Her waist-length hair was well oiled and firmly braided; two braids, ends tied with red ribbon, then looped, so that the ribbons appeared as large bows beside her ears. We used to call these braids jilbi-veni. Jilbi was a sticky, coiled, bright-orange sweet, accompanied by a glass of pungent buttermilk, served as breakfast every morning at the local sweet shop, only to the strong-hearted.
Munni was tall for her age, and wore long skirts with waist-length, half-sleeved blouses, both cut from the same bright, floral-patterned, cheap cotton. I remember the rough texture of her clothes, while my own dresses, short, soft and frilly, were called frocks.
Her feet were usually bare: dusty, black feet, a little cracked at the soles. She would have to go and wash her hands and feet as soon as she came to our place. (This decree, issued by my grandmother, applied to everyone, shod or unshod, who came into the house from outside.) Later, when she travelled with us, she wore rubber, `Hawaii' chappals, which had a single, strong grip for the big toe.
I have little recollection of what I looked like at 10. The mirror was alien to me then. But the image of 12-year-old Munni is branded on my memory. Munni was my playmate and my baby brother's nanny, in that order, at least for me. I didn't distinguish between her two roles; after all, I too had responsibilities towards my little brother.
I see now that a chasm lay between us. Munni and I dealt with that difference with the ease of children skipping rope, counting to a 100 without missing a beat. If we met now, would we hesitate, and stumbling in our hesitation, draw back fearfully from the edge of a seeming precipice?
Munni's favourite game was Hopscotch, which was known to us as Billus. She would hitch up her skirt, tucking many folds into her waistband when we played the game. We played very seriously, with utmost focus. There was no fooling around. We often appointed a third person as an umpire.
I was partial to Phugdi, which consisted of two people facing each other, keeping their feet together and holding their hands crossed, at arms distance, then swirling madly in unison, feet tapping hard on the concrete floor of our veranda.
“Stop, stop!” I would be the first to say, as we would slow down gradually from what felt like a terrific speed. We would stagger to the wall and lean against it, giggling, euphoric. The game was particularly attractive since my grandmother forbade it, afraid that we would lose our balance and crash to the floor.
I was doing ‘craft’ at school, and there was homework to be done in this, as in all the other subjects. Munni loved craft. At one time she had gone to a municipal school and completed Class Three. Then she had stayed home to look after her younger siblings and had been hired by my parents to take care of my brother.
She read aloud sometimes from my old, Hindi textbook. The words rolled out slowly, with an effort. But Munni enjoyed reading; she would be transported for hours afterwards.
At our craft sessions we painted eggshells, and put them on twigs we had collected, to assemble decorative trees; we made paper mache bowls and painted them, we cut coloured paper into patterns, and worked with crayons and watercolours to make paintings of clowns, mountains, birds, houses, planes, people, whatever took our fancy.
After one such session, Munni took my brother for his bath and I started washing the brushes, palette and my black and purple hands in the kitchen sink, when my mother said to me in English, “Don’t sit so close to Munni. She may have lice.”
English had been a code language between my parents before I went to school. They used to talk about things like their evening plans that didn't include me, and other adult stuff, in English. It was also a language in which they would negotiate about my grandmother who was crafty enough to pounce on them and demand that they use only Marathi, our mother tongue, in her presence. As I became proficient in English it no longer served these purposes. But it could still be used to hide things from the servants. Munni and I spoke in Hindi. I had no understanding of Telugu, Munni's mother tongue. I conversed with my grandmother solely in Marathi. I spoke with my parents in English and Marathi and with my baby brother in gibberish.
“She may have lice.” The words echoed in my head for a couple of days. Why should Munni have lice? She washed her hair as often as I did.
Munni lived in a single room with her parents and four brothers and sisters, in the servant’s quarters down the road. The quarters consisted of about a dozen, narrow rooms set in a row, with a common latrine and bathroom. They were a five-minute walk from our house, and a two-minute run. I could see Munni's house from our garage, which was behind our garden.
I went to her house once to sample the chili-hot food that her mother, who worked as a housemaid, cooked for the family. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I sampled Andhra-style rice and curry for the first time. I felt my tongue, then throat, chest and stomach, and ultimately my whole being, catch fire. Flames escaped from my mouth, and possibly my ears. I turned into a dragon, albeit a pitiful one. Tears streamed down my cheeks and choking sounds escaped my mouth. I was plied immediately with glasses of water and given a lump of jaggery to suck.
Sitting back from my plate, I watched Munni’s father enviously. He rolled the rice and curry into a ball, held it for a moment in his palm, then tossed it directly into your mouth, bringing a juggler's effortlessness to this task. I decided to imitate him. All the rice balls missed my mouth save one. It made eating so much more fun.
I did not mention my little adventure to anyone at home, knowing perhaps instinctively that it might not be well received.
Munni did not usually sleep at our house. She went home every evening at six thirty and came back the next morning around eight thirty. But on one occasion, Munni and my best friend Sharmila, both stayed over at our house. My mother's night shift at the hospital, where she worked as a doctor, coincided with my father being out-of-town for work. My grandmother had recently had a stroke that had changed her from an active, vivacious woman, into a zombie of sorts, who sat in a chair on the veranda for hours, staring into space. She could no longer look after my brother. So it fell to the three of us to ensure that the baby got fed and came to no harm.
Sharmila was the same age as Munni. She was a warm, curious, energetic girl who liked to bully me sometimes. She was an only child as I had been, until the recent, exciting arrival of my baby brother.
Sharmila was dropped off at our place punctually at eight and my mother departed for her night shift, trying till the last minute to get another doctor to replace her. She looked rather anxious, though we assured her that we were more than equal to our task. She called from the hospital at nine pm to check if everything was all right.
Half an hour later, having fed and changed my brother, and put him to sleep, we all went to bed. Something woke me up sometime later. I lay in bed, disoriented, staring incomprehensibly at the roof of the large, white mosquito net, which enveloped us like a tent. The sound of someone sobbing softly cut through the dark. I sat up in bed and so did Sharmila, who was sleeping next to me.
We slipped out from under the flaps of the mosquito net, careful not to open them too wide. If a mosquito got in it was quite a task to kill it.
Switching on the table lamp, I glanced across at my brother sleeping peacefully in his baby cot, under a smaller mosquito net. Then I turned towards Munni, who was sleeping on a mat, curled into a ball, face to the wall, her shoulders twitching as she sobbed.
Sharmila had already crawled over to her and was shaking her, trying to turn her around: “Kya hua?" she asked. Munni continued sobbing, resisting the attempt to be turned around. I looked at Sharmila, feeling completely at a loss.
We sat kneeling by Munni for a minute or so. Then I put a hand on her shoulder and whispered in Hindi, “Why are you crying? What's the matter?”
Munni turned around to face us. “Will you teach me English?" she asked. I looked at Sharmila, not knowing what to say.
“Will you?” Munni asked again.
“Of course,” I said quickly. “Do you want to learn English?"
“Yes, I want to learn English,” said Munni.
“We'll teach you,” said Sharmila. “It's very easy.”
“You won't forget?” said Munni.
“No I won't,” I replied, staring into Munni's eyes, which were reddish and swollen. Seizing the writing pad and pencil that were kept near the phone, I scribbled her name - M-U-N-N-I - on a page and gave it to her. Munni's face relaxed into a slight smile.
“Let's go back to sleep now or we might wake the baby,” whispered Sharmila.
I slept badly after that, dreaming that various characters from my storybooks had all come together in a huge room. They were throwing food around, getting into scuffles, and chasing each other. The scene seemed to be inspired by a Laurel and Hardy movie that I had seen at the Club.
My family left that town in central India, soon after, to go and live in Calcutta - a strange and wondrous place. We didn't understand the language at first, or the customs. But we found them endlessly amusing and fascinating. Smells of fried fish rose up to our fourth floor apartment at all hours. My grandmother had died before our move to Calcutta. A strict vegetarian who would not touch eggs, she would not have appreciated these odours.
Munni came with us to Calcutta for a while. We would go for walks along the Dhakuria lakes near our house, excited by this proximity to water. The town where we had lived before was located in a dust bowl. West Bengal by contrast was wet and humid, a luscious green. Along the lakeshore were vendors selling mouth-watering new food - zaal-mudi, puchka and aloo dum.
Munni was sent back home after a month. She was at an awkward age, my mother said. Besides, it wasn’t right to take her away from her family for long. We had only brought her along to help us settle down. My mother also mentioned that Munni would soon be married. I never got around to teaching Munni English, and I never saw her again.
I picked up lice in Calcutta from someone in my expensive, private school. I was finally allowed to cut my hair short and considered myself very cool. Photographs of myself with jilbi-venis disappear from the family photo albums around this time.
There are no photographs of Munni, only her image, branded on my memory.
*Munni means little girl in Hindi.
Veena Gokhale writes fiction and non-fiction. She worked as a journalist in Bombay, in the 1980s and came to Canada in 1990 as a Distinguished Visiting Journalist. She works in communications for non-profits and lives in Montreal. She has published fiction and poetry in anthologies – print and audio, and literary magazines, as well as articles. She has finished a manuscript, “Bombaywali and Other Stories,” and is working on a novel. www.veenago.com
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