My one and only childhood friend was a girl called Antubala. She lived in a tree. It was a guava tree in the overgrown garden at the back of our house. Its branches were very keen to enter my room, and rapped loudly on the pane day and night. One afternoon, when I opened the window at a particularly sharp rap, I saw two wicked green eyes set atop a cucumber nose staring at me belligerently from among the leaves. The eyes belonged to a nut-brown face with a head full of matted hair attached to a body like a stick insect’s.
“Well?” I asked. “Well,” she said. “There are young green guavas all over this tree. You, with your slug-body, obviously cannot reach them. I can get them for you if you let me in.” And so began a lifelong friendship that has brought me only pain. The first thing Antu gifted me was her lice, which found fresh real estate on my head. And the guavas, of course.
Once Antu was inside the house, she demanded to be led straight to the kitchen. (Thankfully, the entire household was having their siesta at the time.) Entering the kitchen with a whoop, she quickly plundered the jars of rock salt and chilli powder, generously sprinkling both on the green guavas cut in half. She thought of me only after she had gobbled up at least four. My teeth rattled as they hit the unripe guavas hard as Antu’s heart but I soldiered on, shedding copious tears from the chilli. Meanwhile, Antu inspected the kitchen, poking her dirty fingers into the dough, breathing into the boiled milk, and shaking the setting curd so that it became a watery mess. Job over, she looked at me, guffawed, called me a sissy and disappeared through the window.
Downhill from here
I felt the effect of Antu’s guavas late at night: my stomach cramped as if ten thousand sharks were waltzing inside. My mother emptied a bottle of Gelusil down my throat and said, “Antubala has found you, I see. It will only be downhill for you from here.” And so it was.
My playroom was the garret stuffed with broken furniture, window frames, empty paint cans, my grandpa’s bed pan, and my father’s Hawaiian guitar. Antu soon joined me there. Since she was a budding chef, we tried out various recipes. The first was brick squash, which involved finely grinding brick and then adding water and my mother’s kewra essence to it. We tested it on my sister, who went yellow, green and magenta by turns after taking a sip. When she went howling to mother, I was locked up in the puja room, which was a horror chamber because of its lizards the size of dragons.
It was a sad day as I cowered in the corner of the dark puja room, anticipating an attack from the dragons any time. In desperation, I called Antu, who suddenly appeared before me. Her eyes were glittering, a sure sign of danger, but I was still grateful for her presence. The first thing she did was remove the bead necklace from the Ganesha idol and wear it. Then she attacked the jars of batasha (jaggery candy) my grandma kept there for the gods. The empty jars were rolling on the sacred floor in no time.
Stuffed with the sweets, Antu then drank up the Ganga Jal from the steel tumbler in which grandma had offered it to the idols. “The gods will punish you,” I lashed out at Antu, at which she stuck out her tongue and said, “They already have more than enough to eat and wouldn’t care less. The punishment for attempted murder of your sister is much more severe, mind you.”
At that moment my grandma unlocked the door, having heard the ruckus inside. As her eyes fell on the empty batasha jars, she hugged me and said, “Those were kept for you only, my hungry mite.” Fearing that she wouldn’t be so charitable about the Ganesh necklace, I quickly escaped and locked myself in the garret for the rest of the day.
One of my childhood obsessions was tea, which my family members drank by the gallon but wouldn’t offer me a drop. When I expressed this grievance to Antu, she immediately went about remedying it. She collected the dry peepal leaves that had gathered in heaps near the gutters on the roof and soaked them in water. After adding stolen batasha to the liquor, she ‘boiled’ it over a burning candle. The result was out of the world, naturally. It quenched my thirst for tea forever. Antu remarked sagely, “With Antubala around, you will want for nothing.”
I lost touch with Antubala when I was busy entering the boring adult world. Suddenly, men — say, John Lennon or Johnny Depp — became more important. But that was only a short hiatus. Antu came back as soon as I had my first heartbreak. But that’s a different, not-to-be-divulged story.
I met her recently when I had a bout of (non-COVID) fever. As I wiggled my toes and stared at the ceiling in misery, there was that sharp, familiar rap at the window. Antu was standing outside, having followed me from Kolkata to Bengaluru. Her eyes were glittering. Reader, I let her in.
Easy guava stew
3-4 ripe guavas
Sugar to taste
A few cloves
1. Deseed guavas. (The seeds catch in your teeth otherwise.) Slice them, but not very thin so they don’t dissolve.
2. Put them in a saucepan and add water till the fruit is just about covered.
3. Add sugar and cloves.
4. Boil only till guavas soften. There must be syrup left in the pan.
5. Chill in the fridge.
6. Dish out into individual bowls and serve with vanilla custard of a nice pouring consistency.