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A Family And Its Untouchables

Posted: February 17, 2021

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Only this time, the unsightly and unmentionables aren’t going to be there watching silently, invisible in plain sight.

It was going to be very busy the next few days. I’d known, of course – but even if I hadn’t, I could have told by how many people had gone past me, traipsing up and down these stairs, since morning.

Uncle V had made most of those trips – three so far – carrying mattresses and pillows to the empty bedrooms upstairs. He would be making many more such trips undoing the work of the maid who had wiped the marble stairs clean at the orders of Shweta Bhabhi. Uncle V was oblivious to such minutiae. More often than not, he forgot to take shoes off after entering the house tracking in mud and other unmentionables. But he was always forgiven by Bhabhi. For he was the only one who would stay till the end; long after everyone else had left, making sure everything was taken care of.

He was the one who would know (from his own aching back) that Shweta Bhabhi’s must be aching too:  something her husband, in-laws, or even parents would fail to catch. But uncle V – lovingly called Chacha-ji by all – knew all about everyone’s woes.

Chaiji, the eldest of the house

Steam coming off the hot cups of chai drifted toward the stairs. The once-fine china was filled to the brim and set on a tray atop a stool at the end of the hallway – a precarious place for it today given the volume of people hurrying by.

Chaiji, the eldest of the house, was within sight my sight like always, crouched on a chair right next to the loo. She chose the position, for it allowed her a clear view of the entryway and a good enough one of the kitchen. She seldom left her place. Wrapped in a brown felt blanket that offered a musty, comforting smell to anyone who walked by, she participated in every conversation but was mostly ignored as a constant. Chaiji was hard of hearing – perhaps a good ailment to have at this point of life. She sat clutching her walking stick, using it to reach out and poke passersby from time to time to alert of a specific need, or of her general existence. Her needs weren’t much – an occasional chai and a few crackers – or an inquiry gone un-responded to.

She and I looked at and past each other often. As others did past us.

I used to think of her as unsightly. A blemished memory of things bygone, trying to be still relevant. Her clothes, oatmeal and brown every day, made me sad. But maybe as I get older, I begin to see beauty where I least expected it before. Because these days, I liked looking at her. These days, I liked my own reflection – all grimy and disgusting – in the hallway mirror right across – too.

Newcomers were flocking into the house hourly today. There was the brother- and sister-in-law from America who had made it, much to the delight of Chaiji and arousing curiosity from everyone else. They were expected to be different – delicate and distant. They walked right past me and were soon cocooned in the upstairs room reserved just for them. I knew they would not come down much. I wouldn’t, if I were them.

Then there was the Chacha from up north. This uncle had taken the long bus ride from Rajasthan to get here and his yellowed shirt was now a dusty red – a different color than the grey Delhi dust I was used to. He fidgeted in the hallway while on his third cup of tea, waiting to be noticed by Shweta Bhabhi as she hurried past. He was going to wait a long time. Shweta Bhabhi was busy today. Chaiji had poked him already, been ignored, and had turned her attention to Meena.

Meena, the former youngest daughter-in-law

Meena was the youngest daughter-in-law of the family. Before Taya-ji (the elder uncle of the groom and Chai-ji’s eldest son) had moved (without a reason anyone could fathom) his family out of the house and to the one next door, Meena had been the youngest daughter-in-law of the house. The relocation of the uncle’s family had caused a great deal of consternation and many long discussions but no resolution. They had since then been inhabiting separate quarters with Chaiji taking turns between the two households to ensure both sons got to take equal care of her. So Meena was now a visitor who just visited, albeit regularly. She wore a new outfit on every visit – her arms adorned with red bangles up to her elbows to make sure no one forgot that not too long ago she had been the focus of everyone’s attraction.

Meena liked to use every excuse possible to pass by the hallway mirror. Even with its glass hazy and rusted around the entire perimeter, the mirror was indispensable to her. Each time she sneaked past, she’d been quick enough to avoid Chaiji. But this time, trying to elude Chai-ji’s stick she tripped and bumped into me. I am used to the disgust that followed. After all, I am too base and dirty for any, but the lowliest of the castes, to touch or even look at me. But I couldn’t help feeling amused as Meena’s sparkling eyes darkened with a shock when she felt her ankle connect with my outer side. She would have much preferred to have been poked by Chaiji, but it was too late to choose now.

Uncle V’s footsteps could be heard on the upper stairs before Meena started yelling. He arrived right on time to find her sprawled face down in the entryway. He pulled her up; she had a cut on her lip and a few scratches on her forehead. She yanked her arm free of his and stormed out before anyone could stop her. The commotion had been enough to have the visiting brother from America peek down over the railing, but he soon disappeared, doubtlessly misgauging the severity of the incident that had just happened.

The casteism of the family

‘Meena is our bahu too,’ Shweta Bhabhi’s father in law – the head of this household – was saying. His elder brother meant everything to him. Now his brother might think that the incident had been deliberately caused to take revenge for them moving out.

It was barely morning after a late last night. Gathered in the kitchen, they had talked until past midnight – conflicted on what to do. Shweta Bhabhi had been the one to break up the conversation at last citing the need for everyone taking to their beds given Chai-ji’s poor health. Chai-ji had been in her usual place all through, mostly unable to hear what was being discussed but savvy enough about such matters to know not to leave her spot.

This morning however had been unexpectedly quiet in the house. And unexpectedly equalizing with both the sister-in-law from America and the Chacha from Rajasthan had made a few rounds to the kitchen inquiring about breakfast. Neither of them knew what had happened the day before nor had been included in the late-night debate about what to do. With them now in the kitchen, any real conversation on such matters would have to wait. Shweta Bhabhi and her mother-in-law (the head female of the house and mother of the groom) went to confer with the maid. Breakfast, it seemed, was going to get made at last.

Mother-in-law didn’t come to the kitchen often anymore. She no longer had to, since Shweta Bhabhi was wedded to her elder son. Potentially, after this wedding which will add another daughter-in-law to the family, she wouldn’t have to come at all. But she was well seasoned off course in this kitchen, having spent most of her last thirty years here. Whipping up breakfast, even for an increased headcount with all the visiting guests, was something she could still handle well. But her face today had more despair than this sudden culinary hardship could have caused.

‘I have said before too, that is not the spot to leave it,’ came Uncle V’s voice. ‘You have the jamadar entering right through the front door.’ He had even caught the jamadar sitting down on the stairs in full view of everyone at the table once, he continued to disclose with disapproval.

Mother-in-law didn’t respond and neither did Shweta Bhabhi. The later today had extra-dark circles under her eyes.

New arrangements

‘It’s a disgrace,’ he added, his voice growing loud enough to reach even Chaiji’s ears. They were talking about me, I could tell. I wondered what was going to happen next if anything and just then Meena’s in-laws walked in.

I wished I could somehow explain the nuances of this to the brother from America and his wife who seemed to be utterly troubled with the entire incident. From the accusations that had flown quite loud and open to the concept of this (getting bumped again a trashcan and falling over) being a matter of tremendous humiliation and of possibly losing caste seemed to be quite difficult for them to grasp. They must have been out for very long. Long enough to forget the rules and reasons.

And then, Bhabhi came and picked me up, something that no one in the household had ever done. Things were dumped into me – day in and out – but I was never touched by anyone. Except for by the corporation assigned sweeper – the garbage man. And it is because he touched me that I couldn’t be touched by others. This had been a strict decree by Chaiji to the family of Brahmins. It is the sweeper who brought me back emptied, and the maid who washed me out in the tap outside if ever needed. But now Bhabhi was actually carrying me – across the entryway, past Chaiji in the hall, through another long hallway, and towards the back door. I started taking everything in, all the parts of this house I’d known existed but hadn’t experienced. The wall colors, polished furniture, glimpses into bedrooms as we hurried by – but mostly I took in the touch. After years of feeling only the gali sweeper’s rough hands, hardened with scales that felt more like plaster than human skin, I relished the feel of Bhabhi’s cold gold bangles and her soft, fair fingers firmly gripping my rounded metal sides.

She didn’t set me down until we were outside on the back stoop. I was being banished to the backyard balcony where it would be mostly me along with old junk and forgotten stuff. It wasn’t so bad at all, I realized. I could see the entire gali from here. People, vehicles passing by, more stories. But my heart missed the story inside – the new one that had to have started. The sweeper, with all his untouchability, will now have to walk all through the house to get to me, especially with all the wedding guests (maybe sans Meena and Taya-ji family) swarming inside!

I could see the pre-wedding visit cars from would-be in-laws lining up. They will queue up with gifts in a sight-ly procession entering through the front door just like I had seen during the past weddings. Only this time, the unsightly and unmentionables aren’t going to be there watching silently, invisible in plain sight.

Image source: pexels

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Manages supply chain teams in Intel Corp. Blogger, writer and poet. Founder and Director Her

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