Every afternoon, after the chores were done, Naani and all the women of the gali (little road) would gather on the raised platform (thada) outside the house for a little chat. In winter, they would knit as they chatted, often cracking and popping peanuts if a vendor could persuade them to buy. The afternoons seemed endless, as long as the sweater they were knitting, or the sarson ka saag they prepared as they laughed, and talked. As the children hovering around drifted off to nap the hot afternoons away, the voices would become a little hushed, the tales a little more personal. They shared everything – their sukh dukh- their joys and their sorrows.
The sanjha chulha was theirs, these women who gathered together at the end of the gali, where the communal tandoor was built. There were some who were there at the chulha everyday, the more experienced ones who did not fear leaning into the hot flames to place the wet dough, all flattened out by hand. And then, the brave ladies would lean in again, when the rotis were crisp and hot, to retrieve them, just before they detached themselves or fell into the fire. These were warm, bright evenings – with laughter and camaraderie, and a sense of urgency too, for families had to be fed, and the rotis must always reach the plates hot before the dishes cooked at home went cold. Naani went there occasionally, with her big bowl of kneaded dough. She was not one of the adept, so she always took a share of atta (dough) for the lady who would make the rotis on the tandoor. The adept and the regulars got a turn first – the chulha had a hierarchy of its own. Naani always reached there just as the sun went down, in the orange light of the evening, a good half an hour after the tandoor had been lit. She always said she waited for the tandoor to be properly hot before she got there. But I suspect, she was in no hurry to come back. Her turn always came when night had fallen, and the only orange was the glow of the oven. Sitting on a neighbour’s charpai (everybody did not have a thada – an elevated platform), knowing that the evening meal was cooked, waiting with a bowl of softly rising dough, surrounded by friends – I am glad she made that moment last.
Life was not easy in the days when house help was the exception in town. Nobody in the gali had any help, nor did anyone we knew in the ‘City’. The routine was unvaried and excitement was generated by gossip that travelled by way of rooftops, as women crossed over from one house to another – completely ignoring the smelly dirty street that men traversed on the way to their offices or shops. Naani woke up at 4 AM. Try as I might, I never was able to wake up before the brick floors of the three story house had been washed thoroughly by her, using implements not more complicated than a bucket at a stiff teela jharoo (twig hand held broom). She had to start early. The only tap in the house was on the ground floor and started trickling precious liquid just after 4, and the magic would vanish just after 6. In those two hours, the house had to be washed, drinking water filled, buckets filled for the family to bathe, and of course, clothes had to be washed. She sometimes washed clothes later, when she knew she had enough water stored in buckets.
Six in the morning was when she stepped out with her shiny brass bucket and walked down to the local milkman. The milkman would milk the cow or buffalo in front of her – the hot frothy milk unadulterated with water or concentrates. The relationship between milkman and housewife was invariably adversarial, even when the supplier was given no chance to dilute the milk. Friendly banter was laced with accusations – did he mix oil in the cow’s feed to improve the fat content of the milk? Was the calf fed first? Did the cow get enough fresh green grass? Science or logic never entered my maternal grandmother’s world. She asked these questions because she was supposed to, because this was her duty as a careful wife, mother and daughter-in-law.
The pace was just about to pick up, with water being heated for baths, breakfasts being cooked – after the fresh milk had been boiled, curd set for the day, yesterday’s set cream being whipped up for butter and buttermilk . All of this with a single slot traditional wood and charcol burning chulha before cooking gas arrived to the town. The chulha was lit after the milk run, and was not allowed to go out all morning till lunch was cooked. Many days, the rotis for the afternoon were cooked before the embers were set to the task of cooking that perfect sarson ka saag or the thick ma ki daal.
Little children kept traipsing through Naani’s house. She loved them, but I never really saw her do anything with them, except occasional conversation as she tidied up the house, cleaned out the wheat, made papads and wadis and generally dealt with the day’s work. The only thing she said children needed – was – biscuits. She always had some for them, and they seemed perfectly content hanging around her, nibbling their treasures for hours on end. A harried mother would come fetch them after an hour or two, but then there were always more.
If not children, then other women. Mid morning was this glorious time when cloths and patterns were brought out. There was this lady in the neighbourhood who made perfect blouses. Naani was a pauncha specialist, and had a well maintained sewing machine. On an average day 3-4 women would gather around it, a community of home tailors. Much laughter and innovation later, bedsheets were converted into salwar kameez, old kameez into pillow covers. New cloth was a joy, and was sourced from far and wide. The most precious was the one that came from across the border. Just 8 km away,the border separated them from the cloth that this town had used for centuries. And yet it found its way into the women’s capable hands.
Naani of course could never convince the scruffy teenager that in me that the 4 p.m. hair combing ritual was important. Even today, when I visit her, I hear the same refrain – “Munni, sar vaa le, chhar vaj gaye ne” roughly translated as, comb your hair, its four pm. This was when you prettied up for the evening. The gossiping women would have gone home an hour ago, some to snooze on hot days, others left later. But four pm was sacred – they all seemed to know the drill. Tiny mirrors, barely 6 inches by 10 were pulled out, combs, pins, powder and lipstick applied. And then the evening declared open.
The evening was space for the men. The office folks coming home, the informal visits to each other’s places -often staying on for dinner. Lights were dim, for voltage and supplies were unreliable. Each house had a supply of candles and beautiful kerosene lamps. As the evening darkened, dim bulbs lit up the aangan. Friends talked and laughed. Somehow, everything was plentiful, even simple roti and dal that glistened with fresh butter.
And evenings slipped into night. To the cool crisp charpais that were laid out each night, summer or winter. Naani always being the last to sleep, knowing she would be the first to wake up.