Excerpt

The girls ate last

For a long time it was a secret that my uncles Swaran and Khojinder were actually my mother’s step-brothers. Of Baiji, her stepmother, I knew nearly nothing until my mother began to tell her story. I did not know her for she died in 1940, four years before I was born. I had never seen her photograph. I did not know her name. That in itself does not say much. I did not know Mummy’s mother’s name was Sant Kaur or that Mummy’s father’s name was Ganga Singh till I began writing the story. I never heard my mother tell the name of her Naniji. But as it turned out, Baiji’s name was also Sant Kaur. It was a strange coincidence that Mummy’s father had married three women, all of whom were called Sant Kaur.

From honoured guest to stepdaughter

When Nanaji died and Mummy went to live with her father and stepmother, her status changed from that of honoured guest to stepdaughter. There were two major areas of conflict. The first was over food, an area where Baiji ruled. It was also the arena where the differences between men and women, boys and girls, were most evident. The second tussle was over jewellery. Baiji sought possession of the previous wife’s jewellery as a symbolic expression of her status. Talking of the first two years in her father’s house with her stepmother, Mummy lowers her voice. They were hard years, she says, and then suggests that perhaps this is not something I want to write about. Baiji would serve Bauji in the largest plate, then Khojinder, her brother, who was born when she was six. “Baiji herself would have little”, Mummy says, “but mine was always the smallest. I knew which portion was mine, because she gave me the least.”

The contrast with her grandfather’s house was stark. My mother laughs painfully. Baiji herself would have no breakfast. She would drink tea and give tea to Mummy too. No milk and no breakfast. Later, when Mummy visited Baiji’s village, she found it was the general practice that the girls ate after the boys and ate less. Mummy said Baiji’s behaviour then became clear: “Even if she had had her own daughter, she would have given her less. But I used to get very angry. I used to think she gives me less because she is my stepmother. She did not stint on food as such. I could have as much roti as I wanted. But on summer mornings she would not give me breakfast. Don’t know why. Just like that. Even now it pains me to remember that every third morning she would give me a drink of milk diluted with water only. She would give me nothing to eat in the morning.”

Winters were different, for Bauji went to work at 9 a.m. and Mummy and Khojinder also went to school at the same time. Swaran was ten years younger than Mummy and was still at home. A favourite meal was roti, that is bread cooked on a griddle, with cauliflower in the morning. Baiji would put ghee inside – to get the roti a bit crisp – then crumple it till the air came out. It was so delicious that after Baiji’s death, Mama Swaran used to ask Mummy to make him a roti with cauliflower like Baiji used to make. But in summer when she left for school at 7 a.m., those were the mornings without food. “I used to get four paise as a scholarship every morning”, Mummy said. This was a time when four paise made an anna and 16 annas made a rupee.

“Baiji would give me two paise out of it, and with that I could get a puri. She would think, ‘What does she need to eat here? She can eat a puri.’ So then during the break, at 9 or 10, I would eat a puri. I began to take the money too. She would keep the money under a cloth near the fire. I was hungry. She found out, and I told her, ‘Yes, I have taken the money.’ She got angry. But she could not string me up, could she? So I got into the habit of stealing. I would eat two puris then.”

Bauji knew that Baiji did not give his daughter breakfast. He would get angry with Baiji and tell her to give the girl a glass of milk to drink. There would be a fight, but Mummy says that for all that anger and fighting, Bauji too did not ensure that she was well fed. The difference between girls and boys was clear whenever it came to food. When almonds came from Kashmir, Khojinder had pockets full of them, as he used to stammer. Afterwards, she would bully Khojinder and get some almonds from him. If corn came from the land, the biggest corn cob went to Khojinder. Mummy says she remembers that when she was ten, she raised a ruckus that she wanted the bigger corn cob. Bauji got angry with Baiji and they started fighting. Mummy says, “When they started fighting I forgot the corn.”

Mummy says she tried not to show her resentment or complain about her mother, for it would lead to fights. But that meant she was never good at directly asking for what she wanted. She became weak and began to have bouts of fever. Bauji began to fear his daughter would get TB like her mother. But then, a Muslim tenant on their land in Dehra Khalsa, who could not pay his rent, gave them his buffalo. That was the saving of her. “I could then drink as much buttermilk as I liked. Baiji would not stop me. Even in the coldest months, in December and January, I would drink three to four glasses of buttermilk. She would give me milk sometimes, but watery.”