My grand father- to- be, owned a prosperous general store in the main market of Poona.

A date was fixed and my grand mother, with Mr. and Mrs. Karanjia left for Poona. My grand mother saw the man she was to marry on the day of the wedding. She was, as she told us many years later, quite impressed. Dressed in his well tailored formal whites (the Parsis wear white for all religious occasions) he cut quite  a dashing figure. After the wedding ceremony was over it was not, at that time,customary to kiss the bride. Instead, it was the signal for the guests, after wishing the couple well, to get down to the serious business of drinking which was followed, for those who could stand  straight, by a sumptuous banquet which, de rigueur, started with potato chips and pickle. For the life of me, I could not figure out why these two were served first. Perhaps to absorb the alcohol swilling around in the stomach. This was followed by fish, chicken, mutton, rice pilaf with a thick and spicy gravy and finally a sweet dish. One could help oneself to as many servings as one wanted. Whew!

Once the guests were replete and had crawled off home, the family had their dinner and then retired. After all this excitement and eating and drinking, my  grand mother was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. She was soon disillusioned. Soon after she laid down on her new bed, her husband Kaikhushru, lay down next to her. She knew what what to expect but not his roughness. He stifled her cries with his hand and all was soon over. But it was not. He was a satyr. This, as she confessed to her daughters, was the first time she cried silently.

To make a long story short (pun not intended but accepted) she gave birth to nine children. The eldest and the youngest were sons. The remaining seven were daughters. My mother is daughter no. 3. At 94, she is the eldest living child but no child she. The sequence of birth gave my grand father huge amusement which he repeated ad nauseam. “First.” he said, I produced the locomotive. Then seven carriage and finally the caboose.” My grand mother, in her entire life never learnt English. A language which she called ‘Gospit, fosbit’, whatever that meant. Not so my grandfather who was fluent in English. The result was that she was thankfully unaware of the sometimes hurtful remarks he made about her. Especially the one he made when she went into paroxysms of laughter. She would go red in the face, and her tongue would stick out. Whenever he saw that he would comment, “There, you see. The Devil’s laughter and then his forked tongue sticks out.” It is not that my grand father was a bad person. On the contrary, he was extremely generous and caring. The thing was that he looked upon my grand mother as an uneducated country bumpkin useful only to satisfy all his needs. The typical early 19th century male. Still, he had a great sense of humour. The stories he told us about his sleep walking exploits were hilarious,  but, unfortunately, not repeatable here.

Grand mother had her hands full all day. When the eldest boy was old enough to go to school, she was still carrying the youngest on her hip. This in addition to cooking three meals for the family. As her children grew older, one by one they went to school. For a few hours  a day, they were out of her hair. Still, when they, a hungry army, trooped in from school for lunch, she hugged them and kissed them and asked about their day. Grand mother was no help to them with their studies. But,  to their credit, all of them did well, finished school and went to college. Except my mother. She dropped out of school to get married. She was only seventeen. My father was the warden of the largest prison which was located in Poona. To this day, I don’t know how they met (couldn’t possibly be in a prison line up) nor did I ever ask. They were great parents and that is all I cared about. After some years, my father resigned from the Prison Service. He later said that officiating at executions had become unbearable. And so, he took the only job available at that the time. Sales Manager for a seed company. One day, he wrote a sales folder for the company. Somehow, it landed on the desk of the owner of an advertising agency in Bombay. The writing impressed him. He located where my father was and called him over for an interview. The interview went very well and my father was hired. That was the beginning of his career in advertising. We had to leave Poona and hired a very interesting house in Thana, a town about 29 miles from Bombay. Easy commuting by local train.

When we had settled in our new home in Thana, after a while, grand mother became a regular visitor. Much to the delight of my brother, sister and I. She would often intervene when one of us was destined for a smacking from our mother. She travelled to Bombay by train, once in a while, to meet her two daughters who lived there. This led to a rather embarrassing but hilarious situation. She had noticed that when getting off the train and walking to the exit people had to show their tickets to the Ticket Checker stationed there. But every once in a while, when asked for their ticket would point to their back with their thumbs, indicating that a friend or family behind him was holding the tickets. In the rush, the Collector would let them by. Larcenous thoughts crept into her mind. The next time she went to Bombay she travelled without a ticket. The terminus at Bombay was huge and it was impossible to check everyone. So far, so good. On her return, late in the afternoon, she returned to Thana, got off the train and ambled over to the Checker. “Madam. Your ticket, please.” he asked her. She pointed to her back as she had seen people do. The Checker once again asked her for her ticket. Again she pointed to her back. The Checker smiled and turned her around gently. There was not a soul behind her. All the other passengers had already left. She was aghast. She felt like a fool and so, she burst into laughter. The Checker couldn’t help laughing, too. She paid him the cost of the ticket and asked him how much she should pay as a fine. The still chuckling Checker refused to charge a fine. In gratitude, she dug around her bag, found a toffee and gave it to him. He accepted graciously, doffing his cap to her while warning not to try this trick without looking behind her first.

When she returned home, before she did anything else, she summoned us all together and gave us an account of her misadventure. It took her more than half a hour to do. Not more than ten minutes to tell us what had happened and the rest of the time laughing, mostly at her self, for her foiled larceny. Ruefully damning the other passengers for not being behind her at the time when she needed them the most.

Some years later, when the opportunity arose my family, too, move to Bombay. It was a large apartment separated from the sea front by just a road. My bedroom faced the road and I remember being lulled to sleep, every night by the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks beyond the road. My Mother was a very active Social Worker, just as she had been when we were in Thana only more so. She had a large number of fellow ‘do gooders’ as her friends. Some of them from very influential families.  Once, when my grand mother was visiting us, she had invited these friends of her’s to lunch.  She had asked them to come a little early so that they could have a pow wow before lunch. My grand mother was, of course, invited to join them. She had met quite a few of them earlier and knew them slightly. Yet, those who had met her earlier remembered her fondly. However, conversation between them stuttered. Grand mother did not know any ‘Gospit Fospit’ and a few, very few of the guests did not understand Gujarati. Most of the time they were using a pidgin version of Hindi. A guest suggested that they play a  few hands of cards. The rest agreed. Decks of cards were brought out and one group settled down to play Rummy while the other elected Bridge. And so the games began.

After a while, my grand mother got up and went to her bedroom. She knew where my father had kept a complete set of his uniform as a Prison Warden. Why? Perhaps nostalgia. My grand mother got hold of it and put it on. Complete with khaki shorts, jacket, cap, leggings and his Sam Browne belt. She also picked up his baton. Using mascara, she painted a moustache on her upper lip. Then she marched up to the living room, banging the baton against the walls. When she reached the living room, she shouted in Hindi (which she had learnt to speak) “Police!. You are all under arrest for gambling. You will have to come with me to the Police station. Don’t resist, other wise …” she opened the fly of the shorts and withdrew a banana which had cleverly attached on the inside… “you will all have to lick this.” The ladies jaws dropped to their waist.  They were all petrified until my grand mother began to laugh uproariously. The game was up. They realised who the policeman was. My mother’s face was as red as a beet but her guests were laughing so loudly, they could be heard two blocks away. They ran to the old lady and hugged and kissed her, scolding her for frightening them out of their wits. One hungry lady yanked the banana out, peeled it and started to eat it. “What have you done/” screamed my grand mother, in between her bouts of laughter, “You have eaten my thing.”

That was my innocent, irrepressible, irresistible, loving and loveable grand mother. She is long gone now but I know she is not resting in peace. She is busy making the angels laugh till  their wings drop off.

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