Nina! Don't swing so high." Amma's agility never ceased to surprise me; for someone so big she managed to run pretty fast. And that's what she did this time too, clutching the hemp ropes of the makeshift swing in Dadaji's backyard. I could hear the transistor blare out film music from the servants' quarters. Not for the first time I heard Dadi grumble to Dadaji, "I told you not to build the servants' quarters so close to the house. Now I have to listen to this nonsense at all time, twenty-four-seven. It is so annoying, especially when I am saying my prayers."
"Good!" exclaimed Dadaji rather heartlessly. "You and your prayers! Good riddance to them." Gaurang chacha, who'd just returned from office, could barely suppress a smile. Neither could Bapu. Everybody knew about Dadi's prayer mania and Dadaji's vehement opposition to it.
"Bahu," Dadi ordered Amma " albeit mildly, for she too was scared of my mother's sharp tongue " "prepare some tea for Munna"" Munna was her name for Gaurang chacha. A shadow fell over her face as Varun chacha stepped out from behind him. Varun chacha was no relation. He was a friend of the family's, although whose friend I wasn't too sure. Come to think of it, it was Amma he appeared friendliest with. Amma's personality changed whenever he was around. She became well, almost feminine, docile. Okay, I don't know exactly what but she didn't appear so big and formidable any more. Formidable to the rest of the family but not to me and Nina whom she'd spoiled rotten. At least that's what Dadi always told us to our faces. Amma would always stare right into Dadi's eyes, her pupils snapping coldly like coals simmering after the chula had been put out. Her silent blaze always seemed to quieten Dadi; even Bapu appeared helpless in the presence of Amma.
I don't think Bapu liked Varun chacha much but he did not dare show it. Whenever Varun chacha was around he would begin to growl at his children. I was his favorite bait for some reason. Anything, even a sneeze on my part would set him off. Two weeks ago he'd thrashed me in Varun chacha's presence rather mercilessly after I had upset his glass of whisky. Both Dadi and Amma had rushed to my rescue. Varun chacha had scooped me up in his arms, rushed me to the kitchen tap and bathed the cut on my forehead with lightening speed.
I, on my part, always looked forward to Varun chacha's arrival in the house. His laughter was so infectious and he had such a way of recounting events. I loved to hear stories about his boss, a fat affable chap and a bit of a bumbler. He had such a knack for mimicry that even Dadi, who was usually so sour and slow to warm up to people, wouldn't be able to stop herself from smiling.
At the moment he was recounting bits of his boarding school life. He'd studied at Colonel Brown's School in Dehradun and loved to narrate incidents pertaining to midnight feasts, fresher functions and so on just as much as we loved to hear about them. The family was roaring when Bapu interjected, "Where did you do your college, Varun?" Everybody fell silent for some reason. Varun chacha seldom mentioned his college. He still appeared jovial, though, as he said, "Hindu College, didn't you know?" he shrugged his shoulders exaggeratedly. Come to think of it, Amma too seldom spoke about her college days. "Where did you do college from, Amma?" I asked. I realized Amma hadn't heard. Instead, she began tickling Nina who was running across the carpet, dropping dried peas and other assorted snacks from her plate all over. I was mildly shocked as Amma was never this demonstrative.
"Don't you know Amma studied in Miranda House?" Bapu added, "She did English Honors there. She was the style icon there- Shy-la!" He mis-pronounced Amma's name with exaggerated intention. Amma's English diction was far superior to Bapu's and I think he resented it. It was she who'd insisted on sending both her children to an English medium school. Dadi had objected saying what was the point of spending so much on girl children but Amma had remained stubborn. Bapu sometimes sneered at our accent " especially mine " and pronunciation saying that it sounded too clipped and artificial. Everybody said that Amma appeared far more elegant compared to Bapu who walked with a hunch and lacked her refinement. Amma also spoke French extremely well, something Dadaji, Dadi, and Bapu frowned upon and discouraged. They would snicker when she pronounced words like "penchant' and "faÃade' differently from them. Lately, I had begun using these words in my essays; I think Mrs. Thakur, my English teacher rather approved for she had been telling all the other teachers I commanded a vocabulary far beyond my age. Amma, on hearing, had laughed and said she'd known these words " and more " when she was younger than I was. When I asked her why everybody else didn't like her accent she'd sniffed and pronounced one word with emphasis: "Jealousy!"
For a long time I used to wonder why Amma had married Bapu- they had so little in common. Bapu constantly baited her and she seemed to turn a deaf ear, staring straight past him. It was her act of defiance of him, defense mechanism or something that standard nine girls were talking about the other day sauntering out of their psychology class when one of them " it was Chandni, I think " bumped into me.
I was constantly being saved from Bapu's beatings by Amma who managed to spring in between taking a few brutal cuts from his rose bush cane on her sturdy arms and shoulders. The day Varun chacha had rescued me from his pounding I had overheard him order Amma to take me away. Of course, I am putting it across rather mildly. He'd shouted: "Take your bastard away from my sight, the sooner the better!" I had become used to being called by worse names.
"She's a teenager now; don't say these things out loud, for God's sake!" Amma had the ability to remain calm in the face of a hurricane. I strongly believed that if dacoits ever came to loot Dadaji's huge bungalow she would serenely point to his safe so that her children would be spared. Or she would simply take aim with my grandfather's old rifle and shoot them all down.
"Why should I say anything?" I could hear Bapu's irritating soprano trilling across the courtyard and wondered if the source of contention was me once again. "She's your daughter. That's why her blood is so bad."
"How can you say such a thing for your own flesh and blood?"
"What do you mean my flesh and blood? Don't I know that you and Varun"?"
"STOP!" Amma's voice sounded like a gun report. "Don't you dare say one word against Varun, after what he did for you during the embezzlement case." I could feel my eyebrows creasing on my forehead as I remembered nothing of the kind. Wait" maybe it was when a posse of constables had stormed our house two years ago. Bapu hadn't returned home for three days.
"Oh well, but I have seen the way you look at him." Bapu usually mumbled when he couldn't get even with Amma.
"And don't think I haven't noticed the way you glance at Mita." Mita bua was Dadi's sister's daughter and rather plain, if you ask me. So was Amma but Amma had plenty of personality where Mita bua had none. Plus, she was so" what's the word? Uncultivated, I believe. I liked the way Amita my classmate and best friend put it so succinctly and, if I may add, unkindly, "behenji". That's how she'd described Miss Pandey, the drawing teacher who always wore her sari a tad too high. Mita bua was such a behenji but I had dared not mention it to anyone. But she had lovely thick-lashed eyes. Like Nina. Nina also had short stubby fingers unlike mine which were long and funneled. Her fingers were like Mita bua's; the world paused for a fraction of a second.
"Before you make any allegations about me, how about looking into your own past?" Amma's voice sounded flat. For some reason I could the hair on my spine freezing. Bapu did not speak a word.
"Haven't I looked after Nina as if she were my own?" Nina wasn't Amma's daughter. I began to cry.
Amma and Bapu never learnt what I had so many summers ago. I love Nina and Amma even more. But Bapu"