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That Aunty Extraordinaire

I met my Aunty John when I was a student and she an elegant socialite. It was at one of her dinners to which my local guardians in Delhi had taken me. They were, needless to say, committed admirers of Aunty’s personal and social graces. In that early-evening Delhi-winter light, Aunty looked closely at me, thrust a bowl of nuts into my hands and said, “Dear, please offer this to the guests.” It was a great way to get a bit of work done and have me introduce myself to everyone. At least half the guests asked me if I was the daughter of the house. “No,” I said. Like them, I was a guest.

In truth, I was the guest who came to dinner and stayed on to play daughter.

Luckily for me, Uncle John shifted to Madras before I completed my post-graduation, married and moved to the city in 1973.

I was never separated again from Aunty John. My early years in Madras were spent in some awe of her. When my husband designed their house we became permanent extensions of the family. Usually people complain about their houses a few years after it is built and say “I wish I had done this… or that…” but never Aunty John. She told anyone who was willing to listen it was the best house on two grounds of land that anyone ever designed or built.

As I grew older our friendship deepened from quasi-mother-daughter, to one of companions. I’m sure she was psychic because times without number she would ring exactly when I was worried or perplexed or just plain down. She said the same thing about me! That I called at exactly those moments when she needed to unburden. Quite often I felt I was mothering Aunty. Our friendship became one of the most precious and dependable relationships I’ve ever enjoyed.

She gave me two bits of advice I’ve never forgotten. One was at the time I was engaged. I was in her house in Delhi and watching her do one of her legendary dinners. As she cooked, she called to her house staff about arrangement of chairs and linen. In between she broke off to walk to the service entrance to counsel the dissatisfied driver, and to advise the maali about what pots he was to transfer to the front of the house.

To each of these acts she gave her complete and intense attention. Perhaps this was how an 18th century ship’s captain set sail, simultaneously assessing 20 different forces that were acting on his craft.

Well, Aunty was up there with that sort of outstanding person. Her concentration and efficiency were beyond belief. Anyway, when she caught sight of me watching her she said, “Mini, don’t think that marriage is only about getting along with your husband. You have to work at every single relationship in your life: your sister-in-law, your dhobi, your cook… everyone is important.”

Now, while my mother fitted this description, she never instructed me so clearly. Young people think older folks lecture them too much but this is the kind of “life-skills” or “management” tips no one ever forgets.

The second bit of advice she gave me was after my parents died. She came to see me with cakes and cookies and said, “Now don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. Thank God you had wonderful parents because you know what? There is such a thing as a bad parent.” That advice, that truism, certainly helped me emerge from mourning faster than I would have otherwise.

Another moment was when a friend who was recovering from alcoholism joined us for Christmas breakfast. Everyone was conversing rather cautiously with him, not quite sure what to say and what not to. Aunty handed him a loaded plate and said: “Now look here… my knees are worn out praying for you. Don’t do this again, understand?”

God played a big role in Aunty’s and my conversations, and Aunty appeared to have a very personal equation with the Almighty. “I told God today…” she would tell me, as if she had been conversing with her neighbour. Perhaps it was the reason why when she was afflicted with an illness which usually demoralises the most tough-minded person, Aunty never once lost her spirit. “I will surely be well again, won’t I?”

I used to look out for her on the track where she walked every morning. As her eyesight weakened, as her steps slowed, as her concentration flagged, I knew the long separation was not too far off. The last time I met her she ordered some lime juice for me and saw me off saying she would see me again in a month.

We never met again. I think my Aunty John was the perfect woman described in the Book of Proverbs, and I will recognise Heaven only if I see her waiting for me with a piece of freshly baked cake or a plate of appam and curry.

minioup@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 5:30:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/that-aunty-extraordinaire/article16907330.ece1

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