I don’t like washing clothes. My palms hurt and I don’t bother to squeeze the clothes too much before I put it out to dry. When I come out of my bath, S will be waiting and run after me to the balcony. She will immediately remove the clothes that I put out to dry and brutally squeeze them of the last traces of water.
Apparently, the second floor Chitappa, first floor Periappa and the ground floor Iyengaar Maama don’t approve of my attempts to transfer impurities into their clothes. I love the potency of the dripping water, as the residue of my cheap detergent coats all the clothes.
I have always maintained that, this is our little moment of revenge on the extended family for giving us a third floor apartment. When your neighbour is your family, they cannot complain as vehemently. Certainly not about something as trivial as, dripping water. After all, blood IS thicker than water.
Madras Summers in a third floor apartment is hardly pleasurable. I wonder if S remembers much about Madras Thatha's house. It was named after Paati, and therefore, after me too. For a long while, I felt that, it was one of the biggest accomplishments of mine. When I would come back from school, I would linger at the gate for a bit longer and run my fingers through the coarse wall that had my name engraved. Not for long though, because G Periamma would holler out for me and menacingly walk towards me with the dosai tiruppi, the one that she had stolen from Amma's dowry.
At close to 4000 square feet of inhabitable space, the house was never large enough for the five families to live together somehow.
Madras Thatha and Paati took the first room adjacent to the living room. We called it the Front Room. It was the most strategically located room that had a good view of Bazlullah Road and all the people who entered the house. Like in everything else, G Periappa and Periamma got the first choice. Which is why, they took the biggest room on the ground-floor - the only room with an attached bathroom.
Amma and Appa, rather shockingly, were given the erstwhile Junk Room. But then, Amma and Appa, never complained. Initially, all of us cousins slept in the big room that we called the Hall. Before S came, eight of us were almost beaten to sleep each night by G Periamma. Even among us children, age was treated with respect and A Akka, S Akka and T Anna got the beds closest to the fan.
Things were fine till I was seven and then S was born. I should confess, I was not particularly happy about having a little sister.
Nobody, I mean nobody, whom I knew from my generation, came from a family of three siblings. Three of you va, we were often asked? And I was embarrassed. I was annoyed with Amma and Appa for not putting enough thought into the concept of a small family-size.
I disliked S’s entry into the family.
S was born, in the middle of my final exams, pre-mature by almost a month and a half. Like T Anna, she too was born before the end of March. Amma and Appa heaved a sigh of relief. This meant that, unlike me, she would be eligible for school admissions a year before.
I sulked through my exams and resented all the cooing over her. The fact that it was the only time I came first in class was overshadowed by Trichy Thatha’s announcement that a bawling S had been hushed to sleep by his rendition of Sinthai Kulira, a thalaatu song in Nilambari.
She has music in her blood, Trichy Thatha announced happily. She got Nilambari, while I was still struggling with a mere Kalyani. As I and A Akka struggled through Paatu Bhagavathar making us go through some more of – Pankaja Lochana, S was the Lotus Eyed, Amma announced.
But then, S was such a happy and friendly baby. And so, that summer vacation, even I got over the initial bout of jealousy and resentment towards S. When A Akka and S Anna would pull her cheeks and make fun of her perfectly round face (Madras Thatha would say that, god had used a compass to make her face), I shooed them away and glared at their backs angrily.
But, things got complicated once S grew up and when it was time for Amma and Appa to get her into the world outside of the Junk Room. By the time she grew up, A Akka and S Anna, both with important Board Exams, complained about the lack of space in the Hall and demanded for a room by themselves. After G Periamma sulked and threw a tantrum, Amma and Appa were shifted away from the Junk Room and the same was given to A Akka and S Anna.
The rest of us cousins resented the fact that, A Akka and S Anna had got a room to themselves. In fact, nobody was happy with this arrangement. Frail nerves and egos presented themselves at several opportunities.
In the old house, the smallest of things would lead to an argument and exchange of a few heated words. Like, if the girls in the family were to scratch their heads furiously, not over a mathematics problem but over a severe lice problem, it would lead to an exchange of some rather bitter words. ATP must have got it from Poongothai, G Periamma would announce, while Amma would look at A Akka suspiciously. Both I and A Akka would dread at the prospect of Kuppu – our maid and chairman of the anti-lice squad running the comb through our hair for the next few weeks. Usually, she would be so brutal with this, I am sure parts of our brain were combed away too.
Yet, these were minor grievances and the bigger problems came with several women folk under one roof and the woes of the monthly cycle and with-a-mind-of-its-own hormones. I read this post by Neha, who in an as always well written post talks about how giving scientific sanctity to something that is inherently faith based as an action is never desirable. My family didn’t really have a fixed point of view on how to treat this sudden shedding of the uterine lining. My family loves both faith and science. They love it enough to not mix up the two.
Given that we were well brought up girls and didn’t like the social embarrassment of periods, we needed to be discreet about it. After all, the men-folk probably never needed to study any biology. And since they were good Tamizh men, they probably just dropped down from heaven some day. So high levels of hygiene, care and secrecy needed to be maintained.
Madras Paati would rather nostalgically narrate tales about her own periods, growing up in an Agraharam called Sripuram in Tirunelveli. She was isolated from the rest of the household for five days and was given a room to herself. She loved that, especially after having to jostle for space for the remaining twenty-five days of the month. Also, she could not eat what was cooked in the morning. After all, if she ate it, the food became impure and the good Brahmin men couldn’t eat that afterwards. So, the servant was sent to the nearby hotel and asked to buy Tiffin for Paaati. I used to buy Poori and Aloo, she would say and her eyes would light up.
Yes, she loved it.
I would have loved some isolation too, but sadly, there was just not enough space to do that. Inspite of the platefuls of Poori Aloo that Paati had gorged on all through her childhood, she wasn’t going to make her daughters-in-law and grand-daughters go through it.
The only good thing of having Periods was that, god was out of bounds. I loved that. This started a bit of a contest among all the daughters-in-law of the house. During festivals, while Thatha would impatiently ask for the Panchapatram to be filled with water and the annoying kid cousin will start ringing the bell tonelessly, a quick head count of the teenage girls would be done by Paati. My daughter is here and pure, every Periamma and Chitti would smirk. Amma will look away. Disappointed again.
This always happens to you, she would announce to me tragically. Tchah no rasi at all, she will say sympathetically.
I considered that I was the luckiest person in the household. I mean, who cared about doing back breaking and stomach crunching Namaskarams? And who cared about mass prepared Chakari Pongal seasoned with too many Thualsi leaves.
Over years, Amma became suspicious when I announced that this was the third festival in a row that I would be missing. After which, Periamma and Amma decided to make use of a loop-hole. If you wash your hair on Day 3, you are eligible to come for the Poojai, just don’t go very close to the god, I was told.
Desire to win, can sometimes overcome tradition.
Inspite of all of this, things had its own charm being in Thatha’s house and in being together. We sulked, cribbed, argued, made the Paatu Bhagavathar miserable, fought over who got how much of water and so on. But in the night, we cousins always patched up. Over fears of failing and misguided parental expectations, there was always enough common ground.
It was S Anna’s less than impressive show at the Board Exams that convinced the clan that, good marks were not just a function of how much attention the parents gave the child but was also about having a space to call your own.
Surely we didn’t want to repeat the same - large capitation fee to study in an obscure engineering college with the rest of the children of the family, Madras Thatha asked his sons?
And so, we sold the house. Paati was heart-broken and as was I, to let go of a house that was named after us.
As always, everyone picked their homes first and Amma and Appa were given the last house. Of the five flats we got, ours was the only one on the third floor. It was smaller than the others. The apartment didn’t have a lift. And with no floors above, it meant that, it was the warmest. Every May, in the middle of Agni Nakshatram, Amma would lament about the fact that, Appa hadn’t been assertive enough.
Appa asked Amma to be patient and said that, it was in the interest of mine and S’s academic future that this move had happened. I felt sorry. I mean, having a room to myself meant that, I actually needed to study.
Since, I wasn’t very good at studying, I started washing clothes. During periods, Amma asked me to dry the clothes in the small balcony. I used to be relieved at those times, because Amma didn’t check if the last trace of detergent and the blue stains of soap still remained in my clothes or not. Also, I would not squeeze out the clothes very much and put them out to dry. This was on top of the same balcony where Chitti and Periamma put their saris to dry. Since they had a bath at 5:30 am and I at 7: 30 am, by the time I used to put my dripping clothes out, their saris were almost dry. Since my family doesn’t like to use the word Periods, Periamma would ask, is ATP Out of Commission today?
Amma was suitably embarrassed and decided that, the rest of clan needn’t know about my monthly cycle. So, I let my clothes drip out of the main balcony. I inwardly celebrated my moment of revenge each morning. And Amma would curse me and send S to take them out and squeeze it better.
I got on with my work and S probably cursed me. Every single day.
And now, my little sister will soon pack her bags and leave the house, thereby making more space in our 1000 square feet flat. I don’t feel happy about it though.
I am proud of you, dear S. Do come back soon. Our house and I will miss you. I will even squeeze the clothes better before I put them out to dry. I will stop diluting blood with water. Promise.